Sign of the times: A story about athletes, autographs and industry
While players expect to be asked for autographs at the ballpark and sometimes at the hotel, resourceful collectors often find them at restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
"It's like they got homing devices on you or something," Brewers outfielder Geoff Jenkins said.
During the 1990s, Paul Jones spent several years chasing athletes around ballparks, hotel lobbies, bars and city sidewalks in Milwaukee and other Midwestern cities. A Menomonee Falls native who now works as an attorney in Boston, Jones said the thrill of the chase was more exciting than the financial rewards.
"It was like hunting," said Jones, who began collecting signatures near "Gate X," the employee/player entrance at County Stadium. "I wasn't really star-struck, and I never looked at it as an investment. I just liked being able to outsmart other autograph seekers and the players who tried to avoid me. You try to find a way to be in the right place at the right time and catch them off-guard."
Jones, who began collecting autographs while working for Sportservice at County Stadium, had finished his undergraduate degree and was working as a waiter when he got bored and decided he needed some sunshine. He became an autograph mercenary.
"I put an ad in 'Sports Collectors Digest' and I said, 'I'm going to spring training. Send me your stuff to get signed.' Then, I would charge people a fee and that financed my trip down there. I came home when the money ran out."
Jones said he sold much of his collection to finance his move to Boston a few years ago. All he has left now to remind him of his hobby are a few prized signatures and a lot of stories.
"One of my first experiences came in '94. Albert Belle got out of a cab and a 10-year-old ran up and asked him to sign and he said 'Go f--- yourself, kid.' There were some guys like that, but a lot of guys were really good, too. Jeff Cirillo was always great. So were Fernando Vina and Turner Ward and a lot of others."
Jones recalled one instance when a friend purchased a gumball out of a machine and asked Mark Loretta, then a Brewers rookie, to sign it. "It was white and it had seams on it like a baseball," Jones said. "Loretta couldn't believe he was asking him, but he took an extra-fine Sharpie and signed it. When he gave it back to him, my buddy said, "Thanks," and popped it into his mouth."
Reminded of the incident earlier by a Boston Herald reporter earlier this year, Loretta said, "I remember that. That guy was a jerk!"
Although some autograph seekers can be rude and belligerent, Brewers radio announcer Bob Uecker still finds most of them to be polite and respectful.
"I think it depends on where they're asking you," Uecker said. "If they're at the hotels, they're pretty quiet. If you see them around (the ballpark) after a game, some of them have had a lot to drink and they can get loud and boisterous.
"For the most part, they're pretty good. If they're not, I don't sign."
Uecker, who has worked in the TV and movie industry in addition to spending more than 50 years at professional baseball parks, said when it comes to autographs there is a difference between sports fans and non-sports fans.
"Sports are different," he said. "When I did the Miller Lite commercials, people would sometimes send a Budweiser to me and they'd laugh. They'd think it was funny. But, in Hollywood, there are a lot of stars around all the time and people don't bother you. They don't say a word to you. But, they'll point. You can see them. They'll say, 'There is so-and-so.' But, they don't bother you.
"Sports fans will come right up to you. That's the difference."
In almost all cases, players are fans, too. Even though they have to fill out an official request form, it's not unusual for players to seek autographs from their contemporaries across the diamond. Brewers shortstop Bill Hall was thrilled earlier this year when he met his hero, Ozzie Smith, and received an autographed ball. Ben Sheets has a Brett Favre autograph. Jeff Cirillo has more than 60 bats signed by players that he played against. Brewers reliever Matt Wise owns autographed jerseys from Greg Maddux and Trevor Hoffman and teammate Derrick Turnbow has a retro Astros jersey signed by Nolan Ryan.
"Jerseys are big nowadays," said Yount, who is often asked by visiting players to sign powder blue Brewers jerseys. "I don't mind signing them for guys, as long as we don't ever have to wear them again. Those things were ugly."
Another thing that can get ugly -- the signatures that fans stand in line to receive. While many athletes have developed cool, distinctive autographs, others are almost illegible scribbles. Wise admitted that he practiced his signature during high school and college. "That come from going to games and getting autographs," he said. "You would see one and you'd say, 'That's a cool autograph. Maybe I need a cool autograph.'"
Cool doesn't always translate into readable.
"I used to write M---- W----," Wise said. "You could only read the first letters. But, my mom called me out on that. She asked me to be more legible."
Capuano spent time practicing his signature, too, but the results weren't great. "I don't know what happened, but mine doesn't look cool," he said. "If I'm signing 10 or 15, I'll do a nice legible one. If you're doing a lot more than that at one time, the hand kind of cramps up and you can't do the fine details. A lot of times, I'll put my number on it so people will know that it's me."
For the true fan, the value of an autograph isn't the signature itself. It's the shared moment between a fan and his hero. "That's kind of the way I look at it," Capuano said. "I would rather meet someone and talk to them for a few minutes than have their signature. If I have a memory of meeting the person, that's all I really need."
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Joe said: I remember going to a Packer Family Day event several years ago, and while everyone was pestering Majik and Tim Harris, I got a few minutes sitting on Ray Nitschke's lap as a wee lad, and a picture to prove it. Obviously, I didn't know him as #66, but rather the Oldsmobile commercial guy. I give autographs as gifts now. Jack Welch signed a book "To Joe's Mom", and Willie G. did a book "To Joe's Dad".
Bromble said: It's still a great vision to see players signing for kids at the ballpark. Getting a player's signature at the game is one of the quintessential elements of America's pastime. It's sad that players have to second guess the intent of the autograph seeker, due to the many dealers who try to make a living off the players' good natures. Hence, some players are jerks in return when asked for their autographs, which is wrong. It's hard to generalize about the players who are good/bad to the fans,especially if a fan happens by bad luck to catch the player at a wrong time. Some players, though, were always terrific. Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor were among the best...hands down, the friendliest players who enjoyed, if not reveled, in the fans' attention. I even saw Billy Martin treat Milwaukee fans nicely...But those who collect have stories about legendary bad signers. Rickey Henderson was a tough sign, though he usually signed for kids. Once, near the County Stadium parking stand, I asked Dale Berra for an autograph; I had to be the only person in the city who recognized Dale, who told me he didn't have the time to sign one autograph. It made me laugh, more so after Dale was arrested for cocaine possession. I hope he had the time in jail to sign autographs!!! Gado tells the fans what to do: be polite and understanding. I think if fans can do that, most players will continue to sign. The jerks will be jerks, but most players recognize and are flattered by the fans' dreamy reverence for who they are and what they do.
Kyle414 said: Glad to see that I'm not the ONLY SportService guy to go get autographs. Thanks Paul. Back in '98 during the "Home Run Chase" with Sosa and McGwire, I had a kit in my locker to "'maybe'" get one from either of the two. I tried with both, and Mark QUICKLY shot me down, but Sammy thought twice about it. I give kudos to Sosa, if his handlers weren't around he so woulda. My mom was a HUGE Cubs fan (she was from Illinois) and big Brew Crew fan. The Crew just went "National" and the Cubs played a regular series with them, so a Lead Off mag featured a shot of the ivy and scoreboard from Wrigley on the cover. I wanted to surprise her with Cubs signatures on it. I got 3, NISS, and she flipped :) GBP Brett, uhhh #4, Favre was there one day taking BP, and I just wanted to meet him, but remembered my "kit" so I thought with him being so cool, he just might? And, HE DID. I met him, and exchanged pleasantries, and he signed my paper with my pen :D That was really cool. He really is down to earth, and I was calmed even though I was kinda nervous meeting one of my heros! I still have it to this day, no chance I am selling that one!
Robert said: I still have a baseball signed by Robin Yount, Jim Gantner, Dan Plesac, Rob Deer, Juan Nieves, and Teddy Higuera. I will NEVER sell it.
Mina said: I've been out to dinner with a group of players and their families and friends and it is very rude of people to interrupt their dinner to ask for an autograph. If people really want an autograph, please at least wait until they're finished eating. I've also been witness to guys walking up to players with bags full of stuff to sign. You know they're going to go right to the internet to sell the stuff. That's just not right either.
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