Babe Ruth once said of autographs, "Hell, who wants to collect that crap?" But the Babe signed willingly, even happily, and Jocko Conlan, the 82-year-old former umpire, thinks Ruth began the sports-autograph craze. "I started in baseball in 1920," says Conlan, "and Babe Ruth hit 54 home runs that year, the first ever to pass the 50 mark. I think I'm right when I say that he was the only one anyone wanted an autograph from then. Signing by others came later."
Barry Halper of New Jersey, a demon baseball collector, tends to agree. He says the oldest albums of baseball signatures he's seen date from the 1920s. Earlier autographs in his collection come mostly from letters or documents (an autograph is, properly, anything handwritten; a signature is sometimes called a clipped, or cut, autograph). Autograph collecting itself began about 1800, although in ancient Rome Cicero is said to have prized a letter written by Julius Caesar. Power hitters among big collectors go after such things as all the signers of the Declaration of Independence (a set was sold for $180,000 in 1976, and Charles Hamilton, the New York autograph dealer, says that if he'd been handling the sale the price would have been higher). An equivalent to this for baseball collectors would be the autographs of all the people in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. Halper is the only one to have gathered such a set. He estimates it cost him between $5,000 and $10,000, not including the time and effort it took, and that it would cost 10 times that amount if he started from scratch today.
One of the signatures Halper needed for his Hall of Fame set was Tommy McCarthy's. You may not recognize the name, but McCarthy is in the Hall. He may not deserve to be there—he was a pre-1900s outfielder of modest accomplishments—but there he is, and Halper wanted his autograph. McCarthy died in 1922, more than 50 years before Halper began his search, and he died where he was born, in Boston, a city replete with McCarthys. Somehow Halper tracked down a relative who found Tommy's will, signed two days before his death. Halper paid $150 for it.
That's professional collecting, not quite the same thing you see every day outside stadium gates. "There's a difference in collectors," says Andy Strasberg, promotions director of the San Diego Padres, who himself has an impressive assemblage of autographs, among them a rare doubleheader—letter signatures by both Abner Doubleday, the legendary creator of baseball, and Alexander Cartwright, who deserves the credit. "We don't wait in hotel lobbies until odd hours or stalk the buses," Strasberg says.
Halper, too, has Doubleday and Cartwright. Doubleday, it should be noted, is not in the Hall of Fame, baseball having reluctantly accepted history's verdict that Abner didn't have anything to do with the invention or development of the game. It should be noted also that Halper and a few others may seek a complete set of Hall of Famers, but when the selectors install new members they sometimes blindside the collectors. The election last year of Rube Foster, a renowned pitcher and manager in the old Negro leagues who died in 1930, sent Halper and the others on a hunt for his hard-to-find autograph. Some collectors try to anticipate the Hall elections. Bill Madden, a zealous baseball collector as well as a sports writer for the New York Daily News, has the autograph of a fine old-time pitcher named Vic Willis in his bullpen, just in case the selection committee ever gets around to noticing that Willis won 20 games or more eight times from 1898 to 1910.
A point well made. Ordinarily, when you envisage baseball and autographs you think of kids dancing around players entering or leaving a stadium or fans mobbing an athlete in a hotel lobby or after a banquet. That, at least, is the world that active players are all too familiar with. A Paul Newman or John Travolta may be besieged for autographs whenever he mingles with the common herd, but neither is subject to the day-in, day-out barrage of requests to "sign this" that a Pete Rose is, or a George Brett—or, for that matter, a second-string infielder batting .238.
All major leaguers are familiar with the question put to them when they're in street clothes at the stadium: "Are you anybody? Are you a baseball player?" (If you are, and I don't care who you are, sign this.) "Do you play for the Padres?" a young autograph seeker outside the Marriott Hotel in Houston asked Earl Campbell a few years ago, when that splendid running back was in town to sign his first contract with the Oilers. The Padres were there, too, for a game that night with the Astros, and the youngster was on the prowl for rare out-of-town signatures. "No, I'm just a football player," said Campbell, who at that time had achieved little more than All-America status, the Heisman Trophy, the honor of being the NFL's No. 1 draft choice and the distinction of having just signed the most lucrative contract ever offered a league rookie. "Oh," said the kid, disappointed, and passed him by, still looking for a .238-hitting infielder.
"Football players are not bothered nearly as much as baseball players," says Lem Barney, the Detroit Lions' great defensive back of a decade ago. Basketball players are asked a bit more, particularly in airports, where they seem to spend a considerable part of their lives, but seldom to the degree that baseball players are. And there's even less attention given to athletes in other sports, excepting easily recognized superstars like Muhammad Ali, John McEnroe and Jack Nicklaus. In baseball though, it's everybody all the time.
Some players handle it well. Others don't. Hearing the horror stories some of them tell, it's hard at times to blame them. The pursuers are ingenious and relentless. Two summers ago a game between the Giants and the Phillies in Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia was delayed by rain and wasn't completed until 3:12 a.m. When the Giants came out of the clubhouse nearly an hour later to take the team bus back to their hotel, more than 50 kids, some still drenched from the rain, were waiting for autographs.
Jerry Green of The Detroit News says that he was an autograph collector when he was growing up in New York. "I was a pain in the neck," he says. "I remember the Cincinnati Reds had an outfielder named Mike McCormick who wouldn't sign for me outside the Polo Grounds. He took a subway downtown and I got on the same car and rode all the way to Rockefeller Center with him. On the platform I accosted him again. 'O.K.,' he said, 'if you followed me all this way,' and he signed."