For John Kirwan Jr., the 19,397 signatures on baseballs dating to 1925 weren’t just ballplayers’ autographs, they were portals to his past.
I met Mr. Kirwan, 83, at his bedside at The Residence at Willow Lane in Kennedy Thursday. His wife, Phyllis, introduced us. He suffers from Parkinson’s disease and rarely gets out of bed, but Mr. Kirwan still has a detailed memory of the autograph collection that trumped all others.
When it was sold in lots to dozens of eager bidders at a Christie’s auction in New York on Oct. 5, 1995 — his 64th birthday — Mr. Kirwan’s was the largest collection of signed baseballs ever sold at auction. It seemed to come from nowhere; the ever vigilant community of wealthy autograph hounds hadn’t known it existed.
Even that day, the circumspect man from Moon was billed only as “The Pittsburgh Gentleman.’’ He preferred the anonymity. Now, though, he’s written a book under that title, paying for the publishing himself, and in its 300-plus pages he shares every detail of how he amassed his collection — except how much he got for it in the end.
”The low six figures,’’ Mrs. Kirwan said, and that’s as much about that as her husband cares to share.
He held these baseballs for decades, and they held him. Because he never could afford to insure them, and he feared fire and theft, his family of four never took long vacations. The day the Christie’s sports specialist drove away from his Moon home with a vanful of baseballs to prepare the auction, “it was like a load had been lifted off my shoulders,’’ he told me.
But we’re getting way ahead of the story. We need to go back to 1940s Detroit and a baseball-mad teenager before we run through Mr. Kirwan’s life as speedily as Andrew McCutchen zips from first to third.
The young Kirwan had the good fortune to live next door to W. Gordon Park, an ardent Tigers fan who had box seats at Briggs Stadium. In 1946, Mr. Park took him to an Indians game and got him his first autograph: future Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller.
He was hooked, but we need to fast forward to 1958. Mr. Kirwan, 27, leaves a banking job in Detroit to move to Somerset and manage the Roof Garden Motor Hotel that his parents own just off the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
By then he’d collected 40 signed baseballs, which he displayed in the foyer of the motel restaurant as a conversation-starter. Guests who knew ballplayers back home were soon volunteering to get him more — and did.
Then, in the mid-1960s, Mr. Park died in Detroit and willed Mr. Kirwan his 600 autographed balls. Mr. Kirwan drove to Michigan, packed his 1966 Thunderbird with the horsehide haul, and drove home with the treasure.
For decades, Mr. Park had written annually to club officials to get team balls signed by all the players. Mr. Kirwan continued that practice into the 1970s. If you can think of a ballplayer, he probably had the signature, and Mr. Kirwan never forgets how he got one.
Take Ralph Kiner’s. In the summer of 1969, the great Pirates slugger of the ’40s and ’50s was driving from New York to Pittsburgh in his role as Mets announcer, and he and his wife stopped overnight at the Roof Garden.
Mr. Kirwan didn’t come on duty until after the Kiners had checked out the next morning, but when a maid found a pair of woman’s underwear in the Kiners’ room, Mr. Kirwan mailed the unmentionables to the Kiner home with a National League baseball and a request for the slugger’s signature.
He got it. Years later he met Mr. Kiner on an elevator at the Downtown Hilton, where Mr. Kirwan was working, and he confessed he was the guy who mailed the Hall-of-Famer his wife’s underwear. Mr. Kiner broke up and told him he’d shared the tale of that trade at banquets for years.
When I asked if Mr. Kirwan had any regrets, he said he wished he could have left the collection to his son, Kevin. But his son later told me that as good as those baseballs might look in his ”man cave,’’ he was glad his father could use the assets as part of his retirement funding.
In the book, Mr. Kirwan writes that he’d never seen his collection fully displayed until the Christie’s auction, and he told an inquiring stranger it was “like going to a wake; saying goodbye to a loved one.“
The man answered, “Not when they send you the check!”
Brian O’Neill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947.