The Rev. Jim Ross leaned over from his wheelchair and, with his 86-year-old hands, gestured purposefully at the collection of pictures in a large frame. Each was a Hall of Fame baseball player, most clipped from old magazines.
Next to each image, a hand-scrawled signature: Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Honus Wagner and more. On the back of the frame, two more — Tris Speaker and, barely readable in faded ink, Ty Cobb.
Even with Alzheimer's disease attacking his memory, Ross will tell you that he collected them all as a young teenager growing up in Indianapolis in the late 1940s. Hoping to be a first baseman or an outfielder some day, he sent each a typed letter, addressed to their team. In it he mixed their statistics with a plea asking "very, very much to have your autograph."
He even included a self-addressed envelope to make it easier for the players, most of whom were retired, to send something back.
More than 70 years later, Ross, a retired United Methodist minister living in a Burnsville memory care facility, still describes the thrill of seeing a reply in the mailbox. How letting his buddies borrow them "was a good way to lose them." And how his mother "gave me a few phrases" to help with the letters.
"I buttered them up a little," he said with a smile, his eyes brightening.
Alzheimer's makes it harder for Ross, who was diagnosed with the disease in 2017, to sometimes remember what day it is or to switch topics. His wife, Susan, moved him to Emerald Crest last July, after knee surgery made it clear he could no longer live with her at home.
But his 1940s hobby, nurtured by reading baseball magazines and following a local minor league team, is one of three or four subjects that "light Jim up," said Arlen Solem, a chaplain at Emerald Crest who often visits with him.
Ask him to name the greatest outfield of all time and Ross will answer what he wrote on Feb. 22, 1949, in a letter to Speaker, a retired Hall of Famer:
"You, Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb are the three greatest outfielders that have ever lived," the letter said.
Seventy-two years later, Ross' view hasn't changed. "They were the three that stood out," he said. "They were all in the Hall of Fame."
In his room at Emerald Crest, with Susan, his wife of 28 years, at his side, the frame of eight keepsakes on her lap, Ross expressed regret that he didn't save more of the autographs. As a kid, he "just wanted some way to connect" with baseball's big names, he said, not thinking the signatures would have historic value.
"I should have had 20 or 30," he added, with many of them lost to time or friends. "It was fun to hear from these guys."
A voracious reader with a passion for building things, Ross spent 40 years leading Methodist congregations from five assignments around Minnesota, developing a personal, relatable style. And he continued to do the same for 10 more years in two stints after he retired in 2001.
He was in high school when, attending a vocations conference, he "felt God's hand upon me" to take up ministry work, he wrote in 2001. He earned the nickname "Preach" working a summer trench-digging job in college.
"He had this effusive spirit that would bring you in," said Amy Gustafson, one of Ross's four daughters. "He did that in pulpit, too; the way he told story, the cadence of his voice, it just really brought you in. And sometimes he would become moved by a story, and then the whole congregation was in tears."
While Ross meticulously collected notes from his reading to use in his sermons, the autographs never reached that status. He kept them stuffed in a drawer — "a bundle of letters tied up in a string," Amy recalled — as he took on his first church assignment in Walnut Grove in southwestern Minnesota in 1961.
A stint up north in Proctor followed before he was assigned to a church in Rochester. It was there that a church employee took custody of the eight autographs still in his possession and had them put in a frame for a "This is Your Life" 40th birthday party for the pastor in 1975.
What she couldn't have known is that it would become a permanent record and inspiration for Ross 45 years later as he lives with a memory-stealing disease with no cure.
Some pictures were clipped from magazines, which Ross sent along with his letters. The one to Babe Ruth has disappeared but not the photo that came back with the slugger's autograph.
His letter to Hugh Duffy, regarded in the late 1890s as one of baseball's greatest hitters, is part of the collection. The high school freshman praised Duffy's "miraculous .438 record-holding batting average." Ross also noted his own style of hitting "right handed for average and left handed for long hits" and sought the star's advice.
Duffy, who would have been 82 at the time, wrote back in long hand: "If batting left handed comes natural to you, stay with it. If you top my average, I won't be jealous of you."
Once in the frame, the autographs found a home on the wall of Ross's den, at least until his children moved away. Daughter Amy, who laughed as she recalled telling her dad that he sort of looked like Babe Ruth, sees the keepsake as symbolic of his penchant for pursuing his passions.
Her father said simply, "I wasn't old enough to realize how unique they were. I was just a little kid, 12, 14 years old, and they answered."
Paul Klauda • 612-673-7280