By Kevin Nelson
Practically for as long as people have been playing baseball, professional players have been signing autographs. Autographs are as much a part of the game as the suicide squeeze and the walk-off home run.
The Cincinnati Redlegs of the late 1860s, baseball’s first openly professional team, were superstars of their day, celebrated for their superb playing skills as well as their muttonchop whiskers and dazzling crimson socks. They scratched out their signatures for fans on scraps of paper whenever they rolled into a new town on their barnstorming tours across post-Civil War America.
It was Babe Ruth, of course, who popularized the practice, just as he popularized so many other things about the game, including hitting balls far, far over the fence. He – and, it is true, Yankee clubhouse attendants and others close to him – signed and signed and signed, in part to keep up with the enormous demand of his followers who wanted a piece of something, anything, that would connect them to him. Although a prodigious signer, Babe, I think, would be surprised to learn what a mega-million dollar industry autographs have become today (and how valuable his signed balls are).
I was reminded of all this the other day while doing research for a new book on humorous baseball insults and quotes. Some memorable (and funny) things have been said about the century-old pastime of collecting autographs and trading cards.
Here is a small but tasty sampling, starting with the great Bambino himself:
“Oh hell, who wants to collect that crap?”
– Babe Ruth, on collecting autographs
“Any American that doesn’t sign autographs for little kids isn’t an American. He’s a Communist.”
– Rogers Hornsby, HOF player-manager
“Every time I sign a ball, and there must have been thousands, I thank my luck that I wasn’t born Coveleski or Wambsganss or Peckinpaugh.”
– Mel Ott, New York Giants great
“I love signing autographs. I’ll sign anything but veal cutlets. My ballpoint slips on veal cutlets.”
– Casey Stengel, legendary Mets and Yankee skipper
“Once someone in Washington handed a picture to me to autograph and I wrote, “Do good in school.” I look up and this guy is 78 years old.”
– Casey Stengel
“Signing autographs was fun until a kid came up to me and said, “My dad says you’re getting old, you’re going to die and your autograph will be valuable.”
– Warren Spahn, HOF pitcher who played until he was 44
“Always give an autograph when somebody asks you. You never can tell. In baseball anything can happen.”
– Tommy Lasorda, his advice to Dodgers rookies every year in spring training
“I never refused autograph seekers, unless they were old enough to look like collection agents.”
– Joe Pepitone, who may have been chased by a few creditors while playing for the Yankees
“I felt like my bubble gum card collection had come to life.”
– Actor James Garner, after attending a banquet that was also attended by a number of Hall of Fame players who were his heroes as a boy
“I wanted to be a big league baseball player so I could see my picture on a bubble gum card.”
– Al Ferrara, who achieved his dream with Brooklyn before becoming a Dodger front office man
“Man, that guy just struck you out and he doesn’t even have a baseball card!”
– Reggie Jackson, chiding a teammate who had just been struck out by a pitcher making his major league debut
“Kids should practice autographing baseballs. This is a skill that’s often overlooked in Little League.”
– Tug McGraw, Mets, Phillies lefty
“There’s no telling what that ball was worth before I signed it.”
– Brewers slugger Gorman Thomas, after signing a ball that had been autographed by Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and other Hall of Famers
“We live in a collecting society. Some people collect automobiles and guns, others just collect unemployment.
– Bill Lee, Red Sox pitcher
“I think I have signed some scrap of paper for every man, woman and child in the United States. What do they do with all those scraps of paper with my signature on it?”
– Vida Blue, at the height of his pitching fame with Oakland in the 1970s
“That one little piece of paper – at that moment it was special. The fan and the athlete came together in a special way.”
– Dodger first baseman Steve Garvey, on why he liked signing autographs
“When I was a little kid, teachers used to punish me by making me sign my name 100 times.”
– Willie Wilson, then an outfielder with Kansas City, on why he didn’t like signing autographs (no doubt his tune changed after he retired)
“I sign every autograph I can for kids because I remember myself at that age.
I think it’s ridiculous that some guys won’t sign for a kid.”
– Jim Thome, recently retired slugger
“Sorry, Mickey. Because of the way you lived, you can’t come in. But before you leave, would you autograph these baseballs for Him?”
– Mickey Mantle, in a banquet speech, joking about how he expected to be greeted once arrived at Heaven’s Pearly Gates.
Kevin Nelson is the author of “Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of The Biggest Forgery Scam in American History.” He can be reached at kln@KevinNelsonWriter.com.