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Shelly Goorfin’s Incredible Autograph Odyssey Lands at REA

PJ Kinsella in Consignor Stories

Feb 27 — 5 mins read

Shelly Goorfin's collection included hundreds of autographs, some of which were from the game's most legendary players such as Cy Young, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Jimmie Foxx, Jackie Robinson and Mel Ott

Shelly Goorfin's collection included hundreds of autographs, some of which were from the game's most legendary players such as Cy Young, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Jimmie Foxx, Jackie Robinson and Mel Ott

By: Amar Shah

Shelly Goorfin wouldn't be caught dead at the ballpark. That's not where a real collector would get an autograph.

"I grew up in the Bronx," recalls the spry 88-year-old Goorfin. "I was 12 years old in 1947. I lived near Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds—walking distance. I used to walk to the stadiums after school, and the gates were already open." 

Goorfin would enter the ballparks typically during the fifth inning of games. However, since players were bombarded by hundreds of fans at once, the autographs rarely came out well. They were rushed, and Goorfin would leave disappointed.

"It was like scribble."

Despite the chaos of game days, Goorfin found his preferred method of collecting autographs.

"I would go to either Grand Central or Penn Station in New York City," Goorfin says. "When the New York teams went on road trips back then, the furthest west they went was to St. Louis. They didn't fly. They took trains. They took buses to Philadelphia and Boston. So sitting in the waiting room waiting for the train to come, they were nice and comfortable."

Goorfin pounced on the opportunity. The players welcomed Goorfin with open arms as they looked at his scrapbook, filled with their photos.

"They were enthralled by this 12-year-old kid that was so into it. I had made the collection into an art form," Goorfin says.

The same tactical genius was applied to road teams.

"They stayed in two hotels in Manhattan," Goorfin recalls. "American League teams stayed at the Hotel New Yorker, and the National League teams stayed at the Hotel Commodore. I would spend five cents and go up to the subway into Manhattan by myself. I would go to those hotels in the morning and wait for the players to come down and have their breakfast."

Goorfin did have to deal with other issues.

"I would walk into the lobby, and the house detectives, the security guards at the time, would look for the autograph collectors and chase us," Goorfin says. "It was like they made criminals out of us. We had to keep one eye on the player and the other on the house detectives."

When the coast was clear, Goorfin was able to go back to the lobby and approach the players. 

"I never got turned down because they were always sitting comfortably just waiting for the bus."

Goorfin earned their respect. He knew there was a way of doing things.

"They appreciated the way I collected autographs," Goorfin says. "I made a science out of it."

Goorfin embarked on a journey that resulted in a remarkable collection of signatures from legendary baseball players ranging from Honus Wagner to Mel Ott, offering a unique glimpse into the sport's golden era.

Goorfin's love of baseball started early.

"We were a poor family in the Bronx," Goorfin says. "I didn't have a bicycle. We didn't have stuff. I didn't have any of that, so I found something that would make me happy."

Goorfin's collection will be featured in REA's Spring 2024 Catalog Auction that runs April 5-21

Goorfin's collection will be featured in REA's Spring 2024 Catalog Auction that runs April 5-21

Happiness for a young Goorfin came through collecting.

"There were only a couple of real serious collectors like myself," Goorfin says. "You could count them on the fingers of one hand. We all knew each other and we respected each other. I was the encyclopedia. I was the guy that had all that information stored in my head. My phone was always ringing from friends calling me to settle an argument about who was the better player."

One of those players they'd argue about turned out to be a rookie during the 1951 season who was recently called up.

"I was collecting autographs in the parking lot of the Polo Grounds, waiting for the players to roll up in their cars," Goorfin remembers. "I heard the Giants brought up [Willie] Mays, who was tearing up AAA for the Minneapolis Millers. So I went there expressly to see him because he was the only autograph I didn't have."

Goorfin waited. At the far end of the parking lot was this long staircase that led up to the streets of Harlem.

Willie Mays didn't stay in a hotel provided for the players at the time. He stayed in Harlem in someone's apartment. These were the days when he'd play stickball with kids in the street.

"I saw him in the distance, walking down the staircase to get to the Polo Grounds through the parking lot. When he got to the bottom of the staircase, I greeted him, and I was the first autograph he signed as a member of the Giants."

Goorfin's passion extended beyond collecting autographs from active players. He also sought out Hall of Famers who had retired decades earlier.

"When I realized that I had everybody's autograph who was active at the time, I was looking for a new conquest," Goorfin says. "With help from the Sporting News, I tracked down the addresses of all the retired old timers who had already been enshrined in the Hall of Fame. I wrote to them, and back then, they would often respond with a thank you. They were happy that somebody remembered them."

One of those included Ty Cobb. In fact, Goorfin still vividly remembers the city the Georgia Peach settled in.

"Royston, Georgia," Goorfin recalls. "I'm 88 years old, and I remembered where his home was when he retired. If I didn't have his exact address, I would just write Ty Cobb, Royston, and the post office knew where to spend it."

Goorfin collected obsessively, like most kids, until he discovered girls.

"I met my girlfriend, who turned out to be my wife, in high school," Goorfin says. "Once I found out that girls weren't smelly and stinky, I had to split my love affair to 50% baseball and 50% girls."

Goorfin and his wife were married for 68 years.

"She loved the fact that I had this interest."

Goorfin's autograph collection, including his scrapbook signatures of Connie Mack, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Rogers Hornsby, Jackie Robinson, Tris Speaker and numerous other Hall of Famers and All Stars, will be part of REA’s Spring Catalog Auction that opens on April 5. It will also include his 1951 New York Giants and New York Yankees team signed balls that feature signatures from Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.

"I saved everything," Goorfin says. "It was my life. It was so awesome. This is more than a hobby. This was a passion and a way of life of collecting baseball cards, collecting autographs, and going to the games."

Spoken like a true collector.

Amar Shah is a multiple Emmy-winning writer and producer who has written for ESPN.com, NFL.com, The Wall Street Journal, The Orlando Sentinel, Sports Illustrated for Kids, Slam Magazine and The Washington Post. In the 90s, Amar was a teen sports reporter and got to hang out with the Chicago Bulls during their golden era. He even landed on the cover for Sports Illustrated for Kids with Shaquille O’Neal. His debut novel "The Hoop Con" comes out on March 5, 2024 with Scholastic. You can preorder here:  https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-hoop-con-amar-shah/1143287376?ean=9781338840315

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