There are a lot of hurdles to leap over when you’re working on getting a baseball card set completely autographed: big-name players with multiple cards, players who charge exorbitant amounts of money to sign, and sadly, those who have passed away.
But what about those guys who just won’t sign and there seems to be no real reason why? With my 1972 Topps set, that bugaboo is one Steve Hovley, a career .258 hitter in 400-some games across four teams. There are plenty of better and worse players who are excellent autograph signers. But for some reason, Steve Hovley just won’t put the pen to the paper–or cardboard.
Actually, there are plenty of players I might have to forego: Reggie Jackson’s $100 fee is a bit much for me and Roberto Clemente died less than a year after his 1972 cards came out, making signed copies very scarce. But Jackson is at least available, and Clemente has a good– albeit tragic– reason why I can’t get him.
I know there are some big league stars of the past who just get tired of signing after a while– guys like Sandy Koufax, Barry Bonds, and Ken Griffey Jr. are super tough, but they’ve earned that right. In some cases, foreign-born players return to their homeland and become harder to track down.
Recently, TTMCast host Jeff Baker and I both managed to catch lightning in a bottle, each receiving autographs from Andy Messersmith. The sixth best ERA among live-ball-era starting pitchers, Andy is better known among autograph collectors for sending a note back saying “Sorry, I’m not signing at this time” at around ten times the rate of actually signing your item– though the latter seems like it would take far less time.
So after pulling in that rarity, it made me ponder some of the more inexplicably tough signers are– the members of what long time hobbyist Dave Sliepka once called the “No, Not Now, Not Ever” Club.
And so I present to you my top ten tough living baseball player autographs.
Before I start, a few other toughies who didn’t quite make the list: Reggie Patterson, Ray Newman, Billy Bates, Paul Householder, Fritz Fisher, Gary Gentry, Mel Hall, Joe Edelen, and Rich Chiles.
10. Zack Greinke
I’ve seen Greinke sign every now and then but it’s rare. He’s talked before about his struggles with depression and social anxiety that nearly led to him abandoning a likely Hall of Fame career before it even started. His well-chronicled refusal to sign a card even for fellow pitcher (and collector) Pat Neshek back in 2017 makes me have to give him a spot on the list.
9. Tony Horton
The 1971 Kellogg’s card is one of only a few oddball or food issue cards he appeared on during his relatively brief career. He’s not on any Topps cards at all. He apparently refused to sign a Topps contract on the advice of his father and grandfather.
I feel bad including Horton on this list because his seems to be a truly a tragic story. More than 50 years after the end of his career, he refuses to talk about baseball, pushed to early retirement due to what was termed an “emotional disorder” and a possible suicide attempt. Author Bill Madden has stated that his breakdown came due to pressure from not living up to his father’s expectations of his baseball career, and that doctors recommended that he sever all ties to the game. He has done so, and all reports say he the now 78-year-old Horton has had success in business and lived a good life. Nonetheless, he is a top ten tough signer: he’s alive, but baseball is dead to him.
8. Phil Ortega
A pitcher for the Dodgers, Senators and Angels from 1960-69 and a minor leaguer for a few years after that. Ortega is another on the inexplicably tough list. For several years, he had the reputation of sending back nasty letters to anyone requesting an autograph.
Raised in Arizona and a member of the Yaqui tribe, the Dodgers tried to insist that Ortega was Hispanic in an attempt to connect to a growing Latin fanbase in the early 60s. Lots of negative comments about his Native American background followed him throughout his career from opponents and teammates alike and eventually he cut off all ties with baseball. Ortega is 83.
7. Willie Greene
Greene spent nine seasons as a third baseman and outfielder for four teams. After leaving baseball in 2000, he seems to have just fallen off the face of the earth. Attempts to track down a location to TTM him have led to an address at an empty lot. He hasn’t been found coaching youth baseball or making public appearances. He appeared in a photo on Facebook with a fan in 2018, but aside from that, no one seems to have any leads on where he is now.
Aside from a signing in 2022, Kekich has stayed out of the spotlight since his career ended– possibly due to the fallout of the infamous 1973 wife trade with teammate Fritz Peterson. Photos from an incredibly rare paid signing in 2022 showed him to be living a normal life away from either fame or infamy. He’s another player I won’t likely won’t ever get for my 1972 Topps set– the $60 price tag was a bit high for me.
5. Randy Myers
Myers was a willing signer… for his first season in the majors. After he went from the Mets to the Reds, he put a rule in place that he would only sign cards with his current team. After a while, it became only cards made that particular season. And then he must have gotten tired of explaining and changing his rules because by the time he was a Padre he had pretty much stopped signing entirely. Just about every 80s and 90s set collector needs him and he has shown less than zero interest in signing for collectors lately.
4. Ricky Wright
Count Wright as another who was once somewhat accessible. You can find examples of his 1983 Fleer card signed, fewer of his 1986 Topps Traded, and no authentic examples of his 1987 Topps: there are some PSA slabbed examples, but their authenticity has been called into question by other collectors. More recently he has said he will only sign in exchange for a $500 donation to his town’s Little League– a bit too rich for even the higher-end collectors.
3. Steve Hovley
I touched on Hovley earlier in the introduction. No one seems to have a good reason why he won’t sign. Hovley marched to a different drummer as a player, known for reading Nietzsche on the bench and visiting art museums on the road rather than loving the nightlife. Some believe he was one of many upset by Jim Bouton’s seminal book Ball Four, which eviscerated the baseball world’s private moments for all to see. But whatever the reason was, the now 78-year-old Hovley is another who seems to have left the baseball world in his past and would rather keep it there.
2. Doyle Alexander
Alexander used to do some Texas Rangers alumni events years ago, well before I ever got to the area. He was an okay signer as a player but didn’t really like doing it. Ever since about 2007 or so, he seems to have gone radio silent. Collector Troy Rutter showed on his YouTube channel that he was able to get him in 2021. My request weeks later went unanswered, but I’ve tried a second one recently. I’m not expecting much, but I also didn’t expect much from Andy Messersmith either.
Numerous promoters have asked Alexander to do a paid signing over the years. He simply says he doesn’t need the money.
1. Byron McLaughlin
Tales of a worldwide conspiracy of smuggling rings, counterfeit goods, money laundering, takedowns by federal agents, jumping bail to hide out in another country, marrying a citizen to avoid extradition, with some drugs, bribery, theft, assault, and foreign prisons mixed in seem more like something from the pens of Puzo, Pistone, and Pileggi, but they all were part of Byron McLaughlin’s life after his baseball career.
During his career, teammates didn’t like him: he had a reputation as a hothead and of someone who was always putting the blame on someone else, the type who could spill a drink all over himself and blame the waitress, the bartender, the people at the next table, the glassblower, the alcohol distiller, the temperature of the room, and the maker of his shirt before he would ever admit fault.
But at the same time, he was incredibly smart, confident, and had a way with people. Harley Lewin, who spent decades researching, tracking, eventually taking down, and fighting for the extradition of McLaughlin even said “He was the kind of guy that if he put the same talent to good use, he’d probably have made a lot more money.”
After becoming the biggest smuggler of counterfeit sneakers between Mexico, South Korea, and the United States, McLaughlin pleaded guilty to money laundering charges and then shuffled off to his wife’s home country of Cote d’Ivoire, then onto France where she had legal residency, protecting him against extradition. The last credible lead placed him in Thailand in 2013. One former associate believes he may be in Mexico as of 2017. His story was the subject of a Sports Illustrated story in 2018.
Only a handful of legitimate autographs of his are known to exist. According to collector Dave Cameron, who acquired multiple signed copies of McLaughlin’s 1984 Topps card directly from Byron himself while working with him (and knowing nothing of the illegality of his operation), the vast majority out there, including those with third-party authentication, are fake. Considering McLaughlin’s history of counterfeiting, I’m not sure if that would be ironic or poetic.
And by the way…Byron McLaughlin isn’t Bo McLaughlin…another pitcher from the same era.
So, if you’ve ever chased autographs, check your collections for signed cards of these guys. You might be sitting on something surprisingly valuable and not even know it.