It’s been almost 50 years, but I can still remember the anticipation whenever the mail carrier appeared a few houses away. He drove a small Jeep-like truck with the steering wheel on the right-hand side, so that he could reach the roadside mailboxes without leaving the vehicle.
Amidst the catalogs, the bills, and the letters, he would often stuff our mailbox with thick white business-sized envelopes or large manila ones. Those usually had my name on them. To a 10-year-old sports fanatic, they contained what amounted to treasure in that era of transistor radios and three-network television, decades before the internet.
The complete lack of easily accessible information defined the nature of sports obsessions in those days. Perhaps the appetite for information was insatiable – and its fulfillment almost always special – because it took effort and investment to get anything beyond a fresh pack of trading cards or the extended sports section in the Sunday newspaper.
In the winter of 1974, I began a systematic campaign to write to every professional sports team and sports league and ask for … well, whatever they were willing to send out. The letters were simple handwritten notes from my mom’s pad of letter-writing paper. They often stretched honesty a bit when I claimed to be a fan, but usually I said I wanted to find out more about the team and really liked player so-and-so.
The campaign started with ice hockey (NHL) and basketball (ABA and NBA), but as the spring of 1975 dawned, I targeted the baseball teams, one by one. The range of what they sent was fascinating, and many of the goodies they sent have survived countless moves and stuff-purges since the 1970’s.
The Dodgers sent only a thick order form for relatively expensive souvenirs, without so much as a sticker or a form-letter thank you. But most clubs sent pocket schedules and glossy photos, such as the Expos (Steve Rogers) or matte photos, such as the Pirates (Manny Sanguillen). The Orioles sent an autographed postcard of Brooks Robinson through the mail without even enclosing it in an envelope (see above).
Among the more interesting shipments came from the Indians, who sent a tri-fold pamphlet with all the necessary information for the 1975 season on a double-sided 8 ½ by 11 sheet of thick paper. Tucked away inside the fold was a picture of a clean-shaven rookie named Dennis Eckersley. But the Indians also sent an invitation to join the fan club of backup first baseman Joe Lis. I have no idea what inspired that.
None of this would have happened without an unexpected discovery at a relative’s house during the Christmas holidays in 1974. With no role or interest in the boring adult conversation, I retreated to their den – an early version of a man cave – and found a copy of The World Almanac.
That might not seem like a cure for boredom, but The Almanac was a miniature and reasonably up-to-date sports encyclopedia. It had page after page of sports statistics, both current and historical: Heisman trophy winners, all-time homerun leaders, the results of the NCAA men’s basketball tournaments, you name it. Then I noticed a few pages of addresses stashed at the end of the thumb-thick sports section. The book had a mailing address for every sports team, organized alphabetically by league.
Hmm … what would happen if I wrote them letters?
The first experiment was a quick note to the Montreal Canadiens, who were in the midst of a dynasty to rival Yogi Berra’s Yankees, Bill Russell ‘s Celtics, or John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins. The Habs would win 10 Stanley Cups in 15 years from the mid-1960’s to the late 1970’s.
The Canadiens responded quickly with glossy photos of the players I requested. That lucky stroke suggested how sports teams might respond. It was time to roll out the campaign to other teams.
The accumulated souvenirs from those letters make me wonder what would happen if someone undertook a similar campaign today. In 2015, a 12-year-old from Oklahoma wrote handwritten letters to the executives of all 32 NFL teams, but received only one response. But in Major League Baseball (and perhaps other sports), the US mail still delivers a lot of old-fashioned letters from fans.
Sports memorabilia has mushroomed into a multi-billion-dollar business, and new technologies such NFTs and college player-licensing agreements promise to accelerate the growth even more. Yet there are dollars and there are thrills. Maybe hindsight over such a long time horizon is bending the light of my memories, but it’s hard to put a dollar figure on the joy of receiving a random surprise in the mail as a reward for little bit of effort.
Frank Luby is co-founder and CEO of BluesBackroadsBaseball LLC and the author of the book "Blues Flashbacks"