Randy Kaplan has an enormous collection of signed baseballs. But the twist on his hobby is that these are not of famous athletes, but rather, current and former world leaders from around the globe. What started with him getting then-President Bill Clinton’s John Hancock back in 1996 has evolved into 275 heads of state and counting, all of which will be on exhibit at Garden City’s Cradle of Aviation Museum through Nov. 8.
Persistence, dedication and passion is what enables the Merrick native to amass such an impressive array of signatures.
“My wife is always ready to kill me because I’m on the phone 24 hours a day, calling all over the world in the middle of the night, trying to hook up with past presidents and current presidents,” he explained. “I remember I was courting Kim Jong-un’s office for about a year and a half before I begged them so much that he finally relented and signed the ball for my collection.”
Here are three of the more difficult signatures Kaplan has acquired over the years.
“I got him 20 years ago. He was coming to Manhattan to do a rare book signing for his just-published Memoirs back then. I got to the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue at four in the morning. I knew that was going to be easy, but what I needed was a trick up my sleeve. I called my landlord at the time, who was a Russian Jew. I knew he could phonetically teach me how to say something to Mr. Gorbachev. So I wrote it down phonetically and memorized it as much as I could and I recited it the next morning when it got to my turn on line.
Simultaneously, Gorbachev was signing his book, not looking up and security wasn’t letting anybody get close to him other than the front of the table. There I am, starting to recite a passage in Russian, albeit phonetic, and he looked up and smiled. He stood up, grabbed the baseball from me and the store security was trying to push me away. He pushed the security away, took the baseball from me, sat down, signed it, stood up, bowed and shook my hand and I was thrilled.”
“About 15 years ago, I said to Congressman Greg Meeks, who I’ve known since he was back in the state assembly, that if he ever took a junket to South Africa, it would mean the world to me if he could get a baseball signed by Nelson Mandela. I had not been able to get one from him.
“Fast forward to around 2004 or 2005 and I get a call from his chief of staff Jameel and he said he needed me to play dumb later because I was going to get a phone call from Congressman Meeks. I said ‘okay’ and asked why and he said to play dumb and told me what was happening. Mandela had just come into Washington, DC for a Congressional Black Caucus meeting and Greg had a mini-private meeting with him and a couple of other members of the Congressional Black Caucus and he got him to sign the ball for me. I was so excited and so thrilled, because Mandela is a statesman and a historic figure as well.
“The kicker was that Mandela turned to Greg Meeks and in that Mandelian voice said, ‘I better not see this for sale on eBay.’”
“About seven or eight years ago, I started doing baseball bats signed by presidents as well. I had some baseball bats made up and emblazoned with their names burnt into the bats. I was able to get Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and both Bushes. Then it came to me getting President Obama. I needed all five living presidents to have signed a bat. He’s a tough signature to get.
“I was at a congressional fundraiser with Congressman Jim Bishop three years ago. Nancy Pelosi was the guest of honor and I told her about the collection and that I could really use her help getting President Obama to sign this bat. It took two-and-a-half years of protocol but back in January, I got a call from her staff that they were able to get it done at the White House. I have a bat signed by the sitting president, which is one of the rarest signed items that he’s ever done.”
The Randy L. Kaplan Collection will be on exhibit through Nov. 8 at the Cradle of Aviation Museum. For more information, call 516-572-4111 or visit www.cradleofaviation.org.