Collecting autographs has been a long-time passion for Pittsburgh collector Fred Sanutelli. I recently had the pleasure of visiting Fred in his home in Clairton, Pa., which is 13 miles south of Pittsburgh. Driving through Clairton reminded me of the steel mill history of the region, with the large factories, warehouses and train tracks set along the Monongahela River.
Former 1972 NFL MVP Larry Brown hailed from the area, as did former catcher Lance Parrish and jazz musician Benny Benack. The working class area was also the setting for The Deer Hunter, featuring Robert De Niro. It is an area where sports are important, whether it be Pee Wee football or the NFL. And Sanutelli has documented a good bit of this history on the walls of his home.
Sanutelli’s focus has been collecting autographs, something he started doing more than 20 years ago.
“I started getting hooked on autographs around 1985 or 1986,” Sanutelli said. “My dad worked for U.S. Steel and was fortunate to get tickets to Pirates through the company. This was a time that the Pirates were really not doing well. They were drawing 5,000-6,000 people to games, sometimes less, so we obviously had pretty good seats and the players were fairly accessible. I would go to about 20 games per year and always took a baseball with me.
“I started always coming home with autographs that I would get along the third base rail. Just as fun was having some conversations with the players, as we would go early for batting practice – guys like Dwight Gooden and Will Clark. The players were much more accessible then than they are now. I eventually started going to card and memorabilia shows and got really involved. My first autograph was from Mike Easler in 1980 when he attended a Little League function of mine. My first autograph at Three Rivers Stadium was from former Met Bobby Ojeda. The coincidence with that was that he did not want to sign that day because he was pitching, but he did sign.”
Most collectors settle on certain themes in their collections. These themes often take time to establish, as the collector goes through a certain maturation process. Sanutelli’s themes include baseball and football Hall of Famers; college, signed mini helmets; Pittsburgh Pirates, Penguins and Steelers; Penn State; University of Pittsburgh; Heisman Trophy winners; Sports Illustrateds; NASCAR; and a touch of rock ’n roll, as evidenced by a newly installed 1950s-style juke box and a few signed guitars (by local legend Donnie Iris and group-signed Average White Band guitar).
“The main focus is the Pittsburgh Steelers. They are my team. But I do like all sports, including basketball, tennis and boxing,” Sanutelli said. “I have been collecting the Penguins pretty heavy recently. I think they have a real nice young team that is going to be a Stanley Cup contender soon – it is kind of the beginning of a new era. I have a lot of Mario Lemieux items. I used to go to the Penguins practice facility and get some autographs up there.
“Over the last 10-15 years, NASCAR has really grown in popularity, and you can see that I have dedicated a whole room to it. We do not have access to the NASCAR drivers in the Pittsburgh area like we do with football, baseball and hockey players. When obtaining NASCAR autographs, I find that I have to travel outside the area more often.
“Certainly, there are phases you go through as a collector,” Sanutelli continued. “I was into a big team photo phase for a while. It was nice because no matter who was signing, you could add them on the team photo if they were on that team. I have most of the Steelers team photos from 1967 to the present. I went through a mini helmet phase for a while, and now I am in the Sports Illustrated phase. I like the Sports Illustrateds because you can find all different types of sports featured.”
Sanutelli’s collection is somewhat unique in that he must secure almost all of his autographs in person. I have run into Sanutelli in at least three different states collecting autographs over the years.
Organizing and displaying the collection
It is apparent that Sanutelli is a strong believer in displaying his collection, much of it in a themed manner. Many collectors have things packed away in boxes or binders. While Sanutelli has plenty of boxes and binders, he enjoys putting things on display for his own and other people’s enjoyment.
“I enjoy looking at the collection. I look at it every day,” Sanutelli said. “For someone who sees the collection for the first time, it is a bit overwhelming. It is very important to me, but I see it all the time. It is a hobby, but it also is an expensive hobby. I will pay to get quality pieces signed and get a nice signature. I am a collector first and foremost. I want nice material.
“Organizing is important. When I moved into this house, my collection was very organized. If you are not organized, you are in trouble. If I need to find an item in the attic for a signing, I can access that quickly. When I hear about a signing, I write down on a piece of paper what I have that can get signed and then I prioritize from there, even if it is a show appearance. I am not made of money, so I go through the list and see what I have, what I can afford and then how bad do I want the item signed. That is my process.
“When I was first starting to display my items, I knew what I had,” Sanutelli continued. “You never have enough room and can only put so much stuff up. People do not realize that obtaining the material is one cost, but then there is a significant cost for displaying and framing. The costs all add up. I know I have a good collection, and I know people have better ones. I have seen some great collections out there.”
Types of items signed
Sanutelli has been focusing recently on getting Sports Illustrated magazines signed and also leans toward larger items. He has several full-size football helmets signed with various themes of Super Bowl players, Steelers teams, Pro Bowl players and Hall of Fame players. He also leans toward getting large photos signed and securing unique photos.
“I have dealt with the Pirates, Steelers and Penguins team photographers in obtaining unique and quality images,” Sanutelli said. “I have also gone through other professional teams to secure photos. This was once somewhat easy, but I am having an increasingly difficult time getting photos in this manner, and they are getting much more expensive. I started to get binders full of signed 8-by-10s, and you just cannot display all the 8-by-10s on the wall. So I have gone toward larger items and items that can hold multiple signatures so I know I will display them.
“You can see that I like large items. I have several life-size stand-ups in the NASCAR room and even a few tires. I acquired one tire off a Dale Earnhardt Sr. car and another from Mark Martin. Mark came down to a World of Wheels Show, so I had to lug that tire down to the show to get signed. The tires came through Victory Junction, which is a NASCAR charity outfit. The tires add a certain unique quality. Even the bent, used sheet metal from cars is collected – anything is collectible nowadays.
Sanutelli said he has been using SCD as a “bible” for more than 15 years.
“Even with the computer access to obtain material to get signed, I use SCD regularly, much more than the computer. I go after my Sports Illustrateds through SCD and have done a lot of business with Barnett’s,” Sanutelli said. “I get many older publications through Joe North Jr., and some of the larger companies like Adelson’ and Touchdown Treasures. If I really am looking for something, I can usually find it through SCD. I always look forward to getting SCD to this day. I use the show listings in the back to keep in tune with any signings that may be happening in the area. I also have a network of collectors who help me out.”
The landscape for autograph fees has been spiraling upward at a very rapid pace over the last 15 years. Many players are not signing as often or at all for no charge, resulting in the collector trying to keep pace with the rising cost of obtaining autographs at today’s show prices. There is also a difference in getting players on the run versus having them sign in a controlled situation.
“For me, I prefer to go to a show where a guy is signing,” Sanutelli said. “You would think that you are paying for the autograph. He is sitting down, and your are in the position to get the best autograph you can. I used to go to team hotels to get autographs in Pittsburgh. I kind of grew out of that scene.
“I remember waiting for the 49ers to get into their hotel one time. They were due at 9 p.m. but arrived at midnight, and they were not happy. That is like a lost day for me, and I just do not have the time to do that anymore. I still go to public promotional appearances where a player might be signing, but those seem to be happening less and less. The players know that there are many people who obtain autographs out in a public venue that may turn around and sell that item. I would like to let the players out there know that there are collectors that are getting autographs for their own collections and not for the purpose of a resale value. I appreciate when these people sign autographs for me because this is something that is going to go up on my wall at home.
“As far as prices go, autograph prices are about outside the middle-class price range,” Sanutelli continued. “Smaller shows are dwindling; the large shows are oftentimes the only venues for many autograph signers. You certainly do not see many kids standing in autograph lines, and that concerns me. I understand that some athletes need to be compensated for the time, so it is a Catch 22.”
Collecting autographs on the road
The Hall of Fame in Canton is within driving distance of Pittsburgh and has also been a great source of autographs for Sanutelli.
“Canton Hall of Fame weekend has been an every year event for me,” he said. “I go to many of Jane Bosley’s shows out in Canton also, and I have to thank her a lot for having a great diverse and steady flow of guests to her shows.
“My first trip out to Canton was in 1989. I have missed a year or two, but it has been a great place to obtain autographs. You may have to do some running around out there, but it always pays off. On induction weekend, several of the inductees former team mates are in town, so you always have to be ready for anyone. When Don Shula got inducted, I remember running into Nat Moore. When Dan Dierdorf got inducted, I remember running into his teammate Conrad Dobler and Jim Hart. A collector has a chance to go out there for two or three days over induction weekend. The atmosphere is very friendly. There are formal and informal signings going on all over the place. I always come back with 30-40 signatures.
“I have also received many autographs up at Steelers training camp over the years, but that is getting tougher. I travel up to J. Paul Sports show up at Robert Morris University, which has been a great source for autographs. I have been also obtained autographs down in Virginia at the Collectors Showcase of America Shows put on by Marco Rol. You have to also thank the promoters for putting these shows together. There has to be a lot of hard work in organizing these shows nowadays.”
Reflecting on the collection
I asked Sanutelli the always difficult question of naming his favorite items.
“Terry Bradshaw was always my favorite player, so I treasure his signed items,” Sanutelli quickly replied. “He is unique personality but a player who you are not going to get an autograph very often for free.
“I have a 16-by-20 of Lynn Swann jumping into Bennie Cunningham’s arms in the Super Bowl XIV, and that has always been a favorite of mine. I always liked the signed Sports Illustrated cover when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. I have a nice 16-by-20 of Ben Roethlisberger that is another favorite of mine.
“I am a big fan of Cal Ripken Jr. I have a baseball signed by him, but I really would like to meet him,” Sanutelli continued. “To me, Cal is a player that the fan can look up to, not just because of the streak but how he handled himself off the field with class. Some of my favorite football players I have met are Jim Brown and Bart Starr. I also enjoyed meeting Chris Evert and Dale Earnhardt Sr. I like my Richard Petty stuff. He is The King; what more can I say?”
It is clear that Sanutelli is appreciative of what he has and enjoys sharing it with others.
“Fortunately, I have not had many bad experiences with people signing stuff. For as many years as I have been collecting and the number of autographs, I have had mostly positive experiences. Many guys need to get credit for taking the time to sign. I hope that players know how much I appreciate when they do sign autographs, and I think some of them appreciate the types of collections that some of us build. In regard to the collection, I am proud of the collection and like when others enjoy it. I do not brag about it though. I do not need someone to validate my collection. There are several pieces that will never be sold no matter what.
“I can’t take full credit for my collection. My dad has been a tremendous help – more than I can express. I have many friends and fellow collectors who have helped me out, and I need to thank them, as well.
“I have had a role in my building my collection but so have many other people.”
And that is a large part of the fun of collecting.
Dave Bailey is a freelance contributor to SCD and can be reached at P.O. Box 597, Greensburg, PA 15601, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photos by Dave Bailey.