Allison’s husband Dave had a life-long passion of collecting autographs. For their 10th anniversary she wanted to give him something very special. As he opened the gift-wrapped box, nestled in a beautiful container was a 1996 New York Yankees World Series Souvenir baseball autographed by Babe Ruth. Allison was told the value of the item was over $10,000. She knew her husband would be proud of her for fetching the item on e-bay for just $1,500. His eyes glistened with excitement, and disbelief
“Wow this is amazing,” he said, “An authentic Babe Ruth autograph!”
After the magnitude of the moment set in a boisterous exclamation followed, “1996,” the man yelled!
Babe Ruth would have had to sign that one from the grave.
Excitement often clouds common sense. This happens more often than autograph hobbyists want to admit. Our desire to own a specific autograph often is aided by our desire to believe it is real. The billion dollar autograph business thrives on the human assumption and desire to believe the item is genuine. Collectors have accepted promise over proof. Promises come in the form of certification promising authenticity from self-anointed experts, or CEO’s of the company. To date, the industry standards of accountability have changed little. As a result 90% of the autographs sold on the market today are fake. Surprisingly, the increase of fraud has not slowed the growth of the industry overall. That can only be explained by the fact that our passion to possess the elusive or craved signature continues to outweigh our demand for proof of authenticity.
Of the 350+ autographs in my collection almost all of them I’ve gained in person from Muhammad Ali to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Winfield, Brooks Robinson, Hulk Hogan, Randal Cunningham, to name a few.
There is only one true way to have 100% certainty an autograph is real, get it in person yourself.
5 rules for in-person autograph success: Be: Prepared, Polite, Persistent, Patient, Personable
1. Be prepared: Most of my in-person autographs came as a surprise. I had no idea I’d meet New York Yankees legend Dave Winfield at an NBA Basketball event, or The Big Show (WWE superstar) at Bob Evans restaurant. Even if you attend a specific event anticipating to meet a certain athlete, quite often there are other celebrities in attendance.
Suggestion: Have a good fine point push button Sharpie in blue ink, and a blank white 5×7 index card. Countless times I’ve watched athletes with large hands fumble with a pen cap. The recent invention of the Sharpie push-button model maker makes it easier for the athlete. Some fans get obsessed with having their favorite player sign a specific item, in a specific place on the item, like the sweet-spot on a baseball, or a basketball that already has multiple signatures on it, and asking the athlete to sign in a specific spot on the ball without smudging other autographs can be overkill especially for an already apprehensive signer. Also carrying around a basketball, jersey, baseball bat all day can be cumbersome. An index card is easy to carry in your back pocket along with the marker. You are then hands free. Often when athletes in transition see a fan coming towards them with big ticket items, they will be less interested in signing, fearing you may resell the item.
Being prepared means having your camera ready. If by yourself, while you are in a group or waiting in line, form an agreement with the person in front of you and behind you to take a picture of you getting your item signed with the athlete. As you step through the line in turn you do the same for the person behind you. Granted this takes a little trust with swapping cameras for a minute. However I’ve done this multiple times and never had a problem. Often I’ll have a camera and the person behind me doesn’t. I’ll suggest they take a picture for me and I will take one for them and email it to them. The few minutes it takes me later that evening to send it is worth, having my own picture with the athlete.
Lastly, in being prepared make sure you bring a hard-plastic sleeve to place your new autograph in to protect it until you get home.
2. Be Polite: This should be an obvious thing. But I am amazed at how many times I am in an autograph setting with a mob of fans, who insist on screaming and physically jamming their way to an autograph. Here is a hint for all you obsessive out-of-control autograph hounds: when athletes get stressed, they stop signing. Nothing kills an impromptu free autograph signing than an annoying, demanding, disrespectful fan. And it only takes one to squash the opportunity for everyone else. I recall Kareem Abdul-Jabbar getting frustrated in the midst of signing for about 40 impromptu autographs. A pint-size middle school girl kept yelling in her high-pitched annoying voice, “Cream, Cream, Cream,” as she hoisted her homework worksheet that she wanted him to sign. He quickly signed it to shut her up, but then gave it back to someone else by mistake. “That’s mine,” the little girl squealed repeatedly, until Kareem snatched it back, gave it to the girl, then promptly exited the crowd.
Carlton Fisk bypassed legions of fans on his way to his limo. Groans of pleas of autograph junkies young and old didn’t phase him. As he walked past me just beyond the security rope, I softly and politely said, “Mr. Fish may I have just one autograph please?” My tone was gentle. He turned and looked at me and the man next to me and said, “I will sign for you two only.”
“Thank you sir, I appreciate your kindness. Thank you for taking the time,” I said.
Everyone around me assumed I must have known him, or had some connection.
“What did you say to get him to sign for you? He never signs for anyone,” a man quipped.
I was just simply polite.
3. Be Persistent: Few autographs happen without prompting from you. Only once did I ever have an athlete come up to me and ask me if I wanted an autograph, and that was Jim Morris. He walked out of Double Day field in Cooperstown, NY, during HOF induction weekend several years ago, past scores of people lined up and shouting for an autograph. He walked directly up to me and asked, “Would you like and autograph.” Quite honestly, the only way I can explain it is to say I prayed earlier in the day I would have the opportunity to meet him, I guess prayer should be the sixth “P” of successful tips. (Jim Morris was played by Actor Dennis Quaid in the movie titled “The Rookie.”)
This was a rare occasion, you must be proactive and persistent. Research the best place to be to position yourself for an autograph. Be persistent. You may need to ask more than once. It might not happen on your first attempt. It might be your second or third trip to the NFL training camp or MLB spring training game before you get the opportunity to meet your favorite player. But persistence does pay off. I’ve had athletes say, I’ve seen you out here before, or I know you’ve been waiting a long time. Many athletes do respect and appreciate persistent and patient fans.
4. Be Patient: Being persistent doesn’t mean you make the process quicker. If you aren’t willing to wait, you need to find a different hobby. The longest I have ever waited for a single autograph was 4 hours. Gerry MacNemara had just finished his senior year at Syracuse University, ending a glorious collegiate basketball career, leading the Orangemen to a National Championship. At the Syracuse Carusel Mall he sat at a table and signed autographs for fans for 7 straight hours. I wanted to personally thank him for his passion on court and for giving us fans such great memories.
5. Be Personable: The 20 something young man had just paid $200 for Reggie Jackson to personally sign his Jersey. When the man’s turn came he approached the table which seated Hall of Fame baseball great Reggie Jackson. The man’s friends all waited at the other end of the room, excited to see their friend meet his hero. What would he say to Mr. Jackson? Would he confess his allegiance, ask a question, recall a highlight from Jackson’s career?
No. Instead the man uttered the following words, “Ummm, ahhh, do you know if Dave Winfield is signing anywhere here today?
To which Reggie Jackson muttered back, “I don’t know.”
And that was it. The boy walked away gazing at his new autograph, his eyes fixed on the signature, and yet missing the hallmark of the moment. The once-in-a-lifetime event was an autograph exercise rather than a personal exchange forever to be cherished.
Rule number 5 is to be personable. Create a collection of memories to go along with your autographs. I remember Muhammad Ali telling me a joke about Abraham Lincoln, Bill Walton telling me how proud he was of his Son Luke (Forward with the LA Lakers), Bucky Dent calling me and “old man” when I was still a kid, Kareem Abdul Jabbar picking on me for being a Yankee’s fan, (he was a devout Brooklyn Dodgers fan), Sister Smoke Jackie Frazier Lyde telling me how she beat Layla Ali even though Ali retained the belt, One of my most special memories was with Gordon “Hoppy” Hopkins, Negro league baseball legend. (Indianapolis Clowns 1948-1952) I was so moved by his story while purchasing an in-person autograph in Philadelphia. In the months that followed we became friends, I hosted a few autograph signings for him, and was asked to speak at his funeral just two years after we first met. Be personable and genuine with the athlete you seek an autograph from. Always be sure to thank them. You may walk away with more than just an autograph.
Remember, a signature represents transference of a single moment in history. The memory made in that single moment is priceless!
Tips for the celebrity signing the autograph
Many athletes are shy when it comes to giving autographs. One of the main reasons is the resale of their autograph. The autograph/memorabilia industry boasts a billion dollars in sales annually. Fraud is rampant throughout. Also there is the concern by some athletes that the person getting the autograph for themselves is just going to turn around and sell it. For some veteran retired athletes, autograph signing is a necessity for their personal financial needs. Before the current modern age of 100 Million-dollar contracts, many players retired without the riches garnished today.
For impromptu autograph requests from eager fans catching you in your daily life, my advice is to have an abbreviated autograph, perhaps just initials, and always personalize your signature (ex; “To John”). I realize that during pre-organized autograph shows / signings adding personalize inscriptions usually bears an additional charge. However, in the context of a fan approaching you in public for an autograph, if he is planning on selling it, he won’t want it personalized. Personalized autographs are much harder to sell to the general public. If the person says they don’t want it personalized, then refuse to autograph their item.