Clarence “Doc” Steen: Player, Dentist, Autograph Hound
Thanks to renowned memorabilia collector Dan Bretta, I have made great strides putting back together what may very well be one of the first significant through-the-mail baseball autograph collections. Clarence Guido “Doc” Steen, was born in Wahoo, Nebraska — Sam Crawford’s hometown — on November 1, 1883. Steen was a reasonably good baseball player, playing baseball for Wahoo High School, from which he graduated in 1901, as well as the University of Nebraska, from 1902 to 1904. He played semi-professional baseball in Beatrice, NE during the summer of 1904, in the Black Hills League at Belle Fourche, SD in 1905, at Kearney, NE in 1906, and finally with the Lincoln Club of the Western League in 1907. Team photos of Steen’s High School (1900 - Steen middle row, second from right) and Western League (1907) teams, as well as a portrait of Steen in his University of Nebraska uniform (1904) can be seen in the slideshow below.
Similar to Archibald Wright “Moonlight” Graham, who appeared as a right fielder in a single Major League game in 1905, and whose story as “Doc” Graham was popularized by the film Field of Dreams, Steen seemed to follow a similar path. Steen graduated from Creighton University’s school of dentistry in 1908, and practiced dentistry — not baseball — for over 40 years. On September 20, 1965, Steen passed away at the age of 81 in Scottsbluff, NE. He was buried in Sunrise Cemetary in Wahoo, NE.
Though Doc Steen may have been a pretty good baseball player in his own right, he is well known to advanced pre-war baseball autograph collectors not for his playing skill, but instead for his passion for player autographs. Perhaps nostalgic for his playing days, from as early as 1939 through at least 1941, Steen mailed to players somewhere in the vicinity of 200 old Sporting News and Baseball Magazine supplements, as well as George Burke and other photos, to be signed by really all of the biggest stars to play the game during the first half of the 20th Century. Thanks to a few autograph collectors carrying the torch for Steen after his death, we still have many of those letters and photographs today.
Around the time of Steen’s death in 1965, a father and his 15-year old son were browsing an antique shop on the East Coast and stumbled upon a trove of Doc Steen’s autograph treasures in an old shoe box. Over 40 years later, that 15-year old kid grew up and began to sell off Steen’s old autograph collection. In 2008, one of Steen’s letter’s to Frank “Home Run” Baker made it into the March 7 & 8, 2008 Hunt Auction. A few years later, in 2013, the seller sold dozens of old letters to renowned memorabilia collector Dan Bretta. Bretta acquired about 30 of them, which he recalls was probably a little less than half of what he had in total. The balance of maybe 40-50 items, Bretta was told, would probably stay in the family. Thanks to Bretta’s extraordinary generosity, I recently was fortune to acquire Bretta’s collection of letters, including correspondence between Steen and over a dozen Hall of Famers.
Browsing through the letters Steen wrote reveals his tireless effort to acquire player autographs. In each letter he sent, Steen would ask the player in advance whether an autograph request would be honored, rather than risk losing a wonderful picture to a pile of unanswered or misdirected mail. And, in many of these cases, the players invited Steen to send their pictures by replying directly on the letters he had sent them.
In his January 18, 1940 letter to Hall of Famer George Sisler, Steen noted that he had saved most of his collection of Sporting News supplements (M101-2) — which he referred to as “rotogravure photos of the outstanding stars of the time” — even though “they were put out during the years 1909 through 1912.” He wrote about his success in having “a good many of those great players favor me with their autographs,” and noted that players including Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Nap Lajoie, Tris Spear, Cy Young and Eddie Collins had “all been most cordial in their willingness to help.” Steen further wrote to Sisler that he was having trouble locating “Old Pete” Alexander, although he had “written to the Sporting News and also to the Postmaster of his old home town, St. Paul, Nebraska.” Steen further commented that although he was having trouble locating pictures of certain players, he was able to acquire certain photos through the George Burke company of Chicago.
Steen also did not take a “no reply” for an answer, as can be see in a follow-up letter to Hall of Famer Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean below. In the letter to Dean on December 6, 1940, Steen politely noted that he assumed that a first letter that had gone unanswered, “had either gone astray” or maybe because Dean was “busy at the time and perhaps later the letter could have been mislaid.” Due to Steen’s persistence, Dean favored him with a courteous note — and his signature. There is no known picture autographed by Dean for Steen, so I am not sure whether Steen ultimately was successful, but I would imagine that his extraordinary effort ultimately was rewarded.
In one of his earliest efforts, Steen found a friend in Hall of Famer Sam Crawford, a fellow Nebraskan from Wahoo. Crawford clearly took a liking to Steen, and seemed to remember him well, perhaps from his old playing days. Crawford wrote him a two-page letter on December 16, 1939 on letterhead from the Hotel Chelsea in Los Angeles. Crawford noted that he was “glad to hear from you and to know that you are still interested in BB (baseball).” Crawford also spoke about his own experience umpiring in the Coast League, finding it “a tough job and not worth the beating you take out there every day.” With perhaps a hint of sadness, Crawford seemed to agree with Steen that they both “wouldn’t know many people in Wahoo now. I don’t hear from any one there.” Perhaps Steen would agree, given that his dentistry practice was clear on the other side of Nebraska from Wahoo, an over six-hour drive today. However, Crawford is clearly very pleased to be hearing from Steen.
In addition to Sisler, Dean, and Crawford above, several other letters from Hall of Famers were included in the collection, including Bill Dickey, Frankie Frisch, Joe Gordon, Travis Jackson, George “High Pockets” Kelly, Red Ruffing, Bill Terry and Lloyd Waner, all shown in the gallery below.
On May 16, 2015, MBA Seattle Auction sold approximately 200 autographed photos from the Doc Steen collection. Although many collectors participated in this auction on-line, only about 10 potential buyers bothered to show up in person. I won nine of the signed 1909-13 Sporting News supplements (M101-2s) that day, and I have been trying to acquire each of Steen’s signed photos ever since. In a remarkable twist of fate, a signed photo in the MBA auction can be attributed to every player in the remaining collection of letters (except Dean and Glenn Wright). Combining Bretta’s letters with the autographed photos from Steen’s collection gives exquisite clarity to the timing and circumstances of the autograph request and a considerable amount of provenance to the autographed picture. Below you can see several examples of letters paired with sepia-toned Sporting News supplements from my collection, including Bobby Byrne, Bill Carrigan, Jeff Tesreau, and… best of all: Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie! (I have also added my Doyle and Schulte, since each personalized their signature to Doc Steen.)
Click here to browse my entire collection of “Doc” Steen Sporting News Supplements, including Tris Speaker.
Steen’s collection also included signatures on numerous Baseball Magazine supplements from 1910-17 (M113s) and 1918-58 (M114s). From this collection, even more letters have been preserved on more uniformly-sepia signed prints. Below you can see several examples from my collection — correspondence and Baseball Magazine supplements (M114) exchanged with Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, as well as the following stars of the era: Harlond Clift, Harry Danning, Ival Goodman, Mel Harder, “Cookie” Lavagetto, Buddy Lewis, Frank McCormick, “Jo-Jo” Moore, and Rudy York. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, signed letters simply do not exist for all of the players Doc Steen received autographs back from. Lost to the ravages of time, or just never sent, we may never know. However, many players ensured Doc Steen’s provenance would live on eternally by personalizing their signed supplements, including Hall of Famers “Lefty” Gomez and Al Lopez, also posted below.
As noted above, not every image Steen sought to get signed was a newspaper or magazine supplement. In several cases, he asked players to sign George Burke photographs. One of those players was Hall of Famer, Charlie Gehringer, whose beautifully signed letter and photograph also have been reunited in my collection:
In the 1921 publication of the “History of Western Nebraska and Its People,” Steen was well regarded enough to earn his own entry. Although his service as a baseball player and his passion for autographs was not referenced at all, I am sure all of the people whose teeth Doc Steen cared for all of those years would agree with the pronouncement that “he has a reputation for skill in his profession that places him in the front rank of dental surgeons.” And while his dentistry skills are no longer celebrated, “Doc” Steen certainly remains a giant among autograph collectors. Given his passion for the game and its players, it is not all that surprising that a 1940 copy of “Who’s Who in Nebraska” showed that Steen was building a historical baseball library, which would have been a wonder to see. In lieu of that museum, today interested collectors can at least enjoy just a small portion of Steen’s collection here.