How wacky relics connect Giants, A’s to baseball’s ghosts

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SAN FRANCISCO — There are baseball mementos of historical significance. Those artifacts fill up the Hall of Fame.

There are relics of great value. A Honus Wagner baseball card sold in 2016 for more than $3 million.

And then there’s stuff that’s just plain … weird? Cool? Freaky? Awesome?

To salvage this otherwise forgettable local baseball season, we scoured the Bay Area for items worth remembering. So let this archaeological tour serve as a distraction — Indiana Jones & the last-place crusade.

THE TY COBB BALL

Pete Rose cried. And the sellout crowd at Riverfront Stadium cheered a little louder with his each heaving sob.This was Sept. 11, 1985, the night Rose delivered hit No. 4,192 to surpass Ty Cobb’s all-time record.

Rose hugged his son at first base and let the emotions flow.

Standing a few feet away, umpire Ed Montague choked up thinking about his own family. So a few weeks later, when he was assigned another game in Cincinnati, the umpire walked into Rose’s office and plopped a ratty old baseball on the manager’s desk.

Rose was generally accommodating with autograph requests, even from umpires, but the newly crowned Hit King wondered why he was putting his signature on this second-rate horsehide.

Only after Rose signed it did Montague allow him to see the other side of the ball, where Tyrus Raymond Cobb had written his name with the flourish decades earlier.

“I said, ‘Flip it over,”’ Montague recalled. “And when he did he he was kind of astonished. He was amazed. Pete said, ‘Where did you get this?”’

Montague got it from his own father, which is why the hard-as-nails umpire also had a lump in his throat the night Rose broke Cobb’s record.

Ed Montague (not “Sr.” because he had different middle name than his son) had a personal connection. He played against Cobb in the 1930s and was once spiked so brutally by The Georgia Peach that he had to leave the game.

This was hardly a rarity when Cobb was on the bases. The poet Ogden Nash put it this way:

C is for Cobb

Who grew spikes and not corn,

And made all the basemen

Wish they weren’t born

Former umpire Ed Montague, who was patrolling first base the night Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record, treasures the story behind the ball autographed by both men. (Photo courtesty: Ed Montague) 

But Ed Montague, who played 220 games for the Cleveland Indians between 1928-32, got his revenge on the playing field. It’s one of the few old-time baseball stories the father told his son.

“The next time he saw Cobb, my dad came across the bag on his double play and low-bridged him,” Montague said. “He made his throw so low that it went off of Cobb’s head. He went down low and submarined it.”

Cobb apparently got along more famously with the rest of the Montague family. Fred, the umpire’s uncle, later had business dealings with Cobb. And that’s where the signed baseball came from. Montague ventures that Cobb signed it at some point in the 1950s because the official stamped signature on ball belongs to Warren Giles — who was the National League president from 1951-69.

Whenever it’s from, it’s a ball for the ages. It represents two signatures, 8,445 hits and one straight line connecting the generations.

The elder Ed Montague was born in San Francisco in 1905 and, after his playing career, spent more than 40 years as a Giants scout. One of his notable signings was a charismatic center fielder named Willie Mays. Montague died in 1988.

His son, born in San Francisco in 1948, was a major league umpire from 1974-2009 and is one of only three umpires to serve as crew chief for the World Series four times.His respect for baseball history is the reason tears welled up in his eyes on that magical night in 1985.

“The emotions went through me because my dad played against Cobb and here I am standing at first base alongside Steve Garvey, with the flashbulbs going off, and there’s Pete,” Montague said.

“I was even quoted in paper as saying that it was like something out of a movie. It was a perfect time of night. The sun was setting and the sky was this beautiful pink glow. The Goodyear blimp was overhead. Pete broke the record and the flashbulbs were going off.”

After Rose got the milestone hit, Montague walked over to offer his congratulations.

The new Hit King told the ump he was thinking about his dad, who died in 1970.

“He’s here,” Montague said.

Rose was confused. He reminded the umpire that his father was dead.

“Pete,” the umpire said, more forcefully this time. “He’s here.”

THE POLO GROUND SIGN

These are the ultimate letters from home.

Though the colors have faded and the edges are tattered, they evoke vivid stories of Willie Mays whirling across the outfield or Bobby Thomson bounding improbably around the base paths.

These are the 5-foot tall metallic letters that used to spell out NY GIANTS at the Polo Grounds in New York. In their original rustic orange, they welcomed baseball fans to the team’s home from 1911-1957.

The Giants moved west in 1958. The letters eventually did, too, even if it took a few more decades.

This photo shows the original location of the Polo Grounds letters that arenow part of the San Francisco Giants' collection of unusual artifacts. Team executive Mario Alioto says: 'You can't let those memories go away.'(Photo courtesy of San Francisco Giants)
This photo shows the original location of the Polo Grounds letters that are now part of the San Francisco Giants’ collection of unusual artifacts. Team executive Mario Alioto says: ‘You can’t let those memories go away.'(Photo: San Francisco Giants) 

The N and the Y remain missing, but the G-I-A-N-T-S placards are now stashed away in this warehouse tucked away in a nondescript Bay Area office park.

The Giants will keep them in here until they can figure out a way to display them in or around AT&T Park.

“The thing about baseball is, you have to pass these stories on from generation to generation,” said Mario Alioto, the executive vice president of business operations for the Giants. “Even today, a lot of our fans never saw Willie play. They never saw the Polo Grounds. But it’s part of who we are.

“We’ve been in existence for over 100 years and you can’t let those memories go away.”

The last public display of the Polo Grounds letters took place in 2004, when the Giants unearthed them for a 50-year reunion of the 1954 World Series team. As part of an on-field ceremony at AT&T Park, 19 players gathered behind the mound and propped them up for a photo.

Mays stood by the “G.” Monte Irvin, another Hall of Famer, stood behind the “I.” This was Giants history — to the letter.

“We get caught up in the year to year,” Alioto said, “but the 2017 Giants are really made up of every player who ever played this game, whoever had the Giants uniform on, from the Polo Grounds all the way to today.”

As Alioto shows off the letters, like baseball’s Vanna White, he tells the unlikely story of how they were reunited with the franchise. Alioto got a call from an advertising executive Mike Doyle, an avid collector of baseball memorabilia.

Doyle said he had the letters as part of his collection, but in his heart he knew the ought to belong to the Giants. Doyle didn’t want money, so they worked out a low-key trade — Alioto thinks it was season tickets for a year.

The letters aren’t in mint condition. They have seen better days. And we mean that in best possible way.

“It’s funny. When you look at them up close, they really are beaten up,” Alioto said. “But that’s what makes it authentic. That’s what makes it special. And that’s what reminds you that it was a long time ago that the Polo Grounds were where the Giants played.”

THE SHIBE PARK BRICKS

You know that phrase, “If these walls could talk?”

Well, they can’t.

But Ken Korach is happy to translate.

The A’s longtime broadcaster is holding a brick in his hand from the old Shibe Park, the glorious former home of the Philadelphia Athletics.

The Athletics played there from 1909-54. And if those walls could talk, they’d say …

“It’s all really cool,” Korach said. “You think about the great players. As they walked into the stadium, they probably passed by this brick. Or hit a ball off of it.

Jimmie Foxx — Double X! … Al SimmonsMickey CochraneLefty Grove … So it’s wonderful that all of that has been tied together.”

The A’s are currently in pursuit of a new ballpark. In the meantime, they grabbed a piece of the very, very old one. One of the Oakland Coliseum enhancements this season was the creation of the Shibe Park Tavern, which pays homage to what was once a state-of-the-art stadium.

For authenticity, they secured a box of bricks from the place designed by Athletics owner Ben Shibe and Manager Connie Mack. The team built Shibe Park on a six-acre site in North Philadelphia — long before such things required approval from Bud Selig’s blue-ribbon panel.

Dave Kaval, the new A’s president, spent much of his first season embracing Oakland’s past — Rickey Henderson Field, Catfish Hunter Gate, Dennis Eckersley Gate, the Bill King “Holy Toledo” sign.

As a salute to their past, the A's imported bricks from their previous homeof Shibe Park in Philadelphia. Reporter Daniel Brown holds one here while standing in front of a portrait of Connie Mack, who helped design the park. (Courtesy photo)
As a salute to their past, the A’s imported bricks from their previous home of Shibe Park in Philadelphia. Reporter Daniel Brown holds one here while standing in front of a portrait of Connie Mack, who helped design the park. (Courtesy photo) 

Less noticed is that he’s also gone back another 100 years or so. He’s quick to point out that the A’s were a charter member of the American League when it founded in 1901. At the Oakland Coliseum, the A’s proudly fly flags from their nine World Series championships — four in Oakland, five from Philadelphia.

Plus, they have bricks.

“We just want to make sure we connect to our history and heritage because it’s so much of who we are,” Kaval said.  “Baseball is such a tradition-bound sport. It’s just a very important part of giving people the ‘why’ of why they should root for this club.”

The bricks took a humble path from Philadelphia to Oakland. After the final game at what was then called Connie Mack Stadium, in 1970, the venerable site spent a few years as a junk yard. It was demolished in 1976.

For a brief time, the bricks were abandoned and left for scavengers.  In those days, no one in the neighborhood thought of that pile of rubble as Cooperstown-worthy.

“They weren’t taking them as souvenirs. It was more, ‘Hey, look! Free bricks!’” said Ken Avallon, the president of the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame. “People would slow down and load up their pickup trucks with bricks.”

As a result, bricks wound up in construction projects all around North Philadelphia. But a more modern-minded home buyer helped get the bricks back to people who saw the sentimental value.

“A guy bought his home, and someone had built up their backyard patio and walls with the bricks,” Avallon said. “He didn’t like them. So he gave us 2,000 bricks.”

The A’s now have several on display at their Shibe Park Tavern, along with other relics from the place where they won the World Series in 1910, ’11, ’13, ’29 and ’30.

“This is really a piece of history,” Korach said, feeling the heft of the brick in his hand. “One thing about baseball is that the generations link the game. And the history is passed down through the days and the years and the decades and the centuries.”

THE CANDLESTICK DOOR

For Harvey Hodgerney, opportunity knocked.

In the waning days of Giants baseball at old Candlestick Park in 1999, the longtime visiting clubhouse manager began asking players to sign his wooden office door on the way out.

Players were reluctant at first. But once Hodgerney got a few signatures, everyone else saw the writing on the wall. By the end, even the biggest stars in the game were lining up to add their name. They were all Harvey’s wall-bangers.

“Once it fell into place, they started thanking me,” Hodgerney said. “They were honored to be on the door.”

The clubbie wound up with a portal to baseball’s past. The door is now adorned with hundreds of signatures from Hall of Famers and no-names alike. It’s a one-of-a-kind relic as quirky as the venerable old ‘Stick itself.

Some signed in black ink some in green ink and some in orange. There are signatures so large you can see them from across the room (we’re looking at you, SHANE REYNOLDS) and dozens so illegible they will forever remain a mystery.

Before the closing of Candlestick Park after the 1999 season, visitingclubhouse manager Harvey Hodgerney asked hundreds of players to sign the door on their way out. Featured here: Johnnie LeMaster, Darrell Evans, Charlie Fox and Jeffrey Leonard. (Photo credit: Daniel Brown, Bay Area News Group)
Before the closing of Candlestick Park after the 1999 season, visiting clubhouse manager Harvey Hodgerney asked hundreds of players to sign the door on their way out. Featured here: Johnnie LeMaster, Darrell Evans, Charlie Fox and Jeffrey Leonard. (Photo credit: Daniel Brown, Bay Area News Group) 

Hodgerney had ground rules. To be eligible to sign, you had to actually be part of Candlestick Park’s history. That meant you either played there as a Giant (a la Willie Mays and Juan Marichal), as an opponent (Tommy Lasorda and Greg Maddux, Mark McGwire) or worked there in any capacity (Vin Scully, Larry Baer, bat boys, trainers, security guards).

Another rule: You could only sign only during your last trip to the park. If a visiting team in June had more games looming in September, Hodgerney made ’em wait.

The real coup came during the final baseball series at Candlestick Park. The Giants invited their alumni to final games against the Dodgers and attendees lined up to sign the door as if it were a guest book at a wedding.

That’s why one glorious section includes Johnnie LeMaster next to Darrell Evans next to Jeffrey Leonard.

Hodgerney retired after the 2014 season and arranged for the Giants to keep the door in exchanges for an undisclosed price. We reunited him with the door for this story, and he studied the names all over again.

“It means a lot. It means a lot of my life,” he said. “If I just stop and look at it, I can see certain guys laying on the floor and signing the door down low.”

How much is it worth? Hodgerney checked around with appraisers, but the item is proved so out-of-this-world weird that experts gave him a shrug.

The door is in storage now. But for the first 14 years at AT&T Park, it hung in the visitors clubhouse the way the Mona Lisa hangs at the Louvre. Encased in protective glass, it sat on a pillar in the middle of the locker room for current players to behold.

Hodgerney also remembers the reaction his door got whenever fans came in on non-game days ballpark tour.

“Time and time again,” he said, “they said it was the best place in the whole stadium to see.”

 



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