Signature Scumbags

There's nothing like watching washed-up millionaires price-gouge.

professional sports Bart Starr Eric Dickerson autograph signings
Eric Dickerson was kind enough to pose for a photo. He was not kind enough to stand or take off his shades.
Eric Dickerson was kind enough to pose for a photo. He was not kind enough to stand or take off his shades.
He's made it. He's a handoff away from Bart Starr, walking among football legendry. And he's toting indisputable evidence of the experience: a tiny Green Bay Packers helmet, autographed in sharp black ink by the Packers' star quarterback of yesteryear.

This is why Craig Newsome is here -- why many of these people are here, piled into the I-X Center on a muggy August Saturday: to have their belongings scribbled on by heroes, to swap sweaty palms with men whose moves they once busted in the backyard.

But Newsome doesn't gush or shiver with goose bumps. He mutters. It's not quite audible, this rant, but it seems to include several known variations of the "f" word. His face flatlines. He looks like someone just tried to steal his wallet.

Turns out, someone did: Bart Starr.

"You ask him to put 'Hall of Fame' -- 'H.O.F' -- and his year, and that's an extra $60," Newsome fumes. The hefty steelworker from Lorain already bought a ticket to the event (they range from $17.50 a day to $1,000 for the weekend), a mini Packers helmet ($20), and a ticket to get the helmet signed by Starr ($140). He could get his picture taken with Starr (another $120), but he doesn't need that. He did, however, want Starr to scrawl five extra characters on that little helmet: "HOF '77." But that, he learned, cost an extra $60.

"You gotta be kidding me," Newsome says, waiting in line to have Starr's autograph authenticated ($10). "Stuff like that's gonna stop me from coming. How is that worth $60? That's ridiculous."

No, that's life at the National Sports Collectors Convention. The event comes to Cleveland once a year, and thank God: these card nerds, autograph hounds, and other collectors, pro and amateur alike, form a multibillion-dollar industry. Their annual pilgrimage helps nourish our bulimic starlet of an economy.

But the show has a way of sucking the goose bumps out of the world's greatest diversion. It's not that the stuff isn't cool: You could spend a week thumbing through the possessions of the show's 100-plus vendors. It's a maze of mementos of lusted-after lives: a framed Michael Jordan jersey ($2,375), a seat from Jacobs Field ($800), a jumpsuit worn by Tiger Woods' caddie ($75), a Bobby Riggs-autographed tennis ball ($75) -- not to mention the stacks and stacks of cards, from Stan Musial to Stan Covelski, that could surely span Lake Erie.

But with all the shucksters and suitcase-lugging collectors and endless announcements -- Last call for Y.A. Tittle! -- the thing feels like a livestock auction, only the livestock have bad knees and prices are fixed at Four Times What You'd Expect. Earnest sports fans, stroller-pushing moms, even jersey-wearing kids -- inside this cattle hall, everyone can readily recite the Creed of Terrell Owens: "It's a business."

It's the only place on earth where Barry Bonds' record chase elicits not madness, but market talk. It's the only place on earth where hundreds of Ohio State fans, dozens of Michigan fans, several beer stands, and scores of heavy wooden bats peacefully coexist. You could spend the weekend here in a Wolverines jersey and not hear a single "Fuck Michigan."

"It's just kind of a meat market," Graig Nettles, the former Yankees and Indians third baseman, says between autographs. He's sitting in the "autograph pavilion," a cordoned-off area where the prime-cut beef (Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Gordie Howe) and lesser stock (Nettles, Ickey Woods, Jon Matlack) graze.

Nettles' signature is cheaper than Starr's. "They're not paying that much for mine," he chuckles. But you still need a ticket ($40), and you still have to wade through the switchback lines, collect his signature, and hurry to the authentication booth, as if someone wouldn't believe that you actually landed Graig Nettles' autograph.

It's a double-your-Xanax-prescription sight, watching kids hand over $150 tickets for Gordie Howe's autograph -- the sort of thing that makes you want to buy a Gordie Howe-autographed hockey stick ($500), for the purpose of making Mr. Hockey rethink this sector of his retirement plan: Hey, Gordie, ever consider a small-cap mutual fund? They've been strong for several quarters and don't rip off little kids.

But it's not fair to blame just the players.

"Ninety percent of them are collectors," Nettles says of the autograph hounds. "They're gonna try to make money off of it, so why can't we make a little?"

Besides, no one's strong-arming anyone. "If you have extra income, you decide what you're going to spend it on," says Jeff Scanlon, admiring his still-wet Eric Dickerson autograph ($90). "Some people spend it on golf. Some people spend it on sports tickets. Some people spend it on autographs."

Like Brian Fogle. Standing in the autograph pavilion, he's admiring the new Art Schlichter signature ($40) on his prized leather Buckeyes jacket. It's covered in silver autographs from players as far back as the '50s, including several Heisman winners. "It's the greatest Ohio State jacket in Ohio State history," Fogle announces. Asked about the rest of his collection, he reveals a stack of photos that he has ready for moments like this. They're pictures of his house, which is wall-to-wall scarlet and gray. "That's all you gotta know right there."

Fogle, quite naturally, is single. "No wife gonna put up with that shit," he says. "It ain't happenin'." If a woman inexplicably fell for him, "She better be an Ohio State fan. She a Michigan fan, she's gettin' buried in the back."

So, yes -- thankfully, they charge men like Fogle for autographs; otherwise there would be many more men like him in the world. But don't shelve your new Gordie Howe stick just yet.

Just a few feet away, a middle-aged dad ushers his son as close as he can -- about 40 feet -- to Bob Feller, to make sure the boy knows the old Indians hurler's face. That's when the boy asks about an autograph. Unfortunately, Dad's face says, those go for a week's worth of a groceries.

"That's cheap," the kid says. He's talking about the players, not the prices.

Nettles is right: There are plenty of collectors here. But there are plenty of men who stopped collecting long ago, when they decided it would be cool if they could actually get a date. Ask these men about the show, and they talk longingly, joyfully about their own collecting days. Between bites of his hot dog ($2,745), one dad recalls the time he met Muhammad Ali. "The best part was just shaking his hand," he says. As he tells the story, his young son looks on, eyes as wide as a Natalie Gulbis-autographed golf ball ($30). Nearby, another boy doesn't have to wait for his dad's story; he's heard it so many times, he can tell it himself: "In 1968, he got four Nolan Ryan rookies, and my grandma made him throw 'em away!"

But when you ask these dads if they'll be getting any autographs, their faces fall. Market-driven or not, the prices have a way of making fiscally responsible fathers look like they lost their kids' college fund playing Pai Gow. For them, the autograph pavilion is for window-shopping only.

There are, of course, those mysterious free autographs for kids: a banner hangs over the showroom floor, advertising "free kids autographs," no doubt sending plenty into Boobie Gibson-induced frenzies. But when you ask around, the dads all answer with the same shrug of the shoulders.

"No one seems to know where it's at," says Brian Hawkins, lingering with his sons, Chris and Grant, near the players. Ten-year-old Grant doesn't follow. "So we can get autographs for free?" he asks, his face freckled with hope.

"We don't know," Dad says flatly.

If he investigates, he'll learn that his sons missed their chance: Free Autograph Day was a three-and-a-half-hour window on Friday morning, when Pops had to work. That opportunity gone, the Hawkins family just lingers near the players. Grant manages to sneak up to Eric Dickerson between autographs and say hello. Dickerson, talking on his cell phone and hiding behind mirrored sunglasses, politely responds. But there will be no autograph: That's $80 Brian Hawkins doesn't have.

"I understand it costs to bring these people in," he says, "but by the time you pay the high cost of getting into the show . . ."

His voice trails off. But around here, the finances are so simple, even 13-year-old Chris gets it: "It's too much."

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