Another time, I mailed out what I thought were two photos of Baltimore Oriole pitcher Steve Barber. Barber returned both of them. He had autographed one, and as his cover letter explained, "The other one isn't me; it's Milt Pappas." And sure enough, Barber had gotten his teammate to autograph the other.
No response was more generous or exciting than the one I received from Vince Lombardi. LIFE magazine had run a story about pro football, with the famed Green Bay Packers on a gatefold cover. I mailed it to Lombardi for his autograph; I thought he epitomized football's greatest team. Lombardi returned my photo autographed by every member of the Packers.
One by one, the pictures I collected went into frames on my bedroom walls. Eventually, I ran out of space, and I began to store them in my closet. Over the years, I collected more than 500 photos from some 300 different sports heroes.
Last March there was an auction of sports memorabilia at Sotheby's. A Honus Wagner baseball card sold for $451,000. Over two days, the auction grossed nearly $5 million. Reading about the sale, I thought of my photos. I still have them, still in a closet. I took out the envelopes and began to look at pictures I hadn't seen for 25 years.
There were Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson. Also, Max Alvis, Sam Mele, Woodie Held, Pete Ward. Most of the players looked very young; when they had autographed the pictures, they were younger than I am now.
I began making lists. I had autographed photos from 33 members of baseball's Hall of Fame. There were 29 MVPs, 10 different Cy Young Award winners, 21 home run champions and 19 players who had won batting titles. Eight of my signatories had had 3,000 or more base hits. Ten had hit more than 500 home runs. Six of my pitchers had won 300 games. And that was only baseball. Fifteen of my photos were from players now in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Thirty-five of my football correspondents were in that sport's hall. And there were superstars from other sports—Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Rafer Johnson, Willie Shoemaker, Gordie Howe and Cassius Clay (before he changed his name).
It was inevitable, of course, that I would ask that horrible question: "How much are my pictures worth?"
Harlan J. Werner is the chairman of AW Sports in Irvine, Calif., a card manufacturing company. In a business in which an honest appraisal is a rarity, Werner is considered an honest man. "It's a nice collection," he told me after I had faxed a master list to him. "But there are several factors to keep in mind."
"Like what?" I asked.
"Well, first, in this business you have to consider the nature of the item signed. For example, Joe DiMaggio's signature on a baseball bat is worth several thousand dollars. That's because he refuses to sign them. DiMaggio on a baseball is worth about $200. On an eight-by 10-inch real photo, $75. Your DiMaggio autograph is only on a picture from a magazine, which makes it worth about $40. That's what Joe charges for his signature at a card show.