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i've never been much of an autograph collector. i can sign my name; bob gibson can sign his. big deal, right? but i do have among my keepsake stash a scrap of paper bearing signatures from six members of the 1969 cardinals:

in case you can't read the autographs, they belong to ray washburn, joe hoerner, joe torre, steve carlton, dave giusti, and joe nossek. i collected them at the muni opera in st louis during intermission of a performance of damn yankees; i was six years old. my dad had spotted torre, he of the unmistakably simian visage, before the show started, sitting just a few rows away. then during the break somebody announced over the public address system that several members of the two-time defending nl champs were in attendance -- which sent ev'y patron under the age of 13 charging through the aisles. they descended upon the unmasked cardinals, who -- no doubt verrry appreciative of the house's special recognition -- obligingly signed every bratty kid's program or napkin or ticket stub. my older brother and i joined the horde, each of us armed with a piece of paper supplied from our father's notebook. i had brought my treasured copy of larry leads off to the muni, and i handed it to each player to use as a hard writing surface.

just trying to help.

thanks to retrosheet i can narrow the date of these inscriptions to a handful of days. joe nossek sets a handy parameter, insofar as st louis acquired him midseason -- on july 12, 1969 -- for infielder bob johnson. the muni season only ran through mid- to late august, so i must have gotten these autographs sometime between july 12 and roughly august 31. and on most of those nights the cardinals were playing baseball; they only would have had an opportunity to see a show at the muni on an open date that fell in the middle of a homestand. how many of those could there be in any given six-week stretch?

one such occurred on monday, july 14, two days after joe nossek became a cardinal. they had split a dh with pittsburgh the previous day and would open a three-game set with the phillies on tuesday. if this was the date of the autographs (and i think it pretty likely), it found the cardinals mired in third place at .500, 11.5 games behind the cubs.

the all-star break fell a week later, providing three evenings off for the cardinals to indulge their passion for theater -- but steve carlton started the all-star game that year (and got the win), so the presence of his signature on the sheet rules those dates out. when the season resumed, the cardinals played 11 in a row at home but had nary an open date. hell of a homestand -- they went 9-2 to pull within 2.5 games of 2d place -- but no opportunities for cultural enrichment. a 12-game road trip ensued, and the cards stayed hot -- went 9-3 to pull within half a game of 2d place. they were only 8.5 behind 1st-place chicago with six weeks to go, and the great '64 comeback was still a very fresh memory. maybe it could happen again?

they had an open date on august 18 before opening a 10-game homestand vs the reds; another candidate for autograph night. if it was, i got ray washburn's autograph on the eve of his penultimate start as a cardinal (and he made 163 of them); he went out the next night and got beat 8-4. the cards finally cooled off, losing series to the reds and the braves; by the time they had another open date, on august 25, they had fallen into a 3d-place tie with the pirates and were 3.5 games behind 2d-place new york. no '64-style comebacks this year.

i suppose it's possible i saw the cardinals at the muni on a sunday evening after a day game, but i think it unlikely. they'd have reported to the ballpark at 9 or 10 in the morning on a sunday, after having departed late the previous night (they started night games at 8 p.m. in those days); who would have the energy to go out to the muni after all that?

it's kind of an interesting collection of guys -- two future hall of famers (carlton and torre), four guys in their last year with st louis (giusti nossek hoerner and washburn) and three in their first (torre giusti and nossek). torre hadn't come over until late march, two weeks before the cards began their quest for a 3d straight nl pennant; he'd knocked in just 55 runs in 1968 and slugged a feeble .377 but was three years younger than cha-cha cepeda, the player for whom he was traded. cepeda posted good numbers in '69 and '70, but torre matched them -- and then clinched the trade in '71 with an mvp season. (if you never saw my "photo essay" of torre from 1972, here's the link.)

the cardinals actually had to trade twice to get giusti; they acquired him on october 11 1968, a few days after their first world series defeat in 25 years, only to lose him three days later to san diego in the expansion draft. so then they dealt for him again in december. all told they gave up johnny edwards, ed spezio, ron davis, danny breeden, and phil knuckles for dave giusti, who at that time had a career mark of 47-53 and an era above 4.00. he wasn't very good for the cards in 1969 -- 3-7 with a 3.61 era in 99 innings -- so they dealt him after the season to pittsburgh, where he became one of the game's elite relief specialists.

hoerner, a pretty good reliever himself, also had an interesting trade history: he was one of the players in the infamous curt flood deal, which went down about two months after hoerner signed this piece of paper for me.

then there's joe nossek, whose story bears a passing resemblance to that of joe hardy -- the main character of damn yankees. that production, if you're too young (or too old) to remember, dates to the mid-1950s, when the yankees were in the process of winning 14 pennants in 16 years (1949-1964). it's about a sad-sack washington senators fan who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for enough ballplaying ability to lead his team past the yankees (just once and into the series. (here's imdb's page for the 1958 movie adaptation.) fast forward to 1965, when the yankees' run finally ended; it was indeed the senators -- now playing in minneapolis-st paul and known as the twins -- who won the pennant that year. nossek, a rookie outfielder on that team, had just 170 at-bats off the bench and hit .218, but he started five world series games in center field, including game 7 against koufax (he batted 2d and went 0 for 4; he was 4 for 20 in the series). nossek apparently was regarded as a weapon v left-handed pitchers; all his world series starts came against koufax and claude osteen, and 60 percent of his career at-bats came against southpaws . . . . he was uniformly less effective against them than he was against right-handed pitchers, but whatever. by 1969 his powers (such as they were) had vanished, just as joe hardy's ultimately did; nossek batted all of 5 times for the 1969 cardinals (3 whiffs, 1 base hit) and made only one big-league appearance thereafter, in september 1970. in six seasons he batted .228 with no power, speed, or on-base ability.

but nossek is remembered today not as a player but as a sign-stealer extraordinaire; if you can't beat the devil in this game you join him, eh? as recently as 2003 he was still the bench coach for the white sox, a valued member of ozzie guillen's staff -- and the only holdover from the jerry manuel era. when he decided to retire in the spring of 2004, white sox followers considered his departure a meaningful blow to the team. i honestly had no idea this guy was still in uniform all these years, much less that he had a reputation as one of the game's best spies. here's a longer article about nossek and sign-stealing. and here's his 1969 baseball card, his last:

i think back to the age of 6, when i approached this guy and his teammates for their autographs, and i wonder what i really wanted and what the hell they could possibly have given me. maybe the signatures sealed a deal, not the faustian bargain of damn yankees but something close. i guess i just wanted to be them, to have their ability and force of presence. and so i offered up the only valuable thing i possessed at age 6, my innocent soul -- a white sheet of paper. and they, unable to furnish what i wanted but obliged by custom to accept the offering, took temporary custody of the goods and signed the receipt.

presumably the soul remains stored in a lockbox somewhere on stadium plaza and can be retrieved from hock with proper documentation. which must explain why i hang on to this silly piece of paper. just in case i ever need to cash it in.