By Chuck Kaufman
eginning autograph collectors often fill our mailbag. One common theme of questions has to do with collecting autographs by mail. One such missive comes from Shane Mallow of Appleton, WI, who asks, ". . . If I send 8X10 photographs to various athletes with return postage, asking them to autograph the item, will they do it? For example, I sent a photograph and a book cover to Hank Aaron and he signed the book cover but not the photograph. Perhaps, he didn't see the photo in the package or he has a policy for not signing these. Also, I sent a photo to Cal Ripken and I received a polite letter stating he has too many requests to sign. If I would send photos to players such as Greg Maddux, Robin Yount, Jerry Rice, etc., do you think they'd sign them? I am aware that there are autograph shows in the Milwaukee area at times and I don't mind paying for an autograph, if the right athlete is in town. But, generally, if I send a photo to a current or retired player, do they sign?"
Well, Shane, if you shoot for high profile, top tier athletes only, then the answer to your question, generally, is "No." As many collectors can attest, you're wasting your time and money to solicit these folks. Heck, you should feel fortunate that Hank Aaron signed your book jacket. He's probably confident that the book jacket will go back on the book and not end up on an Internet auction. A photo takes on the quality of a more marketable commodity.
Athletes generally have distaste for people making money off their name.
Twenty-five or so years ago, before the commercialization of the hobby, adoring fans could write such legends as Bill Dickey and Joe DiMaggio and get note cards signed. Well, times have changed. Today's superstars typically won't sign through the mail. For active players, your best opportunities are with young players who are not yet consumed by stardom and millions of dollars.
Money aside, Greg Maddux, for example, is not known for signing through the mail or doing shows. His autographs mostly come from private signings. He also owns a rather messy signature, which (he should know) tends to invite forgeries. And access to him won't improve as he approaches the 300 win club and the Hall of Fame. As for Cal Ripken, he was actually one of the best pre-game signers, and delivered the same quality signature that he now produces at major shows and private signings. He must receive hundreds of requests a day, so the reply you received should have been expected.
Sadly for non-selling collectors, Ripken is commanding and getting hundreds of dollars for his signature. Only the impulsive will be drawn to that price. My hunch is that the price will retreat the longer he's out of baseball and the shine of Hall of Fame has dulled somewhat. Of course, he's a few years away from that milestone. The folks who manage his autograph appearances figure a lot of autograph collectors and fans won't want to wait that long. The perception, too, is that the price for his autograph will only rise. Let's face it, Ripken's consecutive game record may never be eclipsed. Similarly, Jerry Rice signs at numerous shows and private signings, so the discussion for his signature is similar to that of Ripken and other superstars, though his records likely will not be so enduring.
Robin Yount, meanwhile, is a bit of a different story. As a fan favorite and Hall of Famer, he doesn't have to sign for free. I imagine his mailbag is too full to meet requests, but he also has averted media frenzy status. He's old school. It wasn't too long ago that Yount was a player. As his star dims in the face of others, I can see a player like Yount being a willing signer, even for some nominal fee or contribution to sign through the mail. Frequent show appearances will keep his autograph ticket price at a reasonable rate, like Bob Feller, Brooks Robinson and Warren Spahn. If Yount's son, Dustin, amounts to something in the big leagues, collectors can look forward to another notable father/son ball. We digress. . . .
Your best bet in soliciting autographs through the mail is to seek young and non-star players. Also, players from bygone days who were not big stars will generally meet modest requests. The farther you go back in time, the more willing the signer.
Cal Ripken, Jr., was an amenable player for meeting autograph requests at the ball park, but that was then. The countless requests make it impossible for him to sign through the mail. Besides he can sell his autograph for $200 a pop.
On the whole, seeking autographs through the mail is something collectors do at their own risk. Many autograph collectors often look to former major leaguers who now are coaching in the minor leagues or calling games from the broadcast booth. Former rookie of the year Pat Listach coaches for the Chicago Cubs' AAA team, along with Jerry Reuss (a solid pitcher with the Dodgers). Granted, they aren't Greg Maddux, Cal Ripken, Jr., or Robin Yount, but they're likely far more accessible. The more a player, coach or manager is out of the limelight the more likely you are to score a signature.
Request letters that show you've done a little homework on their career may impress or flatter your hero and earn you the player's appreciation and an autograph.
Another area to watch is getting an item returned with a secretarial signature or a photo with a printed autograph. It's a courteous gesture and souvenir from the player, but probably not what you wanted. You'll welcome it like a great name player tagging your keepsake with just his initials. Arghhh!!!
Here are two other fundamental rules for seeking autographs through the mail. Enclose just one or two items for signatures. A request such as, "Would you mind signing these five (or 10) photos?" will naturally raise suspicions that suggest you're gearing up to place the merchandise in an Internet auction or on a table at an autograph show. You've been busted! You're in it for the money, not the hero worship. Finally, remember always to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope. The joy in seeking autographs this way is learning nuggets of information about baseball players and coming home to see what surprises have arrived in your mailbox. Will Rice sign through the mail? I doubt it, but heck, Hank Aaron evidently signed once for you. So, you never know. Go for it.
As a player in his baseball infancy, Albert Pujols was known to meet mail requests. Those times are gone with superstardom, but collectors should consider connecting with other young players, even minor leaguers.
Talk to collectors and dealers at shows. They'll gladly share their experiences and advise who signs through the mail and who doesn't. A search on the Internet will reveal similar information. Happy hunting.
So, who's the next great No. 23 to take the world of sports world by storm? If you answered LeBron James, you would be wrong. He's David Beckham, the British soccer star who earns about $30 million a year. He became a renegade of Manchester United and signed with rival Real Madrid for $41 million.
Beckham is ubiquitous in the European media. He has more to think about than signing autographs, with his penchant for fashion. Yet, collectors can pick up signed photos (framed and matted) for 295 British pounds. I'm uncertain whether Beckham is the game's greatest player. In his time, Pele did things with a soccer ball that few people could imagine. Perhaps the most collectible soccer autograph in the U.S. is Mia Hamm's. No doubt Beckham is the most widely marketed sports celebrity, with his image penetrating Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand. As for the other new No. 23, King James is getting a million American dollars a year for five years to sign and promote Upper Deck products. Meanwhile, look for youngsters Albert Pujols and Dontrelle Willis to be hot picks among autograph collectors this fall. Pujols' first three seasons will start earning him superlatives and get collectors thinking in terms of baseball history. Willis is this year's fresh face. It remains to be seen, however, how long it will take for hitters to adjust to his delivery.
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.