Norm Mueller and his wife, Pat, have been to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. They visited the shrine in Cooperstown, N.Y., on its 50th anniversary, a July 1989 weekend that saw Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski and Red Schoendienst inducted into the Hall.

Parking was a nightmare. No room at the inn(s), either.

“We had a big van,” Mueller said. “We slept in the van three nights … without a shower or anything.”

They don’t cover that sort of thing in the wedding vows.

The Muellers made it work. They had no choice, really.

Even then, Norm Mueller had been driven for years to go where sports memorabilia took him. If it meant driving from Central Illinois farm country to a small village in New York — staying/sweating three nights in a van — it was the price you paid.

The weekend was one stop on a decades-long journey that has provided many things, including this bit of irony: If the Muellers want to see Hall of Famers, they don’t have to leave their Atlanta home.

Their exuberant dog Dusty will lead the way, charging up the stairs to an array of bats, balls, photos, cards, posters, plaques, jerseys, etc., most autographed and authenticated. The Pantagraph did a story on Mueller’s collection 23 years ago. See it now and you realize he was merely getting warmed up back then.

He has a baseball bat signed by 72 Hall of Famers. There is a football signed by Walter Payton and a basketball with Wilt Chamberlain’s signature. An autographed Muhammad Ali photo also is among the hundreds of items Mueller has amassed.

“I look around and I’m amazed at what I have,” said the 73-year-old retired teacher and coach. “I guess it’s kind of like an addiction. Since I’ve been 5 years old I’ve always been listening to ballgames or watching ballgames. I’ve probably collected strongly since the early ’70s. But I collected before that. I’ve probably done it a total of 50 years.”

Two bedrooms, a hallway, even the walls leading up the stairs, have been overtaken by Mueller’s “hobby,” if you can still call it that. It began as one, but has grown to be “really expensive,” he said.

To support it, the lifelong St. Louis Cardinals’ fan umpires softball almost daily in the spring and summer, weather permitting. It hasn’t lately.

“My play money is running short because I’ve had so many rainouts,” he said, smiling.

Past part-time jobs have included substitute teaching, night watchman, fast-food cook and custodian. He also worked at Walmart in Lincoln for nearly four years.

Each has helped fund a collection so extensive, classes from Olympia South Elementary School have come to tour it as a mini field trip.

The Muellers recently had the upstairs rooms painted and shelves hung. Displays are grouped and organized, from a “legends” table — featuring items signed by Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and others — to a designated area for their favorite player, Stan Musial.

Nearby is a framed autographed photo of an elderly woman. Anna Mueller is gone now, but lives on in her son’s collection.

“That’s a prized possession,” he said.

Look for it to stay in the family. The bat with the Hall of Fame signatures will go to a grandson. The rest will be left to the Muellers’ two grown children, Rick and Jackie.

Norm Mueller has donated some items for school auctions and sold a few others. Soon, he will have a booth in a downtown Atlanta shop. Yet, he values most of what he has collected too much to attach a price tag.

He and his wife, a former Atlanta National Bank teller, have traveled to Atlantic City, Toledo, Florida, Arizona, St. Louis, Chicago and, yes, Cooperstown in pursuit of memorabilia. They haven’t kept track of the cost.

Just know it has involved a lot of dollars and cents.

Some sweat, too.   

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