Former pitching great Warren Spahn was signing autographs at a baseball card show in Idaho Falls, Ida., when a boy asked for his signature. When Spahn asked why, the boy answered: "My daddy said you're getting old and you're going to die soon, and it's going to be valuable."
Actually, father and son won't have to wait for Spahn to leave life's starting rotation: His signature is already worth far more than the paper it's printed on.
Spahn, 66, has plenty of company. Baseball's unprecedented popularity and a meteoric rise in the value of the national pastime's memorabilia in the 1980s has spawned a rapidly growing, multimillion-dollar sideline: sports autographs.
Earned More Than $100,000
Retired Yankees sluggers Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio are the field's financial clean-up hitters. Each makes up to $30,000 for a two-day signing session. Mantle, whose autograph has sold for as much as $30, earned more than $150,000 last year signing on occasional weekends--more than he ever made during a season patrolling center field at Yankee Stadium.
But as autograph prices increase, so do the cries of "foul." Some fans find the spectacle of youngsters paying large sums for millionaire athletes' autographs downright unsportsmanlike.
Others, including several baseball card show promoters, complain that the high prices have led to an assembly-line process that severely limits fans' interaction with the athletes. Some say the resulting public disillusionment threatens the image of the industry as well as the reputations of several of baseball's biggest names.
"I think it's gotten out of hand," said Bruce Paynter, a Chicago prosecutor who has promoted shows for the past 11 years and is producing the annual national show this July.
'People Want Contact'
"The ballplayer doesn't have time to look up, to pose for pictures, to talk. People want to have personal contact. . . . But sometimes the promoters are so concerned with making ends meet they might not recognize the public relations value of people getting to speak to the players."
Alan Rosen, a premier dealer of old baseball cards, is blunter: "Pretty soon we're going to put down $20, look through a little peep hole and genuflect before them. It's absurd."
Whatever the gripes, the bottom line continues to rise like the trajectory of a Mantle home run. A record was set last month when hundreds of hobbyists and investors paid $30 each for autographs of Mantle and ex-Red Sox star Ted Williams in Atlantic City, N.J. Only months before, the going rate for Mantle's signature was $15; in mid-1987 it was a mere $8.
Oakland All-Star Jose Canseco, another hot commodity on the signature circuit, even reported late to spring training last year because of baseball card show commitments. Moreover, Canseco and teammate Mark McGwire have retained a Newport Beach firm to sell their autographs on their used bats, jackets, socks and the shirts off their backs. A signed jersey from Canseco's 1988 record-setting season of 40 home runs and 40 stolen bases goes for $2,500.
The autographs and other memorabilia are part of a business built on a foundation of baseball cards--one of the best investments of the 1980s--that produces an estimated $200 million in annual sales. The industry is growing at a rate of 10% to 20% a year, says Bob Lemke, publisher of Sports Collectors Digest, Baseball Cards magazine and other Krause Publications periodicals.
More than 5,000 baseball card shows were held nationwide last year, an average of nearly 100 each weekend, Lemke said. Millions attended these shows, including an estimated 500,000 serious hobbyists.
Although boyhood collectors remain the industry's mainstays, more and more adult investors, including many who have switched from stamps and coins, are entering the market. Fathers and sons often find common ground in a hobby that also bridges generations of ballplayers.
Most promoters maintain they are merely providing a service that would otherwise not be available without painstakingly tracking down major leaguers at hotels or ball parks. The athletes demand an appearance fee for their time, which the promoters seek to recoup by charging for autographs.
The higher the fee, the higher the charge and the greater the pressure to cram as many signatures as possible into a three- or four-hour appearance. The average player signs 300 times every 60 minutes.
During a recent show at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, patrons paid $20 each for Mantle, Williams and Muhammad Ali autographs, $11 for ex-Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax and $10 for all-time hit leader Pete Rose and waited in lines for an hour or more for each athlete.
"These guys are great ballplayers," said Everett Sheely, 36, a general contractor from Orange moments after he and his 10-year-old son had obtained Mantle's signature. "They get hounded by people to give them autographs. If he gave it to me, I can turn around and sell it for $35. I don't have a problem (with the price) at all."
Ali, although slowed by Parkinson's disease, created a hubbub when he entered the cavernous converted parking garage where the show was held and announced over the loudspeaker, "I am the greatest."
Books, Photos, Trunks
The Greatest sat at a long table clad in a safari jacket, surrounded by burly body guards and his entourage, as fans placed before him color photos, boxing gloves and trunks, copies of Ali's book and, at one point, a cast on a broken arm. Meticulously, Ali signed each object, occasionally blowing on the ink to avoid a smudge.
Mike Gonzalez, a construction supervisor, and his 7-year-old son, also named Mike, had driven 100 miles from Lancaster, paid their $20 and stood in line for 90 minutes. When they reached the front, Gonzalez asked the former champ to inscribe his autograph to his son, even though a voice on loudspeakers repeatedly blared: "No personalizing."
"To Mike, Muhammad Ali," the ex-champion wrote on a picture of himself. Then, he looked up, the inimitable Ali twinkle in his eye, and pinched the boy's cheek.
"This is something I wanted to do all my life," Gonzalez senior gushed afterward. "I would have paid $100."
The autograph business started in the mid-1970s but hit its stride recently when the number of baseball card shows increased dramatically. The presence of a big-name player began as a way to make one show more attractive than another. At first, the players received a nominal fee and the promoters did not charge for their autographs.
"For a long time, 90% of the ballplayers would sign autographs if you saw them at the ball park or in person or mailed something to them," show promoter Paynter said. "What woke them up to reality was when people began sending them five photographs of them to autograph. They realized the person would probably sell four of them."
With the proliferation of shows, the competition to attract the most idolized athletes intensified. It is not unusual for a dozen or more players to appear at a single major weekend show--making the dealers peddling their old cards and other memorabilia play second fiddle to the autograph hunt.
The up-front cost to promoters is substantial. Harlan J. Werner, a Canoga Park promoter, paid nine athletes--including Mantle, Williams, Ali and Koufax--more than $150,000 to do his Anaheim show in December. With a $5 admission charge, a $400 charge for each of the 175 dealer booths and the autograph fees, he said he barely broke even. He had hoped to net $50,000.
Air Fare, Limousines
Such stakes make promoters akin to baseball general managers negotiating with a league of free agents. Most well-known players demand at least $2,000 for an appearance. In addition, the deal may include air fare, a limousine to and from the show and, for weekend events, accommodations for the athlete and his wife.
Mantle, who reportedly plans to sit out the rest of this year's autograph circuit because he's tired of the shows' demands, once put the figures in perspective when, Werner recalled, he said: "I get as much money for signing one autograph as my dad got for working a whole day in the mines."
Yet, several promoters said, Mantle and former teammate DiMaggio keep a wary eye on each other's rates amid a quiet but intense rivalry to be America's highest-paid sports signatory.
Mets infielder Greg Jeffries is an example of autograph inflation run amok. Jeffries--whose rookie card became a hot commodity last year, spurred by speculation that he was a star-to-be--joined the Mets late in the season. He then performed well.
"He wanted $10,000 and three first-class airline tickets--one for his agent and one for his girl friend--to do a show this winter in New York," said veteran promoter Jon Gallen of New York. "The guy has fewer than 50 lifetime hits" in the majors.
Some critics maintain that ballplayers are paying a price for autograph-profiteering with a currency that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.
After a well-publicized brouhaha triggered last year when legendary center fielder Willie Mays tried to charge for his autograph during a book-signing tour, Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich opined:
"Whoever laid down those ground rules was a rapacious blackguard who was giving baseball a black eye, and giving kids' hero-worship and Norman Rockwell and his America a kick in the groin."
So sensitive are athletes about the public criticism that Mantle, DiMaggio, Koufax, Rose and ex-Dodger pitcher Don Drysdale declined through intermediaries to be interviewed for this story. And at least one big-name player balks at doing any shows.
Don Mattingly, a current Yankees star, did several shows early in his career but not in recent years when the first baseman became one of baseball's top players. His recalcitrance has prompted astronomical offers: bids have reached $125,000 for a two-day show in New York, according to Ray Schulte, Mattingly's full-time marketing agent.
Yet, Mattingly just says no.
"The shows aren't really that well-organized and Donnie doesn't want to disregard some of the kids who wait on line a long time" but are turned away, Schulte said. He added that Mattingly signs thousands of autographs a year for free at the ballpark, charity events and other public places.
Some of those who do shows regularly are undisputed hits with the public. Former Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson is one. Retired greats Koufax, Al Kaline of the Tigers, Harmon Killebrew of the Twins, Ernie Banks of the Cubs, Stan Musial of the Cardinals and Spahn of the Braves are also warm, cooperative and considerate with fans and collectors, promoters report.
Retired players no longer in the limelight generally appreciate the adulation more than current stars who often take it for granted. Moreover, say industry veterans, many of the ex-big leaguers have more time to chat or pose for pictures because they are less in demand. One of those is Spahn, whose signature goes for about $5.
Conversely, several promoters said that Hall of Famers Mays and ex-Cardinal pitcher Bob Gibson are among the surliest signers. Cincinnati Reds Manager Rose, meanwhile, lives up to his nickname of "Charlie Hustle," industry veterans say. He is utterly businesslike.
During part of a season with the Montreal Expos at the end of his playing career, Lemke said, Rose wore a uniform jersey for a few days and then gave it to his equipment agent to sell for $395 to $500. Others have done this as well--with mixed results.
Players generally are issued uniforms by their respective teams but make their own arrangements with equipment manufacturers for bats and gloves.
Dealers say the popularity of authentic equipment has led to the sale of counterfeit items. It has also made celebrities in some circles of an unlikely group: those in charge of uniforms and bats and balls.
"I was talking to a couple of clubhouse guys who are now very popular on the road," said Schulte, Mattingly's marketing agent. "They have to go out the back door to the stadium because the collectors know who they are."