It was 1970, at the College World Series, where I signed my first autograph. I’ll never forget it: Our Ohio University team had just beaten No. 1-ranked USC in game one, and I was asked to sign a ball on the way to our bus.
What a high. Not the victory, but the elevation to celebrity status. Of course, that was back when an autograph was just that — a signature of a person obtained in remembrance of a moment, a place, an exchange that could be cherished for some personal reason. No commercial value was tied to it. No sneaking around security, no stalking, and no fake story or act was involved.
In the early 1960s, my grandparents shared space on a flight to Dayton, Ohio, with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. My grandmom brought me, then in my early teens, all three signatures on business cards. I still have them in a frame. One says “Best Wishes Mike,” the other “Mike, Best of Luck” and the other “Mike, Best Wishes Always,” followed by their names. That’s where I got my often-used autograph salutations.
Coincidentally, several months back I did an appearance with Jack Nicklaus and showed him the 45-year-old signatures. He not only agreed they were authentic, but was enamored at the very fact that I had them. He said they must have been obtained on a plane when they were headed to play Firestone in Akron. I won’t go into the value he put on them in today’s market. The point is, I was an excited kid, the one getting the autograph.
Then at some point back in the late 1970s to early ’80s, the sports memorabilia industry came to life and the autograph, as we once knew it, was history. Unfortunate, yes. No longer would young Mikes have a chance to appreciate three business cards signed by three famous golfers in the same way ever again.
Fortunate, yes. Old Mike has made a couple million he never counted on. Companies like Upper Deck sprang up and paid celebrity athletes megabucks for exclusive rights to signatures on products. Dreams Inc. specializes in creating unique sports- and Hollywood-related items designed specifically for signatures of famous people to be mass marketed. There are scads more. None of the product has value without the authentic celebrity signature. I ask, isn’t the provider of the value, the signature, entitled to a piece of the profit?
I just returned from Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. It happens every July in the quaint little town in upstate New York. What once was a gathering of baseball fans for a once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing the Hall museum and the enshrinement festivities is still that for some.
But for many, it is memorabilia heaven, a chance for vendors to stock up on product, for collectors to expand their collections. And somewhere, lost in the crowd must be little Mike who just wants a memory. That is the sad part of it. Hall of Famers, including me, packed into a house, sitting behind tables selling autographs. Sad. That little guy who, along with his father, had a chance to meet and get an autograph remembrance of the moment spent with his hero, is gone. He’ll most likely never again get that experience without paying for it.
The autograph might be the most sought after commodity in today’s society. Even the targets want them. Yogi Berra, Gaylord Perry, Bob Feller, me, even Sandy Koufax getting signatures from friends to auction for a charity back at home. When will it end? Never, as long as there are famous people and a demand for the John Hancock.
I’ll be perfectly honest, I hate playing the cat-and-mouse game with collectors on the street. It was one of the reasons I retired early. Being targeted and stalked everywhere by people seeking a chicken-scratched slash on an inventory item is not fun. I’m not saying I’m a victim of paparazzi, but when airline luggage handlers wait for you in airports, your right to privacy is gone.
So here’s my quandary: I feel sorry for little Mike, he’s been squashed in this mess, I can’t tell which one he is in the crowd of collectors who all claim to be him. On the other hand, I like that my signature has value, and that I’m paid well just to sign my name. I can’t decide whether to sign freely on the street and hope that little Mike is in the crowd, or refuse because most of them are collectors or working for dealers and sign only in a controlled environment, where both sides understand the industry parameters.
Honestly, what has happened is ugly. Our society has become so callous, rude, and motivated by money that even something as American and simple as shaking hands and signing a baseball for a young person can seldom occur today. Who would have thought that back in Omaha in 1970 my excitement over autograph No. 1 would have led to this?