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Buck O’Neil, Roy Campanella, and a Surprising Twist of Fate

November 21, 2017
Dodgers Ball Package

A couple of months before Sam was born, I went to Kansas City with a friend to see a Royals game and visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The game was fun, and the ballpark was surprisingly beautiful, but the highlight of the trip was the museum. As we walked into the museum, we saw the legendary Negro Leagues player and manager Buck O’Neil giving a private tour of the museum to a man in a suit, whom we later confirmed was a Missouri congressman. We stuck close to them for the next half hour, successfully eavesdropping a private tour from Buck. We tried to thank Buck afterward, but he got swarmed by other people and we never got the chance. The guy who rang up our purchase in the museum gift shop had watched the whole thing, and he gently chided us for being too timid and missing our chance to meet Buck.

A few years later, the outstanding sportswriter Joe Posnanski wrote The Soul of Baseball, a wonderful book about Buck that made me especially glad I had mooched a tour from him and especially sad I had not actually met him.

When Sam was 9, our first father-soon road trip took us through KC, so of course I took Sam to the museum. By then, Buck was no longer with us, but I told Sam all about him and about the private tour I had stolen from him 9 years earlier.

I only told you that story so that I can tell you this one:

In 1952, my father was a 10-year-old boy living in Brooklyn, which of course meant that he was a huge Brooklyn Dodgers fan. Like most players on the team, the Dodgers’ All-Star catcher (and eventual Hall-of-Famer), Roy Campanella, lived in Brooklyn, too. “Campy” was something of a do-it-yourselfer, and took it upon himself to rewire his house, which necessitated many trips to a local electrical supply store and many conversations with the electrician behind the counter at that store. The guy behind the counter was my grandfather, who wasn’t a big baseball fan but knew who Campy was because everyone in Brooklyn knew who Campy was.

When Campy finally finished all his rewiring, he came back into the store to thank my grandfather and offer him a thank-you gift. My grandfather politely declined, but when Campy insisted, Grandpa mentioned that his 10-year-old son was a big Dodgers fan. Campy said he’d come back eventually with an autographed baseball for my dad. Days (or perhaps weeks) later, Campy popped into the store again and handed Grandpa a ball autographed not just by Campy, but by the entire 1952 Dodgers team, including future Hall-of-Famers Duke Snider and Pee Wee Reese, and even Jackie Robinson.

1952 Brooklyn Dodgers Autographed Baseball

From top to bottom: Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Preacher Roe, Roy Campanella, Clem Labine, Duke Snider

A few years later, Campy was in a terrible car accident that left him paralyzed and ended his baseball career. He died in 1993.

For decades, Dad kept that ball in its original package (pictured at the top of this post), tucked away in his sock drawer to come out only a couple of times to show off to me and my little brother, the comedian Steve Hofstetter. Steve and I used to jokingly argue about which one of us would eventually end up as the ball’s owner, but when Dad died there was no argument. We agreed to settle ownership down the road. Meanwhile, because my brother moves around a lot and I already had a pretty impressive collection of baseball memorabilia, I’d be the custodian of the ball until we figured out ownership.

Thanks to a series of seemingly random events, that arrangement will be coming to an end soon.

Campy’s birthday was a couple of days ago (November 19, to be exact)–he would have been 96. Former MLB pitcher and current TV broadcaster Rick Sutcliffe tweeted something about Campy’s birthday, and my brother tweeted back, telling Sutcliffe the story of Dad’s baseball. Sutcliffe retweeted the story, and Sutcliffe’s retweet was read by … wait for it … Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Bob immediately reached out to my brother to say that he loved the story and WOULD LIKE TO DISPLAY DAD’S BALL IN THE MUSEUM!

We haven’t worked out all the details yet, but the basic plan is to let the museum display the ball, along with its origin story, as a long-term loan.

I will soon be headed back to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum for a third time to finally thank Buck O’Neil, if only karmically, for the incredible visit I had more than 16 years ago. I only wish Buck–and Dad–could be there with us.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. Yehuda lazar permalink
    November 21, 2017 11:02 pm

    Just amazing.

    • ABH permalink*
      November 21, 2017 11:18 pm

      I can hardly believe it all. Such a swirl of emotions right now.

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