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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.