For longtime collectors who endured the hobby in the 1990s, it’s hard to believe that a quarter century has past since Signature Rookies began to fade away.
While you rarely hear that card company’s name much these days, how they changed the hobby has a huge influence on what is happening 25 years later.
Signature Rookies emerged on the scene with the revolutionary idea of putting an autographed prospect card in every pack of cards. They did baseball, football and basketball, and then got into hockey. In addition to the prospects, they also included legends in many of their products.
For those of you who weren’t around for Signature Rookies or simply don’t remember, they would sign players – usually minor league baseball prospects or college seniors who had just finished their last season of eligibility – to card deals. The players would autograph cards–usually around 5,000 of them– and then send them back to the company. Collectors opening packs would get the regular cards in the base set, plus one autographed card in a box. It’s been standard practice in the hobby for a while now, of course, but back in the early 90s, it was a new concept.
League and team logos were removed from the photos since the company didn’t have any league or team licenses.
But as unique as their idea was, the way the company was set up was even more unusual. In fact, there is no way that there has ever been another company in the hobby that conducted its business like Signature Rookies.
In 1994, I was the editor of Canadian Sports Collector magazine. I was doing some freelance work for some card companies, but was about a year away from departing the magazine and leaving Canada full time to move to Dallas and work for Pinnacle. In all my time developing products and being a brand manager for Pinnacle, Collector’s Edge and Pacific, I never experienced anything like my trip to Fleetville, PA to the Signature Rookies headquarters.
A Bumpy Trip to Fleetville
In 1994, the company invited members of the hobby media to Pennsylvania for a corporate show and tell. They were going to roll out their plans, give us a tour of their facility, make themselves available for interviews, and basically build relationships. This idea was nothing new, as the Upper Deck Company had schmoozed the hobby media with media junkets for years.
To get to Fleetville, we had to fly into Scranton. Yes, Scranton, home of Dunder Mifflin. It’s an unusual plane ride. It’s a puddle jumper over the Poconos that feels like a roller coaster because of the air currents over the mountains.
The Signature Rookies office was in a quaint, rural setting and we were treated wonderfully by their staff.
Tim Flatt was their CEO, and I remember a long chat that I got to have with him. In his early 30s at the time, he explained how the company was structured, and it floored me.
The holding company that owned Signature Rookies was actually set up as a business school and most of the employees were home schooled kids from Christian homes. Instead of going to college or business school in their late teens, they had the opportunity to go and work for Signature Rookies. For a kid who loved sports, it was probably an incredible opportunity.
The families, he said, were often comfortable with the arrangement. Some of the kids may have been a bit sheltered as home schooled students. Working for a corporation like Signature Rookies gave them all a chance to integrate into a professional environment and work hands-on for a company. At the end of their tenure at Signature Rookies, they would be graduates of the business school.
I wrestled with this one for a long time. Were the kids really learning at the company? Or was this free labor as the students/employees would spend their days sorting autographed cards, shipping and receiving autographed cards, or hand-inserting autographed cards into packs?
I talked to a lot of the students that worked there, and every one of them seemed happy and excited about what they were doing. Sure, they all had to take their turns doing the sorting and inserting autographs thing, but Flatt had also set up a program where the students got the chance to learn the inner workings of the business, from contracts to distribution and seemingly everything in between.
I had never seen a company set up that way and I haven’t since.
Some of the media guys were a little taken back by the high levels of religion in the building. One or two guys commented on that when the company choir came out and performed at lunch time for us. I didn’t mind. I was still involved with Fellowship of Christian Athletes at the time, and I couldn’t believe that a company actually had a choir. But, I can see how it would throw some people off.
Yet, as wholesome as Signature Rookies seemed to be, there were some things that might have contradicted the company’s values. In 1994, Signature Rookies had O.J. Simpson autographing cards for them. The Juice knocked out about 2,000 cards for the company while sitting in his jail cell just weeks after the murders of his ex-wife and friend Ron Goldman.
Despite payroll being a source of income, Signature Rookies ultimately failed. The products were overproduced, and they flooded the market with autographs of marginal prospects and players who never made it to the pros. Certainly, there were some players who became stars in their card sets. But very little of what they produced retained much value.
The other problem they had getting the cards back. It takes a long time to sign 5,000 cards. It can’t be done in one sitting. Some players just dragged their heels. As a result, Signature Rookies had redemption cards in its products. Sometimes, they are unavoidable. If you ever get a chance to hear today’s trading card executives talk about the difficulties of getting bulk autographs in time for pack-out, you will know that it’s an age-old problem.
Mom, Could You Sign These?
Perhaps the most famous autograph incident that happened to Signature Rookies involved star running back Byron “Bam” Morris. The Pittsburgh Steelers running back was arrested and while some of his “signed” cards were returned to Signature Rookies, the signatures were actually that of his mom. That incident made it to the mainstream media.
In 1996, Sports Heroes, Inc. declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Signature Rookies was a division of the company at that time. The merger was intended as an opportunity to grow, but the company reportedly ran into financial problems.. While Signature Rookies tried to tap dance its way forward, a new company was formed to purchase the business. News had broke earlier in the year that Signature Rookies was backlogged by more than 100,000 redemption vouchers.
Signature Stars was formed, and they acquired the rights to Signature Rookies’ product line and trademark. They also established Signature Stars Canada to assume control of Signature Rookies Canada, which was formed to distribute its hockey product and other sports card products north of the border.
Today it’s just a footnote in hobby history–one that left some disappointed collectors in its wake–but with what is going on today, Signature Rookies might well be an enormous success. If their cards were reduced to smaller volumes and had low serial-numbered parallels, their signed cards probably would have some measure of respect. With the advent of NIL rights for college athletes, it would only open up more opportunities.
Perhaps someone out there will obtain the rights to the Signature Rookies brand, dust off the logos, and start making cards of prospects the way the hobby wants. If Leaf’s Brian Gray can successfully bring back Pro Set, anything is possible.