With one exception, I haven’t solicited a celebrity’s or politician’s autograph since 1964. That exception was Heavyweight Champion Joe Frazier. In retirement, Joe represented a furniture company that happened to have a display room beneath my apartment on Charlotte Street in Pottstown, Pa.
When it was announced Joe was making a public appearance at the store in 1994, I was the logical member of the Pottstown Mercury staff to cover the event. Don Seeley of the Mercury sports staff told me, “He’s kind of hard to understand but he’ll be happy if you make him sound good.”
On the morning of Joe’s arrival, my friend photographer Kevin Hoffman and I followed the champ around the store. He was genial and friendly, but — as Don predicted — difficult to understand. I asked the champ about his relationship with Muhammad Ali, and he was clearly expecting the question. Puffing himself up almost comically, he said, “Ali say he got the Parkinsons, but I’ll tell you what he got.” He shook his large fist in front of my face. “THAT what he got,” he said, laughing. I reached out my hand to feel his biceps, which were like steel, and Kevin snapped the picture (below, right).
Later, I received an autographed picture of Joe from the furniture company. Kevin printed the picture of Joe and me and gave me a copy. I sent the picture to Joe and asked for an autograph, which he quickly provided — in exchange for a $50 donation to his favorite charity.
Years later, when I hung the picture in my National Council of Churches office in New York, an occasional passerby would look at the picture and say, “Ooo, you knew Dr. King?” As if Martin was six feet tall and would bend his arm in people’s faces and say, “Hey, Bud, feel that.” But I’d politely respond, “well, they were both Baptist.”