by Floyd Sullivan
Art by Daniel-Zalkus
A headline in my news feed stopped me cold. “Robert Charles found dead in Old Town home.” I read the article and six more on various news outlet websites. All reported much the same story. The wealthy North Side financier had been discovered “unresponsive” by his cleaning service early that morning. A police spokesperson stated that he died of an apparent head wound but would rule out neither foul play nor an accident. The investigation was ongoing.
I texted Martin. “Hear about Bob?”
“Check local news sites.”
“Will do.” Five minutes later he texted again. “Holy S! Cops want to talk to you?”
“Not yet. You?”
“Don’t know. In WI. Gig at Delavan Lake last night.” In addition to brokering photography and printing, Martin played in a rock band, an avocation that seemed more important to him as he aged.
A month before, he had emailed me about a freelance photo shoot. Robert Charles wanted his collection of famous baseballs photographed by a professional, but it had to be done at his home, not in a studio. He never let his precious collectibles leave his house.
“How do you know him?” I asked Martin as we discussed the job over coffee at a Starbucks.
“Believe it or not I met him on Waveland Avenue during a Cubs game maybe thirty years ago. We were ball hawks. Are you familiar with the term?”
“Of course. You can’t follow the Cubs, or even baseball, without seeing the ball hawks on TV.”
“Yeah. We would stand at the corner of Waveland and Kenmore waiting for the home runs to come sailing out of the park and onto the street. Batting practice was great, but then things slowed during the games. We got to talking one day and became friends. This was before he made his fortune. We had the same taste in music and books, and, to be honest, women.”
“Get many baseballs?”
“Not me. I wasn’t any good at it. Gave up on it after a couple of seasons. But Bob could judge fly balls better than just about anyone. When he saw one in the air over the bleachers he could run right to the spot where it was going to land. I think he played the outfield in high school.”
“That’s how he started collecting baseballs?”
“Yep. Most of them were worthless BP balls, but every now and then he’d snag a big one, like a game winning walk-off or a grand slam. Then he’d get the player’s autograph and add it to his collection. A lot of players wanted to buy the big ones back from him, or trade autographed jerseys. He rarely made those kinds of deals. He got some bad press about it a couple of times.”
“You know. ‘Ball hawk refuses to give rookie first home-run ball.’ Things like that. The players started hating him and refused to sign the balls. So he’d hire some kid to get the autographs. When he started making a lot of money he bought balls from other collectors. And he started collecting other stuff. I’m not sure what exactly. We’ll see when we get there. Right now he’s only interested in having the baseballs photographed. If we do a good job it could mean more work later on, shooting whatever else he collects these days.”
We agreed on a day rate and the following week I packed up my Canon DSLR, my laptop, a tripod, a small soft box with flash head, a power pack, several sixteen by twenty white foam-core cards, light stands and a crossbar, a half roll of white seamless background paper, plus the appropriate cords, clamps, tape, scissors, and other basic location equipment. Charles lived on Burling south of Armitage, a block of huge new mansions that took up two, three, four, or even five city lots, replacing the traditional redbrick three-flats and nineteenth-century worker cottages that used to define Old Town. “Billionaires Row,” I thought to myself as I pulled up to his gate and texted Martin that I was there. Charles’s home was a modern, boxy, glass and steel three-story house with large square tinted windows defining its street facade. The gate opened and I drove down into a spacious underground garage. Martin and Robert Charles emerged from a door to my right. Both were dressed casually in jeans and T-shirts. Charles was tall and lanky, a head higher than Martin.
He held out his hand. “Bob Charles,” he said.
We shook. “Rick Peters,” I said.
“Martin tells me you used to shoot for a men’s magazine,” he said as he turned and led us through the door and into the house.
“Briefly,” I said. “Many years ago.”
“Must have been fun.”
“It was work.”
We walked through a well-outfitted gym, a billiards room, and a home theater to a large metal door with a keypad on a heavy steel handle. As Charles punched in a sequence of numbers I wondered what the rest of the house looked like. But I would never see the floors above the basement.
The vault was spacious, larger than most living rooms I had been in, and was a combination safe and showroom. His baseball collection took up one whole wall of five long shelves. Each ball sat in its own clear Plexiglas case. Old books lined another wall. Several guitars stood on stands at the back wall, which displayed framed magazines, three of them I recognized as first editions of Playboy featuring Marilyn Monroe. They looked to be in close to mint condition, considering their age.
“Not surprised that those caught your eye,” said Charles, “having been in the same business and all.”
“Everyone who ever worked for a men’s magazine knows about that one,” I said.
“I have another copy that’s not in such good shape, if you’d like to page through it.”
Just above the top of the guitars’ tuning pegs hung the broken neck of another, obviously very violently separated from its body. I thought immediately of The Who.
“That little curiosity is what got me into collecting in the first place,” said Charles, “and it didn’t cost me a cent. I was at a Who concert in Algonquin, Illinois, at a teen nightclub called The New Place, a converted barn way out on the Fox River. The stage was outside against a stockade fence. I stood in the barnyard maybe twenty feet away. I think there was a cornfield behind Keith Moon’s drums. The Who were already famous for destroying their equipment at the end of their shows, during ‘My Generation.’ At the end of the song they repeated two chords over and over and Moon started a nonstop roll. Pete Townsend took his guitar off his shoulder and started pounding it on the stage. When the neck broke off he tossed it into the crowd, right to me and maybe five other guys. I was a little taller than they were so I was able to catch it above their arms and surround it with my body. I fell to the dirt to protect it. They eventually gave up, The Who finished the song, and the crowd began to leave, so the neck was mine. Similar Townsend necks go for six figures these days. But I wouldn’t part with mine for any amount of money.”
The three of us returned to the garage to fetch my equipment. I was surprised that Charles helped lug the stuff into the vault. As I set up on a long table he had placed in the middle of the floor, he and Martin strolled the collections, Charles describing the provenance of each piece. I paid no attention. When I had connected the camera to my laptop and strobe I fired off a test to confirm that everything worked. The bright flash stopped Martin and Charles.
Charles frowned. “What was that?” he asked.
“Making sure all my connections are synced,” I said.
“Oh. But you didn’t really shoot anything, did you?”
“Nothing at all.”
“Please delete the file.” He joined me at my laptop and looked at the screen.
“Sure.” I highlighted the image, which showed a random view of the vault, and hit the delete button.
“From your trash as well.”
I found the discarded file in my trash and permanently deleted it. “Done,” I said. They returned to their discussions as I set up the background paper.
The photo shoot progressed very efficiently. Charles personally brought down the baseballs from the wall and placed them on the set one at a time. Martin played photo assistant and rotated the balls, adjusted my light, or moved the foam-core reflectors as I directed. Once I had the lighting set for one of the white baseballs, we could quickly shoot, pull the ball off set, and replace it with the next one. But the last ball was stained with a rich brown patina as if it had been used for an entire game. Charles called it the “Merkle ball” and explained that it was at the center of a controversial play toward the end of the 1908 season, the last year the Cubs won a World Series until 2016.
“Many baseball scholars don’t believe this ball really exists. But Johnny Evers—you’ve heard of Tinker to Evers to Chance, haven’t you?”
“Hall of Fame double play combination on that Cubs team,” I said.
He nodded. “Johnny Evers claimed he saved the ball. It was in his family for decades and then sold a number of times. At one point it was in actor Charlie Sheen’s collection. I recently acquired it from a collector who bought it at auction in 2010 for over seventy-five thousand dollars.”
I didn’t ask how much he paid for it.
Charles seemed very pleased with the images he saw on my laptop. A housekeeper appeared at the door of the vault with a tray that held a bottle of an extremely expensive single malt scotch with three heavy, cut crystal, double old-fashioned glasses. As he poured, Charles asked if I could copy the files to a jump drive then and there, but I convinced him that I would release no images until I had worked on each in Photoshop. We agreed that I would deliver the shots to him personally at his downtown office. . . .
Copyright © 2021. The Beano by Floyd Sullivan