The Strange Saga of Clancy Smyres and Why His Autograph is More Valuable Than Babe Ruth
September 23, 2013 By Jim Stinson
He died November 27, 2007 in Lancaster California at age 86. To fans of the old Brooklyn Dodgers teams he represents the true definition of the "Cup of Coffee" big leaguer whose moment in the sun was a barely imperceptible blip on the map. To autograph collectors and enthusiasts, the acquisition of his autograph represents the holy grail of impossibilities and a potential monetary value that would exceed that of Hall of Fame icons and legends like Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig.
As a long- time member of SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) and an autograph collector and dealer for over half my life, the question had always intrigued me. The explanation of why so many former players autographs are tough to find is simple; they died young or vanished after their playing careers. Not so with Clancy who lived to the ripe old age of 86 and died less than a stone’s throw from where he had spent most of his life in southern California.
As an autograph dealer and collector, even before the computer age had dawned in a time now known as B.C. (Before Computers), I kept a data base derived from collectors "want lists". They included signatures they needed for their collections. Things were different then. Autographs of Baseball Hall of Famers were important, of course, but there were more "niche" collectors. There were those who collected or attempted to collect autographs of every player who had ever appeared in a major league game, there were decade collectors , team collectors and so on. One of the most popular teams among the team collectors was of course ‘Dem Bums’, the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The availability of computers and spread sheets replaced the mounds of reference books and hard copy files that seemed to occupy all of my file cabinets. The data could now be moved to a hard drive on my computer where it could be accessed in minutes. Online information that once was housed in home and public libraries was available now at our fingertips. I was able to create and eventually maintain a data base of baseball’s "All time Tough Autographs". By cross referencing the many want lists of veteran collectors and revising the list as autographs of specific players surfaced, I could create a reference source that could tell me the availability of any autograph of any player that ever had a major league at- bat going as far back as the inception of the National League in 1876. Sounds crazy, I know , but no one has ever accused autograph collectors of being sane people and I readily include myself in that group.
Most importantly it would indicate if an autograph of a particular player had EVER been found. For obvious reasons many of the game’s 19th century and early dead ball era signatures would never be found because many of them could neither read or write which was not uncommon in this country well over 100 years ago. The simple act of requesting a baseball player’s autograph did not even begin to become a common practice until a young pitcher and eventual slugger of super human proportions named Babe Ruth arrived on the scene and even then did not gain momentum until at least 1920. So prior to that, autographs were gleaned from letters, official documents, checks and personal effects from descendants.
There were those players whose autographs that would always remain difficult or impossible to obtain. Like 27-year-old Frank Bell, who was shot to death by a bartender in 1891 after a game of cards or Marty Bergen age 28 who in 1900 slit his throat after murdering his wife and children with an axe.
With baseball emerging as the National pastime in the 1920's and throughout the 1930's and the popularity of autograph collecting increasing the list of "no known examples" began to dramatically decease but there were still exceptions from the 1920’s including Clay Roe, Roxy Snipes, Pedro Dibut and the 1930's like Ray Treadaway, Regis Leheny and others like Harry O'Neill who was killed in Iwo Jima during WW II (a couple of O'Neill signatures have since been located) and even into the 1950's where less than a few Webbo Clarke or Wenc Gonzales autographs are known to exist or 1965 pitcher Dick Wantz who made his major league debut April 13, 1965, pitched in one game and died of a brian tumor exactly one month later at 25 years of age. Most autographs that are a challenge to obtain come with an explanation for the rarity of their acquisition, which brings me to the subject of this story: Clancy Smyres.
Sometime in the early 1980's I purchased the collection of long time Brooklyn Dodgers collector Bill Zekus. At the time Bill was the foremost collector and expert on Brooklyn Dodgers autographs in the world. The entirety of his collection after I purchased and shipped it was well over 400 pounds. That’s a lot of autographs.
He had the autograph of every single player that had ever played for Brooklyn with the exception of a dozen or so and many of the names in his collection dated back to before the turn of the century. But of all of them, the one he was most proud of was that of Clancy Smyres who he had secured from a front desk clerk in a hotel after Smyres had signed in. To me at the time it was a scrap of paper but to him it was the holy grail. It remained in my personal collection for a number of years before I eventually offered it for sale when, I remembered Bill's words to me at the time: "If you ever sell it ask a lot for it because it’s the only one there is". So when I finally decided to sell it I felt awkward and was certain no one would buy it but asked $450.00 anyway. And that was $450.00 in the 1980's! Heck you could buy four Ty Cobb checks for that kind of money! After all, Smyres was still alive and his name was even listed in the California phone directory. To my astonishment, the autograph sold immediately and I received a dozen more calls requesting to be put in touch with the buyer so they could buy it…for a higher price.
Some time passed and occasionally I would get a phone call asking me if I ever got another Clancy Smyres autograph to call them. I was perplexed so I figured I would get to the bottom of it and just give old Clancy himself a call. A polite gentleman answered the phone and I asked if he was Clancy Smyres and indeed he confirmed he was. We chatted briefly and he was pleasant enough so I thought I had the wrong guy. After all a man that had earnestly and steadfastly refused to sign any and all autograph requests for almost 50 years HAD to be at least a little cranky so I asked him "Are you the Clancy Smyres that played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1944?".........CLICK !!!
I called back. "What do you want?" he said, no longer the polite fellow I had spoken to earlier. I had to think quick, I had already been paying famous athletes to do private signings to replenish my inventory and if he was indeed as tough an autograph as everyone had told me he was , then it was time to throw caution to the wind. I blurted out that I would only need exactly one minute of his time and would he give me that 60 seconds to speak I told him I thought he'd be pleased with what I had to say. He agreed "but ONLY 60 seconds," he said.
I was confident now that my foot was in the door so I began my speech that went something like this: "Mr. Smyres I know your time is valuable and that you don't like to sign autographs but I would be willing to come to you or meet you at a location of your choosing and pay you $500.00 each for as many autographs as you would care to sign". I waited , sure that he was mulling it over.
"Is that what you wanted to ask me?" he said.
“Yes,” I replied. “What do you think?"
"No thanks,” he said flatly and slammed the phone down in my ear for a second time.
I can remember ringing him up a couple times after that but months if not years had passed and his answer was always the same. As soon as the word baseball or autograph came up he would hang up the phone. To this day no one has been able to figure out his personal vendetta against signing his name to a piece of paper. It’s obvious that he could write because since then I have seen copies of documents he had signed after my brief encounter with him on the telephone.
After he passed away in 2007 I thought that would be the end of his being a rarity in the collecting community as surely his family would then be willing to release or sell personal checks or other things he had signed throughout his life but I was wrong.
Several collectors have relayed to me that they have since contacted his son with offers now in the thousands for a single autograph and with the same absolve of his father, Clancy’s son has refused to comply. To this day no one knows why and probably we never will. But this we know for certain. Unless the floodgates open and his family chooses to sell a hoard of personal checks or other items he may have signed in his lifetime, the signature of a man who never got a hit in the major leagues will remain more valuable than "The Bambino" himself who hit 714 home runs.