Athletes wary about autographs as money becomes name of game

May 12, 1991|By Randy Franz | Randy Franz,Orange County Register

Dave Parker, a major-leaguer for the last 18 years, used to take the pen, sign his name and give an autograph without thinking much about where it ended up. That was back when autographs were meant to be treasured, not deposited.

Lately, Parker not only thinks about where his autograph could end up, he considers who is asking for it and why, how old the person is and the object to be signed. He does this first, then decides whether to grant the request. Even for kids, sometimes.

Autographs weren't so complicated before big-money card shows and the current memorabilia bonanza, which has made some players question the motives of their recipients. Do they want the signature for posterity or prosperity?

"It's changed a lot since I came into the league in 1973," said the California Angels' Parker, a five-time National League All-Star.

Aspects of the booming autograph business disturb him, Parker said. He steps off the team bus during a road trip and encounters adults riffling through indexed files of cards, seeking another investment, er, signature. The team arrives at a hotel to find a group of adults who waited outside for hours to grab autographs. Sometimes, the players recognize individuals who were at stops throughout the country.

"You know they're not doing it as a hobby," Parker said.

All of which makes players such as Parker sometimes reluctant to give an autograph unless they know it is for a fan, not a collector, or get paid.

The most disturbing trend is collectors' paying off children to approach players who are more likely to sign for an innocent-looking youngster than for a business-minded adult.

Wally Joyner, one of the Angels' most sought-after autographers, said he suspected the payoff scheme but did not see it in action until a recent incident outside a stadium. He was in a hurry and walking briskly through the parking lot when a man approached him for an autograph. Joyner said he politely refused. Several steps later, three children confronted Joyner and he signed cards for them. As the children walked away together, he watched them go straight to the man who had been turned away moments earlier.

L The man gave them money. The children handed over the cards.

"This memorabilia thing's gotten too big," Joyner said. "It's not that I don't enjoy [signing autographs], because I do. But there have become too many negatives."

In other words, some of the fun is removed when the majority of autograph-seekers are not starry-eyed fans wanting a brush with fame. They'd rather have a pen-stroke of fortune.

"There's a lot less flattery now," Parker said. "It's not a compliment to have someone get your autograph for profit. That takes away from it. It really does."

But the other side of the coin is the players' ability to make money. Card shows are a booming business, and professional players from many sports receive thousands of dollars to appear and sign for several hours. Often, the promoters of the shows charge admission or a fee per autograph.

Joyner said he does only shows that donate the proceeds to schools or charities. And if people are paying for his signature, Joyner said, they are entitled to his time, even though he estimated that collectors outnumber fans 5-to-1, "maybe higher."

Even at card shows, Joyner has noticed that not everyone pays the fee.

"You'll always see guys outside the door waiting for me, trying to save a couple of bucks," Joyner said.

"I used to do card shows my first couple years here," Angels shortstop Dick Schofield said. "But the more I thought about it, I figured I'm not going to make an 8-year-old pay seven or eight bucks to come in."

Hotels across the country have cracked down on autograph seekers. The Doubletree Hotel in Orange, which houses most visiting teams playing the Angels, has enforced a written policy against lobby signing since it opened in 1984, hotel officials said.

"But they still wait outside," Angels reliever Bryan Harvey said.

"It's out of control because it's a billion-dollar business now," Lakers star Magic Johnson said. "People are very aggressive about it now, where before they'd be nice, you'd just sign. Now, they get offended if you can't do it. People get pretty nasty about it now if you don't do what they ask."

Wayne Gretzky adjusted his strategy to combat the rising collector business. When he was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings before the 1988-89 season, Gretzky signed one of his new Kings cards for his daughter, Paulina, 2. He said he will not sign another, making that one a rare -- and potentially more valuable -- card.

Old-time players, especially in baseball, are hitting the card-show circuit and commanding large appearance fees. Some of today's players say they are glad to see it.

"It's additional income they couldn't get before," Schofield said.

For instance, Orioles manager Frank Robinson appeared at a card show at a hotel in Anaheim recently before a game with the Angels.

Robinson would not discuss autographs or the memorabilia business, saying, "It just seems like whichever way I go on it, whatever I say, nobody is happy with me."

So the price has been paid, not just by fans and collectors, but also by the players and their dwindling spontaneity when it comes to autographs.

"You really think hard about it now," Parker said after signing baseballs before a game for a Little League team bending over the Anaheim Stadium railing wearing A's uniforms.

"It has really hurt the relationship with the kids because of what I've seen with grown men paying them off. The business has hurt the kids.

"Most of the times, [the children] are kind of cute -- 13 and under are the best. They're intentions are better, I feel."

But he had to think about it.

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