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Love of baseball spurred Funderburk’s massive collection

KANNAPOLIS — Ron “Fundy” Funderburk’s collection of sports memorabilia is probably unlike anything you’ve ever seen before or heard of before.

It’s spilling out of one room and into two more. It’s a mini-Cooperstown, only Funderburk’s accumulated treasures don’t stop with baseball. There also are impressive shrines to the heroes of golf, football, basketball, auto racing, and well ,.. you name a sport. Secretariat’s saddle and Bobby Orr’s hockey stick aren’t visible, but just about everything else is.

A lot of people have a Mickey Mantle autographed ball or baseball card as the centerpiece of their own collection of childhood memories because Mantle was the No. 1 hero for countless folks who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. Funderburk, who graduated from A.L. Brown in 1963, is no exception.  He owns Mantles by the dozen. Just about anyone you could imagine Mantle posing for an autographed picture with in his heyday — Roger Maris, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Ted Williams — Funderburk can produce it.

There’s also a Mantle bat — it’s awfully heavy — and there’s a Hank Aaron Big Stick.

There are 200-year-old wooden golf clubs from St. Andrews. There are signed Jerry West jerseys from West Virginia and the L.A. Lakers. And while it’s hard to think of Larry Bird in blue, there’s an autographed Bird jersey from Indiana State. There’s even a ball signed by Nate Thurmond and Rick Barry, a reminder of a time when the San Francisco Warriors played for the “The City” in the NBA championship series.

There’s a signed jersey from Gale Sayers, the awesome Chicago Bears running back, when he was still the “Kansas Comet.” There’s even a Bill Russell autograph, and the Boston Celtics center was one of those guys who didn’t sign anything for anyone.

There’s a signed photo of Dale Earnhardt proudly wearing a “Damn, I’m Good” T-shirt.

There are two 500-home run-club balls signed by all the longball legends who accomplished their feats before the days of performance-enhancing drugs.   

Funderburk gathered his artifacts from personal contacts, estates, auctions and sports memorabilia shows. And, yes, there’s a certificate of authenticity for everything. If there’s any question about legitimacy, he doesn’t want it.

Quarterbacks are a collecting passion for Funderburk. There’s a long dining table lined with one autographed football after another. Just about every NFL QB from Otto Graham to Steve Young is represented. Leather helmets to modern helmets.

“Name a quarterback,” Funderburk said. “I probably have him.”

Funderburk gets help accumulating and organizing from his wife, Debbie, who is both a supporter and participant in her husband’s hobby.

Debbie, who was a basketball star at Concord in her high school days, obtained many autographs at baseball card shows. She was the one who patiently stood in line, waiting for a ballplayer to sign, while Ron browsed a show for potential bargains.

In a room of valuable pieces, Ron’s favorite bit of memorabilia might be worth about 25 bucks. It’s a signed photo of Cletis Boyer, the third baseman for the New York Yankees in the early 1960s. That photo comes with a priceless memory. When Debbie requested a show that Boyer personalize a photo to Ron, Boyer refused.

“He said he would only sign it to her,” Ron said. “And there it is — ‘To Debbie, with all my love, Cletis Boyer.’ We wouldn’t take anything for that one.”

Both Funderburks chuckle, recounting the story.

As wonderful as Funderburk’s collection is, the reason behind his drive to collect is equally interesting.

“It all goes back to my love for baseball,” Funderburk said.

When the major league teams made their way north from Spring Training in Florida in the 1950s, the Cincinatti Reds and Washington Senators would annually stop at Charlotte’s Griffith Park to play an exhibition game. Funderburk’s uncle would always take him, and that’s where Funderburk first spied one of his all-time favorites — Ted Kluszewski.

Kluszewski, a slugger who had to cut the sleeves out of jerseys which could not contain his massive arms, pounded the longball for the Reds in the 1950s. In his four prime seasons, 1953-56, “Big Klu” walloped 171 homers, drove in 464 runs and was an MVP candidate.

Funderburk became a Kluszewski follower. When he went to see the Senators and Reds in 1956, he saw Washington youngster Harmon Killebrew wallop a long one, but he was dismayed that Kluszewski wasn’t in the Reds’ lineup due to illness or injury.

“We’d never heard of the guy who replaced him at first base that day,” Funderburk said with a laugh. “But Frank Robinson turned out to be pretty good.”

Funderburk wasn’t Frank Robinson, but he was a fine athlete. Playing for A.L. Brown’s Little Wonders, he was voted the Hill Trophy winner as the school’s top performer in baseball and basketball.

His favorite personal memory comes from a game he pitched for the Kannapolis American Legion team in the summer of 1962 against Charlotte Post 9. 

“It’s the only game my father ever got to see me play,” Funderburk said. “He worked in the mill — second shift (3 to 11) — so he didn’t see my games. That night someone must have told him I was pitching, and he was there. We were behind when they put me in, but we came back. Coach (Bill) Ford was going to pinch-hit for me, but then the crowd started booing. He stuck with me and I got the winning hit. We won 5-4.”

Funderburk also recalls playing against Rowan County at Newman Park, with Marty Brennaman broadcasting the games. Brennaman went on to become the voice of the Cincinnati Reds.

Funderburk went to UNC after high school and shot the ball so well in a P.E. class that the instructor urged him to try out for the basketball team as a walk-on.

“I didn’t think I had a chance,” Funderburk said. “But I came close to making it. Donnie Moe got that last spot. Dean Smith was just getting started then — people didn’t like him much —  and I can still say Coach blew the whistle at me a few times. And I got to play with Billy Cunningham for a few days.”

Autographed pictures of Smith, Cunningham, Michael Jordan and other Tar Heel legends grace a portion of Funderburk’s memorabilia room. There aren’t any bigger UNC fans than Funderburk, whose wardrobe is dominated by light blue.

Funderburk finished college at Catawba. Catawba was a place close to home where he could work while he attended school and he climbed out of the academic hole he’d dug at Carolina with a lot of A’s.

“I think the world of Catawba and what it did for me,” he said.   

Funderburk was quite a slow-pitch softball player for Centerview Baptist and Lowe’s Plaza Market, and a fine golfer. There’s a photo of Funderburk smiling after making a hole-in-one at the Wonder Classic.

Funderburk was exceptionally successful in the business world, has no children and hopes to someday leave behind a scholarship to Catawba as part of his legacy.

Funderburk has endured more than his share of medical issues — two shoulder surgeries, three knee surgeries and three back surgeries — but his wife, his collection and his love of sports make it possible for him to greet each day with a smile.

“There’s a TV where he can watch sports in every room in this house — except the bathroom,” Debbie said. “And he’s working on that.”

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