January 05, 2009
There are plenty of crazy hobbies out there on the Internet. Some people collect Smurf figurines. Others make homemade Tron costumes. Certain folks spend too much time putting together homemade trailers for a Thundercats movie.
Then there's Scott Mortimer of Merrimack, N.H., who's on a strange but noble baseball quest. Since 2006, the 37-year-old marketing manager has been trying to get every card in the 1983 Fleer set autographed. As of Dec. 27, he had collected 435 signatures, good for a 64 percent set completion percentage. A tough 36 percent remains.
After learning of Scott's project on Chuckie Hacks, I knew I had to contact the man himself for a very special Big League Stew interview. you can find our email Q&A session below.
You can also follow Scott's progress on his 83F Blog or spend time looking through his entire set at Morthas.com. And if all that doesn't satisfy your old school card mojo? Check out this great review of the set over at Sully Baseball.
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Big League Stew: OK, first off. Why in the world did you pick the 1983 Fleer set? I showed your site to one of my friends and he said, "He picked possibly the ugliest set of all time." I told him that it was probably part of the attraction because everyone loves the first cards they truly collected. My favorite set, for example, is 1986 Topps.
Scott Mortimer: Simply put, I accumulated more '83 Fleer cards than any other set. I began collecting baseball cards in the early 80s. In the mid-80s, I bought a few boxes of 1983 Fleer common cards at local baseball card shows, bought a box or two with my allowance money, and before I knew it I had several thousand. Also back in the 80s, I did some through the mail (TTM) autograph requests and received about a half dozen responses to start me off.
For a project like this it is important to have a handful of each card. I usually send an extra card or two inviting the player to keep one or two for themselves. And sometimes it will take a number of tries before an autograph request will come back.
I completely agree with your buddy — it is a very ugly set. With the possible exception of '81 Donruss, it is perhaps the worst of them all during the 80s. Maybe that's why I was able to accumulate so many ... no one else wanted them.
BLS: Considering there are some players from that set who have died and may never have seen their '83 Fleer card, do you think it's possible to complete the set?
SM: I'm sure it is possible, but will I finish The Project? I don't know for sure. From my count, there are almost 20 players that are deceased — most recently Bobby Murcer of the Yankees and Dave Smith of the Astros. I was fortunate enough to obtain Vern Ruhle (Astros) and Joe Niekro (Astros) through the mail before they passed away. Deceased players from the set include Willie Stargell (Pirates), John Milner (Pirates), Rod Scurry (Pirates), Bo Diaz (Phillies), Tug McGraw (Phillies). Luis Sanchez (Angels), Rafino Linares (Braves), Darrell Porter (Cardinals), Dan Quisenberry (Royals), Steve Howe (Dodgers), Aurelio Rodriguez (White Sox), Rick Mahler (Braves), Eric Show (Padres), Alan Wiggins (Padres), Al Cowens (Mariners), Todd Cruz (Mariners) as well as some managers including Billy Martin (A's).
There are also guys like Damaso Garcia (Blue Jays). He lives in the Dominican Republic and is sick. Last I heard he is unable to speak or write.
BLS: You started this project in 2006 and are already more than two-thirds of the way done. Can you give us a few of the ways you've been so successful in tracking these players down?
SM: When I first started this project, I really didn't know how I would track former players down. I used Internet people-finder sites as well as contacting former big leaguers affiliated with major, minor, and independent league baseball (managers, coaches, front office personnel, scouts, broadcasters...). With a little sleuthing, I was able to track down former players who now have careers beyond baseball. Ken Smith (Braves), for example, works at a car dealership in Tennessee. Don Hood (Royals) works as a park ranger in Florida.
I slowly started to find web sites dedicated to autograph collecting including SportsCollectors.net. Other forum-based sites like The Bench have a section dedicated to autograph collecting. Members share their autograph successes and failures.
BLS: One thing I'm not sure of: Are you trying to obtain every autograph yourself? Or are you also trying to buy them off eBay, etc?
SM: Ideally I would like to obtain every autograph (or as many as possible) on my own. I have purchased a few off eBay — particularly cards of the deceased players. It is much more rewarding to obtain the autographs first hand. I keep my eye on eBay, but I prefer to try and get the signature myself.
BLS: Who was the first card you had signed? Who was the most recent?
SM: First one: Bob Bonner (Orioles). Most recent: Mike Fischlin (Indians).
BLS: Which is your favorite card in the set? Why?
SM: The final card of the 1983 Fleer set is a checklist of the "Super Star Special" Cards. It is a mixture of the "Best Of" players from that season. I figured the best person to autograph that card was the Commissioner of MLB at the time, Bowie Kuhn. He was kind enough to autograph the card and inscribe it with the years he was baseball's commissioner. Mr. Kuhn passed away less than six months later.
BLS: Surely you have a few good detective stories about hunting old players down and finding success. Which ones stand out to you?
SM: Two stand out ... one good and one not good. Tracking down Ken Smith was very rewarding. An individual named "Ken Smith" brings up plenty of search results in Google. It just took patience to scan through many pages of Google to track him down. I found he worked at a car dealership, sent him an e-mail through the dealer's web site, and he was nice enough to respond. I sent him a few extra cards for Mr. Smith to keep.
The not good ... In a similar manner I located Omar Moreno via his philanthropy web site, the now-defunct FundaciónOmarMoreno.com. I emailed the site offering to make a donation to his cause in exchange for an autographed 1983 Fleer baseball card. I received a response from his daughter, Leury, providing me instructions for sending a donation (Western Union only) and the card. I sent the donation and the card in May '07. I sent a few follow-up e-mails to Leury in the following months. Occasionally I'd receive a response telling me the card will get signed, other times I was ignored. I stopped contacting Ms. Moreno in Sept. '08. The disappointing part is not the lost donation. I feel bad that perhaps Omar Moreno is completely unaware of my attempted contact and he had no control over it.
BLS: Have you told any players of your quest? If so, what do they think about it?
SM: Not too often. I've mentioned it to a few players, but the response I got was luke-warm at best.
BLS: You mention a few players have seemed to "simply disappear." Who's your biggest white whale? Has the thought crossed your mind that you might not be able to find everyone?
SM: Well, there's Omar. But perhaps the player I want to track down the most doesn't even have a standard issue card in the 1983 Fleer set. Terry "Bud" Bulling appears on a 1983 Fleer Super Stars Special card with Gaylord Perry (#630). Last I read he doesn't have a permanent address but lives in an RV on the west coast. I've even gone as far as sponsoring his page on baseball-reference.com looking for leads.
Other players that have been nearly non-existent to me: Porfirio Altamirano (Phillies), Luis Aponte (Red Sox), Salome Barojas (White Sox), Ernesto Escarrega (White Sox), Enrique Romo (Pirates), Dick Davis (Pirates), Luis Leal (Blue Jays), John Castino (Twins), Jack O'Connor (Twins), and Al Willians (Twins).
BLS: Final question: You said you're on vacation with your family. What does your family think of the project? Have they become involved? What about your wife? What does she think?
SM: My son, Andrew, is 3 years old and he just knows that Daddy likes baseball cards. My wife is indifferent about the whole thing. She smiles and nods her head when I tell her of the latest return. But I think she appreciates that I collect baseball cards instead of something much, much larger. Someday Andrew may be finishing up The Project.
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Scott tacked on a couple of other thoughts plus an update related to his quest ...
• "Since I sent the answers back to you I've since had an opportunity to get the Terry "Bud" Bulling autograph I've been looking for! I could hardly believe it. Last night an individual contacted me via Baseball Reference saying his mom is Bulling's cousin. He sees Bud a couple times a year and is willing to get the card signed for me. What a surprise it was to read the e-mail!"
• "Sometimes I feel like I am single-handedly keeping the Post Office in business. To send out an autograph request, I always include a self-addressed stamped envelope."
• "There are other autograph collectors similar to me. For example, I'm helping a collector in Iowa who is working on the 1987 Topps set."
• "I will pay for autographs through private signings and baseball card shows. Some players charge for their autograph like Gaylord Perry, Dave Parker, Dave Kingman, Rollie Fingers, Johnny Bench, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Jerry Koosman, Frank Viola, and Bill Buckner. Most of them, like Dave Henderson, Earl Weaver, and Fred Lynn, donate the money they earn to charity."
• "The most unreadable autograph goes to Mark Brouhard. But he was nice enough to add his uniform number!"
• "Inscriptions are a favorite of mine. Lee Lacy put the 1979 World Champions "tag line" on his card, "We are family!" Wade Boggs added his HOF credential without my asking. Similarly, Bob Horner added his Rookie of the Year honors."
• "I usually ask players questions in the letters I write. Sometimes a player responds to questions like the toughest hitter/pitcher they faced, a favorite ballpark, or who is the best hitter/pitcher in today's game."