Signing on to a new game: big money for autographs

November 03, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The grandmother on my mother's side, Ruth Loebman, held a marvelous job in a shop in Miami Beach in the middle years of her life. This is important. Into the shop came Casey Stengel, baseball manager of the famous Yankees. Also, there was the boxer Floyd Patterson, the center fielder Willie Mays, the pitcher Don Drysdale.

For my grandmother, they signed autographs. Who could say no to a nice old lady? For her grandson, Ruth Loebman bequeathed legitimacy. This, it turns out, is everything.

In the modern world of sports, in which everything translates to money, we now have an autograph industry that has grown to $750 million a year. I learn this last week in the Washington Post newspaper. There is only one problem. Out of this $750 million for the signatures of athletes, the FBI is now saying that maybe 70 percent of all autographed sports memorabilia is fraudulent, which computes to a con job of $525 million, give or take.

In other words, you walk into the sports nostalgia shop now and you purchase for some ungodly sum the baseball signed, let us say, by Edwin Donald "Duke" Snider, only the signature was placed there by some guy named Fred playing fast and loose with a ballpoint.

Unless, like me, you had a grandmother in Miami Beach on the afternoon in 1955 that Duke Snider walked into the shop and Ruth Loebman said, "I have a grandson in Baltimore. He's 10 and wants to become a center fielder. Could you sign?" And Snider, being nice, didn't even charge money. Today we have a phrase for such action by professional athletes. We call it hard to believe.

For maybe 15 years now, signatures by athletes have been collecting breathtaking money. Apparently, the business in rare coins and stamps went flat, the market for old baseball cards became saturated, and the autographs of men skilled at smacking a round object with a piece of wood took on new value.

Why autographs stir our souls, I can't exactly say. One philosophy goes roughly like this: The athletes are gods, and we are not. If we have their signatures, it shows that, for a moment, at least, we left our wretched little minor league lives and entered their sunlit Olympian worlds. They knew us; we breathed the same air. The autograph is our proof.

Except, where's the proof if you're buying the autograph from a shelf in some secondhand signature shop? You could get a handwriting expert to check it out, but even this becomes a racket. Some guy in Chicago was charged with distributing $5 million worth of phony signatures, whose value he inflated by setting up a phony handwriting analysis company to con his customers.

Thus, the value of an in-person autograph. Cal Ripken famously signs and signs. But the players are caught in an awkward position. The fans approach them as though innocent as 10-year olds, wishing only for a sign that they once touched greatness. rTC But the modern players know some of these fans see it mainly as a business deal.

And so we have the new wrinkle to the game: the autograph shows, where fans pay money at the door so they can line up and get their heroes' signatures, scribbled right before their eyes.

I went to Cooperstown, N.Y., a few months back, when Earl Weaver was inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame. It was a lovely weekend, tarnished a little by the sight of so many former ballplayers sitting at tables with scores of people lined up to get their autographs -- for a price.

Here was Whitey Ford, signing baseballs for $25. There was Pete Rose, signing bats for $35. And Don Larsen, 40 years after his World Series perfect game, signing his name for $25.

Also, there was Frank Robinson, former Oriole. Former right fielder, former manager, and former assistant general manager, who'd been removed from the last position several months earlier, in a decision that was emotionally wrenching for Frank.

At the time, I wrote a piece saying how much Robinson had meant to the Orioles, and to Baltimore, and how he'd turned around the whole history of the franchise. I was having lunch at Sabatino's, in Little Italy, a few days later, when Frank spotted me. He walked over and thanked me for the piece. He said it meant a lot to him. Then his eyes started to well up.

I didn't see him again until Cooperstown. He was sitting at a table, to sign his autograph for $25 a pop. I was there to write a piece about Earl Weaver.

"Frank," I said, "could I have a minute for a few thoughts about Earl?"

"I'm busy," he snapped.

"You're busy?" I said.

"I'm signing autographs," he said, waving a hand dismissively.

"But Frank," I said, glancing around and seeing no one at all standing in line, "there's nobody here."

Maybe that's what the FBI means about phony autographing.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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