By Charles Kaufman
few years ago, a collector approached Johnny Bench at an autograph show, shook his massive hand, and asked him to add his home run total to his signature.
Up to that point, most people were pleased to receive Bench's bold signature on the sweet spot of the ball.
Bench peered back, slightly irritated, and said, "I'll do it if you can tell me how many I hit during my career."
"Three hundred and eighty-nine," came the answer.
Bench signed and the paying customer walked away with an item that was just a little bit different from those carried away by other customers.
Notations are wonderful additions to autographed items. Some players proudly add their Hall of Fame years or their famous jersey numbers either voluntarily or for the asking. Other players - like the gregarious Frank Howard - will add numerous stats without any prompting. He calls the gesture "the works."
Collectors like notations because they make a collectible a little different from other single-signed items. To some, of course, this difference means more value, anywhere from $5 to $50. Many celebrities like notations because they solidify their identity through noted accomplishments. They know the alphabet soup of notations: HOF, ROY, MVP, A-S, and WS.
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Adding notations used to be a matter of making a request. Collectors would ask for the additional ink and, often, their politeness would be rewarded. Some fans would go overboard by asking the autograph guest to write numerous accomplishments on a ball or photograph. Surly players have been known to respond: "What do you want? My life story?" Or the request is met with no response at all. Fans have learned their limits with each hero.
More times than not, it has led to a new signing policy such as "no notations" or notations for a fee. Collectors may tolerate the surcharge for certain superstars. Paying extra for Larry Doby to add his Hall of Fame year, for example, seems a bit much.
A celebrity's willingness to add stats often gives collectors a way to gauge that legend's temperament.
For Mark McGwire, meanwhile, notations are a way to date the signature as much as anything else.
For today's in-demand athletes who make show appearances, the extra service is going to carry an additional cost. For Barry Bonds, who has a chance to become baseball's first 500 home run and 500 stolen base player, the charge might be worth it. The same can be said for Cal Ripken, he might add something like "2,632 consecutive games."
Pete Rose gladly adds his hit king total. Nolan Ryan, through his Foundation, charges $10 per notation. Let's see, there are his seven no hitters, strike out king totals, 324 wins, and Hall of Fame year.
Here's a news flash. Hank Aaron, baseball's home run king, will add "755" to his autograph, though the notation has jacked up the price of those collectibles to $125.
A number of Hall of Famers have gotten involved in signing "stat balls," marketed by Reggie Jackson, which commonly include more than 15 key stats in the career of such legends as Stan Musial, Willie Mays, and Reggie himself. Of course, these baseballs sell for up to $600.
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With the end of the baseball season, it's not too early to begin contemplating future notations. First, of course, will be "HOF '06" for Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn. Of course, Ripken could add his famous No. 8 and consecutive game total. Add to that his home run totals for a shortstop, all-star appearances, MVPs. Well, Ripken definitely has "statball" potential, but likely will have to call such an endeavor something else because of trademark considerations.
One would assume he'll market the item on his own rather than join up with the Reggie's outfit. The Tufton Group, which handles such affairs for Ripken, is working on various memorabilia projects, but has been mum on the subject.
Barry Bonds memorabilia, with his home run total and HOF designation, awaits his retirement. He should crack the 600 home run mark before boaters in the Bay start fishing out someone else's dingers.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Sports fans can see where this is going with many of today's All-Stars, MVPs, batting champs, strike out leaders. Time will tell whether today's heroes will add which notations to baseballs. One can only hope that the million dollar generation will cut autograph-collecting fans some slack and allow a free notation. The appreciative players should and will do it for nothing. They realize the game has paid them royally. The players who miss those big league paydays, though, will charge for notations no matter what.
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Brandon Steiner of Steiner Sports Marketing, producers of memorabilia, noted how notations are part of the clamor by fans who want something unique. Mark Messier wrote "'94 Cup" on collectibles the Steiner company produced. Apparently, Messier no longer adds notations. "So you know you've got something special," Steiner said.
Among Steiner's favorites is Phil Rizzuto's "Holy Cow" exclamation. He adds that the "statball" concept is very appealing but "the guys just hate doing the statball" because of the time involved.
For Steiner, notations have become such a significant issue that they are addressed in autograph contracts. Autograph gigs are getting more and more costly by the moment as all parties attempt to cash in on the overpriced sports economy. In recent months, Steiner has overseen private signings with the likes of Dave Winfield, Lou Pinella, Ben Sheets, Joe Frazier, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and, among others, Larry Bird. Steiner said Bird for now rejects adding notations to his signature.
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You think George Steinbrenner is the only one feeling the pinch of his team's payroll? The pocketbooks of Yankee collectors are also getting emptied. In fact, the star status of many of the Yankee heroes are about to price Yankee team balls out of the market. The effort and cost of producing the Yankee team ball in 2000 was so hefty that Steiner said recently, "We won't be doing it again. It's too much work since it's hard to track down the players. And the players have gotten too expensive. If they all showed up at one time, then the project would be manageable. The players disperse after the series."
It appears a Yankees 2001 ball would have to be done and acquired the old-fashioned way, whereby a clubhouse attendant would plunk down dozens of baseballs in the locker room and the players would sign them at their leisure. They would go to executives, among others, and parceled out to charity auctions.
What's happened to the market for Yankee team balls from the past four championship seasons? The '96 team ball retailed for about $400 and they can be had today for up to $1,000. Steiner remembers thinking that he "didn't think the project was going to work," so only a few hundred were produced. As we all know, the market has matured since then.
The reception for the '96 baseballs was overwhelming, so when the Yanks returned with arguably its best team in '98, about 2,500 team balls were produced. They retailed for between $1,000 and $1,500. On the resale market today, these baseballs have eclipsed the $2,000 level.
A year later, with costs and dynasty talk growing - and the company pushing price-point levels - about 1,000 team-signed Yankee balls were signed. Those balls retailed for about $1,500 and the price has remained flat at best.
About 600 team balls were done with the 2000 Subway Series team. With dynasty talk at a roar, some collectors forked over $2,000 for the '00 version. Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada were tough signatures for those baseballs. About one-fourth of the balls remain in Steiner's inventory. David Wells' signature was absent from the '98 balls. Wells rejects signing them even two uniform switches after his Yankee years.
Steiner acknowledges that interest has slowed considerably for these team balls, but he feels the demand could accelerate as the sun sets on the current dynasty. "Sales won't pick up until this team disassembles," Steiner said. "In a year, this team will be nothing like the '96, '98 and '99 teams. When they break up, people will think, 'How can I get that?' and interest will rise again."
As with other team balls, history will be the ultimate measure of the team ball values. In addition to the number of world championships and historic seasons, value will be gauged on the number of Hall of Famers produced from those teams.
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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