Babe Ruth once said of autographs, "Hell, who wants to collect that crap?" But the Babe signed willingly, even happily, and Jocko Conlan, the 82-year-old former umpire, thinks Ruth began the sports-autograph craze. "I started in baseball in 1920," says Conlan, "and Babe Ruth hit 54 home runs that year, the first ever to pass the 50 mark. I think I'm right when I say that he was the only one anyone wanted an autograph from then. Signing by others came later."
Barry Halper of New Jersey, a demon baseball collector, tends to agree. He says the oldest albums of baseball signatures he's seen date from the 1920s. Earlier autographs in his collection come mostly from letters or documents (an autograph is, properly, anything handwritten; a signature is sometimes called a clipped, or cut, autograph). Autograph collecting itself began about 1800, although in ancient Rome Cicero is said to have prized a letter written by Julius Caesar. Power hitters among big collectors go after such things as all the signers of the Declaration of Independence (a set was sold for $180,000 in 1976, and Charles Hamilton, the New York autograph dealer, says that if he'd been handling the sale the price would have been higher). An equivalent to this for baseball collectors would be the autographs of all the people in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. Halper is the only one to have gathered such a set. He estimates it cost him between $5,000 and $10,000, not including the time and effort it took, and that it would cost 10 times that amount if he started from scratch today.
One of the signatures Halper needed for his Hall of Fame set was Tommy McCarthy's. You may not recognize the name, but McCarthy is in the Hall. He may not deserve to be there—he was a pre-1900s outfielder of modest accomplishments—but there he is, and Halper wanted his autograph. McCarthy died in 1922, more than 50 years before Halper began his search, and he died where he was born, in Boston, a city replete with McCarthys. Somehow Halper tracked down a relative who found Tommy's will, signed two days before his death. Halper paid $150 for it.
That's professional collecting, not quite the same thing you see every day outside stadium gates. "There's a difference in collectors," says Andy Strasberg, promotions director of the San Diego Padres, who himself has an impressive assemblage of autographs, among them a rare doubleheader—letter signatures by both Abner Doubleday, the legendary creator of baseball, and Alexander Cartwright, who deserves the credit. "We don't wait in hotel lobbies until odd hours or stalk the buses," Strasberg says.
April 12, 1982
Halper, too, has Doubleday and Cartwright. Doubleday, it should be noted, is not in the Hall of Fame, baseball having reluctantly accepted history's verdict that Abner didn't have anything to do with the invention or development of the game. It should be noted also that Halper and a few others may seek a complete set of Hall of Famers, but when the selectors install new members they sometimes blindside the collectors. The election last year of Rube Foster, a renowned pitcher and manager in the old Negro leagues who died in 1930, sent Halper and the others on a hunt for his hard-to-find autograph. Some collectors try to anticipate the Hall elections. Bill Madden, a zealous baseball collector as well as a sports writer for the New York Daily News, has the autograph of a fine old-time pitcher named Vic Willis in his bullpen, just in case the selection committee ever gets around to noticing that Willis won 20 games or more eight times from 1898 to 1910.
A point well made. Ordinarily, when you envisage baseball and autographs you think of kids dancing around players entering or leaving a stadium or fans mobbing an athlete in a hotel lobby or after a banquet. That, at least, is the world that active players are all too familiar with. A Paul Newman or John Travolta may be besieged for autographs whenever he mingles with the common herd, but neither is subject to the day-in, day-out barrage of requests to "sign this" that a Pete Rose is, or a George Brett—or, for that matter, a second-string infielder batting .238.
All major leaguers are familiar with the question put to them when they're in street clothes at the stadium: "Are you anybody? Are you a baseball player?" (If you are, and I don't care who you are, sign this.) "Do you play for the Padres?" a young autograph seeker outside the Marriott Hotel in Houston asked Earl Campbell a few years ago, when that splendid running back was in town to sign his first contract with the Oilers. The Padres were there, too, for a game that night with the Astros, and the youngster was on the prowl for rare out-of-town signatures. "No, I'm just a football player," said Campbell, who at that time had achieved little more than All-America status, the Heisman Trophy, the honor of being the NFL's No. 1 draft choice and the distinction of having just signed the most lucrative contract ever offered a league rookie. "Oh," said the kid, disappointed, and passed him by, still looking for a .238-hitting infielder.
"Football players are not bothered nearly as much as baseball players," says Lem Barney, the Detroit Lions' great defensive back of a decade ago. Basketball players are asked a bit more, particularly in airports, where they seem to spend a considerable part of their lives, but seldom to the degree that baseball players are. And there's even less attention given to athletes in other sports, excepting easily recognized superstars like Muhammad Ali, John McEnroe and Jack Nicklaus. In baseball though, it's everybody all the time.
Some players handle it well. Others don't. Hearing the horror stories some of them tell, it's hard at times to blame them. The pursuers are ingenious and relentless. Two summers ago a game between the Giants and the Phillies in Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia was delayed by rain and wasn't completed until 3:12 a.m. When the Giants came out of the clubhouse nearly an hour later to take the team bus back to their hotel, more than 50 kids, some still drenched from the rain, were waiting for autographs.
Jerry Green of The Detroit News says that he was an autograph collector when he was growing up in New York. "I was a pain in the neck," he says. "I remember the Cincinnati Reds had an outfielder named Mike McCormick who wouldn't sign for me outside the Polo Grounds. He took a subway downtown and I got on the same car and rode all the way to Rockefeller Center with him. On the platform I accosted him again. 'O.K.,' he said, 'if you followed me all this way,' and he signed."
Appeals for autographs are sometimes accompanied by stories designed to break the hardest heart. John Orsino, a onetime big league catcher, was carrying a box of autographed baseballs from one dugout to the other before an oldtimers' game. Fans gathered along the railing begged him for them. "Just one, John, just one!" "Can't," Orsino said, "they're not mine." "Please!" an inspired youngster cried, "I got a crippled brother!" At one National League park there is a persistent collector who says he has leukemia; he has gotten so many autographs that the players suspect he's in the business and is selling the autographs he gets.
Indeed, some autograph seekers have no conscience. One baseball collector is trying to find autographs of players who have committed suicide. Eight years ago in Philadelphia a general collector hit on a scheme to get signed letters from famous and usually inaccessible people. He and his wife wrote to dozens of celebrated figures and enclosed a photograph of their infant son with a note saying that they admired the famous man so much they had named their newborn son after him. They didn't bother to say that the photo was almost a decade old, that the son was now 10 and that in any case he had been named for his father. The response was astonishing. Gerald Ford, then Vice-President, wrote a letter beginning, "Dear Gerald, Your parents have paid me a high honor in naming you after me." Picasso wrote to Pablo. Kissinger to Henry. Andrew Wyeth sent a drawing to Andy. Lt. Gen. James M. Gavin a silver cup to Jim. The scheme was exposed after an Arab newspaper in Lebanon reported with considerable satisfaction that a child in the U.S. had been named Yasser after the PLO's Arafat. That story, complete with names, was picked up by American newspapers and the subsequent publicity forced the collector to admit there was no infant son named after anybody. But he wasn't contrite. "I've never regretted what we did," he said. "I'm just sorry we were exposed."
A less reprehensible, but for athletes a more annoying family, used to haunt hotels in Houston where professional teams stayed, more or less setting up house in the lobby and snaring stars to pose for pictures with the entire clan. That kind of pursuit, away from the stadiums, is what bothers players the most. It follows them everywhere, sometimes into the most personal aspects of their lives. According to autograph expert Hamilton, Joe DiMaggio once gave Marilyn Monroe a check, reportedly for $10,000. It was done without publicity, and Marilyn cashed it privately. When Joe's bank statement came a month or so later, he discovered that the check with his signature and Marilyn's endorsement was missing. He called the bank. The manager said the check was gone. He apologized. DiMaggio said, "I don't want an apology. I want the check. Get it." The bank moved swiftly and threatened drastic action if the check didn't appear by morning. It did posthaste and was returned to DiMaggio. Whether an autograph hound or a souvenir hunter swiped the check isn't known, but it's odds-on that sooner or later it would have turned up for sale to an autograph collector if DiMaggio hadn't acted quickly to get it back.
Reggie Jackson was in a movie theater with a date watching Damien-Omen II when a woman asked him for his autograph. "Not now," said Jackson, "I'm watching the movie." The woman persisted, Jackson's date said something, there was a scuffle and the woman, Cassandra Smalls, 26, claimed that Jackson slapped her and knocked her down. Jackson maintained he had merely restrained her after she allegedly threatened the woman he was with. Smalls filed a $150,000 damage suit. Jackson refused to settle, and more than two years later the suit was finally withdrawn. "If we hadn't defended this case," Jackson's lawyer said, "it would have been open season on ballplayers and other well-known people."
"They can't get away," says Larry Shenk, publicity director of the Phillies. "Whether it's a hotel lobby or a restaurant or a grocery store, fans are always coming up and asking for autographs." Infielder Ted Sizemore, then with the Phils, was eating in a restaurant when a woman rushed up and asked him to sign. She shoved paper and pen onto the table and in so doing hit his elbow just as he was taking a bite of food, driving the fork against the roof of his mouth. Some players won't sign when they're eating. Al Bumbry, the Orioles' centerfielder, says, "I'll sign when it's appropriate, but not when I take my family out to dinner. I don't have time for autographs then. But people don't understand." Even Pete Rose, one of the most affable of autograph signers, won't give autographs when he's in the middle of a meal. "Come back when I'm finished," he says.
Rudeness is common among collectors. Gordie Howe, the former hockey star, was once approached by a 12-year-old boy who shoved a hockey stick at him and ordered, "Sign this." Howe, amused by an impudence he wouldn't have tolerated on the ice, drew back and said, "Say please." The kid said, "O.K., please." Howe said, "Now put it all together." Impatiently, the kid said, "All right. Will you please sign my damn stick?" Warren Cromartie, the Montreal Expos' right-fielder, was hailed by a young fan at Shea Stadium in New York. "Mr. Cromartie! Mr. Cromartie!" the youngster called out, politely enough, "can I have your autograph?" Cromartie said, "No, I can't do it now. I haven't got time." "I hope you break your leg," the boy said and turned to the next player—"Mr. Carter! Mr. Carter!"
Players sometimes chafe at what they consider pointless signing, autographs that are sought not for collecting but only because the subject is there. Psychologists justify the motives of people who ask for autographs for the sake of asking, saying it gives such people, particularly youngsters, a chance to get close to heroes, to have some special attention paid to them. A small boy in Atlanta asked Pitcher Phil Niekro to autograph the inside of his cap. Niekro complied. A week or so later the same boy proffered the same hat. Niekro was about to sign it when he saw his signature. "Hey, kid," he said, "I've already signed this hat." "Sign it again," the boy demanded.
Dr. Thomas Tutko, one of the most frequently quoted sports psychologists, a rapidly growing breed, explains the motivation of autograph seekers by saying, "People are in desperate need of an identification. What they really get from an autograph is recognition that they exist." Chip Royce, an 11-year-old tennis fan and autograph collector, told World Tennis, "The big fun is just speaking to the players. You feel like you know them."
That's O.K. if you're nine or 12 or 15, but, says Tutko, "to have to get autographs when you're 35 is to say life has passed you by." Still, many adults acting on some sort of imperative they're not consciously aware of, will scramble after autographs they don't really want or, for that matter, don't even recognize after they obtain them. Once in Cooperstown during the midsummer Hall of Fame festivities a woman came up to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and oldtime pitching star Waite Hoyt and asked them for their autographs. Both signed. The woman read their signatures and asked, "But who are you?"
In Cooperstown at Hall of Fame time autographing has become a part of the ceremonies. The weekend of the Hall of Fame inductions is like Christmastime for autograph seekers. They swarm in and around The Otesaga hotel waiting for the Hall of Famers. They're the main reason why some Hall of Famers don't come back anymore. Sandy Koufax, who was installed in 1971, returned for teammate Duke Snider's installation in 1980, but after someone looking for autographs knocked on his hotel room door in the middle of the night he said that would be his last time. Ted Williams made a rare appearance that same year, but he stayed holed up in a special room while a security guard stood watch outside.
Of course, some of the players are just as nasty as the signature hounds. In 1975 Fred Lynn, then a Red Sox rookie, ignored some kids asking for his autograph as he walked past them. An onlooker who was watching said, "Come on, Fred, you can sign some autographs." Lynn, without stopping, flipped him the bird. The onlooker got in the last word: "This is probably the last you'll see of Coopers-town, Freddie."
Athletes are asked to sign the damnedest things. Autograph albums used to be basic, but they're rare. Today there are photographs, baseballs, index cards, baseball cards (extremely important to serious collectors, for whom complete sets of signed cards can be a real treasure), newspapers, magazines, notebooks, cloth napkins, paper napkins, matchbooks, hands, arms...anything. Soccer player Roger Davies of the Seattle Sounders is occasionally asked to sign photographs of his feet. Davies is famous in Seattle for his feet, which used to hurt him so much because of bunions on his little toes that he had to slit the sides of his soccer boots and wear specially made street shoes.
Jim Palmer, Baltimore's pitching ace and advertising star, autographed Jockey shorts on TV last month for admiring purchasers. Jim Lefebvre, who used to play for the Dodgers, says, "I was once asked to sign a lady's thigh." He refused. "She might have been married," he explains. "If there was some question that somebody was fooling around, my name would have been right there." Reggie Jackson, on the other hand, said once that he signed a girl's breast. Alan Hudson, another soccer star, says he signed the bare stomach of a young female fan. "It was a bit embarrassing," he admits, "but that's where she wanted me to sign, wasn't it?"
The ultimate in this sort of thing took place on the Yankee team bus outside Comiskey Park in Chicago during a Yankee-White Sox series in 1979. A young woman dropped her jeans and asked the players to sign her bare buttocks. Reportedly, some did, and there was a great flap about it. Houston Chronicle columnist Cactus Pryor wrote, "This is the same team that barred woman reporters from their locker room for reasons of impropriety." It was conceded that the woman had exposed herself, but it was denied that any of the players had signed what had been exposed. Billy Martin, then on one of his tours as manager of the Yankees, produced a photograph that had been taken of the woman. "Exhibit A," bellowed Billy. "No visible signatures, just the bare bottom."
If not there, autographs are just about everywhere else. Little League mothers in St. Louis made a huge quilt out of patches they had sent to the Cardinals for autographs, a separate signature on each patch. After their last game of the 1980 NBA playoffs, the Milwaukee Bucks' 6'11" Bob Lanier supposedly signed his size 22 basketball sneakers and gave them to two kids outside the team bus in Seattle. The Cincinnati Reds gave Roy Rogers, the cowboy singing star, a base autographed by Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench and the rest of the Reds after the club learned that Rogers' boyhood home had been at 412 Second Street in Cincinnati, or approximately where second base in Riverfront Stadium is now.
Some athletes resist giving autographs. Former basketball and baseball stars Bill Russell and Mike Marshall refuse to sign at all. "I could never understand why anyone would want my name on a slip of paper, unless it was a check," says Russell, who considers signing autographs demeaning. He once said that, when he refused to sign for a youngster, the kid called him a nigger. After he retired, Russell met a man who said, "Bill, I got your autograph when you were playing with the Celtics." Russell laughed his loud cackling laugh and said, "If you did, you better hang on to it, because it's the only one around."
Marshall is just as adamant about not signing, but he doesn't condemn autograph collecting as such. When he was a player, he would suggest to youngsters that they ask their teachers for autographs, because teachers were doing far more valuable work than a relief pitcher was. This seemed a moving argument at the time, although it would be hard to find a seventh-grader who would appreciate Marshall's logic. And, in retrospect, Marshall's comment became rather facile when he later turned down a reporter's request for his signature by saying, "My autograph is going to be so rare that one day it'll be worth something."
Some players are as rude or devious as those who seek their autographs. Ron Perranoski, the onetime Dodger relief pitcher, shot Scott Kaufer, now an Executive Editor of California Magazine, with a water pistol when Kaufer, then 12, asked him for an autograph during a game. Ruppert Jones, the San Diego outfielder, is only one of many players who put off autograph hounds by saying, "I'm not a ballplayer, he is." Very popular current and former players like Willie Stargell of Pittsburgh, Willie McCovey of San Francisco and Mickey Mantle of New York are, or were, awfully tough to get. Jim Bouton pilloried Mantle in Ball Four for shoving kids away, but writer Ed Linn, who once spent several days almost constantly in Mantle's presence while doing a story on him, was startled by the incessant pressure of autograph seekers chasing after Mantle wherever he went. Ted Williams would sign without protest when he was cornered, but he was a genius at getting away from a ball park without being seen. He knew all the secret ways out.
Others are irritatingly elusive, too. Jackie White of Baltimore, whose salesman husband, Robert, is an autograph dealer on the side, often accompanies her two small sons on autograph forays. "Some players can be really mean," she says. "It's crushing for a child to be pushed away or snubbed. Of course, your really famous ones like Reggie Jackson will never come out. They know the ball park, and they come out another way." In San Diego both Dan Fouts of the Chargers and Rollie Fingers, when he was with the Padres, would take an elevator up two or three levels and then sneak down the ramps behind the crowds waiting for them. Larry Parrish of Texas once wore an ice pack on his right hand to avoid signing as he walked to his car. A lot of players will push through the crowd without stopping after giving autographs to the first two or three people who ask them. Many players sign on the run, so to speak, as they move steadily to their cars. Willie Mays and Henry Aaron were renowned for signing that way. "Self-defense," Mays once claimed. "I gotta play ball the next day. I'd be there overnight if I didn't keep walking." Leon Uzarowski of Baltimore remembers vividly getting Mantle's autograph: "He signed my book 22 feet from the team bus traveling at two miles per hour with a five-mile-an-hour wind at his back after an 0-for-4 day at the plate."
Stadium parking lots have been scenes of altercations between players and fans. Jackson, who is notably selective in picking people he wants to be pleasant with, had a run-in outside Yankee Stadium with a truculent man pestering him to sign. Reggie Smith was attacked outside Dodger Stadium when he turned down two young men asking for autographs. One of them smashed the windshield of his car, and when Smith got out of the car the other hit him with a bottle. Two other Dodgers, Rick Monday and Dusty Baker, helped Smith subdue the men and hold them for the police.
It rarely gets that bad, although ballplayers like to make a production, often with exaggerated humor, of the terrors of the autograph world. Ron Santo, the former Chicago Cub third baseman, would sprint all the way from the hotel elevators to the team bus. Richie Zisk, the 6'2", 212-pound Seattle slugger, has been known to scream extravagantly, "No, no, no!" as he dashes from the door of the hotel to the bus. Autograph seekers rebuffed that way will sometimes pound the side of the bus and yell at the players sitting inside, and the players will pound on the windows and scream back. Fred Kendall, who used to catch for San Diego, described the environs of Jack Murphy Stadium there in quasi-military terms: "There is no back door. The buses and the players' cars can't be moved right up next to the clubhouse. Sooner or later you've got to cross open ground. You become easy pickings."
Yet Kendall, like a great many unpublicized players, seems to delight in autograph hunters. "I like kids," says Mike Sadek, the former Giants' catcher, who was granted custody of his son and daughter when he was divorced. Scott McGregor, the Baltimore pitching star, says, "Kids look up to us. We can be a good influence on them or a bad influence. A lot of times you ask yourself what they're going to do with the autograph, and maybe it's true they're going to lose it right away or discard it, but it's just the fact of being closer. When you see a kid waiting outside the clubhouse, it's hard to turn him down. I used to collect autographs when I was a kid, and I know the feeling when you get refused."
And, presumably, the feeling of exaltation when you get one. Wesley Marans of Boston, whose collection of autographed photographs of celebrities in all fields has been displayed in exhibitions, says his 12-year-old daughter was more impressed with the autograph she herself had gotten from Frank Duffy, when he was a reserve infielder with the Red Sox. Since 1962, the Giants have been giving autographs to a Catholic nun named Sister Martha, of the order of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a grammar school teacher. She is always first in line, dressed in her nun's habit, for the 11 a.m. autograph sessions, and was once escorted down to the dugout before the game and introduced to the players.
World B. Free (formerly Lloyd Free) of the Golden State Warriors will stay long after games to sign. "When I was a kid in New York," he says, "I didn't have anything. Once I got close enough to Walt Frazier to get an autograph, and I was passed over. I swore I'd never do that to anyone."
Julius Erving signs willingly. So does Dave Winfield, although the Yankee outfielder doesn't make himself quite as available as he did in San Diego, where the crowds were smaller. Ron LeFlore of the White Sox, not the easiest player for a ball club to handle, is a generous signer. Bobby Hull, the former hockey player, was famous for his willingness to sign autographs as long as anyone wanted one. His teammates waiting on the bus would keep yelling at him to hurry up, but Hull would sign and sign until he had satisfied everyone. Gordie Howe was the same way. So is Guy Lafleur. Atlanta's Phil Niekro is considered an alltime all-star as far as signing autographs is concerned. "Nobody in any sport in any city is more accommodating than Phil," says an admirer. Although the Dodgers as a team have a reputation for being difficult with autograph hounds, Steve Garvey is renowned for signing. Says one cynic, "It seems that only rookies and Steve Garvey actually like to sign autographs." Again, not true. The combative Billy Martin is a pigeon with autograph seekers, notably polite and gentle with kids asking him to sign.
A lot of players have fun with autographs. They tell a story in Buffalo about a tackle named Sid Youngelman, who was trying to hang on with the Bills. During the preseason Youngelman turned down all requests for autographs because he had a scheme. He knew that before the first exhibition game the Bills were going to let fans come on the field to get the players' autographs, and he was biding his time. When the big day came, the line waiting to get Youngelman's scarce autograph was much the longest. Sid hoped this would convince the Bills' management he was far too popular to cut. It didn't work.
When Toby Harrah was with the Texas Rangers he got into a little feud with the press. One night after a game in which he had starred at bat, he deliberately stayed behind on the field and signed autograph after autograph, even after the lights had been turned off, just to keep the impatient reporters waiting. Maybe it's the Texas atmosphere. When Sparky Lyle was with the Rangers in 1980 he was bombarded with requests for autographs during pregame practice one day from a group of Little Leaguers in the bleachers. Lyle couldn't sign, but he threw the kids a baseball. Then he tossed them his cap. Then his glove. Then he took off his uniform shirt and threw them that before finally walking back to the clubhouse.
Maury Wills, the base stealer, once said, "You sit down and practice your signature. All the players do. Of course, you make sure you tear up the paper afterward. You don't want your roommate to see what you've been practicing." Some signatures are elaborate or are decorated with little devices. Race driver Richard Petty's autograph is a masterpiece of magnificent loops and whirls. Dick Stuart, the slugger who hit 66 home runs in the minor leagues, used to sign his name "Dick 66 Stuart." Football players often add their uniform number, as in "Gary Danielson 16." Reggie Jackson sometimes puts his No. 44 in a loop of his signature. Some NFL players sign a favorite nickname. John Barefield wrote "Dr. Doom" and Bob Pollard "Captain Crunch" when they were playing together on the Cardinals.
John Wockenfuss, the Detroit catcher, usually signs his full name, Johnny B. Wockenfuss. Cotton Fitzsimmons, the basketball coach, will occasionally sign his proper name, Lowell Fitzsimmons and then chuckle, "They'll be wondering who that is." Jack Brownschidle and Inge Hammarstrom of the St. Louis Blues grew tired of inscribing their lengthy names on hockey sticks a few years ago and talked of trying to work out a name trade with teammate Mike Zuke. A baseball theorist has figured out that Mel Ott could have signed three times as many autographs as Grover Cleveland Alexander and still made it home to supper sooner. Brooks Robinson, the former Baltimore third baseman, always signed his autograph lefthanded, which surprised fans who didn't know that Brooksie was lefthanded in everything he did except batting and throwing.
John Mayberry, the Toronto first baseman, personalized an autograph to a requester's grandson and a few days later was pleasantly surprised to receive a thank-you note from the grandson. "First time I ever got an autograph back for an autograph," said Big John.
The tremendous increase of interest in sports autographs in the last few years has resulted in hefty fees being paid to retired stars to attend baseball collectors' shows, where they sign autographs for anyone who pays for the privilege. Mantle and Duke Snider received more than $3,000 each to sign at a show in New York, and just last month Henry Aaron was paid closer to $5,000 to appear for two days at a baseball collectors' extravaganza in White Plains, N.Y. Autograph seekers paid a $2.50 admission fee and an added $3 to the show's sponsors for each Aaron signature they obtained.
Commercialization of autographs has become an extensive business. Rod Carew of the Angels got into an embarrassing flap this past winter after an advertisement of his appeared in one of the hobby magazines offering collectors autographed pictures of himself for $9.95 each, autographed baseballs for $12.95, his signed autobiography for $15.95 and autographed bats for a cool $99.95. Bill Madden reported in The Sporting News that an 11-year-old Texas boy who had written to Carew for an autograph had received a price list by return mail. Skip Bay less, then of the Dallas Times Herald, wrote a scathingly critical column about Carew, asking, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" Carew explained that the money he receives for the autographed material goes directly to charity—specifically to a children's center he helps to support—and Madden wrote that to his personal knowledge Carew continues to give free autographs on the street and around ball parks.
But the point is, autographs have gone commercial, which saddens amateur collectors like Jeffrey Morey of Syracuse, N.Y., who publishes a bimonthly newsletter for fellow collectors. "I'm not a dealer," he explains. "Oh, I might pay a couple of bucks now and then for something, or sell a duplicate I have, but mostly I trade. I'm a hobbyist. I work in a bank. The Autograph Review is designed to bring hobbyists together, to exchange names, trade duplicates, that sort of thing. I used to dream of collecting all the Hall of Fame signatures, but that's out of reach now. I can't see paying $80 for a Joe Tinker. I can't believe that a live Hall of Famer's signature is $10, or an Oscar Charleston $80 or a Jack Chesbro $225. Many of us don't like to see money coming in to it like this. Money destroyed the fun of collecting stamps and coins. I hope that doesn't happen with this."
It may already have happened. Old Brooklyn Dodger fans fondly remember the Dodger Sym-Phony, a raucous five-piece band that used to wander around the stands in Ebbets Field playing badly and happily. When the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles, the club gave Lou Soriano, leader of the Sym-Phony, a plaque that carried the autographs of virtually every member of the Dodgers from owner Walter O'Malley on down. "I was offered $7,000 for it by the Los Angeles people," Soriano said a couple of years ago, "but I turned them down." For sentimental reasons? "Nah," said Soriano, "I'm holding out for more."
It's pervasive. Players not of the Aaron and Mantle class are sometimes paid a modest fee to appear at autographing sessions, and a few athletes have such duties written into their contracts. One such was Abdul-Rahman Hazzard, the former Walt Hazzard, when he was in the back-court for the Warriors. Hazzard went everywhere the Warriors sent him and was very cooperative, but finally he said to the club's P.R. man, "Hey, back off a little. My hand is so tired by game time I can't get a feel for the ball."
Many baseball teams set up autograph booths in the stadiums and before certain games have one or two players sit in them for specified periods to sign for eager-fans. Some players don't like such duty, but others confess they find it fun. When he was with San Francisco, John (The Count) Montefusco, the flamboyant pitcher, moaned bitterly when he was assigned to a 20-minute tour in a booth. But he enjoyed it so much he stayed for 35 minutes and had to be almost literally dragged away by a stadium attendant.
Another commercial task is signing baseballs in the locker room. This has a long tradition, going back 30 years or more. Boxes and boxes of baseballs, a dozen to a box, lie open on the clubhouse table. "Sign the balls! Sign the balls!" the clubhouse men shout, and half-dressed players with a few minutes to spare sit down and scribble their signatures on one ball after another. When the baseballs are covered with signatures they're taken away and sold, and the clubhouse men get a fee for each one. It's a lagniappe for the clubhouse men. It has also led to their developing a marvelous talent for forgery. Some players are lazy and don't sign, or they forget to sign, or they promise to sign later, tomorrow, next week. Or some, like Mike Marshall, just won't sign, period, so the clubhouse men add the missing signatures.
Some of today's forgers are remarkably skillful, but veteran sportswriters like Harold Rosenthal and Jack Mann feel that the greatest was Charley DiGiovanna, who worked for the Dodgers during the Jackie Robinson era. DiGiovanna, known as Charley the Brow for his heavy black eyebrows, was only in his 20's (he moved to Los Angeles with the ballclub in 1958 but died shortly thereafter of a heart attack at the age of 27). The Brow would prowl the clubhouse, yelling, "Sign da balls, sign da balls!" and shrug off the genial obscenities hurled at him by recalcitrant players. When he had to supply the signatures himself, it was an amazing thing to watch. He'd sit down and rapidly reproduce signature after signature, each astonishingly similar to the original, no matter how the originals varied from one another. Charley, like the artists who followed him, shifted from pen to pen as he forged his masterpieces so that the ink on the ball would vary realistically. His pi√®ce de résistance was Burt Shotton's signature. Shotton, a crusty old man who managed the Dodgers from 1947 through 1950, was righthanded, but the infirmities of age prevented him from holding a pen in that hand. He therefore began to sign his autograph with his left hand. Because he couldn't hold a baseball firmly with his right hand, Shotton would tuck it into the crook of his right elbow and hold it there while he signed it. DiGiovanna, in reproducing Shotton's signature, was as faithful to its originator as he could be. He would sign the old man's name with his left hand and he would tuck the baseball into the crook of his right elbow as he did it. That's artistry.
Forged signatures are commonplace. Oddballs turn up now and then posing as ballplayers and graciously sign autographs on request. Someone pretending to be George Brett held an autograph session in a Kansas City pizza parlor not long ago. Obviously, many an autograph, particularly on baseballs cluttering up shelves and desks in playrooms and dens around the country, is of dubious authenticity. Some signatures are facsimiles written by secretaries or machines. In the 1960s quite a stir occurred when, despite denials from the White House, Hamilton proved that many of President Kennedy's signatures were done with an expensive device called the Autopen. Eisenhower had it first, but Kennedy. Johnson and Nixon all made use of it, and it's still in service in Reagan's White House. The President signs his name and his signature is reproduced on a plastic matrix that's inserted into the machine. Mechanical "fingers" at the end of a movable arm hold the pen—any kind of pen, a ballpoint, a felt tip, the President's own personal pen. The operator places the letter, document or photograph to be signed under the pen, presses a foot pedal and, voil√†!, the President's signature, in his own apparently honest-to-goodness handwriting. It's almost impossible for anyone but an autograph expert to detect the difference between it and an actual signature.
Baseball has the equivalent in the stamped signature, notably on baseballs. Dick Culler, a major league infielder for several years in the 1940s, grew so tired of signing baseballs that he cast about for a way of doing it more easily and came up with a curved rubber stamp. Culler died in 1964, but before he did he developed a small but thriving business in supplying "signed" baseballs to major league clubs for promotion giveaways or resale to the public. Culler's son, Dick Jr., has continued the business, which is called the Autographed Baseball Company, in High Point, N.C. New balls are signed and shipped whenever there are shifts in a team's roster, such as after a trade. Culler supplies such baseballs to most of the 26 big-league clubs. In Los Angeles sales are limited because the Dodgers—shades of Charley the Brow—supply their own facsimile-signature baseballs. Such balls usually sell for around $5 or $6 each. A ball actually signed by the players on a team usually goes for around $25. Some clubs, the Baltimore Orioles, for example, sell such balls only to fans who specifically ask for them, and they give the fees to charity. In other words, the club doesn't make money on the baseballs, and it distinguishes between the real and the fake. That's encouraging.
So take heart. Despite the specters of bad-mannered athletes, overzealous fans, high-pressure collectors, burgeoning prices, commercialization, casual forgery, canned signatures and the rest, it's still possible to talk to a third baseman, ask for and receive his autograph and impress your family and friends with it. And maybe years later dig it out and admire it all over again.
Leon Uzarowski, the man who got Mantle's signature on the run, is 39 now and has switched to collecting photographs, but he looks at his treasures occasionally and remembers with warmth his autograph collecting days in Baltimore in the 1950s when he and the Orioles were young together.
"For us autograph hunters the Orioles in the '50s were world beaters," Uzarowski says. "They lost a lot, so chances were always good that the visiting team would be happy after a game and would sign easily. And the Orioles, as the home team, had to sign. I collected the signatures of Gus Triandos, Bob Nelson and Wayne Causey three or four times. They weren't particular favorites of mine, but they were available. I even got Noonie Marquis twice."
Noonie Marquis? There he is in the Baseball Encyclopedia: Roger Julian (Noonie) Marquis, a 6-foot, 190-pound lefthand-hitting outfielder. He must have been a pretty good ballplayer if he made it to the major leagues, but he was up for only one season, 1955. He got into one game with the Orioles, came to bat one time and made out. That was his entire big-league career.
"It's a lot of fun, collecting autographs," Uzarowski says. "How else would anybody ever remember Noonie Marquis?"