A Pittsburgh man’s collection of autographed baseballs, sold at auction 20 years ago, is the subject of a new book. John Kirwan Jr., now 83, inherited some and chased down others, eventually snaring 963 autographed baseballs with 19,397 signatures of Hall of Famers, World Series winners and home run champions
“The Pittsburgh Gentleman: There’ll Never Be Another One Like It’” is the story of Kirwan and his late next-door neighbor’s passion for baseball and their hobby. The collection dated back to team-signed balls from the 1925 Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Senators and extended into the 1970s. Park landed autographed balls from legendary teams such as the 1927 Murderer’s Row New York Yankees, the Brooklyn Dodgers Boys of Summer, and the St. Louis Cardinals Gashouse Gang. He eventually willed his collection of approximately 600 baseballs to Kirwan, who had shown an enthusiastic interest in the endeavor with his neighbor and carried on the tradition after Park’s death, adding more than 300 signed balls.
In the late 1960s, Kirwan was managing a Pennsylvania hotel when former Pirate Ralph Kiner and his wife passed through. Kirwan wasn’t on duty that day but when a cleaning woman found a pair of women’s underwear in the room, Kirwan grabbed Kiner’s address off the register and mailed them back—along with a baseball on which he requested the former slugger’s autograph. Kirwan recently told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he met Kiner years later and confessed to being the ‘one who sent him the underwear and autograph request’. Kiner laughed and said he’d been telling the story for years at banquets.
Kirwan displayed a small portion of his baseballs at the hotel. Guests admired the collection, and Kirwan occasionally established connections that enabled him to correspond with ballplayers in order to build up the collection.
While attending a sports memorabilia show at Robert Morris University, he met Christie’s sports specialist Donald Flanagan. Kirwan eventually decided to put up his entire collection for auction. Kirwan and his family never took long vacations because of his fears of theft or fire. When the collection was hauled away by auction representatives, Kirwan said he felt a sense of relief.
Kirwan auctioned off his entire collection through Christie’s on his 64th birthday on October 5, 1995. While the autograph authentication business had yet to boom and accepting authenticity of the balls that had been acquired via mail requests was dicey business, the collection created a buzz among sports memorabilia collectors prior to and during the auction in New York City.
At the time, Christie’s honored Kirwan’s request to remain anonymous and simply referred to him as “the Pittsburgh gentleman.” Christie’s said of his collection, “There’ll never be another one like it.” The baseballs sold for a price “in the low six figures” according to Kirwan’s wife Phyllis.
Kirwan was later asked by a relative how many people knew the behind the scenes stories of how he and his neighbor had obtained autographs from the likes of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Henry Aaron, Lou Gehrig, Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial and hundreds of other Hall of Famers and notable players.
That question eventually led to the book published by Dorrance Publishing Co. of Pittsburgh nearly 20 years after the auction.
Nearly 20 years later, Kirwan is at home at The Residence at Willow Lane, a senior living community in McKees Rocks, PA. His book has brought stories of baseball’s golden era to Willow Lane, where he now is known as the community’s author.
“The Pittsburgh Gentleman: There’ll Never Be Another One Like It” is a 354-page paperback that’s also available for Kindle readers. Click here to order.