He's hunted down the biggest names in sports — star athletes such as Ben Hogan, Tiger Woods and Joe Namath.
Over the last 31 years, Scott Smith has snagged the signatures of 4,413 sports stars featured on 2,913 covers of Sports Illustrated magazine, tracking some down in phone books (in the pre-Google era) and slipping through a gantlet of Argentine troops guarding soccer star Diego Maradona.
He's managed to collect Michael Jordan's autograph on 35 of his 51 covers. He has Muhammad Ali's on 48 of them. Mickey Mantle signed 11 of his covers.
But for all of his prize catches, one has eluded him: the signature of the woman on the cover of the Oct. 17, 1960, edition of SI, holding what appears to be a kite.
The unnamed model is illustrating what the cover calls the "new look in sports clothes" — in the woman's case, a sleeveless blue bodysuit.
"The woman is wearing what they called stretchy pants, a one-piece jumpsuit," said Smith, 48.
He contacted modeling agencies, fashion historian Linda Morand and Jule Campbell, former editor of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. None of them could help. The magazine's index and inside contents didn't offer any clues to the cover girl's identity.
"The woman looks like Mary Tyler Moore," Smith said. "But it's not her — I asked her."
The cover shot was taken by a Los Angeles photographer named Christa Zinner. Smith said he tracked her down in Santa Monica, where she lived with her daughter.
"But unfortunately she was very elderly and suffered from memory loss and didn't remember the name of the person in the picture," he said.
Zinner, a prolific photographer whose subjects included models wearing Rudi Gernreich's eye-popping swimsuits and luminaries such as Katharine Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor, died in March at age 92.
Daughter Katina Zinner could offer few clues. She said her mother lived in Pacific Palisades when the "new look in sports clothes" cover was shot. Her mother often used friends as photo models, she said.
Smith thinks the woman probably wasn't a professional model, "just a pretty housewife."
Smith said he's been a Sports Illustrated reader since his grandmother gave him a subscription when he was 9. An avid sports fan, he saved every week's magazine in his closet before deciding on a whim to get the cover subjects to autograph them.
Soon, he was hunting down and buying copies dating to the magazine's 1954 debut issue.
"I started to do my homework on all the old football and baseball players," he said. "I'd scour through phone books; there was no Internet then. I'd go to libraries and look at out-of-town phone books for addresses and phone numbers. A lot of these athletes were retired by the time I got to them."
He began his cover autograph collection in 1982 when he learned that the Edmonton Oilers' Wayne Gretzky was staying at a nearby New Jersey hotel. Although he had long collected athletes' signatures in an autograph book, he grabbed several of Gretzky's SI covers and headed to the hotel with pen in hand. After that, Smith was off and running.
I have nearly 95% of the magazines autographed."
— Scott Smith, autograph collector
"I have nearly 95% of the magazines autographed. Of the 3,225 magazines I have, 3,071 are able to be autographed. About 120 of them don't have people on the cover."
Smith said his collection also includes "17,000 or 18,000 extras I keep to trade."
His magazines fill shelves in the basement and garage of his Pompton Plains, N.J., home. Even though he's retired from his job as an investment banker and corporate debt specialist, he keeps up his collecting, paying for it with his Wall Street savings.
Smith estimates he has spent "well over $300,000" buying copies of the magazine and hunting down cover subjects. He said he has a network of bookstores in several states that he calls when he learns that Sports Illustrated has published an edition with as many as six regional covers.
He frequently teams up with another Sports Illustrated collector, Philadelphia restaurant owner Sam Lynagh, on signature searches. That has led to many road trips for the pair.
"In 1985 we had about 15 or 20 possible addresses for Rafer Johnson, Bruce Jenner, Arnold Schwarzenegger and three or four more athletes. We went out to Los Angeles and used maps; back then there was no GPS," Smith said. "We found Schwarzenegger working out at Gold's Gym in Venice. When he finished, we approached him and he signed our covers and posed for pictures with us."
After that, Smith and Lynagh headed for Malibu, where they had an address for Jenner. At the gated estate, they pressed the buzzer and a woman's voice answered. She replied that Jenner no longer lived there, that he'd lost the house in a divorce settlement.
"But she was so sweet. She gave us his phone number. We called him from a pay phone and he gave us his new address."
When they got there, he said, Jenner invited the pair in for a beer and pulled out his 1976 Olympics gold medal and draped it around Smith's neck.
"He couldn't have been any nicer," Smith said.
The pair found world-record sprinter Houston McTear homeless, living under the Santa Monica Pier, after paying another homeless man $10 to bring the former athlete to them. On another outing, they encountered police, private security guards and Argentine soldiers guarding Maradona, who was practicing with the Argentine team at a school in Massachusetts.
"That was the scariest one," Smith said. "We got through the campus and town police and past state troopers, but there was the Argentine national guard with rifles. We hid behind a satellite TV truck until the practice was over and Maradona was having fun with his children in a golf cart.
"That's when we jumped out with our magazines. Security saw us, but Diego waved us over and signed two magazines for us."
Though his magazine trove takes up considerable space and his autograph-collecting takes lots of time, his wife, Karen, doesn't mind, he said.
"My wife knew about this before we started dating. She's more than fine with it. She's happy it makes me happy —she knows I have a ton of fun doing it."
Karen Smith is good-humored about her husband's hobby.
"He has it down to a science when an athlete comes to town and checks into a hotel," she said. "I just feel that he's just so good at it that it doesn't take much time away from the family. He'll leave a 9 at night and be home at 11:30."
Smith said chasing athlete autographs has changed over the years. "Many of them do partake in autograph shows and I do pay money to obtain some athletes' autographs," he said. "A lot of baseball players are kind of aloof. Many of them make a nice secondary income on the autograph circuit."
Although he'd like to pass his collection on to his two daughters, ages 9 and 12, neither of them has an interest in the collection.
"The kids wouldn't know what to do with it. If somebody offers a couple of million for it, it's for sale," he said. "I put it up on EBay a couple of years ago for $1,999,999, but there were no offers."
Sports Illustrated is well aware of his hobby.
"He's thought of fondly in these halls. He has a mythical reputation here," said Jon Wertheim, an executive editor and senior writer who has been with the magazine since 1997. "He's been a real resource for a lot of us. The hunting and gathering he sometimes does to get these covers signed is amazing.
"He'd be a good reporter."
[Smith] has a mythical reputation here."
— Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated executive editor
Wertheim recalled how former managing editor Terry McDonell appreciated Smith's relentlessness.
McDonell once wrote that the collector tracked bridge expert Charles Goren to a Los Angeles hospital room. "Smith waited, magazines and Sharpie in hand, murmuring 'Charles?...Charles?' But he swears he did nothing as brazen as shake the frail and ailing man who was on a ventilator and enmeshed in a thicket of tubes, and who did not awaken to the strange voice in his room," McDonell related.
Wertheim also remembered Smith's help with the magazine's story about Sports Illustrated's supposed "jinx," in which an athlete's career is said to fizzle after he or she appears on the cover.
Only a handful of the cover subjects he reached believed that actually happened to them, Smith found.
Although he dismisses the idea of a cover curse, Smith said he hopes he isn't jinxed in his search for his mystery cover girl.
He thinks she was probably a Pacific Palisades neighbor of the photographer. If she was in her mid-20s when the photo was taken, she would be in her mid-70s today.
His big fear is a repeat of his hunt for Bobby Fischer. He vigorously pursued the chess grandmaster to get him to sign a cover, even traveling to Iceland, where Fischer lived, shortly before his death in 2008. But he could not get the signature.
"I'm really looking for this one woman," he said. "It's a huge hole in my collection."