Danny Zelisko on Today and Tomorrow in Scottsdale
September 7, 2023
“You’re Definitely Buying Today”
It’s a mystery to most people how concert artists get paid, or how any performer gets paid. I found out younger than most, but not through the music business. For me, it all started with collecting autographs as a kid in Chicago.
Back then you could buy a mimeographed lists of baseball players’ private addresses so you could write to them. You could buy them from ads in sports magazines for $3.99. We would use these lists to write letters to Hall-of-Famers and old players who had quit years and years before, asking for pictures and autographs on cards we had collected.
Insert picture of cards here and Ray Schalk letter
When it came to current players, we could send stuff to ballparks. They always got their mail, and they still do. If you ever wanted to reach anybody who was playing any sport, you could write care of their club or stadium and they’d end up getting it. Back then, getting ahold of these guys was a passion for my brother and me. I wrote to several major-league players, including the great Yogi Berra—and he wrote me back! The letter from Yogi was written in response to my letter to him on the day after my 9th birthday. I am pretty sure that was the first type or response I got back from someone as cool as Yogi, rather than the usual autographed picture we would request with our letters to the stars.
My brother Jimmy and I made a few other collector friends that were the regulars that hung out around the ballparks starting with the 1964 baseball and football seasons at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Jimmy was three years older than me, and he was what’s known as a blue baby. He’d had open heart surgery when he was two years old. The way they put it to me was that half of his cylinders worked, and the other half didn’t. It wasn’t good for him to overexert himself; he couldn’t run very far without getting totally gassed. His lips would turn purple and his skin would turn blue.
The Zelisko kids, in front Jeff and Barb, in back Jimmy holding Johnny. Bob and me.
From the time I was a little kid, Mom and Dad told me in as gentle a way as they could that we never knew what was going to happen with Jimmy’s health, so I should be good to him. I really didn’t know what that meant until I got older, but he pretty much had a normal life. He did everything that a kid does, and even played baseball. But he couldn’t play football, ever. He tried to play hockey, but he couldn’t really skate all that well, so he played goalie. He could stand in the way of a puck and get hit like anybody else—that’s really all you had to do.
Jimmy was the one who took me to those games early on, since I couldn’t go on my own. We’d hop on a bus at Milwaukee Avenue and go down to Addison, and for a nickel transfer, we could be at Wrigley Field. It was 17 cents each way. We would have to find 34 cents between us to get to there, and 34 cents to get back.
Little by little we learned the tricks to meeting the players: We’d find out when they got to the ballpark so we could get autographs from them then. Then we’d find out when the players’ buses were going to arrive on the opposite side of the field, because they had to walk through a side entrance on Addison. There we would wait, with baseball cards and pictures and everything else in hand, as we had them all to ourselves for maybe thirty yards. Very few people were hip to all of this back then.
It wasn’t just staking out the stadiums. We found out where those players stayed, too, and as we got older (as budding teenagers) and more sophisticated, we started going to their hotels. They’d be wandering around the lobby waiting for the bus to go to the game, and we’d stalk them for autographs. We weren’t the only ones doing this of course, but it turned out to be a better way of doing it because there were fewer people at the hotels than there were at the ballpark. Mickey Mantle would recognize fans who asked for autographs too often. I heard him say (to me) a couple times, “I signed for you yesterday.” How did he know? By looking at their shoes! Getting more autographs was simple: don’t wear the same shoes two days in a row! He literally ran me over a couple times when I tried to get in his way for another signature.
This was taking place when the Bears and the Cubs shared Wrigley Field, before the Bears moved to Soldier Field in the ’70s, along with going to the south side for the White Sox at Comiskey Park. Seeing the Bears play in Wrigley Field was like seeing the Beatles in a nightclub, as only about 40,000 people could get into Wrigley.
Every game was sold out, so it was next to impossible to get a ticket for any Bears game. Season tickets were so precious that you could only get one if somebody treated you, or died, because they were handed down through generations. Ticket scalpers were not as prevalent as they are now, either. And yet I never paid for a Bears ticket in the ’60s. Why? I’ll get to that shortly.
I had heard of a college player named Brian Piccolo, a running back for Wake Forest University. Incredibly, nobody picked him in the draft. This was a guy who ran for more yards than anyone else in college football in 1964, yet was passed over because the experts said he was too small. Never mind that he’d been going up against the biggest, best stars of college football and making them look bad. He signed with the Bears as a free agent, and he was designated to the taxi squad, which was the pool they would draw players from in the event of an injury. Sport magazine ran a picture of Brian Piccolo nuzzling his wife clutching a contract, when he was finally signed as a free agent. I loved these people before I met them.
I didn’t meet him until his first practice session at Wrigley Field, at the beginning of the season in ’65. We’d go to the park on Saturdays for practice, to see the players when they came in. They were much more relaxed at practice than on game days, and they’d always spend time with us on the way in, signing whatever we had and chatting us up. After we got to know them, they would walk us into the games on Sundays, past the ushers at the gate, saying, “This is my brother,” or “I’m just walking him in.” The ushers would nod and let us in. Still, we’d get some funny looks when one of the black players walked their “little brother” in. After that, we could find a place to sit during the game in one of the rare no-show seats.
This particular day, Brian Piccolo showed up at the exact same time as Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus. Piccolo saw the kids clamoring around them and parked across the street instead of in the regular players lot. I ran over to him instead of Sayers or Butkus because I figured I could see them later—and besides, I wasn’t a huge fan of theirs. By now I’d studied up on Brian, and he was a big deal to me.
So I went over to him. He said, “What’s wrong with you, kid? That’s Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers over there. They’re the new stars of this team. I’m a nobody.”
I rattled off all his figures, all these plays he’d pulled out. He thought I was nuts, but he was impressed, and we got to be friends. He became one of my first real buddies on the Bears.
Every now and then he’d drive me home after practice, to Niles, a Chicago suburb, even though he lived way south and I lived northwest. He would go fifty miles out of his way. This was during the winter, and he did it a number of times, especially when the weather got bad.
Finally my dad asked, “Who’s driving that black Chevy?”
I told him, “That’s my friend from the Bears, Brian Piccolo. He’s gonna be a big star for the Bears.”
He thought I was making it up, but Brian finally came in and had coffee one day. He wisely said, “I figured since I’m a grown man dropping your kid off, maybe I ought to come in and introduce myself. You got a good kid here. I didn’t want him to have to take the bus when it was so cold and wet out.”
Between getting to know Brian and our consistent appearances outside the park, Jimmy and I came to be familiar faces to a lot of baseball and football players. It got around to the people in my Little League, and eventually even some local retail stores found out that I had access to these players. We talked, and I started getting the players to come by these businesses and sign a few autographs. Remember, this was before people had agents, so getting out there and getting face time and writing letters was the only way to make connections. I would also look on the back of baseball cards and see that someone lived in Chicago where they listed home town, look them up in the phone book and give them a ring. My first player was a pitcher named Johnny Klippstein, who had played for the Cubs, but was now on the Twins. I hooked him up with my little league commissioner and they arranged for Johnny to come talk at the annual father and sons get together in the off season. Johnny was my first booking.
I got referrals for guys like Joe Fortunato and Richie Petitbon, and even the famous Gale Sayers. All I was doing was passing on a name and a number and telling the players to give them a call. In those days, football players only made $10,000 a year if they were lucky. Now, of course, they’re making millions of dollars in a season, but back then they had to get other jobs in the off-season to supplement their income.
In the beginning of 1967, Walt Buesse from the Niles Little League called me up and said, “Hey Danny, can you get somebody to come and speak at the father-son gathering we have at the beginning of the season?”
I said, “I bet Brian Piccolo would be open to do it.”
He said, “Oh, he’d be great. Offer him $200 to come talk to all of us, sign some autographs, and snap a few pictures with everybody.”
I called Brian up and made the offer.
Brian said, “He came out with $200 for me to come do this, huh?”
“Make it $300, and a steak dinner for you and me. I’ll come over and pick you up. Tell me the date and time.”
We all agreed to the terms. The dinner was at this place called the Lone Tree Inn, which was at Milwaukee and Howard Street on the border of where Niles and Chicago meet. During Prohibition it had been a mob hangout and an Al Capone favorite. They used to go over there to eat because Niles is just across the town’s border, which meant they could be away from the eyes of the police.
When we got to the place there were eight or ten Little League people at the table. Brian and I were introduced to everybody, and they said, “We got two seats for you and Danny here.”
Brian said, “I’ll tell you what, we’re going to take that table over in the corner so we can have some time, but we’ll come over and join you for dessert.”
They were a little surprised. “No offense,” Brian said. “I just want to hang out with my man here for a little bit.”
So we had a nice dinner. I was about twelve at the time, so this was a great moment for me. After dinner he gave me a wink and told me to come into the bathroom with him. I told him I didn’t need to go, and he replied, “yes, you do.”
We went into the bathroom, and he held out thirty bucks in cash. “Here,” he said.
“What’s that for?”
“What do you mean, ‘What’s that for?’ It’s your commission. You get a commission when you book things. You booked me to do a speech, and I’m getting paid. So you’re getting a steak dinner, just like me, and you get 10% for making it happen. Don’t be a schmuck. Didn’t you ever get paid from those other guys for helping them arrange appearances?”
I hadn’t. That was the first time I’d ever made a commission for booking somebody. I had no idea. This was also the first time I’d heard the word schmuck.
Sometime later, after the season opened after practice, Brian took me into the clubhouse and said the old man wanted to see me. That meant George Halas, one of the co-founders of the NFL, and the coach and owner of the Bears, Papa George.
He brought me into his office and said, “I understand you’ve been booking my players.”
I thought I was in some serious trouble. I thought this legend was going to yell at me. But instead he came around the desk and shook my hand.
“These guys are always trying to get more money out of me,” he said. “I’m glad somebody else is helping out. They need to get work in the off-season, so it’s really good that you’re around. I’ve seen you around here before, of course, and I’m happy to know that you’re not just one of those goofy autograph kids with nothing going on upstairs.”
He went out into the clubhouse and called a quick team meeting. He took his hat off; nobody had ever seen that bald head of his, since he never went anywhere without his hat. The next thing I knew, there was almost $300 in the hat for me from George Halas and the players, and George was encouraging the team to get my phone number so we could reach one another and all make money. I went across the street with Brian for a footlong at Franksville, our favorite hot dog place. He said, “You’re definitely buying today!”
That was how I learned that by networking with these contacts and using a bit of charm, I could make mutually beneficial connections between us. This was all years before I started going to concerts and realized that there was somebody who actually arranged those, that there was a promoter.
Gale Sayers got injured in 1968. I was at that game: they were playing the 49ers, and Kermit Alexander clipped Gale’s knee, knocking him out for the rest of the season. Brian had to step in and replace him, and he became a hero in Chicago by stepping in for the great Sayers. After helping Gale rehab while doing his job for him on the field, Brian became starting fullback in 1969. They were a dream team in the Bears backfield, Sayers and Piccolo.
Later in the season, Brian developed an awful cough that turned out to be lung cancer. Less than a year later, he was dead at 26 years old. It was a huge blow to me. I was mature, but not mature enough to take that kind of a hit.
Dad and I went to the funeral, and I was a hot mess. After that, I turned my back on football altogether; it was too painful. I stopped going to Bears games. It just wasn’t any fun anymore. They moved to Soldier Field, and a couple years later I would be on the move, too. Only recently have I been to Soldiers Field for some tailgating with my buddy and new concert promoting partner, Scott Gelman. The Bears team and fans seem to have a new lease on life, I wish them well.
The movie Brian’s Song came out in 1971, about the life and great story of Brian Piccolo. It was the first experience I can recall about cancer, and how it could destroy people. Some years later I wrote a letter to Brian’s widow, Joy. She wrote me back saying how much Brian liked me, and how he always looked forward to coming to the park, knowing I’d be waiting for him. He was always worried when he didn’t see me there. I used to wait with her for the team to come out after the games, with the rest of the players’ families and wives. She was really a sweet and wonderful woman. It was a glorious but sad period in my life, yet all part of growing up.
I miss Pic to this day. His impact on my life was a great one, that I cherish every day. Pictures of him are around me, everywhere I go.