By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer
Henry M. “Hank” Ekker loved sports and he loved meeting celebrities, and those two interests came together in his collection of autographs from sports figures.
While the collection was never hidden, kept at his office in Sharon at Ekker, Kuster, McConnell and Epstein – now Ekker, Kuster, McCall and Epstein LLP – the law firm of which he was a partner, it is much more visible now that it has a permanent home at the Community Library of the Shenango Valley, Sharon.
Dozens of signed items from the worlds of baseball, football, basketball, hockey, golf, tennis, boxing, figure skating, gymnastics, bowling, soccer, professional wrestling, car racing, bodybuilding, dog-sled racing, billiards, horse racing, fishing and track and field are displayed in an area that will become a sports lover’s haven.
Library officials plan to move the sports books near the Ekker collection, said library board President James P. Epstein.
“We know this could have gone anywhere,” he said. “We’re extremely excited that they have chosen the library
Ekker, who died Sept. 17, 2011, in his home in Sharon, spent 50 years going to sports memorabilia shows throughout the country to meet athletes and trying to come up with interesting things for them to sign, said his wife, Katie Ekker.
“It was just his passion,” she said. “He loved sports and he loved meeting famous people. What he really got a kick out of was meeting people.”
Some of the interesting things he collected include a pitching rubber signed by 21 Hall of Fame hurlers; a microphone autographed by Bob Costas; a discus signed by Olympian Al Oerter; shoulder pads inked by Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke; a size 16 shoe featuring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s John Hancock; a football helmet signed by 16 Heisman Trophy winners; a Henry Aaron postcard commemorating his 715th home run, signed by Aaron, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris; and a photograph of the New York Giants celebrating Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” home run inked by Thompson and the pitcher who gave up the gopher ball, Ralph Branca.
Regional sports teams including the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Penguins are represented.
“It’s all his,” Mrs. Ekker said. “It all just represents him. He was like a little kid when he was in his collection.”
Some of the items might seem a little obscure, but are entirely keeping with Ekker’s interest, including a baseball bat signed by World War II-era players of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and a gavel autographed by boxing referee Mills Lane.
Many of the items could bring in a small fortune at auction, but Mrs. Ekker said she was pleased that the library and three benefactors stepped up to keep it here.
“He loved Sharon,” she said. “It’s very fitting that the collection should be housed in Sharon.”
FNB Corp., the Strimbu Memorial Foundation and the O’Brien Fund helped pay for the cases, plaques and other display costs.
“To me, it’s keeping him alive,” said Mrs. Ekker, married for 46 years.
Library officials will be reaching out to area coaches and sports organizations and inviting them and their teams to view the collection, Epstein said.
“We hope to get people who are interested in sports but haven’t come into the library recently,” he said.
The collection supports the library’s evolution in becoming more than just about books, said library director Nicole E. Henline.
“Libraries are becoming community centers, where people can feel welcome, can discover new things,” she said. “We’re trying to be a place where everybody comes and finds something that interests them.”