By Chuck Kaufman
he Massachusetts collector who came to Atlantic City to get Barry Bonds' autograph dismissed his own stupidity. Sure, he acknowledged he spent almost $500 for a couple of Bonds autographs, but he wanted the experience of getting them in person.
The "this-is-crazy-but-what-am-I-gonna-do?" crowd muttered this mantra all the way through the line at the recent Pastime Productions show. Not only was the price for Bonds' signature high, the wait was long. One collector griped about being there early only to reach the single-season home run king by 3 p.m. Of course, for hundreds of dollars patrons should expect a bit longer than a brief audience with the celebrity.
Most dealers who paid a premium for dealer tables, not to mention expenses associated with the show, did equally poorly. To keep the room from looking too barren, show organizers gave dealers extra tables to display their wares. Calls to Pastime went unanswered, but it is believed that the 700 or so people who had a chance to walk by 20 dealers and 70 dealer tables bought about 800 Barry Bonds autographs. The Giants slugger was hired to sign 1,000 items. The line in front of Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, by contrast, dwindled shortly after one hour of signing. Seeing no waiting customers, Puckett decided to call it a day. Even the lines for Willie Mays, tied to the show as Barry's godfather, and Bobby Bonds, Barry's dad, were exceptionally short.
Collectors toting 500 Home Run Club balls, bats and flats felt obliged to continue building on their heirloom. At $500 a signature on these items, however, Bonds made out better than the collectors. Only time will tell whether the $500 Bonds signature will add that kind of value to the ball.
The price gave pause to other 500 Home Run Club collectors who stayed away from the Bally's show. They conceded that the likelihood of adding Mark McGwire to their items is slim to nil, so why pay 500 smokes for Bonds? Collectors interviewed for this article stated flatly that $200 to $500 for the Bonds signature was way too much money. "I'd rather put Kirby Puckett on my bat for $125 than Bonds for $500," one collector said. "Once you add in costs associated with attending the show, the price for that autograph, in effect, is $1,000. It's crazy."
The good news is that Barry Bonds and even Mays were cordial, pleasant, even accommodating. Stop the presses. One dealer, knowing Bonds' reputation at other events, said, "He wasn't Barry Bonds. He was . . . someone else." Mays' behavior may have been explained by the location of the show. Still the "Assistant to the President" at Bally's, Mays is accustomed to royal treatment during such trips. At a dinner the night before a Saturday signing session, Bonds and Mays were seen meeting requests without the exchange of an autograph ticket or a scowl. They reportedly posed for pictures. Gladly. One can only surmise that the patrons pay plenty, one way or another, for the experience at Bally's.
Some visitors bypassed the privilege of standing in the midst of Bonds by buying a signed ball bearing two sets of notations for $300 apiece. One ball listed Bonds' four MVP years; another noted 73 homers and the date of the final day's dinger.
The Bonds "tribute" show meant another wonderful payday for the professional athlete. The collectors no doubt left with priceless memories, a signed item, a much lighter wallet, and no telling how many angry spouses.
The countless collectors who resisted temptation figure the marketplace will have the final say on the cost of Bonds' signature. Meanwhile, they can't imagine how a guy who will be paid more than $100 million for the rest of his career, with his fame defined by fans as much as his performance, can soak them for the few seconds it takes to sign an autograph.
Many collectors who stayed away from the show would have felt better about spending the high fees if they knew that a portion of the proceeds would benefit families of the victims from the Sept. 11 attack or some other charity.
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One week earlier, 28 sports celebrities, including six baseball and football hall of famers, jammed the Sands Casino Hotel in Atlantic City and signed for free.
The free signing was not a matter of someone underwriting the celebrity fees. The celebrities accepted not one thin, U.S. Mint-issued dime for their appearances.
Proceeds from the sale of autograph packages benefited the New York Police and Fire Widows' and Childrens' Benefit Fund. Vince Barella of www.signingforheroes.com, working in conjunction with B&J Collectibles, said orders were still being filled, but he was pleased to report that he would be sending a check for five figures to the Fund.
A $110 package ticket allowed guests to get 15 autographs, plus one Hall of Famer. Patrons were only glad to write the checks. The HOFers participating at the signing event were Art Donovan, Gino Marchetti, Leroy Kelly and Willie Wood from football; and Brooks Robinson and Ralph Kiner from baseball. Other guests included Kyle Rote, Bill Robinson, Ron Reed, John Podres, Tommy Greene, Dave Boswell, Scott McGregor, Brian Kelley, Bobby Wine, Dave Schultz, Matt Snell, Phil Linz, John Montefusco, Stephen Baker and Jim Coats.
Bill Gallo, sports cartoonist for the New York Daily News, made available an image published after Sept. 11, which was reproduced as a print and a poster. A limited edition 14 x 20-inch print — with only 50 produced — were selling for $275; the print signed by the six Hall of Famers sold for $139; the poster signed by all 28 guests at the show was selling for $215; single-signed posters ranged in price from $25 to $59; and an unsigned poster sold for $15. Add $4.95 for postage and handling.
To order prints and posters contact Barella at (732) 714-0111 or write him at 116 Niblick St., Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. 08742.
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Three months earlier, just three days after 9/11, show promoter Phil Chiaramonte of Woburn, Mass., decided to fight terrorism and boost the American way by going on with his show. Of course, with air travel limited at best, if not impossible, there were some special challenges. Hall of Fame flame-thrower Bob Feller, who postponed his baseball career to fight for his country during World War II, was a show guest and met the challenge. He drove 10 hours from Iowa to get to the show. Feller is 83 years old, not Dale Earnhardt, Jr. "I came because I honor my contracts to my employers and my country," Feller said. "I am proud to be an American, and I am glad to see so many people came to the show. It proves that Americans won't allow outsiders to change our lives."
Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds are recent additions to the 500 Home Run Club baseball. Collectors are adding Murray and Winfield to baseballs featuring an earlier generation of club members. Bonds is extracting $500 from collectors to sign such items; and McGwire has resisted organized signings in the past.
Show guests picked up their chins to chant "Looie, Looie" when Luis Tiant arrived after his drive from Cleveland. Jim Rice, Johnny Pesky, Gene Conley, Rico Petrocelli, Terry O'Reilly and Walter Dropo, all New Englanders, were among the guests who attended the show. Dealers from New York and Canada stayed committed by driving in, even though a number of them arrived a day late to the three-day show.
"The only way terrorism wins is by not enjoying this country of ours and doing the things we love to do," said Chiaramonte, who added that the three-day show notched 3,200 guests. "I was proud of my dealers and I was proud to stand at the door and watch people leave with smiles on their faces."
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With the release of the movie "Ali," look for interest in Ali collectibles to increase. The champ is reportedly cutting back on signing engagements. He last signed publicly at last summer's National Sports Collectors Convention. He signed only a couple hundred signatures, but collectors gladly paid higher fees for the champ. Ali was arguably the most talked about guest at the National. Parkinson's disease continues to take its toll on him as he nears 60.
Ali collectibles, from tickets and broadsides, to gloves and photos have always been popular and attention getters at auction. His autograph in recent years has gotten smaller and more linear beyond the initial M and A. Only when he's coaxed to write a large signature do the letters become distinguishable.
Perhaps the most popular Ali-signed collectibles are famous poses showing the defiant champ challenging Sonny Liston as he is collapsed in the ring, flat on his back. There are many world famous athletes, but If there is one athlete whose name is known on every continent, it's Ali.
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.