Earlier this week, the Old Duck had the opportunity to speak to about 75 local sports fans here in the Phoenix area about sports autograph collecting. Included in the audience was Special Assistant to the President of the Diamondbacks and Baseball Hall of Famer Roland Hemond. What follows is the text of my presentation.
Good morning and thanks for being here. Seems like a great turnout for June, which proves the point that no matter how health conscious our society becomes, donuts will continue to be a great motivator. As a starting point, let me ask how many of you have at least one sports autograph? (Note - almost everyone raised their hand). That response is certainly not surprising and, hopefully, you'll help turn this into an interactive session by sharing some stories about your autographs.
Sports autographs can be linked back to the early 20th century when Babe Ruth was more famous than the President of the United States. In fact, in 1930 the Babe was asked about his $80,000 salary and the fact that it was $5,000 more than the salary of President Hoover and the Bambino replied, "I know, but I had a better year."
Ruth became the first full-fledged sport icon and children would line up in droves just to see him and get him to sign a baseball they bought for 50 cents. Obviously, just like every other baseball fan, they didn't know what they held in their hands. To them, it was a piece of their hero. Generations later, it would become a high-priced piece of sports history. Today, a legitimate baseball with that autograph would be worth over $10,000.
In the post WWII era, autographs became even more popular and throughout the 50's, 60's and 70's, baseball was still king. The newer generation was going crazy for autographs from future Hall of Famers such as:
Just like their parents before them, kids would wait all day for a glimpse of their favorite player and hope they would stop for five minutes to sign a baseball card or ball.
The 1980's is when the industry really got kick-started. The Topps monopoly on baseball card manufacturing ended in 1980 and multiple companies joined in the competition, like Donruss, Fleer, Leaf and Upper Deck. This explosion in the market created more interest and the concept of huge collectibles shows featuring autograph guests. Also during the 80's, the professional sports leagues began selling their authentic jerseys. It didn't take long for fans to realize that a player's autograph on the jersey would be the next big step in the business. Even more valuable would be a game-worn jersey.
And, of course, what would the 80's be without Michael Jordan? He came in at the perfect time for the sports autograph industry because he was a marketing powerhouse. Everywhere you looked, there was his face and there was his name. It was only a matter of time before people started grabbing everything of his that could be signed. Jordan's mainstream appeal paved the way for the autograph frenzy that has happened since.
Another important facet of autograph collecting came into play in the early 90's pioneered by the Upper Deck company. They had entered the baseball card market like a storm in 1989 with high-end production values never before seen by collectors. A few years later, they signed major sports celebrities to exclusive contracts and created "Upper Deck Authenticated." This division of the company created high-end collectibles signed by Michael Jordan, Ted Williams and others. In essence, they created the first patented autograph authentication process in the hobby. Every item had hologram technology, which created security and addressed the forgery issues that were rampant in the hobby during the 80's. If you walk into my house, there is a Ted Williams autographed Red Sox jersey in a frame that was produced and marketed by Upper Deck over 20 years ago. It has a hologram with a number that can be verified on the Upper Deck database to confirm authenticity. The retail price in the early 90's was $800...today's value is about $3,000.
As the Internet exploded in the mid-90's, authentication became much more important. People selling sports collectibles on sites like eBay found that buyers who were thousands of miles away were very hesitant to believe that an autographed item was real. Into that void stepped third party authentication firms that created historical records of player's autographs and offered (for a price) to authenticate the signature on any particular item. Even though there will always be a possible buyer for a raw autograph, the only way to get full value for an item is to have it authenticated. Let's look at three examples of how this process plays out.
1) A few years ago, I was referred to a lady who wanted to sell some sports items that belonged to her late husband. While the baseball cards didn't have much value, she also had a notebook filled with pages of team autographs from the late 30's. Each page represented a different team and included the Yankees, Pirates and many minor league franchises. I took on the project of marketing the notebook for her and started by contacting a sports memorabilia auction house. These types of companies deal with high-end collectibles and sell on the Internet using both website and hard copy catalogs. The auction house used their volume pricing to have the signatures authenticated and what we found was that even though over 90% of them were valid, some of the bigger stars didn't always sign their own signature. Rather than be bothered, they used clubhouse boys or other team personnel to sign their names. The main example on the '39 Yankees page was Joe DiMaggio. So, even though the notebook was sold for a decent price, the invalid autographs certainly diminished the price.
2) Another lady, right here in our community, had a few sports items that her husband had collected. One was a Johnny Unitas autographed photo that had the Upper Deck Hologram and was easy to sell on eBay for $125. She also had an autographed baseball with 20-25 signatures that appeared to be from the Dodgers team of the mid-50's. You could make out Robinson, Snider, Koufax as well many other stars and it looked just worn enough to seem legitimate. I explained to her that it would cost approximately $150 and shipping to submit the ball for authentication, but if it was real, the value would be at least ten times that much. Unfortunately, what we found was that all of the signatures on the ball were done by clubhouse boys or team reps back in the 50's. If it was a give-away item at Ebbets Field and hundreds were produced, it would have been logistically impossible for the players to sign that many items...so, it essentially had no value.
3) My next-door neighbor rang my bell one day and indicated that a friend of his had a very old autographed photo of a famous ballplayer that had been handed down in his family and wanted to get my assistance in selling the item. I told him it would depend first on the player and second on how much the cost would be to authenticate the signature. It turned out to be a 60+ year-old, creased photo of Cubs Hall of Famer Hack Wilson. The cost of authentication was $75 and shipping costs and I explained to them that this was a crapshoot. They'd be out about $100 if it wasn't legitimate but the autographed photo would be worth at least five times that much if it was real. After all, Hack Wilson died in 1947, so there aren't many of his autographs in the marketplace. They decided to roll the dice and the signature was deemed genuine. It sold on eBay for $900.
For your own personal collection, authentication is not essential if the collectibles are for your own viewing and pleasure. Very few of the autographs in my collection are authenticated, because I don't plan to sell them.
The next big change in sports autographs happened about 15 years ago. Baseball card manufacturers had spent most of the 80's and 90's over-producing their products and as a consequence, turning off collectors. Even today, when I go to look at someone's card collection, the vast majority are from this era and have little or no value. To revamp their products, these companies arranged for both current and retired players to sign a certain number of cards and inserted them randomly in packs. This was an expensive proposition and obviously increased the retail cost of the products, but it was a huge success. Customers were willing to pay a higher price and take on the "gamble" of possibly getting a limited-edition autograph card. On this table, you'll see dozens of autographed cards (including Hall of Famers) that came directly from packs. The other attractive feature for collectors was that there was no concern about forgery or authenticity. Each of the companies were working under licensing agreements from MLB and had to submit continuing verification of the signatures.
The downside for the average collector was twofold...1) autographs in the marketplace became more available, meaning that the one you got from a player when you were a kid was less scarce and 2) if you had autographed cards that were considered "after-market", their value was diminished. Recently, I was approached by a collector that has dozens of autographed baseball cards that they've collected over the years. The collection includes Hall of Famers like Jim Palmer, Willie McCovey, Fergie Jenkins and others. The problem, of course, is that none of them are authenticated. The collector was hoping to sell them for $40 a card, but that is totally unrealistic in today's marketplace. First of all, the average authentication fee would be $20 and then the card would have to compete with the ones from card companies. Most of the cards in this case can be purchased on eBay for prices ranging from $10-$25 and they are guaranteed to be genuine. The only time I've ever purchased "raw" autographs was when they were included in a large collection. There was a box that included over 500 cards that were signed over the years at Spring Training facilities. There were some good players, many forgettable players as well as dozens of duplicates and it was challenging to figure out what to do with the cards. One of the authentication services was offering a special at the time for $10 per card, so I picked out about 20 of the best players and shipped them out, hoping they were genuine. When they all came back authentic, I sold the ten best on eBay and then listed the other ten along with the remainder as a bulk lot. Clearly, including the authenticated cards helped verify to potential buyers that all the signatures were valid and the lot sold for $300-$400. The math tells you that these cards sold for about 50 cents each.
OK, enough about the technical aspects of the hobby. Let's talk about the joy of having a piece of history. My first story is about the two baseballs that you see in this case. Needless to say, as a youngster growing up in Boston, Ted Williams was my hero. I had the privilege of watching him play hundreds of times in the 50's, either from a $1 seat in the bleachers or, occasionally, from my uncle's box seats behind the Red Sox dugout. My mom and I moved to California in late 1959 and due to the family circumstances, we didn't have the opportunity to bring any personal items like baseball cards, magazines or other memorabilia. As an adult, you cherish childhood memories but it's also certain that other moments just fade away. In the mid-1980's, my wife (whose memory has also now faded away) gave me a Ted Williams autographed baseball as a birthday gift. She found it (in pre-Internet days) from a reputable dealer and it probably cost less than $50 at the time. When I showed the ball to my dad, he said "That's nice, but you already have one of those." He reminded me that Teddy Ballgame had signed a ball for me during batting practice when I was about 12 years-old and he had saved it for all those years. We immediately got in the car and drove to his apartment and there it was in a box in the hall closet. I was thrilled, and somewhat embarrassed, but now I had two Ted Williams autographed baseballs. I decided to keep the original one with the faded, ballpoint-pen signature and make a project of the newer one with the dark black "Sharpie" signed autograph. So, over the next few years, I took that ball to sports collectible shows and added signatures of other members of the 500 Home Run Club. So, if you look at the ball closely, you'll also see the autographs of Frank Robinson, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Willie Mays.
Also in the mid-80's, I embarked on another project involving autographs. As a subscriber to Sports Illustrated magazine since the 1960's, I had saved most of the issues because of the beautiful photography...especially on the covers. A local sports-themed apparel store was having a grand opening with Dale Murphy signing autographs for free. I had a beautiful cover from his MVP season in 1983 and decided to take advantage of the offer. Then, I found out that my next-door neighbor was a cousin of Gary Carter, so he got another '83 cover signed for me. At that point, I started to visit the exploding category of sportscard shows in Southern California and added Hank Aaron's autograph on the SI cover showing his 715th HR from 1974. As with many "labor of love" projects, this one essentially developed a life of its own. Over the next 20 years, the collection expanded to almost 200 autographed covers. It completely overran my house and now fills every wall in my garage and a few boxes on the floor. This past Spring, 30 of the covers (each signed by a baseball Hall of Famer) were part of a Spring Training display at the art gallery in Peoria City Hall.
The collection isn't limited to baseball and even includes a number of non-sports figures. For example, there are six covers signed by the models on the annual swimsuit issue...including Christie Brinkley, Kathy Ireland, Cheryl Tiegs and Heidi Klum. I didn't bring any of those today because Steve checked with the community office and they weren't willing to provide a defibrillator for today's meeting. There's also Gerald Ford (who wrote an article about sports in America while he was VP), Bob Hope (a part-owner of the Indians) and Shirley MacLaine (running through the Notre Dame line to promote a 1964 movie). In all, about 100 Hall of Fame members are represented along with a few obscure athletes like Steve Blass, Rob Deer, Art Mahaffey, Todd Marinovich, Chris Speier, Ron Swobada and Garo Yepremian. As you can imagine, there's a story behind every signature, but let me share just a few.
First, let's talk about the "Yankee Clipper", Joe DiMaggio. As you have already heard, even after being in the Majors for just a few years, he felt it was below him to sign group items like his teammates. In the first few decades of his retirement, Joe made quite a nice living making personal appearances. As chronicled by Ben Bradlee Jr. in the recent Ted Williams biography, his demands were as follows - he had to be the final person introduced at the banquet (or similar event), he had to be referred to as "The greatest living ballplayer" and the fee was $10,000 plus two first-class airline tickets from San Francisco to the destination. Once the tickets arrived in the mail, rather than bringing a companion or associate to the event, DiMaggio would go to the airline counter at the airport and cash in the second ticket. Once the sports collectibles market started to boom in the 80's and 90's, "Joltin Joe" was one of the biggest draws and insisted on being the highest-priced autograph guest with a fee of $150 or more. In the course of a weekend show, due to his amazing popularity, he could easily sign 1,000 autographs. Think about that math for a moment! And, not once in those 1,000 signings would he acknowledge or talk to the fans. Surrounded by "handlers" and show promoters, it was as close to an assembly line as you would ever see in that environment. There has never been an athlete with the arrogance or ego of DiMaggio.
People often ask me about the nicest and rudest sports heroes I've encountered. Even though Ernie Banks was never on a SI cover (by himself), I did stand in line at a L.A. show to add his signature to the 500 HR ball. Once I got to the front and Ernie saw the ball and the other autographs on the surface, he couldn't stop asking me questions about the history of the ball and started reflecting on all the other players. After a few minutes, the show promoters started getting anxious, as there were at least 100 people in line behind me. "Mr. Cub" eventually realized he was making other fans wait and apologized to me because he couldn't continue the conversation. Once, at a show in Santa Monica, the main draw was Stan Musial and many of us were waiting outside the door for the 10:00 AM opening. "Stan the Man" walked into the lobby (with his pal Red Schoendienst) and said, "Are all you nice people waiting for me?" At that point, he reached into the pocket of his sports jacket, pulled out a harmonica and played "Take me out to the ballgame" while we all sang along. Other experiences that were very positive include Muhammad Ali, Bill Walton, Johnny Podres, Carmen Basilio, Frank Howard and Harmon Killebrew.
On the other side of the equation, you'd be surprised at some of the stars who acted like jerks. Interestingly, the two worst in my experience played on the same championship team. From the 1979 Pirates, both Willie Stargell and Dave Parker made you feel like they were really doing you a favor and turned the moment into a real negative. In the non-baseball category, the worst was basketball's Nate "Tiny" Archibald, who refused to personalize the signature even though there wasn't anyone else waiting for him to sign.
Of course, there are always moments when you're taken by surprise. Rick Barry, who certainly had a negative persona on the court, couldn't have been nicer and wrote all kinds of personalized notes on the cover. Warren Spahn looked up at me when it was my turn to get his autograph and said, "Would you mind if I went to take a piss?"
There are also a number of different categories in which the autographs have been acquired. In addition to sports collectibles shows where you pay a set fee, many of the signatures came at actual sports events. Spring Training games over the years yielded autographs from Rickey Henderson, Robin Yount, Ron Santo and Frank Robinson. There were also a group of signatures that came through a third party. Those include Pete Rose, Joe Torre, Barry Bonds, Wayne Gretzky and Tommy Mason. During my working days in Southern California, many of my business locations were used for filming due to their proximity to studios and PR firms. If any commercials or videos included a famous athlete, part of the deal was that they had to sign one of my SI's. That connection led to signatures from Evander Holyfield, Jim Palmer, Randy Johnson and others.
About 25% of the collection came through mailings that I did in the late 90's and early 2000's. The appropriate magazine cover was mailed to the athlete along with a self-addressed stamped envelope for the return. Also included was a $25 check for them to donate to their favorite charity. Occasionally, the cover and check would be returned because the athlete was under contract to Upper Deck or some other company. One athlete (Lance Alworth) returned the cover indicating the charitable donation would have to be three times the amount. Some stars (especially from the 50's) would include a note with the signed cover thanking you for remembering them. Only once, in 40-50 mailings, did someone actually cash the check but never return the cover...former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes.
On the side tables, you'll find a representation of the collection, including some we've talked about today.
Now. it's your turn. Please feel free to ask any questions and share one of your autograph stories. Thanks so much for taking the time to be with me today.