Archdeacon: Passion pays off for autograph hunters

Former UD basketball standout, pals celebrate memories from a hobby that began in childhood.

Obi Toppin is not the only former Dayton Flyers standout who’s shown he can make the most out of an alley-oop lob.

Jack Zimmerman, a Flyers basketball star in the late 1970s and a member of the UD Athletics Hall of Fame, did pretty well in the wee hours Saturday morning thanks to a nice assist from his lifelong friend and old Alter High School teammate, Tim Gallagher.

For Zimmerman, unlike Toppin, the slam dunk he pulled off wasn’t his signature move, it was just all about his signatures.

The eight items from his autograph collection that he put up for bid in the SCP Fall Premier Auction – trading cards, index cards and magazine photos signed by Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Pete Maravich, Julius Erving, Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe – brought in $36,483.

When Zimmerman, Gallagher and their pal Vince Martin were fifth graders at Incarnation School, they became autograph collectors whose herculean efforts and bountiful returns still serve – some 50 years later – as fodder for colorful stories and wondrous memories.

One involves Campy Russell when he was an All-American for the Michigan Wolverines.

In the more accessible and innocent days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the kid collectors developed pen pal relationships with a few athletes.

Martin connected with the Michigan forward and in one 1972 letter, Campy noted his team was playing the Flyers in December at UD Arena. The boys met him and a few other Wolverines afterward and posed for pictures and got more signatures.

Then, thanks to fortuitous failure, the Michigan bus broke down in the Arena parking lot.

“The team as staying at the Imperial House South and my dad had a big, old boat of an Oldsmobile so we asked if we could give him a ride,” Gallagher recalled.

None of the team’s personnel objected – something that wouldn’t happen today – so the 6-foot-8 Russell and 6-10 center Ken Brady crawled into the car with the kids and off they went with Jim Gallagher, Tim’s dad, at the wheel.

“We couldn’t believe we were riding with them!” Gallagher once told me.

Stories like that enhanced their autograph efforts, but now the collections are providing a different kind of enrichment, one they’d never thought about before.

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to play havoc with the economy, many people – including Gallagher, who worked for Harland Clarke, a leading provider of marketing services and payment solutions for various industries – found their jobs were lost.

Though he had auctioned off his baseball and football collections five years earlier, Gallagher had never thought about parting with any of his basketball treasures, which are his first love and which he continues to collect to this day.

Eventually, though, he decided to sell a few pieces and sent them on consignment to a pair of SCP Auctions earlier this year.

His 1984-85 Star Co. autographed rookie card of Michael Jordan sold for $42,955 in May.

And in August his autographed 1986-87 Fleer card of Jordan – considered the more mainstream rookie card -- went for $68,482.

But the biggest windfall came in October when SCP Auctions, based in Laguna Niguel, 45 minutes from his Carlsbad, Calif., home – hired him as a consignment acquisitions and private sales representative. Soon after he talked to Zimmerman, who has lived in Paris the past 27 years and is a senior vice president for GlobalData.

Zimmerman stopped seeking autographs as he blossomed as a basketball player after high school – scoring 1,482 points at UD, then pursuing a pro career that included a season with the Washington Generals, a preseason with the Portland Trail Blazers, and four years in Israel playing for Maccabi Tel-Aviv and Hapoel Tel-Aviv – and his collection stayed in Dayton.

When he moved to France in 1993, he brought it along.

Since February, Zimmerman said he and his wife Ronit have been in lockdown because of the pandemic – until just recently they could only go outside an hour a day and had to stay close to home -- and in this time of seclusion he hauled out part of his old autograph collection which he said his wife had relegated to basement or, as he put it, “the cave (cave `a vin) where you store the wine.”

Gallagher told Zimmerman about his new job and the Jordan cards he’d sold and suggested he certainly had autographed items worthy of auction, as well

“There have been a lot of articles in the media about sports cards and collectibles and how the business has been booming during COVID,” Gallagher said. “People have more time on their hands and there are fewer games to watch, so they’re revisiting their hobbies and getting things out of the closet.”

Zimmerman said when he thought about an auction, he wasn’t driven so much by the prospect of monetary gain as he was just getting the items long banished to the basement back out where they could be seen:

“These things had been dormant so long and I’m not going to sit here and get emotionally attached to them now. Instead of them going back in storage another 10 years, I’d rather they get back in circulation so other people can enjoy them.”

But with a pause, he did admit: “Of course when I look at them, they do bring back great memories and stories.”

Gallagher knows that, too, and offered a story from the late 1970s after an Indiana Pacers game:

“I was in the hallway outside the dressing room and a security guard comes up and says, ‘Hey, if you’re collecting autographs, you need to get one from that blond-headed boy leaning against the wall over there.’

“I said, ‘Well, who is he?’

“He said, ‘That’s Larry Bird and he’s going to play for Indiana State next year.’

“I’d never heard of him, but I went over and got him to sign an index card and pretty soon everybody knew Larry Bird.”

UD hoops the inspiration

Gallagher said he first got into collecting autographs in 1967 when the University of Dayton advanced to the title game of the NCAA Tournament and Flyers’ fever gripped this town. The star of the team was Don May and he was a hero to the 8-year-old Gallagher, who lived on Cherry Drive in Centerville.

He once told me how May dated one of the Repetty girls who lived two doors away and how he and his buddies would hide in the bushes and watch the Flyers’ All American get out of the car to pick up his date.

Years later he told May about his “Peeping Tim” escapades and both got a good laugh

“He said: ‘You weren’t out there when I brought her home too, were you?’” Gallagher chuckled.

“I told him, ‘No, we were too young. We didn’t know anything about that stuff. And besides, it was past our bedtime.’”

Once in the fifth grade, the autograph hunting began in earnest and Gallagher, Zimmerman and Martin collected signatures at UD games and when their parents bought them to Cincinnati Reds games.

Then Gallagher’s cousin from Chicago – he was five years older and more savvy – gave them an education.

He told Tim about approaching athletes after the game as they headed to the team bus or were in the lobby of the team hotel. And he told them about sending requests to athletes – via their teams – in the mail.

That opened the entire sporting world up to them. They’d get a preseason basketball yearbook – like Street & Smith’s – and divvy up the list of the Top 50 college players, sending each three index cards to sign and addressed and stamped envelopes to return them in.

“We became addicted,” laughed Zimmerman. “We loved sports. We loved the chase. And it was a thrill coming home from school and running to the mailbox and getting four or five letters with signatures.”

Some athletes would add short notes.

Auburn’s Charles Barkley wrote: “I would like to thank you for taking time to write me. I was very flattered.”

In response to Gallagher suggesting he’d be the next Lew Alcindor, UCLA’s Bill Walton wrote: “I hope I don’t disappoint you.”

Kermit Washington became Zimmerman’s pen pal and they exchanged a few letters.

Yet one of the athletes he most admired was the late Donald Smith, one of the greatest Flyers ever.

“Nobody knows this, but after Donald’s last game Coach Donoher helped me come into the locker room and I gave him three or four scrapbooks filled with stories and pictures,” Zimmerman said. “I saved everything I could find on him for years. I wanted him to have everything.”

Still collecting

Once at Alter, Zimmerman and Gallagher played basketball.

Afterward Gallagher went to Bowling Green and Martin went UD and then on to the University of Cincinnati medical school. Today he’s the Director of the Headaches and Facial Pain Center at UC’s Gardner Neuroscience Institute.

But the most celebrated of the three was Zimmerman, a third-generation UD athlete.

His grandpa, Babe Zimmerman, was a football star of the St. Mary’s Cadets, the precursor to the Dayton Flyers, and then was a stalwart of the Dayton Triangles.

His dad, Jack Sr., was a standout at Chaminade High, then played UD basketball and was best known as one of Ohio’s best amateur golfers.

As Gallagher was working in the corporate world – first in Phoenix and for the past 33 years in the San Diego area – he continued with his autograph collection and figures he accumulated at least 25,000 signatures.

He said part of the continuing allure is that a “new group of star players, guys like Obi Toppin,” arises each season.

Since COVID has shut down much of sports and isolated fans, he said a group of friends he regularly converses with on social media suggested he keep up a daily practice he’d begun on Twitter -- where he displays one of his autographed pieces and a few sentences of context to go with it. He entitles it “Today’s Treasure” and it’s become quite popular.

Gallagher admitted he still has a wish list of autographs from past figures he’d like to obtain. It includes:

Jack Molinas, the Fort Wayne Piston later involved in a college gambling scandal; Maurice Stokes, the Cincinnati Royal whose career was cut short by a brain injury and paralysis; Wayne Estes, the Utah State All American accidently killed assisting at a traffic accident; former Wittenberg and Tennessee coach Ray Mears; Hall of Fame coach and author Clair Bee; former UD basketball coach Tom Blackburn and 7-footer Reggie Harding, who played with the Detroit Pistons, went to prison and was murdered soon after his release.

On his Facebook page Zimmerman recently posted a Sports Collectors Daily story about himself. And that has drawn a response from a few Incarnation classmates, Gallagher said:

“One of the girls said, ‘I remember you guys were all so serious.’ We’d be strategizing who we were going to send letters to and who we were going look for at the games. They didn’t know what to think of us. They kinda thought we were weirdos.

“But now she said: ‘Here it is 50 years later, so I guess you guys are having the last laugh.’”

The best response though has come from Patti Gallagher, Tim’s wife of 28 years.

On their second date, she asked if he had any hobbies. He tried to explain, but she didn’t understand the passion of his pursuits.

“She’s now gained a whole new appreciation of all those hours I’ve spent in the garage going through file cabinets and folders of autographs,” he laughed.

And he said she now she has a new question:

“So do you have any more of those Michael Jordan things?”

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