Hello blog family. Here we go again, with another insightful look at things we typically don’t get to see, from Elon Werner. It’s all about autographs, and how famous athletes get their signatures on stuff you can buy, or bid on, or stumble upon. Really neat stuff.
Speaking of autographs, I’ve surely collected plenty in my life, although I was never very good at keeping them. As a kid, growing up the son of a former Cardinal as my dad, and a mom who spent 1967 and 1968 working as an executive in the Cardinals’ front office (busting another glass ceiling along the way) I had ample opportunities to collect MLB autographs. After all, I was at almost every home game at Busch Stadium and basically had the run of the place.
Each summer, the Cardinals and Anheuser-Busch would host a huge fundraiser at Grant’s Farm, in St. Louis. For those unaware, Grant’s Farm has Ulysses S. Grant’s log cabin on its premises, and is a sprawling wildlife preserve right in the middle of south St. Louis. It is also the site of a major Busch family estate, but it’s open to the public. The fence around much of the place looks like wrought iron, but it is actually made of rifle barrels from the Civil War. And the ornate main gate, at the corner of Gravois Road and Grant Road, was featured in multiple Budweiser and Busch commercials during various holiday seasons, with the majestic Clydesdales pulling the A-B beer wagon through the gate. Across Grant Road from the visitor’s entrance is a huge Clydesdale ranch, for retired superstars and new ponies. Anyone can drive by and see them. That’s your St. Louis tourist tip for the day.
The fundraiser was called the “Cardinals Ball-B-Que” and the entire team would be there, in a relaxed setting at the estate, with great food and live music. The players seemed to really enjoy it, and the 11 or 12-year old version of me absolutely loved it. My mom would buy me a new “autograph book” every year and for a few hours I could roam around the party and collect signatures from Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Orlando Cepeda, Roger Maris, and every other Cardinal. I’d actually take the book home and try to copy their autographs, for some reason. It was a highlight of every summer.
Of course, the young me would somehow misplace the book within a month or two, and it would never be seen again. I was like that. In some ways, I’m still like that.
Fast-forward to my early 30’s, when I was working for my brother’s sports marketing firm, DelWilber+Associates, and there was another major autograph story to tell you about. I’m not sure I have these details right, but piecing it together another 30+ years later I’m taking a good guess. I imagine it had something to do with our management of IBM’s Major League Baseball sponsorship. I was heavily involved with that, flying around to various MLB cities to make sure the details of the multi-pronged sponsorship were being handled right by the teams.
At some point, we put together a deal that required us to have about 200 Louisville Sluggers autographed by Hank Aaron himself. We arranged to have the bats made, in his style, weight, and length with his autograph burned into the barrel like a typical game bat, and had them specially made without lacquer. That way, the ink would dry instantly and we wouldn’t have to worry about it smudging as Hank went from bat to bat.
We set up a meeting in the clubhouse at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, with the legend himself, and I certainly could’ve insisted that I be a part of that, but I had some meetings in different cities scheduled at the same time. I know, for sure, that a big reason I didn’t want to reschedule those meetings was the fact I was afraid that one of my baseball idols might be less than I hoped he was. He might be unfriendly. Or surly. Or even worse than that. So we sent the lowest guy on the company organization chart down to Atlanta, to babysit Hank while he signed all the bats.
I got one, and I’m sure it’s around here somewhere but we’ve moved multiple times in the last decade and I’m not sure where it is. The worst/best news was this: Our guy came back from Atlanta and said, “Mr. Aaron was fantastic. We talked baseball nonstop the whole time he was signing bats. At the end, he thanked me for being there and shook my hand. What a class act he was. What an honor it was for me.”
I felt great about that. I wish I would’ve gone.
There are two autographed sports jerseys, however, that I keep in a very safe place and consider priceless, to me. One is a signed Lui Passaglia football jersey. I imagine you just thought “Who is Lui Passaglia?” Well, he was the kicker and punter for the BC Lions in the Canadian Football League for 25 years, and as such he scored more points than any other professional football player in history.
My dear friend Kim Campbell (who in the history of this blog has always been known as “Kim The Lawyer”) lives in Vancouver and has always been a huge fan of the BC Lions. Over the years, he’s gotten to know Lui, and he got this jersey for me. I wasn’t that familiar with Mr. Passaglia’s career, but I researched it and was amazed. So, the jersey is really cool and I cherish it, but the reason I dearly love it is because Kim The Lawyer got it for me and presented it to me. Unlike my old Cardinals autograph books, I’ll never lose it.
The other jersey in the photo is not “game used” of course. That would truly make it priceless, but it is a USA hockey jersey signed by goalie Jim Craig, from the “Miracle On Ice” team that won the Olympic gold medal at Lake Placid in 1980. I was fascinated by their accomplishment then, but it strikes me as really unique that I am even more fascinated by them today. We miss their coach, the late Herb Brooks, up here in Minnesota, and all the guys are getting older now, but I never tire of watching the movie “Miracle” and I still hold the team in the highest regard because of how they overcame every obstacle to win Gold. They shouldn’t have. They shouldn’t have even had a shot. They were playing way above their weight class as a bunch of kids. But they did it. I need a box of Kleenex near me every time I watch the movie or a documentary and hear Al Michaels say, “Do you believe in miracles? YES!”
Jim Craig “stood on his head” as they say in hockey parlance, and without him the medal never would’ve been won.
I got this jersey at a charity auction, and it hangs in a closet right next to Lui Passaglia’s jersey. They are treasured.
Now here’s Elon, telling tales of hoops and Funny Cars and the autographs that come with them.
See you next week!
Last week I touched on the different versions of autographs John Force would scrawl out depending on the situation. Of course, after I fired off that blog I thought of some more great autograph interactions I have had with Force as well as other Hall of Famers outside of motorsports.
Prior to joining John Force Racing full-time, I was the Director of Communications for Beckett Media. Some of you card collectors out there are familiar with Beckett’s many magazines, ranging from the gold standard Beckett Baseball to Beckett Basketball, Beckett Football and Beckett Racing. All the magazines focused on the current value of trading cards and collectibles in the sports universe. They were the bible of trading card value and continue to this day to be the “go-to” publications on the subject.
I was leading the communications department from 2006-2008 while I was also moonlighting on numerous weekends as Dave Densmore’s PR support for the JFR race team. It was a crazy time of work and travel. There were times during the summer months where I would work all week at Beckett, go straight to the airport after work on Friday to fly to a race, and then come back on a Sunday night red-eye or early Monday morning flight to just go straight into the office. Our building had a gym, so I could grab a shower, and I always kept a clean change of clothes in my office.
As Director of Communications I was in charge of promoting the magazines as well as developing relationships with trading card companies like Topps and Upper Deck. They each had relationships with athletes and one of the ways we worked together was to promote and cover private autograph events. We would attend these events to write about the athlete’s interests in the trading card hobby and chronicle the actual signing event to help verify and legitimize the autographs.
Two of the highest profile events I attended included signings by Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and Seattle SuperSonics rookie Kevin Durant. They were both very cool but also very different.
During Kevin Durant’s rookie season he signed an exclusive trading card autograph agreement with Upper Deck. I was offered the chance to fly to Seattle and cover his first major private signing event. I jumped at the chance and knew it would be a unique experience, since Upper Deck was very secretive about what kind of products they would have Durant sign as well as where the signing would take place. I arrived the morning of the event and went to the address they provided me, which turned out to be his agent’s office. When I walked into the main office I was greeted by rows and rows of Spalding basketballs, as well as boxes and boxes filled with trading cards and banners. There were two representatives from Upper Deck, who were coordinating the signing, and I found out we had about four hours with Durant.
The Upper Deck guys began spreading cards and banners out over every flat surface in the office. They had a very structured plan for the order they needed Durant to sign and it was choreographed to the minute. They also had specific pens he needed to sign certain cards with and there were a variety of messages he needed to write on the basketballs.
Durant walked in and went right to work. He started in the back with a stack of posters and jerseys. The Upper Deck guys would pull each item away from Durant as soon as he signed so he never had to adjust as he was signing. This was one of the first large number signing events he had done so everyone was encouraging him to pace himself and get comfortable. After about an hour we moved into a conference room which was full of basketballs and trading cards. Once again, Durant got comfortable and the Upper Deck guys got to work. They were wearing white gloves as they handled all the cards to try and minimize any damage to the product. Durant spent some time throughout the process marveling at a piece of jersey or hologram on the high-end cards. Some of the cards he was signing would be 1/1 (or one of a kind) inserts for packs that would sell for upwards of $500. Collectors coveted those 1/1 cards in perfect condition because on the secondary market they could garner tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was quite a sight to see as Durant signed and the cards were stacked up. I started doing math in my head trying to estimate how many millions of dollars in potential value was in that conference room.
As the session wound down I got the chance to talk for an extended period of time with Durant. We had been chatting all day about general topics but we dove into hardcore collectible talk and what he thought about the whole autograph process. He thought it was wild people would pay so much for his autograph and he really dug the look of his trading card. Like every kid that dreamed of playing in the big leagues, getting your own trading card was a big deal. He was very accommodating and gave me some great answers. He thanked me for spending the day watching him sign his name. By the end of the day I noticed he was pretty worn out which I understood since he signed well over 400 or 500 items.
The next superstar I was fortunate enough to spend some time with was Los Angeles Laker and Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant. We met at a Cleveland hotel in December of 2007 and this was another event organized by Upper Deck. I was able to be more of an active participant in this signing. After the Durant event, Beckett got a ton of great feedback from their readers about getting a look behind the scenes. Some of the collectors asked about what players signed on cards and how cool they thought it would be to submit suggestions to the player before they signed. I loved that idea and asked Upper Deck if that was a possibility. They also jumped on it since it would make the cards even more collectible and in turn more valuable. They got Kobe’s approval and we were all set for Cleveland.
The way I had it set up was collectors could submit suggestions through the Beckett message board system. I started a thread and for about 30 minutes people dropped in their suggestions. I would read them off to Kobe and he would give a thumb up or thumb down. This was before Twitter or Facebook or Instagram immediate contact and feedback so we were truly winging it. People loved being able to feel like they were interacting with Kobe and when we were done the Upper Deck people were thrilled as well. Some of the suggestions that were chosen were Kobe’s nicknames, Black Mamba and Assassin, and people also wanted him to sign some cards with “81 points” to commemorate his record-setting scoring performance from January, 2006.
Kobe went right to work signing cards and jerseys. He had twice as many items, it seemed, compared to Durant and there was a new piece of technology in play. Upper Deck had a camera pen, which recorded a video of Kobe signing cards. It was very cutting edge at the time and they used it again to verify it was really Kobe signing the cards. The camera made the pen about the size of a kindergartener’s oversized marker but it didn’t seem to slow down Kobe.
Another element that was different about this signing was Kobe was adding his signature to some cards that were already signed by one or two other NBA stars. There was a whole stack of cards that LeBron James had signed, which Kobe was adding his autograph to, so a collector would get a very collectible and valuable card signed by the two biggest names in the NBA. He was also signing Team USA Olympic basketball jerseys. These looked especially cool and had precise signing instructions, since they were part of a set, so all the autographs had to be in the same spot.
I got a chance to both talk with and interview Kobe and he was very accommodating. He was a big fan of sports memorabilia and talked about things he liked to collect and how he made an effort at games, especially road games, to sign a few autographs for kids in the stands. He knew he could never get to everyone but he liked to give a few kids a thrill. The one thing I noticed about Kobe was he would mix up his signatures similar to John Force, There would be some cards with a full “Kobe Bryant” and some that were just “Kobe” and he added his jersey number to a few cards every now and then. I think he did that more to break up the monotony of signing for so long.
It was cool to talk with those NBA superstars and get behind the scenes on their autograph signings. Both players signed for 3-4 hours and knocked out hundreds of signatures. They were impressive displays of penmanship but neither of those guys could hold a candle to the autograph prowess of John Force.
Two events stand out in my memory. The first involved a mega-signing event with his daughter Courtney Force and fellow Funny Car driver Mike Neff. We were in Charlotte before one of their NHRA national events. The four of us were at the Lionel headquarters, which is just around the corner from zMax Dragway and Charlotte Motor Speedway, to sign a boatload of die-cast Funny Cars. We got a quick tour of their offices and then it was right to the warehouse. There were rows and rows of tables snaking through half of the shipping area and I would estimate 75 percent of the merchandise was John Force die-casts in every paint scheme and paint variant you could imagine. There were also a handful of tables for Courtney and Neff. Throughout the maze of tables, different colored Sharpie pens were positioned with instructions for signature locations and how many of a particular car needed to be signed with black, silver, gold, red or blue.
The trio of drivers jumped right into the process and of course Force started barking “suggestions” to his two young drivers. He was imploring them to make sure they signed their full name and to take their time. He wanted to make sure they knew that someone was going to pay a lot of money for these die-cast cars, and they should get their money’s worth. As he himself was signing he was talking with the folks from Lionel, asking about their families and who their favorite NASCAR drivers were. Force changed tables and continued razzing Neff about keeping up with his pace. He yelled how much he loved Courtney across the room. Neff and Courtney finished in just over an hour but Force still had hundreds of cars to go, so they retired to the conference room and Force just kept signing and wandering the aisles. After another two hours Force was done and he had signed almost 1,500 die-cast cars, I think, and the most impressive part of the experience was his last signature was just as legible and solid as his first. I went by a handful of tables just checking out his autographs and they were all perfect. The guys at Lionel were blown away, too. They said they hadn’t seen anything like that. Once again Force proved why he is the best when it comes to taking care of the fans even if they aren’t right in front of him.
On another occasion, again in Charlotte, we had an appearance BrandSource, one of our associate sponsors at the time. BrandSource sold appliances and their stores were like a labyrinth. They had washers and dryers, ovens and refrigerators as well as model kitchens all over the store. When we pulled up the line was out the door and we had to snake through all the fans to get to the signing table. All four drivers got set up and the line began to move. I noticed one fan with six or seven mini-helmets, and his wife or girlfriend also had her arms full of mini-helmets. Force was never a big stickler for the “only one item per person” rule, which is common in NASCAR and at other sports signing events. He signed multiple items and personalized them without any issue.
When this particular fan approached Force he laid out all the mini-helmets and asked Force to sign them across the visor. Force accommodated him and then when his partner walked up he again positioned the helmets just right and again asked Force to sign across the visor. He gathered up the helmets and went on his way. No big deal I thought, even though it bogged the line down a little to sign nearly a dozen items. I wandered around the store getting some photos of the crowd and also chatting people up to pass the time. As I approached the signing table again I was shocked to see the mini-helmet guy back in line with more mini-helmets. I quickly realized he was getting these helmets signed so he could turn around and sell them on eBay. Right after he got his second batch of helmets signed I suggested he call it a day and not get back in line since there were still a ton of people in line and we were closing in on our leave time.
Force overheard me and asked the guy if he had more helmets. The guy had no problem telling Force he had a van full of them and he would love for Force to sign them all. I just about blew a gasket but Force told me to calm down. He turned to the guy and told him on the way out of the store he would sign all the helmets the guy had but that he needed to take care of these people first. I told Force he was nuts and this guy was making money off of his name and he shouldn’t let himself be taken advantage of like that. Force looked at me and said he already made his money off those mini-helmets when that guy bought a van load of them, so he could at least help the guy out who was, as Force put it, “just trying to make a living.” I figured if Force didn’t care, why should I and on the way out I reminded Force about the van full of mini-helmets. He went over and signed for about another 20 minutes and then we went to dinner. It was a class act move by Force to not embarrass the guy in front of a store full of people and I think he made another fan for life by helping the guy out.