This is the latest in an ongoing series of articles written by readers who tell the stories of the sports memorabilia they collect and why.
More than 62 years ago, I was 12-years old and I spotted my hero, San Francisco 49ers running back Hugh “The King” McElhenny outside Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. I saw him getting into a pink Cadillac, remembering the 1955 encounter, I said, ‘Can I have a souvenir?’ He said, ‘I’ve got my torn jersey.’
With that exchange, I was on his way to becoming the greatest private collector of 49ers memorabilia in San Francisco, with more than 2,500 items. Included are programs and ticket stubs from almost every game the team has played – many bought or scavenged during my uninterrupted 49ers home-game attendance streak from 1952 to 2016.
Along the way, I gained rare game-worn jerseys from Joe Perry, John Henry Johnson, John Brodie, Billy Wilson, R.C. Owens, Gordy Soltau, Dickey Moegle and Bob St. Clair; a 1954 49ers helmet with the lucite plastic face guard; a 1952 sideline 49ers cape and jacket worn by Joe Perry; Kezar Stadium concessionaire, ticket, and media signs; game balls given to McElhenny, Tittle and Brodie; and a complete run of 49ers home and away game programs; and every Topps, Fleer and team issued 49ers football player card My most recent acquisition is the jersey #53 worn by end Alyn Beals, who caught the first ever 49ers touchdown against the Los Angeles Dons in 1946.
I still live in my Sunset District home in my memorabilia-filled office that once was my childhood bedroom. Back then it was painted red and gold, the 49ers original colors. Now the paint is secondary to all the 49ers-related posters and plaques on the wall, including a plaque, winning the VISA International 49ers Fan of the Year in 2000.
My hand wiring can be traced to my mother who collected celebrity autographs and my father who told me, ‘Let your hobby be your job.’ My father always said, ‘Do what you love to do,’ For me it was football.
It all started in 1952 when my father took me to my first 49ers game at Kezar Stadium. I was so bored and begged to go home, until I picked up dad’s binoculars and saw No. 39, McElhenny, dashing up the field – making speedy turns and cutbacks into the end zone for a 49ers touchdown. From then on I was hooked.
Sitting in Kezar’s kid-friendly Christopher Milk section, I learned to gain advantages over other autograph seekers. My uncle was a security guard, in charge of keeping kids off the field in the final moments of the games.
When he saw me in the fourth quarter with a minute left, he would turn his back and I would run on to the 49ers bench. Not like today, back then it was an alternate football universe where I could ask star players for autographs, and on a good day find a piece of game-worn clothing or a discarded playbook, water bottle or bloody towel.
After the games, I combed Kezar, scavenging programs and ticket stubs. And when I was done with that, I’d sit in the stands and soak it in a little longer. I was not like other people. Other fans would leave, until the stadium was near-empty. There would be all those hot dog wrappers around, and the seagulls. And I would just stay.
At my age of 74, I seem to be in a constant state of hustle, always checking eBay and sports auctions for a prized 49ers collectible. I haven’t had 49ers season tickets since 1978, but was able to keep my consecutive game streak going by playing chicken with the scalpers; I never pay more than $50 for a ticket. Although, my streak almost ended at Super Bowl XIX, played at Stanford Stadium, in 1985. I decided to sell a few T-shirts before the game – with an unauthorized image of a 49er catching a Miami Dolphin with a fishing pole. When the cops busted me, I talked my way out of jail.
I said, ‘Take all my stuff. I just want to see the game.’ ” And I did.
I retired from the sports retail business in 1992 but I continue to dabble in the collector’s market, always seeking game-used 49ers gear from the 1940s and 50s. My white whale is the 49ers’ 1946 AAFC press guide and a Y.A. Tittle jersey. The bulk of my cache is double-bolted miles away in storage lockers – two of my five children are locksmiths – but I do bring a few 1950s jerseys out for the media. I call McElhenny a friend now (“To Marty, My #1 fan,” a wall-hanging photo reads), and that McElhenny game-worn 1955 jersey is still my prized possession.
There are probably 30 sewn repairs on that jersey. They used one home and one away jersey for the whole season back in those days. And they didn’t keep them. They were a rag. They threw them away. Game-worn jerseys from players like McElhenny and Perry are worth five figures now – there are only a few outside the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
I will again be cheering for the 49ers this season, but I prefer the earlier era, even though my beloved 49ers of the 1950s fell short of a championship. I miss being able to see the players’ faces through their mask-free helmets. I miss the freedom of walking on the field after games and interacting with the players without incident. And I miss seeing McElhenny run out of the tunnel, overworked and underpaid and still loving the game. Not thinking twice about tossing his sweat- and blood-soaked jersey to a young fan like me.
I love watching the 49ers today, but you can’t compare it to then. It was a different game in those days.
I welcome your comments and I can be reached by email at: [email protected]. I’ve even written a book entitled 49ers Legends- the Golden Age of Pro Football. You can order it directly from me, get it at Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com.
Do you want to tell the story of what you collect and why? From players to teams to complete sets, autographs, game-worn material and anything else that has kept you busy for years, we’d love for you to share your story in your own words and photos. Send us an email: [email protected].