SI Vault
 
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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6

The tremendous increase of interest in sports autographs in the last few years has resulted in hefty fees being paid to retired stars to attend baseball collectors' shows, where they sign autographs for anyone who pays for the privilege. Mantle and Duke Snider received more than $3,000 each to sign at a show in New York, and just last month Henry Aaron was paid closer to $5,000 to appear for two days at a baseball collectors' extravaganza in White Plains, N.Y. Autograph seekers paid a $2.50 admission fee and an added $3 to the show's sponsors for each Aaron signature they obtained.

Commercialization of autographs has become an extensive business. Rod Carew of the Angels got into an embarrassing flap this past winter after an advertisement of his appeared in one of the hobby magazines offering collectors autographed pictures of himself for $9.95 each, autographed baseballs for $12.95, his signed autobiography for $15.95 and autographed bats for a cool $99.95. Bill Madden reported in The Sporting News that an 11-year-old Texas boy who had written to Carew for an autograph had received a price list by return mail. Skip Bay less, then of the Dallas Times Herald, wrote a scathingly critical column about Carew, asking, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" Carew explained that the money he receives for the autographed material goes directly to charity—specifically to a children's center he helps to support—and Madden wrote that to his personal knowledge Carew continues to give free autographs on the street and around ball parks.

But the point is, autographs have gone commercial, which saddens amateur collectors like Jeffrey Morey of Syracuse, N.Y., who publishes a bimonthly newsletter for fellow collectors. "I'm not a dealer," he explains. "Oh, I might pay a couple of bucks now and then for something, or sell a duplicate I have, but mostly I trade. I'm a hobbyist. I work in a bank. The Autograph Review is designed to bring hobbyists together, to exchange names, trade duplicates, that sort of thing. I used to dream of collecting all the Hall of Fame signatures, but that's out of reach now. I can't see paying $80 for a Joe Tinker. I can't believe that a live Hall of Famer's signature is $10, or an Oscar Charleston $80 or a Jack Chesbro $225. Many of us don't like to see money coming in to it like this. Money destroyed the fun of collecting stamps and coins. I hope that doesn't happen with this."

It may already have happened. Old Brooklyn Dodger fans fondly remember the Dodger Sym-Phony, a raucous five-piece band that used to wander around the stands in Ebbets Field playing badly and happily. When the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles, the club gave Lou Soriano, leader of the Sym-Phony, a plaque that carried the autographs of virtually every member of the Dodgers from owner Walter O'Malley on down. "I was offered $7,000 for it by the Los Angeles people," Soriano said a couple of years ago, "but I turned them down." For sentimental reasons? "Nah," said Soriano, "I'm holding out for more."

It's pervasive. Players not of the Aaron and Mantle class are sometimes paid a modest fee to appear at autographing sessions, and a few athletes have such duties written into their contracts. One such was Abdul-Rahman Hazzard, the former Walt Hazzard, when he was in the back-court for the Warriors. Hazzard went everywhere the Warriors sent him and was very cooperative, but finally he said to the club's P.R. man, "Hey, back off a little. My hand is so tired by game time I can't get a feel for the ball."

Many baseball teams set up autograph booths in the stadiums and before certain games have one or two players sit in them for specified periods to sign for eager-fans. Some players don't like such duty, but others confess they find it fun. When he was with San Francisco, John (The Count) Montefusco, the flamboyant pitcher, moaned bitterly when he was assigned to a 20-minute tour in a booth. But he enjoyed it so much he stayed for 35 minutes and had to be almost literally dragged away by a stadium attendant.

Another commercial task is signing baseballs in the locker room. This has a long tradition, going back 30 years or more. Boxes and boxes of baseballs, a dozen to a box, lie open on the clubhouse table. "Sign the balls! Sign the balls!" the clubhouse men shout, and half-dressed players with a few minutes to spare sit down and scribble their signatures on one ball after another. When the baseballs are covered with signatures they're taken away and sold, and the clubhouse men get a fee for each one. It's a lagniappe for the clubhouse men. It has also led to their developing a marvelous talent for forgery. Some players are lazy and don't sign, or they forget to sign, or they promise to sign later, tomorrow, next week. Or some, like Mike Marshall, just won't sign, period, so the clubhouse men add the missing signatures.

Some of today's forgers are remarkably skillful, but veteran sportswriters like Harold Rosenthal and Jack Mann feel that the greatest was Charley DiGiovanna, who worked for the Dodgers during the Jackie Robinson era. DiGiovanna, known as Charley the Brow for his heavy black eyebrows, was only in his 20's (he moved to Los Angeles with the ballclub in 1958 but died shortly thereafter of a heart attack at the age of 27). The Brow would prowl the clubhouse, yelling, "Sign da balls, sign da balls!" and shrug off the genial obscenities hurled at him by recalcitrant players. When he had to supply the signatures himself, it was an amazing thing to watch. He'd sit down and rapidly reproduce signature after signature, each astonishingly similar to the original, no matter how the originals varied from one another. Charley, like the artists who followed him, shifted from pen to pen as he forged his masterpieces so that the ink on the ball would vary realistically. His pièce de résistance was Burt Shotton's signature. Shotton, a crusty old man who managed the Dodgers from 1947 through 1950, was righthanded, but the infirmities of age prevented him from holding a pen in that hand. He therefore began to sign his autograph with his left hand. Because he couldn't hold a baseball firmly with his right hand, Shotton would tuck it into the crook of his right elbow and hold it there while he signed it. DiGiovanna, in reproducing Shotton's signature, was as faithful to its originator as he could be. He would sign the old man's name with his left hand and he would tuck the baseball into the crook of his right elbow as he did it. That's artistry.

Forged signatures are commonplace. Oddballs turn up now and then posing as ballplayers and graciously sign autographs on request. Someone pretending to be George Brett held an autograph session in a Kansas City pizza parlor not long ago. Obviously, many an autograph, particularly on baseballs cluttering up shelves and desks in playrooms and dens around the country, is of dubious authenticity. Some signatures are facsimiles written by secretaries or machines. In the 1960s quite a stir occurred when, despite denials from the White House, Hamilton proved that many of President Kennedy's signatures were done with an expensive device called the Autopen. Eisenhower had it first, but Kennedy. Johnson and Nixon all made use of it, and it's still in service in Reagan's White House. The President signs his name and his signature is reproduced on a plastic matrix that's inserted into the machine. Mechanical "fingers" at the end of a movable arm hold the pen—any kind of pen, a ballpoint, a felt tip, the President's own personal pen. The operator places the letter, document or photograph to be signed under the pen, presses a foot pedal and, voilà!, the President's signature, in his own apparently honest-to-goodness handwriting. It's almost impossible for anyone but an autograph expert to detect the difference between it and an actual signature.

Baseball has the equivalent in the stamped signature, notably on baseballs. Dick Culler, a major league infielder for several years in the 1940s, grew so tired of signing baseballs that he cast about for a way of doing it more easily and came up with a curved rubber stamp. Culler died in 1964, but before he did he developed a small but thriving business in supplying "signed" baseballs to major league clubs for promotion giveaways or resale to the public. Culler's son, Dick Jr., has continued the business, which is called the Autographed Baseball Company, in High Point, N.C. New balls are signed and shipped whenever there are shifts in a team's roster, such as after a trade. Culler supplies such baseballs to most of the 26 big-league clubs. In Los Angeles sales are limited because the Dodgers—shades of Charley the Brow—supply their own facsimile-signature baseballs. Such balls usually sell for around $5 or $6 each. A ball actually signed by the players on a team usually goes for around $25. Some clubs, the Baltimore Orioles, for example, sell such balls only to fans who specifically ask for them, and they give the fees to charity. In other words, the club doesn't make money on the baseballs, and it distinguishes between the real and the fake. That's encouraging.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6