A critical part of collecting is obviously authenticating the item with as much provenance as possible. That part is indisputable. However, sometimes a story can offer more connection to the item or event than an autograph.
Many years ago at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago, I had spent most of the day browsing the show with my infant daughter Andra. A well informed security guard suggested going out the back door and hailing one of the taxis coming from opposite direction. Exiting the back door there was a lone figure standing by the curb also looking for a taxi. Approaching the older gentleman he looked very familiar and as he turned to see who was coming from behind him, it was none other than Gordie Howe. Gordie had been a guest of the show signing autographs and the lineup as you can imagine, very long most of the day. Here we were, standing side by side with this legendary sports figure and not a soul around. We had a very relaxed conversation for about 15-minutes waiting for a cab together and at no time did I even think to ask for his signature. People had stood in a lineup for probably an hour at a time paying $80 to get an autograph from Howe who’d be coaxed by the promoters to keep signing and move the line as quickly as possible. Yes they had their brief moment in the presence of greatness, but here I was chatting with Gordie like long lost pals. He offered to share a cab but we were going in different directions; he let us take the first cab because Andra was sound asleep. Gordie helped me load the stroller and the couple bags (I rarely leave a memorabilia show empty handed) into the trunk. Here it is almost 22-years later and I’m still relaying the story like it happened yesterday. Had I asked for a signature, the connection would have been broken and he may have turned away; now I have a memory for a lifetime.
Shawn O’Sullivan after winning a silver medal in boxing at the 1984 Olympics turned pro and quickly became a Canadian favourite headed for stardom in the ring. With world famous boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard in O’Sullivan’s corner, the excitement and possibility of the local Toronto fighter as a World Champion was growing by the day. I saw the O’Sullivan fight against American Simon Brown at the Coliseum at the CNE in Toronto. Glancing at my ticket headed for the seats, I almost bumped into a slight-built man whom I came face to face with and immediately recognized him as Sugar Ray Leonard. He smiled and I quickly presented my program and asked him to sign it. He did but he as quick as signing the front page, he swiftly moved away. Here’s a case that instead sharing a few moments with Sugar Ray, I broke the connection by asking for the autograph and with closure, he moved along. In a way though it was a win-win for me because I have the story and the signed program that I still own.
The Special Olympics holds a yearly event at the Royal York that I’ve attended for years. The celebrity list is quite impressive and they are as a rule very accommodating for pictures and signatures. One year I noticed Raptor star Vince Carter who was the toast of the city at that time, who was standing alone as I walked by him. I thought I’d surprise my two kids with an autograph. His body language was standoffish and not accommodating but I approached him anyway. Well you think I wanted this guy’s left arm when I mentioned I needed two signatures with both kid’s names. After thanking him as he glanced the opposite way, my first reaction was to crumble the two signatures into a ball and drill them at this jerk but I wisely didn’t. Even though I had a very unpleasant encounter with Carter it still makes a good story.
Golfer John Cook won the 1983 Canadian Open and after purchasing a program at the 1984 Open I noticed they had the three previous winners on the cover. I thought it would make a nice piece to have those three sign my program and as luck would have it, all were on the practice range. It was the opening round so the crowds were a little lighter and I thought I’d approach the guys as they walked to the putting green. Peter Oosterhuis and Bruce Lietzke never even blinked, signed and commented that it was a cool idea when I mentioned my objective. John Cook was the last signature I needed as he walked alone from the range to the putting green and I stood patiently solo, at the putting area. Protocol was to allow the player to get inside the roped off area and they then would sign autographs. Cook stepped inside the roped off area and I made my move,
“John would you mind signing my program?”
“Get me when I’m done.”
I quickly explained why I wanted him to sign, but to no avail, he just turned away and started chatting with one of the officials. Again the encounter was not friendly but it gave me a story and a chance to cheer every time that clown hit an errant shot the rest of his career.
I’m often asked if a players autographed card is devalued because it’s now marked; my common answer is, no. If anything it presents a time, place and greeting of the said player that enhances the story, thus the value. But it’s all subject to the individual’s objective. A game used jersey that’s signed adds the same cache to the piece but because it’s game worn, not necessary. I have a 1968 Dave Keon game worn jersey and he signed it for me but in that case I was more interested in his reaction to the piece rather than his signature.
Players like all of us have bad days and can be moody, but unfortunately for them, they live under a microscope and while the good deeds tend to be lost as part of the job, the bad deeds get magnified. I’ve had countless encounters with players over the years that have been both good and bad with the tendency towards the good outweighing the bad.
A friend of mine was the escort for the late Jean Beliveau for a number of his appearance’s at the Hockey Hall of Fame a few years ago. After a long day he was walking him back to the hotel where he was approached at the front door by a group of fans. My friend suggested that he knew another entrance they could use to avoid the crowd. Jean looked at him and said,
“Nope those fans made me who I am, the least I can do is visit with them for a bit.”
He stood for 45-minutes signing autographs for the crowd giving each one of them a story and memory they will have forever.