The Dawn of Autograph Shows

by Rich Klein

In the more than three decades I have been involved in this hobby, perhaps nothing has changed more than the concept of autographs at shows. When I first started attending shows in the mid-late 70’s the concept usually meant a former player like Earl Battey (who was probably paid a reasonable fee such as $500) signing free autographs for a couple of hours during the show. In fact, the whole concept of autographs at shows were just as an additional inducement to attract collectors through the door. Of course, like so many other aspects of this hobby, autograph guests would very soon change much of the landscape of what shows were like.

This is not going to be a history of autograph shows. In fact, my good friend Frank Barning in his Barnstorming hobby blog does a tremendous job of covering many of the details of early autograph shows as he and/or his wife Vivian set up at many of them as part of their job in publicizing Baseball Hobby News. Instead I will just give a few vignettes about various autograph experiences.

The reason I mentioned Earl Battey was he was the first autograph guest I ever met a show. At the old great Montclair State shows hosted by Tom Reid and Bill Jacobowitz,Battey was signing autographs for free. I remember I got a 1958 and a 1967 Topps card signed. I think I paid 25 cents each for those cards.

Just a few years later, I attended the first of the “autograph” shows. At the Prince George Hotel, some name player, probably Mickey Mantle, but I’m not 100 percent sure, just 99 percent sure, was signing. I was down there as a collector and to help my good friends Frank and Vivian at their booth. When I was working behind their table, what I remember most was selling a 1965 Topps set for all of $450 and remember checking the cards and counting the money. That was much more money then I was used to as a struggling college student in those days.

What else I remember about the Prince George Hotel was you could see out to the sidewalk from the show floor, and in reverse people from the street could see what you were doing. My one constant thought during that show was being in New York City with that money, why was no one coming in to rob the show? The other thought I had was when Mantle started signing, how would the autograph line be set up and would any business be done after that point.

You also have to remember that in those days you usually paid up to $5 for admission and got one free autograph with admission.  Needless to say, those shows were huge successes and very soon Mickey Mantle was developing what would be his primary income stream throughout the rest of his life.

In 1982, I came home from wherever I was that day and saw that the new SCD had been delivered. In 1982, any new hobby publication arriving meant several hours of reading and perusing advertisements. A good friend of mine from college, Lou Orfanella, had been talking to me about getting an autograph of all the Yankee greats and the only living one he was missing by then was Joe DiMaggio. So, came home, saw the ad for Joe D autographs at all of $8 each, called Lou up and we put that date into calendars to meet, get autographs and pick up some cards. I don’t remember what he got signed, but I got a beat-up 41 Play Ball signed. (Yes, I wish I still had that card). I do remember Joe D was very personable and there were no incidents getting any autographs.

The next year I attended my first National. and even though those four days were a blur I do remember getting both Ernie Banks and Minnie Minoso autographs during the show. Yes, there was no charge for autographs at the National in those days. In fact, more than a decade went by before the concept of National guests signing for money really took off. Nowadays, Tri-Star does a great job with the autograph pavilion and that area is a show unto itself. A nice feature is that some autographs are always free at a National and that is one concept I hope can stay for a long time.

The first time I ever really noticed the autograph pavilion at the National was in 1998 when my former Beckett colleague Theo Chen had flown to Chicago to get a couple of Cal Ripken Jr. autographs. In a story which has nothing to do with anything, Theo had the previous year gotten for me Cal’s autograph in his “Only Way I Know” autobiography. At some book signings Ripken was as gracious as always but the only other item he would sign was previously purchased autobiographies. Theo comes back to the office, tells me I’m buying him lunch and explains the only item Cal signed he had brought was my book. Now I would love to say the book I gave Theo to sign was in perfect condition but I had purchased the book the year before while traveling to Cleveland for the All-Star game and needed a book to read during dinner. I went to Red Lobster for dinner and spilled some sauce and possibly some ice cream as well in the book. So, now my food-stained Ripken autobiography was sold. And if you have a food-stained signed copy of that book, that is how they got there.

A few years later we flash forward to 1987 and I’m going up to Albany to set up for Baseball Hobby News at a show Mantle was signing at. I had explained to the promoter, Ed Keetz, the purpose of the trip and my primary goal was to meet collectors and sell a few items but not very many. I convinced Ed and he agreed that I would be as close to the autograph line as possible. For the first hour of so Mantle was there, I’m not only doing great business with the few cards I bought but I’m also picking up tons of names for BHN. I welcomed the autograph line and since they were just standing there, it made for nice conversations. About an hour into Mantle’s signing, some dealer got all huffy about how the autograph line was taking business away from him and could you move the line away from us dealers. Ed came over, explained what was happening and I had to move. I remember the dealer being self-satisfied that he would see the five real collectors who would walk in for the rest of the day. Needless to say, what had been a booming start, would end up being a boring two days. The topper was on the plane back to Dallas, Mantle got sick and had to have emergency care. A lost weekend for all concerned.

The next year I set up at the Wildwood show and the three main autograph guests were, to the best of my memory, Big John Mize, Enos Slaughter and Hoyt Wilhelm. The story as told to me by the promoter was both Slaughter and Mize were chatting with fans, enjoying meeting them and telling tall tales amongst themselves. Wilhelm meanwhile was being surly to the fans. As Slaughter and Mize continued, they also chatted among themselves and ignored Hoyt. Wilhelm asked why are you ignoring me and they told him be nice to the fans or we will continue to ignore you. Well that was enough for Hoyt and perhaps for the first time he was gracious to fans and enjoyed items they brought to meet him.

Those are a few stories from my autograph show dealing days, what are some of yours?

Rich Klein can be reached at [email protected]