It is a quarter to three in the morning, an hour when cockroaches congregate on kitchen floors and rats have control of the alleys. In drizzly Chicago, while the rest of the city slumbers, the post-All Star Game party at the downtown Hyatt Regency hotel is finally breaking up. Dave Parker, whose Milwaukee Brewers will play the White Sox in about 10 hours, slowly makes his way across the quiet lobby on the way to his room. Suddenly, as he reaches the escalators, there is chaos.
"There's Parker!" says a high-pitched voice. A kid in a red baseball cap springs to his feet.
"Mr. Parker! Dave! Can you sign these?" asks another kid, running up to the big slugger, with a pair of baseballs in his hand.
A dozen youngsters, some as young as 11 years old, pursue Parker up the escalator, pleading, cajoling, whining as they scramble to find his baseball card in the plastic-covered pages of their scrapbooks. A few adults—uncles, fathers, older brothers—watch approvingly, and a half dozen teenagers, bleary-eyed from their vigil, let Parker go by in hopes of landing bigger prey. Parker signs as he climbs, sticking to the ballplayer's golden rule of autographing: Keep moving. Never let them trap you.
Other All-Stars begin to straggle through the ballpoint gantlet: Chuck Finley, Ellis Burks, Cecil Fielder. None of them comments on the lateness of the hour, as if it were perfectly normal for kids to be wandering through a hotel at 3 a.m. in search of autographs. To the players, it is normal. Every city they visit, every hotel, is haunted by these enterprising children of the night. What will they do with all the autographs once they are procured? "Mostly, it's for us," says an 11-year-old who, accompanied by his uncle, has spent a minimum of 7½ hours a day—and night—patrolling the Hyatt's lobby over the three-day All-Star break. "Sometimes we sell the stuff, if we can."
It is past three o'clock when Frank Viola and John Franco, teammates on the New York Mets, walk through a side door of the hotel with their wives.
"Will you sign this, please?" says one of a crowd of boys, holding out his pen and a card.
Viola looks at the assemblage of faces peering up at him and refuses to take the pen. "You guys have got to go to bed," he says, and the two couples walk quickly away.
"Aw, I've got him anyway," says the child.
A lot of people feel it is time for someone to turn out the lights on a new breed of autograph collectors—an obsessive, aggressive, ubiquitous lot. What's worse, a growing number of these persistent souls see only dollar signs where kids used to see dreams. In the past few years what was once an innocent hobby has been infected, and all but ruined, by incivility and greed. Fans who at one time approached their sports heroes shyly and tentatively now swarm at them like angry hornets, elbowing past security guards, overrunning small children, tugging on jacket sleeves in the manner of Calcutta beggars—their tongues ready to lash out with venom should the athlete dare to excuse himself before signing autographs for them.
The time-honored image of the professional athlete patiently signing his name for adoring fans at the ballpark has been perverted into a never-ending chase—the hounds after the harried. And while athletes' obligations to fans properly include signing autographs, the current frenzy for such keepsakes, fueled by commerce as much as by sentiment, has gone far beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior. Athletes have the same right to walk unmolested through a hotel lobby, a restaurant or a parking lot as anyone else. And, above all, no celebrity should have to tolerate the invasion of his home.
Yet such invasions routinely occur. Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins has had a vanload of squealing 15-and 16-year-old girls arrive uninvited at his home in Mount Lebanon, Pa. The Chicago Cubs' Andre Dawson, who lives in Miami during the offseason, was sitting on his porch last winter with a friend when, around midnight, a late-model luxury car veered into his driveway. Out popped an adult and two boys, who strode up to Dawson and stuck some baseball cards in his face. Dawson, hardly blinking, signed them. Happens all the time, he said softly to his friend. Dawson could have been forgiven if he had called the police.
At baseball's annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y., hundreds of collectors began camping overnight outside the Otesaga Hotel over the past few years in order to be in line before dawn for the official autograph sessions. The number of autograph seekers making the journey to the remote little town has gotten so out of hand—residents have complained bitterly—that for the ceremonies held this year, the signings were discontinued.
And it's not just a problem in baseball. All sports figures have increasingly been subjected to autograph hounding. During his practice rounds at the British Open golf tournament in July, Seve Ballesteros kept having to shoo away fans of all ages who were racing across the fairways with their pens. Boomer Esiason of the Cincinnati Bengals remembers that his worst autograph experience occurred on a commercial flight from Los Angeles to Cincinnati. First class was sold out, so Esiason flew coach. "It was like a four-hour autograph session," says Esiason, who is normally an obliging signer. "I couldn't go anywhere. I was trapped."
There was a time when adults were downright sheepish when they asked for a pro athlete's autograph, knowing that they were acting like children. No longer. "It used to be just kids," says the Philadelphia Eagles' Randall Cunningham. "Now it's guys 35 to 40 years old. They'll come up to you with a stack of 40 cards and want you to sign them all."
"One guy came up to me with a hundred cards," says Ron Hextall of the Philadelphia Flyers. "Obviously they are not keeping them. I have never refused an autograph, but it's getting out of hand."
No one knows that better than Michael Jordan, probably the most hounded athlete in all of sport. At a recent charity auction conducted by the Chicago Bulls, an All-Star jersey signed by Jordan sold for $6,400. His autographed shoes went for $1,600. Bulls publicist Tim Hallam estimates that Jordan signs an average of more than 100 requests a day, which have come from as far away as West Germany. Even so, Jordan cannot begin to keep up with the demands. Another NBA star, Larry Bird, a reluctant signer, copes with the avalanche of mail he receives by enlisting the assistance of a ghost signer, a veteran clubhouse attendant with the Boston Celtics who can duplicate Bird's signature almost perfectly.
Clearly there has been a fundamental change in the way we treat our sports heroes. Perhaps it is the result of their astronomical salaries, or their increased exposure on television. Today a large segment of society seems to feel that a big-name athlete is public property 24 hours a day, like a beach or a city park, there for everyone's use and enjoyment. It is as if, by some Mephistophelian bargain, the modern athlete must pay for his talents and fame with his signature, over and over again.
Long ago, autograph collecting was an innocent hobby. There were no card shows where collectors paid an admission price and preset fees to have athletes sign their names on baseballs, 3" x 5" index cards and photographs. Autographs were privately treasured keepsakes that were pasted into a scrapbook or thumbtacked to a bedroom wall, alongside pennants, clippings, photos and the sundry knick-knacks of youth. These days, such treatment of a signature would be akin to defacing the Mona Lisa. Glue an autograph into a scrapbook? Poke a thumbtack through it? You fool, you just destroyed its resale value!
In the past decade the autograph business has launched a half dozen cottage industries. Magazines like Sports Collectors Digest and Tuff Stuff report on which athletes are obliging with their signatures and which are not. The ads in these publications give autograph hounds an idea of how much they can expect to get for Don Mattingly's single-signature autographed baseball—$60, at the moment, in New York. Flea markets nationwide do a steady trade in athletes' autographs, and sports memorabilia stores are opening faster than S&Ls are shutting down. In fact, many stamp and coin dealers are expanding into the autograph business, and card show promoters can literally keep collectors and Hall of Famers trotting around the country 365 days a year.
While autograph hunters once were simply kids smitten with their heroes, these days the chase also includes collectors, dealers and investors. The collectors include some fans with seemingly unlimited amounts of time on their hands, like the Green People, who, attired in all manner of green, patiently follow the Boston Celtics from city to city, planting themselves in hotel lobbies all day in hopes of getting, say, Robert Parish's autograph. The dealers, often working with paid bands of children—not unlike Fagin and his Artful Dodgers—gather autographs, then turn around and sell them. Investors purchase the autographs on the premise that, like fine art or artifacts of historical importance, a Bird, Jordan, Mattingly or Jose Canseco signature will increase in value over time. "I'm holding on to my autographs for now, but someday I might sell them," says 35-year-old Frank Solano of the Bronx during a recent trip to Yankee Stadium. "I look at my autographed cards as children's stocks."
Children's stocks? Who has told collectors that a Pascual Perez or a Stump Merrill can be counted on to pay for Junior's freshman year at Princeton? Well, according to the scholarly Baseball Autograph Handbook, Babe Ruth's signature on a baseball is worth $2,000. Lou Gehrig's, which has been forged more often than the Babe's, is worth $3,625. Recent ads in the collectors' magazines offer Nolan Ryan and Bo Jackson at $49.95, Canseco at $45.95, Ken Griffey Jr. at $33.95 and Darryl Strawberry at $28.95.
The Handbook is only one of the books fanning the flames of the autograph zealots. Far more sinister is something called The Sports Address Book, which publishes the home addresses of famous athletes and boasts that it can inform its readers on how to contact anyone in the sports world.
In the world of autograph hunting, almost anything goes. At the 1989 All-Star Game in Anaheim, Calif., one hound, frustrated because the elevator bank to the hotel floors on which the players were staying was cordoned off by security guards, tripped the fire alarm to flush the stars onto the street.
The invasion of restaurants by signature seekers is a pet peeve of players. "I never turn anyone away unless I'm eating," says Esiason.
Mark Howe of the Philadelphia Flyers was once about to take a bite of his dinner when someone appeared at his elbow and slid a hockey card in his face. "I had my fork six inches from my mouth, and someone stuck a card in front of me to sign," Howe recalls.
"If you say, 'Wait until I get done eating,' " says former journeyman catcher Bob Uecker, whose Miller Lite commercials have made it difficult for him to go out in public without being besieged, "they'll get angry and think you're trying to be a big deal."
One common ploy used by autograph hounds is to stake out the lobby of the hotel where a visiting team is staying and hop into the elevator with a player. When that happens, Chris Sabo of the Cincinnati Reds orders autograph seekers out of the elevator. If they claim to be guests, Sabo will get out and let them ride up by themselves.
"Everybody has angles on how to get autographs," says Orel Hershiser of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Hershiser had to hire a secretary to answer the 100 pieces of mail a day he began getting after he was named MVP of the 1988 World Series—a deluge that continued for six months. "I'm sure I've been lied to about an illness and the like: 'My brother is six years old, and he's dying of cancer.' There's a certain percentage of people who'll try to rip you off, but there's also a percentage who are unbelievably great fans."
Great or not, so many people want his autograph that Hershiser is unable to do things that only a couple of years ago he took for granted. "I no longer can do short errands, like running out for milk or butter for the family," he says. "Once I get in line, people would recognize me, and then you're caught. I can't go to sporting goods stores anymore. Or to toy stores. Or malls. A nice afternoon with your family would be turned into an appearance." Hershiser has even been tailed home from the ballpark, an experience so unsettling that he got into the habit of altering his route and checking out cars in the rearview mirror.
If this is what autograph mania has come to, how can athletes, under siege and not always certain about their pursuers' intentions, be faulted for aloofness and even downright rudeness to fans?
The California Angels' Bert Blyleven is another athlete who has noticed cars following him home. "I've had to speed away from cars, or I'll pull over on some private road, turn off the engine and lights, and sit and wait," says Blyleven.
Nearly every athlete has a horror story about rampaging autograph seekers. Hersey Hawkins of the Philadelphia 76ers, his wife, Jennifer, and their baby were leaving the stadium one night when, says Hawkins, Jennifer "got pushed and knocked down. She was with the baby and really said something to the people." Hawkins has now adopted the strategy of waiting for teammate Charles Barkley—a feverish signer—to leave the dressing room. While Barkley is being mobbed, Hawkins slips out in relative peace.
Last summer Canseco was signing for fans at Arlington Stadium when a small boy was trapped against the railing by autograph seekers pressing forward in their frenzy to get to the slugger. The boy had started to turn blue before his plight was noticed by a nearby group of sports-writers, who moved the crowd back.
There are other perils to signing in a crowd. The California Angels' Brian Downing nearly went berserk when, signing autographs one day, he discovered a line from a black marker down the sleeve of his orange sport coat—a common hazard when an athlete stops for autograph seekers. Says Bobby Humphrey of the Denver Broncos, "Sometimes I've gotten in the car and found ink marks all over my jacket from people tugging on my coat with a pen in their hand."
On the Broncos, however, no one can match stories with John Elway, who has been dubbed the Elvis of pro football. Even his teammates are pestered for Elway's autograph. Bronco wide receiver Michael Young, a little-known, Plan B free agent when he came to the team in 1989, received this letter early last season: "Dear Mike, I hope you have a great year. You're one of my favorite players on the Broncos. Can you please send me an autographed picture of John Elway?" (Young later earned attention when he caught a 70-yard touchdown pass in the AFC Championship Game. A few days later someone sent Young $12 worth of stamps and asked him to drop the shoes he had worn in that game in the mail—a request that Young declined.)
A few years ago, after a tough come-from-behind win, Elway stood beside his car signing autographs for 20 to 25 minutes. "I finally said, 'Hey, I've got to go, I'm tired,' " Elway recalls. "Some people got upset and started rocking my car. They almost got it on two wheels."
Ever since that incident, Elway's wife, Janet, has made it a practice to drive into the stadium to pick up her husband, and he signs for 10 to 15 minutes from the safety of the front seat before driving off.
Some of the Brewers have come up with a twist on the same strategy. Because officials won't allow players to park their cars inside County Stadium, after home games a batboy runs out to the parking lot and drives the players' cars inside, valet-style.
Not all teams have it so lucky when it comes time to leave the stadium. Tommy Herr of the Philadelphia Phillies says, "Your hands are tied. There are only a couple of ways out of the locker room, and the autograph collectors know where they are and where your car is parked. You have to face the music no matter which way you go out." Many players will carry a child in their arms whenever possible. Lacking that defense, players will improvise by putting something, anything, in their hands as they leave—a Coke, a briefcase, a bag stuffed with nothing but towels.
The Angels have a reserved parking lot for the players, but it had become such a magnet for fans that the players stopped using it. So the city and ball club split the cost of having a $10,000 barricade constructed that ran from the stadium to the lot. "But that just made the fans more abusive," says Angel public-relations director Tim Mead. "So the players still don't use it."
Indeed, the major league ballplayer does not exist who has not heard the scathing tirade of a fan whose demands for an autograph have not been met. Even when players do stop to sign, as often as not they are not thanked for it.
"When I first came up, a kid would hand you a card and ask for an autograph, and it was always, 'Thank you very much,' " says the Brewers' Paul Mirabella, a 13-year big league veteran. "You'd see them walking off treasuring it. Nowadays, a kid will hand you five or six cards and want them all autographed. He'll run off and not even thank you."
Why on earth would anyone want five or six Paul Mirabella autographs? To sell, naturally. Or possibly to trade for someone else's John Hancock. Some players, confronted by a person they believe to be a professional dealer, will tear a corner off the baseball card after they sign it, dramatically reducing its value. Or they will insist on personalizing the card—"To Eddie"—which also devalues the card. Of course, a kid who genuinely wants that athlete's autograph would love to have it personalized and wouldn't care a fig about a little tear, since he probably has plans to tape it to his bedroom wall or glue it into his scrapbook.
"They're the victims in all this," says Elway. "The kids. You wish you had time to sign for every little kid."
Certainly a fellow named Buster Maynard wished he had had time nearly 50 years ago. It's a story Dodger manager Tom Lasorda likes to tell young players when he talks on the subject of autographs. "When I was in the eighth grade [in Norristown, Pa.], I became a crossing guard only because at the end of the school year the nuns would bring us down to Philadelphia for a major league game, free of charge," Lasorda will begin. "So I stood out in the rain, cold, sleet and hail helping other kids cross the street because I knew one day I'd be going to a big league game. Finally, the day came. I made up an autograph book. In the old Philadelphia ballpark, there was a walkway where you got real close to the players. I asked this one guy for his autograph, and he said, 'Get the hell out of the way.' I looked up his number in the scorecard, and his name was Buster Maynard.
"Back in 1949, I was pitching for the Dodgers at Greenville in the Sally League. We went to open the season in Augusta. I was pitching. I got the first two guys out, then I heard the guy on the public-address system saying, 'Now batting, the leftfielder, Buster Maynard.' I thought to myself, That's the sonofabitch who wouldn't give me his autograph. So, I really low-bridged him on the first two pitches. Now he knew that something was up, and he said, 'You throw at me again, and I'll come out to the mound.' I said, 'Good,' and I threw at him again, and we had a little battle.
"When the game was over, and I'm walking out of the clubhouse, this guy comes toward me looking for Lasorda. I said, 'Who wants him?' 'I'm Buster Maynard.' I said, 'Come on, I cleaned your plow on that field, and I'll do it again.' He said, 'Before today, I didn't even know you existed. Why did you throw at me?' So, I told him. I said, 'When I was in eighth grade, you wouldn't give me your autograph.' He walked away, shaking his head.
"So I've always told my players, when that youngster comes up asking for your autograph, you'd better sign, or one day he may grow up and knock you on your ass."
The fact of the matter is, in these dog-eat-dog days of autograph collecting, he may knock you on your ass then and there.