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Appeals for autographs are sometimes accompanied by stories designed to break the hardest heart. John Orsino, a onetime big league catcher, was carrying a box of autographed baseballs from one dugout to the other before an oldtimers' game. Fans gathered along the railing begged him for them. "Just one, John, just one!" "Can't," Orsino said, "they're not mine." "Please!" an inspired youngster cried, "I got a crippled brother!" At one National League park there is a persistent collector who says he has leukemia; he has gotten so many autographs that the players suspect he's in the business and is selling the autographs he gets.
Indeed, some autograph seekers have no conscience. One baseball collector is trying to find autographs of players who have committed suicide. Eight years ago in Philadelphia a general collector hit on a scheme to get signed letters from famous and usually inaccessible people. He and his wife wrote to dozens of celebrated figures and enclosed a photograph of their infant son with a note saying that they admired the famous man so much they had named their newborn son after him. They didn't bother to say that the photo was almost a decade old, that the son was now 10 and that in any case he had been named for his father. The response was astonishing. Gerald Ford, then Vice-President, wrote a letter beginning, "Dear Gerald, Your parents have paid me a high honor in naming you after me." Picasso wrote to Pablo. Kissinger to Henry. Andrew Wyeth sent a drawing to Andy. Lt. Gen. James M. Gavin a silver cup to Jim. The scheme was exposed after an Arab newspaper in Lebanon reported with considerable satisfaction that a child in the U.S. had been named Yasser after the PLO's Arafat. That story, complete with names, was picked up by American newspapers and the subsequent publicity forced the collector to admit there was no infant son named after anybody. But he wasn't contrite. "I've never regretted what we did," he said. "I'm just sorry we were exposed."
A less reprehensible, but for athletes a more annoying family, used to haunt hotels in Houston where professional teams stayed, more or less setting up house in the lobby and snaring stars to pose for pictures with the entire clan. That kind of pursuit, away from the stadiums, is what bothers players the most. It follows them everywhere, sometimes into the most personal aspects of their lives. According to autograph expert Hamilton, Joe DiMaggio once gave Marilyn Monroe a check, reportedly for $10,000. It was done without publicity, and Marilyn cashed it privately. When Joe's bank statement came a month or so later, he discovered that the check with his signature and Marilyn's endorsement was missing. He called the bank. The manager said the check was gone. He apologized. DiMaggio said, "I don't want an apology. I want the check. Get it." The bank moved swiftly and threatened drastic action if the check didn't appear by morning. It did posthaste and was returned to DiMaggio. Whether an autograph hound or a souvenir hunter swiped the check isn't known, but it's odds-on that sooner or later it would have turned up for sale to an autograph collector if DiMaggio hadn't acted quickly to get it back.
Reggie Jackson was in a movie theater with a date watching Damien-Omen II when a woman asked him for his autograph. "Not now," said Jackson, "I'm watching the movie." The woman persisted, Jackson's date said something, there was a scuffle and the woman, Cassandra Smalls, 26, claimed that Jackson slapped her and knocked her down. Jackson maintained he had merely restrained her after she allegedly threatened the woman he was with. Smalls filed a $150,000 damage suit. Jackson refused to settle, and more than two years later the suit was finally withdrawn. "If we hadn't defended this case," Jackson's lawyer said, "it would have been open season on ballplayers and other well-known people."
"They can't get away," says Larry Shenk, publicity director of the Phillies. "Whether it's a hotel lobby or a restaurant or a grocery store, fans are always coming up and asking for autographs." Infielder Ted Sizemore, then with the Phils, was eating in a restaurant when a woman rushed up and asked him to sign. She shoved paper and pen onto the table and in so doing hit his elbow just as he was taking a bite of food, driving the fork against the roof of his mouth. Some players won't sign when they're eating. Al Bumbry, the Orioles' centerfielder, says, "I'll sign when it's appropriate, but not when I take my family out to dinner. I don't have time for autographs then. But people don't understand." Even Pete Rose, one of the most affable of autograph signers, won't give autographs when he's in the middle of a meal. "Come back when I'm finished," he says.
Rudeness is common among collectors. Gordie Howe, the former hockey star, was once approached by a 12-year-old boy who shoved a hockey stick at him and ordered, "Sign this." Howe, amused by an impudence he wouldn't have tolerated on the ice, drew back and said, "Say please." The kid said, "O.K., please." Howe said, "Now put it all together." Impatiently, the kid said, "All right. Will you please sign my damn stick?" Warren Cromartie, the Montreal Expos' right-fielder, was hailed by a young fan at Shea Stadium in New York. "Mr. Cromartie! Mr. Cromartie!" the youngster called out, politely enough, "can I have your autograph?" Cromartie said, "No, I can't do it now. I haven't got time." "I hope you break your leg," the boy said and turned to the next player—"Mr. Carter! Mr. Carter!"
Players sometimes chafe at what they consider pointless signing, autographs that are sought not for collecting but only because the subject is there. Psychologists justify the motives of people who ask for autographs for the sake of asking, saying it gives such people, particularly youngsters, a chance to get close to heroes, to have some special attention paid to them. A small boy in Atlanta asked Pitcher Phil Niekro to autograph the inside of his cap. Niekro complied. A week or so later the same boy proffered the same hat. Niekro was about to sign it when he saw his signature. "Hey, kid," he said, "I've already signed this hat." "Sign it again," the boy demanded.
Dr. Thomas Tutko, one of the most frequently quoted sports psychologists, a rapidly growing breed, explains the motivation of autograph seekers by saying, "People are in desperate need of an identification. What they really get from an autograph is recognition that they exist." Chip Royce, an 11-year-old tennis fan and autograph collector, told World Tennis, "The big fun is just speaking to the players. You feel like you know them."
That's O.K. if you're nine or 12 or 15, but, says Tutko, "to have to get autographs when you're 35 is to say life has passed you by." Still, many adults acting on some sort of imperative they're not consciously aware of, will scramble after autographs they don't really want or, for that matter, don't even recognize after they obtain them. Once in Cooperstown during the midsummer Hall of Fame festivities a woman came up to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and oldtime pitching star Waite Hoyt and asked them for their autographs. Both signed. The woman read their signatures and asked, "But who are you?"
In Cooperstown at Hall of Fame time autographing has become a part of the ceremonies. The weekend of the Hall of Fame inductions is like Christmastime for autograph seekers. They swarm in and around The Otesaga hotel waiting for the Hall of Famers. They're the main reason why some Hall of Famers don't come back anymore. Sandy Koufax, who was installed in 1971, returned for teammate Duke Snider's installation in 1980, but after someone looking for autographs knocked on his hotel room door in the middle of the night he said that would be his last time. Ted Williams made a rare appearance that same year, but he stayed holed up in a special room while a security guard stood watch outside.