It all started for Sal LaRocca as a boy attending his first Brooklyn Dodgers game at Ebbets Field in the summer of 1944.
"My very first game was a night game," he said. "It was dark outside the ballpark, but it was daylight inside. As a 7-year-old kid, it was an unusual kind of thing, and it fascinated me."
So LaRocca went back repeatedly, and he began assembling a collection of Dodgers memorabilia that has grown so large it consumes four rooms on the bottom floor of his Chattanooga residence. The 72-year-old has obtained items as old as an 1883 Brooklyn game ticket and two scorecards from the 1884 season and as recent as a Manny Ramirez autographed baseball and a Chattanooga Lookouts batting helmet.
The Lookouts are in their first season as Class AA affiliates of the Dodgers, and LaRocca has season tickets behind the home dugout.
His memorabilia rooms are filled with signed items from former Dodgers pitchers such as Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Don Sutton, Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser, as well as such position players as Leo Durocher, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Steve Garvey and Eric Karros. He has World Series programs from 1916 and 1920; seats from Ebbets Field; uniforms worn by Koufax, Durocher and Robinson; and a ball from Valenzuela's no-hitter in 1990.
Mark Langill, the Dodgers team historian, flew out to take a three-day tour of LaRocca's memorabilia last September and believes no individual sports collection rivals it.
"After a while, it just doesn't seem real," Langill said. "Normally, if you're in a museum setting, you look at things through a glass case. When you've got a 1916 World Series baseball in your hand, and then he hands you one from 1920, it's like one of those 'Night at the Museum' things where all of a sudden Teddy Roosevelt comes to life.
"The thing that makes it come alive is Sal's enthusiasm and knowledge and his willingness to share his stories and passion. If you walk in those rooms without his soundtrack, it's nice, but when you see what it means to Sal, that's really the difference."
Langill suggested that the only major league baseball collector who might equal LaRocca was Barry Halper, a New York Yankees fan who died in 2005 at the age of 66. Halper had a ticket from the first World Series in 1903, Babe Ruth's 1920 trade agreement from Boston to the Yankees and Lou Gehrig's jersey from his farewell speech in 1939.
Halper donated his collection to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and LaRocca's collection may someday be used for a Dodgers museum in Los Angeles.
"I would definitely hope so," Langill said, "but if that were to happen, his knowledge and stories would need to come with it."
Though LaRocca started collecting early, buying yearbooks and pens, he admits the passion went full-throttle in the early 1980s. He had success as a wholesale music distributor in New York City and gave cassettes and CDs to Dodgers players when they were in town.
Participating in 19 consecutive Dodgers fantasy camps in Vero Beach, Fla., LaRocca quickly became a player favorite.
"Athletes love music, and I invited them when they would come to New York to play the Mets to come by my place," he said. "I would let them take whatever they wanted within reason. I used to get a lot of promotional stuff from the manufacturer, and that stuff would just sit there.
"So I gave them that stuff, and in turn they gave me stuff like this."
LaRocca then pulled out the bat former Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza used when he was with the Mets and made the final out of the 2000 World Series against the Yankees.
A LIFE INTERTWINED
Watching Lookouts games is just the latest chapter in how LaRocca's life has been woven into the Dodgers organization.
As a young teenager, he attended Brooklyn games with his friends, with each shelling out 60 cents to ride the trolley. His favorite teams were the 1951-54 Dodgers, with the '53 version being the last in the National League to have teammates win batting (Carl Furillo) and RBI (Roy Campanella) titles.
LaRocca was in military service in 1955 when Brooklyn won its lone World Series championship. He got out in '57, the franchise's final year there.
"I did see them play their last game as the Brooklyn Dodgers in Philadelphia, because I was discharged in Philadelphia," he said. "It was very sad that they were leaving, but I was 21, and at the age of 21 you're thinking differently than you were at 12 or 13. Girls are a lot more interesting, and baseball became secondary, but I always had that passion for the game."
He took great enjoyment watching the 1963 World Series with three friends who were Yankees fans. Los Angeles won in a four-game sweep.
LaRocca married his wife, Geri, in 1974, the same year the Dodgers won the NL pennant before losing the World Series to the Oakland A's. A couple of hours after the newlyweds would go to sleep, Sal would wake himself up and escape to the bathroom with a radio so he could check on the Dodgers.
"I thought he was a psycho," Geri said.
The couple moved to this area in August 2004 to be close to Geri's son, Nicholas Tullo, who was a cardiologist at the Chattanooga Heart Institute. Tullo and his wife since have moved back to the Northeast.
LaRocca's favorite Dodgers player of all time is Snider, who played the final 11 seasons in Brooklyn and the first five in Los Angeles. Snider is the franchise's career home runs leader with 389 and hit 15 homers in August of '53.
"He played in the era of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays," LaRocca said. "I'm a little biased towards Snider because he played in a smaller ballpark as opposed to the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium. Had Snider played in a bigger ballpark, he probably would have been just as good, if not better, than Willie Mays, and I think Snider was a better all-around center fielder than Mickey Mantle. That's my opinion.
"Snider was the first player to hit 40 home runs for five consecutive years, but when they moved to California, playing in the Coliseum was not to his advantage."
LaRocca's favorite Dodgers player of the modern era is Garvey, a former fantasy-camp teammate and a member of the franchise's legendary 1968 draft that included Ron Cey, Davey Lopes, Bill Buckner, Bobby Valentine and Tom Paciorek.
The "Babe" is best remembered for his success with the Yankees and the generational pain he caused Red Sox fans, but LaRocca prefers to focus on 1938, Ruth's one season as Brooklyn's first-base coach. LaRocca has a photo of Ruth with the Dodgers, the newspaper article announcing his hiring and four balls with his signature.
LaRocca can produce player contract forms, including Otto Miller's in 1921, which stated he could earn $500 in incentives should his '21 Brooklyn numbers match what he did in '20. The cover of the 1990 Dodgers media guide has press pens that were provided by LaRocca.
"The thing about Sal is that he never tells you what it's worth or what he paid for it," Langill said. "It's just, 'Take a look at this.' It's kind of like Willie Wonka. He's so proud of his chocolate factory and wants you to enjoy it, and you never hear how much it cost him.
"Sal will say, 'Here is Leo Durocher's warmup jacket,' and you're like, 'Of course it is.' He wants you to hold it. He is so willing to share instead of that 'Here it is behind plexiglass. Try not to breathe on it.'"
Louis Prosterman attends Erlanger hospital's lifestyle program at the Sports Barn with LaRocca. He has seen the collection several times and said, "I haven't come close to scratching the surface."
LaRocca has a difficult time picking a favorite item but leans to the 1952 team photo in which each player provides his autograph, even though the signatures of Robinson, Campanella and Gil Hodges have faded slightly.
Is there anything he regrets not obtaining?
"I'd like to have a Roy Campanella game-used bat," he said. "I have ones from Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider and Pee Wee Reese, but I was never able to get a Campanella bat. It's difficult to get something like that, because we're talking about almost 60 years ago. Where is the stuff?"
LaRocca also likes hockey and considers the Montreal Canadiens his favorite offseason team. He has an assemblage of B-Western movies that would appear far more impressive were it not for those four Dodgers rooms.
Several months have passed since Langill saw the collection, and the amazement hasn't waned.
"When I got back to L.A., everybody asked me what it was like," Langill said. "I told them my worry is that heaven will be anticlimactic. He just bombards you with one thing after another with either something you didn't know existed or something he has 300 more of around the corner.
"Anybody can go out and buy a bunch of stuff, but that doesn't make it an interesting collection. It just means they have a bunch of money. In his case, he knew what he was buying and collecting, and it all came together. I'm just so happy he's enjoying it."
Favorite all-time Dodgers player: Center fielder Duke Snider
Favorite modern era Dodgers player: First baseman Steve Garvey
Favorite Dodgers memory: Los Angeles sweeping New York in the 1963 World Series
Favorite Dodgers collectible: Team photo of the 1952 Brooklyn Dodgers
Item he would most like to obtain: A Roy Campanella game-used bat