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Will You Please Sign This?
JACK MCCALLUM
November 14, 2005
The quest for an athlete's autograph is not always an easy one--for the hunter or the prey. Some veteran signature seekers reveal the ins and outs of getting that elusive scribble from a hero
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November 14, 2005

Will You Please Sign This?

The quest for an athlete's autograph is not always an easy one--for the hunter or the prey. Some veteran signature seekers reveal the ins and outs of getting that elusive scribble from a hero

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"I do," he says finally. "But it's really not about the money for me. I know what that sounds like, but it's not. I just find it...."

Amazing?

"That's the word," Banks says.

Because they are targets both at the hotel and at the stadium or the arena, and because they're highly popular, baseball and basketball players get the most autograph requests; consequently, they can be the most grudging about giving them. (If NBA players did not invent the art of shutting out the world with a pair of earphones, then they surely perfected it.) Hockey players are known throughout the sports world, even to journalists, as being the nicest guys--they become something else on the ice--and so they get high marks from collectors. Though their size makes them easily identifiable, football players are the least besieged; it's impossible to get them at the stadium, and at the hotel they often move in military formation, an impenetrable platoon for all but the most resolute of Sharpie-ists.

Individual athletes have their own policies on handling autograph hunters. Boston Red Sox outfielder Johnny Damon seldom signs because he has exclusive deals with trading card companies. New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza allows his mood to dictate if he'll comply. Mets pitcher Pedro Martinez, in contrast to Greek prostitutes, will always say yes on Sunday but usually not on any other day. Tiger Woods usually won't stop to sign, but, rather, will grab an item in full stride, scratch his name and toss it back over his shoulder. (Do not even think of stepping in front of Woods with a Sharpie if his caddie, Steve Williams, is in the vicinity, lest the bruising bag-toter stomp you like a twig.)

Some players take considerable time with their autograph. Former NFL star Emmitt Smith is known for having a beautiful signature with a lot of graceful loops. "I saw Emmitt's one day," says former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young, "and I said, 'Man, I have to get a better autograph.'" Martinez also takes time with his signature. Dealers and collectors say that the Latin American athletes who do sign are often more meticulous than athletes from the U.S., who generally take the approach of Chicago Bears wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad. Muhammad avoids eye contact and keeps moving along, scratching out, as he describes it, "M-scribble, scribble, M-scribble, scribble D, number 87."

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis has three distinct autographs. The C version (an abbreviated J. BETTIS and maybe his jersey number, 36) is for large groups, when he's moving fast; the B (a legible JEROME BETTIS�36) is for medium-sized groups; and the A (a carefully scripted JEROME BETTIS, THE BUS). "The A is rare," says Bettis. "It's usually only for an autograph session that someone's paying me to do, because it takes a long time."

Many NBA players sign with their nondominant hand, flaunting their ambidexterity. After watching Larry Bird breeze through a crowd, chicken-scratching his name with his left hand, I took a look at his signature on a program. It could have said DAG HAMMARSKJ�LD. That's why the serious autograph hound will always have a card or photo ready. "If a guy's signature is a big X, then that's what it is," says Petrulis. "As long as you have it on something that identifies him, it's a real autograph."

Most athletes who don't sign demur behind a Griffey-like glower. Boston Celtics immortal Bill Russell was a celebrated scowler who declined to sign because he said it led to "idolization." From time to time he now accepts a fee to sign at autograph shows, where idolization is apparently not a factor. Sometimes outright subterfuge replaces an I don't sign or a Not now, buddy. "Two years ago I had [ Boston Red Sox slugger] Manny Ramirez one-on-one," says Petrulis. "A car was parked in the middle of the street, and he comes around and I say, ' Mr. Ramirez, can you sign a card, please?' Then he says to me, 'Wait a minute, this guy is backing up. Watch out.' Like he was trying to help me. So I get out of the way, and Manny jumps into the car. He never even said anything. I felt like an idiot."

In 1995, when linebacker Kevin Greene was a Pittsburgh Steeler, he was stopped by a youngster seeking his autograph on a football after a preseason session at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. Greene took the football and, in a variation of the little-used quick kick, punted it over a hill. The kid brought the ball back, and Greene promptly punted it away again. The father of one of the kid's friends complained in a letter to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Greene was ripped by fans. He explained his actions by saying that the kid should have been more respectful, asking for an autograph instead of demanding it. Greene may have been correct, but two punts on the same set of downs seems a little extreme.

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