By Charles Kaufman
ollectors in line to obtain a legend's autograph will sometimes pop the question: "Can you imagine if they had these shows 60 years ago? We'd be getting Babe Ruth's signature!"
Well, go ahead and file that question with other autograph collecting "what ifs."
Fact is while Ruth is very much alive in the market, there is a player who truly was the Babe Ruth of his sport and he's very much alive. He's a football player, and if you're looking to start a football collection, the place to begin, arguably, is with him. The Bambino of the gridiron is Sammy Baugh, retired, golfing and holding court in Rotan, Texas.
Baugh is one of the original inductees in Canton. He revolutionized pro football with the forward pass. He still holds punting records and no one will eclipse his mark for touchdowns and intercepting passes in one game. That's right. Baugh and most players of his era played both ways. The records and accomplishments go on and on like the darts he threw on the field.
The former Redskin even played a Cowboy in movies. He also has one real distinctive signature.
Football collectors are far less numerous than baseball collectors, however, they are equally passionate for the history of the game and the personality of the players.
Football collecting took a massive nosedive after the O.J. Simpson trial, when the image of a true hero was destroyed by a murder and lengthy trial. Drugs, hookers, paternity suits, alleged rape have also tainted our image of heroes in this sport particularly.
Conversely, our image of football heroes was elevated with the passing of at least a few good guys and football greats from different eras, Walter Payton, Ray Nitchke and Lou Groza.
As in other sports, football collectors are stimulated by records and honors. Obviously, they seek autographs from Hall of Famers and, uniquely in football, the 75th Anniversary All-Time team. (Sammy Baugh, of course, is a 75th Anny member.)
As the sport puts more years behind it, collectors are coming out for the autographs of football Hall of Famers, the older the better. Of course, most collectors in their prime - ages 32 to 45 - had heroes in the '60s, '70s and '80s. Trot out Jim Brown, Dick Butkus, Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung, Joe Namath, among others, and collecting fans will show up anytime. They're also eager to obtain signed items by HOFer Pete Pihos, Otto Graham and Charlie Trippi.
Other Hall of Famers are still accessible through the mail, many of them signing for free, others for a nominal contribution to a charity. Ace Parker, who played for the football New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers of the All-American Football Conference, signs through the mail for five bucks. George McAfee, Bill Dudley, Dante Lavelli, Frank Gatski, Chuck Bednarik, the last 60-minute man, Tony Canadeo, Tex Schramm, GM with the Rams and Cowboys, Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch, and Wellington Mara, owner of the Giants, all HOFers, are generally reliable signers through the mail.
"You don't see the narrowness in collecting in football as you have in baseball with, for example, the 500 Home Run Club," said Randy Gibson of New Bern, N.C., who organizes major shows with football guests and has inventory that's 75 percent football. "With football the interest is broader. We have people who collect the signatures of losing Super Bowl quarterbacks. We saw a lot of such pieces when we did a show with Joe Kapp and Craig Morton."
Still, there are more positive niches. Besides the HOF niche, major football shows have allowed collectors to gather signatures of Heisman Trophy winners and Super Bowl MVPs.
Shows featuring football celebrities have taken advantage of famed groupings - the Steel Curtain, the Doomsday Defense, Broadway Joe and the Jets of Super Bowl III.
Gibson said, love 'em or hate 'em, Dallas Cowboys players from teams spanning from the late '70s to the early '90s have attracted fans nationally and globally, like the Yankees in baseball. "If you wore that star during those years, you have collectibility," Gibson said. "The 17-0 Dolphins are also a great team collectible as are the Steelers of the late '70s." Okay, throw in the Packers. . . Well, here we go. Let the debate begin.
Football collecting always has suffered from obvious inefficiencies of the sport. Face it, official footballs are larger and more expensive than baseballs. Who has room for hundreds of footballs? Over time, the balls become deflated and the felt-tip signatures have an uncertain lifespan. Enter the minihelmet. They're compact, decorative, less costly than balls, and the ink lies permanently on the plastic surface.
"I have collectors who want every minihelmet, including throwback helmets," Gibson said. "Collectors like to get them single-signed. The white-paneled footballs are becoming less popular. We're seeing some fading on them. The autograph on a minihelmet should stay there forever."
While some collectors might start with Sammy Baugh, Gibson said he'd probably start with the late Walter Payton, who died so young, and the supply of signed items is significantly less than most other greats. Roger Staubach and Joe Montana would be high on his list of "must have" football items. "There are so many 'must have' signatures," he added. "For the passionate football collector, it's hard to stop naming names."
Mark Adams of Rosharon, Texas, has his biases. He's perhaps done more private signings with Sammy Baugh than anyone and has promoted the signings of numerous other footballers as well. "It's at least equal to baseball in popularity, as far as I'm concerned," Adams said of football. Well, let's not get carried away. "There are just as many groupings in football, with Hall of Famers and the 75th Anniversary team, as anything in baseball. There are two or three teams in the NFL that inspire just as much passion as the big two in baseball - the Yankees and Dodgers - such as the Raiders and Cowboys and Packers. The difference in football collecting may be that collectors are a little non-Hall of Fame phobic. The real journeyman baseball players get a lot of interest from baseball collectors. Joe Blow, a lineman, does not get attention, unless he was an MVP or a Super Bowl player."
Adams said certain non-HOF players will generate more interest for what they accomplished in college. "With Archie Manning, I get more Ole Miss stuff than stuff from the Saints," he said. "Same with John David Crow, I receive more Heisman and Texas A&M items than the Cardinals."
Hard-core collectors and those collecting for investment have found little opportunity to obtain old items from former players. Old players had less of a shot at their gear than old-time baseball players.
Nonetheless, families of football's most historic faces have parted with items in the face of a hot market before the items became ignored and lost. Knute Rockne letters and photos surface periodically as do signed items by Pop Warner and Jim Thorpe. Vince Lombardi-signed checks are regulars in major auctions.
Among football items that sold recently in a MastroNet sale:
· A team-signed photograph of the 1922 Notre Dame Fighting Irish, including signatures from the "Four Horsemen," sold for $4,926;
· An autographed copy of "Halas by Halas" sold for $249;
· A black and white Knute Rockne photo sold for $1,834;
· A 1961 Heisman program signed by Ernie Davis sold for $1,938;
· A Hall of Fame helmet signed by 48 members, sold for $754;
· A Walter Payton autographed football sold for $255; and
· A Payton-signed replica Bears home jersey sold for $1,308
The biggest blockbuster items in football have been a few Heisman trophies that have sold for six-figures. The most notable among these is the one once owned by Orenthal James Simpson, the USC/Buffalo Bills tailback who once rushed for more than 2,000 yards in an NFL season and today mostly cruises golf courses. Oh, he did schedule a private signing for the summer and no, he would not sign anything related to the trial.
In other crime news, the football market suffers the same forgery problems as other sports. Forged Dan Marino and John Elway items flood the market.
By the way. it's possible to get an item signed by Sammy Baugh for about 35 bucks. It makes you wonder about the price of that Babe Ruth autograph ticket.
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