ATHENS — In a corner of Henderson County Tax Collector Milburn Chaney's office is his prized collection of baseballs and other sports memorabilia autographed by famous players.
Each autographed baseball is cupped in a plastic holder intended to keep the signature from fading and rests on a mount, a few with pictures.
Chaney readily acknowledges he has a certificate of authenticity for only a few, but quickly adds he knows the autographs are authentic because he personally obtained most of them from the players.
“The only proof I've got is I know they did it (signed the baseballs),” he said.
Grasping a baseball showing Mickey Mantle's autograph, Chaney observed that Mantle had a special way of signing and making the letter “m.” Yankee catching star Lawrence “Yogi” Berra's signature is hardly legible since “he just made it kind of a swirl,” Chaney pointed out.
Whitey Ford's signature is “pretty good;” Williams' autograph was “good” and Musial signed his name very readable, Chaney observed.
But most of the autographs are “swiggles” and “you can't tell who it is; you just have to know,” Chaney said.
His collection numbers about 30 autographed baseballs displayed in his office and more at home, along with a few footballs and other memorabilia.
“I'm proud of it; I enjoy showing it to people,” Chaney said.
Starting with watching his older brother play for Athens High School in the 1950s, Chaney has always been interested in sports, although he was too small to play himself.
He started officiating football games in 1963 and this year marks his 50th year of officiating. He officiates mostly high school games and some junior college games.
One of the first pieces of sports memorabilia Chaney collected was a football autographed by Duke Carlisle, the quarterback for The University of Texas who beat Roger Staubach, who was playing for Navy in the Cotton Bowl in 1963.
“Navy was ranked No. 1 and Texas was ranked No. 2, but that day Texas came out passing and beat Navy. I enjoy telling people about that game,” Chaney said.
One of Chaney's favorite football autographs is from Joe Scott, who played for the New York Giants and lives in Murchison.
His baseball autographed by Ted Williams is No. 382 of 406 signed, because the player's batting average in 1941 was .406.
“No one's matched that since. His record will probably last a long time. There hasn't been anybody (that's) done it since,” Chaney said.
Displayed with that baseball is a picture of Williams with pen in hand signing.
Chaney's collection of autographed baseballs sprang from his friendship with the late Wayne Boozer, who collected baseball cards.
“There would usually be somebody there signing such as Stan Musial. Most of the time the shows were in Arlington, but sometimes we went to Houston, Dallas and different places,” Chaney said. “Wherever there was a big card show, that's where we would go.”
He added, “We enjoyed it and had a good time. It was the thrill of the hunt more than anything.”
Sometimes there would be a football player signing and sometimes a baseball player. Chaney tells a story about many of the autographs.
Once the female catcher Pepper Davis from the team featured in the movie “A League of Their Own” was at a card show. She wrote on a picture of herself when she was young, “To Milburn Chaney, best wishes.”
Chaney said he found St. Louis Cardinal legend Musial was “a really nice guy.” Pointing to a baseball signed by Yogi Berra, Chaney recalled Berra was famous for “different sayings he had. One of them was 'if you see a fork in the road, take it.'”
Chaney got George W. Bush to sign a baseball back when he was governor and part owner of the Texas Rangers. “I sent a ball to Austin to him through our state representative at the time,” Chaney said, and had no idea then that Bush would one day become president.
Pointing to a baseball signed by Jimmy Piersall, Chaney said, “he's the guy that had a nervous breakdown. He hit a home run and ran the bases backward.” Piersall was the subject of the Hollywood movie “Fear Strikes Out,” starring Anthony Perkins as Piersall.
Former pro football great Isiah Robertson signed and wrote, “A champ never gives up. Best wishes to Mr. Chaney.”
Chaney's collection also includes baseballs autographed by Nolan Ryan, Bob Feller, Cal Ripken Jr., Eddie Matthews, Johnny Bench and Bob Gibson.
Some of his autographed baseballs were given to him, but Chaney obtained most of them in person.
Sometimes he would buy a card showing the baseball that players autographed for him and other times he would take a baseball to the shows.
“They wouldn't sign just any old baseball. If they played in the National League, it had to be a National League baseball. If they played in the American League, it has to be an American League baseball,” Chaney said.
There aren't many card shows now because the card business fizzled, Chaney said.
Chaney remembers listening to baseball games on the radio in his childhood and enjoyed listening to the Yankees' games the most because they seemed to win all the time. “We didn't have TV for a long time,” he said.