Autograph Collecting: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

By Scott Fragale
So, you’re on vacation in New York, taking in some dinner at Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant with your family. About four bites into your fried calamari appetizer, you look to your left and notice Kobe Bryant and wife Vanessa enjoying some culinary favorites of their own.

Star-struck for a moment or two, you regroup in time to notice the hostess walk away with what appears to be a newly signed cocktail napkin. A few minutes later, you peer over again and notice an elated server racing back to the kitchen with a signed napkin of his own and a brush-with-greatness story he’ll likely be retelling for years to come.

You’ve been securing signatures from your favorite athletes since you were eight years old and you know the do’s and don’ts associated with collecting. One of the first rules in the crash course of “Autograph Collecting 101” your dad taught you back in the day was to never ask for a signature while an athlete is eating.

So, what do you do? You’ve managed to get every “Dream Team II” signature with the exception of Bryant and you’re fully aware a public signing featuring the Lakers high-flying forward comes around about as often a Cubs World Series win. Do you break the rules and hopefully come away with the elusive autograph, or do you let them enjoy their meal in private and hope for another chance encounter down the road?
For many, the choice is a simple one: you pass for now and hope to get another opportunity. But for others, anytime is the right time to make a request and it’s business as usual for the conscience-less autograph hound.

While each athlete is different when it comes to signing, most would agree that private time should remain just that.
“I will sign when I’m out in public and someone asks, but only when I think the situation is appropriate,” Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Manny Parra said. “Approaching people when they are eating dinner with their family members isn’t really the right time. It happens, but I still try to be nice.”

For veteran dealer T.J. Schwartz, an autograph seeker’s success rate is directly related to the presentation of the request.

“I think the biggest key is how you approach and when you approach. If someone is eating dinner, you never approach. If someone is walking out of a restaurant or another establishment, that’s your shot,” said Schwartz, who’s been involved with the hobby for more than 25 years. “If you see them walking into a restaurant, that’s your other shot. If someone is in the restroom, don’t even think about it. If they’re washing their hands in the restroom, don’t even think about it. If they’re walking out of the restroom, take a shot.

“But it’s always a matter of being polite. Use the word ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ or ‘Miss’ or whatever, but mostly ‘Sir’ and know something about the person who you’re asking to sign for you, that’s the key.”

As autographs have become more and more valuable in recent years, signature seekers, or “chasers” as they’re often referred to in the hobby, have been forced to become more resourceful. While public signings, spring training and NFL training camps remain viable opportunities for collectors, the eBay culture has soured many athletes from signing no matter what the circumstances.

“The players aren’t dumb. They go on websites like eBay and they say ‘I was just in Minnesota I saw some guys with 10 signed baseballs and now there’s some guy from Minneapolis selling those balls,’ said longtime autograph collector Ryan Semanko. “And those guys say that all the time, ya know. They say, ‘This is going on eBay’ or ‘I saw 20 of my items on eBay’ and that kind of stuff adds up and it chips at them and they finally break down and they don’t want to sign as much.”

Athletes getting rubbed the wrong way by autograph seekers is certainly not the only factor making it more difficult to build an impressive signature collection. Reduced accessibility and heightened security measures being taken to protect the athletes are becoming more commonplace these days. Whether it’s around the ballpark or at team hotels, landing that coveted autograph has become a losing proposition for many on the chase.

“It’s so much different now in terms of the security, in terms of players being cooperative. I think after Sept. 11 things really changed,” Semanko said. “These are high-priced, high-profile individuals and anybody is vulnerable, so I think owners started to look at things differently. ‘Do we really want these million-dollar athletes out walking around on their own, or should we have a personal security guy going with the team going everywhere with the team out on the lookout?’ It varies with each team and each city, and for the players it’s probably better because then they’re not the bad guy when they turn people down.”

With the ever-changing autograph climate, dealers have been forced to become more creative when attempting to stockpile signatures for resale on the secondary market.

“One of the more effective things that we do, for example, is I employ people to go down to practice facilities before a season starts,” Schwartz said. “We’ll talk about the Lakers, for example. The Lakers practice in El Segundo, Calif., and there’s a fence outside the facility where our autograph chasers will stand and wait for the limos to start pulling around and hope that Kobe will roll the window down. Some guys are good about doing that and some guys aren’t.”

Persistent and effective chasers can be a valuable asset to any dealer, with fees for their efforts ranging anywhere from $20 per item up to about $100 or more per item, depending on the importance of the autograph they return with.

Many dealers employ chasers to deliver the goods and the practice is as normal and accepted as paparazzi hounding celebrities at a film festivals, but there are always those looking for another angle to pursue, however morally suspect it may be.

“I know a dealer in Chicago who actually told players he had leukemia to get athletes to sign for him and give him memorabilia,” said longtime autograph collector Bryan Petrulis. “Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols are just two of the players he scammed using that story. In my opinion, he’s a scumbag, but I guess he shows why players hate signing and why the hobby of collecting autographs has gotten so difficult. Being an autograph collector for over 23 years, it has gotten almost impossible to get players to sign because of the shady and greedy dealers out there.”
Despite the decreasing success rates they’ve experienced in recent years, Petrulis and Semanko say they will continue to employ the tried and tested methods they believe in. While making autograph requests through the mail and hanging out at team hotels and other hot spots will remain a staple of their collection-building practices, other dealers and collectors will continue to look for alternatives.

“Michael Jordan has a camp out here (Santa Barbara) and it costs $750 to send your kid to it. It’s for young kids. They go there and they play basketball and Jordan comes there and some of his buddy athletes show up,” Schwartz said. “At the end of the camp, Upper Deck comes in and each kid gets one UDA-approved Michael Jordan autograph.

“So you can’t get Michael Jordan to sign something you want signed unless you’re at that camp. So many people, including myself, will actually sponsor kids. ‘Hey, you want to go to the Jordan camp, I’ll pay for it.’ And you get the father to sign off on it and the father actually loves it because he doesn’t have to foot the bill for the experience. I’ll pay for the whole camp, but when the autograph time comes, you get my item signed and bring that back to me. That’s how I got my NBA 50 ball signed by Jordan. There are a lot of guys out here that do that. I mean, there’s any number of ways to get an autograph. It’s just a matter of being inventive. But it definitely can be done.”

According to several chasers, there are some proven techniques that are virtually foolproof.

“Pretty girls that are well endowed and young kids will do the best,” Schwartz said. “Even the nastiest of signers that will never sign for free or at all, and that list includes: Woody Allen, Robert DeNiro, Patrick Ewing and Tiger Woods. Guys that simply won’t do it, they’ll sign for kids and it seems that the well-endowed female always manages to get an autograph from a lot of guys.”

While trial and error will likely help find the method that works best for each individual chaser, several veteran autograph hounds are firm believers that some sports will net better results than others. Athletes from the NHL and the PGA Tour were high atop most lists of cooperative signers, while NBA players have notoriously been the worst. Because the number of gracious athletes seems to be declining across the board, autograph seekers are now turning their attention to collegiate players. “Amateurs” haven’t been exposed to the paparazzi-like atmosphere that the pros have, and they tend to embrace the idea of signing no matter what the circumstances, making them easier, albeit less-attractive targets.
Following the rules and adhering to the tricks of the trade will likely increase your odds of acquiring signatures, but research, presentation, common courtesy and perhaps most importantly, common sense, are probably your best bets for boosting your success rate. SCM

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