A Peek Behind the Curtain National’s Autograph Pavilion

By Ross Forman

Lou Holtz signed his name on the golden, full-size Notre Dame helmet, then added the popular Fighting Irish slogan: Play Like A Champion.

Or so he attempted.

Holtz botched up some letters in the phrase. Then he signed the helmet again.
This was not looking like a prized collectible.

So, Holtz wrote a short note to the owner of the helmet, writing directly on the helmet, below the second signature.

Not all signatures and inscriptions are pulled off without a hitch. Lou Holtz made up for his snafu.

Not all signatures and inscriptions are pulled off without a hitch. Lou Holtz made up for his snafu.

Holtz admitted, in writing, that it was the first time he ever erred on the autograph front when penning that phrase – and that he was going to make it right for the collector.
Holtz grabbed one of his own business cards, turned it over and wrote his direct phone number on it. Holtz gave the card to a staff member of Tristar Productions Inc., the Houston-based company that organized and ran the autograph pavilion at the annual National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago.

“Tell the collector to contact me, so I can make it right,” Holtz said.

Bobby Mintz of Tristar wasn’t surprised by Holtz’s move.

“Over the years, other professionals who have screwed up a signature have, as Lou Holtz did, gone out of their way to make the collectors happy. They understand that someone paid their hard-earned money for the signature – and they want to make sure that person is happy,” Mintz said. “What Lou did just goes to show how first class he is. Lou Holtz was a big draw at the show, one of the top 10 signers.”

The Holtz situation was one of the many magical moments seen, heard or signed in the Tristar Autograph Pavilion, which seemingly ran like clockwork as a record 93 athletes penned their name, personalizing some signatures and adding inscriptions to others. Tens of thousands of signatures were signed, countless Sharpie pens were used and perhaps as many fine-tipped Bic ballpoint pens emptied their ink.

The Tristar Autograph Pavilion remains one of the most popular elements of The National, year in and year out. Chicago residents were mixed with out-of-towners visiting the Windy City for that once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet their lifelong sporting heroes.

“It was a great show, a lot of fun. There was a lot of excitement in the autograph pavilion, especially since there were a lot of athletes who had not previously done a lot of signings, especially in Chicago,” Mintz said.

The six signers appearing at the show on opening day – Wednesday, July 31 – were Neal Anderson, Dwight Gooden, Bob Beamon, Dick Fosbury, Milt Pappas and Mel Renfro.

Anderson, a popular former Chicago Bears’ running back, was the day’s top draw – and one of the most sought-after signatures all weekend. Anderson, who earned four Pro Bowl appearances during his NFL career, has made very few public appearances since his playing days ended in 1993 – and he signed free autographs for the public. One Chicago-based collector said Anderson’s long line of fans might have been twice as big had he appeared over the weekend.

Gooden, who pitched for six teams in the majors from 1984-2000, was a four-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion. He also was the 1984 National League Rookie of the Year, the 1985 NL Cy Young Award winner and a two-time National League strikeout leader. Gooden also signed free autographs, limit one per person while supplies lasted.

Mintz said this year’s autograph pavilion was among the top three that Tristar has run at The National since 2006. “We didn’t have one bad apple in the bunch,” he said.

Among the more popular signers at The National was Cal Ripken Jr., who is also among the friendliest of the bunch. All photos by Ross Forman.

Among the more popular signers at The National was Cal Ripken Jr., who is also among the friendliest of the bunch. All photos by Ross Forman.

News and notes from the autograph pavilion at The National
– While signing autographs in the backstage area, Bart Starr told Tristar personnel that he was cold and asked if anyone had a jacket he could borrow. But in the middle of summer, that posed a problem. The solution, though, was in the middle of the show floor. Tristar personnel approached Paul Furfaro, owner of PTF Sports, which sells officially-licensed jerseys, shirts . . . and jackets. Furfaro didn’t hesitate and immediately gave two jackets for Starr to try: One was a Chicago White Sox jacket, the other was an Atlanta Braves option. Starr choice the Atlanta jacket, noting that the A in Atlanta also looks like Alabama, his alma mater. Starr, of course, was a 17th-round pick (200th overall) by the Green Bay Packers in 1956 after playing at Alabama. He played for the Packers from 1956-71 and then was the team’s head coach from 1975-83. Starr was a four-time Pro Bowl honoree and two-time Super Bowl MVP (and champion). He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977. Starr’s last signature at the convention was that Atlanta Braves jacket; he personalized it for Furfaro.

– Ralph Garr sported an Atlanta Braves golf shirt and baseball hat while signing, which prompted several comments from fans, wondering why he wasn’t wearing White Sox attire. An outfielder, Garr made his major league debut late in the 1968 season and stayed with the Braves through 1975. He then played for the White Sox from 1976-79 before ending his career in 1980 with the California Angels. Garr was a National League All-Star in 1974 and also the National League batting champion that season.

– Jeff Reardon was the last signer in the convention center.

– Joe Morgan asked Roger Clemens to sign an autograph for him.

– Rick Monday does not, and did not, sign any photo of the famous flag capture, or anything related to it. Instead, several collectors noted that he will only sign that image for charity, and he has reportedly raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the needy through that photo. On April 25, 1976, during a game at Dodger Stadium, two protesters ran into the outfield and tried to set fire to an American flag. Monday, playing for the Chicago Cubs at the time, dashed over and grabbed the flag to thunderous cheers. He handed the flag to Los Angeles pitcher Doug Rau, and the ballpark police officers arrested the two intruders. When he came to bat in the next half-inning, he got a standing ovation and the scoreboard flashed the message, “RICK MONDAY… YOU MADE A GREAT PLAY.” Monday still has the flag he rescued from the protesters; he has been offered up to $1 million to sell it, but he has declined all offers. At The National, Monday did sign two bats painted red, white and blue.

– Patrick Valenzuela signed on Thursday, and one of the funnier comments about the well-dressed jockey was, “He looks like Pitbull.”

Big Unit Randy Johnson was signing baseballs for $180 during the Saturday portion of the show.

Big Unit Randy Johnson was signing baseballs for $180 during the Saturday portion of the show.

– Valenzuela and former Chicago Blackhawk Eddie Olczyk talked in the backstage area and also briefly while on stage. Olczyk signed an 8-by-10 photo for Valenzuela.

– Frank Thomas left The National with, perhaps, the most autographed memorabilia. His hands were full with signed jerseys and more.

– The top three most sought after signers at The National were Roger Clemens, Sugar Ray Leonard and Ernie Banks. Mintz admitted that he was surprised Clemens was the show’s No. 1 most sought-after signer. “He doesn’t have any ties to Chicago, so from that front, it was very surprising.” Chipper Jones and Mike Piazza also did exceptionally well.

– Roy Jones Jr., didn’t sell as many autograph tickets as some anticipated. “The real reason why I was so surprised was the other boxers signing at The National did really, really well,” Mintz said. “How does Roy Jones Jr. not do as well as the others? I don’t know. Plus, he’s done well at other shows and has never appeared in Chicago for the Sun-Times Show.”

– Surprisingly popular signer, according to Mintz: Ralph Garr.

– Tony Esposito often posed for photos showing his ring bling.

– Pete Rose wore a Cincinnati Reds hat while signing.

– The list of “Super Nice & Friendly Signers” at The National was large, including Cal Ripken Jr., Bart Starr, Fergie Jenkins, Bobby Hull, Gary Beban and Steve Garvey, among others.

– Ironically, several collectors even commented that Bob Gibson was surprisingly friendly to autograph seekers.

– When fans approach Starr for an autograph, they often greet him with, “Mr. Starr.” Starr always replies, “Call me, Bart.” It happened countless times in Chicago.

– Gary Beban could not have been a nicer signer. He stood up and greeted every collector with a handshake and a pleasant greeting. He was meticulous on where to sign items. A quarterback, Beban was drafted in the second round in 1968 out of UCLA. He was the 1967 Heisman Trophy winner who spent the 1968-69 seasons with the Washington Redskins.

– Johnny Bench gave catching tips to young collectors who aspire to major league stardom as a catcher. Strengthen your quads, he said.

– Reggie Jackson almost always has a Sharpie and ballpoint pen in his left hand while signing – and he always knows which pen to use for whatever item is being signed. Jackson is a longtime collector and often comments about items he signs. Jackson signed an abundance of yellow Oakland A’s jerseys in Chicago.

– Jackson was among the most fashionable signers, sporting a fedora during his session. Pedro Martinez also was a picture of style, with his high-dollar pink dress shirt; and basketball star Damian Lillard certainly looked dapper. Conversely, Jack McDowell was among the most casual, even sporting flip-flops.

There’s no better signer or gentleman than Ernie Banks.

There’s no better signer or gentleman than Ernie Banks.

– Ernie Banks wore a black baseball hat during his signing session with gold letters, written in Hebrew. The translation: Cubs.

– It’s interesting to compare the autographs of, say, Eddie Murray and Dennis Eckersley. Murray is meticulous when he signs, and every letter is legible. Eckersley, on the other hand, offers a signature that some at The National called “pretty,” but most letters are not readable.

– A lot of collectors at this year’s National were St. Louis Cardinals’ fans, or at least own Cardinals’ attire. Many athletes noticed the Cardinals’ red among the crowd and commented on it.

– There were 26 signers at the show on Saturday, including Ripken, Starr and Piazza. If you wanted a “regular item” – which is an 8-by-10 photo, a baseball or a mini-helmet – from all 26, it would cost $2,395.

– If you wanted one “regular item” signed by every guest at the 2013 National, it would have cost $5,640.

– Mia Hamm was the lone female signer in the Tristar Autograph Pavilion, but pro wrestler Lisa Marie Varon signed autographs at one of the corporate booths. Before leaving the convention center, Varon walked into the Autograph Pavilion to hug Tristar’s Mandy Fuerst. Connecting the dots: Varon most recently wrestled for TNA Impact Wrestling; Tristar produces TNA Impact Wrestling trading cards. Fuerst is the main Tristar employee working on the wrestling cards.

– Fuerst also was front and center for the Roger Clemens’ birthday celebration. Before he started signing on Sunday, Tristar’s Bobby Mintz led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to the former pitcher. Fuerst presented Clemens with a cake that said “Happy Birthday Roger” on it. Johnny Bench later told Mintz that he does not have a future as a singer.

– Rickey Henderson snuck up behind Frank Thomas while the former White Sox slugger was signing. The two exchanged a hug, posed for a few photos and exchanged greetings.

– Banks greeted every collector as if he had known them for years and, as always, asked about people’s family.

– Sitting next to NBA player Damian Lillard while signing for the public was hobby executive Scott Jordan. No one asked for Jordan’s autograph, but he was a former major leaguer who even appeared in the 1989 Donruss set (card No. 609). Jordan was a record-setting player at Georgia Tech University before making his major league debut as a late-season call-up for the Cleveland Indians in September 1988.

Ross Forman is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at Rossco814@aol.com.

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