When Theodore Maggio died last January in Baltimore at 65, he left behind what was probably the largest private collection of balls in America. Maggio was a tiny, splintery, dried-up old man who happily scavenged his neighborhood on his bicycle.
He was also perhaps the last practitioner of the arcane art of ball-fishing. He would station himself after a heavy rain at the point where the fetid Jones Falls—a somewhat exalted name for a concrete spillway several feet deep and about 50 yards wide—meets Baltimore Harbor. With a wire coat hanger fashioned into a spiral ball trap and attached to a long piece of string, Maggio would cast into the swollen waters with the finesse of a trout fisherman on the Beaver Kill. He hauled in sponge balls, soccer balls, footballs, punchballs by the gross. They were the Lost Balls of Baltimore, washed by rainwater down gutters and through sewer storm traps toward the sea.
Maggio perfected his technique as a youth fishing bananas out of the harbor. He waited around the docks watching stevedores unload the fruit. Now and then a bunch or even a hand of bananas would fall overboard. Maggio fished them out with a stone tied to the end of a string. He sold them at the outdoor market Baltimore used to have.
Maggio liked to collect things, and bananas don't last too long. He switched to balls. He created his unique coat-hanger ball catcher and set about his life's work.
He stored the balls at home. Occasionally he traded them for potatoes or empty soda bottles, a more negotiable currency. "Years ago I could get eight soda bottles for a tennis ball," he said shortly before he died. "Today nobody has soda bottles. I can't get nothing."
But Maggio never threw away any of the balls. He stashed the ones he didn't cash in in cardboard boxes, milk crates and bushel baskets, like a guy who believes in the gold standard.
When he died he had an estimated 5,000. "My motto," he said, "is I always get my ball."