It was a chilly 25 degrees as I stepped out onto Boston Common from my Emerson College dorm. Wind gusts of 30 miles per hour cut right through my coat and gloves and left my fingertips burning as I walked to the MBTA station, bag over my shoulder. I had just returned to the city the night before, following an eventful winter break that culminated in my sudden decision to become a “grapher.”
We were in the middle of an era of hobby overproduction catching up to us. Pinnacle had gone bankrupt, Pacific was flooding the market with what felt like a thousand sets with a thousand parallels. Card values were plummeting as the internet made buying, selling, and trading easier all over the world, thus decreasing regional demand. And I was sitting on 100,000 cards back home collecting dust with limited value. I didn’t want to dump them for pennies, so I asked myself why not get them signed?
I had dabbled in autographs a bit before, but only by mail and the occasional card show. My first TTM success was Sandy Alomar Jr. in 1992, followed by a smattering of hockey requests in 1999, but in-person graphing was fairly new to me. I had done a few baseball games on a not-so-serious basis in 1991 and 2002 and I had read Paul Buxton’s great site on how to go about graphing, but I really had no idea what I was doing until I went all-in twenty years ago.
The first day was terrible: outside Fleet Center, the only one who signed for me was Bruins defenseman Hal Gill. But despite that slow start, I was off and running. Weeks later, I was hitting up hotels and morning skates and finished that first year with 325 autographs. Those early successes led to me picking up a daunting task: signed set collecting.
Many of us graphers, in what is either a compulsive desire for completeness or a masochistic streak a mile wide, will pick a favorite set and try to get it completely autographed. Many of us end up working on multiple sets.
After grabbing a box of 2002-03 Topps Total hockey cards the week it came out and getting several signed by members of the Flyers, Bruins, and Canucks, I decided that would be my first project. 440 cards of 440 players in an attempt by Topps to replicate their successful baseball set– unfortunately truly duplicating that in hockey would have required about 750 cards, so the set was lacking a lot of players I would have liked to have seen represented. To name two, Don Sweeney played all but one game the season prior with the Bruins and the Penguins’ Dan LaCouture played every game– and both got left out! Twenty years later, I sit at 434 cards signed, missing only Lubomir Sekeras, Espen Knutsen, Jason Allison, Todd Bertuzzi, Paul Kariya, and Mark Messier.
Despite missing six including two Hall of Famers, the set is loaded with other members of the Hall– 36 of whom I have. And I’m sure more will be added to this list over time as guys like Joe Thornton, Jaromir Jagr, Alex Mogilny, Peter Bondra, and Jeremy Roenick get their due respect (all of whom signed in-person for me, by the way).
Over time, I added the 2001-02 Topps/OPC Archives and 2002-03 Fleer Throwbacks hockey sets to my cadre of collectibles. Twenty years in, I’m four short on the Archives set (Stan Mikita, Keith Magnuson, Mike Bossy, and Doug Wilson whom I am told will not sign his card) and thirteen short on Throwbacks. I also managed to complete the 2003-04 Choice AHL Top Prospects set.
After three years in Boston, I moved to Wichita Falls, Texas, a total black hole of autograph opportunities. I can count on one hand the number of autograph chances I had in and around there. We would usually get a stop of the Texas Rangers Caravan in January. The occasional former NHL’er coached for or against the Wildcats junior hockey team as Tony Curtale, Corey Millen, Paul Baxter, Brent Hughes, Bill Muckalt, Ed Belfour, Curt Brackenbury, and Paul Gillis all came through at one time or another. And one weekend up at Kiowa Casino in Oklahoma, they brought in Bob Lilly, Danny White, and Brian Bosworth. But aside from that it was a two-hour drive to get to the Rangers or Stars, so they were a once-or-twice-a-year event for me.
During this time, it was back to TTMing and trading. My grandmother bought me Harvey Meiselman’s address lists for Christmas one year, and I started giving myself writer’s cramp, cranking out letter after letter. I added in the 2005/06-2008/09 Upper Deck Rookie Class sets to my projects: I’ve completed he final two, while being five short on each of the first two (Pavel Vorobiev, Alexander Perezhogin, and the Holy Trinity of Crosby, Ovechkin, and Lundqvist from 2005/06; Alexei Kaigorodov, Alexei Mikhnov, Yan Stastny, Kelly Guard, and Evgeni Malkin in 2006/07).
I also ventured back out into baseball and football, working on Topps’ All-Time Fan Favorites sets. They put these out in baseball in 2003 through 2005, and a single football set in 2004. I have no pretense of thinking I’ll finish these off: when you’re dealing with sets that have multiple cards of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Reggie Jackson, Johnny Bench, Nolan Ryan, Mike Schmidt, and other not-so-affordable signers, I’ve always thought I’ll just put as big a dent into them as I possibly can. Of the 442 cards in the three baseball sets, I have 247 signed. From the football set, I have 52 out of 85, and 13 of the remaining 33 are now deceased.
TTMing in Wichita Falls worked well though: I mailed out 676 requests and got 445 back for a success rate of 65.8%.
In 2013, a career change moved me down to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and this was just the shot in the arm that my collection needed. I was now able to get out to baseball games at several levels– the MLB Rangers, the AA Roughriders, and independent league teams in Grand Prairie, Fort Worth, and Cleburne. In fact my first week in town, Ferguson Jenkins did a free signing at Dick’s Sporting Goods, knocking out two cards I needed in the All-Time Fan-Favorites sets.
Now if you’re reading this looking for advice, I’m going to keep it simple: learn from my failure and don’t get cocky. With graphing being like shooting fish in a barrel when I first arrived, I added on even more set projects and am now in way over my head. I picked up 1972 Topps baseball and everything in its design (which means the 2013 Topps 72 Mini inserts, 2013 Topps Archives #1-50, and 2021 Topps Heritage– including their Minors and High Numbers releases), 1982-1991 Donruss Diamond Kings, a couple of small Nascar sets just because I had them on-hand (1989 Maxx Crisco and 2004 Press Pass Trackside Hot Pass NSCC Promos), and the entire run of Pacific’s indoor soccer cards, from 1987/88 to 1992/93.
I can hear the record scratch in your head: indoor soccer?
Incredibly, the old MISL used to outdraw the NBA and NHL in some cities before inconsistency and in-fighting among its leaders and the rise of MLS led to its demise to a second-tier sport. But in the late 1980s, Mike Cramer’s upstart Pacific Trading Cards secured a license to produce cards of a sport that had only existed for ten years. I grew up playing soccer in middle school and watching the Cleveland Crunch, so I had some of those cards. I even got a few cards signed at the 2002 MISL All-Star Game’s skills competition, which was held in the building where I played hockey.
I went out to a Dallas Sidekicks game in 2015 in the MASL, and discovered that not only did they have players signing on the field after games, but that an alumni game was coming up. So I gathered up cards of any former Sidekicks that I could find in my collection and went off to see what I could get signed. It turns out that former indoor soccer players are typically excited just to be remembered and will sign everything you have. A few months after that game, I went out and bought complete sets and decided to see how far I could get in getting them signed.
This was going to be simultaneously an easy and hard project. Easy because these guys all seem to be willing signers. Hard because some guys would be tough to track down. Some players had died, some had moved back to their home countries in Europe. Some just didn’t want to sign via mail (but I discovered later that Kai Haaskivi was a VERY willing signer in-person). Three players stand out as being particularly tough to find: Chico Moreira, Nenad Nikolic, and Majid Jay.
Moreira played twelve years in North America, coming from Uruguay in 1984. I found several addresses but none seemed to work as I got three different Return To Sender stickers when I tried. Finally, I sent off to one and didn’t get the dreaded yellow sticker after a week. Two weeks after mailing, I got an envelope in my mailbox… severely damaged by the USPS sorting machines. But, the cards were signed inside, even if they got a chunk taken out of them. I may try to mail him again eventually and get them replaced.
Nikolic was in the 1990-91 set. He played for Tacoma in 1989-90, after which I could find absolutely no information on his whereabouts, or even where he was from originally. His card said Yugoslavia, which of course has since broken up into seven countries. The city of Lapalan listed on the NASL Jerseys site didn’t come up in any search I tried. Eventually I found out what had happened: Nikolic had returned to his native Lipljan, Serbia to work in his family’s food processing factory. He later entered the Serbian military and was killed in the 1999 NATO bombings. His former team in Serbia holds a memorial soccer tournament for him every year. I believe there are no signed copies of his card in existence.
Majid Jay was on one of the referee cards in the 1990-91 set. Every other official was easy to track down and willing to sign, but Jay was a mystery. When I asked Brian Hall, he wrote back that no one knows where he is. Formerly known as Majid Hanifi, and Majid Abotalebi, a name under which he even officiated some games, details are incredibly sketchy on him after about 1994 or so. Address histories tied to him and his wife place them all over the country from California to Washington to Texas to Virginia, and most recently a mailbox in Las Vegas where he may have been working as a flight instructor. There have been allegations of fraud, even that he had been killed. However, another former referee that I spoke to on the phone told me that Majid is still alive, and he even asked him about signing my card. Majid seemed curious and interested, but ultimately declined. The search continues…
Through seven years of indoor soccer mailing, I have finished off the 1987-88 set. I am two cards away from completing the 1988-89 set, two from the 1989-90 set, 34 away from the 1990-91 set (their largest set at 220 cards requiring 257 signatures), 15 away from 1991-92, and five away from the 1992-93 NPSL set.
I’ve been in this hobby for twenty years now. Some days I feel every bit of it when I have a team of minor leaguers all giving a halfhearted “I’ll sign after the game” while rolling their eyes. Some days I still feel like a total newcomer to it when I have no idea where to go in a new ballpark. Some days, it’s still like being a kid in a candy store, driving home from a game with 50 cards signed.
This hobby has taken me places I never would have expected. 10,000 miles driven around the country to minor league baseball games, a trip to Las Vegas where I got to play indoor soccer with some of the sport’s legends, and mail rolling in from 17 countries. It has gotten me on the radio and TV nationwide, and printed in multiple publications. I’ve been yelled at by Bobby Orr, had a nice chat with Nolan Ryan, gotten ignored by Jeff Datz, been given a stick by Ryan Vandenbussche, and shared an Uber ride with soccer legend Kai Haaskivi.
I still often go to baseball games for in-person graphing, but it’s not what it once was. The new Rangers’ stadium has made it so that autographs just can’t be obtained unless you’re first in the door, buy an expensive ticket in the first few rows near the dugout, or get really lucky down the line in the outfield. Minor league ballparks have embraced full pole-to-pole netting, further distancing fans from players. Gated parking lots mean players don’t walk by you outside. The Dallas Stars no longer allow access to players at practices. Hotels in Dallas routinely have collectors removed from the property. TTMing has still been decent though: I’m sitting on a 75% success rate over the past ten years and several tough signers started answering their mail during Covid shutdowns.
While it has its infuriating moments, I do still enjoy the hobby and plan to continue in it for as long as it stays feasible. Got something I need? Reach out, I am always interested in trading. Maybe I can help you out with something you need too.
Do you want to tell the story of what you collect and why? From players to teams to complete sets, autographs, game-worn material and anything else that has kept you busy for years, we’d love for you to share your story in your own words and photos. Send us an email: [email protected].