The Autograph

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What possesses a grown man to stand outside a cold Arena or Stadium to get an athlete’s or someone famous signature on a scrap of paper, program or a picture?

An autograph is a document transcribed entirely in the handwriting of its author, as opposed to a typeset document or one written by an amanuensis or a copyist; the meaning overlaps with that of the word holograph. The hobby of collecting autographs is known as philography.

What might be considered the oldest “autograph” is a Sumerian clay table from about 3100 BC, which includes the name of the scribe Gar.Ama. No ancient written autographs have been found, and the earliest one known for a major historical figure is that of El Cid from 1098. El Cid was a medieval military leader in Spain; now if he had been the captain of the Leafs, well, we may have something here, but you get the idea.

The biggest and boldest signature on the Declaration of Independence was scrawled by John Hancock; it has become synonymous with “signature” and each of us at one time or another has spoken of “putting his John Hancock” at the bottom of a document.

The first “live” autograph I received came while attending my first visit to the Gardens, to see the Leafs play. My dad and I stood under the clock inside the main entrance to Maple Leaf Gardens, waiting for what seemed an eternity, especially since I had no idea why we were waiting. Suddenly my dad pointed out Ken Wharram of the Chicago Black Hawks; handed me a new leather bound booklet that said autographs on it, a pen and said, “Michael, go and ask Mr. Wharram for his autograph.”

So I shyly walked over, stuck the book and pen in the air and asked, “Mr. Wharram can I please have your autograph?”

He graciously obliged and signed my book. It was that simple. He even made a few small comments to me, and the crowd surrounding him, also seeking his signature.

The first Toronto Maple Leaf autograph I obtained was from the late Tim Horton. He sponsored the team I played on, Royal Donut and we as a team had been invited to the opening in Scarborough. Historically it was also the first donut shop opened by Tim Horton even before the original “Tim Horton’s” opened in Hamilton in 1964.

Collectors as a rule are a strange bunch; and not to throw stones, I can be as quirky as they come. Autograph collectors however are core acquirer’s, but like anything in life it takes extreme patience and legwork. The hobby has become entrenched with dishonest people, and fake signatures are a serious concern today. The more famous a person becomes, the more demand for his/her autograph and the more likely forgeries will enter the hobby world.

Since the early 1950’s almost all american Presidents have had an autopen or robot machine for the automatic signing of a signature as an autograph for their letters, photographs, books, official documents, and even memorabilia items such as baseballs and golf balls.

The Beatles, Paul McCartney not to disappoint their loyal fans would often sign photos and scraps of paper on behalf of the other band members. Usually when you see “The Beatles” followed by the bands individual autographs, it’s the work of Paul.

Athletes like Pete Rose had the clubhouse attendant sign his signature when demand increased over the years.

Autograph hunting in its purist form is what collecting is all about. The fan encounters the admired athlete, acquires an autograph on the item of choice, exchanges a few pleasantries and even tops it off with a picture. However with the demand of people’s time today, the greed of the athlete and dealer, the dynamic is now about the money. The fact kids have to pay for an autograph is quite frankly disgusting. I get it that we live in a world of deceit and dishonesty, so to prevent that, its safest to have an athlete attend a card show and the fan can purchase a ticket to receive an in person signature along with a picture.

My passion with collecting is about preserving and maintaining historical items from the past, particularly the Toronto Maple Leafs. Surprisingly autographs and the chase for the autograph isn’t a priority with my collection. Don’t get me wrong, I have hundreds of signed items, but after experiencing the purity and innocence of approaching an athlete as a kid, receiving the autograph, maybe a kind word or two and even a pat on the head, it’s hard to pay to stand in line for someone’s scratched signature. It has no real meaning for me but for someone collecting a list of players or certain items to be signed and need the signature to complete the project, I completely understand,

Remember, these players were all kids and they had their own heroes growing up, so they know the rush a kid gets upon receiving an autograph from a favoured player.

This is why the story is so important to augment the piece. Over the years I’ve had the pleasure to encounter hundreds of collectors and exchange stories. I love this part of the hobby.

Some of my favourite autograph collector stories include a chap who had famous people sign baseballs but baseball players weren’t included. One fellow chose the year he was born, collected the set of Topps baseball cards, and then proceeded to have every player in the set sign his card. I asked what he’d do once completing this project and he quickly replied he’d continue with his wife’s birth year followed by his two children. A family friend would travel the spring training circuit and take photographs of his favourite players. He then would develop the photo and the next year seek out the player and have him sign the photo. These are just a few examples of what autograph collecting is and should be about, but sadly these are from times before greed and money took over.

Attending the National Sports Collectors Convention over 20 years ago I had my one-year-old daughter with me at the time. Pushing her stroller around the enormous room we went by the huge autograph section and smiled at the huge lineups for paid autographs. I also noticed all the demands, no personalized items, no additional writing, no HOF years written on items and so on, of course all depending on the player. For your $50-$100, again depending on the player, all you received was a quick signature. I noticed that Gordie Howe was signing and his lineup was quite impressive considering the 2-dozen or so HOF stars, including Muhammad Ali (his autograph was $240) all signing at the show.

A few hours later I pushed the stroller to the front door to get in the taxi line and head back to the hotel. The kind security guard noticed that Andra was sleeping and suggested we go out the back way. The cabs all came from the back entrance so we wouldn’t have to wait long, especially with Andra sound asleep and not wanting to wake her.

We made our way out the back door and there wasn’t a soul around except an older looking gentleman standing by the curb, probably waiting for a cab himself. Approaching the man I noticed this was no ordinary older gentleman. It was Gordie Howe. He immediately turned, smiled and asked how old Andra was. We then for the next 10 minutes stood and talked about the show, what I collected, how tired he was from the day and he even ended this unexpected encounter with offering to share a cab downtown with Andra and myself. Gordie insisted, but I politely declined because it was out of his way. Even though he had been waiting minutes before us, he directed us into the first cab that arrived, even holding a case I was carrying while I loaded the stroller into the trunk of the cab.

It’s a treasured memory I’ll carry forever and I didn’t even ask him for an autograph.