Category: Memorabilia

Stories Behind the Signatures: Sports Heroes of the 1940s

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Babe Ruth autograph and vintage photo
From the Collection: Babe Ruth autograph, taped and saved with magazine clipping

When my dad was a kid growing up in 1940s Philadelphia, he was an avid sports fan who positioned himself at stadiums, train stations and hotel lobbies in order to get autographs of famous athletes.

My father and his on the steps of their house in Philadelphia, 1940s.

He also sent requests by mail on self-addressed, stamped postcards.

Personalized Postcard from Rogers Hornsby

His collection grew to contain dozens upon dozens of legendary signatures, including Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Joe Louis.  Also among the pages of his autograph books are the signatures of names that are lesser know today, but giants of their time.

The Ox Next Door: Al Wistert

While playing for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, tackle Al “Ox” Wistert lived in my father’s neighborhood.  He was known and loved not just for his feats on the football field, but for his generous Halloween hijinks. My father remembers Wistert having fun with the kids by heating up a pile of half dollar coins in his oven, then tossing them out his window to the children gathering below, delighting in their scrambling attempts to pick up and hang on to the piping hot treasures.

“Pro football’s a great game as long as you’re able to give more than you receive.
 – Al Wistert, upon retiring in 1951

My father remembers Al Wistert throwing money to children on Halloween, but he also went much further out of his way to help kids.  Although he did not own a car in 1945, Al accepted a job as head coach for a New Jersey High School football team over 50 miles away. For several seasons Eagles Head Coach Greasy Neale lent Wistert his car so Al could teach the high school kids.

Although all three Wistert brothers played football for the University of Michigan, and all three are in the college Hall of Fame, Al was the only Wistert who made it to the NFL, and the first Philadelphia Eagles player to have his number retired. His initial contract was for the 1943 “Steagles,” a temporary merging of the Steelers and Eagles made necessary by the lack of manpower left by the WWII draft.

Al “Ox” Wistert Philadelphia Eagles

The wrist bone ailment that exempted Wistert from military service also forced him to develop an innovative form of blocking, in which he rammed a defender with his shoulder, then headed downfield looking for another victim. He was the smallest tackle in the league, but Al Wistert played both sides of the ball in every game and made All-Pro for eight straight years.

Kazimer Wistert
Kazimer Wistert

Wistert was the son of Lithuanian immigrants. His father, Kazimer Vistartas, arrived in the U.S. from Lithuania in 1895.  He fought in the Spanish American War, then served as a Chicago policeman for 20 years until he was shot, dying of complications when Al was only six years old.

The tragic details of Kazimer’s injuries and long, unsuccessful attempt at recovery are well documented.  Thankfully, so is evidence of his kindness, which gives some insight into the source of Al’s own generosity. Kazimer was known as a helpful “do it all” guy who served as family barber and shoemaker, and often let the neighborhood children ride around on his police horse.

Al Wistert inducted into Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame, 2009

At Al Wistert’s memorial in 2016, his handicapped daughter Kathy got up to give a tribute to her dad.  “Anything I was doing, he took an interest in,” she said.  Perhaps fittingly, Kathy’s passion was horses. When Al retired from his post NFL insurance business, he moved the family to a farm by Oregon’s Rogue River so they could adopt and care for neglected horses.

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Collections to Connections
I have also been a sports fan since I was a kid, and have a vast collection of trading cards of my own. When my son was young and started showing an interest in the hobby, I accompanied him to autograph signings.

Ron Cey card with Autograph
Ron Cey:1977 card & 2007 autograph

One day, 1970s Dodgers All-Star 3rd Baseman Ron Cey showed up on the autograph schedule. I dug my own, “vintage” card out of a box in the garage so my kid would have something to sign.

My father, collecting autographs at fourteen, did not imagine he would one day share them with his daughter. Just as I, at twelve, did not think I’d one day find myself happily standing in a long line with my own son to get a brand new autograph from “The Penguin” himself.

Sharing Stories Behind the Signatures turns collections into connections that tie generations together.

6 Ways to Dig the 60s

The Bill Graham Exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center

Bill Graham, an orphan of the Holocaust, became the most successful and influential rock music promoter in history.

The Skirball Cultural Center’s new exhibit, Bill Graham and the Rock and Roll Revolution, is an amazing representation of the 1960s counterculture movement and a moving portrait of the man, an orphan of the Holocaust who turned himself into the most successful and influential music promoter in history, and a dearly loved humanitarian. The exhibit is extensive and includes personal memorabilia, photographs, concert footage, vintage art posters and a psychedelic light show.

“6 Ways to Dig the 60s”

1. Meet a Wide-Awake Kind of Man
Bill Graham spent much his childhood fleeing the forces of Nazi Germany. He had to adapt to more than one new language, family and country by the time he was twelve. As a teen, he toiled as a waiter to the rich and famous in the Catskill Mountains while running an underground poker game, had the guts to speak up for worker’s rights before the employees were unionized, then fought in the Korean War and avoided a court-martial after refusing to go into a lopsided battle that eventually killed his commanding officer.

Although Graham didn’t talk much about his early life, or claim to remember either his mother or father, his experiences informed everything he did. By the time he promoted his first show, a benefit for the San Francisco Mime Troupe in 1965, Bill Graham had already built up a sense of himself, a feeling that he was ‘master of [his] destiny.’

2. Break Free from Hypocrisy

Shuttling through orphanages and foster homes and developing a keen street sense solidified Graham’s aura of autonomy and authenticity, which went over well with activist performers of the sixties. The Who’s Pete Townshend referred to him as a man ‘free of hypocrisy,’ with an unshakeable support for those fighting for freedom of expression and against the abuse of power. That, coupled with his innovative sense of the theatrical and a sharp brain for business, made it possible for Graham to back an assortment of talented, radical, drug-soaked performers and allow the countercultural rock icons of the ’60s and ’70s to reach a mass audience and effect social change.

3.Hang Out with Rock Stars

Jimi Hendrix – San Francisco, 1968.

What if you threw a party and Everybody came? Bill Graham produced rock concerts like that. He made the experience of music an immersive one. In their heyday, San Francisco’s Fillmore and Winterland auditoriums hosted acts such as Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan and Buffalo Springfield all on the same night.

He continually asked the performers he knew to recommend up-and-coming artists he’d never heard of, and then put those folks on the bill with more well-known talent. That’s how Santana got launched and how The Doors were brought to San Francisco. He wanted to educate his patrons, so he booked poets and even a Russian dance company. Bill Graham was also the first to expose B.B. King and Chuck Berry to white audiences.

4. Appreciate Art

Ingest a more than generous dose of bright colors, kaleidoscopic patterns and distorted typography by viewing all the incredible vintage posters on display. Artist Lee Conklin’s 1968 poster advertising Vanilla Fudge and the Steve Miller band has a drawing of two naked bodies. It looks like they are facing each other, but they have no faces. They are only human up to their shoulders, and then they become hands, clasping one another. Some posters are more gruesome, but always compelling. A New Year’s Eve concert poster offers up a painting of an hourglass, with the flopping bodies of hundreds of little humans trickling through.

Tune in to some of the guitars on display, like Jerry Garcia’s ‘Wolf,’ or a chunk of a Fender Stratocaster salvaged from Jimi Hendrix’s collection. The belt Mick Jagger wore at Altamont hangs on one wall, and a handwritten note from Donovan on another, calling Bill Graham ‘by far the friendliest and most considerate promoter I have ever had the pleasure of working with.’ You can also read letters from fans begging for tickets to the last show at the Winterland auditorium: ‘Grateful Dead is not just a rock concert, it’s a state of mind.’

Take a look at the charred relics from the offices of Bill Graham Presents, which was firebombed in 1985 by suspected neo-Nazis. Read the original, typewritten 1967 ‘Summer of Love Proclamation,’ with quotes from Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary, who sought ‘to give young pot smokers and young acid heads a sense of their historical meaning.’

5. Live By a Strong Inner Code
Bill Graham wanted everyone to feel warm and secure, so he took care of all the aspects of production, like running out to get Otis Redding ice cubes, displaying current-event news clippings in the lobby to give shy patrons a chance to get comfortable or placing a basket of free apples at the entrance. Soon, it wasn’t as important as who was playing at the Fillmore as it was that you were at the Fillmore.

Some performers resented that Bill Graham was ‘making bread off the scene,’ but Graham was more than willing to give back to the community. He understood the promise and power of rock and roll, and he lived by a strong inner code that acknowledged both the tremendous power of music and his obligation to use that power as a force for good: ‘It’s that question of what do you know, and then what do you do with it?’

What Bill Graham did with his power was to continually build his relationships and his humanitarian mission, branching out from Bay Area causes to international relief victims in Africa. Graham promoted performances in conjunction with Amnesty International, a concert to benefit the victims of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, and organized a huge concert to welcome Nelson Mandela after his release from a South African jail in 1990. Sadly, Bill Graham’s life was cut short when he was killed in a helicopter crash the following year.

6. Absorb the Whole Experience
You’ll start your visit looking at pictures of a little boy in a German orphanage, and you’ll wind up gazing at an enormous butterfly costume suspended from the ceiling. You can hear ‘White Rabbit,’ ‘Respect,’ and many others blast from the light show as you look around. In theater seats behind red velvet curtains, projected swirls of smoke and colored oils let you watch and wonder, listen and let your mind drift. You can even dance if the mood strikes. One thing you can’t do is take pictures. Like the sixties themselves, there is no substitute for being there.

Skirball Cultural Center 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd. Los Angeles, CA

Hours: Tuesday–Friday, 12:00–5:00 p.m.
Saturday–Sunday, 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.
Free to All on Thursdays
Bill Graham Exhibit Open through October 11th, 2015

FURTHER READING:

Bill Graham’s Biography
Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out by Bill Graham and Robert Greenfield
The Making of a Counter Culture by Theodore Roszak

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What’s Roosevelt Got to Do with Redford?

FDR’s Repeated Appeal
I got hooked on the myth of FDR when I was just a kid.  Ever since I saw 1973’s “The Way We Were,” sympathizing with  Streisand’s smart, go-getter Katie Morosky character, In my eight year old mind both Katie and I worked hard hoping to be discovered, we both considered ourselves un-pretty, and we both adored Robert Redford. But there was that other part of Katie.  Her idealism and fascination with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

I was naturally interested in history, but most classwork was centered around battles and dates,  This movie offered a peek into what happened on the Home Front while the men and boys were fighting overseas.  To think every citizen had to sacrifice.  From the ration cards and nylons to life itself.  And they seemed so willing.

It was less than thirty years since VJ day, but American was in the midst of a war that had splintered the country in body and spirit. In contrast, “The Way We Were” was a movie about a time when America had faith in its government, a time when America banded together behind a President who was beloved by the majority.

As we all know, he couldn’t have accomplished all that in one term, or even two or three.  Elected to four terms, before he died in office.

When “The Way We Were” came out I was too young to understand the complex political mood of the country in the waning years of the Vietnam war, after bloody battles, corruption, civil upheaval and heartbreaking assassinations, but I knew this movie was making a statement that it was different then.

Even with all I know now about the imperfect man FDR really was, I still can’t shake that legendary view of him and the heroic side of things.  Crippled by polio but radiating strength, he did what he had to do to bring us out of the Depression and lead the nation through the battles of a generation to win victory over Nazi Germany and the Axis powers.

 

 

Categories: History Memorabilia