Friday, January 4, 2019

Be True To Your School

I don't mean to sound braggadocios, but I have had some pretty good luck when it comes to autograph hunting at my local thrift stores and other secondhand shopping locations.

Over the past few years, I've happened upon a signed, game-used jersey from a former World Series Champion, an inked hat from a hurler who manned the mound for both of Chicago's MLB clubs, and a postcard with the John Hancock of a beloved Chicago Blackhawks legend.  That's not even counting the baseball autographed by one of the greatest ballplayers to ever swing a bat that was unknowingly gifted to me by my sister-in-law from her nearby thrifter.  All in all, I've found some fascinating baseball ephemera that had been ingloriously and carelessly discarded like a stack of beer-stained t-shirts.

What's my secret?  I simply visit my local Goodwill, Savers, Unique, etc. locations more often than my wife would care to admit.  The turnover rate in those stores is high enough that each aisle is almost completely different from week to week.  I scour the toy shelves, hat bin, athletic wear rack, and picture frame props with an eagle eye, looking for anything that might have the hint of ink on it.  It's surprising to me how often this trait is undiscovered or ignored by store staff.

One other section of these retailers that I always make sure to check is the sporting goods - this has been a surprisingly steady source of fascinating memorabilia.  Employees see a football or a bat and pay no further attention, commonly missing a key, display-case worthy attribute.  A few days ago, at a suburban Goodwill, I happened upon such an item that clearly held more intrigue than the slightly bent golf clubs and under inflated basketballs that surrounded it:

That appears to be a game-used baseball from the minor Frontier League.  This foul ball that was likely fought over by over-zealous fanatics during a mid-summer night at the old ballpark was now forgotten, secondhand fodder.  It's not all the surprising that one should end up in such a location, as the independent league has two clubs stationed in nearby locales - the Windy City Thunderbolts and Joliet Slammers - and the league is very low on the baseball chain.  I have caught several of these bad boys myself over the years, so I can see someone deciding that this Wilson A1010FL wasn't worth the shelf space.

Priced at 99 cents, I thought, "meh, it's kinda neat, but I really don't need another one, let alone one I didn't grab from the action myself."  Then. I turned it around:

Oh hey - autographs.  Who knows, while the FL is at the near bottom of the pro baseball ranks, maybe one of these guys is a true diamond in the rough?  That roll of the dice is definitely worth a buck!  As I stated in the intro, I've won this lottery before.  So, although the writing is slightly faded and near illegible, I decided to plop down a George Washingon and take the chance.

Thankfully, databases like Baseball Reference exist, or I'd have no idea where to begin the research on this baseball.  Knowing that it's a Frontier League sphere and pieces of each name, I started by scanning the recent rosters of the aforementioned Thunderbolts and Slammers.  "Bobby L" and "Bradley" something or another seemed pretty clear, so I was looking for any roster that happened to have both names included in their ranks.  It took a couple days worth of on again, off again sleuthing - because I have other things to do in life besides hunt down obscure baseball trivia - but, I was able to circle the 2011 Joliet Slammers as persons of interest.

With a Brad Netzel, Bobby Leeper, and a Ben Hewett on the club, I thought it possible that all three of those monikers could be made out in the scribbles.  Thus, I decided to do a quick Google image search to see if I could happen upon known examples of any of their signatures... no dice.  However, I did stumble upon pictures of Joliet's Brad(ley) Netzel wearing jersey number eight... the same number associated with the bottom signature.  I was closing in!

The end to my hunt was near. I was able to track down Ben Hewitt, now the head coach of a local high school's softball program, on Twitter and took a shot, asking him if that was his mark:

While I had his attention, I figured I might as well ask if he recognized the other two - you never know unless you inquire, right?  At this point, all I could do was sit back, kick up my feet and wait to find out if Ben would answer.  Lo and behold, I barely had time to go and make a sandwich before Mr. Hewitt had already responded:

Voila - they mystery has officially been solved!  My riddle ball had been signed by three members of the 2011 Joliet Slammers - Ben Hewett, Bobby Leeper, and Brad Netzel.  Case closed.  Of course, now I have to shift my focus from identifying these men to learning more about their backstories.  What did they (and continue to) accomplish on the diamond?

Spoiler alert - none of the trio made the Major Leagues.  In fact, none of them made it into affiliated ball either.  But, I don't point that out to belittle them, just to illustrate that the significance of this find comes from another source.  I mean, first off, the Slammers are one of my favorite minor league clubs - you might know them from the national promotion they did in partnership with Cards Against Humanity last year, but they hold further significance to me.  After all, the city of Joliet became my adoptive hometown, as I attended college in the city and lived in the area for several additional years.  I've been to many games at Route 66 Stadium (formerly Silver Cross Field) in my life, so any memorabilia from this club is a-okay in my book.

Also of note, the 2011 Joliet Slammers won the Frontier League championship season, in their first year of existence, no less.  Thus, these guys were part of some significant local history.

Route 66 Stadium, as captured by my lens in 2013.

As for the players themselves, Bobby Leeper partook in two seasons of professional baseball.  A 2009 graduate of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Bobby was a starter in the outfield for the Seahawks before making the "leep" into pro ball with the Slammers in 2011.  He sure did make it count, as he was named to the mid-season All Star team, batting .292/.358/.458 across 66 games.  His contract was bought by the ill-fated North American Baseball League's Abilene Prairie Dogs for the 2012 season, but the team collapsed under financial strain before completing their schedule, with the league closing up shop soon after.  Surprisingly, post-Abilene, it appears as though Leeper was not signed by any other team.

Bobby hasn't given up on his dreams though, as it appears he's been plying his skills in the high-level, amateur Connecticut Twilight League for the past couple of campaigns.  In 2018, he took home the circuit's MVP trophy while breaking the league's homerun record with 28 bombs as a member of the Chicago Sam's Orioles.  Although I thought that this might be a local club, they are actually based in in Portland, but are sponsored by a bar called Chicago Sam's, which caused my confusion.  Anyway, congratulations, Bobby!

I love that the league creates virtual baseball cards to announce their postseason award winners.  Maybe I'll print that bad boy up to display with my autographed baseball...

The other two players who graciously wrote their name for an apparently ungrateful fan back in 2011 both have connections that hit even closer to home for me.  As it turns out, both of these ballplayers are alumni of the University of St. Francis in Joliet, aka, the same place from which I earned my college degree.  The tiny, private university, tucked quietly into the Stone City's Cathedral District, has an excellent educational reputation and is highly competitive across most sports in the NAIA, yet is rarely heard of or from outside of Will County.  Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that both of Ben Hewett and Brad Netzel had been Fighting Saints, representing our shared alma mater on a larger stage!

Ben Hewett, the guy who responded to my Twitter inquiry, actually attended USF after his minor league career came to a close.  The catcher played three seasons worth of professional ball - all in the Frontier League with parts of all three coming with the Slammers - ending up with a career .258/.338/.301 slash line before going back to school and retiring to the dugout.  He spent the next several years at good ol' USF as a student and as a graduate assistant coach to the university's baseball program, which also plays their home games in Route 66 Stadium.  Today, Ben continues to share his knowledge of the game on as the varsity softball coach for nearby Plainfield North High School.

Here's a clip of Hewett playing the hero for the Slammers, courtesy of the team's YouTube account.

Finally, last but not least, Brad Netzel had the longest professional tenure of the triad. The shortstop logged time in five different minor league seasons (two spent in J-Town) and was the only one of his signature mates to play for the pennant flag of a league besides the Frontier. That said, those other two circuits - the Continental Baseball League and the Golden Baseball League - were also of the non-affiliated variety. Nevertheless, Netzel put together a few pretty good seasons and was even named the Frontier League Championship Series MVP in 2011, before retiring from the Slammers after the 2012 schedule. He's widely regarded as one of the most consistent batters in club history.

Of even greater interest to me is what Netzel did on the field prior to inking the dotted line on his first contract. As it turns out, he was already a Joliet baseball hero as an All-Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference and an NAIA All-Region VII shortstop for the University of St. Francis Fighting Saints under legendary collegiate baseball coach, Gordie Gillespie.  Brad's 2007 batting average of .412 ranks him in the top ten all-time for the powerful program, which has eight College World Series appearances under it's belt and a national title in 1993.

Brad graduated in 2008, when I was a freshman, meaning we actually walked the halls of USF at the same time. It's a super small campus too, so I almost guarantee that we crossed paths at some point. Had he been around a couple of more years, I would have actually covered him for the school paper, as I eventually became the sports editor and unofficial beat writer for the baseball team. Small world, right?

 Netzel with the Saints in 2006 and celebrating the Slammers' championship in 2011. Images courtesy of USF.

And thus, we've reached the end of my research rabbit hole. What a journey it has been!

All told, while none of the three mystery signatures on my Goodwill baseball were able to ascend all the way to the Major Leagues, all three were legitimate professional players who played for the love of the game, two of which have strong connections to my alma mater, the University of St. Francis in Joliet, IL.  All in all, it made for a entertaining and engaging research topic, plus I learned an awful lot about my fellow alumni's recent history in professional baseball.  

In summation, the purchase wasn't nearly as high profile as my Keith Magnuson postcard or my Bob Howry hat; but, what the item lakes in monetary value, it more than makes up for in sentimental gain.  I'd say that makes for a rather worthwhile purchase.

 In the words of Robocop's Bixby Snyder...


  1. Great value for a buck! Fun post and I love the local connection.
    I made my first trip to J-town's Route 66 Stadium this past summer. It's a nice place!

  2. I must have missed your post about the Maggie auto. It's possible those giveaways from Chicken Unlimited came from right outside your front door. There used to be a Chicken Unlimited right at the corner of 127th and Pulaski (Crawford back then). The place is now a breakfast house I think, but my mom worked there part time way way way WAY back in the day.

  3. Silver Cross was a really fun place to play. I think we only drew about 100 people at most for our game, but I can only imagine a loud, mid-summer night game

  4. This is awesome, and going right to the source on Twitter is a fantastic idea.

  5. Great detective work! That was really cool of Mr. Hewett to respond and verify your signatures.