While autograph hunters once were simply kids smitten with their heroes, these days the chase also includes collectors, dealers and investors. The collectors include some fans with seemingly unlimited amounts of time on their hands, like the Green People, who, attired in all manner of green, patiently follow the Boston Celtics from city to city, planting themselves in hotel lobbies all day in hopes of getting, say, Robert Parish's autograph. The dealers, often working with paid bands of children—not unlike Fagin and his Artful Dodgers—gather autographs, then turn around and sell them. Investors purchase the autographs on the premise that, like fine art or artifacts of historical importance, a Bird, Jordan, Mattingly or Jose Canseco signature will increase in value over time. "I'm holding on to my autographs for now, but someday I might sell them," says 35-year-old Frank Solano of the Bronx during a recent trip to Yankee Stadium. "I look at my autographed cards as children's stocks."
Children's stocks? Who has told collectors that a Pascual Perez or a Stump Merrill can be counted on to pay for Junior's freshman year at Princeton? Well, according to the scholarly Baseball Autograph Handbook, Babe Ruth's signature on a baseball is worth $2,000. Lou Gehrig's, which has been forged more often than the Babe's, is worth $3,625. Recent ads in the collectors' magazines offer Nolan Ryan and Bo Jackson at $49.95, Canseco at $45.95, Ken Griffey Jr. at $33.95 and Darryl Strawberry at $28.95.
The Handbook is only one of the books fanning the flames of the autograph zealots. Far more sinister is something called The Sports Address Book, which publishes the home addresses of famous athletes and boasts that it can inform its readers on how to contact anyone in the sports world.
In the world of autograph hunting, almost anything goes. At the 1989 All-Star Game in Anaheim, Calif., one hound, frustrated because the elevator bank to the hotel floors on which the players were staying was cordoned off by security guards, tripped the fire alarm to flush the stars onto the street.
The invasion of restaurants by signature seekers is a pet peeve of players. "I never turn anyone away unless I'm eating," says Esiason.
Mark Howe of the Philadelphia Flyers was once about to take a bite of his dinner when someone appeared at his elbow and slid a hockey card in his face. "I had my fork six inches from my mouth, and someone stuck a card in front of me to sign," Howe recalls.
"If you say, 'Wait until I get done eating,' " says former journeyman catcher Bob Uecker, whose Miller Lite commercials have made it difficult for him to go out in public without being besieged, "they'll get angry and think you're trying to be a big deal."
One common ploy used by autograph hounds is to stake out the lobby of the hotel where a visiting team is staying and hop into the elevator with a player. When that happens, Chris Sabo of the Cincinnati Reds orders autograph seekers out of the elevator. If they claim to be guests, Sabo will get out and let them ride up by themselves.
"Everybody has angles on how to get autographs," says Orel Hershiser of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Hershiser had to hire a secretary to answer the 100 pieces of mail a day he began getting after he was named MVP of the 1988 World Series—a deluge that continued for six months. "I'm sure I've been lied to about an illness and the like: 'My brother is six years old, and he's dying of cancer.' There's a certain percentage of people who'll try to rip you off, but there's also a percentage who are unbelievably great fans."
Great or not, so many people want his autograph that Hershiser is unable to do things that only a couple of years ago he took for granted. "I no longer can do short errands, like running out for milk or butter for the family," he says. "Once I get in line, people would recognize me, and then you're caught. I can't go to sporting goods stores anymore. Or to toy stores. Or malls. A nice afternoon with your family would be turned into an appearance." Hershiser has even been tailed home from the ballpark, an experience so unsettling that he got into the habit of altering his route and checking out cars in the rearview mirror.