Life took Charlie Zabransky on a journey that would land him in both theaters of World War II, from North Africa and Sicily to Saipan and Okinawa, all the way back home to New York where he would eventually land his dream job. He had several jobs after returning home after the war, but none that he would love so much as being the doorman for the New York Yankees clubhouse.
With Yankee Stadium headed for demolition and the boys in pinstripes leaving the “House that Ruth built” for a modernized incarnation of a field of dreams in the Bronx, Zabransky is left with his memories and a massive collection of in-person autographs. A collector at heart, he gathered a horde of signed photographs that would be the envy of any baseball fan.
In 1976, he began working at Yankee Stadium as a ticket taker and routinely filled in other positions as needed. Then in 1981, he got the break that would be the start of a 20-year labor of love as a guard for the Yankees clubhouse. During his tenure, he would see 11 different managers and six World Series titles. Players would come and go – and Steinbrenner would repeatedly fire and rehire Billy Martin – but through it all, Charlie was there to see the Bronx Zoo in all its fury.
Although his collection is primarily a personal testament and photographic record of his employment with the Yankees, it was refreshing to see such a collection of autographs. Not a typical fan’s collection of signed baseballs or other commonly sold pieces of memorabilia, but more a personal and up-close look from inside Yankee Stadium. Painstakingly obtaining every autograph in person in his collection that runs to several thousand pieces, Zabransky has filled several binders full of Polaroids and 8-by-10s of nearly every player that played at Yankee Stadium through the years. All the way from Billy Martin up to Joe Torre, he has been collecting a small treasure trove of autographs that can almost be used as a historical reference of each season he spent as the clubhouse guard.
Year by year, he would pose for photos with every Yankee and visiting player and have them signed. His Polaroids and 8-by-10 photographs usually depict Zabransky on the field or inside the clubhouse with the season’s current ballplayers. He has truly comprised a one-of-a-kind collection that is a living testament to his love of the game ... and the Yankees.
“My favorite manager was Billy Martin, but we didn’t really get off on the right foot,” Zabransky recounted. “The first time I saw him, I said, ‘Hi Billy, how are you?’ He glared back at me and responded with a courtesy salutation. I found out later that he was really insulted by this.”
Martin was known for his temper, but fortunately Zabransky wouldn’t see it flare. “I broke his concentration; he would walk through the clubhouse deep in thought and didn’t like to be interrupted.”
As luck would have it, Martin would eventually warm up to Zabransky, and they would engage in the occasional conversation. Martin would even offer him his personal television so that he could watch the games while he had to remain in the clubhouse.
Zabransky would not only draw the affection of Martin, but eventually the whole team would come to appreciate the man who would greet them at the clubhouse each day. The players took such a shine to him that after Zabransky was laid off in 1996, they took action to keep him on the job.
Prior to the Yankees’ rally to win the World Series, according to Zabransky, Paul O’Neill gathered the team to help salvage his job.
“They got together and they agreed to pay my salary for the remainder of the season,” said Zabransky. In an era where most people tend to think professional athletes are greedy, overpaid and selfish, the Yankee players banded to together to preserve a place for the clubhouse attendant they so admired.
The organization would soon grow to respect Zabransky, as well. “George Steinbrenner hired me back” he said. Zabransky would go on to stay with the team to see them win their last four World Series through the 2000 season. He reminisced, “Those teams played like a family,” adding, “that’s what’s missing these days; they need to back each other up and not play like individuals.”
It’s no wonder the team came to respect Zabransky; he was never too shy to give his brand of advice to people no matter who they were – not even afraid to tell George Almighty his thoughts when he felt the team needed direction after the 1997 season.
Zabransky stated, “Mr. Steinbrenner listened to what I had to say, hopefully what I said paid off. We won three more championships after the one in 1996.”
More importantly, he believed that one of his most important roles was to encourage younger ballplayers. “Sometimes they just need a little boost in their confidence,” Zabransky said. “I told Jeter to keep a cool head when he came up in 1995 and everything would be fine, and now you can’t rattle him. He’s one of the most poised players you’ll ever see.”
An oracle of wisdom armed with a camera and a pen, this autograph collector lived the dream for more than 20 years, getting autographs of everyone that walked through the clubhouse from 1976 to 2000. From Billy Martin to Jeter and A-Rod, Zabransky saw the team through their best and worst times and loved every minute. Thousands of autographs and countless memories have made for an amazing career, but there was one thing that he would treasure more than anything: his own World Series ring. “They gave me my own ring, I’ll treasure it forever,” he said.
The man who gave encouragement with consistent comfort to the Yankee clubhouse has been retired for the past eight seasons, but still follows his beloved pinstripes with a passion. The stadium where he worked for quarter of a century is vanishing, but his memories will never fade.
Justin Priddy is the vice president for the Autograph Certification Experts, an autograph authentication firm. He is a frequent contributor to Sports Collectors Digest.