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Autograph collection includes priceless memories

Posted: March 30, 2018

by Erica Peterson

If the long winter starts making baseball fan Victor Leo fear that Opening Day will never arrive, he needs only to visit his basement to get his sports fix.

The home he owns with his wife, Ann, has a “man cave,” as he describes it, that houses around 100 pieces of his impressive memorabilia collection. Walls and display cases are filled with autographed photos and baseballs that Leo collected with his sons over the years.

He has another 100 pieces or so in storage.

“To a real collector, the collection is not that impressive,” said Victor, 63. He said the pieces are not valuable per se, as there are no certificates of authenticity to accompany the signatures.

But the autographs are all priceless to Victor because of the experiences attached to them. “I was there and saw them sign it. The real value is in the memories,” he said. “This was something my sons and I shared as they were growing up.”

Baseball was also something Victor shared with his father while he was growing up in Middleburg Heights. “I remember going down to the stadium for double-header Sundays and seeing Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford play,” he said. “It was two games for the price of one. My father loved that.”

Victor’s family summered in a home on Kelleys Island. His father knew that Cleveland Indians players often brought their families to Cleveland in the summer. So, he called the Indians organization and offered to rent the Leo home to a player.

That player ended up being shortstop Woodie Held, who rented their house for several years in the 1960s.

Held also gave Victor his first autographed baseball, signed by the team. He still has it, but the names are faded almost beyond recognition, as 10-year-old Victor didn’t care for it the way grown-up Victor would have. “It rattled around in a drawer for years,” he laughed.

The first piece in his collection gathered with his sons is a photo of Baltimore Oriole Brooks Robinson, signed in the early 1980s. “He was said to be the best third baseman that ever played the game,” Victor said.

Victor read about Robinson coming to Stow High School. Leo’s oldest son Jim was about 10 and enjoyed watching baseball with his father, so they decided to meet Robinson.

“He was the nicest guy in the world,” Victor said. “After we got his autograph, he came out from behind the table, shook our hand and thanked us for coming out to see him. When Jim and I were driving home and talking about it, we said, ‘That was really neat!’”

They were hooked.

Victor and Jim started going to sports shows around the country, especially Baltimore and Atlantic City. Victor started taking trips with his youngest son, Mike, when Mike got old enough.

Victor said his sons still tell stories about their autograph trips, like when Jim met Pete Rose in the mid-1990s.

“Jim was wearing a Cleveland Indians hat,” Victor recalled. “Rose looked at him and said, ‘Son, that’s a pretty good team you have there, but it’s not as good as the Big Red Machine was,’” referring to the 1970s Cincinnati Reds. “That was a piece of baseball history talking to us.”

The collection is not all baseball stars. Victor’s favorite items are the autographed photos of Muhammad Ali. “Ali was a wonderful guy,” he said.

On his wall, along with the iconic shot of Ali standing over Joe Fraizer, is a photo of Victor and Ali playfully sparring.

He and Jim went to a signing event in Los Angeles. Ali was nothing but kind and polite as he signed their photos, Victor said. “Then I said, ‘Hey, champ, could I get a photo next to you?’” he said. “He said that was fine and took a photo with me and him and then with Jim and him.

“After we thanked him and were walking away, he called me back over. He put his hands up and told me to do the same, and we got that shot.”

A few years later, Victor and Mike went to another signing event. By then, Ali had visible symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, Victor said.

“I asked the champ if we could get a photo of him with Mike, and his handler told us no, he wasn’t doing any photos,” he said. “Ali waved him away and called Mike over.”

Ali stood behind Mike and hugged him, so that he could hold his shaking hand still with his other hand for the photo.

“He suffered so much adversity in his life and took a lot of grief, and yet he was a phenomenal guy,” Victor said.

Victor isn’t collecting autographs any more. When his sons lost interest in going to events, so did he.

“It wasn’t as much about the autographs as it was about the shared experience with the boys,” he said.

Now, he looks at his collection with nostalgia. “We had a lot of fun,” he said.

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