Publish date:

Fast Man with a Sports Fact

Fred Imhof's hobby is sports memorabilia, and his collection is the biggest in the world

Fred Imhof looks and lives like many another American middle-class male in his early 60s. He is five feet eight inches tall, weighs 150 pounds, has blue eyes and brown hair and wears glasses. He drives a 1961 Mercury, and he lives in a six-room Cape Cod-style house in a development called Saratoga Terrace in San Jose, Calif. He has worked for Libby, McNeill & Libby, the fruit and vegetable packers, for the past 38 years, and at present he is the assistant superintendent of their Sunnyvale plant. But there all resemblance to the norm ends. As Mrs. Imhof herself once seriously told a reporter, "My husband is crazy." Imhof happily agrees. "Her mother thought that I was absolutely nuts," he says.

Imhof is crazy about sporting books and magazines. He collects them, and it is doubtful if there is a more extensive collection of its kind in existence anywhere. A few years ago when the Imhofs moved to a new house, it took only four hours to move the furniture but two weeks to move the books. In the old house books were all over the place, and the glut was such that Imhof, a man of moderate means, felt compelled to splurge $4,500 to erect a special building in the backyard of his new place just to handle the main part of the collection. Mrs. Imhof was delighted. Now her husband uses only one of the bedrooms for duplicates and part of the garage for triplicates.

Unlike such other noted collectors as Bill McMullan of Springfield, Mass., who collects only basketballiana (he has every periodical on the game published since 1900), and Luverne (Lefty) Jorgenson of Laporte City, Iowa, who restricts himself to pugilistic photographs (he has 45,000 of them, 6,000 alone of Joe Louis), Imhof does not specialize in one sport. He collects everything, with the main emphasis on statistics. Two years ago Sport Fan, a mimeographed journal cranked out in St. Paul for collectors, asked Imhof to describe his holdings for its eager readers. Imhof gladly obliged, though it took him nearly a year. He began with angling, archery, automobiling, aviation, backgammon, badminton, baseball, basketball, bicycling, billiards, bobsledding, boccie, bowling, bridge, bullfighting, canasta, canoeing, checkers, chess and cock fighting, then paused to ask if any readers were becoming bored. Assured none were, he resumed, this time ripping through his cricket, croquet, curling, dog racing, dog sledding, dogs, dominoes, equestrian, falconry, fencing, field hockey, field trials, football, golf, gymnastics, handball, harness racing, horse racing, horseshoe pitching, hunting, hurling, ice hockey, ice skating, jai alai, jujitsu, lacrosse, lawn sports, log buckling, log rolling, mah-jongg, marathon, marble shooting, miscellaneous, motorboating, motorcycling, mountain climbing, Olympic Games, pigeon flying, ping-pong, pinochle, poker, quoits, racquets, railroad-train speeding, rodeos, roller polo, roller skating, rope skipping, roque, rowing, Rugby, rummy, Russian bank, shooting, skeet shooting, skiing, snowshoeing, soapbox derbying, soccer, softball, solitaire, squash racquets, squash tennis, surfboard paddling, swimming, tennis, track and field, trapshooting, tug of war, volleyball, water polo, water skiing, weight lifting, wrestling and yachting collections—with hardly a pause for breath. As a final touch he wound up the last article by confiding that he had omitted a number of minor sports, ranging from aquaplaning to yo-yoing, for the sake of brevity.

As a child Imhof gave no forewarning of his mania. He was born in Paterson, N. J. on March 16, 1900, the son of a Swiss cabinetmaker and a German mother. When he was 2 the family moved to Brooklyn. He lived there until he was 16. Then he ran away from home to escape his father's old-world discipline and hid out in New England until he was old enough to enlist in the Army. He was sent to Hawaii and became a sergeant in the artillery. "I was crazy about the Army," he says. "Everybody liked me, and I liked everybody." He was planning to make it a career, but he met his wife-to-be while he was on leave in California, so he quit and went to work for Libby in an asparagus plant.

Imhof's rise at Libby has been unspectacular but solid. From asparagus he moved to peaches, then back to asparagus. From there he went to olives and then to tomatoes and fruit cocktail before entering the spacious world of warehousing. While toiling in tomatoes he became smitten with collecting. "The fellows in the cannery were making 10¢ bets on fights," he says, "so I started keeping records of the boxers so I could handicap them better. I had varying measures of success. It wasn't the dime, but the fact that I wanted to win. And, with my love for track, I started keeping records there, and little by little I started. I found a book on this, and I found a book on that."

Cornerstone of the collection

The first book Imhof ever bought was Spalding's Official Baseball Guide. Now he has a run of the guides back to 1882. He picked up many of them for a dollar or two, a bargain when one considers that he has been offered $2,000 for the lot. His football guides go back to 1894. His tennis guides date from 1892, and the basketball run starts with 1902.

In addition, Imhof literally has bales of other material. He has complete runs of the American Chess Bulletin (1904 on), Motor Boating (1907 on) and Yachting (1907 on). He also has runs of The Sporting News (1905 on), Field & Stream (1911) and The American Rifleman (1921). He has six complete runs of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. (TWO are for his use, the others for swapping.) Just in case he's missed anything, he keeps a complete run of The World Almanac (1885) on hand. To keep posted on sports, he subscribes to 87 magazines, ranging from Hoof Beats to the International Volley Ball Review to Western Kennel World. He has the San Francisco Chronicle sporting green section from 1932 on (every damn day of it), and, of course, one should not overlook the 16,000 college football programs he has stashed away. All told, Imhof has "about 88,000" magazines and books in his collection. It is insured for $40,000, but knowing friends believe it is worth substantially more.

Imhof prides himself that his is a "working" collection. He spends six to eight hours a day working up new facts and figures for his gigantic cross-filing system. For example, he has, among other things, compiled the number of games, at bats, runs, hits, stolen bases, batting average, putouts, assists and errors for every major league player from 1882 on. In his files he also has the name, position and year of every player who ever lettered in college football anytime at some 400-odd colleges. At present he is compiling the complete records of every college track-and-field competitor, and when he's through with that he plans to do much the same for every horse that ever ran in what he considers to be the country's 200 or 300 major stakes races.

But there is more to Imhof's files than the bare bones of statistics. There is the flesh of fact. If, for instance, one should just happen to want to know the world's record for, oh, say, picking cantaloupes, well, Imhof can supply that with the flick of an index card. The answer: 34 crates in 20 minutes, a feat accomplished by one Ivan Thompson of Brawley, Calif. in 1952. A couple of weeks ago a staff writer for the Chronicle was baffled when a reader asked how many strikes had been called in Don Larsen's perfect World Series game. The writer fumbled around hopelessly for the answer until he chanced to call Imhof, who had the answer at once: there were 19 called strikes.

Imhof, who has a question-and-answer column of his own in the San Jose Mercury, had a radio show several years ago that was a failure because he was so successful. A cigarette lighter manufacturer sponsored the program, a question-and-answer show, and Imhof was supposed to give a lighter to each listener who stumped him. Thirteen weeks went by, and not one lighter was given away. Fearful of bad public relations, the sponsor hinted that it might be best if Imhof missed every now and then. Imhof compromised to the extent of giving away lighters on unanswerable questions ("Would Jack Dempsey have beaten Joe Louis?"), but it was too late to salvage the program.

From time to time Imhof dreams of doing a book. Several years ago he suggested to a publisher that he bring out a book giving a complete play-by-play account of every World Series game. After some dickering Imhof huffily decided against it. "I wanted to write, 'Greenberg hit to left, advancing Gehringer to second,' " he explains, "but that was too dry. That's history, but that was too dry. They wanted this stuff that Russ Hodges gives you on the radio, 'Willie Mays runs back against the fence and makes the most monumental catch you ever saw!' That's what they wanted. But I didn't want any deal like that."

Much of Imhof's time is spent corresponding with more than 400 collectors around the country. It is not unusual for him to spend as much as three hours a day just reading his incoming mail. Each fall when the canning season ends, Imhof takes a month's tour of the state to poke around bookstores for out-of-the-way volumes. Mrs. Imhof goes along and dutifully stays by the car feeding nickels and dimes into parking meters. To make sure that she doesn't run out of coins, Imhof thoughtfully keeps a sackful of them hanging from a hook in the back seat. If this might sound, as though Imhof is unnecessarily hard on his wife, well, it just isn't so. For example, he doesn't begrudge her a thing for the house—as long as it has a sporting connection. "I like to buy things from people in sports," he says. "When my wife told me she wanted some new drapes for the house, I said, 'O.K., as long as you get them from Don Silva." He's a former Pacific Coast League and American Association umpire. When I decided to build this house, the first two bids I let were to two former boxers. The backyard house was built by Joe Rondon, a former lightweight. We get Marin-Dell milk because Sal Taormina, an old Seal outfielder, works for them."

As if to underline his love for sports, Imhof is always willing to answer any question about sports from home. He doesn't mind if the call comes through at three in the morning. (Try it. The number is ALpine 2-7039.) The question he is most often asked is: why didn't Schmeling get the heavyweight title when he knocked out Louis? And the simple answer is that Louis wasn't the titleholder at the time. Braddock was.

The collection itself is open to anyone who wishes to consult it. Imhof welcomes visitors. "Anyone can come any time and enjoy it with me," he says. "The only thing is I wish I knew who was the bastard who took my 1942 Ring Record Book."