Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Autographs: A Short How-To Manual

I'm trying to put in one entry a day until everything hits the fan March 29-April 1.  So, I'm going to do a little bit of re-hashing.

Back in the SFO days, I had a generic sports blog called Simply Drew where I sometimes wrote on autograph hounding and TTM'ing. I haven't written in it since 2009 and haven't written seriously since 2008.  But there might be some fun items in there to read if anyone wants to go back in time.

After I joined Sports Card Forum (under the name HighFivingMF, then later forced to change to *censored*), I sent this in as an article and actually had it published in Tuff Stuff's Sports Card Monthly in December 2010, just before its eventual demise about a month later.  So I may have killed the magazine. Sorry folks.

And so, let's give it a re-porting. I'm going to break it up into two parts: today on in-person hounding, tomorrow on TTM'ing.

*  *  *  *  *

Everyone knows that one guy.

The one who has the awesome man cave at his house. I’m not just talking a flat-screen TV, bar stools, and a pool table. I’m talking the guy with signed jerseys, photos, bats, balls, pucks, and Swedish pancake makers hanging from the walls. You’ve seen the place. Maybe you’re that guy (you lucky son of a…).

This is to help out the person who wants to be that guy. You don’t have to sink hundreds or thousands of dollars into memorabilia that may or may not be authentically signed. With a small investment in the raw materials and through use of your free time, I’ll show you how to start your own autograph collection.

There are two main ways to get the autographed items you desire– in person, or through the mail. Part one will deal with hounding in person, whereas part two will examine mailing methods.

Part one: “Can I borrow your Sharpie”– an unacceptable phrase

I spent three years as a hardcore autograph hound when I lived in Boston for college. Most of my time was spent on hockey, with some baseball and basketball to pass the time. I started in January of 2003 being unable to tell Ted Donato from Ted Lindsay, but finished my time in December of 2005 with a respectable collection in the vicinity of 1000 autographed items.

And here I am to pass my wisdom onto you. So welcome, rook. Here’s a crash course in starting your collection.

1. Have Something to Get Signed
It seems so obvious, yet I’ve seen many people who come with nothing to get signed. Almost anything works. Cards are cheap and usually easy to find. You probably have a ton yourself. If not, you can often find player lots or team lots on eBay for cheap. Ask around and work some trades at boards like SCF or The Bench. Photos look great, but are a little more expensive ($2-$5, depending on where you look). Same with pucks, baseballs, footballs, basketballs, bats, jerseys, sticks, you get the idea. They’re great single-signed or team-signed items, but they’re more expensive. If you want something simple, get a pack of plain white 3×5 cards. If they’re ruled, get them signed on the plain white side. After that, if you have a printer capable of printing on index cards, you can print a name, team logo, and really anything you want about the player on it. Make sure you test it on an unsigned card first! Be forewarned, some players won’t sign blank index cards, so think about just printing a team logo on them from your computer. If you plan to collect basketball players, go to a local home improvement store and get some plain wooden floor tiles. Signatures look great on them.

Cards.  Cards everywhere.

2. Do Your Homework
No one likes a collector who knows nothing about who he’s collecting. I’ve been that guy before, and I won’t lie to you: it sucks. If you hound a team, make sure you can identify at least half the players on it. Strive for knowing who every player is. What helped me out early on was to print off a sheet with every player’s color headshot, name, jersey number, height, and weight. Additionally, these are easy to get signed. If you don’t know who a player is, have them sign the sheet. They’ll usually sign right by their photo. Of course, the easiest way is to just get a team’s jersey or some other generic team item, but with that you run the risk of a player signing it twice (or more). At worst, leech off the other collectors around. If you don’t know who someone is, look at what the player is signing for someone else. Just don’t do it too much, you parasite. As the great Ron Saar once told me in my early days, “If you don’t know who he is, then you don’t want his autograph too badly.”

And carry a camera. You never know when a photo op could arise with your favorite player (in this case, then-Bruin P.J. Stock ten years ago)

3. Preparation is key!
Make sure that everything you want to get signed can fit into a small backpack, messenger bag, or box. I always use a messenger bag or a laptop case to carry everything in. Make sure all your items are easy to get to. What I often do is make what I call “8 boards” or “9 boards” to hold my cards. Go to a photo supply or scrapbooking shop to get photo corners and get some rectangular pieces of cardboard, foam core board, posterboard, or something of the like (cut it to about 9″x12″). In a pinch, old two-pocket folders work well for this. Composition notebooks are great for this as well. Some will use a spiral bound pack of 4×6 index cards. Take a card, put two photo corners on it (on opposite corners– the top right and bottom left or top left and bottom right), and stick it to the cardboard. Either do it three rows of three cards vertically, or four rows of two lengthwise. You should be able to slip the cards in and out of the corners without any major problems. Don’t try to force them into the corners if it’s hard. Just get an index card or piece of paper to carefully lift the corner, then slide the card in. You may have to bend the card a little, but be careful not to crease it; just gently curve it. If your cards are super-glossy, rub them down with an eraser or a little talcum powder. This will counteract the gloss and the autograph won’t bubble up on the card. For the most part, try to limit yourself to four or fewer cards of a single player. If I make a 3×3 board, I’ll put a row for a player. If I have one card of one player, and one card of another player, I’ll put them in the same row with an empty space between. If I have two of a player and one of another, I won’t put them in the same row (unless it’s a row of 4). Keep a space between players so a player doesn’t accidentally sign a card that isn’t of him. I’ve had it happen three times so far. Once in a while, some players will sign more than two or three each (Brian Mullen, Brian Propp, Brad May, and Craig Hartsburg are ones who stick out in my mind as guys who will sign full 9 boards), but don’t get too greedy. Stick with no more than 3 items for the most part. Keep your pen ready and your items at close reach. Nothing is worse than seeing a player, having to dig something out, or going and getting something, and looking up to find him gone.

Index cards are easily customizable.

4. Have Something to Sign With
Seems obvious, doesn’t it? But the thing everyone seems to forget, or know little about, is the proper pen. It all depends on what you’re getting signed. Lumocolor pens are the best on the market but are pretty tough to find. I highly recommend Sharpie markers. Blue Sharpies work best on cards, photos, light colored jerseys, bats, floor tiles, sticks, and index cards. Black Sharpies are good as well, but I recommend blue over any other color. It can be seen easier on a dark spot on a card than can any other color of marker. Black is best to use on a basketball. If you want to get darker items signed, like some bats, jerseys, footballs, or pucks, get a silver paint pen. Silver Sharpies are good, but highly unreliable. I’ve had them die on me at the worst possible moments. Try to find a Liquid Gold, or Liquid Silver brand pen. Ball-point pens should be the only things used on official, authentic baseballs. Use a Sharpie on those cheap "Official League" balls, or just try to avoid them outright. Always keep your writing implement close at hand. I often stow mine in my hat.

Note how the signature is bleeding a bit around the edges. In hindsight, a cheap ball should be avoided.

5. Location, Location, Location. And Timing.
Know where you’re headed. There’s nothing more futile than not having a good sense of a time schedule and not knowing where to go. A lot depends on what sort of event you plan to hound. Is it a team hotel, or a stadium/arena? What time does the game start? It varies for every sport, sometimes for every team, so you’ll have to deal with a little trial and error at first. With hockey, I often hounded morning skates and visiting team hotels, and occasionally practices. I can’t tell you a perfect system of timing, except that for baseball, players are usually at the park by 3 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game (and begin arriving as early as noon in some cases). Hockey players often have a morning skate at 10 or 11 am for a 7 p.m. game and will leave for the rink between 3 and 4:30. Hotel arrivals vary wildly depending on the team’s schedule the previous day. Make friends with a few collectors and they’ll hook you up. Within my first two months of hounding, I had a schedule completely set and even had one give me the number for the Boston Bruins Media Info Line so I could find out exact times of practices and morning skates.

5a. Loose Lips Sink Ships. Or In This Case, They Dry Up Sharpies.
Don’t get too chatty about visiting teams’ hotels. I hounded in Boston a lot, and in 2003 during the ALCS, crowds around the Yankees’ hotel(s) were small: 10 or 20 people. A year later, it was around 100 people for the Yankees at the 2004 ALCS. Word spreads quickly. Don’t say too much about where teams stay or you’ll get a bunch of slack-jawed yokels just there to stare and get junk like scraps of paper or dollar bills signed.

6. Be Polite
Don’t cuss out a player for not signing. I remember hounding a Red Sox game once in the illustrious Summer of 2004: a player ignored us and a woman shouted “Thanks for nothing!” She was met by a groan from the rest of the collectors. Fortunately, she kept quiet the rest of the time. Don’t get mad that you missed out on a player. There will be other opportunities (unless it’s Tim Wakefield who signs one day per season and if you miss him, too bad). Don’t shove anyone out of the way to get to a player or people will do it to you. Say “Please” and “Thank you.” Address the player as Mr. Shanahan, or Brendan, maybe Shanny, never just as Shanahan. Don’t shout out “There’s Jagr!” or you’ll have about 50 other collectors trailing you to get to him. Don’t run toward a player. If hounding at a hotel, don’t follow the players into the lobby. Leave them alone if they’re in the bathroom or eating a meal. If they’re on the phone, try to wait until they finish their conversation. Simply, just treat the players how you would want to be treated in their situation. And don’t crowd players. During the aforementioned 2004 ALCS 100-person-crowd, I was pinned between the crowd and the wall of the hotel as Joe Torre walked out. The hotel security folks had put out a rope barrier which was about as useful as an ashtray on a Harley. At least five people pushed against the rope screaming for him to sign. I politely waited and asked “Mr. Torre, will you please sign my ball?” He came over, took my ball and pen, backed up a few steps, signed, handed it back to me, and got on the bus. No one else got him, and why? Because I was the polite and calm one.

The 2004 ALCS Joe Torre signature; note the lack of ink bleed when compared to the Westbrook above.

Now how hard is that? If I could fit in the time to do it while holding a 3.4 GPA in a college journalism program while pursuing two minors, you can do it too. I don’t get out to hound as often as I used to, but I do enjoy it whenever I have the time.  And I plan to do it much more now that I'll be living so close to the ballpark.

When free time and traveling abilities are rare, you may have to find other ways to add to your collection. Those ways will be discussed in Part Two, coming tomorrow.

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