Mike Gastineau interviews Negro Leagues History Founder: Jay Caldwell
Q- You grew up in Iowa, near where the movie Field of Dreams was set, and north of Cooperstown, New York, the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. It would seem as if being involved in baseball was your destiny.
Jay- I was born in 1953 into a split household in Iowa, far from cities where Major League Baseball was played. The split in our house ran along baseball lines. My father was a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals while my mother loved the Chicago White Sox.
Perhaps that is why I was exposed to baseball so young. We listened to the static of evening radio broadcasts of games from far away metropolises and watched NBC’s Game of the Week on Saturday on a black and white console TV, a massive piece of living room furniture that must have weighed 400 pounds.
My mother was born in Kansas City and told me of a team there called the Monarchs, a team she occasionally saw play. But I knew nothing of them and at that age was not interested. Like many young American boys in the 1950s, I grew up a fan of the New York Yankees despite the fact we lived 1,200 miles west of New York City. I idolized Mickey Mantle and spent much of my youth dreaming of following in his footsteps, patrolling center field in Yankee Stadium.
My father obviously enjoyed a lot of success following St. Louis, and I was happy that my mom lived long enough to see the White Sox win the World Series in 2004.
Q- So, you were a big baseball fan. Did you play as a kid?
Jay- I always played baseball. I still have Super 8 film my father took of me playing baseball in our backyard by myself. In my young imagination, I created a game where the Yankees and the Cardinals met in the World Series.
First I pitched carefully to the dangerous hitter. Then I ran in to grab a bat and hit the pitch safely to the gap in left center. Between first and second I would divert to the outfield to make a fluid catch of the hard-hit ball while hoping to throw the runner out at second base. I then came back to the infield and would slide into second just in time to beat the throw. I must have been fast (or maybe I preferred offense) because I was invariably safe.
Q- When did your family leave Iowa?
Jay- In 1961 we moved to the metro New York area. In 1964 when I was 11, we moved to Mohawk, New York. Mohawk is a small community 25 miles north of Cooperstown. It was a great time and place to grow up. In those days, the only practical way to reach Cooperstown was by car because air travel was far too expensive for the average family.
Cooperstown was a true baseball mecca. Main Street was alive with the businesses needed to make a community work – barbers and dentists, hardware stores and grocery stores. But there were also shops selling authentic baseball memorabilia. I’m not talking about t-shirts and souvenirs.
You could buy a pocket watch belonging to Babe Ruth, or a silver trophy bat from the 19th century. In the days long before the Internet and eBay changed the way sellers could reach potential buyers, the best baseball memorabilia was found in stores in Cooperstown.
I visited the Village regularly. I never tired of the sights at the Hall of Fame or of browsing in the memorabilia shops. The Baseball Hall of Fame is easily the best sports museum and one of the best museums of any kind in the country. One thing that has not changed is the joy on the faces of young and old fans who come to Cooperstown for their first visit. They are easy to pick out because they look as though they are lit by an internal bulb.
Q- Tell me about your chance encounter with a baseball legend on the streets of Cooperstown.
Jay- In the summer of 1959 or 1960, we took a trip to upstate New York as part of a visit to see family friends. While walking down Main Street in Cooperstown, my dad pointed out an old man and told me he had played professional baseball. He produced a ball from somewhere and told me to go get it signed. I didn’t know who he was but he became the first professional player I had ever met.
It was Ty Cobb.
During this era, players strolled the streets greeting fans and signing for free. The only thing I have seen in recent years that compares to those days was Bob Feller striding purposefully down Main Street, towering over most people, and greeting everyone along the way.
Ty Cobb took his time with me. After signing my ball, he asked if I played. I told him I did and I wanted to be a switch hitter like Mickey Mantle. He asked me to show him how I held the bat. I got into my stance, pretended to hold a bat, and took a swing. He straightened me up a bit, told me to choke up on my pretend bat, and swing more with my hips.
Years later I still marvel at getting a batting tip from the great Ty Cobb. Unfortunately, it did not help. My talent level ultimately intervened in my plan to become the next Mickey Mantle.
Q- You told us about your spectacular one-kid show in the backyard in Iowa. Did you play organized baseball with other kids?
Jay- Absolutely. I am left-handed and primarily played first base and pitched. In the picture below I am standing fourth from the right and my older brother Randy is standing far left.
I remember those flannel uniforms getting so soaked with sweat that I would lose five pounds in a game and I only started the game weighing 60 pounds. This picture was when we lived in Rye, New York (a stop between Iowa and Mohawk).
The previous year I was also on the Pioneers and we dominated because of a kid named Pete Masilotti who is not in this photo. Pete was our primary pitcher and was athletic, determined, and very talented. It seemed as if he always threw a no-hitter. He had some control problems so the only question when he pitched was, would he kill more batters than he walked?
I believe the pitching rubber was around 45 feet from home and at age 11 Pete was already 5′ 11″ with 180 pounds of muscle. No opponents would stand in against him which gave him a huge advantage. Rules prevented him from pitching every game and it was somewhat disheartening to see the waves of relief washing over our opponents’ faces when they saw me taking warm-up pitches. If I was coming into the game they knew at a minimum they would live until dinner.
Q- What was the first major league game you remember seeing in person?
Jay- My dad took my brother and I to a few games at the old Yankee Stadium between 1961-64 while we lived in the New York area. I don’t remember which ones. The only incident that stood out was one game where several Puerto Rican nationalists jumped the walls with banners calling for independence. The NYPD chased them all over the field. I kept asking my dad, “Why doesn’t Mickey help? He could catch them easily.” The first game I really remember well was the Yankees versus Phillies at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown at the annual Hall of Fame game in 1965. It was a real treat. Living in upstate New York, you didn’t get to see MLB in person. We had front row seats and I got to say hi to Mickey Mantle. I wish they had kept that tradition alive.
Q- You have a huge collection of baseball memorabilia. Did you start collecting as a kid?
Jay- I did. We collected as much as we could afford. My best friend, Tim Loopman, was also a Yankee fan and loved Joe Pepitone. The great thing from my perspective was that Tim would trade me a Mantle card for a Pepitone card straight up. We didn’t assign monetary values to the cards then but we did flip cards and pitch pennies for cards.
In an all too typical story for the time, my parents moved after I left for college and threw out my card collection and my Ty Cobb signed ball. Somewhere in the bottom of the German Flats landfill near Mohawk, they reside as a soggy mess.
I did not take up collecting again until my daughter was born in 1989. That was Upper Deck’s first year and card number one was Ken Griffey, Jr. I had been living in Seattle for 12 years and had become a Mariners fan. I bought her a complete set of every baseball card made that year along with other baseball memorabilia and created a shadow box for her along with her own baseball card. It was a crude, self-made creation in the days before Photoshop. I did the same for my son three years later. That rekindled by baseball collecting interest.
Speaking of my kids, I remember feeling like I had arrived as an adult when I could have a beer with my father at a ballgame. I passed that tradition on with both of my kids when they turned 21.
Q- Tell me about your friendship with Mark Macrae.
Jay- In 1998, I started collecting baseball art beginning with works by Monty Sheldon. Through that relationship, I met Mark who is the most honest dealer of cards and memorabilia you could hope to meet. He began dealing in the San Francisco Bay area when he was 12 or 13 and has now accumulated knowledge and his collection for over 40 plus years.
Q- Your friendship with him led to an interesting tradition.
Jay- Every year Mark drives from California to the National Sports Collectors Convention (NSCC) in whatever city it is held in (usually Chicago, Cleveland, Atlantic City or Baltimore).
In 2005, I began to join him each year. We meet at an agreed upon point in the Midwest. Our destination is Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame Induction ceremony followed by the NSCC.
Along the way, we take in minor league games and visit historic baseball sites. We have been to the Bob Feller Museum in Iowa, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, the Louisville Slugger Museum in Kentucky, the Little League World Series in Williamsport, and many other places.
My favorite story from these trips started at the Bob Feller Museum (which is now closed) in Van Meter, Iowa. The museum manager volunteered to take Mark and me on a tour of the small town. We saw the farm where Feller grew up, the house he bought for his parents and the site of a famous (at least in Van Meter) bank robbery in the 1930s. The story was the two robbers made too much noise as they were leaving that night. The bank president happened to live across the street, heard the noise, stepped out on the porch with his deer rifle and shot them dead. The bullet holes are still there to be seen nearly 90 years later.
Q- What’s one of your favorite pieces in your collection?
Jay- One of my early pieces was a poster entitled Spring Training: A Florida Tradition 1888-1988. It is now framed and probably has traveled 500,000 miles. I have collected 234 autographs on it including Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, Lefty Gomez and Bill Terry. There are 113 Hall of Fame players who have signed along with 14 others I expect to be inducted one day. That list includes Edgar Martinez who I hope is inducted this year.
To me, one of the more interesting autos is Bibb Falk. Falk played left field for the Chicago White Sox. He’s the guy who replaced Shoeless Joe Jackson after he was banished.
Q- When and why did you begin focusing on Negro Leagues memorabilia?
Jay- To be honest, I was a late-comer to learning about and collecting memorabilia from the Negro Leagues. While I had always read extensively about baseball and knew about the Negro Leagues, it never really piqued my curiosity until around 1998. The more I read, the more I liked the stories and the more I studied. My first Negro League specific piece was an Artball(R) of Satchell Paige painted by Monty Sheldon on November 12, 2000. Since then the Negro Leagues has been one of three areas I have really focused on with the others being perfect games and original artwork.
Q- Where did the idea for Negroleagueshistory.com come from?
Jay- In 2012 I staged a successful art exhibit at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) in conjunction with the MLB All-Star game held in Kansas City that year.
I remained in contact with NLBM President Bob Kendrick and Curator Raymond Doswell. In 2016 I suggested we stage an even grander art exhibit and memorabilia show in conjunction with the Centennial celebration of the founding of the Negro National League in 1920. They agreed. I formed a company, Dreams Fulfilled, LLC, to do this and sell related products. We changed the name of the website in November (from Dreamsfulfilled.com) to better reflect our goals which are to promote knowledge of Negro Leagues history, to raise money for the NLBM and players’ families through royalties from product sales, and to bring publicity and attention to the Centennial celebration.
The Centennial is obviously a once in a lifetime event and I hope it really results in expanded knowledge about these largely forgotten ballplayers.