Sign of the times: A story about athletes, autographs and industry
Professional athletes, coaches and celebrities from the entertainment world hear the words almost every day.
"Can I have your autograph?"
Sometimes, they are stammered softly and shyly. Other times, they are delivered in a drunken slur tinged with rudeness. No matter how they're spoken, the sentences have become as much a part of public life as sunrise, sunset, pre-game practice, cell phone bills, death and taxes.
"Will you sign this, please?"
Most people go through life without encountering strangers asking them to sign a scrap of paper. For celebrities, attention from autograph seekers can be flattering, annoying or even intimidating, depending on the timing, location and nature of the request.
"For the most part, people are very polite," Packers running back Samkon Gado said after a recent practice in Green Bay. "Other times, they don't realize that they can be obnoxious.
"I like to sign whenever I can, but there are times when we're going through stuff and they catch us at the wrong time. How are they to know that?
"If I have to be somewhere, I'll try to explain. Sometimes it helps, Sometimes, it doesn't. The other day, I said 'I'm sorry, guys. I have to go to practice,' and someone said 'All right, Sam. Have a good practice.' That comment made me want to sign for that person that much more. I really wanted to sign, but I couldn't."
Generations ago, autograph collecting was viewed by most people as a children's hobby. Over the past quarter-century it morphed into an obsession and a multi-million dollar industry beset by charges of fraud, price-gouging, backstabbing and other problems.
"I guess there is money to be made out there on autographs," said Brewers bench coach Robin Yount, a Hall of Famer who has spent nearly four decades scribbling his name countless times on baseballs, bats, cards, pictures and jerseys.
"You see more people doing it these days for that reason -- the business end of it."
Like several other athletes and coaches interviewed for this story, Yount knows that there is a difference between the fan who wants an autograph for his collection and a dealer who is looking to sell the signature for a profit.
"It doesn't bother me (that people sell my signature)," Yount said. "But, I also turn those people down a lot more than the ones you know are just keeping it."
How do you tell the difference between a true fan and a "green fly" which is the name many athletes use for persistent collectors? For starters, the dealers are usually the guys with binders full of cards and big stacks of pictures.
"It's the same ones who are out there every single day," Yount said. "I can't say I stand there and sign for the same guys every single day. Because of that, there are some people who get left out or miss the opportunity because of the money-makers. I think certain athletes or celebrities in general don't do (autographs) just because of that."
Brewers pitcher Chris Capuano considers signing autographs to be part of his job. On days that he doesn't pitch, Capuano makes it a point to sign as many autographs as time permits in order to take the onus off teammates who are preparing to play the game. While he enjoys interacting with fans, Capuano doesn't like the idea that his signature is a commodity.
"That's the only part that I don't like," he said. "For me, it's for the kids and the true fan. I go out there and try to get them. For someone to have to buy my autograph online, to me, I think that is a travesty because I'm happy to give it to anybody."
Gado tries to look at things from the collector/businessman's point of view. It's hard to fault people for selling autographs when many players take sums of money to do signing sessions at card shows and collector's shops.
"There are two sides to every story," he said. "To be honest, there is part of me that says, 'This guy can sell (my signature) on eBay and that's not right.' Then again, who is giving me my paycheck? It's the fans. I guess it doesn't bother me (when people sell autographs), but if a guy comes up to you and he's got a big bag (of things to sign), then you're like, 'Come on.'"
Packers defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila tries to avoid big crowds of autograph seekers because he knows he won't be able to satisfy everyone. "I always tell people that the best way to get an autograph from me is to mail it to me," he said. "I guarantee you'll get it within a week, maybe two. I'm not on offense, so I don't get that much mail. If they mail it in a self-addressed envelope. I will send it back.
"I have cards and things that I'm trying to get rid of, I don't need anymore."
Along with the cards, Gbaja-Biamilia tucks in an informational letter from his ministry. "I'm trying to raise money," he said. "I tell the fans, 'Thank you for your support,' and I have a letter I send them about the ministry that is doing something good for the community. They don't have to send in money. They've already got the product. but, it helps me get the word out."
With every card that he signs, Gbaja-Biamilia writes the word "Jesus."
"That's why I do this," he said. "To glorify Him."
Brewers veteran Jeff Cirillo said he doesn't have a problem with people selling his signature, but he isn't likely to stand and sign multiple items for the same person.
"If someone out there wants the autograph, we're providing a job for somebody," Cirillo said. "I don't care about that. As long as guys aren't blatant about it, I'll sign."
Cirillo does have his limits, though.
"I don't like signing shirts," he said. "I don't like writing on a shirt that some guy has been wearing for three hours. That grosses me out. Hats are kind of gross, too."
Page 1 of 2 (view all on one page)
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.
Show me the other 2 Talkbacks
7 comments about this article.
Post a comment / write a review.
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.