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Hey Mister, Can We Have Your Autograph?
Robert W. Creamer
April 12, 1982
In sport, the great paper chase began with Babe, and baseball has remained No. 1 on the pen parade
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April 12, 1982

Hey Mister, Can We Have Your Autograph?

In sport, the great paper chase began with Babe, and baseball has remained No. 1 on the pen parade

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It rarely gets that bad, although ballplayers like to make a production, often with exaggerated humor, of the terrors of the autograph world. Ron Santo, the former Chicago Cub third baseman, would sprint all the way from the hotel elevators to the team bus. Richie Zisk, the 6'2", 212-pound Seattle slugger, has been known to scream extravagantly, "No, no, no!" as he dashes from the door of the hotel to the bus. Autograph seekers rebuffed that way will sometimes pound the side of the bus and yell at the players sitting inside, and the players will pound on the windows and scream back. Fred Kendall, who used to catch for San Diego, described the environs of Jack Murphy Stadium there in quasi-military terms: "There is no back door. The buses and the players' cars can't be moved right up next to the clubhouse. Sooner or later you've got to cross open ground. You become easy pickings."

Yet Kendall, like a great many unpublicized players, seems to delight in autograph hunters. "I like kids," says Mike Sadek, the former Giants' catcher, who was granted custody of his son and daughter when he was divorced. Scott McGregor, the Baltimore pitching star, says, "Kids look up to us. We can be a good influence on them or a bad influence. A lot of times you ask yourself what they're going to do with the autograph, and maybe it's true they're going to lose it right away or discard it, but it's just the fact of being closer. When you see a kid waiting outside the clubhouse, it's hard to turn him down. I used to collect autographs when I was a kid, and I know the feeling when you get refused."

And, presumably, the feeling of exaltation when you get one. Wesley Marans of Boston, whose collection of autographed photographs of celebrities in all fields has been displayed in exhibitions, says his 12-year-old daughter was more impressed with the autograph she herself had gotten from Frank Duffy, when he was a reserve infielder with the Red Sox. Since 1962, the Giants have been giving autographs to a Catholic nun named Sister Martha, of the order of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a grammar school teacher. She is always first in line, dressed in her nun's habit, for the 11 a.m. autograph sessions, and was once escorted down to the dugout before the game and introduced to the players.

World B. Free (formerly Lloyd Free) of the Golden State Warriors will stay long after games to sign. "When I was a kid in New York," he says, "I didn't have anything. Once I got close enough to Walt Frazier to get an autograph, and I was passed over. I swore I'd never do that to anyone."

Julius Erving signs willingly. So does Dave Winfield, although the Yankee outfielder doesn't make himself quite as available as he did in San Diego, where the crowds were smaller. Ron LeFlore of the White Sox, not the easiest player for a ball club to handle, is a generous signer. Bobby Hull, the former hockey player, was famous for his willingness to sign autographs as long as anyone wanted one. His teammates waiting on the bus would keep yelling at him to hurry up, but Hull would sign and sign until he had satisfied everyone. Gordie Howe was the same way. So is Guy Lafleur. Atlanta's Phil Niekro is considered an alltime all-star as far as signing autographs is concerned. "Nobody in any sport in any city is more accommodating than Phil," says an admirer. Although the Dodgers as a team have a reputation for being difficult with autograph hounds, Steve Garvey is renowned for signing. Says one cynic, "It seems that only rookies and Steve Garvey actually like to sign autographs." Again, not true. The combative Billy Martin is a pigeon with autograph seekers, notably polite and gentle with kids asking him to sign.

A lot of players have fun with autographs. They tell a story in Buffalo about a tackle named Sid Youngelman, who was trying to hang on with the Bills. During the preseason Youngelman turned down all requests for autographs because he had a scheme. He knew that before the first exhibition game the Bills were going to let fans come on the field to get the players' autographs, and he was biding his time. When the big day came, the line waiting to get Youngelman's scarce autograph was much the longest. Sid hoped this would convince the Bills' management he was far too popular to cut. It didn't work.

When Toby Harrah was with the Texas Rangers he got into a little feud with the press. One night after a game in which he had starred at bat, he deliberately stayed behind on the field and signed autograph after autograph, even after the lights had been turned off, just to keep the impatient reporters waiting. Maybe it's the Texas atmosphere. When Sparky Lyle was with the Rangers in 1980 he was bombarded with requests for autographs during pregame practice one day from a group of Little Leaguers in the bleachers. Lyle couldn't sign, but he threw the kids a baseball. Then he tossed them his cap. Then his glove. Then he took off his uniform shirt and threw them that before finally walking back to the clubhouse.

Maury Wills, the base stealer, once said, "You sit down and practice your signature. All the players do. Of course, you make sure you tear up the paper afterward. You don't want your roommate to see what you've been practicing." Some signatures are elaborate or are decorated with little devices. Race driver Richard Petty's autograph is a masterpiece of magnificent loops and whirls. Dick Stuart, the slugger who hit 66 home runs in the minor leagues, used to sign his name "Dick 66 Stuart." Football players often add their uniform number, as in "Gary Danielson 16." Reggie Jackson sometimes puts his No. 44 in a loop of his signature. Some NFL players sign a favorite nickname. John Barefield wrote "Dr. Doom" and Bob Pollard "Captain Crunch" when they were playing together on the Cardinals.

John Wockenfuss, the Detroit catcher, usually signs his full name, Johnny B. Wockenfuss. Cotton Fitzsimmons, the basketball coach, will occasionally sign his proper name, Lowell Fitzsimmons and then chuckle, "They'll be wondering who that is." Jack Brownschidle and Inge Hammarstrom of the St. Louis Blues grew tired of inscribing their lengthy names on hockey sticks a few years ago and talked of trying to work out a name trade with teammate Mike Zuke. A baseball theorist has figured out that Mel Ott could have signed three times as many autographs as Grover Cleveland Alexander and still made it home to supper sooner. Brooks Robinson, the former Baltimore third baseman, always signed his autograph lefthanded, which surprised fans who didn't know that Brooksie was lefthanded in everything he did except batting and throwing.

John Mayberry, the Toronto first baseman, personalized an autograph to a requester's grandson and a few days later was pleasantly surprised to receive a thank-you note from the grandson. "First time I ever got an autograph back for an autograph," said Big John.

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