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