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What's the deal with autographs?

Feb 8, 2010, 3:17 PM EST

I’m not going to say that baseball news is slow, but this is one of the better things I’ve read today:

It always angers me that some athletes will go to great lengths to sign
legibly, and others will scribble their name, and be done with it.
Personally, I think it is a travesty for an athlete to sign his name in
such a way that you cannot decipher what it says. Now I realize that
players sign so much that it is ridiculous, and naturally some players
sign more than others, but you can’t tell me that a player can’t at
least write two or three letters that can be read by the average person.

Yeah, it’s that bad.  But at least it provides me a basis for jumping into a subject I raised on my old blog a couple of years ago and which probably worth raising again: what’s the freakin’ point of autographs? I simply don’t understand the appeal. Sure, I understand that they’re valuable, but why? On a simple level, an autograph is proof that you
were in the presence of someone famous.  But why should anyone else care that I — or some autograph dealer more likely — met someone famous? It’s like tulips or dotcom stocks or something. Price that doesn’t correspond with much if any value.

To be fair, the article linked above is about kids getting autographs and I sort of understand it for kids. They’re told by their parents that autographs are worth having, so kids seek them out.  If obtained in person, they’re a handy vehicle for getting the kid near the ballplayer, and that is kind of cool.  But isn’t the biggest takeway from that the fact that the kid actually stood next to the ballplayer and maybe said a word or two to him? I got Alan Trammell’s autograph when I was a kid. It’s in my basement somewhere and I haven’t looked at it in years. But I still vividly remember meeting him and talking to him, and I’d have the same emotional warm fuzzies about it if I had simply walked up to the crowd next to him and didn’t walk away with an autograph.

So sure, the kids can have their autographs because they may not go up to the ballplayer otherwise, but what about the grownups? It seems mildly twisted to me. A grownup either gets an autograph at a signing or by interrupting a celebrity in public.  If it’s the former, it’s just an act of commerce, so what’s so special about it?  If the latter, man, isn’t that kind of rude?  Can’t we invade their personal privacy simply by pointing our cameras and gawking and leave the final line — thrusting personal objects at them for them to handle, sign and return — uncrossed?

I’m not trying to be a total killjoy about this or anything. I have some autographs. Some — the ones I got myself as a kid, mostly — I like. Trammel, Gaylord Perry, Stan Musial, Al Kaline. Others I obtained in the course of my baseball card habit. For example, I never met George Brett, but I have his autograph on a ball and a 1980 Topps card. Same with Don Sutton and Eddie Matthews and Paul Molitor.  But either way, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take from them. I’m not sure what they’re supposed to mean. I’m not sure I’d ever obtain another autograph for as long as I live.

  1. BC - Feb 8, 2010 at 3:45 PM

    I remember seeing a story one time about an athlete back in the 50’s I think… it couldn’t have been Dimaggio, but maybe it was. Anyway, a guy sent a letter to the athlete asking for an autograph. The athlete (or whoever worked for him) responded with a typed note that said, “If you would like an autograph, please send me a check for $40 (or whatever it was). I will donate the $40 for charity, and have an autograph sent to you.” So the guy obliged and sent the check.
    A couple months passed, and the guy sent another letter saying, hey, you never sent me an autograph, what gives? Another typed note came back from the athlete that said, “Certainly I sent you an autograph. Look at your cancelled check.”
    Classic story. Going to effort to find out who the athlete was.

  2. YX - Feb 8, 2010 at 3:50 PM

    Do not misunderestimate the power of bragging rights

  3. The Common Man - Feb 8, 2010 at 3:59 PM

    I don’t defend myself. I just like them. It’s a nice memory of the time I got to interact with somebody I wanted to meet.

  4. Gelardia - Feb 8, 2010 at 3:59 PM

    Bragging rights for what? That you stood for an hour(s) either at the ballpark or in line at a convention and got the athlete to sign something? Whoop-de-friggin-doo. Even as a kid, this had minimal appeal for my friends and I.

  5. dl3mk3 - Feb 8, 2010 at 4:03 PM

    People by nature tend to collect things that are valuable. As a baseball fan I findmemorablia to be a valuable piece of history of the pastime I love. It makes me feel like I have (maybe am) a piece of the ”history” or something. It also doubles as a retirement fund.

  6. Phil - Feb 8, 2010 at 4:07 PM

    …what’s the freakin’ point of autographs?
    Generally, I agree. But then I reach over and pick up the autographed baseball that has rested on my desk all my adult life. It was autographed by all the members of the 1957 Chattanooga Lookouts, my hometown team. Pretty unremarkable, you’d think. A few guys got a cup o’ coffee. Bob Allison went on to have a decent, if short, career in the bigs. But there’s this autograph on one side, fading a bit now, signed by a 21-year-old kid from Payette, Idaho who played 3B that year.
    I remember he was a shy guy and the South seemed a foreign country to him. He seemed grateful to be able to talk to a 9-year-old kid who showed up for every home game that season and was friends with the team’s play-by-play broadcaster. He even gave the kid one of his broken bats, which the kid screwed together and used to play sandlot ball until it disappeared into the mists of time. That same year he hit the longest ball I’ve ever seen hit over the Coke bottle atop the wall in dead center field, 471 feet from home plate. It sailed over the Third Street Viaduct and landed on the train tracks on the other side. Bounced so high you could see it from the grandstand. Oh yeah, his name was Harmon Killebrew.

  7. Old Gator - Feb 8, 2010 at 4:09 PM

    I suspect that whoever figures out what the point of autographs might be, will also have figured out why people give a flying fecal pellet about Paris Hilton, why voted for George Bush when they already knew that he was a liar and an imbecile, whether prions are “alive” or not, discovered the first even integer of Pi, and successfully merged gravity, electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force with the strong nuclear force under a single unified field equation. Best of luck to you all.
    .
    Me, I think the stupid things are utterly pointless. And I would still believe that if (a) I thought whoever signed them for me thought I was worth the trouble of signing in the first place and/or (b) ninety nine point nine ninety nine percent of them weren’t fake anyway.

  8. Lawrence From Plattekill - Feb 8, 2010 at 4:19 PM

    I once got Joe Pignatano’s autograph. Top that!

  9. Matthew Carstens - Feb 8, 2010 at 4:23 PM

    I think that autographs are a very personal thing. I once by accident stayed at the Mariners hotel while they were in New York in 2008. I got tons of autographs on my M’s hat. Looking back all the players i got were terrible. Willie Bloomquist, Jeremy Reed, Miguel Batista, etc., but it was a great experience and those autographs are what remind me of it. I would never buy an autograph, that’s just dumb, but when you get it yourself, its just a fun thing to remember it by.

  10. N - Feb 8, 2010 at 4:25 PM

    People don’t specifically want the names signed, they want a memorable story they can tell people later. An autograph isn’t a story, but maybe it’s the route to one, or a memory trick to remember one. Without asking and getting an autograph, most people are going to get even the 15 second interaction it takes to sign it, and that’s what they’re looking for.
    People who buy autographs from other people are obviously doing it for other reasons.

  11. Michael - Feb 8, 2010 at 4:31 PM

    I agree with Craig: when someone has to rant about ballplayers’ penmanship, they might need to find something more fulfilling in their life.
    If an autograph is for yourself, you know who did it, and your memory will always be intact.
    If you intend to SELL the autograph, yeah, you want it legible, you want it on the “sweet spot” of the ball (just don’t say that to Barry Bonds), etc. BUT a collector knows what a player’s autograph looks like, so that doesn’t matter either.
    I sign my own name as basically a series of loops nowadays – the number of times I’ve been asked for my autograph in my life numbers less than may fingers and toes, but think about all the times you have to sign checks, contracts and crap. There’s zero reason to do it slowly and carefully, as long as it’s consistent.

  12. J. McCann - Feb 8, 2010 at 4:37 PM

    Buying and selling autographs is ludicris.
    Taking a picture makes sense, and buying something like a signed contract is cool too.
    My favorite thing about my Dave Kingman autograph is not that I have it, but that I got to see him act like an annoyed jerk (plus he was huge, and compared to most people I am huge.)

  13. palehose67 - Feb 8, 2010 at 4:45 PM

    Regular autographs seem harmless, but when you take it to this level….
    http://www.wane.com/dpp/news/wane-colts-fan-tattoos-on-body-

  14. Jonny5 - Feb 8, 2010 at 4:51 PM

    The one on my paycheck is priceless…………… Besides that, keep em’. I look at these people paying $450 to A-rod for a signature and i shake my head in sorrow for these poor souls…. I’m speaking of the players souls of course. They really should burn in hell for that imo…. How greedy can a player be? Sign a certain amount every year for free, never charge ,it’s disgusting.

  15. ralphdibny - Feb 8, 2010 at 5:06 PM

    Ever read The Man in the High Castle, Craig?
    Autographs are all about historicity.

  16. Brian Schmiege - Feb 8, 2010 at 5:09 PM

    I think to pay 450 bucks for an A-Rod signature is ludicris. You have living legends like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Bob Feller (I could go on and on) and these guys are happy to oblige with an autograph. Granted these guys are, well, let’s face it, old and probably will not be around a lot longer. I say we teach our kids who were these guys are…the greatest players of all, how they played without the help of steroids and the records they obtained and not by juicing. I know not all guys are juicing up and those players should be held in a higher standard as well. All Im saying is let’s not forget the hall of famers that paved the way. Its pretty sad I just got an authentic signed baseball of Monte Irvin on ebay for 16 dollars. The baseball costs that for crying out loud and Mr Irvin was a great Negro League/MLB player and his autograph should be much more than that.

  17. BaseballFan2 - Feb 8, 2010 at 5:50 PM

    My first baseball game was a Chattanooga Lookouts game. I nearly caught a foul, but I was 7 and not quite fast enough. Great memory for me though.

  18. scatterbrian - Feb 8, 2010 at 6:25 PM

    Wow, do not misunderestimate the power of George W. Bush

  19. scatterbrian - Feb 8, 2010 at 6:37 PM

    I lost interest in autograph seeking when I was about 14. That summer a friend and I were making it a habit to go to A’s games with baseball cards of A’s and whichever team they were playing. On the second day of an Orioles series, my friend was attempting to get an autograph from Al Bumbry. “Mr. Bumbry! Mr. Bumbry!” to which Al replied “Whatchoo want?!” He looked at my friend with an unsigned card and a pen in his hands and said “Didn’t I sign that yesterday?!” My friend wrote about this in my high school yearbook, and that is more valuable to me than a freaking Al Bumbry autograph could ever be.

  20. Rays fan - Feb 8, 2010 at 11:23 PM

    I have a few autographs from when I was a kid, but my favorites are ones I obtained as an adult. (1) While I was deployed to Saudi Arabia, my mother heard Gayle Sayres was going to be in town. She drove 70 miles to my house, got my copy of “I Am Third” and got him to sign it. Quite the surprise when I got back. Could’ve been Joe Schlabotnik & it’d be priceless to me. (2) One year during spring training at Legends Field, I was standing outside the clubhouse entrance waiting for a friend when someone next to me grabbed my program. I whipped angry that someone swiped the program looking for the cheap SOB that’d steal a $5 program. The “thief” was Joe Torre–he signed the cover and handed it back. He’s obviously signed so many thousands of autographs that he automatically assumed I wanted one. Though obviously not a Yankees fan, I thought the episode was so funny that I kept it.
    I’d never denigrate people who collect autographs. I’ve got something like 20K little rectangular bits of cardboard with ballplayer pictures on the front and stats on the back. I can’t throw stones.

  21. G3 - Feb 9, 2010 at 1:25 AM

    Maybe it’s because I think that I’m just superior to everyone, but I don’t “get” autographs. I respect and admire and even envy the skill-set that some people have. but begging them to write their name on a piece of paper just seems subservient. But…one time, mere minutes after buying an “official” game used ball from the day my son was born at a Phillies function, I ran into Harry Kalas and he was the consummate gentleman. I had to ask..for my son…right?
    And one time I got drunk at a shooter jennings concert and he autographed a CD that I bought, even though I already owned a copy.
    and those are the two autographs I own.

  22. MVD - Feb 9, 2010 at 3:47 AM

    Mr. Calcaterra, I like you and your writing, but this is one of the few times I want to tell you to shut up. :)
    Autographs are cool.

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