Clearwater resident Tom Cooney, 81, shakes hands with President George W. Bush. Cooney has spent more than 60 years seeking presidential signatures on a baseball. He currently needs President Trump’s and former President Obama’s.
CLEARWATER – It was back in 1951, Tom Cooney was 15 years old at the time, watching a baseball game on television with his older brother, Patrick, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower threw out the ceremonial first pitch at an opening day game.
After watching this customary first pitch, Cooney told his brother he had the idea to start getting the president’s signatures on a baseball with each new administration.
“Patrick was excited about the idea and encouraged me to go to the library and get the addresses of past presidents and go for my dream,” Cooney said.
Cooney found out former President Herbert Hoover lived at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City, and it wasn’t far from where Cooney was living at the time in New Jersey. So, he went to the hotel, but didn’t get the signature on his first try.
It was a little more difficult for Cooney to communicate with the hotel staff what he wanted because Cooney was deaf and couldn’t talk. He wrote down what he wanted and handed the piece of paper to the hotel clerk, but the clerk told him “good luck – everyone wants to see the president.”
Cooney said someone overheard the clerk and wrote on a note to Cooney to come back and go to a certain elevator because Hoover took a walk every day and got off of that specific elevator.
Cooney came back the next day and tried again. He found Hoover and followed him on his daily walk.
“President Hoover was a fast walker,” Cooney said. “He walked around the block with a deaf man and kept talking all the way and I pulled out the baseball and he signed it!
“He never knew I was deaf,” Cooney continued. “Little did I know this was the start of history.”
Cooney was born in 1935 and was adopted at birth. Cooney became deaf at a very young age due to a mastoid infection and lost his hearing in both ears. Not only was he deaf, but he was confined to a wheelchair for several years due to balance issues.
Cooney said he was made fun of by kids in his neighborhood, who called him names like “deaf and dumb” and even pushed over his wheelchair.
And while it was difficult communicating with neighborhood kids, Cooney said it was hard even communicating with family members.
“My mom only knew very few signs,” Cooney said. “We would point to things. She knew things like bathroom, eat, television and sleep.”
Never to be daunted, Cooney did eventually teach himself how to walk at around 7 or 8 years old.
“My mom saw me for the first time get out of the wheelchair and walk and told me she had prayed every night on her knees I would be able to walk again,” Cooney said.
Cooney eventually was enrolled in a boarding school for deaf people.
Today, Cooney, 81, lives in Clearwater and is still completely deaf in both ears, but can talk to some degree. Since 2000, he’s had an interpreter and assistant, Camie Gallo, at his side interpreting for him.
Having overcome so much in his life, Cooney is determined to accomplish his mission of 66 years – continuing to collect the signatures of former presidents and first ladies.
Cooney has 11 presidential signatures on one of the baseballs, including presidents Hoover, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, H.W. Bush, Clinton and G.W. Bush.
A second baseball has the signatures of first ladies, including Jacqueline Kennedy, who signed both baseballs since her husband, John F. Kennedy, had passed away before Cooney could get him the baseball.
Cooney said he only needs the signatures of President and Mrs. Trump and former President and Mrs. Barack Obama, as well as former first lady Hillary Clinton, to fulfill his dream.
“These are the only baseballs in the world like this with this many signatures,” said Cooney.
Because these baseballs are so rare, Cooney keeps them under lock and key in a safe deposit box at a bank. The last time they were taken out was when President George Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush signed the balls during Thanksgiving a few years ago.
“Gov. Jeb Bush helped us get the two signatures and even he had his secret service handle the baseballs because he was so scared to transport the baseballs,” said Cooney.
And Cooney, who has never let his limitations hold him back, is not one to give up.
A former reporter for the Silent Jerseyette News in 1992, Cooney honored by President George Bush as the 745th Point of Light honoree for his work with kids in schools. He was the Grand Marshall for the Helen Keller Festival in Alabama, and signed the National Anthem for the 2001 Super Bowl in Tampa. Cooney has been a motivational speaker in classrooms, served as a deputy sheriff and court interpreter.
He’s a man who doesn’t give up and doesn’t let what some would consider a disability hold him back.
“Deaf people can do anything they want to do, except hear,” said Cooney.
Cooney has two sons, Tom and Ron, who were with him when he met some of the presidents. His family wants the balls once signed by all the living presidents and first ladies one day to go to the Smithsonian to be on display.
“I just want these icons up to date, so they can be preserved and recognized for future generations,” said Cooney.