Charles Lindbergh had one. Jose Bautista tweeted a pic of his. The National League gave one to Babe Ruth, but the American League shunned him. The first of its kind went to Teddy Roosevelt.

Part of an exclusive club, each of these figures received a Lifetime Pass.

Major League Baseball's version of the golden ticket from Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, the prestigious card grants free admission to MLB games for life to any player, manager, coach or umpire with at least eight years of MLB experience. Full-time front office personnel, including general managers, marketing and public relations officials, receive it after 25 years of service.

"It's a nice little reward for putting in a lot of hard work," said Jay Bell, a former All-Star second baseman and shortstop, "and having the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the big leagues."

None of the other major professional sports leagues -- the NFL, NBA or NHL -- has such a program.

Initiation into the Gold Card Club, though, does not involve an elaborate ceremony or presentation. MLB usually mails the Pass to the individual's home or team clubhouse. There have been some instances of a player receiving it at MLB headquarters in New York, if his team happens to be in town shortly after reaching the eight years of service.

It is as esoteric honor, which is shrouded in some mystery. (Even MLB's official historian, John Thorn, was unaware of its origins before researching it for this story.)

"Not that many people know about it," said Brandon Inge, who played 12 years for the Tigers.

When former umpire Steve Palermo, now the supervisor of umpires for MLB, got his in the mail in the 1980s, he thought that MLB sent it either as a mistake or that the league was forcing him into retirement -- until some of his veteran colleagues explained the significance.

"I had no idea what it was," Palermo said. "I wasn't forewarned. "

The gold-toned card reads:

"The Commissioner Of Baseball In Appreciation Of Long And Meritorious Service Presents This Lifetime Pass _____ & Guest."

One year of service equals 172 days on the 40-man roster.

To gain admission to a game, Pass recipients do not have to call in advance. They typically show the Pass at the stadium's designated VIP window. The card, however, only applies to regular-season games -- not postseason or All-Star events.

MLB indicated the exact seats given to the Pass recipients are based on a club-by-club basis, but one source said his seats were located in prime spots -- even behind home plate.

The Lifetime Pass, which is also given to the occasional historical dignitary, was partly the brainchild of Ford Frick.

When Frick took over as NL president, he came from a public relations background. Showing his promotional savvy, he issued the first NL Lifetime Pass to former Boston Red Stockings shortstop George Wright, who later wrote Frick a personalized thank you note, around February of 1935.

Shortly thereafter, Frick gave Babe Ruth, who played 28 games for the NL's Boston Braves, an NL Lifetime Pass.

The AL had no equivalent, so it became something of an embarrassment that the AL would make its best player -- and one who spent 21 of his 22 seasons in the league -- pay his way into games. A peeved Ruth said, "At least the National League has a heart."

The leagues then began giving out combined passes to players in 1936.

Gold passes were issued to 17 players who put in at least 20 years of service -- Ruth, Fred Clarke, Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins, Bill Dahlen, Harry Davis, Red Faber, Walter Johnson, Sam Jones, Nap Lajoie, Rabbit Maranville, Herb Pennock, Eppa Rixey, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner, Bobby Wallace and Cy Young. Silver cards (386 of them) were given to players with at least 10 years but less than 20.

"They took on quite a luster almost instantly," Thorn said.

Thorn, though, could not pinpoint when eight seasons of experience became the threshold for receiving the pass, adding to the mystique.

Using more modern conventions, Bautista celebrated his lustrous Lifetime Pass by tweeting about it on May 18: "8 years in the show! ‪#goldcard ‪#mlbalways grateful to be able to play the game i love for a living!"

***

During the 444-day occupation, his Iranian captors would storm into his cell in the middle of the night, throw him against the wall, blindfold him, and pull the trigger.

He could only hope the gun wasn't loaded.

"The hardest part," said Barry Rosen, the former U.S. Embassy press attaché, "is the endurance, the will to live through such an elongated crisis, never knowing whether you're going to be executed or not."

A Lifetime Pass was given to Rosen and each of the other 51 Americans, who had been held hostage in Tehran.

Iranian revolutionaries had stormed the embassy in response to the United States' admittance of Iran's ailing and deposed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, for cancer treatment in 1979. (The Iranian Hostage Crisis was depicted in Argo, the 2013 Academy Award winner for Best Picture.)

Bestowed in 1981 the Pass served as a small token of appreciation for the hostages' sacrifice and suffering.

"When I look back at everything that went on, that is the most unique gift that I received," Rosen said. "Of course, in context of what went on, nothing is of any value, but it was a good way to keep the family together."

Rosen's young kids, Alexander and Ariana, didn't recognize their emaciated father when he first deplaned at Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, N.Y. In fact they were a little afraid of the disheveled figure.

"The children really didn't know who I was," Rosen said.

Using the Pass, the family went to 15 Mets games a year at Shea Stadium, outings that served as a bonding experience for the Rosens.

"It was my way of bringing them with me to something that I really loved," Rosen said, "and it gave them a spirit of closeness to me that I had not had when I first came home."

More that 50 years before the hostages arrived back in the United States, a Pass was given to Lindbergh in 1927, the year he made the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

"Baseball wanted to be part of any national celebration or attach itself to a national hero," Thorn said. "Baseball had become America's national game, and it seemed an appropriate move."

U.S. presidents also have received Passes. Even before Frick brought the idea to the National League in 1934, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues gave Roosevelt the first ever Lifetime Pass in 1907. (At the time the NAPBL was a major governing body in baseball. It still exists as the umbrella group for the minor leagues.) Though an avid sportsman, Roosevelt was not interested in baseball and never used the 14-karat gold pass.

Calvin Coolidge didn't care for baseball -- or sports -- either, but he gave his Pass to his wife, Grace, who frequently went to games.

***

As he sat down in the visiting clubhouse, Inge, a Pirates infielder, pulled his Lifetime Pass out of his backpack, hanging in his locker.

"(Otherwise,) knowing me," Inge said, "I'd lose it."

Although Inge said he would use the Pass to attend games once he retires, neither Bell nor Rob Deer has. The hitting coaches for the Pirates and Cubs, respectively, Bell keeps his in the top of a desk drawer; Deer stores his in a safe.

"I've never used it," said Deer, a power hitter during the 1980s and '90s. "Before I was coaching, I usually had connections, so I didn't need to get in with a (Lifetime Pass). It's more of a memento. "

Similarly, Hall of Fame pitcher and current Orioles color analyst Jim Palmer, who keeps his Pass in his dresser drawer, told The Toronto Star it is more symbolic than practical and that he probably won't ever use it.

"I don't think I ever will," the former Oriole said. "I have a media pass with my picture on it."

While also with the Orioles, current Cubs reliever Kevin Gregg was presented with his by Baltimore's traveling secretary. Gregg, who has pitched for the Angels, Marlins, Blue Jays, Orioles and Cubs, showed it off to his then-Oriole teammates.

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"It would probably be a little more special if you were with one team." Gregg said. "But it's still pretty cool. Not many guys can make it eight years."

But if they do last that long, this special honor can also bond fathers and sons -- just as the National Pastime has done for generations.

Now walking with a cane after a robber's gunshot paralyzed him from the waist down in 1991, Palermo gave his pass to his father, Vincent, who was moved by the gesture.

Steve Grilli, the father of Pirates closer Jason Grilli, pitched four years in the majors and sat next to his son during an interview. Steve may not have enjoyed a long career like his son. But Jason, one of the game's best relievers and in his seventh full year, said he wanted to take his dad and sons, Jayse and Jayden, to games when he gets his Gold Card after next season.

"I'm excited to have it," Jason Grilli said. "It's a fraternity you get to be a part of, and you should reap some of the benefits."

Jason remembers being in the Tigers clubhouse when Placido Polanco received his Pass, and the infielder promptly placed it in his in wallet like it was a gold credit card.

"It's just as important as the American Express card," Grilli said. "You can't leave home without it."

-- Follow Jeff Fedotin on Twitter @JFedotin.

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