Hall of Famer Bill Dickey, a special project of Hisler's, is now up to the $12-per-autograph level. "When I started thinking about getting Bill Dickey for a show last year," Hisler says, "he had been ill for quite some time. He suffered blackouts. He was 80 years old. From a collector's point of view, he was a deceased autograph."
Through the intercession of Barry Hal-per, a part owner of the New York Yankees, whose museum-sized baseball collection occupies an entire wing of his New Jersey home, Hisler was able to meet with Dickey at the Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Hisler walked in. Dickey said hello, and Hisler almost lost it. "My knees were buckling," Hisler remembers. "I was shaking. I stuttered. 'M-M-Mister D-D-Dickey?' Now, you have to remember that we're talking about Lou Gehrig's roommate here. He was deceased, in my mind. I was thinking, This is a dead man talking to me. I felt like I was resurrecting somebody from the grave."
At the Armenian cathedral show, some of the superstars look as if they are signing from the grave. Styles range from the coldly efficient Mays to the irrepressible Spahn, who flirts with the women ("God, you smell good!"), poses for photos with the kids ("Smile! Lemme see those teeth!") and comments from time to time on the nasal dimensions and Polish background of Stan Musial. who is listening at the next table.
"Y' know," Spahn says philosophically, "I threw 50,000 balls in my career, and I bet I've signed 100,000. I'm making more this way. Collecting these things may be more lucrative than putting money in the bank. I've been fooling around with the stock market for maybe 25 years. If I broke even, I'm lucky. These things may be a better hedge against inflation."
The scene at the Mays table is very different. Mays doesn't gossip with the fans. His accountant. Carl Kiesler, sits on his left. His accountant's wife. Iris, sits on his right. Mays signs quietly and quickly, rarely looking up. He is a volume guy, an autograph machine, a promoter's joy. He does not say hey or anything else. Signs right, holds left. Keep those baseballs coming. Roll 'em, roll 'em! Head 'em up! Move 'em out! Cowhide!
Kiesler, who has represented Mays for the past 10 years, explains the economics of Willie's silence: "Our fee structure is such that we're not for everyone. Willie is in an elite category. In other words, expensive."
Mays gets paid several thousand dollars per hour, and the promoters collect the $8-per-signature fees. The more Mays signs, the more the promoters make. He has no time to schmooze. "He'll sign 300 to 400 items per hour for three hours," Kiesler says. "After a while, his hand swells up and a knot forms in it. Fortunately, his name is not Ted Kluszewski.
"Willie is sensitive to criticism. Fans stand in line for an hour, meet their idol for two seconds, then they're gone. Some just don't understand. This is business."
Suddenly, Kiesler stops talking, tenses up, stares hard at the fourth guy in the autograph line. Always alert to anything that might hinder Mays's prodigious output. Kiesler thinks he has spotted trouble. Somebody who wants Mays to look at him, perhaps. The dreaded eye contact. Or worse. Somebody who wants to chat.