Memories live on through baseball autograph collection

Photo by John Gessner

Jim Ross displays his collection of autographs from old-time baseball greats.

‘Cobb, Ruth and Speaker’ is retired minister’s dream outfield 

Baseball’s greatest outfielders?

“Cobb, Ruth and Speaker,” says 86-year-old Jim Ross, naming his dream team of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Tris Speaker.

All were retired by 1949, but Ross had an eye for greatness even then. In a quest for autographs, the 14-year-old sent letters to many of the all-time greats through their respective ball clubs.

The determined lad from Indianapolis, Indiana, sent letters to more than a dozen All-Stars, including Cobb, Ruth, Speaker, Dizzy Dean, Hugh Duffy, Owen Bush, Eddie Collins, Lefty Grove, Rogers Hornsby, Honus Wagner and Ted Williams.

He got responses.

Today, Ross’ remaining collection of seven autographs is framed and under glass — a keepsake for his family and a curio to some of the staff at Cassia’s Emerald Crest Memory Care in Burnsville, where Ross moved in July from Savage, where he lived with Susan, his wife of 28 years.

“These guys were really famous,” said Ross, noting that some of his autographs have been lost over time.

“I was just careless about it,” he said. “I didn’t know the long-term value of them.”

Inspired by pictures and stories in a magazine of baseball greats, young Ross clipped out sections and sent them to the corresponding players along with his polite requests. He included return envelopes with his address, 56 Kenyon Avenue.

“Dear Mr. Speaker,” he wrote to Tris Speaker, who assembled baseball’s sixth-highest career batting average and three career fielding records from 1907 to 1928. “I’m an admiring friend from Indianapolis, Indiana. I have read and heard many stories of you.”

The letter turns up the heat a little in its bid for a signature.

“Some time ago, before Babe Ruth died, I wrote to him and received his autograph,” Ross wrote. “Then I wrote to Ty Cobb and received his autograph. I would very much like to have your autograph. Would you please autograph this letter and send it back.”

Ross told the players he wanted to be a first baseman, outfielder or basketball guard. He told them he was a lefty and asked which way they batted.

“I hit right-handed,” replied outfielder Hugh Duffy, who was a player and player-manager from 1888 to 1906, managed teams in his post-playing career and was named to the Hall of Fame in 1945. “If batting left-handed comes natural to you, stay with it. If you top my average, I won’t be jealous of you.”

Ross’ four daughters have heard all the old stories from a father who was a fan of the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians and didn’t consider himself a stellar ballplayer.

“Dad kind of has to have a quest,” said daughter Amy Gustafson, a St. Paul teacher, noting that her father also collected coins as a kid. “Even into his adult years, he’s kind of had to have a quest. At one point it was, ‘I’m going to build a cabin that can’t be taxed and can be close to the river and can’t be vandalized.’ ”

Mission accomplished: Ross built a collapsible cabin on the Cloquet River outside of Duluth. He was an athletic outdoorsman most of his life.

“Dad used to be a tremendous storyteller,” Gustafson said. “I wish he were still able to do that. ... He’s got many stories of his antics throughout his life. He was quite a mischief maker, even into his adult years.”

Ross spent 47 of them as a United Methodist minister, serving congregations around Minnesota and a couple in Wisconsin.

He was at Bethany UMC in Rochester when a parishioner assembled and framed his autograph collection for a “This is Your Life”-style tribute.

Ross doesn’t know where some of his autographs ended up but he’s still crystal clear about his career choice.

“Why was I in the ministry? I just felt the call to do it,” he said. “I wanted my life to count for something. In ministry, you leave a legacy. You have an influence on people that lasts.”

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