I can’t really call myself an avid autograph collector. Frankly I couldn’t tell you where most of them are anymore. For me it’s always been more about the memory of meeting the players. And most of those memories are as vivid as if they happened yesterday.
I guess it all began one Sunday night when I was about eight or nine years old. My father and I were walking down 8th Avenue towards the Old Garden and saw Ranger announcer Win Elliot stopping at a hot dog stand (The pickings must have been pretty slim in the press room in those days). We walked the rest of the way to the game with Win and although I didn’t get his autograph, I managed to ask him if he thought the Rangers would win that night.
“They’ll try their best son,” Win answered in that familiar voice.
My first autograph was courtesy of defenseman Jim “The Chief” Neilson, the first Ranger I ever met. It was a few weeks after the season had ended and my buddy Tom and I were in Gerry Cosby’s near the old Garden on 49th street and 8th Avenue. Mr. Cosby was always very nice to me and used to let me look around at all the equipment and jerseys that were so hard to find in the early to mid 1960’s.
I recognized Neilson right away and gathered up all the courage a 13-year old could muster and asked him for his autograph. He was very nice and signed my scrap of paper. I told him it was nice to meet him and wished him luck and he said thanks. My friend Tom who was always the more bold and boisterous of the two of us, managed to say, “me too”.
And that was the beginning of my modest autograph collecting career.
I found that many former players were happy to get the attention. I ran into Muzz Patrick and Johnny Wilson in Cosby’s one Saturday afternoon when I was a teenager. I recognized Patrick but I didn’t know Wilson until Muzz introduced him to me. But they both signed a card for me and Muzz especially seemed happy to be recognized.
We learned to stand by the Garden’s players exit and were able to talk to practically all Ranger players from the Emile Francis era. I remember being kind of shocked to see Phil Goyette smoking a cigarette when he came down the elevator. Donnie Marshall was nice enough to tell us that when we saw trainer Frank Paice come out, it meant that all of the players had left.
There was one night after the Rangers had beaten the Blackhawks that we were waiting by the players exit for the Rangers to start coming out. This area was adjacent to where the visiting team had to walk down the ramp to get to their bus. The Blackhawks came down in groups and the fans started giving it to them. Really nasty stuff was shouted at Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito. But then Bobby Hull came down and it got very quiet. He came over to the barrier and shook hands with all of us. That was quite a thrill. He’s a real class act.
I had quite a few memorable encounters with both Ranger players and the opposition on the sidewalk outside the Garden.
After Brad Park’s first game at MSG we saw him standing with another man who was wearing glasses. Now Park with his baby face and distinctive ears was easily recognizable, and we asked him for his autograph. When he was finished he passed the pad and pen to the other man who turned out to be Walter Tkaczuk!
Following a playoff game in 1969 I met Bernie Geoffrion who signed his name right on the picture of the Stanley Cup, which was on the cover of that night’s program. But then again, where else would “Boom Boom” sign eh? A few years later Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt also signed for me. I remember being impressed by their mid-70’s era long leather overcoats and plaid suits.
The advent of the WHA brought about additional autograph opportunities when the NY Raiders moved into the Garden. What ever happened to Ron Climie and Brian Peacosh anyway?
As I got older I met more of the players inside Harry M’s restaurant after the game. They were usually at the bar or in the case of Don Murdoch at a table surrounded by a bunch of really attractive women. So even though these weren’t autograph moments, I still got a chance to shake their hands and wish them well. Because by that time in my life it was more about meeting the players and interacting with them for a moment, than getting their signature on a piece of paper.
Sometimes you just get lucky. One night the great Montreal Canadiens’ anthem singer, Roger Doucette, was at the Garden to sing “O Canada”. I just happened to turn around at a stoppage of play to see him walking behind the Blue Seats. So of course I had to get up and shake his hand.
One day Tom and I were walking outside the Garden and noticed Meadowlark Lemon of the Harlem Globetrotters on the other side of the street.
“Hey Meadowlark” I yelled across to him. “Hey baby” he responded with a wave. “He knows me” I laughed to my friend.
One of my fondest memories was bringing my father to a card show near the Garden to meet his favorite Ranger of an earlier era: Chuck Rayner. As he and Chuck stood reminiscing about the old days I could tell that Pop was thrilled to meet his idol and Chuck seemed happy to spend some time with someone who remembered him.
But you have to remember that most of these encounters came at a time before players in all sports started charging for their autographs and for their time. These days, you would probably have to pay for a chance to meet your favorite players and at that, they may not even look up at you while they’re signing. You won’t get to look them in the eye and shake their hands.
The autograph you receive may have a certain value on the open market, but the moment you share with them is far less memorable.