The summer of 1941 was a magical time for the New York Yankees, who returned to the top of the American League in part because of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.
And Grace Enlow, a music teacher in Detroit but a diehard Yankees fan, struck a chord with manager Joe McCarthy because of a quilt she made to honor the Bronx Bombers. Signed by every member of the squad — plus the Yankees manager — the linen quilt will be offered by Goldin Auctions Dec. 6-30.
Enlow, who taught music to hundreds of students in the Detroit area for more than 84 years, celebrated her 108th birthday on Oct. 12, according to her granddaughter, Kenya Maxey. (Update: Enlow died on Nov. 27, according to Maxey).
Enlow’s musical journey is a story in itself and is worth telling, but her quilt was a labor of love.
It features red figures of baseball players batting, plus 27 embroidered baseballs with the name of every Yankees player on the 1941 roster beneath them. Each member of the Yankees signed above their names on the sweet spot of the “baseball.” The quilt is framed with a red border.
The material for the baseballs was like “a lining that would be put into clothing,” said Maxey, 50, the coordinator of student basic needs at Wayne State University in Detroit. “So you could write on it pretty well with something like a ballpoint or a fine pen.”
And that’s what the players did, signing in their designated spots. That includes seven Hall of Famers, including McCarthy, DiMaggio, Joe Gordon, Bill Dickey, Phil Rizzuto, Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing.
A spot was also reserved for an eighth member of the Hall — Lou Gehrig — but that went unsigned because he was not on the roster and had died in June 1941.
Maxey brought the quilt to C’s Cards and Collectibles in Grosse Pointe, where shop volunteer Gary Buslepp watched her unwrap the quilt from a plastic bag and unfold it.
“I looked at it and had to sit down,” said Buslepp, 71, who was a volunteer at the card shop. “I got goosebumps.
“The signatures were so well-preserved. They held up so well.”
Enlow was 26 when she brought the quilt to Briggs Stadium in Detroit on July 31, 1941.
Unable to afford tickets to attend the Thursday doubleheader, Enlow waited outside the Yankees’ clubhouse in hopes of catching McCarthy. New York had just finished sweeping the Tigers in a doubleheader, winning the opener 6-3 in 13 innings on Charlie Keller’s three-run homer and taking the nightcap 5-0 in a game shortened to eight innings due to darkness.
“They were probably in a pretty good mood,” Maxey said.
When McCarthy came out, Enlow stepped forward.
“She told McCarthy she was a huge Yankees fan and he signed the quilt,” Buslepp said. “Then he said, ‘Wait here,’ and he took it back into the locker room.
“He came back out and they were all signed. He asked why she had Gehrig’s name on the quilt, and (Enlow) said that she had started it before he died.”
Gomez once said in a 1980 interview that the stoic McCarthy had the personality of “a dead fish.” But Marse Joe apparently had a soft spot for this quiet, yet assertive fan.
“He was probably impressed,” Maxey said. “She told him she couldn’t afford a ticket so it tugged on his heartstrings.”
Buslepp was also impressed and quickly advised Maxey to have the quilt authenticated. He recommended James Spence Authentication (JSA) and it was sent to the company in September 2022.
“It took five weeks before she got a notarized letter,” Buslepp said. “And all of the signatures were legitimate.”
Buslepp said he is still amazed that the quilt got signed.
“The opportunity to get all of the players to sign is remarkable,” he said. “I can guarantee that there is only one quilt like this.
“That’s a steak and I’ve been collecting hamburgers.”
Maxey said she had seen the quilt as a child.
“I grew up with the quilt but I was too young to ask the right questions,” Maxey said. “She gave me directions to sell it two years ago.”
While Enlow crocheted during her lifetime, making the quilt was a one-time adventure.
“‘That was really hard,’ she would tell me,” Maxey said.
“I spoke with a quilt expert — not a sports authenticator — who said they were amazed with the way the quilt was put together,” Buslepp said.
The quilt has certainly stood the test of time.
Enlow did, too. She was born Oct. 12, 1915, in Janesville, Wisconsin, the granddaughter of Higgins Enlow, a slave from South Carolina. Higgins Enlow’s namesake, who ran the South Carolina farm where he was a slave, fought in the Civil War and died in the battle of Chancellorsville in 1863.
Grace Enlow’s father, John Henry Enlow, was a career janitor, including at the Ford Motor Company. He died at the age of 105 on Oct. 20, 1991.
“It’s just good genes,” Maxey said. “Just doing the right things.
“My grandmother wanted to beat him in age. He had a beer and a cigarette every day of his life.”
Grace Enlow’s mother, Grace Walker Enlow, attended Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, and was a teacher before she met her husband.
Music was also in Grace Enlow’s genes. John Enlow was also a musician, playing the trombone and the cello. When he lost his middle finger to blood poisoning, he switched to playing the string bass.
According to a 2004 story in the Detroit Free Press, John Enlow became angry when he was refused housing in Wisconsin because he was Black. He made a list of four cities – Boston, Cleveland, Detroit and New York — and told his son to pick one.
The boy chose Detroit.
Grace Enlow and her six siblings all played an instrument. Grace took up singing when she was 5, and later played violin with her older sisters, Helen and Elizabeth, forming the Enlow Sisters Trio.
In 1931 her father urged Grace to play the harp at school, but she kept getting her name scratched off the list. She later discovered that the school prohibited Blacks from playing the instrument. When she got older, Grace bought herself a harp.
Grace was a member of the Cass Symphony Orchestra in 1933 and 1934, and the All City Symphony in 1932, 1933 and 1934. In 1939 she was a member of the Beethoven Happy Hour club along with sisters Elizabeth, Helen, Ruth and Virginia, according to the Michigan Chronicle.
She graduated from the Detroit Institute of Musical Art in 1944.
Grace gave her first music lesson when she was 16 while attending Cass Technical High School in Detroit.
She was teaching Maxey’s youngest son on the piano when she was 103.
“She was a little bit hard of hearing, but she sure could hear when you hit those wrong notes,” Maxey said.
Some of Grace’s students included the children of Charles H. Wright, a Detroit obstetrician who created a museum for Black history and culture.
And when John Enlow turned 100 in 1986, the Enlow Sisters Trio reunited to play for their father.
Grace never married but had a daughter, Helen, with Silas Maxey. Helen is Kenya’s mother.
Kenya Maxey said she never knew who her grandmother’s favorite baseball players were when she made the quilt, but guessed that they were probably DiMaggio and Gordon because of their positioning on the linen.
“From my point of view, who wouldn’t” consider DiMaggio as a favorite, Maxey said.
Maxey said her grandmother followed baseball until she passed away. One of her favorites over the past few decades was Alex Rodriguez.
“She said she was going to use some magic to set me up with him because she was too old,” Maxey laughed.
When Enlow graduated from Cass Technical School in 1934, the notation next to her yearbook photograph noted that “the song is ended, but the melody lingers on.”
That is certainly true with the quilt, which should fetch a nice price at the Goldin Auctions sale.
“That’s the hope,” Maxey said. “My grandmother always told me, when I asked why she didn’t take the quilt out and display it, that ‘You’ll see when you get older.’”
Grace was right. Her legacy as a music teacher is testimony to that.
“I ask her how she’s doing,” Buslepp said in early November. “And she says the only thing wrong is that she is 108.”
“She didn’t work a corporate job,” Maxey said. “She worked really hard and she was proud of that. She made the quilt out of sheer enjoyment.
“Her mother always told her she’d be rich. And now she knows she meant that it was living a long life.”