Mickey Mantle sat alone on the bench in a Yankee Stadium dugout. His spiked shoes were crisscrossed, his back slightly slumped, and he appeared grumpy. It was August of 1960. I later learned that he liked to carouse into the wee hours and that he drank too way too much alcohol, so he was probably hung over.
I was 10 years old as I stood in front of Mantle. My brother's baseball team had won a New York City championship and was rewarded with a three-inning game right before the Yankees played that night. My brother, who was 14, was the shortstop. And I got the plum assignment as batboy while the older guys -- one of whom was Terry Crowley who went onto a 13-year career as a major leaguer -- were on the field playing.
While they were warming up, I was in the dugout working the players for signatures. A baggy pair of baseball pants and an oversized hat draped my scrawny little body. Clutched in my hand was a white Rawlings ball. Number 98, it read, with a cushioned cork center.
The moment is all pretty fuzzy, except for the encounter with Mantle. I sheepishly walked up to him, did not say a word, and just handed him the ball. He looked at me. He didn't smile. He just signed. It is a classic signature, now well known. The two Ms have a long squiggle, like an underline, under them. He signed on the small arched area between two of the seams. It was Mantle's place; the other players left the area alone. It was reserved just for The Mick.
When I thanked him, he asked if I played ball. "I am pretty good catcher," I replied. He grunted. One question; one grunt. My big moment. Then I moved on.
Eventually I got 17 players to sign, including three Hall of Famers -- Mantle, manager Casey Stengel and pitcher Whitey Ford. I vaguely remember Stengel who looked like a gnome. No recollection of Ford. But Elston Howard, the first African-American Yankee, gave me a broad smile. His hands were large and his face was pockmarked.
The shortstop Tony Kubek, kneeling at the end of the dugout, also signed as he watched my brother scoop out a ball at second base. "He's got soft hands," Kubek said. It was a compliment. I got goosebumps. Tony Kubek thought my brother had soft hands.
The rest of the game is a blur. I know I kept running on the field to grab discarded bats. I kept stopping to feel the soil, so soft and smooth, thinking of the Little League fields I played on -- hard, rocky clay. This was beautiful. The grass was so green and the game zipped by.
I have no recollection of who won or how we got off the field. And I only really think about it when I look at The Ball. I still have it 53 years later. I've kept it in a small plastic case, in various drawers, in various houses and apartments. It is in remarkably good shape.
There is no doubt about the signatures. Some are very famous Yankees: Roger Maris, the home run king; Luis Arroyo, the fine relief pitcher; and Moose Skowron, the first baseman. It is a legendary team that won 97 games and the American League pennant, only to lose to Pittsburgh in a heart-breaking World Series.
And now, as pitchers and catchers get ready to report to spring training in Florida and Arizona, I ponder: What to do with The Ball?
Look at the money being thrown around for baseball memorabilia. Don Larsen, the Yankee pitcher who threw a perfect game in the 1956 World Series, sold his uniform for $756,000. Bill Mazerowski, now 77, the Pittsburgh second baseman on the team that defeated the Yankees in the 1960 Series, sold his uniform for $632,500. The family of St. Louis Cardinal legend Stan Musial, a Hall of Famer like Mazerowski, recently sold some baseball artifacts for $1.2 million.
So what is a baseball with the signatures of HR king Maris and three Hall of Famers worth in this market?
It was a grand pain in the neck to find out. Everyone said the same thing: the ball would have to be "authenticated." This meant I would have to pay someone to tell me that on that night in August 1960 I really did get 17 Yankees to sign this ball. I would have to pay someone to confirm that a great moment in my life really happened.
And then I could cash in. But do I really want to sell it? That is the crux of the matter. I have a baseball possibly worth a lot of money that also conjures one of the special memories of my life. Do I want to translate it into a commercial venture? I have tossed it around, asking my brother and my kids, and no one can help.
It is a simple question. What is more valuable: holding the ball that fills me with the memory of Mickey Mantle's grunt and Elston Howard's smile? Or holding some dollars that I get from a sale?
Writing is funny business. Sometimes you don't decide what you really want to say or what you think until you get to the end of what you are writing. And now that I am at the end I have decided. I just can't sell the ball. I don't even want to know what it is worth.
I take that back. I know what it is worth. The Ball is not filled with cork, it is filled with memories. I take off the plastic cover, paw the fading signatures and I am transported back to the Yankee Stadium dugout in 1960 -- a childhood recaptured.
Sorry, The Ball is not for sale.
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