By Scott Fragale
If the names Hugh Ray, Charles Bidwell and Tim Mara aren’t familiar to you, you’re obviously not an NFL Hall of Fame autograph collector. To those familiar with the collecting genre, the names represent the Holy Grail, the rarest of the rare, the signatures at the top of almost of everybody’s wish list.
While some autograph collectors search for a select few ballplayers to build on, others search for entire categories. For NFL HOF autograph collectors, the recent additions of the 2009 inductees bumped that complete list to 253 players.
For frequent guest signers like Raymond Berry, Paul Hornung and Yale Lary, the opportunities to acquire an example are plentiful and the autographs can be had relatively cheaply. But for players that rarely applied their John Hancocks to anything other than their own personal documents, the search can be an exhaustive and expensive one.
For one such collector, the pursuit of all 253 signatures began more than 20 years ago and remains one of his top priorities today.
Being a football fan who just happens to live in Canton, Ohio, one might think that collecting NFL Hall of Fame autographs was a natural for Rocke Sweaney. But despite the geographical advantage, he had no interest in pursuing such a mission until a brush with greatness in 1987 changed his perspective.
“I got started when I went to the Hall of Fame dinner which is when the new class of Hall of Famers gets their gold jackets, the Friday night of induction weekend in 1987,” Sweaney said. “When I was there, I got to meet and get autographs from Al Davis, Art Rooney, Pete Rozelle, George Blanda, Marion Motley, just on and on. There’s about 4,000 people that go to this dinner at the Canton Civic Center; all the HOFers are there. I was a football fan and Cleveland Browns season-ticket holder for more than 20 years but I wasn’t a collector at all before that but getting to meet those guys and getting their autographs was just amazing. That’s when I thought, ‘Wow, this is really cool,’ and I got the bug that night at the dinner in ’87.”
Once bitten, Sweaney began to grow his collection by attending local shows in Canton and eventually accelerated the process by ordering a Hall of Fame-endorsed (and authenticated) Gold Set featuring (which at the time included about 80 percent of all the HOF players) 4-by-6-inch colorful cards featuring the artwork of Gary Thomas (see Joe Montana example at left). The limited-edition (to 100) Gold Sets were sold by the Pro Football Hall of Fame and provided those lucky enough to get their hands on one with a significant percentage of the entire HOF autograph series.
“Because I live here in Canton I knew the (Hall of Fame) Gift Shop manager and the director of the HOF and they actually let me put the set on a long-term payment plan and I made monthly payments on it because it was pretty expensive,” Sweaney said.
The HOF Goal Line Art Gold Set cost $4,200 and featured approximately 80 percent of the entire list of signatures, but despite the much-needed head start the set affords its owners, the remaining 20 percent is where the chase really begins.
And once you’re bitten by this particular collecting bug, the only known cure is completing the entire set and nothing short of that will do.
“After that, I started to go to shows in Cleveland and another big show in Virginia, Collectors Showcase of America. I started hooking up with dealers and started buying index cards and cancelled checks of guys that were already deceased before the Goal Line cards came along, so I picked up about 55-60 signatures like that and that got me down to the five remaining signatures that I need right now.”
During the course of his chase, Sweaney has made friends with several fellow collectors who share a similar passion. Whether it be on message boards or a recent first meeting at this year’s National, the group shares a common bond and putting the faces with the names was a great experience.
“I’ve known this group of guys for a while now,” Sweaney said. “We all check out the same auctions, the same websites and for the most part, we’re all looking for the same guys to add to our collections. If I see something that I have and one of the other guys needs I’ll let him know about it. But on the other hand, if we all need the same guy and I see it first, well, you know how it is.”
But before you can chip away at the original list of 253 needed to complete the list, you’ll need to start searching and perhaps more importantly, start saving. In Sweaney’s case, it took some good luck in a few other areas of his collecting pursuits to help finance his HOF quest.
Living in Canton afforded Sweaney a rare chance encounter with the late Thurman Munson during his high school years. During the brief meeting with the former Yankees catcher, he was lucky enough to get Munson to sign a baseball for him, which he eventually sold in a Leland’s auction for $6,300 to help finance some of the rarer autographs in his collection.
Working as a night crew manager at a grocery store in Canton for the last 32 years has helped him afford some of his acquisitions and it also helped teach Sweaney about the value of comparison shopping. As he inched closer to the elusive 253, Sweaney also learned the value of the Internet. He’s registered with dozens of auction houses and has viewed thousands of sales, constantly monitoring upcoming events trying to find examples of the final five names on his list.
The five remaining signatures on Sweaney’s list are likely the same five names on many NFL HOF collector’s wish lists because finding a quality example from this Fab Five is about as difficult as earning a spot in Canton. The five that Sweaney is currently coveting are: Joe Carr, Walt Kiesling, Tim Mara, Charles Bidwell and the rarest of the rare, Hugh Ray.
Having the resources is really just half the battle when searching for rare NFL HOF signatures. Finding examples in decent shape might be the tougher part of the equation. For example, according to autograph aficionado Kevin Keating, only two Ray signatures are known to exist and Keating should know, considering he owns one of them and was part owner of both at one time.
“There are two known Ray signatures and I’ve been doing this for a long, long time and they both came from the same document, which was a form he filled out from the University of Illinois,” Keating said. “I co-owned the form with somebody else at one time and split it in two. My co-owner sold the other one and I held onto mine and that’s the piece I have in my collection.”
After locating the scarce Ray signatures, Keating and the co-owner tried to purchase the document from the owner for several years before working out a cash-trade deal that pushed the final selling price well into the five-figure range.
Securing the Ray signature completed Keating’s quest of compiling all of the HOF autographs possible. He’s missing a couple of the signatures from this year’s group of inductees (Rod Woodson, Randall McDaniel, Bruce Smith, Ralph Wilson and Derrick Thomas) but he’s not concerned about those guys because, no offense guys, but you’re no Hugh Ray.
As for Sweaney, he’ll keep in touch with his local dealers and continue to scour the web with hopes of one day reaching Keating’s coveted status. Until then, he’ll continue to upgrade some of his existing pieces and make connections that may ultimately lead to his set’s completion.
“Everything I have in my collection has been authenticated by Jim Spence or PSA/DNA. Most of the items I have were already authenticated before I bought them but some were not,” Sweaney said. “You have to just know you’re dealer, know who your buying from and stick with the guys you can trust. I have bought two autographs in all of my years of collecting that did not pass.
“But even when you buy from ‘good’ dealers that you trust, they can accidentally have one that slips through the cracks. That’s what makes this expensive and tough. You can always pick up autographs of guys that you need that are cheap but you have to be careful when it’s cheap because you know what they say about if it’s too good to be true it probably is.”
The cumulative effort of his 22 years of work has brought Sweaney finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. While he’s not exactly sure which way his collecting road will wind upon completion, he knows that he will feel a great sense of accomplishment when he gets there.
“To me, the prize is getting them all or at least getting down to the final one,” Sweaney said. “And that’s my goal and that’s what I’m working on. I’d be satisfied with accomplishing the goal I set out to do,” Sweaney predicted. “I’m certainly not going to try and do the same with baseball because it’s just too much and nearly impossible. Nothing else would really grab my interest like this has. I will never, ever sell this autograph collection. Some things I will sell, but not this, not under any circumstances.”
Self satisfaction aside, Sweaney knows that while the collection was initially a one-man project at the outset, it has since transformed into a shared passion and an ever-strengthening bond between him and his son.
“I do this with my 11-year-old son Ben and he loves doing this with me. He’s had his picture taken with probably about 125 Hall of Famers and he really loves it, loves football and it’s something we can share together and have fun doing it together. I put too much time and effort and literally too much love into this to ever get rid of it. I want my son to own this after I’m gone.”