Shoe Column: Namedroppers and the Art of Writing a Letter
By Tim “Shoe” Sullivan
Some people collect coins. Others collect stamps. Both are great hobbies.
My collection is somewhat different. I collect letters and signed autographs from famous sports celebrities. All it took was a few stamps.
It started in the 1970s. The Sporting News was a terrific weekly national sports publication. Page two was reserved for Joe Falls. Joe was the sports editor of The Detroit Free Press and was almost a God in Michigan. He covered the Detroit Tigers, Detroit Lions, Detroit Pistons, Detroit Red Wings, and the major universities. Joe knew all the players.
One day I mailed Falls a letter. To my total surprise, he wrote back. He sent a nice note on a beautiful piece of paper with a Detroit Free Press letterhead. It blew me away! So I sent him another one, and he answered again. Over the years, he became a pen pal.
I still have an album with about 30 Joe Falls letters. In 1975, “Ma” Pesch, Randy Wievel and I flew to Detroit to film “The Baseball World of Joe Garagiola” on NBC. Joe knew we were gonna be at Tiger Stadium. After the game, Falls met us in the parking lot.
In 10 minutes, we saw Joe sign about 10 autographs. He was probably just as popular as all the players. Joe bought us beer and pizza and let us sleep over in his apartment in Troy.
He has since passed, but my buddy Joe Falls is in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.
Falls’ letters was all it took to get me hooked. You had to pick your spots. If a guy wrote a book and I liked it, he got a letter.
If I had a question for a coach or player, out came the Royal typewriter and a letter went in the mail. Green Bay Packer great Paul Hornung once kicked a long field goal against the Bears, and it was on a “free kick”. Wasn’t sure what happened there, but it was in 1964. So I sent Hornung a letter to his suite in Louisville in 1999. I asked him for the details. Paul answered all of the questions, signed his name, and mailed it back.
Since the Bears only scored one touchdown, and doing the honors was Mike Ditka, I sent “Iron Mike” a similar letter with some questions. It was also in 1999 when Ditka was coaching the New Orleans Saints. Like Hornung, Mike answered all the questions in his own handwriting and mailed it back in a New Orleans Saints’ envelope from Metairie, Louisiana. Signed, sealed, and delivered.
Arnold “Red” Auerbach was THE big name in NBA coaching back in my youth. The man was the genius behind the Boston Celtic’s dynasty. He won NINE NBA world championships. Boston captured the title in 1957, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, and 1966. Do you detect a trend there?
In the ’80s, Auerbach was on the Lite Beer from Miller TV commercials (with Bob Uecker and others). He also wrote his autobiography with Joe Fitzgerald. I loved his book and wrote a letter to Red letting him know how much I enjoyed it. Boom! A beautiful letter from the esteemed coach appeared in the mailbox in 1986.
At that time, Auerbach was the winningest coach in NBA history. A certain hall-of-famer. And then Lenny Wilkens of the Atlanta Hawks passed Red in wins. Darn right that called for a letter. And the Atlanta coach (with 1,332 wins) responded with a dandy letter. Part of it reads: “Life takes many turns and certainly I feel very blessed to have broken Red Auerbach’s record.” All in Lenny’s personal handwriting.
Like I said, you gotta pick your spots. I found a book in a used bookstore years ago that cost a buck. It was called Maverick, a book about Phil Jackson’s season with the Knicks. Couldn’t put it down. At the time, Phil was coaching the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson won–are you ready for this?–11 NBA world championships! The Chicago Bulls in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, and 1998 and the Lakers in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, and 2010. So I made up a multiple choice quiz of 10 questions from info in the book and mailed it to L.A.
Back in the mail, in a Laker envelope, came his quiz answers. He got all 10 right and signed his name.
Multiple choice quiz questions are a fun way to get these sports celebrities to respond. In 2002, Allan “Bud” Selig, the Major League Commissioner, was the subject of a Sports Illustrated interview. He told how he brought the Brewers to Milwaukee and how he was a huge fan of the old Milwaukee Braves of Aaron, Mathews, Spahn, and the gang.
So I found some old baseball cards of Milwaukee Braves, just average players, and made up another multiple choice quiz. Mailed it to Milwaukee. Selig sent a nice letter back on Major League Baseball stationery, signed it, and said he enjoyed doing the quiz and actually did well.
The collection just kept growing and more albums were needed. A 1976 letter from Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck saying it was fun to write the book Veeck As In Wreck. Sox letterhead and signed. Veeck planted the ivy on the outfield walls at Wrigley Field. His 1948 Cleveland Indians won the American League pennant. He sent a midget up to bat for the St. Louis Browns in 1951.
Veeck was a surefire hall-of-famer who set attendance records wherever he went. In his following letter in 1977, again while he was with the Sox, Bill noted that he enjoyed the Unique Bar softball cards and recalled that the Sox’ own Don Unferth used to frequent the Stevens Point tavern in the ’30s!
Letters from Joe Garagiola of NBC Sports arrived in 1975 and 1977. He compared the ‘75 Unique Bar team to his ‘48 Cardinals. Randy Wievel, Archie Hansen, and I interviewed Phillie’s reliever Jack Baldschun some years ago at Archie’s. The interview was published in Sports Collector’s Digest and Jack sent a nice letter and autographed photo Baldschun was one of the funniest guys ever.
In 1991, I went to a few bars in Point and asked people if Pete Rose should be in baseball’s Hall of Fame. After all, he still has the most hits ever. The story got published (almost everyone thought he should be in the Hall) and I sent it to the Cincinnati Reds and asked them to give it to Pete. Rose got it and sent a nice letter (signed) back.
Ron Kittle of the Sox answered a letter with a handwritten one of his own. So did Lindy Infante when he coached the Packers. Two of the best letters came in 1978. Notre Dame was voted national champion in college football. Randy Wievel and I, writing in Ray Nitschke’s Packer Report, did a story saying how we thought Alabama and Arkansas should’ve copped the honors.
We found a trophy, called it the “Karnac Cup”, took a photo of J. Clarke Pinzer presenting it to Buffy Burke representing the “Tide” by wearing an Alabama sweater…while Roundy Kleutz accepted it for Arkansas as he was wearing a Razorback helmet…and we mailed the photo and story to Lou Holtz of Arkansas and Paul “Bear” Bryant of Alabama. Both head coaches, absolute legends, sent back fantastic letters, signed, on school stationery. Lou Holtz also sent me three letters and signed photos when he coached at Notre Dame. (Speaking of the Irish, Regis Philbin wrote a fine book and told stories about his career at Notre Dame. My late dad graduated from South Bend, Indiana, Home of the Fighting Irish, so out went a letter. Bingo! From New York, a great photo of Regis!)
Jim Ksicinski was the visiting clubhouse manager of the Brewers for many many years. He was a good friend of a lot of the visiting players (like George Brett and Roger Clemens) and wrote a terrific book. Wievel and I interviewed him and he liked the SCD story so much he sent a signed letter and the book itself. Ray Nitschke also sent a signed copy of HIS book Mean On Sunday. Other Notre Dame coaches like Charlie Weis and Brian Kelly sent signed photos. Bryan Harlan of the Chicago Bears sent signed letters in ‘84 and ‘85.
Local attorney Mark Ilten and I invented a parlor game called NAMEDROPPERS, where you match famous names to initials. Marv Levy coached in four Super Bowls. While he was still the head coach of the Buffalo Bills, and way before computers, Marv and I played the game via the mail. He was good at it–and hilarious.
All of his letters are in its own folder. Here’s one for Packer fans: December 31, 1967. The “Ice Bowl” at Lambeau Field. Players getting frostbite. Dallas vs. Green Bay. Winner plays Oakland in Super Bowl II. Thirteen seconds left, Bart Starr scores on a quarterback sneak to win the game for Lombardi’s Packers! Two players made the key block on Jethro Pugh as Green Bay won, 21-17. Guard Jerry Kramer (who got all the credit) and center Ken Bowman. I sat with Bowman for a couple of hours at one of Dave Koch Sports’ card shows and had a great talk. Boom! Nice signed letter.
And on and on. Signed photo from major league umpire Dutch Rennert. Signed photo from Coach George Karl of the Milwaukee Bucks. Signed photo from Doug Asad, the first tight end of the Oakland Raiders. (Met him at Archie’s and he gave me a ride home).
A signed letter from former Pointer Bob Whitsitt when he was president of the Seattle Supersonics in 1988. Signed letters and photos from NBC’s Marv Albert and a funny gem of a letter from Brian Burke of the National Hockey League. Gary Varsho of the Chicago Cubs sent a great note when he led the National League in pinch-hitting.
A signed color photo from national champion Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney came a month ago. Somehow ended up with a signed photo of Eddie Mathews that I think Archie Hansen got me back in the day.
Former NBA ref Blaine Reichelt played NAMEDROPPERS through the mail and he gave me a signed ref’s jersey. The National Champion UWSP Pointer hockey team gave me a signed hockey stick. Some of them were neighbors. NFL umpire (#31) Chad Brown wrote a nifty book. Out went a letter and in came a dandy signed reply. As some people know, broadcaster Bob Costas is a huge fan of the Ma Pesch “bratwurst” saga. A letter went to him at NBC about 10 years ago. He wrote back and sent autographed photos (twice) and we still email every now and then. All his letters go into the Bob Costas file.
There’s more. Several more.
Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones sent a color photo of himself (which I asked for) along with a team photo of the Cowboys after they won a Super Bowl. Talk show host Tom Synder sent a note. Packer kicker Chris Jacke and Packer Hall of Famer Tony Canadeo mailed signed photos.
NFL Hall of Famer Art Donovan’s signed photo arrived at the ShoeHouse. I sent a question to Hank Stram in 1999 when he was coaching the New Orleans Saints. Stram was the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl I. He sent a handwritten reply. I also included a $10 bill for his time and he sent it back.
My favorite letter deserves its own story. Sports Illustrated ran an ad in its August 14, 2000 issue which highlighted Jay Berwanger. Jay played football at the University of Chicago and won the first Heisman Trophy after the 1935 season. He also was the first player drafted in the NFL’s first draft in 1936.
The Sports Illustrated story mentioned that Jay was still living and had a desk in his plastic company’s office in Downers Grove, Ill. I called his office, talked to his secretary, and got his address. Out went the letter with a few questions. On his business stationary came his reply: Thanks for the nice letter. I received the Heisman Trophy. Mr. Heisman died in the winter of 1936. The Trophy was then named the Heisman Memorial Trophy. I believe it was Philadelphia and then the Bears got the right to talk to me. I hope you enjoy the pictures. Sincerely, Jay Berwanger (signed).
I got goose bumps when that manila envelope arrived. Along with the letter, Mr. Berwanger also sent a signed black and white photo of him running the football and a beautiful signed photo of him holding the Heisman. I told two buddies about it (Dustin Scheid and Kenny Opiola) and they also sent letters to Jay and got stuff back. Oh, I also sent him $10. He sent it back. Jay passed away in 2002. What a classy guy!
So many legends. So many signed letters and photos. Probably have a success rate of 95 percent of people responding. What a hobby!
The only two who never answered were Peyton Manning and Alexander Ovechkin. Manning surprised me. And I don’t know Russian which might explain the Washington Capital’s Ovechkin.
But you know the best part about this? YOU can do it too.
All you need are some stamps.