Hi again from Pack Rat's Corner. I came across an article by Leigh Montville that should give some Rat Packers something to think about. The article is called “I Really Blew This One”. It goes...
Dinner is finished. My mother is in the kitchen washing dishes. My father sits in his favourite chair in the living room, reading the evening paper. I lie on the rug in front of him. The year is 1951. I am eight years old.
The dial on the console radio is tuned to my favourite show. I am listening to Bill Stern, a famous broadcaster who is talking about sports. He usually talks about athletes who overcame adversity and have grace under pressure and maintain a will to win, despite great odds.
Stern later will be seen as almost a comic figure, full of melodrama and pathos. Woody Allen will make fun of him in a movie. But on this night in 1951 I think Stern is wonderful. He tells a story about Jim Thorpe. The greatest athlete in American history is dying. He is sick. He is lonely, says Stern. Is there no one who remembers the greatness of this man? If you have a couple of spare bucks, why don't you send him a card with some money. Let him know you still think about him. His address...
I find a pen and a piece of paper. I copy the address. I would like to say that as eight years old I am a budding philanthropist, a pure heart on the way to a life of missionary work. But that is not the case, of course. I am a sucker for a sad story as much as any second-grader might be. I am also a collector of autographs.
I don't remember how I started in the autograph game. I suppose I was told that if you send mail to famous athletes, they sometimes send mail back to you. I have become the master of the two-cent postcard.
Is there a player on the Boston Red Sox or the New York Yankees who has not received a card from me? I have written to tennis players and golfers, to prize fighters and college half-backers. I am sly. I am ruthless. I tell all of them that they are my favourite athlete and that I want to grow up to be exactly like them.
Oh yes, and if it's not too much trouble, could you send a postcard with your autograph written across the bottom? I decide that with Thorpe more than the usual is needed. I write him an entire letter in my blocky penmanship. I tell him how sad his plight has made me, how much I admire his accomplishments and how unfair it is that he lost his Olympic medals for having played pro baseball.
Enclosed is a dollar from the Christmas money sent to me by my Aunt Mildred. I say that I know he can put it to better use than I ever could. And oh yes, I enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope, hoping to get an autograph in return. Thank you, Jim, and godspeed.
For the next two weeks I wait. The autograph game makes the daily mail delivery a momentous occasion. The postcards that have been sent are so much bait strewn across the water – how many fish will bite? Thorpe is the biggest fish of all.
The appearance of the familiar envelope, the stamp cancelled with a New York postmark is the pay off. I read the letter in my room. Jim has written a letter! Yes, he is touched by my thoughtfulness and my generosity. Of course, he hopes I become a great athlete. Yes, he will give me his autograph.
The letter is three paragraphs long, signed by him at the bottom. On a second piece of stationery he has written simply ‘Thanks pal, Jim Thorpe, 1951'.
This is the prize of my collection. I throw away the letter. I cut out the autograph from the other sheet and glue it onto a piece of lined paper in my special binder notebook. I forget. A hundred years will pass, or so it will seem.
Thorpe dies. I stop collecting autographs around the same time I notice girls who wear tight sweaters. I grow up, leave home, chug into the rigors of adult living. I chug for a long time, through short hair and long hair, and short hair again.
Through jobs and marriage and kids. One day I will read an article about collecting letters of famous people. The article talks about how much letters from the likes of F.D.R. and Churchill and Lincoln and Marilyn Monroe might be worth. It says one valuable letter is a surprise. Yes, a letter from Jim Thorpe could be worth as much as $4,500. Later, somebody else tells me it would be worth less than that but still a few thousand dollars.
I will look at Thorpe's signature pasted in this book that I somehow have kept all these years. His autograph is in a place of honour between that of Johnny Lipon, a favourite short stop, and the signatures of Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor, the Australian tennis players.
‘Thanks pal, Jim Thorpe, 1951'. An autograph, yes, but not a letter. I am eight years old. I have thrown the letter into the wastebasket. The wastebasket has been emptied. The contents have been burned. Who's to know. Eight years old.
I am such a chucklehead.
P.S. If you have any old 45s you don't want, please give me a call at 725-2249.