For the current 2017 Major League Baseball season, twenty four players will earn $21,000,000 or more to play the game. Of those, two pitchers; David Price, Boston Red Sox and Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers will earn $30m and $33m (respectively) to collect “outs” for their teams throughout the season (and post-season).
Being the huge baseball fan that I am, I do understand that the MLB season is gruelingly long at 162 games and half of them are on the road, visiting cities stretching across the United States and into Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Life on the road is difficult and has considerable impact on family life with all the time away. While the season typically starts in late March to early April, for the players, it actually begins in February with spring training. If the team makes it to postseason play, that means they are working from mid-February to late October.
Many athletes’ families do not live in the city in which they are playing, further adding to the separation challenges. Players routinely miss out on birthdays, anniversaries and other family gatherings. For roughly eight months of the year, these athletes are subjected to air travel (some aboard chartered team jets) and the nicest hotel rooms. While on road trips, team equipment managers pack and unpack their gear, ensure that their baggage is in their hotel rooms when they arrive and picked up when they depart the various cities.
During batting practice and pre-game warm-ups, fans arrive early for the chance at obtaining the autograph of their favorite players on a baseball card, ball or scorecard. Autograph hounds seek out the stars of the game to get as many items signed as possible, even hiring kids to obtain as many signatures of the game’s elite players as possible. Autographs of the stars command premium prices when sold on the market. Many of the stars understand this part of the business (yes, the game of baseball is a business) and choose only to sign at arranged events where they are paid fees, commanding thousands of dollars, further padding their multi-million dollar salaries.
By now, you are asking yourself, “what does this have to do with militaria or military collecting?” I ask that you give me a little latitude as I am getting to the heart of the subject.
As a member of the local aviation museum (which is one of the best in the nation), I occasionally attend functions that typically focus on the stars of military aviation. During these events, one or more figures make appearances where they interact with the audience, detailing or describing their escapades in aerial combat or flight operations in support of significant military historical events. The schedule typically follows the format of a presentation in the auditorium, followed by a question and answer session, then an opportunity for the “fans” to get an autograph.
Since I’ve been a member, I have had the opportunity to meet legendary veterans that were significant participants, authors of events that had considerable impact on the outcome of the war. From Marine Corps pilots of the Black Sheep squadron (VMF-214), “sled” (SR-71 Blackbird) drivers, Tuskegee Airmen, and countless Aces from WWII, the Korean and Vietnam wars. The roster of historical figures is nothing short of impressive. While the queue of autograph seekers isn’t small at these events, it pales in comparison to those seeking signatures of the multi-million dollar ballplayers.
Is it fair to compare the two? I think it is when we consider the cost of service to our country, especially when one is deployed to a combat zone. The tour of duty isn’t limited to an eight-month season. The training is far more intense and exceedingly more difficult. While batting practice may have its risks (getting hit by a pitch or taking a foul off the foot or leg), ball players aren’t psychologically preparing to protect their own lives or that of their teammates.
Deployments are a far cry from the road trips of their Major League counterparts. Some are cooped up in cramped quarters aboard ship, have to sleep in fox holes, or seek shelter beneath a truck in the desert. Current soldiers, sailors and airmen can spend up to 16 months away from family with occasional access to phones or email for a momentary taste of home. During World War Two, some were in theater for years, on the front lines for months at a time with brief respites mixed in. Mail from home was only an occasional luxury, if at all.
The risks ball players face each time they step out onto the field are real – torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament ), rotator cuff tears, elbow ligament damage and in some rare cases, the risk of traumatic brain injury (TBI) from a wild pitch to the head. When compared to what our service men and women face – such as being shot; losing limbs, eyesight or hearing; and death – the multi millionaire athletes’ reality takes a significant backseat.
Readers might suggest that my comparisons are patently unfair. My response is that the comparison is meant to provide focus on how we the collectors, place value and emphasis on athletes (and actors, musicians, etc.) over those who have sacrificed so much more. While in the area of autograph collecting, signatures from well-known veterans often command high prices on the resale market, lesser known vets or common military personalities get no attention.
I used to obtain and collect signatures of ball players and amassed quite a collection. Unfortunately, most of the signatures were from prospects who never truly panned out, rendering the collection to more of a humble status in its value. I did manage to obtain some choice stars and hall of fame players. But to me, these pale in comparison to the other more significant inscriptions that I have obtained since I started focusing on veterans.
I doubt that most of the signatures have much in the way of monetary value to autograph collectors, but to me, they are priceless mementos of personal encounters with men who have “been there.” My collection contains autographs from 32 Medal of Honor recipients, two World War II Marine Corps Aces, several WWII, Korean and Vietnam war Navy Cross recipients, several silver star recipients, many prisoners of war and members of the famed “Easy” company (Band of Brothers) veterans and many more.
The personal sacrifices made by these men easily overshadow any significant achievement or career milestone attained by the greatest Hall of Fame baseball player…unless that player also happens to be a combat veteran (my collection contains a few of those signatures as well).
I didn’t intend for this posting to be a rant against ballplayers or those who enjoy collecting their autographs. My goal was purely to call attention to the value of those who willingly raise their right hand, swearing to protect this nation from all enemies, foreign and domestic and then proceed to do that very thing. Serving in the military tends to be a very thankless job and when the service member finally hangs up their uniform, there are no invites to attend any All Star weekends for autograph signing sessions.
I surrender my soapbox.
Regardless of how much knowledge you may possess, making good decisions about purchasing something that is “collectible” can be a risky venture ending in disappointment and being taken by, at worst, con-artists or at best, a seller who is wholly ignorant of the item they are selling. Research and gut-instinct should always guide your purchases for militaria. Being armed with the concept that when something is too-good-to-be-true, it is best to avoid it. I recently fell victim to my own foolishness when I saw an online auction listing for an item that was entirely in keeping with what I collect.
I am very interested in some specific areas of American naval history and one of my collecting focus centers around a select-few ships and almost anything (or anyone) who might have been associated with them. One of those ships (really, four: all named to honor the Revolutionary War battle where American George Rogers Clark was victorious in Vincennes, IN), the heavy cruiser USS Vincennes (CA-44) is one in particular that I am constantly on the lookout for.
In early September (2016), a listing for an item that surfaced in one of my saved searches results, caught my attention on eBay. The auction description made mention of a book, Savo: The incredible Naval Debacle Off Guadalcanal, that happens to be one of the principle, reliable sources for countless subsequent publications discussing the August 8-9, 1942 battle in the waters surrounding Savo Island. Though I read this book (it was in our ship’s library) years ago, it is a book that I wanted to add to my collection but until this point, never found a copy that I wanted to purchase. What made this auction more enticing was that this book featured a notable autograph on the inside cover. In viewing the seller’s photos, I noted that the dust jacket was in rough shape but the book appeared to be in good condition (though the cover and binding were not displayed). There were no bids and the starting price was less than $9.00.
I have been a collector of autographs and have obtained several directly from cultural icons (sports stars, actors, musicians) but my favorites are of notable military figures (recipients of the Medal of Honor [MOH] and other servicemen and women) who distinguished themselves in service to our country. The signature in this book featured a retired naval officer who was the recipient of the Navy’s highest honor, the Navy Cross (surpassed only by the MOH) and who played a significant role in the Battle of Savo Island as he was the commanding officer of the heavy cruiser, USS Vincennes (CA-44) and the senior officer present afloat (SOPA) for the allied group of ships charged with defending the northern approaches (to Savo and Tulagi islands). Frederick Lois Riefkohl (then a captain) commanded the northern group which consisted of four heavy cruisers; (including Vincennes) USS Quincy (CA-39), Astoria (CA-34) and HMAS Canberra (D33).
By all accounts, the Battle of Savo Island (as the engagement is known as) is thought to be one of the worst losses in U.S. naval history (perhaps second only to the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor) as within minutes of the opening salvos by the Japanese naval force, all four allied ships were left completely disabled and sinking (all would succumb to the damage and slip beneath the waves in the following hours). Though the loss was substantial, the Japanese turned away from their intended targets (the allied amphibious transport ships that were landing marines and supplies on Guadalcanal and Tulagi) missing a massive opportunity to stop the beginnings of the allied island-hopping campaign. The First Marine division was permanently entrenched on these islands, and would drive the Japanese from the Solomons in the coming months.
Captain Riefkohl was promoted to Rear Admiral and retired from the Navy in 1947 having served for more than 36 years. He commanded both the USS Corry (DD-334) and the Vincennes and having served his country with distinction, the Savo Island loss somewhat marred his highly successful career.
As I inspected the book, there were a few aspects that gave me reason for pause. First, the seller described the book as “SAVO by Newcomb 1957 edition” which left me puzzled. Secondly, the Admiral included a date (“May 1957”) with his signature. Recalling that Newcomb’s book was published in 1961 ( See: Newcomb, Richard Fairchild. 1961. Savo. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.), I was a bit dismayed by the four-year discrepancy between the date of the autograph and (what the seller determined to be the) first edition published date. I wondered, “how did he determine this date and where did he find this information?” I noted that there was no photograph of the book’s title page accompanying the auction.
I decided to take a gamble that at worst, would result in me spending a small sum of money for an autograph that I wanted for my collection and at best was merely a fouled up listing by an uninformed seller. I pulled the trigger and my winning bid of $8.99 had the book en route (with free shipping, to boot)!
Nearly two weeks later, the package arrived. I reservedly opened the packaging and freed the book from the layers of plastic and bubble wrap. I inspected the ragged dust jacket and removed it to see the very clean cover which didn’t seem to match. I opened the book and viewed Riefkohl’s autograph which appeared to match the examples that I have seen previously. I turned to the title page and confirmed my suspicions. Death of a Navy by an obscure French author, Andrieu D’Albas (Captain, French Navy Reserve). “Death” is not worthy enough to be considered a footnote in the retelling of the Pacific Theater war as D’ Albas’ work is filled with errors. By 1957 (when this book was published), most of what was to be discovered (following the 1945 surrender) from the Japanese naval perspective was well publicized before the start of the Korean War. It is no wonder why Andrieu D’Albas published only one book.
My worst-case scenario realized, I now (merely) have the autograph of a notable U.S. naval hero in my collection. While I could have gone with my gut feelings about the auction listing, having this autograph does offset my feelings of being misled (regardless of the seller’s intentions).
Riefkohl’s Navy Cross Citation:
The Navy Cross is awarded to Lieutenant Frederick L. Riefkohl, U.S. Navy, for distinguished service in the line of his profession as Commander of the Armed Guard of the U.S.S. Philadelphia, and in an engagement with an enemy submarine. On August 2, 1917, a periscope was sighted, and then a torpedo passed under the stern of the ship. A shot was fired, which struck close to the submarine, which then disappeared