By Charles Kaufman
any autograph collectors like to stalk today's superstars at stadiums and hotels with the hope of hooking a hero. What they may get is a rushed signature or nothing at all.
Well, they will get a story to share, a memory, about the hunt.
More fun and less daring is the pursuit of autographs through the mail. Many former professional athletes, from Hall of Famers to common players, deal with daily requests for signatures. Collectors who have a penchant for writing flattering letters, even form letters, run to the mailbox each day to see what bounty your local Cliff Claven has brought.
For the autograph collector, there's a great joy in opening the mail and finding contents that they enclosed some days, weeks or months ago. Collectors who send anything of value have learned through difficult experiences that they need to write to ask permission to send that special piece of memorabilia. No reply means it's a pretty good bet you should hold onto your collectible.
Certain players charge for their troubles. Often that fee goes toward a favorite charity. Other pro athletes, long out of the limelight, are simply flattered that someone remembered them. They'll sign to their heart's content.
Off and on since 1952, Jeffrey W. Morey of Syracuse, N.Y., corresponded with countless athletes. Oh, he began as a successful autograph hound with sniffed out sports heroes passing through Syracuse or nearby Cooperstown.
From his home, he routinely wrote to heroes. In the 1950s, many legends from the early part of the last century were still alive.
Morey's is just one story. He says other individuals may have larger collections. Countless collectors write to players either directly, through current teams or through halls of fame. Yet, it's hard to believe others have been soliciting autographs for many years longer than Morey. He's just in his early 60s, but his voluminous collection comes to mind because it was sold recently by MastroNet, the giant auction company.
"My goal as a young boy was merely to collect autographs," he said. "Money was not the issue. What we were doing was fun. Often, I'd write the manager in care of a team, enclosed small pieces of paper - until I found file (index) cards - and asked him to have team members sign them. I don't even know if I necessarily had the team's address. You could just send the letter, for example, to 'John Smith, New York Giants, New York, New York,' and they'd get it." Times were simpler then.
Morey and others were resourceful in locating celebrities. He read the Sporting News religiously in those days, particularly a feature called "Where are they now?" "I remember they had an article on Dummy Hoy and where he lived, so I just put his name and hometown on the envelope and it made its way," explained Morey. The U.S. Postal Service generally requires more information, though small town postoffices still know how to find the nation's heroes. Sammy Baugh, Rotan, Texas, is sufficient.
A publication called The Baseball Year and Notebook predated today's published address guides.
"So many people wanted to respond back then," Morey said. "Players were so prolific in answering. It was fun to open the mail. The whole experience seemed so personal."
Collecting fans knew players through box scores or on the radio. Media saturation finally came to American households in the form of the Game of the Week. So a piece of mail from anyone, particularly a pro athlete, was about as personal as anyone could expect.
"You didn't look at who was a superstar," Morey added. "The heroes of the minor leagues were as big a hero as a major league player. The Sporting News helped you function, and when the '53-'54 Bowman picture cards came out, you related to the players even more because there was a picture to look at. Some minor league managers were in those big league sets. You kinda knew who they were."
"Remember, in those days there were only eight teams, for example, in the NBA. Each team had 10 players, so it was easy to know every one of them" Morey continued. "Same with baseball, except, of course, there were more players on each team."
In 1952, the cost to mail a letter was pennies, and the thought of enclosing a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE), was neither the custom nor the practice. "I didn't know enough to send a SASE," Morey said. "Then, I remember how Wayne Terwilliger wrote me back and said, 'You might get a better response, if you sent a self-addressed stamped envelope."
For his two-cent stamp, SASE, and simple request, Morey picked up the signatures of Cy Young and Frank "Home Run" Baker, among others. Today, the SASE is a must.
In the MastroNet sale, individual lots of Morey's collection featured dozens of cards from individual players. While collectors and celebrities themselves have acknowledged receiving numerous requests from the same people, Morey said he never wrote a guy 40 times. He acknowledged writing a player two or three times. Usually, a subsequent query was made if he had acquired a photo or something else to be signed.
"I probably picked up multiples by trading the cards," Morey said. Morey fondly recalled the generosity among collectors, who would gladly swap a 100 cards.
Just as inflation has hit postage and packs of cards, value has hit 3x5s. In autograph collecting, like it or not, time is not money. What is money, however, is the passage of time.
While Morey disdains the role of money in autograph-collecting circles, fact is he didn't throw these index cards off a bridge or give them to orphans. No one begrudges Morey for cashing out. He knew then what we know now. History has value. It's just that it would be nice to know that collectors are a little bit nostalgic.
The largest lot of index cards in the MastroNet sale totalled 10,000 cards. It sold for $29,834. A lot containing basketball signatures on index cards, including 63 NBA Hall of Famers, sold for $2,426.
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Uncle Sam must be plugged into sports collecting. The Postal Service's new series commemorating this country's grand old ball parks is a fine tool for collectors who seek autographs in person or through the mail.
Don't you know Bobby Thomson is signing numerous items bearing the Polo Grounds stamp? Imagine all of the former athletes who are seeing items bearing stamps showing Comiskey Park, Crosley Field, Ebbets Field, Fenway Park, Forbes Field, Shibe Park, Tiger Stadium, Wrigley Field and Yankee Stadium. For autograph collectors, these items are almost as good as a tax rebate. Well, not that good.
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Can you believe anyone paying $2,000 for a Tiger Woods-signed photo? Or $4,000 for a souvenir Masters pin flag signed by Woods?
Upper Deck and Upper Deck Authenticated have an estimated $20 million invested in Woods over the next five years. They're very busy marketing Tiger-signed products, banking on a new market of collectors.
The folks buying UDA Tiger Woods items likely won't be card show patrons. They will be corporate guys, the skybox crowd. Hey, there's nothing wrong with that. This is America. The good news is that the public will be able to obtain a verifiably good Tiger Woods signature. Woods is already one of the most oft-forged athletes in sports today.
Meanwhile, with astronomical prices and equally unlimited ignorance among the general public, forgers will take plenty of opportunities to improve on their Tiger Woods forgeries.
Indeed, there are people who can identify the 25-year-old golfer more readily than they can Upper Deck. Faced with the opportunity to buy a beautifully forged Woods at, say, $499, versus a legitimate one for $2,000, wouldn't you go for the bad one?
Hopefully, not now. But, believe me, there are plenty of dopes who do and will.
Charles Kaufman, autograph columnist for the Sports Market Report, is also editor of Sweet Spot magazine, a bimonthly publication devoted to vintage and autographed sports memorabilia, and www.sweetspotnews.com.
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