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Tom Seaver: Collecting ‘The Franchise’

Death of Seaver, aka Tom Terrific, brings back fond memories of the Hall of Famer; an unforgettable face of baseball, he also became a collector favorite
Photo: Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Photo: Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Tom Seaver sat at a table in the Virginia State Fairgrounds on July 23, 1994, a long line of fans waiting for their moment with the Hall of Famer. At the time, he was a fairly recent addition to the Hall, having been inducted in 1992. So on this warm mid-summer day, he was a main attraction at an autograph show hosted by Tuff Stuff magazine in Richmond, Va.

As the publication’s editor, I loved having access to those events, coordinated by our show department twice a year in the 1980s and ‘90s. I always picked up interesting stories and insights, and sometimes, the experiences were touching. A perfect example involves Seaver. As the story floated around the show all those years ago, those of us on staff found it moving, and I’ve never forgotten it.

Photo: Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Photo: Focus on Sport/Getty Images

That day in 1994, Seaver’s line of customers snaked along at a reasonably brisk pace, helped along by a “no personalizations” policy in his contract. Adult customers, once they saw the stipulation printed on an autograph ticket or a sign, usually didn’t try to negotiate a personalized inscription. Young kids? Let’s just say their youthful enthusiasm and innocence sometimes prompted them to push things.

So it was with a 10- or 11-year-old boy that day. When the line brought him to the payoff point, directly in front of Seaver, it was a big moment. He had memorized the pitcher’s career accomplishments, and he rattled them off with a flurry of personalization requests as he handed his unsigned baseball to Tom.

“Mr. Seaver,” he asked, “can you write ‘1967 Rookie of the Year’? And ‘1969 champs’? And ‘311 wins’? And ‘Hall of Famer 1992’?”

As the boy made his excited request, Seaver took the ball and patiently listened. While looking down and signing, he offered the boy an apologetic decline.

“I’m really sorry, son, but I can’t personalize anything today,” he said. “It’s part of my contract. If I do it for you, I’d have to do it for everyone, and then some people might not get an autograph.”

Seaver-signed stat ball

Seaver-signed stat ball

Seaver then handed him the baseball, and the boy, clearly deflated, started to move away from the table. But then…he looked down at the ball, and what did he see? Tom Terrific had personalized it with every one of the accolades the boy requested!

The kid’s eyes widened, and he stopped suddenly and gave a quick glance back toward Seaver. No words were necessary—the boy’s ecstatic grin spoke volumes. Seaver gave him a playful “don’t tell anyone” wink and a smile, and then he got back to the business at hand. Customers behind the boy were none the wiser.

TOM: TERRIFIC?

That anecdote has stuck with me for two-plus decades. I can still see Seaver sitting there, with “reader” glasses on, as he signed politely for his hundreds of fans that day. From my vantage point, he gave everyone a polite and positive experience.

On the other hand, I can’t say the anecdote is fully representative of Seaver as an autograph signer in every instance. Dave Gallo, a longtime collector based in Connecticut, tells of a more contentious meeting.

Years ago, Gallo attended an autograph show and brought with him a baseball he’d been working on—a baseball signed by 300-game winners. He waited in line, and when he arrived in front of Seaver, he asked him to write his career win total under his autograph. Seaver’s unexpected retort: ”How many wins did I have?”

Tom Seaver signing autographs at the Major League Baseball Association 2003 Legends Dinner. Photo: E. Dougherty/WireImage/Getty Images

Tom Seaver signing autographs at the Major League Baseball Association 2003 Legends Dinner. Photo: E. Dougherty/WireImage/Getty Images

Taken aback momentarily, Gallo paused as he pulled up the number in his head—it’s 311, of course. But before he could answer, Seaver shot back with this line, without a smile or sense of humor, “You want me to write my win total, and you don’t even know what it is?”

Seaver did comply, but Gallo says it left a bad taste in his mouth. After hearing the story, I speculated that maybe Tom was just having a little fun with him. Or, it could be that Seaver exercised lots of patience with younger fans but was wary of adults, who—let’s face it—have been known to acquire sigs with the intention of peddling them on eBay. (Gallo keeps all autographs he collects.)

Personally, I’d like to think the Seaver we saw at Tuff Stuff was “the rule,” and the Seaver that Gallo met was the exception. Either way, it’s important to remember that athletes are humans—that as “level” as we’d like them to be, there are circumstances and countless factors (simply being tired, for example) that can color their encounters with fans.

Ultimately, let’s not forget how athletes catch our attention—usually with amazing heroics on the field of play.

That word—amazing—fits perfectly with Tom Seaver’s breakthrough, and the way he captured our collective attention. He was the kingpin of the Amazin’ Mets of 1969, the unlikely champions who knocked off the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. He was not only the heart and soul of the Mets, but he was a role model, an illustration that anything is possible. He showed what hard work, discipline and determination can do—lessons that applied (and apply) to all aspects of life.

MR. MET

Tom Seaver was an instant success and became a big-time power pitcher. He spent just one year in the minor leagues, where Jacksonville Suns (AAA) manager Solly Hemus famously noted that Seaver had a “35-year-old head attached to a 21-year-old body.” It was his way of saying young Tom, even at a young age, was a thinking man’s pitcher—masterful at setting up hitters with pinpoint location, yet also able to throw serious heat and a killer slider.

Signed postcard

Signed postcard

Seaver won the NL Rookie of the Year award in 1967, posting a 16-13 record with a 2.76 ERA, and matched his performance in 1968 (16-12, 2.20). Those two ramp-up seasons set up the storybook 1969 campaign, when Seaver had a sparkling 25-7 record and 2.21 ERA. Still only 24, he led a pitching staff that—despite underwhelming offensive support—brought the Mets their first World Series title.

Seaver was just getting started. He would pitch through 1986, spending 12 of his 20 years with the Mets, for whom he earned his other nickname, “The Franchise.” He also pitched for the Reds, White Sox and Red Sox, with one return trip to the Mets mixed in there. His career numbers—a 311-205 record, 2.86 ERA, 61 shutouts and 3,640 strikeouts—earned him Hall of Fame honors in his first year of eligibility. He was a three-time Cy Young Award winner (1969, 1973, 1975) and he led the NL in strikeouts five times.

COLLECTING THE BEST

Seaver’s mastery of opposing hitters made him a collector favorite during the hobby’s boom years of the 1970s and 1980s. His rookie card, from Topps’ 1967 set, was a fast favorite; so too was his 1968 second-year card, which bears that familiar “Topps All-Star Rookie” icon.

His ‘67 rookie, shared with fellow pitcher Bill Denehy, has long been the most valuable card in that classic set. We rarely see it in Gem-Mint 10 condition, but with that grade, it can get into the mid-$20,000s. In 8 or 9 condition, it goes for prices between $4,000 and $8,000.

4-1968-topps-tom-seaver-card

In the 10 days after Seaver’s passing on Aug. 31 at age 75, his rookie card—and, actually, anything related to the Hall of Famer—suddenly became more available on eBay. But, surprisingly, prices didn’t spike. News in recent years of Seaver’s struggle with dementia along with serious complications from Lyme disease may have prepared fans for the eventuality. As such, collectors aren’t doing the kind of emotional bidding we see in unexpected tragedies like Kobe Bryant’s death. So, availability of Seaver collectibles is up, and buying is up, but prices aren’t bloated.

Seaver-signed replica jerseys have been selling for $500 to $1,000, with only a couple of exceptions. Seaver-inked baseballs—again, with rare exceptions—have been selling for similar prices. But those price ranges haven’t been terribly higher than in recent months. Same with Seaver-signed flats. At the high end, we noted a 1967 B&E advertising postcard signed by Seaver—pictured as a rookie in a windup pose in front of the Mets’ scoreboard—that sold for $1,266. On the lower end, we saw a host of Seaver-inked insert cards issued by major manufacturers selling for $100 to $300. (Examples: A 2006 Upper Deck SP Legendary Cuts card sold for $177 on 32 bids and a 1999 Upper Deck SP Signature Autographs card sold for $108 on three bids.)

6-2008-ud-sp-seaver-legendary-cuts

At the same time, it’s likely that upcoming sales at major auction houses will feature Seaver rarities that prompt long-time fans into aggressive bidding.

In fact, certain treasures have come up in recent years that illustrate Seaver’s enduring appeal to collectors. Consider these examples, each preceded by realized prices:

Game-worn jersey sold at Heritage Auctions for $66,000

Game-worn jersey sold at Heritage Auctions for $66,000

● $66,000 for a 1973 game-worn World Series jersey. (Sold by Heritage Auctions, 2018.)

● $66,000 for a 1971 game-used and signed Mets road uniform—jersey and pants. (Robert Edward Auctions, 2017.)

● $36,695 for a 1977 game-worn road jersey authenticated by Mears. (SCP Auctions, 2018.)

● $25,428 for a 1976 game-worn jersey with a black memorial armband to honor both Casey Stengel and owner Joan Payson. (Mears Auctions, 2017.)

● $7,337 for a 1982 game-worn Reds jersey. (Leland’s, 2020.)

Auction houses no doubt are combing the market for these types of potentially high-dollar rarities. But as we’re seeing on eBay, you’ll have chances to buy all kinds of budget-friendly Seaver items.

One of our favorites—perhaps because it might explain the fan-friendly gesture related at the top if this article—is Seaver’s 1972 Topps “Boyhood Photos of the Stars” subset card. When you look at the face of Seaver as a Little Leaguer, you can’t help but wonder if he saw himself in the faces of young boys asking for his autograph.

EVER GET A SEAVER SIG?

We’re betting that a healthy number of Sports Collectors Digest readers got to meet Tom Seaver at an autograph show or in a setting where they could ask for an autograph. We’d love to hear about your experience, and what you remember about it. Write to larrycanale@comcast.net, and we’ll compile responses and share.

Auction of the Week

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