By Ross Forman
The Tristar Autograph Pavilion at the 36th annual National Sports Collectors Convention will go down in history as the largest ever – and arguably also the best ever.
Houston-based Tristar Productions Inc., which has been producing the autograph area for The National since 2006, came with its biggest autograph lineup. It promoted appearances by 129 signers at the show, and all but four were there. Baseball Hall of Famers Pedro Martinez, Tony La Russa and Jim Palmer, along with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Hall of Famer Ric Flair, were scratched from the lineup, each due to personal reasons. Tristar, meanwhile, brought in Baseball Hall of Famer and Chicago White Sox legend Luis Aparicio as a late addition.
So 126 guests was nothing short of eye-popping, quite possibly the most signers at a card show ever. And the vast majority were super cool, overly friendly with the fans.
“We were pleased, very pleased with the autograph pavilion. It couldn’t have gone much better,” said Tristar Vice President Bobby Mintz. “It was a very strong lineup all five days (of the show), which made the area very, very exciting throughout.”
All five days of the annual sports collectibles gala were filled with heroes and Hall of Famers, stars and superstars inside the signing area. Saturday alone featured autograph appearances by Hulk Hogan, Emmitt Smith, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Lou Holtz, Allen Iverson, Mike Piazza, Cal Ripken Jr., Barry Sanders, Greg Maddux and Mike Tyson, among others.
“Saturday was very well attended, as expected,” Mintz said.
On Thursday, meanwhile, the spotlight in the autograph pavilion featured a retro hue, as 19 members of the gold medal-winning 1980 U.S. Olympic Men’s Hockey Team were signing, delighting fans with a 35-year flashback to that miracle in Lake Placid, N.Y.
The team even posed for photo-ops with fans, which included an agent for other athletes who admitted that he paid for the photo ticket, as opposed to asking for a freebie – he was not going to miss this golden moment he said with a smile. He was the first in line to sign on stage with Mike Eruzione, Jim Craig and the rest of the 1980 legends.
“The U.S. Olympic Hockey Team did better than I thought they would do,” in terms of tickets sold, Mintz said. “They were really big, really popular, much more than we expected. They couldn’t have been nicer, more accommodating.”
Hockey Olympians Mark Pavelich and Mark Johnson were among the Top 10 signers at the whole show as far as number of tickets sold.
“They were really strong in number of tickets sold as compared to all other signers, which surprised me,” Mintz said.
The show’s top six signers were, in order: Greg Maddux, Craig Biggio, Manny Ramirez, John Smoltz, Allen Iverson and Hulk Hogan.
It was Maddux’ first appearance at The National and Biggio, days after being inducted in the Hall of Fame, had not appeared at a major show outside of Houston in a couple of years. Ramirez had not done a major show signing in years, and Smoltz had not appeared in Chicago for a show in some time.
“Chicago is a great collectibles and autograph market, with a lot of great annual shows there, but this year’s autograph pavilion was incredible,” Mintz said. “It was smooth throughout, not chaotic at all in a negative sense.”
Sure, Iverson started signing for the public about 45 minutes late, “But he was terrific with the fans; he couldn’t have been a nicer guy,” Mintz said.
Iverson wanted to meet Emmitt Smith, Cal Ripken Jr. and Mike Tyson, among others. While he was at the show.
Ramirez was the most challenging of all signers to work with, Mintz said.
“He wasn’t mean to the fans; he was nice to everyone (coming through the line). He just isn’t a detail-oriented guy when it comes to autographs,” Mintz said. “The complaints we received about Ramirez were about the legibility of his autograph and his lack of detail. For instance, if there was a multi-signed item, he didn’t focus on where to put his signature. That’s disappointing.”
Ramirez also left his signing stage twice, saying he had to leave. Ramirez, who is now a roving hitting coach for the Chicago Cubs, had to be in Milwaukee after his signing and feared he would be late.
As for the scribbled look of his signature, which wasn’t much more than “MR,” Mintz said the signature looked similar to the signature he gave at a Tristar show in 2004 in Boston.
When asked if he would have Ramirez appear at a future show, Mintz said he “didn’t know.” He added that he’d first want to have a conversation with Ramirez and his representatives to discuss the challenges encountered at the 2015 National, specifically, legibility and placement of his signature on items.
“No one thought he was intentionally signing erratically,” Mintz said.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Gale Sayers also was a challenge at the show – due to health issues, which drastically slowed his signing.Mintz said he doesn’t know if Tristar will have another public signing session with Sayers.
The top guests at the Tristar Photo Booth were Hogan, Tyson, Iverson, Dennis Rodman and Dominque Wilkins. Iverson sold out on photo-op tickets, and if more could have been sold, he would have moved into the top two, Mintz said.
Mintz admitted that he heard countless times throughout the weekend that they should have attempted to sign Michael Jordan to appear at the Chicago National, particularly since Scottie Pippen appeared.
“That’s probably not happening ever,” Mintz said, laughing.
But, it does beg the question, would collectors pay $500 or $1,000 or more for one Jordan autograph?
“I think he would sell well,” Mintz said.
What else happened in the Tristar Autograph Pavilion? Here’s a look:
– Hockey Hall of Famer Pierre Pilote was the first signer. “He couldn’t have been nicer to the fans,” Mintz said.
– Paul Konerko was a top draw, and after signing he stopped for a television interview with a Chicago station to reflect on his career, including the 2005 World Series.
– The quote of the weekend: “We didn’t really have a bad apple in the bunch,” Mintz said.
– Dominique Wilkins was a surprise, selling more autograph tickets than insiders predicted before the show.
– Iverson spotted Ripken while signing. He asked to be introduced and gave the Baseball Hall of Famer a huge bear hug. Iverson later walked over to great Emmitt Smith.
– Curley Culp was a big draw.
– Mike Eruzione rarely does autograph signings by himself; he prefers team-related signings.
– Manny Sanguillen and Maury Wills each drew large lines of autograph-seekers.
– Frank Kaminsky was very popular among signers at the Tristar Photo Booth.
– Several celebrities sought out Jimmy Connors to meet and greet. It was Connors’ first-ever major card show appearance. “The reaction to Connors by other players was really cool to see,” Mintz said.
– Hulk Hogan was popular with fans and athletes, alike, as many posed for photos with the pro wrestling icon, including Derek Bell.
– Nate “Tiny” Archibald got autographs from several other athletes at the show.
– Maddux had one of the most illegible signatures of all signers.
– A fan brought Dontrelle Willis his high school baseball letterman’s jacket, purchased off eBay. He had been missing it for years. “Dontrelle was beside himself with joy, getting his items back; it was unbelievable,” Mintz said.
The 2016 National moves to Atlantic City, and Mintz already is stoked for the site, especially with so many New York and Philadelphia teams and fans reasonably close by. “Within a six-hour drive of Atlantic City, you have about half the country’s population. So that National will be big, really, really big. I’m already working on it because there are a lot of options for the autograph pavilion,” Mintz said.
“I don’t know how many guests will appear in Atlantic City. We’ll evaluate what’s in the best interest of the show, the customers and exhibitors and go from there. I’m not married to a number.”
Mintz also said he’s mixed on a team-themed approach, such as with the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team in Chicago. However, the 20th anniversary of the 1996 New York Yankees is in 2016.
Just imagine if Derek Jeter appeared! The key word there is “if.” He would be one of the most popular baseball guests at a show ever.
Ross Forman is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at Rossco814@aol.com.