Baseball fans, you made it. It’s been a long winter full of speculation about when big-name free agents would finally sign contracts, but you survived the off season. Baseball is back.
Sadly, we still have a few weeks to go before games are actually televised and teams move back from their winter homes in Arizona and Florida. There are any number of ways to pass the time, save for scrutinizing meaningless spring training statistics or catching a few innings worth of starters warming up. It’s an excellent time to dive into a book about baseball and relive those summer nights at the ballpark.
Kevin Keating’s Waiting for a Sign is the perfect preparation for a new season of baseball. His first book, Waiting for a Sign, chronicles how Keating’s boyhood hobby turned into a lifelong passion: collecting autographs from baseball players and managers.
At the age of 10, Keating struck gold. In a time before autograph collecting evolved into the industry we know today, Keating’s father learned that every team that visited Chicago to play the Cubs (save for the Minnesota Twins) stayed at the same hotel, The Executive House. A young Keating realized quite quickly that he could obtain the signatures of nearly every player on the visiting team as they passed through the hotel lobby on the way to board the team bus. Stalking the lobby and the sidewalk outside, Keating’s earnest friendliness stopped ballplayers in their tracks.
Caught by this young boy with baseballs, glossy photos, and trading cards, they paused to sign memorabilia for the budding collector. Nearly always alone in his pursuit, save for the occasional tag-along friend, Keating staked out the hotel, striking up conversations with the ballplayers as they strode from the elevator to the bus, making a long-lasting impression on a great many of them.
Keating’s countless stories include his run-ins with the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Hank Aaron, Whitey Ford, Stan Musial, and many more. These are stories like you haven’t heard them before. Keating’s unique disposition shines through the pages, making it obvious how he was able to grow close to so many baseball legends.
Waiting for a Sign reads less like historical retellings of legends past, and more like hearing the stories from Keating himself. You can almost see Keating plucking a picture or a ball from the memorabilia collection, handing it to you for closer examination while he tells you of just how he came to possess a ball signed by Willie Mays, Ted Williams, and a half dozen other legends.
Keating’s earnest love for all things baseball shines on every page and in each anecdote. As Keating’s collection grew, his relationships with players matured. No longer the kid in the lobby with a pen and baseball, Keating was able to befriend many of the legends of the game, simply through correspondence.
On more than one occasion, Keating visited retired players in their homes, met their families, and shared a meal with them. Keating tells of one such visit to the home of Joe Sewell, whom Keating describes as “the greatest contact hitter in baseball history … the man who preceded Babe Ruth in the Yankee lineup … and the man who roomed with Lou Gehrig.”
As a thirteen-year-old, Keating began a correspondence with the baseball giant, sending him letters asking questions about his career. Sewell, although not in the Hall of Fame at the time, put up legendary numbers, the likes of which we will never see again. Over the 7,132 at bats in Sewell’s career, he struck out just 114 times. To put that in perspective, Giancarlo Stanton, current Yankee slugger, struck out 211 times over the course of the 2018 season. Naturally, Keating wrote to Sewell asking for tips on hitting and avoiding strikeouts.
Sewell’s good-natured responses encouraged more correspondence from the young Keating, and eventually, years later, a visit to Sewell’s home. Keating describes the experience: “We spoke nonstop about life and baseball for the next several hours, continuing our conversation [through lunch] … Joe’s ability to recall the minor details of virtually any aspect of his life, no matter how seemingly irrelevant or however long ago, was uncanny. His storytelling skills were matched only by the fascinating contents of his stories … The day flew by, and I had to get back on the road. I never expected that my visit would go beyond an hour, but I had been there all day.”
Keating’s relationship wouldn’t end that day, however. He visited the Sewells a number of times, including spending two Christmases with the Sewell family, before Joe passed away on March 6, 1990. Waiting for a Sign contains a number of Sewell’s best stories, including that of his minor league call-up in 1920 after the sudden death of Ray Chapman, who was struck by an errant pitch.
Keating’s conversation with Sewell also focuses in on Lou Gehrig, Sewell’s teammate and roommate. Sewell remembers Gehrig suffering from some early symptoms of what would be diagnosed as ALS in the coming years. This personal perspective of life as a major league ballplayer in the hallowed past of baseball is hard to find anywhere else.
Right Place, Right Time
Keating’s unique perspective on their lives comes from the kind of access only friends and family have. As his collection of autographs grew, Keating began advertising some of his items for sale in various magazines. One customer reached out to Keating after being accidentally shipped the wrong item, but this buyer wasn’t like any other. It was Jerry Dipoto, a reliever for the Mets, and an active baseball player at the time. Their mutual hobby collecting autographs lead to a budding relationship and another story you just won’t find anywhere else.
Keating met up with Dipoto before a game in Philadelphia, and ended up driving the reliever to the ballpark. Unfortunately, a light was left on in the car, and the pair returned to the car after the game only to find the battery dead. Complicating matters, the 1994 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme’s battery was not located in the engine bay, as is standard on nearly every other car.
As the pair searched, trying to figure out where the battery was located, Mets players began filing out of the stadium and into the parking garage, only to join Dipoto and Keating searching for the battery so they could finally jump the car.
Keating’s personal relationships and pure luck of being in the right place at the right time are a joy to experience, from Keating’s own personal Yogi-ism straight from the Yankees legend to having his car jump-started by nearly the entire staff of the New York Mets to shagging balls for the Colorado Rockies during batting practice before taking the field to stand with the team that was on their way to a National League Championship and World Series appearance.
Reading Waiting for a Sign takes you to another place, a never-ending summer afternoon at the ballpark. It’s worth the time of any baseball fan.