It’s the story, Clyde Doepner insisted.
Doepner was sitting at a table near his office at Target Field. He is the Twins’ official curator, which really makes him the team’s official historian. He has owned, had pass through his hands, acquired or displayed decades of memorabilia in his time.
Some highlights: the baseball Harmon Killebrew hit for his first-ever home run as a schoolboy at age 15; the bat he used to hit his 573rd and final major league homer, at Met Stadium while playing for the Kansas City Royals; the spikes Rod Carew wore when he hit .388 in 1977; a 1965 Tony Oliva game-worn jersey ... you get the point.
All great, all cool, wonderful to look at through the panes of a well-polished display.
Value might run the engine of the sports memorabilia industry; back in June, a game-worn Babe Ruth New York Yankees jersey went for a record $5.64 million in an auction. But to Doepner, when it comes to memorabilia, it is, quite literally, the memories that matter.
Which is why a base from Comerica Park in Detroit provides one of his finest memories.
On Aug. 15, 2011, Jim Thome hit two home runs against the Tigers. The second, to the opposite field, was the 600th of his career. Doepner was on hand for the occasion and after the game got first, second and third base and took them back to Minnesota.
A while later Doepner had Thome come to his office. On the table was third base, a gift to Thome. Why third? he asked. Because, Doepner jokingly figured, once you round third you can’t screw it up. As for the others, second base was auctioned off for the Twins Community Fund. It was first base Doepner and the team would keep.
Why? Thome asked. Because of what you said, Doepner replied.
Interviewed after the game, Thome was asked what he had been thinking of as he approached first base, knowing the ball was over the fence. His answer: his mother, Joyce, who had succumbed to cancer a few years before.
“So we’re both crying,” Doepner recalled. “My mum had just died, too. At that moment of his career, he was thinking of his mom. So I took the base, and a pen. And I said, ‘I want you to write, “On the way to this base, I was thinking of my mom.’ ” To me, that’s one of the coolest things I’ve got. Because he was thinking of his mother. To me, you can’t put a price on that.”
The coolest of the cool
OK, so intrinsic value might be in the eye of the beholder. But, a question: What would be the coolest piece of memorabilia with a Minnesota connection?
Conversations with collectors and sellers in the area produced a list of wonderful suggestions. The more people we talked to, the more it became clear that “cool” and “most expensive” aren’t necessarily the same thing. Bruce Smith’s 1941 Heisman Trophy went at auction for $395,240.66 in 2005. In 2014 Mark Pavelich’s gold medal from the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” fetched $262,900.
But then you have Doepner and Thome crying and hugging over first base. Or Bob Evans’ glee at discovering that the old Minneapolis Millers jersey he had bought for $50 at a collector show in 1980 actually was worn by Willie Mays during his two-month stay with the Millers in 1951.
Other treasures are out there. Interlachen Country Club has an original set of Patty Berg golf clubs. A Lindsay Whalen game-worn Gophers jersey from the 2004 Final Four or from her Lynx championship years would be wonderful. Ditto for a Maya Moore rookie jersey. Shane Cohen, owner of Ultimate Collectibles in Hopkins, said probably the most valuable piece of Wolves memorabilia would a game-worn Kevin Garnett rookie jersey.
“To me it’s about the story, preserving history,’’ said Taylor Simons, a local collector, mainly of old St. Paul Saints and Millers items. Much of Simons’ collection is on display at the Saints’ new museum at CHS Field. A walk through that 2,000-square-foot facility is revelatory and educational.
There are items from Charles Comiskey, who owned the Saints before moving them to Chicago and calling them the White Stockings. A 1938 American Association All-Star jersey. A baseball signed by Toni Stone, the first woman to play professional baseball. A 1947 Saints ball with Duke Snider’s autograph.
A complete game-worn 1960 Millers uniform of Carl Yastrzemski. This is one of Simons’ two top possessions. The other is a 1969 game-worn road jersey of Killebrew’s. Both are special because of the stories that go with them. Simons was able to meet both players. After researching and proving the Yaz jersey was authentic, Simons was able to travel east and meet Yastrzemski in person.
The Vikings’ new museum at the TCO Performance Center in Eagan is another 14,000-square-foot walk down memory lane. You can see memorabilia from the six players who have had their number retired; Mick Tingelhoff’s 1965 contract (for $17,500!); the padded leather gloves Jim Marshall used during his 270-game starting streak; Bud Grant’s Gophers letter sweater and the leather helmet Grant’s father wore while practicing with the Duluth Eskimos in the 1920s. Tommy Mason’s 1961 No. 20 jersey. It is a collection cared for by Erin Swartz, the Vikings director of brand and creative.
Every item, a story. The family of former Minneapolis Lakers coach John Kundla still has some items from his career. Signed group pictures. The ring Kundla got while coaching in the 1952 All-Star Game. The commemorative ring and jacket Kundla and other surviving members of the old Minneapolis Lakers dynasty were given at an event hosted by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2002. A ring given Kundla when he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, escorted down the aisle by DePaul coaching great Ray Meyer.
“He had the memories,” said Karen Kundla Rodberg, his daughter. “But he wasn’t a materialistic guy. He loved the stories.”
Too much to count
On June 16, 1926, the Yankees were in St. Paul to play an exhibition game against the Saints, perhaps because Yankees manager Miller Huggins was a former Saints player who owned part of the team.
Unfortunately, the game was rained out. So Ruth signed 100 baseballs, then stood atop the Pioneer Press and Dispatch building in downtown St. Paul and threw them to a huge crowd in the street. Doepner has two of these balls.
Some background: In 1966, Doepner was fresh out of college and had been hired to teach and coach baseball in Pine Island, Minn. He went to the school in August that year to get the lay of the land and found in the mail, addressed generically to the baseball coach, a season pass to watch the Twins.
So he went to a game.
Doepner looked up owner Calvin Griffith to say thanks. Turns out the Twins had sent out the passes to coaches all around the state, but had sent them after school let out, so Doepner was the first to show. Long story short: Doepner and the Griffith family became friends and Doepner began a lifetime association with the team.
When the team was moving from Met Stadium to the Metrodome, Griffith didn’t want to pay to store the rooms full of franchise memorabilia and was going to throw it out. Doepner was given the OK to go through it, and for 33 straight nights he did, preserving reams of items he still has, going all the way back to the Washington Senators, including official White House correspondence regarding presidents and first pitches.
With the Wild, curator Roger Godin has the stick and puck from both the first goal in franchise history, by Marian Gaborik, and the first Wild goal in Xcel Energy Center history, by Darby Hendrickson.
There are so many sports and so many memories. Rich Ellis is a well-known hockey expert, having worked briefly for a New York-based auction house. He has held in his hands some amazing pieces, including a 1927 Ruth bat that had notches cut in it for each home run.
“You close your eyes and think where that bat has been,” Ellis said. “Who held it. I felt electricity go through me.”
But hockey is his thing. Among his valued items: an Oscar Almquist 1930s Saints jersey, a 1970-71 J.P. Parise North Stars jersey and one worn by Bill Goldsworthy on NBC TV — for televised games the Stars were required to put the names on the back. Ellis also has Goldsworthy’s last North Stars jersey before his 1977 trade to the Rangers, an extensive collection of sweaters of the old Fighting Saints and a number of Gophers sweaters from the Herb Brooks era.
Ellis also helped authenticate some very interesting old Stars jerseys.
Cohen is one of the most in-the-know people on the local scene, having sold or helped broker some amazing pieces. More recently, he facilitated the sale of Kirby Puckett bats used during the 1991 ALCS and World Series.
A while back Cohen got ahold of a number of early North Stars jerseys — white, with laces at the top, a logo different from what the Stars used (the angle on the “N” was different). Turns out they were sweaters made for the preseason before the team’s first season in 1967-68. Problem was they shrank when washed, so they couldn’t be used, and the team ended up getting new uniforms for the start of the regular season.
It wasn’t until Cohen showed one to Ellis that they were verified as real. “There were 17 of ’em,” Cohen said. “He just actually didn’t speak for five minutes. He was just in shock.”
The holy grail?
So what would be the holy grail of local memorabilia? As much as people talk about what has been found, this is where the discussion often turns to what remains elusive.
Cohen mentioned one-piece Gophers football jerseys from the 1890s or early 1900s; only a couple have surfaced.
Or Killebrew’s home run crown from 1969. “It’s never been up for sale,” said Cohen, who added, without disclosing the name, he’s pretty sure who owns it. Or an Ernie Nevers Eskimos jersey. “I’ve seen it,” Cohen said. “I just couldn’t get it. It exists.”
Simons talked about a Ted Williams jersey from his Millers days. “The likelihood of it ever surfacing is a needle in a haystack,” he said. “It’s probably lost to time.”
One of Doepner’s regrets is that he didn’t chase down the baseball off Gene Larkin’s bat that scored Dan Gladden for the winning run in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series.
Sometimes the most enticing items are those not found. Doepner once spent a day in a swamp by Normandale Community College in waders with a metal detector trying find a foul pole from Met Stadium.
Stew Thornley, local sports historian and author, goes back to the 1955 Junior World Series between the Millers and Rochester. Game 7, late, in what would be the last game played at old Nicollet Park, and the final baseball pitched in that park.
“A Wednesday night, end of the series, end of Nicollet Park,” Thornley said. “On the mound, Al Worthington, called on to hold the lead. I’ve corresponded with Worthington, he remembers it. Right before the final pitch he thought, ‘If I get this guy out [it was Jackie Brandt], it would be the last one. I held the ball in my hand and thought here is the final pitch.’ ”
Brandt bunted, Worthington fielded it and threw him out.
Nobody knows where the ball is now.