By Sports editor Brian Hoffman
When Vinton’s Danny Cruff wants to make a point, he has no trouble finding some emotional support. A couple shakes of the cases in his “toy room” and over 500 heads are nodding in agreement.
Cruff recently passed a milestone of 500 bobbleheads. The Kansas City Royals fan ordered Adalberto Mondesi of the Royals for the historic piece, only to have the wrong bobblehead delivered.
“I waited all afternoon for my Mondesi bobblehead to be delivered,” he said. “Once it was, I dragged (daughter) Rachel out of her room to see it when I opened it. I excitedly opened the package only to find that the seller had sent me the wrong bobblehead! I got a Whit Merrifield instead of the Mondesi. Fortunately, the seller is making things right, and I did end up keeping the Merrifield since he’s a Royal.”
Danny has since passed the 500 mark, but he’s still designating Mondesi, one of his favorite players, as number 500. He picked up a few more at the Monster Flea Market at the Berglund Center parking lot a couple days later and he’s now well on his way to filling up more shelves.
You have to see Cruff’s toy room to believe it. Bookcases are filled from top to bottom with a variety of toys, most notably the bobbles. Danny has them neatly organized in rows, one behind another like a team standing on bleachers. They’re also organized by team, sport, etc.
His first bobblehead was Tim Wakefield, posed throwing a knuckleball in his Salem Buccaneers uniform. Danny was a fan of Wakefield when he pitched for the Bucs and Cruff later served as the Carolina League team’s mascot, “Long Ball Silver,” at what is now Kiwanis Field in Salem. More on that later.
“I’ve always been a sucker for knuckleball pitchers,” said Cruff. “They make everyone look silly. I was a catcher when I was little and I always wondered how it would be to catch a knuckleball. My favorite player was (Expos and Mets Hall of Fame catcher) Gary Carter.”
Wakefield won 10 games for Salem in 1990 when the Bucs were a Pittsburgh affiliate. The Pirates traded him to Boston, and he pitched 17 years for the Red Sox, finishing his Major League Baseball career with exactly 200 wins.
“I have a typed roster from when he was with Salem,” said Cruff. “I had him sign it and it’s hanging up in my room.”
And that was the start of something big, as Danny started collecting bobbleheads anywhere he could find them. He searched flea markets and yard sales and wherever toys are sold. He approximates that 75 percent of his bobbleheads are related to baseball and others are from football, basketball, hockey and auto racing. He even has about 40 non-sports figures like Barak Obama in a basketball uniform with “USA 44” on the front. And, he has a Hillary Clinton bobble.
“But she looks more like Rod Stewart than Hillary,” he notes with a chuckle.
As the former “Long Ball Silver,” Danny has a soft spot for mascots. In fact, he has an entire section dedicated to mascots of all kinds including the Hokie Bird, Salem Red Sox mascot Mugsy, “Diesel,” the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs mascot and even “Dazz,” the mascot from the defunct Roanoke Dazzle “D League” minor league professional basketball team. And, of course, he has a variety of major and minor league baseball mascots and an assortment of mascots from college teams.
Danny annually buys a quarter or half season ticket plan from the local Red Sox, and one of the first things he does is scout out when the good “giveaways” will be held. He has just about every bobble the Sox and previous teams have given away.
“I have some friends who keep an eye out for me,” he said, citing Mike Sharkadi for one. “The Sox always have a mystery bobblehead night at the end of the season and I’ve gotten some good ones from that.”
Danny loves checking yard sales and antique malls for treasures. He’s collected baseball cards since 1986 but the bobbleheads are more easily displayed.
“The cards are all in folders, but you can see the bobbleheads,” he said. “Plus, I enjoy the thrill of the hunt, and every bobblehead has some kind of story behind it. When we go to the beach the others get shirts, but I find a sports store and pick up a bobblehead as my souvenir.”
Danny has an unofficial limit of $15 per bobble. He only has a few he spent more than $15 for, including the milestone Mondesi. Bryce Harper cost a little more and Hillary was $18, mostly because she has real hair.
He likes to find them on the cheap. Not long ago he was in Covington and there were 26 bobbleheads on a table for three dollars each, and Danny bought them all.
“They were all college football and basketball coaches,” noted Cruff.
Danny was thinking about ordering a “Long Ball Silver” bobblehead for his 500th, but that was way out of his price range. There was never a Long Ball giveaway but there’s a company that can customize a bobble if you send them something to go by.
“They wanted about $140 and I just couldn’t see paying that,” said Cruff. “I still have the idea in my head. I have two cards from when I was Long Ball.”
Danny was “Long Ball” for two years, in 1993 and ’94. He saw an advertisement for tryouts in the paper and decided to audition.
“I went with a van full of friends,” he said. “The candidates would put on the costume and dance a little bit. I remember they played the entrance music and I came running down the concrete steps just hoping I wouldn’t fall.”
Danny was selected and thoroughly enjoyed his time in the costume. He was popular with the kids, although he did lose a couple feathers thanks to his admirers.
“When they introduced me I came out of the grounds crew shed,” he said. “One time they forgot to unlock the gate(to the field) and I had to climb over the fence. That wasn’t supposed to happen but the players in the bullpen told me how cool that was.”
About that time the San Diego Chicken was all the rage among mascots. Ted Giannoulas made a national celebrity out of the Chicken, later called the “Famous Chicken,” and the bird made several appearances in Salem to near sellout crowds.
“I got to dance with the Chicken,” said Cruff. “He called me into the lockerroom before the game and told me we’d be doing a ‘dance off,’ and he let me win. That was the coolest thing.”
Danny found a nice surprise when he was digging through some stuff at the now defunct Happy’s Flea Market, that used to be on Williamson Road.
“I saw the Bucs logo on a baseball, and it was autographed by me,” he said. “The lady at the stand wondered why I was so excited about that ball and I told her ‘I signed this ball.’
“I really loved that job. I’m not athletic, so that was the closest I would get to professional sports.”
Danny played recreation baseball growing up, and that’s how he became a Kansas City Royals fan.
“When we lived in Salem I played for the Royal Buick Royals,” he said. “We went undefeated and that was the same year the Kansas City Royals won their first World Series. I’ve been a Royals fan ever since, but little did I know it would be the start of 30 years of misery.”
Danny’s family moved to Roanoke shortly thereafter and that was a whole different ballgame, so to speak.
“We had shirts we bought at K-Mart and put numbers on the back with Sharpies,” he said. “Big difference between Salem and Roanoke.”
Still a Royals fan, Danny can often be seen taking pictures at ballgames in his blue “KC” hat. His son Danny and daughter Rachel played recreation and travel sports and son Danny, who now lives in Indiana, played basketball for William Byrd High School. Rachel is currently on the Byrd softball team and also plays for the Extreme Force 18-U travel team. Danny never misses an opportunity to hunt for bobbles when Rachel’s travel team plays out of town.
Cruff works for the Virginia Department of Transportation and is stationed in Lynchburg, where he has 14 Lynchburg Hillcats bobbles in his office. The rest are in his “Toy Room” and he has some special ones, like the dual bobble of Negro League stars Satchel Paige and Larry LeGrande that the Sox gave away. LeGrande, a member of the Salem-Roanoke Baseball Hall of Fame, was at the game on the giveaway night and Danny got him to sign the box.
“That’s the only one I still keep in the box, because it’s autographed,” said Cruff. “He was really nice.”
Another favorite is former Liberty University and NFL runningback Rashard Jennings, who was on “Dancing with the Stars” after his football days.
“He has bobble legs, like he’s dancing,” said Cruff. “He’s dressed like when he was on Dancing with the Stars but you can see his football uniform underneath.”
Mondesi, the speedy shortstop for the Royals, is the only other figure with “bobble legs.”
“He was a good one to have for the milestone,” said Cruff of his 500th bobble. “He’s a Royal and it’s a little different.”
And so the hunt continues. Is it ever going to stop?
“I can still find some room,” he said with a chuckle. “I guess the next target will be 1,000.”