Smith recalled this trip while sitting in the basement of his northern New Jersey home where his signed covers are catalogued by sport, alphabetized, placed in plastic folders and stored on shelves. Several thousand more unsigned copies are piled in his garage. Off the top of his head he can name the Soviet runner who is shaking hands with Frank Shorter on a 1970 cover (Leonid Mikitenko) and the color of the golf shirt Ohio State defensive tackle Dan (Big Daddy) Wilkinson wore for his cover shot in 1995 (blue). Smith works in sales for a company that restructures debt, but since receiving his first SI subscription at 13 from his grandmother, getting covers signed has been what he really does. And each week he judges the book by its cover: easy signs, hard signs.
Smith's is a Sisyphean task. As soon as he gets his latest cover signed or tracks down an autograph he has waited a decade or more to nail, a new issue arrives in his mailbox. (No Greek mythological figure has graced the cover, but four football players from Athens, Georgia, have.) Smith embraces the challenge, although in the age of the Internet his research has become less daunting. Sometimes it takes money-Smith bought a signed 1967 Roberto Clemente cover on eBay for $900 in 2000, although he refuses to pay the $750 per signature he says Mark McGwire charges.
Smith estimates his SI collection is worth over a million dollars, a reminder that a picture can be worth more than 1,000 words...if it is autographed by Ali, Nicklaus or even Dewey Buck, the Oklahoma trombone player who made it in 1954. Smith says his obsession has never been primarily about money. "This is just a blast, seeing who's on the cover and then getting it signed."
Most readers, however, simply want to see who made the cover, and that choice can resonate—as the late Charles Goren might have said—in spades.
If we get it right.