Like vassals at the castle wall, the autograph collectors--they don't like being called hounds, and most of them swear they're not sellers--stand on the sidewalk across from the Westin Michigan Avenue in Chicago, awaiting the departure of the Cincinnati Reds for a day game at Wrigley Field. They are barred from either entering the hotel or congregating outside the revolving doors. "No use trying to sneak over there," says Bob Johnson. "They know who we are." ¬∂ Separated from their prey by a busy thoroughfare, the dozen collectors mill about while keeping a vigilant watch on the doorway. There's an eight-year-old boy as well as fiftysomething veterans Johnson and Jim Mann, who snagged his first autograph in 1960 at Comiskey Park. Mann estimates that he has 100,000 autographed baseball cards. That's one ... hundred ... thousand. ¬∂ The group also includes a generously endowed woman with a low-cut Ryan Freel jersey; she is blissfully unaware that the Reds' leadoff hitter had taken a cab to Wrigley earlier. Most athletes have a story or two about being asked to sign a woman's breast or undergarment, and you might think that the male collectors would resent a distaff presence. They don't. "She can be an advantage," says Johnson. "Players will stop if they see a good-looking woman." ¬∂ The younger autograph hunters wear hopeful, starry-eyed looks, but the vets pursue their avocation with a certain dispassion. They've been around the block a few times, enduring disappointment, rejection, even outright humiliation. But they know a few things, too. Particularly about writing implements. They know that a supply of blue and black Sharpies is a must for signatures on cards, magazines and photos. They know that Sharpies bleed on baseballs, so the old-fashioned ballpoint is also valuable. They know that silver or gold paint pens work best on jerseys or dark-colored items, such as hockey pucks. They know that some of their peers favor the Vis-√†-Vis marker over the Sharpie because of its dark-blue ink, though others feel that the Vis-√†-Vis tends to blotch, and then when you hold the autograph up to the light, you can make out a gold tinge and.... How much time do you have?
They are also plugged into the circadian rhythms of athletes. They know that young ballplayers will probably emerge from the hotel early and hail a cab to the park and that wily vets will hunker down in the lobby and dash out only after the doorman has secured their ride. They know that only a few players will take the team bus to the park for a day game, though in this case the Reds' driver arrived early and parked near a side exit, which some of the players will use to sneak out.
And so the collectors wait and watch.
"Basketball is the worst for getting autographs," says Bryan Petrulis, 32, who has come to the hotel directly from his midnight-to-eight shift as a telecommunications specialist at SBC, "but baseball is a close second. Then football." Petrulis has about 50,000 baseball autographs. If he stays at it, he may one day pass Mann, whom he calls "the father of us all."
"Hockey guys are the best," opines Johnson.
"But you get the sloppiest autographs from hockey," says Petrulis, "which is their way of telling you that...."
Suddenly, they take off en masse across Delaware Place, thumbing through their loose-leaf binders for the appropriate card or photo and screwing the tops off their Sharpies. It is serious multitasking and literally a dodgy business--they must maneuver through steady traffic. As they approach their target, one pleads, "Would you sign?" Their quarry looks at them with disdain, then wordlessly accommodates a few, ignores the rest and climbs into a cab. When they return to their post, the hunters identify the Red as backup shortstop Ray Olmedo.
"Hispanic guys usually don't sign," says Johnson, "but he's young." When it comes to signing, youth, apparently, trumps Hispanic-ness.
"See, there's a progression with these guys," says Petrulis. "When they first come up, they'll sign about anything you hand them. Then it depends on who they lend their ear to. If it's the biggest jerk on the team, then they start getting ideas about what people do with autographs."
"One jerk can pollute the whole team," says Johnson.
"Like Mark Messier," says Petrulis. "In hockey he's gotta be the worst, and believe me, he spread his philosophy throughout the team."
Out comes Reds superstar Ken Griffey Jr. The young supplicants dash across the street, but the veterans don't budge. "You got a better chance of getting Bin Laden," says Petrulis. Sure enough, Griffey blows by the youngsters.
"They make Griffey out to be such a nice guy and Barry Bonds to be so horrible," says Mann, "but you have a much better chance of getting Bonds."
The door opens, and the veterans dash across Delaware. They come back with autographs from two of the four Reds who had emerged. One of the guys who didn't sign was bullpen coach Tom Hume. How did you recognize him? "You do this long enough," says Johnson, "you recognize everybody."
He laughs ruefully. "Sick, isn't it?"
People have been collecting signatures for centuries. In ancient China an autograph from an emperor was considered priceless, though selling an item bearing the signature was a crime. Somebody knew enough to save the signatures of William Shakespeare and John Donne, which are preserved in the British Library. In 1857 the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in his diary that he had answered 70 autograph requests in a single day. The billionaire industrialist J.P. Morgan was an inveterate hunter of autographs, scouring Europe for the signatures of kings and queens and generals; he was particularly proud of acquiring Napoleon's. A 1939 Disney cartoon called The Autograph Hound shows Donald Duck running afoul of a security guard as he seeks signatures at a movie studio. Pancho Villa reportedly had a baseball autographed by the New York Giants.
Sports has long been a hotbed for the hunters; the stars must frequently come in contact with the public, and teams' schedules are readily available. Some are gracious signers--Cal Ripken Jr., Arnold Palmer and Billie Jean King, to name a few--but even their patience can be taxed. An athlete has only a finite amount of time to sign, whether he's asked to do it on the field, outside the locker room or in front of a hotel (often without a please or a thank you). "That's the frustrating thing," says Reds first baseman Sean Casey, generally a cooperative signer. "You walk over to sign, and there are so many people that you can't get to everyone. And it's always, 'One more.' You can't do all the 'one mores.'"
There's often tension, too, because many (perhaps most) athletes feel that their signatures are objects of commerce rather than collection, that frantic bidding wars occur every time they scrawl their John Hancock. (Which, incidentally, never resembles John Hancock's.) Some will ask an adult seeker for his name and offer to personalize the signature, in effect quashing a future sale, since nobody except a Charles wants a To Charles autograph. "I've done that," says Casey, "then I look over and see the guy wiping off the personalization. 'Dude,' I'll say, 'that's cold.'"
Mark Allen Baker, an autograph-collecting expert who has written several books on the subject, doesn't believe most hunters are sellers. Based on interviews, personal experience and data in trade publications, he estimates that 97% of the 15,000 enthusiasts in the U.S. don't peddle their wares. That figure is impossible to verify, but one glance at eBay reveals that the majority of signatures, particularly on trading cards, aren't very valuable. Yes, mint-condition autographs of the immortals can command thousands--at the high end, a Shoeless Joe Jackson ball could fetch $30,000--but objects signed by everyday players yield only a few bucks. At the Westin only one hunter, a young man named Mike Gomez, admitted to being a seller, saying that the signatures he gets on glossy photos earn him about $10,000 annually.
Why, if not for lucre, do the resolute collectors invest such time and endure such frequent rejection? "For me there are three sides to it," says Petrulis, a former outfielder at St. Mary's University in Winona, Minn. "The thrill of the chase, seeing who will sign that day. Second, the collecting aspect, trying to put together one of the best autograph collections around. And, finally, feeling more connected to the game because I actually meet the guys playing it instead of just seeing them on television."
But there's a dark side, too. "It gets addictive," says Petrulis, "just like gambling, drugs or sex. It's like putting a coin in a slot machine. It might not pay off this time, so you put another quarter in and keep doing it until you are tapped out or finally hit the jackpot."
Ernie Banks, one of the sports world's eternal radiators of sunshine, stands behind a table that groans with memorabilia and affixes his signature to jerseys, cards and balls. "This is amazing," says Banks, 74. "This is amazing. Is this amazing or what?"
Banks is amazed by a number of things. Amazed that on this day in August 2005, 34 years after he played his last game as a Chicago Cub, people still remember him. Amazed that so many have paid $10 for a ticket to the 19th annual Tristar Collectors Show at the convention center in Houston and now will pay more for his autograph. Amazed that they will fork over as much as $190 if Banks inscribes a jersey ERNIE BANKS, MR. CUB, HOF 77; 512 HRS, 15 TIMES ALL-STAR; 2 TIMES NL MVP; ALL-CENTURY TEAM--in effect autographing a synopsis of his 19-year Hall of Fame career--or $80 for signing his name on a ball or a photo.
Besides the guerrilla assault at the ballpark or arena and the eternal wait in front of the hotel, the Hancocks of jocks are now to be had at convention centers and hotel ballrooms. Autograph shows began small in the late 1970s, mostly as vehicles for card collectors to get together and trade, but promoters got the idea to invite athletes to amp up interest. Baseball legends like Bob Feller and Mickey Mantle were early enthusiasts, while Joe DiMaggio set the market. "DiMaggio dictated the whole deal," says Jeff Rosenberg, Tristar's founder and CEO, who began using the Yankee Bic-er in 1992. "He would say, 'I'm going to sign this many autographs, you're going to charge $50 for each one, you're going to pay me this much money to appear [his price got as high as $50,000] and pay my expenses.' And when you did the math, you lost money. For many years we had him here as a loss leader. He set the standard in the autograph business. If he found out somebody was getting more than him, he just raised his price."
For both collector and signer, the chief advantage of the autograph show is the controlled environment. The athlete sits behind a table, doesn't get surprised and is paid to boot. The hunter waits in line and always gets his man, as long as he pays. It's a little like the sex in a porn movie: It's going to happen--it just might not be exciting. "I get out of it exactly what the guy who chases players gets out of it," says Joey Madison, a collector from Katy, Texas. "I look at the autograph, and it takes me back to when I met him." (Though met can be an approximate term. Madison once queued up to get Troy Aikman's signature only to find that the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback had ordered that an extra table be set up so collectors could not get close enough to shake his hand or request a photo.)
At the first show Banks did for Tristar, in 1990, supplicants were still in line at a hotel in Houston when the session ended at 6 p.m. "So Ernie tells everybody, 'Come up to my hotel suite, and I'll finish,'" recalls Rosenberg.
The cynic says: Well, why not? The more Banks writes banks, the more Banks banks. Tristar and other promoters generally get commissions of 10% to 15%, so if Banks signs 200 autographs and 100 premium items, such as the jersey, he nets about $30,000. Throw in his fee for showing up, which sources put at about $10,000, and Mr. Cub earned around $40,000 for five hours' work in Houston.
Ol' Let's Play Two gives the fans their money's worth, though, keeping a smile on his face and a steady stream of banter as he signs. "You met your husband on the Internet?" he says to a young lady. "How does that happen? Your mother doesn't know?" He stops signing. "Give me that phone. I'm going to call her." Among the old-time baseball players, he and Brooks Robinson are recognized as being particularly amiable at these shows, while Willie Mays is recognized for being crotchety. "Ernie hates to tell anyone to move it along," says Rosenberg. "That endears him to everyone who shows up."
Banks can't begin to estimate how many autographs he gave for free on those hot, dusty afternoons at Wrigley when the kids would show up in the late innings, after school, and wait by the players' exit. "Every time a youngster would approach me for an autograph, I'd think of only one thing," Banks says. "That someday I might have to ask that kid for a job." And now his job is being Ernie Banks.
"I view autographs as using your fame to help," Banks says. "It means a lot to the people who get this merchandise. Some goes to kids. Some goes to charity organizations to raise funds." But there's a reticence in his answer. You feel guilty about the money, don't you? I ask him.
"I do," he says finally. "But it's really not about the money for me. I know what that sounds like, but it's not. I just find it...."
"That's the word," Banks says.
Because they are targets both at the hotel and at the stadium or the arena, and because they're highly popular, baseball and basketball players get the most autograph requests; consequently, they can be the most grudging about giving them. (If NBA players did not invent the art of shutting out the world with a pair of earphones, then they surely perfected it.) Hockey players are known throughout the sports world, even to journalists, as being the nicest guys--they become something else on the ice--and so they get high marks from collectors. Though their size makes them easily identifiable, football players are the least besieged; it's impossible to get them at the stadium, and at the hotel they often move in military formation, an impenetrable platoon for all but the most resolute of Sharpie-ists.
Individual athletes have their own policies on handling autograph hunters. Boston Red Sox outfielder Johnny Damon seldom signs because he has exclusive deals with trading card companies. New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza allows his mood to dictate if he'll comply. Mets pitcher Pedro Martinez, in contrast to Greek prostitutes, will always say yes on Sunday but usually not on any other day. Tiger Woods usually won't stop to sign, but, rather, will grab an item in full stride, scratch his name and toss it back over his shoulder. (Do not even think of stepping in front of Woods with a Sharpie if his caddie, Steve Williams, is in the vicinity, lest the bruising bag-toter stomp you like a twig.)
Some players take considerable time with their autograph. Former NFL star Emmitt Smith is known for having a beautiful signature with a lot of graceful loops. "I saw Emmitt's one day," says former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young, "and I said, 'Man, I have to get a better autograph.'" Martinez also takes time with his signature. Dealers and collectors say that the Latin American athletes who do sign are often more meticulous than athletes from the U.S., who generally take the approach of Chicago Bears wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad. Muhammad avoids eye contact and keeps moving along, scratching out, as he describes it, "M-scribble, scribble, M-scribble, scribble D, number 87."
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis has three distinct autographs. The C version (an abbreviated J. BETTIS and maybe his jersey number, 36) is for large groups, when he's moving fast; the B (a legible JEROME BETTIS¬†36) is for medium-sized groups; and the A (a carefully scripted JEROME BETTIS, THE BUS). "The A is rare," says Bettis. "It's usually only for an autograph session that someone's paying me to do, because it takes a long time."
Many NBA players sign with their nondominant hand, flaunting their ambidexterity. After watching Larry Bird breeze through a crowd, chicken-scratching his name with his left hand, I took a look at his signature on a program. It could have said DAG HAMMARSKJ√ñLD. That's why the serious autograph hound will always have a card or photo ready. "If a guy's signature is a big X, then that's what it is," says Petrulis. "As long as you have it on something that identifies him, it's a real autograph."
Most athletes who don't sign demur behind a Griffey-like glower. Boston Celtics immortal Bill Russell was a celebrated scowler who declined to sign because he said it led to "idolization." From time to time he now accepts a fee to sign at autograph shows, where idolization is apparently not a factor. Sometimes outright subterfuge replaces an I don't sign or a Not now, buddy. "Two years ago I had [Boston Red Sox slugger] Manny Ramirez one-on-one," says Petrulis. "A car was parked in the middle of the street, and he comes around and I say, 'Mr. Ramirez, can you sign a card, please?' Then he says to me, 'Wait a minute, this guy is backing up. Watch out.' Like he was trying to help me. So I get out of the way, and Manny jumps into the car. He never even said anything. I felt like an idiot."
In 1995, when linebacker Kevin Greene was a Pittsburgh Steeler, he was stopped by a youngster seeking his autograph on a football after a preseason session at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. Greene took the football and, in a variation of the little-used quick kick, punted it over a hill. The kid brought the ball back, and Greene promptly punted it away again. The father of one of the kid's friends complained in a letter to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Greene was ripped by fans. He explained his actions by saying that the kid should have been more respectful, asking for an autograph instead of demanding it. Greene may have been correct, but two punts on the same set of downs seems a little extreme.
Some athletes, though, are compliant signers because they remember what it was like being on the other side--the triumphs and the disappointments. "I was a Dodgers fan," says San Francisco Giants pitcher Brett Tomko, "and I spotted Davey Lopes, went up to him and asked for an autograph. He said, 'I don't have time, kid.' That made a lasting impression." Los Angeles Kings center Jeremy Roenick is the NHL's version of Ripken, partly because he used to collect autographs as a kid. "Gordie Howe was without a doubt the most cherished autograph I ever had," says Roenick. "I am a firm believer that without fan support and interest, what would the NHL be? We'd be a beer league without fans." Which is what it was last season.
Many athletes are autograph seekers themselves. Another San Francisco pitcher, Scott Eyre, was an inveterate collector as a kid and has enlisted fellow southpaw Noah Lowry on autograph searches. "I didn't have the nerve to ask [Roger] Clemens because he gets so many requests," says Eyre. "But I'll have one ready for [Greg] Maddux when he comes in." Like most players, Eyre sends over a clubhouse attendant with the autograph request. "You don't want to look like a green fly, latching on," explains Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Matt Wise.
That gives you some idea of what autograph seekers go through: Major leaguers are too intimidated to ask for autographs from their peers and dispatch minions to collect them.
Fellow PGA pros routinely ask the legends of their own sport for autographs, though this practice turned nasty in 1997 when Woods refused an autograph request from Billy Andrade, who was gathering auction items for a charity tournament. When word got out, Tiger took a lot of heat, and since then he has granted most autograph requests from his fellow pros. He'll even stop as he signs.
Just as a sportswriter resents other journalists who ask stupid questions, the veteran collectors scorn the nonpros who get signatures on index cards. "I don't know how many times I've seen somebody run around waving a piece of paper and shouting, 'Who's this?'" complains Johnson. "What's the point of getting the autograph? It could be a plumber. She could have a Great Plumbers of the United States collection."
Then, too, longtime autograph hunters tend to judge athletes on the basis of who signs, just as sportswriters often evaluate an athlete by the amount of interview time he's willing to offer. "Baseball has become a little tainted for me," says Petrulis. "I come down here and I see whether they're jerks or nice guys, and I find myself rooting for them by the personalities or whether they sign autographs, rather than by their abilities."
"That's exactly my feeling," says Johnson.
Then they laugh at their own melancholy. "But we'll be back," says Petrulis.
"It keeps me out of the bars," says Johnson.
The veterans rarely go to card shows, where they have to pay. But they also won't go to stadiums or arenas. "Hotels are the only places you're guaranteed to see everyone," says Petrulis. Adds Johnson, "It's so hard to get autographs at Wrigley these days. They should just put in a moat between the stands and the players."
Still, getting autographs at the park seems more in keeping with tradition, and before a game at Wrigley, I saw the other side of collecting. It was a beautiful summer evening, the banks 14 flag flapping gently on the top of the foul pole in left. Before every game, fans gather along the leftfield line, Sharpies in hand. They call out to any player who drifts into the vicinity, and quite often a player will toss a ball to them. Not many players come by--vets rate the Cubs as poor signers--but on this day the mood among the autograph seekers is still upbeat and festive.
Finally, Chicago relief pitcher Ryan Dempster ambles over. A youngster named Cal Muramaru, visiting from Oahu, hands Dempster a string of beads, and Dempster signs a slip of paper for him, then puts the beads around his neck. Bill Richert has brought his son, Bill Jr., to Wrigley, and Dempster signs a ball for the little boy. "It's his first game, and we wanted to get one autograph--just one--as a keepsake," says Bill Sr. as his son stares at the ball with a smile. "Years from now I don't know whether my son will remember the autograph. But I will."
Keith Kurlansky, an upbeat 15-year-old visiting from Sharon, Mass., filled me in on his autograph adventures. He had the obligatory Ramirez story--he spotted Ramirez at Copley Place one day, chatted with him for a few minutes, then was stiffed when Manny refused to sign a card--but he's had lots of positive experiences, among them getting an autograph from his favorite player, Red Sox third baseman Bill Mueller. On this night he will get only Dempster's. But he's not discouraged.
"It still seems more--I don't know--real coming out here to get autographs," says Keith. "And if I don't get any, I'm still at a ball game, right?"
After spending considerable time in front of hotels, in bleacher seats at ballparks and in the throng at card shows, I have a fresh perspective on autographs. I believe that collectors vastly outnumber sellers and that any nonsuperstar athlete is misinformed if he thinks a majority of the autograph-collecting populace is making a living auctioning off his signature. And I'm glad that autograph shows have given the underpaid superstars of the past, men like Banks, who missed out on the big bucks, a downright amazing revenue stream. With one stroke of the pen and a few seconds of conversation, a player like Banks can fulfill the lifetime dream of a fan.
Still, my essential opinion of autograph collecting is unchanged. There is something geeky about chasing down an athlete for an autograph, particularly when grown men are doing the chasing. (At least I receive a salary for chasing them.) And though I partly buy Rosenberg's point about card shows--"Athletes who sign at shows are doing exactly what they do when a corporation pays them to use their name or their likeness, only in this case the consumer actually gets to get close to the athlete"--there is also something unsettling about paying for someone to sign his name. In any case, no autograph in the world has any intrinsic meaning to me.
I relate this opinion to Steve Young at the Tristar show as he steadily signs footballs that have already been sold for $100.
"Well," says Young, "everybody collects something. Me? It's golf clubs. I can't throw them away. Even the old ones mean something."
"I don't collect anything," I tell him.
"You collect something," Young says. "Everybody collects something. Especially if you're in sports."
"Well, I save my press credentials," I say. "I wouldn't call it a collection, exactly."
Young stops signing. "You're exactly like the people collecting autographs," he tells me, flashing a gotcha smile. "You collect them for the memories. You just don't realize it."
"Autograph hunting is the most unattractive manifestation of sex-starved curiosity." --SIR LAURENCE OLIVIER
They're Still Worth The Wait
The value of an autograph can go up after an athlete's playing days end
$750* MUHAMMAD ALI
$600 MICHAEL JORDAN
$500 MARK MCGWIRE
$300 WAYNE GRETZKY
$300 BILL RUSSELL
$250 SANDY KOUFAX
$250 JERRY RICE
*Source for all figures: Beckett Media
America's Most Wanted
Here are the current athletes whose signatures top the U.S. market
$750* TIGER WOODS
$500 LEBRON JAMES
$300 LANCE ARMSTRONG
$250 BARRY BONDS
$250 HIDEKI MATSUI
$250 ICHIRO SUZUKI
$225 ROGER CLEMENS
$225 SHAQUILLE O'NEAL
*Source for all figures: Beckett Media
Jackie Robinson was a hot Hancock after he joined the Dodgers, in 1947.
LARRY BIRD, $200
BARRY BONDS, $150
JOE DIMAGGIO, $625
DEREK JETER, $175
TIGER WOODS, $750
ERNIE BANKS, $100
LEBRON JAMES, $500
TONY HAWK, $60
STEVE CARLTON, $75
MARK MESSIER, $160
MICHAEL JORDAN, $600
PETE ROSE, $60
MARK MCGWIRE, $500
Martinez is meticulous about his signature, but he's also particular about which day he grants requests for it.
After his Yankees days DiMaggio became more selective about signing and demanded high fees from show promoters.