It was one of those rare days where Jim Smiley pulled his collection of baseball memorabilia out of storage and into his La Crescenta home.
While Smiley hasn’t seen most of the items in quite a while, he only brings them out about four times a year. On a lazy Saturday, he showed off the collection and he’s still quick with a story behind whatever piece is in his hand, how he acquired it, the significance behind it and why it’s special to him.
There’s plenty for Smiley to remember. The current Crescenta Valley High teacher and Los Angeles Dodgers beat writer for DodgersExaminer.com has an item for all 300 players enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
“Collecting hall of fame autographs is a way to combine a love of the game, with learning about the history of the game, with having some first-hand documents and it’s a neat way to remain true to the game and delve into the history more,” Smiley said. “It’s a lot [of work] but it’s so enjoyable.”
Signatures are included for all but three Hall of Fame inductees who’ve debuted since 1900 — Addie Joss, Ross Youngs and Eddie Plank. Smiley’s collection is one of the “most comprehensive Hall of Fame collections outside of Cooperstown,” according to a recent episode of ESPN’s Mint Condition in which he was profiled.
Fellow collector and longtime friend of Smiley, Mark Langill, who is also the Dodgers team historian and publications editor, confirmed that’s no exaggeration on the significance of the collection.
“It is because there aren’t too many people who have the discipline, dedication and resources to do something like that,” Langill said.
Smiley’s interest in collecting was piqued early on when he collected baseball cards with childhood friend, La Crescenta native, Crescenta Valley High graduate and former News-Press sports editor Brian Martin at age 7.
“By high school, baseball cards just didn’t quite have that allure,” Smiley said. “We felt like a transition would be a good idea.”
One such transition was presented in 1984 when Smiley and Martin caught wind of some old checks signed by Cobb being sold in the Valley. The two saved up, made the trek and Smiley purchased one for $40.
“That was kind of the beginning; it was the summer going into my senior year of high school,” Smiley said.
Martin also recalls Smiley’s collecting began to change when he became interested in autographs. Smiley would hang around before and after baseball games or even swing by the hotel a team was staying at to try and track down signatures.
“He was really kind of ahead of the curve,” Martin said. “He still collected baseball cards a little bit, but it was mostly autographs.”
The more Smiley added to his collection, the more it began to pick up steam.
“At some point, you amass some players you’re looking for — some Dodgers maybe — and then all of a sudden you realize you have a lot of hall of fame players and then you wonder what it would be like to collect hall of fame signatures,” Smiley said. “Your collection kind of matures, and at some point I realized there’s quite a good collection of guys and it’d be interesting to kind of go for it a bit.”
Today, Smiley’s collection has certainly changed and doesn’t fit what most would imagine. While there are some autographed baseballs and vintage cards in the collection, the former Crescenta Valley High boys’ basketball coach shows more pride pointing out the more unusual items.
“It was never really about the monetary value for Jim, that’s the beauty of his collecting,” Martin said. “He just loves baseball and he loves getting these historical documents. … It’s mind boggling what he’s compiled.”
Those include items like contracts of Hall of Famers; old scouting reports; personal checks from Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Jackie Robinson; “Three Fingers” Mordecai Brown’s hunting license; Chief Bender’s driver’s license from the 1930s and a receipt Alexander Cartwright signed for wood work on his home dated June 18, 1881.
“That’s neat, it’s satisfying and it’s fun,” Smiley said of those unusual items. “Something like that isn’t terribly expensive, but it’s super hard to find.
“Uncovering some gem, finding something that speaks to you, and it might not speak to anyone else, that’s what’s great about collecting. You can find something that’s just wonderful.”
Many people might not recognize some of the names of players in Smiley’s collection, like Elmer Smith or Carroll Hardy. It’s those pieces Smiley lights up about the most, eager to share the significant stories behind these unheralded players (Smith was the first player to hit a grand slam in a World Series game and Hardy was the only player to be pinch hit for Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski).
“It really adds to his baseball knowledge because it’s not something necessarily you’d see on the back of a trading card as far as stats or things like that,” Langill said.
Another thing Smiley attempts to add to every piece is a letter from a player that further tells the story about the item. Like with Hardy, Smiley will mail a short a questionnaire to a former player to put alongside the corresponding piece.
“You’d send them a nice letter and maybe some little baseball cards of them and a self-addressed stamped envelope and 90% of the time you’d get stuff back,” Martin said. “He did it because he was a fan and he really enjoyed the interaction and he got to know some of them pretty well.”
Perhaps the most interesting examples are a series of letters debating who invented the curve ball and whether or not Ruth actually called his shot in the 1932 World Series.
“He’s able to find these back stories and these backgrounds, as far as either before they got to the majors or what they did with their life after the majors,” Langill said. “He’s really a great student of the game, as well as being really a prolific collector.”
There’s no telling where Smiley’s collecting will take him, or how long it will continue. Down the road, Smiley has thought about passing the collection down to his two sons, donating it to the Hall of Fame, or selling some items.
Who knows what route he’ll end up taking?
“As long as it’s meaningful you’ll continue, and when the meaning is no longer there the incentive to collect is no longer there,” he said. “You’ve just got to ride the wave, it’s fun.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun