John Kirwan Jr. had quite the big-time baseball memorabilia collection.
Now he has a book telling how he built it.
He had secured 963 autographed baseballs with 19,397 signatures of hall of famers, home-run champions and World Series winners – including the 1925 Pittsburgh Pirates.
Kirwan, who managed his family-owned Roof Garden Motor Hotel near the Pennsylvania Turnpike exit in Somerset for years, auctioned off his entire collection 20 years ago through Christie’s – currently the world’s largest auction house.
His wife, Phyllis, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the selling price was “in the low six figures.”
Kirwan and his late next-door neighbor, W. Gordon Park, combined to assemble the once-in-a-lifetime collection, which originated from their days growing up in Detroit.
Park had baseballs autographed by legendary teams such as the 1927 New York Yankees, with their “Murderers’ Row” lineup; the Brooklyn Dodgers’ “Boys of Summer” from the 1950s; and the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals’ “Gashouse Gang.” He eventually willed his collection of approximately 600 baseballs to Kirwan.
When Kirwan auctioned off the memorabilia on his 64th birthday, on Oct. 5, 1995, he chose to remain anonymous.
Christie’s honored his wish, referring to him simply as “the Pittsburgh gentleman.”
Through the years, Kirwan, changed his tune. He started jotting down tidbits about his baseball collection and some of the crazy stories behind how he obtained various autographs.
His tales are chronicled in a recently-released a book called “The Pittsburgh Gentleman: ‘There’ll Never Be Another One Like It.’ ”
One of the stories in the 354-page paperback book is priceless.
Kirwan, now 83 and residing in a senior living community in McKees Rocks, used to have a few autographed baseballs on display at the hotel in Somerset for guests to see. Unknowingly, one of his visitors just happened to be former Pirates Hall of Fame slugger Ralph Kiner.
“One year, when his playing career was over and he was doing the play-by-play for the New York Mets, Ralph Kiner and his wife stopped at our motel one night late in the baseball season while on their way from New York to Pittsburgh,” Kirwan wrote.
“I was unaware that they were our guests, as I had already retired and missed their arrival, but our night room clerk, Joe Marshall, did not.
“By the time I came down in the morning they had already checked out, and Joe greeted me with ‘Guess who was here last night?’ As if I would have any inkling. The night clerks knew where I kept my unsigned baseballs, but Joe didn’t ask him to sign one due to the late hour and how tired the Kiners appeared to him.
“When I found out who it was, I was upset at having missed the Kiners. After all, a chance to get his autograph didn’t present itself that often.”
However, a maid cleaning Kiner’s room later that morning found a pair of women’s undergarments in the room.
Kirwan verified the name and address on the room’s registration and sent the items to Kiner. Along with the package, he sent a request for Kiner’s autograph on a baseball, which the ex-player honored.
“Years later,” Kirwan wrote, “I would see Ralph Kiner in an elevator at the Pittsburgh Hilton in my capacity at the time as director of housekeeping, and I reminded him of the incident. He remembered and even stopped me in mid-sentence, saying, ‘So you’re the guy!’
“I’ve had more fun telling of this instance in my speeches about baseball.”
C.W. Marchmann, a friend of former Cincinnati Reds hall-of-fame pitcher Eppa Rixey, stayed at Kirwan’s Somerset hotel in 1961. The conversation between Kirwan and Marchmann led to – you guessed it – another autograph.
“A guest of our motel had stopped by several months earlier and had accepted one of my baseballs to take back to Cincinnati with the intention of getting Eppa Rixey to autograph it for me,” Kirwan wrote.
“Mr. Marchmann said not to worry, that he knew Eppa Rixey very well, both as a friend and as an insurance agent back home in Cincinnati. He offered to take another of my baseballs, if I would give him one, and pass it on to Eppa Rixey for his signature when he returned home.
“In early July, I received Eppa Rixey’s autographed baseball in the mail along with a nice letter from Mr. Marchmann.”
Kirwan was profiled in a 1969 article in The Tribune-Democrat.
He also had autographed baseballs from the likes of legends Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Henry Aaron, Lou Gehrig, Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial, among others.
“The Pittsburgh Gentleman” truly deserves a tip of the cap.
He had a once-in-a-lifetime collection from a golden era of baseball.