If the Twins organization is a large family, then Clyde Doepner is its benevolent uncle.
The man can’t walk more than 30 yards through the Target Field complex without clapping someone’s shoulder, cracking wise or telling a security guard that he looks “spiffy” in his company-mandated jacket and tie. When he leads a stadium tour, he’s like a kid showing off his tree house. He thrills at revealing shortcuts, sneaking guests through the kitchen into the elite Champion’s Club restaurant, which houses the Twins’ two World Series trophies, or leading them through the umpires’ entrance to get a peek at the dugouts.
Doepner is ecstatic about coming to work everyday. And why wouldn’t he be? The guy has been dreaming about this job for almost 30 years. As the Twins’ first-ever staff packrat, Doepner is paid to keep up with an obsession that grabbed him in 1981: collecting and displaying Twins treasures.
Doepner, a retired high school history teacher and baseball coach, is the world’s foremost collector of Minnesota baseball memorabilia. He claims to possess more than 7,000 items, most of which he keeps in a makeshift museum in the attic of his St. Paul home. And we’re not just talking run-of-the-mill game jerseys and cleats. We’re talking Harmon Killebrew’s first contract. We’re talking the bat that Kent Hrbek used to smack the first homerun in the Metrodome. Even the drink carrying tray that vendor Wally the Beerman hoisted up and down the Dome’s stairs — Doepner’s got it.
For the past 23 years, Doepner has put together small samples of his collection for Twins Fest, the annual fan event that happens every January in the Metrodome. But these samples rarely expanded beyond a display case or two. Now, as a full-time Twins employee, Doepner has an entire stadium to fill. As the team’s official historian and archivist, his job is to manage the fan experience through memorabilia, building displays of collectibles throughout the brand new Target Field. It’s a position that Twins president Dave St. Peter created especially for Doepner back in August.
Doepner’s business cards read “team curator.” But if you ask him what he does, he simply says, “I’m an old guy that collects old stuff. My assignment is, ‘You know how you accumulated 7,000 items? Keep doing it.’”
He says he’s been working 12 to 14-hour days since March, scrambling to install dozens and dozens of displays before opening day. More than 1,200 historical photos have already been placed throughout Target Field.
“There will be a blow-away factor,” he said, speaking about his recent work. “Because the fans’ll be in Carew”— the Rod Carew atrium, a carpeted lounge located in the stadium’s Legend’s Club — “and they’ll say ‘Oh my god, look what they got on Carew!’ It’ll surprise ‘em. And just about the time that they catch their breath and they’re walking to the next restaurant and boom! There’s Puckett. And they’ll go, ‘Holy buckets! Look at what he’s got on Puckett!’ And then they’ll go to the 573 Club for Killebrew, and they’ll go to Hrbek’s, and it’ll be the same reaction.”
For Hrbek’s, a sports pub in the main concourse dedicated to first baseman Kent Hrbek, Doepner marched out a parade of rare jerseys. He’s got Hrbek’s number 15 jersey from Kennedy High School in Bloomington. He’s also got all three of Hrbek’s minor league jerseys, one each from Elizabethon, Tenn.; Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.; and Visalia, Calif.
Doepner is a first in Major League Baseball. No other team employs a staff curator responsible for outfitting an entire stadium. In January of 2009, the New York Yankees hired 24-year-old Brian Richards, who graduated just last May with a master’s in museum studies, as the first curator for the team’s New York Yankees Museum. But Richards’ responsibilities are limited to the museum itself, a self-contained venue located on the lower level of the new Yankee Stadium. Doepner’s domain is spread throughout Target Field, from the press box to the reception area for the executive offices. Doepner hasn’t met Richards yet, but says he would like to get in touch sometime this season.
Doepner’s relationship with Twins management goes back to the mid-1960s, and he owes a good deal of his collection to a friendship he forged with original team owner Cal Griffith. In 1966, the year the Doepner took his first high school coaching job, Griffith sent free season passes to all of the local head coaches.
“I was brought up to say thanks,” Doepner said. “So when I went to the first game that fall, I went by Griffith’s office, and I said I’d like to say thanks to him.”
Griffith, who Doepner remembers as an ornery old dinosaur, was so impressed by Doepner’s gratitude that he offered the young coach his own spot in the owner’s box. “The season pass was for the cheap seats, you know. And Griffith said, ‘You don’t have to sit out there with those thankless sonofaguns. You sit here with people that know baseball.’”
The exchange sparked a lifelong friendship between the two. And when it came time for Griffith to move the Twins out of Metropolitan Stadium and into the Metrodome, Doepner got first crack at the team’s long ignored storage room.
“Griffith found out he was going to have to rent space by the square foot,” Doepner remembers. “And he was too cheap to even pay for his own tickets. So he wasn’t going to rent any storage space in the Dome. He said, ‘Get rid of everything.’”
For one month in 1981, when the Twins finally left the Met, Doepner got special access to the stadium’s storage room. “Whatever they were going to throw away that day, I got to have a look at it,” he recalls.
Doepner’s world famous collection was born with pieces he pulled out of the Met. And some of them, like an aerial photo of the 1965 All Star Game, appear in Target Field.
“It all came from the word ‘Thanks,’” Clyde said. “That’s how the whole thing got off to this wild and crazy start. By saying thanks.”