August 28, 2013
A few years ago, former Nigerian president General Olusegun Obasanjo checked into a New York City hotel. The phone rang. On the line was a man named Randy Kaplan, who had been calling the hotel and asking for Obasanjo’s room for hours. Obasanjo did not know Kaplan. As the target of a 1976 coup attempt, Obasanjo was a careful man. But something about Kaplan’s offer intrigued him, and he invited him to come to his room at 10 p.m. the following night.
When Kaplan arrived, he reached into a bag and handed Obasanjo an object. Obasanjo stared at it a few seconds longer than Derek Jeter might have. It was an official Rawlings baseball. Obasanjo took a pen and, for probably the first time in his life, signed on the sweet spot. Kaplan thanked him and departed.
Every autograph collector has an obsession. Kaplan’s is world leaders. He convinced Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, to sign an official baseball. The Czech freedom fighter Vaclav Havel sent a ball through the mail with his signature in green ink. In 1996, Kaplan met Mikhail Gorbachev at a book signing. When he produced a baseball, a security guard tried to grab it, thinking it was a bomb. But Kaplan was ready: A former landlord had taught him how to say, in Russian, “Would you please sign the baseball for my collection?” “Gorbachev grabs the baseball from me,” Kaplan told me, “signs it, bows, and shakes my hand. I’m like, that’s unbelievable!”
Kaplan invited me to his house on Long Island last weekend to see his collection. Kaplan is a 47-year-old father of two. He was wearing Sunday dad clothes: a blue polo shirt and jean shorts. His feet were bare. His 115 signed balls were in plastic containers stacked seven rows high on his dining room table. They formed a shining rectangle as big as a windshield.
Kaplan used to collect all autographs. He was known to take dates home at 10 p.m. and then head to restaurants like Balthazar to hunt for celebrities. About 20 years ago, he saw a Baseball Hall of Fame exhibit of signed, first-pitch balls that American presidents had thrown on Opening Day. There was a certain romance to having a signed ball, even if the signature belonged to Monaco’s Prince Albert II. “I never turn down an autograph,” Kaplan said, “but this is all I’ll collect.”
There are three ways to acquire world-leader autographs. One is through the mail — a method serious collectors know by its acronym, “TTM.” Of course, it was more complicated to mail a ball to Corazon Aquino than it was to Pudge Fisk. Kaplan makes overseas telephone calls in the middle of the night, trying to find a friendly staffer who might accept a ball. TTM has yielded signed balls from Kim Dae-jung, the late president of South Korea, and F.W. de Klerk, the last apartheid-era president of South Africa.
Kaplan’s second method is through an intermediary. Autograph collectors, by nature, are outsiders. Kaplan is a lobbyist — he’s an outsider who’s an expert at getting inside. Recounting a rare moment of failure, he told me, “I was not able to infiltrate the Japanese prime ministers for many, many years.”
Kaplan has friends. Congressman Gregory Meeks, an old pal, hit up Nelson Mandela during a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus. (Mandela’s only instruction: “I better not see this for sale on eBay.”) To get to the new Chinese president, Xi Jinping, Kaplan is working through a friend of a friend. His friend’s friend is the governor of Iowa.
But Kaplan’s biggest scores have come the old-fashioned way: He corners a world leader and asks, “Will you please sign this?” Kaplan carries a dozen balls in his briefcase at all times. He has the autograph hound’s indescribable ability to find the famous. “I’ve always been amongst celebrities,” he said. “I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it’s the buzz I’m putting out there or whatever.”
Kaplan does his best work when the General Assembly of the United Nations is meeting in New York, or during the annual World Leaders Forum at Columbia University. Some of the time, he looks for State Department vehicles. In 2011, Kaplan saw one such car parked outside a Turkish restaurant on 2nd Avenue. A few minutes later, the president of Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga, walked out and signed a ball.
In 2005, Kaplan was skulking around the entrance to the Sheraton. He spotted “wives, multiple wives. A harem, if you will.” Then a man appeared in a turban. It was His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar. Hamad signed a baseball, but the signature was cramped and nearly illegible. Kaplan got concerned he had the wrong emir. He asked His Highness to spell his name. “H as in Hitler …” Hamad said.
“Current world leaders without a doubt are the hardest to get,” Kaplan said, “because of the security.”
“I thought you were going to say because they were busy,” I said.
“Sure,” Kaplan said. “But in person, because of the security, it’s unreal.”
When Kaplan says “world leaders,” he means the supreme, no. 1 leader of a country. Any no. 1 will do. If the community of nations were a baseball card set, Kaplan does not see any commons. “Micronesia, I’m thrilled,” he said. (He has a ball signed by Joseph J. Urusemal, who was president of the Federated States of Micronesia from 2003 to 2007.)
Kaplan’s only exception is for a group he calls “potentials.” A potential is a politician who might one day become a world leader. Kaplan gets their autographs for the same reason baseball fans go to Memphis to see Oscar Taveras. “I’m always thinking [the] next world leader ahead,” he said. By the time Pope Benedict XVI resigned the papacy in February, Kaplan had secured signed balls from eight prominent Catholic cardinals. None of these potentials were the man who became Pope Francis.
Kaplan’s best potential was Barack Obama. In 2005, he ran into Obama at the Hart Senate Office Building. As Obama looked over Kaplan and his associates, he asked, “Are you from Chicago?”
No, Kaplan said.
“You sure you’re not from Chicago?” Obama asked.
Obama wanted to smoke and didn’t want to do it in front of a constituent. As a cigarette dangled from his lips, Obama took out a black Sharpie and, like General Obasanjo, signed on the sweet spot.
A couple of years back, Kaplan ran into the pitcher David Cone at Nobu. He asked Cone to sign a ball — you can’t just turn off the old urges — and explained his project. Cone was moved. “Baseball’s just baseball,” he told Kaplan. “This is history!”
Indeed, the baseballs provide an alternative, graphological history of the world. Mandela signed Kaplan’s ball proudly, with only his last name. “Nelson” was unnecessary and the iron will was implied. Britain’s Gordon Brown signed his ball in quivering manuscript. It’s a signature of a man who would be PM for about 15 minutes.
Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, is known for crank theories about AIDS. Kaplan reached into his tower of baseballs and showed me his Zuma. On one side of the ball, next to the words “Official Major League Baseball,” there was a ragged signature. Kaplan flipped the ball over. There was an another, identical signature. “Why did he write ‘Jacob Zuma’ twice?” Kaplan asked. “Who needs that?” Kaplan is finicky about signatures. He called Zuma’s office. A while later, another ball arrived in the mail. It was also signed on both sides.
Kaplan is not as picky about pens. “You can sign in crayon if you want to,” he said. “As long as I know it’s real, I don’t give a crap.” He has become one of our most unique autograph collectors, a cross between Steiner Sports and a contestant on Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? Paul Martin, the former prime minister of Canada, once asked Kaplan, “How do you know who I am?” The collection will be displayed at the Lyndon B. Johnson and Herbert Hoover presidential libraries over the next two years.
“I have a nightmare,” Kaplan told me. “I walk into a restaurant with one ball and there’s two world leaders on opposite sides.”
“And what if you reach into a bag and pull out a ball and you already had Jerry John Rawlings” — the former president of Ghana — “sign it? I don’t want multi-signed balls in the collection.” The U.N. Security Council is not the ’27 Yankees.
Kaplan regards Hugo Chavez, who died in March, as a missed opportunity. He is not so broken up about missing on Fidel Castro, now presumably too infirm to sign baseballs. Kaplan’s wish list includes Vladimir Putin, Haiti’s Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and anyone who has run China. “What if I only get two autographs this year and they turn out to be the leaders of China and Iran?” Kaplan said. He shrugged. “Oh, well. You can’t complain.”