By Chuck Kaufman
eams who play musical franchises are writing and rewriting sports history. Sure, the Grizzlies moved from Vancouver to Memphis. The Hornets have buzzed off to New Orleans, and threats loom to move franchises in both baseball and football.
NBA Commissioner David Stern promises to put another team in Charlotte, N.C., where the city had more of a beef with the owners than with players and coaches. Fans there will definitely miss their Hornets. Until then, many die-hard bug boosters will adopt the team even in New Orleans.
That's how people naturally react when their team moves. It happened in Houston, when the fans, who also hated their owner, Bud Adams, rooted for the players and the Titans of Tennessee. That sense of ownership has been replaced by the Texans, whose inaugural season begins in the fall.
Back to basketball. The Hornets, in existence for 14 years, have too little history to be considered history. Yet, the Tar Heel state still enjoyed a full line of firsts, high scorers, All-Stars, top draft choices and favorite players that no doubt some collectors have recognized. All the stuff of which memories are made. Unlike the Minneapolis Lakers, who would move to Los Angeles, the Hornets had no championships under their belts.
Nonetheless, there are team balls from an inaugural season. One day, someone, perhaps an autograph collector, might remember Rex Chapman as the team's first draft choice in 1988. Or when a young Alonzo Mourning was pictured with and touted as the new Bill Russell. He and Larry Johnson, another franchise player and No. 1 pick, were supposed to take the team to the NBA finals. It never happened as contract disputes sent them to Miami and New York, respectively.
Perhaps Robert Parish, a Celtics legend who finished in Charlotte, will be remembered at an autograph show for playing the most career games of any NBA player. Collectors love memories and milestones. They'll collect autographs of people who were the "the last" of something and "the first" of something else. History begins anew with the Hornets now in New Orleans.
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Inaugural seasons make for a nice autograph collecting niche.
Baseball features team balls as part of the collecting culture. The first season of any franchise presents abundant collectible milestones, something that perhaps is most appreciated decades down the road. Team balls from inaugural seasons pop up regularly at memorabilia auctions. Recently, team balls for the inaugural Atlanta Braves (1966) were sold at auction. It was a team with many old hands leftover from the Milwaukee version, Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Phil Niekro and had players who gained fame in the new city, Tony Cloninger and Rico Carty. A first year Kansas City Royals team ball (1969) featured few real stars but the league's Rookie of the Year, Lou Piniella. Collectors got these balls for bargain prices during a recent auction.
A first year ball for the Texas Rangers would feature at least two bonuses, signatures of manager Ted Williams and Nelson Fox. Of course, this team ball will be cursed as players once comprising the beloved Washington Senators with Frank Howard, Dave Nelson and Elliot Maddox. Such a ball recently sold for at auction for $539.
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From the "We-thought-we'd-heard-it-all-department:" The baseball world knows Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Wee Willie Keeler, but not Willie Harridge. A couple of autograph authenticators recently witnessed a number of baseballs with a stamping that bears this name. Gosh, some numbskull somehow mistook William Harridge, the American League president from 1931 to 1959, for Willie Harridge.
The culprits, then, get hired hands to forge on the balls such names as Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. No kidding.
"Apparently, guys working as dealers are buying these balls, not realizing what they're doing," said a PSA/DNA authenticator. "We've seen a lot of these recently and, of course, rejected everyone of them. A lot of people who are putting a lot of money into these balls are incensed. The forged signatures are really strong, though the balls are beaten to holy heck. And of course, there is the Willie Harridge stamping."
The authenticator added that dealers must be hoping that an unsuspecting audience has no idea what they're looking at.
In autograph collecting, ignorance is most definitely not bliss.
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When a trading card company enhances its performance it's mostly because of technology, not stuff out of the medicine cabinet. Yet, Topps is flexing optimum efficiency at the photo shoot of rookies for its 2002 Topps Football set. The 31-card autographed rookie insert set, limited to 50 for each player, was shot, produced and autographed in one day.
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Death floods the mind with memories. It's body chemistry that's amazing. So it is with the death of Jack Buck that no doubt will bring fans and collectors to keep alive the memory of the late St. Louis Cardinals announcer and Monday Night Football radio voice through an autograph.
Broadcasters like Buck connect longer periods of time than the impressionable playing life of an athlete. The voice resonates longer than muscle mass can produce feats of athletic greatness. With Buck's passing, the public is left with many memorable game descriptions, not the least of which was call of the easy, awkward, yet solid clout of the hobbled Kirk Gibson in the 1988 National League playoffs.
His graveled delivery of "I can't believe what I just saw" will live like a symphony forever. Before he passed, the sports-loving world knew Buck's voice, wit and story-telling would live right along with the nation's greats — Red Barber, Mel Allen and, among select others, Harry Caray. Collectors will want to add the autograph of a man who most definitely exuded a signature style.
Chuck 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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