Go to any sporting event in America and you’ll see people begging. I’m not talking about homeless folks outside the arena, I’m talking about people from middle class and upper class families with their hands out. Usually with a ball and a pen in them.
It’s the business of the autograph. The fan begs, the athlete stops and complies with a scribble, or walks by. In one scenario the athlete is a hero, in the other he’s a jackass. But is it fair? Should athletes have to sign their names on our scraps of paper, baseballs, photos, and trading cards? What do these celebrities in jockstraps owe to their fan base? And how far can the fan go to acquire the autograph?
I’ve witnessed the autograph game from different angles. At one of my first big league baseball games, at Tiger Stadium in Detroit, my family and I sat just a few rows away from recently retired Tiger catcher Bill Freehan. When he got up to go somewhere, I reluctantly stood myself in front of him and asked him to scrawl his name in my program, which he did.
I wasn’t really sure why my parents goaded me to ask Freehan for his autograph, and I don’t have the program anymore, but I have the memory. Maybe that’s the point. I have only asked for an autograph twice since, with strikingly different results. In the early 1990s, as a fan outside Tiger Stadium, I was part of a small crowd situated next to a bus that was slowly filling with members of the Kansas City Royals. Gary Gaetti was one of the few who stopped to sign, and as I stood there with nothing other than my ticket stub for him, I blurted, “Why did you have to beat us up so bad [as a member of the Minnesota Twins] in the ’87 Playoffs?” Gaetti just stared at me and skipped past me on his way to the bus. Then, in 2004, when I attended the Detroit Tigers Fantasy Camp in Lakeland, I asked Jack Morris to sign the baseball I was trying to get every member of the ’84 World Series team to autograph. He was happy to do so.
As a part of the Baseball Hall of Fame staff I witnessed the opposite side of autographs – former players and managers getting hounded. For the most part, the Hall of Fame members were compliant, almost humbled. In fact, many of the players who had been out of the game for a while seemed to enjoy being asked. I saw Tigers great George Kell sign for fans in New York, almost ecstatic that anyone remembered who he was. Wade Boggs, Gary Carter, Phil Niekro, and Dave Winfield were notable for being very generous to autograph seekers.
Other Hall of Famers milked the business side of it. Fergie Jenkins signed at a table on Main Street in Cooperstown. It cost fans a few bucks to get his name on a piece of memorabilia. Willie Mays and Pete Rose demanded huge sums to sign anything. For players like Jenkins who never made millions in his prime, the fees he got for his signature helped him make an income. The ironic thing about signing is that the more a player signs, the less his autograph is worth. If he doesn’t sign much at all, however, he’s an ass.
Many fans consider it an athlete’s duty to sign autographs. Players who are conscientious are singled out. Part of the reason that Brandon Inge was so popular during his tenure win Detroit was that he famously went out of his way to sign. Ditto Alan Trammell as player and manager. I once saw Trammell sign for so long in Lakeland that his hand cramped up and I’m not sure how he signed as many as he did.
But are fans entitled to the autograph? In my opinion, no. I think athletes are required to play hard and to fulfill their contracts. A ballplayer can tell fans they don’t sign in a nice way, and most do. Or they can choose to sign, that’s their prerogative, but it’s not a requirement, in my opinion. I’ve seen how much time players commit to their jobs, how much travel they endure, how much family time they sacrifice. We can argue about their huge salaries all we want, but the fact is that the market warrants the big dollars they and other celebrities get. Few people gripe when Will Smith gets $100 million for a movie.
It’s always struck me as sort of bizarre that fans can get so excited about getting an autograph. After all, it’s a signature, that’s it. What is so special and why are many fans so thrilled to accumulate them? Are they written proof that you were close to someone famous? I don’t know. But despite my early Freehan experience, I’ve never been a big autograph seeker.
Today, in ballparks all over the country, there will be fans who will scream and holler and beg for an autograph. Some players will walk right by and others will stop and sign. The goodwill earned by signing is great for the game, but players who choose not to sign shouldn’t be hated on. If they signed every single time they were asked, for every single person, they wouldn’t be able to do their jobs. And as much as we fans love baseball as a game, to the players it is their job.
What are your experiences with autographs? Have you seen players be generous or rude about it? Let me know in the comments below.