The genesis of Bill Huhner’s “silly little baseball collection” was in 2008.

He was vacationing with his parents in Seattle when they visited Safeco Field, home of Major League Baseball’s Seattle Mariners.

“And I thought, man, I should get a souvenir just to represent the stadium,” Huhner recalled. “And so, I bought that colored ball to represent the team, the Seattle one, this one.”

Standing in the living room of his Litchfield home, Huhner pointed to a ball in the upper right corner of a display case that now includes 71 baseballs representing every MLB stadium.

That trip to Seattle and the purchase of a single souvenir baseball at Safeco Field were the inspiration to begin a collection, but what Huhner didn’t know at the time was that he would gather more than sports memorabilia over the next decade-plus. Nearly every baseball he’s collected comes with a story, and many of those stories have nothing to do with baseball or sports, but instead reveal the diversity of the country and the kindness of strangers.

“This whole thing, it was a sports thing to start out, it was 100% sports,” said Huhner, 53, who has taught math and coached girls basketball, tennis and golf over the past 25 years at Litchfield Public Schools. “And, of course, I was going to golf in every state, too. It turned into way more than that; it turned into less sports and more everything else — meeting people, hiking through the national parks, taking in historical sites. You know, the cultural and ethnic diversity of meeting people and finding out what the different cities are like.

“I can't tell you how blessed I am by getting the education that I've gotten by doing it,” he continued. “And I never would have dreamed that, when it just was a sporting goal at first. I've been able to share so much about my journeys with the kids at school and so much about how I've been fortunate to take in and see all the majestic, beautiful sights of the Rocky Mountains and to see what the inner cities are like and just — I've experienced it all from the bad to the great. It's, it's, I can't describe it.”

For those who have witnessed Huhner’s intensity as a coach and referee, seeing him at an emotional loss for words might seem incomprehensible. And yet, it speaks volumes about how his life has been changed.

How it began

And it all started so simply.

Huhner, a 1985 Litchfield High School graduate, was a gifted athlete in high school, who went on to play basketball at St. John’s University in Collegeville while pursuing a business degree. He worked as a computer programmer for a few years before entering the teaching profession.

Along with playing sports, Huhner was an avid follower of professional sports, especially the National Football League.

So, it wasn’t a surprise in 2008, when he decided to fit in a Mariners game and a Seattle Seahawks preseason NFL game with his parents. The Seahawks game was a special attraction, Huhner said, because Litchfield native John Carlson Jr. was drafted by Seattle that year, and the preseason game would be Carlson’s first NFL competition.

But after he returned home, Huhner dreamed of something bigger to satisfy his sports jones. That’s when he decided he’d begin “collecting” stadium visits – he’d try to attend a game in every MLB and NFL stadium.

“The NFL was my favorite growing up. I got to the point sometime, I thought, ‘I should try and get to all those (stadiums). And what happened is, it became my quest,” Huhner said. “It’s like, OK, I’m going to go to all 62 stadiums around the country and take in a game as part of my journey, because I figured I love sports, I might as well see what I can do.”

Having purchased that baseball in Seattle, Huhner thought continuing the approach at each MLB stadium would give him a physical reminder of his visits. But he decided to go one step further. Along with purchasing the decorated souvenir ball at each stadium, he would try to get a ball used at the stadium the day he was there, whether in batting practice or game.

That addition made completing his collection much more difficult — in fact, he’s visited several stadiums more than once to secure the “game-used” quarry — but it also led to some of the most meaningful and rewarding aspects of building the collection.

Some of the moments are just fun stories to tell, like the foul ball that hooked into the left field foul line stands at Wrigley Field where he was standing with other memorabilia hunters, thumped off an empty seat and rolled right to his feet.

The journey to securing other game balls creates a good story, too, but the stories are different – less about the stadium or ball, and more about the people who helped him add to his “silly” collection.

It's a small world

He doesn’t remember the specific moment that the baseball collection became a “life” collection, but Huhner thinks it happened primarily because of his approach.

A teacher for more than two decades, Huhner said he spends a lot of time in the winter when it’s too cold to enjoy the outdoors, planning adventures for the summer months when he’s not teaching. He doesn’t like to fly, so most of his vacations, usually two- or three-week journeys, are done by automobile – either he’s driving himself, or he takes sports-themed bus tours.

For those vacations when he’s driving, Huhner meticulously plots a daily itinerary that includes stops at tourist destinations, national parks and other sightseeing opportunities along the way. The stops allow Huhner — an avid photographer — to capture postcard-worthy images, which serve as rotating screen saver pictures on his laptop.

“I don’t know if I have the English vocabulary to describe some of the views, but that’s what I do … I try and take those spectacular pictures,” he said as he flipped through his laptop photo gallery, landing on a shot of a sunset in Jacksonville, Florida. “I’ve never seen a color like that. Things like that, I look at, and I know you praise God for, because there’s nobody else that can do something like that.”

That acknowledgment of faith echos in conversations Huhner has had with people he’s met along the way – who seem to have reaffirmed his faith in humanity, as well as illustrated what a small world we live in.

Nearly every trip he takes, Huhner said, he meets someone who knows where Litchfield is. Like the time he was on the East Coast for a Washington Nationals game and made a stop at Shenandoah National Park. He hiked a trail to an overlook of a valley expanse, a view he had to himself for about 20 minutes. Suddenly, he heard a noise coming up the hiking path.

“Shoot, my peace and quiet is going to be broken,” Huhner said to himself. “And this family pops out of the woods – Mom, Dad, and two girls – and I’m wearing that (a Litchfield Invitational tennis tournament) shirt. This is Shenandoah, on top of a mountain in Virginia, and the first thing he says to me (is), ‘You’re from Litchfield, Minnesota?’ I said, ‘You know where that is?’ They, of course, were from Shakopee.”

On another trip, he was hiking in Yellowstone National Park, wearing a Litchfield T-shirt, when he ran into another vacationer who noticed the shirt immediately.

“She looked at me and says, ‘You’re from Litchfield, aren’t you? You’re Bill,’” Huhner said with a smile. “She says, ‘I’m Amy Peltier, I’m Bill and Mary’s daughter.’ I haven’t seen her in years, and here she is in Yellowstone. I mean, it’s crazy, it’s just wonderful.”

Diversity of experience

For Huhner, those “small world” moments are matched only by interactions with complete strangers who have gone out of their way to show him kindness.

“Everywhere I’ve gone … people have helped me along the way,” he said. “I mean, I’ve never encountered anybody that’s been mean to me. It really helps my faith in humanity, because we kind of sometimes get stuck … we’re stuck in Central Minnesota. We don’t necessarily know what else is out there unless you go experience it. And that’s part of this big picture that I have now.”

He recalled a visit to San Francisco’s Oracle Park, when he struck up a conversation with a Hispanic usher. Huhner explained his baseball collection and his desire to get a game ball to add to it.

“He said, ‘Hey, talk to my friend Joe. Joe comes to every game,’” Huhner said. “So, I'm out in the outfield trying to catch, you know, home run balls at batting practice. Well, Joe’s an African American guy. He comes over, and then a third guy who was Asian, and he was in a wheelchair because one of his legs was amputated. He comes over. And we have four people of four different ethnic races or backgrounds. Me white, African American, Hispanic and Asian. We sat and talked for half an hour, never knew each other beforehand. And we talked about what each other did, and they asked me what I was doing with my baseball collection. And then I remember saying to them, ‘You know, you read online about how different nationalities, different ethnic backgrounds can't get along.’ I said, ‘Thank you guys, for this conversation. You've been so great to me and so nice, you know, and it makes you feel really good that being strangers we can really get along.’”

The usher then encouraged Huhner to visit the customer service office at the stadium, where young fans can traditionally pick up a certificate acknowledging their first trip to the ballpark. Though he worried about infringing on a rite he said should be reserved for youngsters, Huhner eventually consented, and went to the office, where he explained his quest to a woman, telling her that Oracle was the last stadium he needed to collect from, and that he’d saved it because he’d heard it was one of the nicest in MLB.

“She says, ‘Come back in the fifth inning. I’ll have something for you,’” Huhner recalled. “So, I went back, and that lady had a bag of San Francisco Giants T-shirts, she had a bobble head, I don’t remember what else … but she gave me like six gifts, and she just said, ‘You saved our stadium for last. Here you go.’”

Still seemingly flabbergasted by the gesture as he tells the story, Huhner asked, “How does she believe me? It just, it’s just so crazy. There are so many good people out there.”

A lesson in kindness

Classroom conversations with students about his travels and experiences prompted the LHS National Honor Society to invite Huhner to be guest speaker at the NHS induction ceremony this past spring. He used lessons learned and people met during his travels to illustrate the four “pillars” of NHS — scholarship, service, leadership and character.

But his closing story about a trip to Atlanta left an impression with the audience, who filled the LHS little theater for the ceremony. As he started the story, Huhner held up a baseball.

“Just an ordinary baseball, but it’s not to me,” he said. “This is a Major League Baseball, and it has huge significance in my life. The story behind this ball illustrates the essence of service, but to me it also is kindness.”

The ball, he said, was one he got when he visited Georgia in August 2016 to see the Minnesota Twins play the Atlanta Braves — a prize to add to his collection, but only through the kindness of a stranger.

In the city the day before the game, Huhner stayed in a hotel across the street from Turner Field, and with time to kill the morning of the game, decided to walk the neighborhood around the stadium, even though, he said, it was “a sketchy part of town, very sketchy.”

It was a hot, muggy day, and the forecast called for storms – a threat that could cancel Huhner’s opportunity to get a game ball.

After walking for a while – and worrying about the storm – Huhner headed back to his hotel. On the way, he approached two black men carrying construction tools headed the opposite direction, toward the stadium. As he neared, Huhner said, he could hear them making fun of him and the Twins hat he was wearing.

“In 2016, both the Twins and the Braves were awful,” Huhner said. “So, of course, these guys keep making fun of me and my hat, like, ‘What a loser, why would he wear a hat like that?’ I could hear them! I got abreast of them, and I don’t know if I nod, or said, ‘hi’ to them, but they kept harassing me. And that’s when I made my first mistake.

“I turned around — and remember, they’re carrying power tools — and took two steps toward them,” he continued. “So, then I compound it by making mistake number 2. I say, ‘Are you guys making fun of me?’ For some reason, they didn’t take me as a threat. He goes, ‘Yeah, what are you wearing a hat like that for?’”

Set up as a negative interaction, the meeting quickly changed course into a pleasant conversation, in which Huhner was teased about his “Minnesota accent” and the three men shared their mutual disappointment in their favorite baseball teams.

Huhner explained his quest to collect one baseball from every MLB stadium, sharing a photo of his display case which he says he carries with him always, “just in case I need assistance.”

“I show this picture, and he went crazy,” Huhner said. “He’s like, ‘Oh my goodness!’ He said that was the coolest thing ever. He’s like, ‘I’ve always dreamed about doing something like that.’”

As they talked, Huhner shared his worry about that night’s game being canceled because of the approaching storms.

“He says to me, ‘I’ll get you a ball,’” Huhner said. The man asked for his phone number, explaining that he would be done with work at 1:30 p.m., and he would meet Huhner by a statue on the street with a ball from the stadium as soon as he could get there after he was finished with work.

They parted ways, with Huhner heading back to his hotel room, then to a nearby restaurant for lunch. While he was there, the sky opened up.

“You think thunderstorms up here are bad, try them down there,” Huhner said. “It was like a monsoon. It was thundering and lightning nonstop. I couldn’t see out the window it was pouring so hard.”

He finished his meal just as it was turning to 1:30, but he received no phone call. Two o’clock came and went without a call. At 2:15, just as he was giving up, his phone rang.

“That dude says, ‘Do you still want the ball? Meet me by that statute,’” Huhner said. “It’s still absolutely pouring. I can’t really see; the storm is nonstop. But OK, I’m going to trust this guy? So, I go across the street, and I’m standing there (in) a torrential downpour. And sure enough, this Cushman (motorized cart) comes out of the stadium, and he brings me this.”

Huhner choked up as he held the ball up again for his NHS audience to see.

“Why? Why?” he asked haltingly. “My whole way home, I’m like, why would he do that? An African American, working a low-paying job, probably struggling to make ends meet, in an absolute torrential downpour, is willing to come out and help me, a white, middle-class stranger? For this silly little collection.”

Huhner said he still asks himself that question some days, but there’s also a realization that what might have begun as a “silly little collection” has enriched him beyond the 71 baseballs.

“That (ball) is in my living room with the rest of this collection, where I see it every single day,” he said. “It reminds me of the kindness a stranger showed me. It reminds me every day to everybody I encounter: I need to do as good as I can to people, to help them.”

One to go

Huhner’s collection is nearing completion, the display case nearly full. The last stadium ball to secure is from where it all began – Seattle’s Safeco Field.

It wasn’t until after he left Seattle that Huhner decided he’d collect a “game-used” ball, and he hasn’t been back since he made the decision. The return was supposed to happen last summer, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed all that.

It won’t happen this summer either, Huhner said, but soon. And when he has that final ball, then what?

Well, he hasn’t golfed in all 50 states yet. (Sixteen to go.) And there still are a lot of national parks he hasn’t visited.

“I’m a goal-oriented person,” Huhner said.

Whatever his next quest, it seems likely that the people he meets and things he learns along the way will be more important than any memorabilia in a display case.

"This started as a simple baseball collection," Huhner said. "But it's really, really, really made a huge impact on my life. That's why I share this story with the kids at school, because these kinds of experiences can do the same for them, for anyone."