Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cardboard appreciation: 1970 Topps Harmon Killebrew

(You may have noticed some odd posting times for nighty night owl. It seems the body clock is having a bit of trouble adjusting to my new work schedule. And it's manifesting itself in strange ways, like posting at 10:30 in the morning. I can't wait to get back into a routine. Speaking of which, here's the Cardboard Appreciation routine. This is the 114th in a series):

OK, here's my Harmon Killebrew story. Although I never met him, talked to him, saw him at a game or waited in line for his autograph, he holds a significant role in my collecting journey.

Do you see that signature neatly penned across Killebrew's jersey front? It is Killebrew's autograph, or so I was told. I picked this card up as the second autographed card I ever purchased. I picked it up mere seconds after I bought my first autographed card, a 1961 Sandy Koufax.

I was a teenager. It was the early 1980s. Killebrew was a couple of years away from being inducted into the Hall of Fame. What did I know about Harmon then? I knew a few career highlights and his 1975 Topps card. That was it.

I had entered the card show determined to obtain an autographed card of a significant Dodger player. Autographed cards were the only high-end card in the hobby at the time. I had started to read price guides and hobby periodicals, and I thought I knew enough about collecting that I could finally stand at a table that featured autographed cards without someone pointing me out as an impostor and redirecting me back to the table with 1981 Donruss.

In a haze, I walked up to the table. I still remember where it was in the hall that hosted the show. Right corner, near the entrance. I immediately scouted out the Koufax card. I think I had seen it once before, offered by the same dealer at an earlier show, because it took me no time at all to find it.

It did take me a while to actually mention to the dealer that I wanted the card. A thousand doubts went through my head. "I shouldn't spend this much money. How do I know if the autograph is real? Is he ripping me off? He's ripping me off!" I could feel my face getting hot. I felt like I was trying to purchase condoms at a drug st ...

"Oh, this is silly. Just get the card!" "Excuse me, excuse me! Hi, I'd like this Koufax card."

The dealer couldn't have been nicer. And not in a condescending way. He picked up the encased Koufax card, took my money and placed the card in a bag for me. I don't remember how much I paid for the card, but I remember thinking that I had very little money left.

Then the dealer asked: "Anything else?"

"Of course not, idiot," I wanted to say, "I just bought a freakin' KOUFAX autographed card!! How am I going to buy lunch at school?"

But I didn't say that. Instead, I said, "let me look."

It was part giddy intoxication of purchasing an autographed card of my hero and part not wanting to show that I didn't belong. You know that insecure feeling that follows you around every second of adolescence? "Sure, I've done this before. Lots and lots of times. Who do you think you're talking to?"

So, I silently scanned the autographed cards, my face still burning. I could afford almost none of them now that I had bought the Koufax.

I spotted a 1970 Topps Killebrew card. I don't remember the price, but I know it was less than 10 bucks. I knew I had enough money for the card.

I told the dealer I wanted the Killebrew. I don't know why. He was a Twin! I could sense myself not caring as I told him I wanted the card. I barely knew who Killebrew was! But it would be another autograph for the collection, and proof to someone -- I don't know who -- that I belonged in that club of people who bought autographed cards.

I could have sworn the dealer gave me a dismissive shrug. The difference between the cost of the Koufax and the Killebrew was massive, especially to my teenage way of thinking. "Some high-roller," he seemed to say. I was sure that was what he was thinking, even though I had no reason other than my own inadequate feelings.

During these transactions, there was no discussion of the legitimacy of the signatures. I do remember the dealer explaining to me how the Koufax card was signed and it seemed truthful. But he said nothing about the Killebrew. There was no certification back then, no authentication.

I suppose that made the autograph industry ripe for forgeries at the time, but I think there was a greater percentage of legitimate dealers then -- the memorabilia industry wasn't even close to the profit-making industry it is now.

But, still, I have always wondered whether the autographs on my Koufax and Killebrew cards were real. I have checked and rechecked any and all known confirmed autographs of the two and they do look just like them. Killebrew's signature ends more abruptly on my card because it appears as if he was trying to squeeze his lengthy signature into what little bright space existed on the card.

But I still didn't know. Not knowing made me not really care whether I hung on to the card or not. That, and the fact that he played for the Twins. What did I care about a Twin?

I even tried to trade the card, a couple of times, and within the last couple of years. But I still have it.

After news of Killebrew's death earlier today, I read several stories. One of the stories I read was from the Minneapolis Star Tribune. It contained a lot of the stories that many of the other Killebrew obits did. Killebrew was a gentleman with an ability to blast monster home runs, during a pitcher's era, too.

Then I read a quote from Torii Hunter, the former Twin, who got to know Killebrew well. Hunter said that Killebrew criticized his autograph.

"I had a doctor's signature," Hunter said in the article. "I had a 'T' and an 'I' and a dot-dot. He said, 'What the hell is this?'"

Killebrew then told Hunter that if he signed a baseball for kids, the kids would throw the ball all over the place because they couldn't read his signature. Then Killebrew said to him:

"'If you play the game this long, make sure people know who you are."

I read that and then I thought about my card. I thought about the person who took care to place his signature on the only bright spot on the card, so the collector could read it, and know who Killebrew was.

That settled it for me. The autograph is real.

And the card is a keeper.

RIP, Harmon Killebrew. You are a great man.


  1. Great story, it's a shame he's no longer with us.

  2. Yep, you did it again, another great post.

  3. The "Harmon" looks like the "Harmon" on my '73 Topps card, which I watched him sign back in late '86 or early '87 in Asbury Park. I'm content that it's legit. You'd have to be a low-down rat to forge Harmon Killebrew's signature, anyhow!

  4. Harmom Killebrew was one of those players my dad talked about a lot. We lived in Minnesota from 1970 to 1973 and my dad really appreciated how Harmon played.

  5. Great story about Killebrew. I bet that card isn't going to leave your collection now.

  6. I wish more ballplayers would take his advice for their signing habits.

    You make it sound like the '81 Donruss table is a bad table to be at.

  7. probably the nicest ballplayer i have ever interacted with, and we have him to thank for michael cuddyer's awesome signature.

  8. Great story..

    I have Tori's 2007 Allen & Ginter autograph the penmanship is excellent, and It is one of my favorites of the set. To think that " The Killer was the motivation behind it makes it even that much sweeter..