Especially evident during the dog days of summer, baseball holds a special place in the heart of America. For many, childhoods were spent on a baseball diamond with glove in hand, or adorned in colors of their favorite team. Similar to the hallways of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY; children immortalized the greats in the pages of three-ring binders.
Baseball memorabilia aficionado Jim Smiley began his collection in similar fashion, collecting baseball cards as a youngster. As time has passed, his collection has grown in size and value to the point that no longer keeps it in his home, instead electing for a safety deposit box.
Containing memorabilia from every Hall of Famer since 1900 save three (Addie Joss, Ross Youngs and Eddie Plank); Smiley’s collection was hailed by ESPN as “one of the most comprehensive collections outside of Cooperstown.”
Jim took some time to answer some questions about his collection with Examiner.com.
Andrew Demo: How did you get started collecting?
Jim Smiley: There were a couple of friends from elementary school. We all collected baseball cards. After junior high school, baseball cards started to lose their allure, but I still wanted to collect. It was then that I started writing to retired players.
Then the summer after 11th grade, Ty Cobb’s granddaughter flooded the market with his old signed personal checks. The checks were $40. We used to wash cars for $2 per car. All summer I washed cars and saved money. When there was finally $40, I drove down to Ventura Boulevard and bought the check.
From there on, collecting autographs just kept my attention. At some point the number of Hall of Fame autographs in the collection became substantial and I wondered what it would be like to go after getting them all.
AD: What has driven you to collect? Both now and in the beginning?
JS: Baseball was my first love. Being able to learn about the history of the game through collecting autographs is really enjoyable. At the start, it was just looking for something different to collect. As time went on, there was the challenge of getting a unique piece on each player. Many collect autographs. What makes this collection different is that each piece has a great story behind it. To acquire these pieces takes a lot of time and effort.
AD: How did the ESPN story come about?
JS: For 16 years, I covered the Dodgers for ESPN SportsTicker. It was great. There were also five seasons covering the Angels. We had to call the game pitch by pitch over the phone in the 1990s. On the other end was a worker from ESPN. Over the course of a three hour game, you get to know each other pretty well.
There are 81 home games. Spending that much time with those guys was fun. The job coincided with some great growth of the Hall of Fame collection. All those guys at the ‘Ticker were in their 20s and serious sports fans.
When ESPN sold SportsTicker, the job disappeared but the relationships remained strong. A guy named Kelsey Schroyer works for my former boss at ESPN, Anthony Moremile. Kelsey and I became friends via Facebook and chatted often about collecting autographs. As we chatted and talked about some of the pieces in my collection, he realized just how deep the collection is. After two years, Kelsey asked if I’d be willing to appear on ESPN to talk about the collection. It seemed like it might be fun, so why not?
My sons joined me in the ESPN studios in Los Angeles and we had fun with it, got the tour of the whole place.
The host, Michele Steele is really nice. We got to talk a lot off the air. She called my collection, “one of the most comprehensive Hall of Fame collections outside of Cooperstown." It seems funny when you put it that way, but yeah, she’s right.
When the interview ended, Kelsey came on and we chatted. It is the only time we’ve actually spoken. All other contact has been via email or Facebook.
As a teacher who relies heavily on lecture, storytelling comes naturally. Speaking with command while conveying a gentle yet strong confidence is needed. Those attributes also transfer over to interviews.
The tough part about the ESPN interview is that it was done remotely. Michele was in Bristol. I was in a little studio in LA. They have a monitor and a camera in the studio. You naturally want to look at the monitor, into the eyes of the person you’re talking to. You can’t. You need to look into the lens of the camera. There was a delay in sound too. I could see Michele in the monitor out of the corner of my eye, but the delay made it seem strange. Will all the interviews over the years, this was the first with that setup.
AD: How often do you go to Cooperstown?
JS: We make the trip back to Cooperstown every couple of years. When we’re there, I always visit the library and the photo department. I’ll spend a week or two researching things that caught my attention since the last trip.
The first time we went in the early 1990s, it was really informal. You could make an appointment to see photos and they’d bring in autographed pictures of guys like Honus Wagner or Nap Lajoie. You didn’t have to wear white gloves or anything else.
Since then, they’ve stepped it up, making sure to preserve their pieces a little better. There was a string of thefts from the Hall and it seems like they have taken steps to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
The last time we were there, the research topic was the origin of the curveball. There’s really some dispute there. Candy Cummings is the guy baseball recognizes, but a strong claim sure can be made for Fred Goldsmith. Historians generally agree that Ham Avery threw the first curveball. He was pitching for Yale against Harvard.
The research led me to getting in contact with Goldsmith’s grandson who is in his 80s.
Every member of the Hall is represented in the collection with at least one page in the portfolio. Cummings is in the Hall, but is an impossible signature to find. Even if you find him, it’s going to cost at least $15,000 depending on what it is. Cummings’ page has a picture and bio of Cummings, but also a handwritten letter from Goldsmith detailing Goldie’s case as inventor of the curveball. That’s a piece that most people wouldn’t care about, but it’s one of my favorites. Right next to that page is a handwritten letter from Avery from 1910. His signature is impossible too, but the demand isn’t there either. The two are very rare pieces. It’s unlikely Candy Cummings’ autograph will ever make my collection, but he and the curveball controversy are well represented.
For more with Jim Smiley, check out part two of the interview here.