Jack Zimmerman was a standout basketball player at the University of Dayton during the late 1970s and went on to play professionally, but he has also had an amazing career as an autograph collector.
In July, Sports Collectors Daily spoke with Tim Gallagher, who, along with Zimmerman and Vince Martin, began sending requests for autographs through the mail when they were fifth-graders at Incarnation School in Centerville, Ohio.
Gallagher put some of his autographs up for sale during SCP Auctions’ Summer Premier Auction in August. In a twist of irony, Gallagher now works for SCP Auctions as a consignment acquisitions and private sales representative. He remembered his friend’s vast collection and convinced him to put some of his collection up for sale during SCP’s 2020 Fall Premier Auction, which runs through Dec. 11.
“I encouraged him to uncover his buried treasure,” Gallagher said.
And what treasures. All were obtained by Zimmerman either in person or through the mail during his childhood. Items that will be sold in the Fall Premier Auction include a 1968 Topps signed Willie Mays card, a signed 1970 Topps Roberto Clemente card, a Jackie Robinson autographed magazine photo, an index card autographed by Robinson, a magazine photo and a 1971 Topps basketball card signed by Pete Maravich, a 1972 Topps Julius Erving autographed card on front and back, and 1968 O-Pee-Chee autographed cards of NHL legends Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe.
Zimmerman, 62, who now lives in France, said he never viewed his collection in financial terms.
“I have never purchased an autograph or any kind of memorabilia,” Zimmerman said from his Paris home. “It is all self-built.
“I have been mostly oblivious to the world of monetizing memorabilia like this. In other words, I broadly knew it took place, but I had never explored it — nor was it a compelling reason for me to collect.”
A Basketball Life
Zimmerman’s pedigree in sports is just as impressive as his collection. Playing at Dayton from 1976 to 1980, the 6-foot-3 guard scored 1,482 points for the Flyers. As a senior he averaged 17.2 points per game. He also was a teammate of future NBA star Jim Paxson for three seasons and would be inducted to the University of Dayton Sports Hall of Fame in 2002.
“I am not a great athlete,” Zimmerman told The Dayton Journal Herald in a Feb. 29, 1980, article. “I can’t jump and I can’t run real fast. I am a good player with good abilities. I practice every single day. You don’t have to be an amazing athlete.”
One of his fondest memories, though, was a half-court heave that saw nothing but net to end the first half against Syracuse in a 1977 game.
Zimmerman’s father, Jack Zimmerman Sr., excelled in baseball, basketball and golf while attending Chaminade-Julienne High School in Dayton during the mid-1940s. He was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2008. Like his son, the elder Zimmerman played basketball at the University of Dayton (1946-1950). An excellent golfer, Zimmerman Sr. won the Ohio state public links title twice. In 1956, he placed second in qualifying heading into match play at the Ohio Amateur, finishing behind a 16-year-old golfer The Dayton Daily News referred to as “Jackie” Nicklaus.
Zimmerman’s grandfather, George E. “Babe” Zimmerman, was “one of the greatest basketball players ever seen around Dayton,” according to The Dayton Journal Herald in a Aug. 15, 1949, article. He also excelled at football.
Babe Zimmerman attended Dayton when it was known as St. Mary’s Institute. He was part of a basketball team in 1908 that called themselves the St. Mary’s Cadets and won 35 straight games — including one by a 139-0 margin (you read that correctly). The Cadets then played out-of-town teams beginning in 1910 and went 162-11 over five years.
“Our family was big in sports,” Zimmerman said. “It was part of our fabric and we were all competitive.
“The ‘click’ moment on deciding to pursue autographs is a blurred memory but I was certainly exposed to the idea, and inspired, by Tim,” he added. “I dove into it because was a cool hobby aligned with where I derived my excitement.
“At that age, you just get taken with the wave, it was not like I debated the idea. It just felt good to be part of the fun.”
Gallagher, 62, whose Twitter account includes “Today’s Treasures” to showcase his vast collection, said he was stunned by the amount of signatures Zimmerman had amassed.
“Even by my standards I was blown away,” Gallagher said. “His collection of football, basketball and baseball surprised even me. I did not recall how active he was getting things signed.”
Zimmerman said his father would take him to Cincinnati Reds games at Riverfront Stadium and would be patient enough to either go early to the opposing team’s hotel or stay late there after the game, hoping to snag a signature or two.
That is how Zimmerman got Clemente and Mays to sign in person. He added that Clemente was gracious and recalled a “certain aura” about Mays.
“(I remember) being conscious about approaching him and being super excited to sign him,” Zimmerman said. “He was respectful and matter-of-fact.”
It was a wonderful time for Zimmerman and his friends. They had sent out hundreds of requests for autographs and awaited the mailman daily with a mixture of excitement and anticipation. Zimmerman, Gallagher and Martin were featured in a Feb. 5, 1974, feature in The Dayton Journal Herald.
“We had so much fun together collecting autographs,” Zimmerman said. “That’s my biggest memory, the pure joy of jumping off the school bus and running to the mailbox to see what envelopes we had received that day with new autographs and pictures.
“The anticipation, the surprise, and sometimes the disappointment of an empty mailbox.
“We could not wait to recount, either by phone or running to each other’s homes, who sent us an autograph that day,” Zimmerman added. “It is crazy cool — and was wishfully hopeful at that age — to truly have faith that a specific player was waiting for our specific letter of praise and for our items to sign and return promptly.
“There was an innocence to what we were doing, and these players that responded simply made us happy that day and kept the dream alive for each day after.”
Zimmerman and Gallagher tracked down Julius Erving long before he became an icon. “We had success through the mail early on,” Gallagher recalled. “Plus in the ’73-74 season the ABA Kentucky Colonels played some of their regular-season games in Cincinnati and we saw the Nets with Doc there. He was super nice after the game and signed everything we had–in period ballpoint, of course. Gallagher even landed Erving on a signed index card when he was a college star at Massachusetts — likely one of the earliest surviving examples. The signature reads “Julius W. Erving U of Mass.
Through his mail requests, Zimmerman also began exchanging letters with American University star Kermit Washington.
“I liked his name, the name of his university, and I liked what I read about him (in Street & Smith’s Basketball Yearbooks),” Zimmerman said. “So, I did write him, and he responded with an autograph and a very nice letter. I still have two letters from him.”
Zimmerman also got to meet Washington when the player came to the University of Dayton to play in an all-star game in 1972.
When Zimmerman became a player, he was on the receiving end of autograph requests from kids.
“They are my favorites, the kids that ask for autographs and send letters,” Zimmerman told The Dayton Journal Herald in February 1980. “They’re the ones that have made this season worthwhile. You look at these and you learn that there a lot of things besides basketball and winning and losing.”
Called for Traveling
Since graduating from Dayton, Zimmerman has been kind of a globetrotter — a piece of irony, since he played one year with the Washington Generals, the traveling team that generally lost to the Harlem Globetrotters. He has lived in Atlanta, Boston, Tel Aviv (twice, where he met his wife, Ronit) and now Paris.
Zimmerman’s collection has shifted along with him, but space is becoming limited as each place he has lived in “has become smaller.”
“Paris space is a premium,” he said.
In Israel, Zimmerman played professionally for the Maccabi Tel Aviv Basketball Club.
Zimmerman, coaxed by Gallagher, decided to pull his collection together and decide what to sell.
“The overall driver (for me) was to put these items back in circulation and with people who will appreciate them more than I could today,” Zimmerman said. “I had my moments, and it is time for another generation, or a different set of people, to enjoy as they wish.
“Certainly, generating some additional income is also appealing,” he added. “The fact is my collection has been dormant for 40 years.
“Let’s give it some light.”