550,000 pull tabs and an 85-year-old Wolverine with a mission

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
Allan Levy of Canton is surrounded by a portion of the 550,467 pull tabs collected over six years.

Allan Levy is 85 years old and he still plays baseball and softball. What he doesn't do is cook, which is why he was finally ready to let go of more than 550,000 pull tabs Monday.

You know what pull tabs are, right? Those thingamadoodles you yank skyward to open pop and beer cans? Levy had 17 cartons and plastic tubs of them stacked in his Canton Township condo, mostly in a shower where the escapees had spilled out onto a dark blue bathmat.

Just grab a can, he explains, rock the aluminum tab up and down maybe half a dozen times, and snap! — you're holding money for charity. At current recycling prices, figure 0.00026 cents.

It took three strapping young men and two adults from the University of Michigan baseball team to transport Levy's shimmering donation to Ronald McDonald House Charities of Ann Arbor, where executive director Kim Kelly's response to the impending gift had been as follows: "Holy Cow!"

As for Levy, he was just sorry to see the tabs go, or at least sorry about what letting go meant. But at least the delivery gave an old Wolverine one last chance to beat Ohio State.

He never faced the Buckeyes on the diamond, but it turns out there's an annual competition between the Ronald McDonald facilities in Ann Arbor and Columbus, Ohio. Whoever amasses the mightiest pile of pull tabs wins, and he'd spent six years collecting silver snippets for the Maize and Blue.

That was the goal: Beat OSU. And raise some money for a good cause, of course. And maybe inspire some other people to do the same thing, if not quite so enthusiastically.

It’s not that he separated all the tabs himself, mind you. Far from it. But Levy was the catalyst, the one-man pull tab collection agency who pocketed Baggie after Ziploc of them from members of the U of M Club of Ann Arbor, his retired educators association, fellow ballplayers, waitresses, girlfriends and friendly flight attendants — "plus, I find some on the sidewalk."

For the record, Levy bats left-handed and removes pull tabs with his right. He'll grasp the can with his left, the same trusty hand he pitched with at UM in 1955, back when Dwight Eisenhower was president and Coca-Cola first appeared in something besides bottles.

Since then, Levy has remained close to the athletic department and closer yet to the baseball program, where his inspired heckling of opponents has become part of the soundtrack of spring.

He’s still rakish, still dating, still driving: a used Mercedes convertible with his old uniform number on the license plate and a Go Blue sticker on the bumper. He’ll visit C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital with the current Wolverines and do magic tricks.

“He’s got the mindset of a college kid,” says UM baseball coach Erik Bakich, even after a career that saw him teach high school, become a Macomb Community College administrator and then go back to the classroom at MCC.

He has amassed an astonishing collection of sports memorabilia that is also, alas, becoming a casualty of his inability to cook. And he has become a magnet and magnate for pull tabs.

The final tally was precisely 559,351 of them. Levy knows because he counted.

“I think I might have counted one of them twice, though,” the former pitcher says, and he throws a wink. “I’d better count again.”

Meticulous process

About the counting:

Dump a bunch onto his glass-topped coffee table while he watches a ballgame. Like a pharmacist tallying pills, slide 25 to the right in a pile. Do that four times, sweep them all off the table into a box, place one uncounted tab to his left to signify 100.

Log the source onto a sheet of paper that ultimately goes in the box: Michigan Softball Academy, 1,560 tabs, 8,760 in the carton, 471,481 total.

From left, Michigan baseball players Jimmy Kerr, 21, and Ben Keizer, 21, unload bins and boxes filled with pull tabs at the Ronald McDonald House in Ann Arbor.

Now, about the cooking:

He’s twice divorced, with an actress daughter in Los Angeles and a sales executive daughter in Chicago, and he realizes it’s on him to feed himself. But he feels hopeless in the kitchen, and he’s not going to change at 85, “and I don’t eat well.”

The solution is to move to Fox Run, a retirement community in Novi. One hot, healthy meal per day, guaranteed. Problem is, he’ll only have two bedrooms and one bath there, not the three-and-three with a basement he has enjoyed for 14 years in Canton.

No room for pull tabs, even if it would have been nice to hit a million. No room for the sports memorabilia, even if brings a million memories.

Levy has so many signed baseballs in plastic cubes that they line the stairway to the basement.

He has personalized photos and posters of Hall of Famers and Heisman Trophy winners, and more signatures from Bo than there are letters in Schembechler.

Levy started collecting as a kid on the west side of Detroit who knew which hotels the visiting teams used. Charm and luck helped; one memorable day, he was invited into the Red Sox locker room at Tiger Stadium and spent an hour with his idol, Ted Williams.

Now he owns a signed Williams jersey in a frame. That, he'll keep. The fate of the autographed winged helmets and the rest, he's still figuring out.

A game-changer

No collector owns a signed Levy jersey, but the Bentley Historical Library has a team picture from 1955 that includes a 5-foot-9, 137-pound senior lefty in a flannel uniform.

He'd been on the squad but unused for three seasons — benched, he says, by a classically crusty coach who didn't believe a pitcher so slightly built could get anyone out. Finally, on the team's spring trip, he pitched in relief against a tough team from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and shut the Marines down after they had already scored 10 runs.

Allan Levy spent four years with the University of Michigan baseball team, finally pitching when he was a senior in 1955.

Finally, coach Ray Fisher believed in him. Levy earned a victory with four no-hit innings against the University of Toledo. Across four games, he pitched 12 innings, giving up only six hits and three runs.

“The big surprise of the young season has been senior Al Levy,” said a Michigan Daily article, and he was scheduled to pitch the Big 10 opener against Northwestern on April 22 ... but it didn't happen.

Nothing happened, in fact, for the rest of the year. He came down with a virus, and that was the end of his college career.

Still, he kept competing. Keeps competing, even.

As a graduate student at Wayne State in his 30s, he won intramural championships in wrestling, volleyball and tennis. For six decades, if there's been a game, he's been in it.

Al Moran of Farmington Hills played with Levy on a 75-and-over softball team last summer in Livonia. Half a century before that, he played two seasons in the infield for the New York Mets.

"Allan's knees aren't good, but he hobbles around," says Moran, 80, and in less creaky days, "he was a good ballplayer. He could hit the ball wherever he wanted to. He could run."

On the field, Moran says, the guys give each other good-natured grief about their various infirmities. Off the field, they give Levy pull tabs.

Levy says he can't remember how he learned that pull tabs could help charities. The first time he collected them, around 2010, he amassed 100,000 to help finance a lung machine in Brighton.

Then he discovered a higher purpose: the Ronald McDonald rivalry.

Kelly, the Ann Arbor executive director, says the contest is tied to the Michigan vs. Ohio State football game. "Unfortunately," she concedes, "we've never won."

That's not a particular sore point. The idea, she says, is to create grassroots support, much of it from children, without asking for cash.

Besides, the house connected to OSU is older and larger and sits in a much bigger city. Last year, it racked up 4,643 pounds of pull tabs to only 2,437 for Ann Arbor. And what Levy didn't know is that the race only runs from September until game day in late November — but Kelly is no fool.

With 559,351 tabs showing up unannounced Monday, she says she might suggest to her counterpart that they start the tally in January. At about 1,325 pull tabs per pound, that's a 422-pound head start.

Monetarily, alas, the bottom has fallen out of aluminum cans. The price per pound for tabs, 60 cents to $1 when Levy started, is now about 35 cents.

Six years of effort by Levy and hundreds of helpers will bring Ronald McDonald House all of $147.75.

"It's not extremely fruitful financially," Kelly acknowledges, and Levy admits to a bit of disappointment.

But he's also proud, and hopeful that others will try to follow in his shiny path.

It turns out that pull-tab collecting is a lot like sports itself: It's not winning or losing, it's how you play the game, one plink at a time.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn