At age nine, Carlsbad resident Tim Gallagher found his life’s purpose. The exact date is long forgotten, but what Gallagher does remember is it happened sometime in 1967 at a Cincinnati Reds game with his father.
Arriving at Crosley Field earlier than usual, the bleachers had yet to fill. As the Gallaghers roamed the stands, something incredible happened: they got close enough to a Red to practically taste the chewing tobacco.
It wasn’t 19-year-old budding star catcher Johnny Bench or future hit king Pete Rose who changed the trajectory of Gallagher’s life. No, it was aging journeyman pitcher Ted Abernathy, known for his submarine delivery.
“We were down by the dugout and there was Ted Abernathy just kind of standing there, talking to someone from the press,” Gallagher said. “My dad had gotten a game program and said, ‘You should go down and have Ted Abernathy sign your program.’ That’s the first autograph I remember getting.”
Abernathy’s signature captured Gallagher’s imagination and in the 55 years since, still hasn’t let go of it.
“The magic of the encounter and the adrenaline rush; it was an immediate obsession,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher, now 65 and living in Carlsbad, has amassed a collection of autographs over the course of his life that at its peak was in the ballpark of 25,000 signatures, ranging from pro athletes on the fringe of their sport to the biggest names to ever pick up a ball.
“[It feels like] I just spent a moment with [Hall of Fame pitcher] Tom Seaver, that’s like meeting the President or better, and he was nice, and he signed my stuff,” Gallagher said. “Then also getting mail. Heck, even getting a letter from a friend is nice. Imagine opening the mail, and there is a signed card from Bob Love or Joe Torre or Johnny Unitas.”
His parents remained supportive, albeit for a time, and thought it was a passing phase.
“They thought I’d move on to comic books or skateboarding,” Gallagher said. “As my parents supply of envelopes and stamps and index cards disappeared, they realized this was a serious pursuit.”
Every signature has a story.
Like that time, he went after legendary college basketball coach and television broadcaster Al McGuire’s signature.
“He was an eccentric character,” Gallagher said. “At the 1995 Final Four, Al was a guest on a radio show, and we went to see him. As we are leaving, Al’s personal assistant, an eccentric lady, comes up to us and says, ‘You boys are so prepared you must be really big fans of Al’s, I have something special for you guys.’ She comes back out with a couple of signed toy Oscar Meyer wiener mobiles. We are heading out the door, and she comes up to us and says, ‘I’m so sorry, but I just learned Al promised those to someone else.’ We handed them back, and in return she gave us some signed 7Up red dots with legs.”
Or the time Herm Gilliam, an NBA guard from the 1970s, sent him a letter on U.S. Army letterhead.
“(Gilliam) was in the army – in those days, players might have to leave the team for a bit to fulfill some military service,” Gallagher said. “In the letter he wrote me, he was at bootcamp, going through basic training and was looking forward to getting back with his team. Stuff like that is a moment in time.”
According to Gallagher, the perfect signature is rare, but Johnny Bench came close.
“Every once in a while, the ink would flow just right, and the guy would sign on the sweet spot,” Gallagher said. “[It was a] 1971 Topps Johnny Bench [card], the ballpoint pen just took perfectly, and it was signed in the players’ parking lot under Riverfront Stadium. In the pre-Sharpie days, it was really hit-and-miss what kind of signature you would get.”
Not everyone was receptive to Gallagher, though. Gallagher singled out Oscar Robertson, Alonzo Mourning, Patrick Ewing, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
“I’ve been shrugged off, cursed out and snarled at,” he said. “Out by the team bus in Dallas, I had a cool photo of Alonzo Mourning from GQ Magazine, I approached him politely and basically, he said ‘Get the [expletive] away from me.’”
In 2015, Gallagher sold off the bulk of his non-basketball collection, something in the range of 6,000 signatures. After downsizing, Gallagher, a longtime North County resident who spent many years living in Encinitas, still has roughly 18,000 signed items.
“The first time that [making money off of signatures] crossed my mind was when Roberto Clemente passed away,” Gallagher said. “I thought, ‘Wow, nobody is going to be getting anymore Roberto Clemente autographs’ — that was the revelation of value.”
These days his interest in signatures is mostly with basketball players.
“I joke if Tom Cruise was sitting next to me on a flight I wouldn’t be interested in his autograph, but if a guy was a backup point guard on the Pacers in the 1990s, I’d be all over him,” Gallagher said.
After years of working in corporate sales, Gallagher was able to pivot professionally and make his passion his career. In September, he was hired as a consignment director for Robert Edward Auctions – one of the largest specialty auction houses with a focus on sports memorabilia.
“I was able to align my passion with my profession; it’s hard to top that,” Gallagher said. “I had success at all the other corporate jobs over the years, but it wasn’t as fun as this.”
Though he now works in the sale of memorabilia, Gallagher remains a collector at heart.
After thousands of moments with athletes over five decades and change, Gallagher isn’t done looking for the perfect signatures for his collection.
He named Jack Molinas, Maurice Stokes and Wayne Estes – deceased figures from the early days of the NBA – as the signatures he is currently in search of.
“I still enjoy that in person encounter,” he said. “To me part of it is the chase.”