At the moment I approached him, Grove was decked out in an egg-white Panama suit. Thrusting my autograph book into Grove’s hand, I turned to a page devoted to pictures of him. I asked politely if he would sign for me as I handed him my pen. He took the pen and signed Lefty Grove.We're certainly in a different era now. If that little episode had happened last week instead of seventy years ago there would be a lawsuit, a media frenzy, and no less than two Very Special Episodes of "Outside the Lines," one attacking players for attacking fans, and another attacking fans for not respecting players' privacy.
But as he returned the pen and book to me, he gazed down at his pants. A rivulet of dark, blue ink had dribbled down from his fly to his right knee.
Ashen-faced, Grove grabbed me, not so gently, by the back of the neck. In my panic, I thought he was about to fling me across the lobby at 100 miles per hour, a smidgen faster than his fearsome fastball. Instead, thank heaven, he thought better of it.
“I don’t ever want to see you again!” Grove said with a growl.
I made certain he never did.
But it's different in another way as well, and that's in the nature of today's autograph seeker. I've mentioned this before, but whenever I have to go to Cleveland for lawyer business, I stay at the same hotel that visiting teams call home when playing the Indians. The hotel does a pretty good job of keeping folks away from the players, and the fans do a pretty good job of following the rules. Outside the front door, they put up a velvet rope separating autograph seekers from players waiting for cabs or valet service or whatever. There's no real reason why the fan can't get past the little three foot rope -- heck, I'm standing beyond it myself waiting for my cab -- but the fans tend to respect it. No one is spilling ink on anyone's pants.
But the fans are very different than Robinson and his buddies in another way too. They're not kids, and they don't have scrapbooks as such. They're guys way past 30 carrying binders full of baseball cards and 8x10" glossies of every player on the team in plastic pages. I assume they're all memorabilia dealers. But despite the fact that they have devoted their lives to this kind of pursuit, in a way they're way less committed than the Robinson gang. Whereas Robinson and his friends used the meager media resources at their disposal to memorize players' faces and pick them out of crowds in hotel lobbies, the guys up at the Cleveland Marriott often have conversations like this:
Guy #1: Who's that? I think that's a player.
Guy #2: Um, Ramirez? No, [flips madly through his pages] that's Martinez. At least I think it's Martinez.
Guy #1: When did he get called up?
Guy #2: Dunno. I'm pretty sure it's Martinez though.
Guy #1: I thought Martinez was black.
Guy #2: You're thinking of the other Martinez who got traded. He was Dominican. This Martinez is from Puerto Rico.
Guy #1: If you say so.
Guy #1 and #2 in unison, thrusting out pens: Mr. Martinez! Mr. Martinez! Please, over here Mr. Martinez!
I find this byplay kind of funny, but it's kind of perplexing too because I simply don't get the concept of autographs as ends rather than means. Sure, I understand that there's a market for them, but why? What's the value? On a simple level, an autograph is proof that you were in the presence of someone famous, right? That's what Robinson and his pals were after, anyway. "I saw Connie Mack in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria, and here's your proof." Kids of a certain age don't believe anything you tell them, so you need that kind of proof. I once carried around an autographed 1965 Hank Aaron card for three days because I knew the Freiheit boys wouldn't believe me when I told them I met Hank Aaron (they were out of town that weekend, but I didn't know it). It's kind of bent now.
But what if you're an adult? If I told Gladys in Accounting that I saw George Clooney at Arby's yesterday, I would hope that she'd believe me. I don't need his autograph for proof of my brush with fame. I will always remember it, and if Gladys thinks I'm lying, hey, that's her problem. If I interrupted George Clooney's beef-and-cheddar lunch, what am I really doing besides (a) bothering him; and (b) fulfilling some twisted desire to somehow get a "piece" of George Clooney? Assuming I'm not twisted, who is George Clooney to me other than an entertainment services provider, and what am I to him other than a customer?
It's even worse, I think, if you buy an autograph from a dealer. If you do that, what are you saying other than "I bought some proof that at some point someone I don't know was in the presence of someone famous?" I have another autograph -- this one of George Brett on a baseball -- that I have very mixed feelings about. I got it when I was 11, but I didn't get it from George Brett. I got it from Gaylord Perry, who gave it to me when my father impulsively stopped our RV at Perry's peanut farm in the summer of 1984. Perry had a whole room full of stuff his buddies and teammates had signed over the years. I suppose he planned to sell them or something, but he gave me the Brett ball. No, Perry wasn't a dealer, but I look at that ball sometimes and wonder what it's supposed to mean.
I'm rambling now, but I've had these vague weird feelings about autographs for a long time now, and reading Robinson's piece made me think about them a bit.