Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Autographs

I missed this yesterday -- it's actually from Sunday's New York Times -- but here's a fun article by Ray Robinson, reminiscing about seeking player autographs in hotel lobbies during his 1930s childhood. It wasn't always pretty, particularly when Lefty Grove was involved:

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.

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.
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 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.

16 comments:

Jason said...

I think they are just little ways to get closer to the stars that we immortalize. I don't buy them either, though I did make a contribution to charity for a Ripken ball. I've had others given to me at one point or another. It's a tangible version of my memories of a certain player. I never met Guidry, Dent, Brett, Junior, Mantle, Ford, etc., but I do have their signatures on baseballs and I do love having them. Each holds a certain memory of that player.

Remind me to tell you about my Giambi autograph story one day....

Craig Calcaterra said...

He didn't sign your boobs, did he Jason? Because when looking for the pic of the Brett ball above, I did a GIS search for "signing autographs" and found no less than five pics of Giambi signing people's boobs.

Anonymous said...

APBA Guy-

Craig, I think you're right on target with the sentiment on autographs. I once sat in a restaurant in DC next to Veronica Hamill, the beautiful brunette star from "Hill Street Blues". She was in town town for a Reagan era anti-drug thing. The White House guy she was with was hitting on her, of course, and she kept putting him off by asking to see pictures of his kids. Since it was also a prom night in DC, a lot of teenaged girls came over to ask for autographs, but at least waited for her to finish dinner first. I didn't bother to ask for her autograph, since I don't collect them, I didn't watch much "Hill Street Blues", and it was more entertaining to watch the White House guy strike out. But the restaurant did give me and my date free dessert for being so polite and not disturbing her. Pig as I am I was much happier with the dessert.

Jason said...

Not as far as you know, CC.

Though (true story, I swear), I once landed front row seats by 3rd base at Yankee Stadium with my Dad. I got two baseballs prior to the game, just in case. Eric Chavez was taking fielding practice so when he was between throws, I stood up, held the two baseballs aloft in one hand and yelled "Hey Eric, sign my balls!" He looked over, started laughing and then resumed FP.

I did later get Crosby and Kotsay to sign one. The ball is on the DL, too.

Sara K said...

What an interesting story. I love it when baseball and philosophy merge.

Why do we keep *anything*? I think we keep ticket stubs, programs, baby booties, pictures, etc. for the same reasons. One, despite these big brains of ours, we don't remember things all that well, and two, even if we did remember them, we can't really share our memories with others (or show them off) without some concrete souvenir to look at. I know people will believe me when I say that I saw Pink Floyd in 1994 or that my son was a baby once, but the *stuff* is what other people can connect to, not my hazy, emotion-laden recollections.

Have you ever heard of the logic problem called the "Ship of Theseus"? I think it's related to this notion of the value of particular things.

Sara K said...

And if the George Brett autograph actually looks like it was written by a guy named "Fegr Butt," is it still as valuable? I'm just sayin'...

Craig Calcaterra said...

I'm from West Virginia, Sara, so rather than the Ship of Theseus, we use the example of the Chevy Nova that, over the years, was gradually completely replaced with bondo. Same thing, really.

And I suppose I get the notion of tangible reminders like autographs and ticket stubs. I'm more of a purger than a collector, but I still have many of those things myself. Autographs strike me as a step beyond, though, in that it truly requires a reaching out to the celebrity in a way that the ticket stub or playbill doesn't.

I'm totally prepared to admit that this is my particular problem, though. I'm someone who has a hard time reaching out to people like that be it due to shyness, or a fear of seeming rude, or a projection of my own rather overdeveloped need for personal space or whatever.

Craig Calcaterra said...

It also kind of looks like "beer butt."

Maybe I should ask Gaylord Perry.

Sara K said...

Bondo - LOL!

A few years back, there was a "Rembrandt" painting valued at millions of dollars, until it was proven to not have been painted by Rembrandt, at which point it became nearly valueless. Some wag artist commented by fashioning a neon light of Rembrandt's signature.

I think of this stuff while watching Antiques Roadshow, how much value there is in just knowing that someone touched something. That's the only way I can see buying an autograph from a dealer...("OMG, Gibby touched this piece of paper! *THIS* piece of paper!!")

Tim Kelly said...

Funny story about that hotel...

I had been dating a Cleveland girl for three years before we began planning our wedding (in Cleveland of course). We decided on the Key Center Marriott and took a trip there last summer so that I could see the hotel, the room, etc. As we walked in, my wife and I noticed the three-foot velvet rope and wondered why about 20 people were waiting behind it. The answer was revealed as my wife and I ran into (not literally) Chipper Jones in the hotel lobby. We said hello to Chipper and continued on our business but the funniest thing about our time there was listening to those autograph-hounds discussing, on our way out, whether or not I (and my Lance Berkman-like body) was an Atlanta Brave or not!

Craig Calcaterra said...

Ding ding ding ding!

You are correct! The answer is the Key Center Marriott. Weird, isn't it?

My favorite Key Center sighting was Adam Dunn quickly running through the lobby to his room after a game one evening, then quickly running out five minutes later, having changed clothes, grabbed a backpack and, by the smell of things, slathered himself in bad cologne. I'm guessing he either had a hot date or was late for night school.

And no, I didn't ask him for his autograph. I was to busy trying to finish my drink at Jake's.

JDS said...

My father recently turned over to me a collection of about 300 autographs gathered by himself and his brother during the 1950s in Los Angeles -- movie stars, beauty queens, hit parade kings, bandleaders, a few baseball players. They are just on cards and have been gathering dust for years. I'm cataloging them and at some point, I guess, I'll think about selling them. But I wrestle with that issue of "what do they mean" quite a bit. To me, they are a piece of my father and an uncle I never knew, as well as being what I know are 100% real autographs of everyone from Leo Durocher to Laraine Day.

Anyone interested in the "psychology" of collecting might want to check out a new book by a professor of mine: http://www.amazon.com/Collections-Nothing-William-Davies-King/dp/0226437000.

The one thing I think about those overaged "collectors" who are clearly just getting the autograph to sell: that autograph deceptively gained might eventually wind up being a very meaningful gift for a "real" fan. I have a DiMaggio baseball that was a gift from a former boss, and a Killebrew bat that was a gift from my mom: I'm not particular fans of either player, but the fact that they were given to me by people who knew of my love for the game also means something to me.

Ralph said...

Craig,

At your mention of Giambi signing boobs, I immediately did the same GIS that you did and HOLY CRAP! The girl that Giambi is "autographing" in the deadspin piece plays on my softball team in NYC! How's that for a coincidence! I can't wait till we all go out after our next game so I can bring it up. Thanks for the ammo!!

Craig Calcaterra said...

ShysterBall: bringing friends together (and enabling harassment) since spring 2007!

Tim Kelly said...

One other thing...

My wedding last year was on October 20th which just happened to coincide with Game 6 of the ALCS. As the baseball fan I am, I was acutely aware of the possibility that:

A) The Indians might reach the ALCS
B) Game 6 could be a home game for the Tribe
C) I might lose the attention of half my guests for the evening

As it turned out, the Indians did reach the ALCS, many of my guests were down at Jake's watching the game during the reception, and my wedding will be remembered by many as the backdrop to another Cleveland collapse.

What if Game Six had been in Cleveland? Think I could've gotten Big Papi, Manny, or Paps a dance with the bride after the game?

Dewey said...

I know exactly how you feel about that Brett ball. My dad's boss had given him a ball to give to me back in the late 70s. It's autographed by Jim Rice. Honestly, I'm not even sure Rice signed it. It's just a ball with a scribble and I don't think much of it. I also have another Rice autograph but I feel much differently about it because I actually met him and got to shake his hand and tell him how great I thought he was and all that other stuff kids say - it's not on a ball (it's on a cheap b&w picture of him) but it's MUCH better than the ball that someone else got for me.