It’s a sign of the times. Some people are proud of their collections of baseballs autographed by MLB stars.
Randy Kaplan has taken autographs to the next level. The 55-year-old New Yorker has amassed a collection of baseballs signed by world leaders. That includes one signed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The baseball is part of RR Auction’s World Leaders and Politicians Auction, for May which ends May 11 with proceeds targeted to help the embattled nation.
Obviously, Zelenskyy has not had time to do a lot of signing lately, since his country is in a life-and-death struggle after it was invaded on Feb. 24. But Kaplan was able to procure Zelenskyy’s autograph in September 2019, when Volodymyr Yelchenko, Ukraine’s permanent representative to the United Nations, got an autograph of Ukraine’s newly elected president on an official MLB baseball.
The Zelenskyy baseball is one of nearly 500 by world leaders that comprise Kaplan’s one-of-a-kind collection, a haul that includes 10 U.S. presidents, Nelson Mandela, Pope Francis, Margaret Thatcher, Shimon Peres, Mikhail Gorbachev and the Dalai Lama. Kaplan’s collection has been featured at five presidential libraries.
“I equate the collection as diplomacy through baseball,” Kaplan said via cellphone from Phoenix, where he was on vacation from his home in Merrick, Long Island. “Everything I’ve set out to do with this collection, I’ve accomplished.”
To prove his point, Kaplan has his own website, which includes some of the stories behind his more notable signings.
Kaplan does not buy his autographed baseballs. He got Henry Kissinger’s autograph on a baseball when he sat next to him on a flight. While he has not always been present when getting an autograph from a world leader, Kaplan said he always goes through that country’s ambassador or the leader’s chief of staff to procure a legitimate signature. That is how Kaplan was able to get a signed ball with Zelenskyy’s signature on it.
“The next thing I know there’s this horrendous war going on,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan said he planned to donate a portion of the proceeds from the Zelenskyy baseball toward a Ukrainian support effort. RR Auction will contribute the money from the proceeds from the buyer’s premium and the seller’s commission to the same organization, Kaplan said.
A governmental affairs specialist in New York, Kaplan has been collecting signed baseballs of heads of state since 1996, when then-President Bill Clinton signed one after making a speech in Washington, D.C. His exploits have been documented by HBO, Grantland.com, PBS, Newsday, The Associated Press and Sports Collectors Daily.
His collection has been exhibited numerous times across the country.
To be clear, Kaplan is always prepared. He always brings a bag of baseballs with him in case he runs into a dignitary.
In a 2016 interview with the AP, Kaplan said that getting an autograph of Russian President Vladimir Putin was the “toughest signature on the planet.”
But Kaplan said he received one “about three or four years ago,” along with a “beautiful, signed letter” from the Russian embassy. He did sell the ball, though, deciding he did not want something in his collection associated with the Russian president.
Plus, Putin signed the ball with “a thick Russian marker,” which made part of the signature difficult to read. Still, Kaplan said he was able to sell the ball for $1,400.
“No one can sell that autograph now,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan said he has met former President Donald Trump “a ton of times,” and got autographs from President Joe Biden “four or five times” when he was vice president and a senator from Delaware. He has met Hillary Clinton 25 times over 30 years.
Collecting is in Kaplan’s blood. As a kid growing up on Long Island, he bought Topps baseball cards and Wacky Packages.
“I collected everything as a kid,” Kaplan said.
As a youth, Kaplan was waiting outside Shea Stadium — “I grew up a huge Mets fan” — before an Old Timers Game when a Rolls-Royce pulled up.
“It was Willie Mays,” Kaplan said. “He said, ‘Kid, take my bag and I’ll sign your ball,’” Kaplan said.
Say hey, Kaplan was hooked.
As he got older, Kaplan veered away from sports and concentrated on entertainment.
“I got into rock ’n’ roll,” Kaplan said.
His favorite entertainment baseball autograph was from Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards.
The Stones were in New York for an HBO special, and Kaplan caught Richards as he left the band’s hotel near Madison Square Garden.
Trying to chase down autographs of national leaders takes perseverance and a lot of luck. Kaplan has not always been successful.
He believed he was about to get an autograph from Prince Charles in 2007 but was rebuffed by security guards.
“I tried so hard when he came to a school in Harlem,” Kaplan said. “He was 25 or 30 feet away and he smiled at me when I held up the ball, but he was pulled away by the Secret Service detail.”
Kaplan was able to obtain Mandela’s autograph in 2005 through the efforts of U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), who got the autograph during a Congressional Black Caucus meeting in Washington. Kaplan originally asked Meeks in 1999 if he could get Mandela to sign, but nothing came of it.
“I didn’t hear anything for two years, and then Meeks’ chief of staff told me to visit (the congressman) and play dumb.
‘The Congressman wants you to come to the office and say hello,” Kaplan said. “When I get there, (Meeks) goes into his pocket and pulls out a signed ball from Mandela.
“I almost fell over.”
Kaplan laughed when Meeks, mimicking Mandela, told him what the former president of South Africa said after signing the ball.
“I’d better not see this on eBay,” Mandela reportedly said.
Kaplan got Gorbachev to sign a ball in October 1996 while the former Soviet leader was in New York promoting his book.
Gorbachev was surrounded by guards, who rushed to grab the ball out of Kaplan’s hand, but the Soviet leader pushed them aside.
“He smiles, takes the ball, sits down and signs it,” Kaplan said. “That was amazing.”
Kaplan thought he had all the bases covered when he began collecting the signatures of 20 cardinals as Pope Benedict XVI got older. Kaplan was never able to get Benedict’s autograph, though — “the pope is one of the toughest signatures on the planet to acquire,” Kaplan said.
But when Benedict resigned as pope in 2013, the College of Cardinals threw Kaplan a curve — they chose one of the cardinals whose name was not on one of the baseballs. That was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who was elected as Pope Francis.
Kaplan was helped by a “top Vatican cardinal” in 2015 and received a package that contained a photo of Francis, an autographed baseball, the pen that Kaplan sent in hopes of getting a signature and two sets of rosary beads.
“My heart almost stopped,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan said he is now focusing on the “top, top, top people” to sign baseballs. He is selective, however. He does not want a ball signed by North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un and concedes that a ball signed by Chinese President Xi Jinping “is gonna be hard to get.”
While he has autographs of the first ladies of the U.S., including Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton,Michelle Obama and Melania Trump.
Kaplan has compiled an impressive array of autographs, and he loves what he does.
“It’s fun, it’s the chase,” Kaplan said. “I’ve got friends all over who help me.
“It’s really a passion.”
The Zelenskyy baseball has already attracted 10 bidders and has topped $2,500 with three weeks remaining.