6.29.2009

Baseball card autographs and horse chestnuts.

"Your hobby reminds me of the annual habit of collecting horse chestnuts which is prevalent among juveniles. The question is: what are you going to do with horse chestnuts or autographs after you get them? However, you are welcome to my signature. Earnest A. Hooton."

This Hooton character was an early 20th century physical anthropologist who wrote such charming works as Up from the Ape and Apes, Men and Morons. With hindsight, it's clear that Mr. Brumbaugh would have done much better seeking, say, Charles Darwin's autograph. But hindsight is part and parcel of collecting autographs...ask people who worked hard to get Sammy Sosa's signature in the '90s how they feel about that effort now.

Some claim it wasn't until the rise of national literary figures such as James Fenimore Cooper

that autograph collecting in America became a serious pursuit. And there are countless letters on file in the Library of Congress from people who wrote to Abraham Lincoln requesting his autograph. Here is a letter from H.M. Bromley (Nov. 11, 1864) doing just that:

So that is a precursor of a through the mail request. By 1890 there had already been established at least one popular periodical devoted to collecting autographs: The Collector doubled as a forum for essays on collecting and as a price guide for prospective buyers.

Through the 1920s, it's safe to say the primary targets of autograph seekers were literary, political, and religious figures. The advent of motion pictures, radio, and television resulted in a popular culture shift as those celebrated in the arts, and eventually sports stars, became the primary object of autograph seekers' attention. The IQ level of the signers may have diminished a tad, but not their followers' interest.

In 1939, Walt Disney produced a cartoon short called The Autograph Hound in which Donald Duck sneaks onto a Hollywood studio lot in search of his favorite celebrities. There's Sonya Henie:

(This should not be confused with Goofy's 1956 comic-book adventure, "The Autograph Hunter.") Last year when we visited Disneyland, we saw countless parents spend good money on park autograph books

which their children stood in long lines to have signed by the various characters they would come across in the park. There are so many ways this is beyond us that I can't even number the list. The first item would be: but that isn't REALLY Snow White or Donald or Pluto, so why are you even....oh, never mind. Now, having your PICTURE taken with Pluto, that's a whole different story. Plus, the lines are a lot shorter than the autograph lines.

The autograph hound concept found literary roots in 1973 with the publication of theater critic's John Lahr's novel The Autograph Hound about the misadventures of Benny Walsh, busboy at the Homestead restaurant in New York City and autograph hunter extraordinaire, pursuing the famous.

One of the first reactions people have to autograph seekers is to ascribe to them questionable motives--the worst of which is aggressive profitmaking. The only time this is really true, though, is if the seeker is asking that multiple pieces be signed. As Wax Heaven pointed out recently, no one wants to be That Guy. (By the way, the fact that 99 percent of autograph people are men helps kids and females quite a bit on the autograph front. But that's another post.) If you had to face sweaty guys with binders full of your cards every day, you might become a little wary of the whole process too. But people we have encountered at parks, in our admittedly limited experience, are for the most part pleasant, polite, and seem into the hobby because, well, it's a hobby. Not a business. But then, we mainly go to minor league parks--and that's a recurring theme for good autograph seeking experiences, as you'll see.

Far removed from That Guy who badgers players for autographs and then sells them for profit, why do people collect autographs? We asked two proven, articulate, classy philographers--autograph collectors--for their insights. The first is Kris S., keeper of the excellent baseball card blog Cards in the Attic. He told us that he collects because he enjoys meeting players "even if for only a second or two. As a historian, I feel that having the players sign my cards is the best method of preserving a little something of the moment for the future."

He doesn't plan on selling any of his autographs but hopes that a person in the future will hold a card he got signed "and appreciate the effort and the koolness factor." Posterity, then. Are the signed cards also a source of aesthetic appreciation? "Yes, some autographs are more like artwork than a signature," Kris says. What does that artwork evoke? "Lots of times in winter, I will just dig out a box of autographed cards and flip through them and think of summer... summers past, and summers future."

Kris has tips for those interested in collecting signed baseball cards. The first point is a given, and one that is evident in his actions rather than his words: go to minor league parks. Triple A might as well stand for Triple Autograph greatness, especially when compared to the corporate, elitist, overpriced, overwrought challenge of obtaining a signature at a Major League game (although it's been done...for instance, by Bailey when he had Barry Zito sign a card for us! But we digress!), player contact at a minor league park is easy.

Advance preparation. "The key to being successful is 80 percent preparation and 20 percent patience," Kris says. "Lots of following team transactions (thank god for the interweb), even more card sorting (again, thank god for the interweb), and a TON of standing around (thank god for other graphers who have interesting stories to share during the waiting periods)."

Be mindful of other human beings. Kris has learned to take an extra Sharpie, for instance to give to the kid who shows up without a pen and wants to have players autograph his hat. "Problem is that a hat will destroy a Sharpie, and you don't want a flat Sharpie touching your cards. So have a spare to GIVE to someone in need."

Tools. One thing I've learned from Kris is to use a fine point blue Sharpie for baseball card autographs. Accept no substitutes.

When and where. Logistics are important. Kris has learned to target pitchers at the end of batting practice "simply because pitchers either come out of the clubhouse late--just before the anthem, or not at all as they may be sitting elsewhere in the stadium and charting the game. Then I can work on the position players during the 20-30 minutes prior to the anthem."

But in some major league parks, mapping out logistics has become as difficult as planning to steal the Mona Lisa. For instance, on June 2, the venerable New York Times tackled the subject in regard to the new Yankee Stadium. "At the old park, players had to walk from their parking lot across a small street, Ruppert Place, to a private stadium entrance by the press gate, exposing them, even just for a minute or two, to the pleas of Yankee-crazed kids and autograph seekers before and after games. That has all changed. The new Yankee Stadium has drawn the curtain on this Bronx ritual. The Corporate Yankees relocated the players’ parking area behind stadium walls, meaning that players now drive in and out in luxury vehicles,

protected by tinted windows." This practice is elitist, to say the least, and demeaning to the autograph seeker. Tip: If there's even a hint of an implication that the seekers are lesser in the human hierarchy than the dopey players, why would anyone put themselves in that position? This is yet another argument for sticking to the minor leagues.

And if fans are prevented from interacting with a player at the ballpark, then what if they run into them outside of the park? Not good news, if the player you run in to is Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones. He won't sign at all outside of baseball. "So much of my time is consumed by baseball, being around the ballpark," Jones told the psychology of sports. "If I'm with my family or out to eat, that's my time." (We should say that we understand this philosophy. In Santa Fe, no celebrities are asked for autographs unless they're in a public performance venue. It's just the culture here.)

On the other hand, some baseball card-toting citizens really do not have the courtesy skills to deal with players. The problem that makes Lucy and me most uncomfortable is when autograph seekers treat players as little more than objects. One of the greatest thing about kids seeking autographs, especially young ones, is that this is rarely true. For kids, (again, especially at minor league parks) autograph seeking is an innocent adventure, and that's why players are drawn to them. Plain and simple. To kids, the players aren't just objects.

DINGED CORNERS CONTINUUM OF PLAYER INTERACTIONS FOR AUTOGRAPHS

Best: meet and talk with the player in a pleasant interaction

2nd best: Player signs and says a few words but doesn't make eye contact

3rd best: Player signs but looks like he'd rather be swimming with alligators

4th best: Through the mail with a personal note from player

5th best: Through the mail, autograph only

6th best: "Certified" autograph pulled unexpectedly from a pack

7th and STINKY: Sticker autograph

On the rare occasions when we've even ventured forth to get in-person autographs, there are two rules we follow.

1) We always let kids stand in front of us if they're alone. Our hierarchy is: a) alone kids b) kids with parents; c) grownups. That's not necessarily correct, and it might change when I'm not always with kids in an autograph region, but I've seen enough embarassing adults, minority though they may be, that this is currently is a must.

2) We always get some eye contact and thank the player. I'm shocked at how often this does not occur; again, it seems that many autograph collectors see the players as objects; they get one signature and then turn to the next player emerging from the locker room or approaching from the field, as if they previous player no longer exists. It's icky. Normal courtesy rules should be in effect!

My emerging understanding is that autograph collecting affords a connection to history and an opportunity to bask in the beauty of the written word. It provides a social connection; autographs in person provide a tangible reminder of a notable encounter. And in most cases, nostalgia seems to be the trigger. People wind up collecting things as souvenirs, memory catchers, and maybe as substitutes for a journal.

The best thing in the world is to be at a minor league ballpark and chat with players as they sign. It's a way of learning a little more about the game and the people who play it.

In his book, Collecting: An Unruly Passion (1994),

Werner Muensterberger insultingly details his view of the psychological nuances. “Collectors themselves—dedicated, serious, infatuated, beset—cannot explain or understand this often all-consuming drive, nor can they call a halt to their habit,” he writes. “Many are aware of a chronic restiveness that can be curbed by more finds or yet another acquisition. A recent discovery or another purchase may assuage the hunger, but it never fully satisfies it. Is it an obsession? An addiction? Is it a passion or urge, or perhaps a need to hold, possess, to accumulate?” Observing collectors, Muensterberger states, “One soon discovers an unrelenting need, even hunger, for acquisition. This ongoing search is a core element of their personality.”

So possessing the object is the collectors' motivation, according to this guy. Resistance is futile. Kirkus Reviews call this book "A blend of compelling anecdotes and dull psychoanalysis, as Muensterberger (a N.Y.C. psychoanalyst) examines the whys and hows of manic collecting....The act of accumulating repeated examples of a beloved collectible, he says, reduces 'the tension between id and ego' and becomes 'an experiment in self-healing'-- invariably, of a childhood trauma or anxiety. A magical relationship develops between collector and object, most blatantly in aborigines who collect heads or in the faithful who gather saints' bones, but evident in all collecting." [ed. note: hahahaha! shrunken heads!] [ps we bet noone ever asks this guy for his autograph!]

The most interesting statement in this odd book is that it recognizes one truth that baseball card collectors in particular, including autographed-baseball-card collectors, must own up to: there is no saturation point. There is no point at which the collectors says, "Ok! That's plenty!" Tell us if you're an exception.

Further insight from the actual experts. For Zach, proprietor of the compelling narrative-filled Autographed Cards blog, baseball card collecting is secondary to making each card he obtains unique by addition of an autograph. "It is kind of hard to say why I collect autographs. But I do remember the first one I got. It was at a card show here in town in the winter of 1988. I was about nine years old and had been collecting cards for three years. Danny Tartabull

was going to be there signing and I was pretty excited to get my first autograph and to see a ballplayer in person for the first time. [You can read about that experience here.] That was by far the best autograph encounter. So after that, I thought it would be cool to somehow get some more autographs. My mom told me that I could mail the cards to players and some of them will sign them and send them back. So, I was then into TTM."

However, neither Kris nor Zach consider TTM autographs their first interest. Zach kept at TTM until high school, when "other things became more important." He stopped collecting cards after high school, although he would always pick up a few packs each year. Things changed in college, triggered by attending baseball games. "I started going to Royals games all summer and would try to get players to sign balls for me. I did that for a couple of years until I got tired of paying the ever increasing price of a Major League ball and then getting it signed

by Tony Eusebio."

Minor league theme continued. One result of his realization is that Zach switched from baseballs to cards last year. In 2008 he went on his yearly ballpark trip..."and this one included five minor league parks. I figured that minor league parks would be a great way to test the autographed card concept at a ballgame. Over the 10-day trip, I got around 30 cards signed and I was officially hooked. And by hooked, I mean borderline obsessed. I might have been hooked after the first day after I got a bunch of autographs from the O-Royals in Albuquerque. As a result of all that, autograph collecting is probably the main reason why I collect cards."

Zach the zman's baseball card autograph system. "I collect cards to get them signed. Every card I get goes into a box. I store my cards by team. I go by what team the player actually plays for, not what is pictured on the card. If the player is retired or dead, he goes into a shoe box until I get around to putting those cards in the boxes that are sorted by year and brand. Only the signed cards are lucky enough to be in a binder."

Zach admits that he doesn't have an answer for why he loves autographs. "I just think that they are neat and they make the card more unique. You know, every card collector might have a 2008 Topps Aaron Cook card. But mine is signed by that player, so it is different than everyone else's."

Much like with Kris, the element of personal contact means something to Zach. "I would say that plays some role in why I do what I do. In the past year, I started doing TTM again. I enjoyed that for a bit, especially with the retired players. But once the season started, I have done less and less of them. It is just so much more fun getting them in person. Plus, for my blog, it is hard to put any emotion into posts about cards received TTM. I can usually write a much more entertaining post about the person if I actually met them (although that is getting hard to do since I've met so many). Anymore, if I send out a TTM, it is usually a National League player. If he is in the AL, I would rather try my luck in person in Kansas City."

And it is the personal that brings the core enjoyment to collecting baseball card autographs.

One of Kris's favorite autograph stories dates back to when he was getting started. He was attending an Arizona Fall League game in Phoenix: "Eddie Murray managed the Scottsdale Scorpions. I asked him between games of a doubleheader if he could sign a baseball for me. He said 'No.' A little later I saw Frank Robinson walking across the field towards Eddie--or basically pretty much where I was standing. As he got close, I asked Frank if he would sign my baseball. He was President of the Fall League then and was very fan friendly. Anyway, he happily signed my baseball, then handed it to Eddie and told him to 'Sign it for the kid.' Fabulous! The ball is important to me even though I was an idiot then and had them sign it in black Sharpie that since has all but faded into oblivion."

Putting it all in perspective. Lucy's current favorite autograph is one she obtained last week when she put a picture of two electric guitars on a sheet of paper, and before her guitar lesson, asked her teacher to sign it. This is on her wall now:


There is something special about a signature. Connections. Even a dot of DNA. To this day I get emotional when I see my father's elegant, looping signature on one of his letters. Or his handwriting in notes to my mother when he was at war in Europe in the 1940s.

Here's a Boy Scout in 1943 getting the autograph of a Norweigian naval officer leaving for the front. Talk about value....Perhaps as we all become more inured to email and tweeting and texting, the evocative, unique power of handwriting will become mystical by comparison. Definition of autograph: writing in one's own hand.

Related information: Our interview with Frank Hipolito; 1943 photo by Marjory Collins, LoC Digital Image.

10 comments:

tastelikedirt said...

Excellent post, well done!

night owl said...

Wow, so much good stuff in there. I'm at work now, so I'll have to reread again when I have the time to absorb it all.

Not only does it give insight into the "how," but it helps someone like me, who doesn't have the personality to go out and ask ANYBODY for their signature, understand the "why" behind those who do collect autographs.

Thanks.

(P.S. I'd throw in another item in your ranking of the best way to receive autographs. Probably between No. 5 and No. 6: receiving an autographed card from a fellow blogger. Very cool).

Andrew said...

The single best blog post I've read all year. Seriously. Thank you for taking the time to do it.

AlbuqwirkE said...

Hmmm.... I wonder if I can get Werner Muensterberger to sign TTM.

dc said...

AlbuqwirkE, soon as I said 'never,' I had the same thought. Scary.

tld, n.o., andrew...thank you.
Now trying to calculate where autos from bloggers should fall on the list. Pretty high up.

Tom said...

Nice article!

zman40 said...

Very well done. That first quote by Muensterberger decribed me to a tee (and probably most card collectors, too).

mab said...

Terrific post, with lots of information. Thanks!

mikepelfreyshouse said...

Amazing post. Great read! Well I collect autographs because I love to display them and show them to my friends!

Kevin said...

I'm just catching up with Google reader after my vacation, so let me be the latest to compliment you on an excellent and thorough post. You've often been kind enough to liken my writing to journalism, so I'm returning the favor. I truly believe that this blog entry is fit to print in any newspaper or magazine. Thanks for sharing!