September 11, 2009

An American Pastime: Autograph-Hunting

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Sure, I wasn’t alive when the Honorable Ken Dryden ’70, one of the most decorated goaltenders in NHL history, led Cornell to the 1967 NCAA Frozen Four championship nor was I there to witness former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley will his Princeton Tigers to a Final Four berth in the 1965 NCAA Tournament. However, I was in the audience last night at Bailey Hall as both Ivy immortals reminisced about their respective athletic and political careers.
As a lifelong New York Knicks fan who yearns for the good old days of Willis Reed, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and “Dollar” Bill Bradley, I could tell you anything you want to know about the 1970 and ’73 championship teams. I must have seen Willis Reed hobble out of the tunnel to a thunderous ovation at the Garden in Game 7 against the Lakers in the 1970 NBA Finals about a million times. Although I admit there is a drop-off in my knowledge of NHL history, anyone Cornell student with a modicum of sports knowledge is certainly aware of Ken Dryden. In fact, of the dozen or so athletic T-shirts in my dresser, the only one without a New York emblem on it is Dryden’s Montreal Canadiens shirt.
Naturally, I was not only very interested in what the speakers had to say, but I was also interested in procuring an autograph afterwards. After asking several people in charge of staging the event if these two Hall of Famers would be available to sign, the answer was a resounding “no.” And, just like that, my three copies of Bradley’s book, Life on the Run (different covers for different editions), my December 1964 Sports Illustrated with him on the cover and my February 1972 Sports Illustrated with Dryden on the cover were destined to remain on my nightstand back home in rural Pennsylvania.
This was not the first time I sought an athlete’s autograph and was denied. I began collecting signatures from professional athletes at an early age. What started as an innocent endeavor at minor league Harrisburg Senators games blossomed into a full-fledged hobby. The process can be whittled down to a science.
In early March of 1999, we took a family vacation to Florida. We left Disney World a day earlier than planned, so we could travel to Port St. Lucie and watch a Mets spring training game. My two younger brothers were not happy with the decision, but I believe my father’s exact words were: “When Mickey Mouse hits .328 with 32 homeruns then we’ll see him, but until then there’s only one catcher in Major League Baseball with those power numbers and that’s Mike Piazza.”
Like any good signature seekers, we arrived at Tradition Field an hour before game time. We stood against the railing along the third baseline while a few players strolled out for pregame warm ups. A few obscure players, some journeymen and some youngsters with a slim shot of making the final cut were signing balls and cards. Then, for a moment, there he was: Mickey Mouse’s superior … perhaps the greatest hitting catcher ever … Mike Piazza. By the time I wiped the dazed look off of my face, he was already gone, sprinting towards the bullpen.
Disappointed by my lack of success, I began walking down the third base seats towards left field. All of a sudden, I saw him. He was the all-time stolen base leader in major league history and he was walking right next to me. Rickey Henderson shot me a look that said, “Hey kid, sure I’ll sign your ball”… or so I thought.
In reality, his exact response was, “No thanks, you have a disease,” and he turned away. The most recent Hall of Fame inductee was dead to me, and from then on I knew him only as that bum who set the major league record for the number of times caught stealing.
Later that day, after the game while I got Mets manager Bobby Valentine to sign my cap, my mom told us she saw Rickey Henderson on the field and he agreed to take a picture with her. I couldn’t believe it! What was wrong with this man?
It wasn’t until later when my mom got the pictures developed that Rickey Henderson, or who she thought was “Rickey Henderson,” turned out to be an elderly Caucasian gentleman in his late 60s with a noticeable curve to his spine.
Since then, there have been numerous failures to acquire autographs from David Wright to Nate Robinson to Mike Richter. However, there have also been quite a few success stories. At home I have autographs from Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Bernie Williams, Jose Reyes, Eli Manning and Jeremy Shockey (when he was good), but these were all purchases, not earned.
Perhaps the most highly prized signature I received was at a Knicks-76ers game in Philadelphia. Bill Bradley’s former teammate, Walt Frazier, was kind enough to sign an autograph. Today, you know him as the color commentator for the New York Knicks with a proclivity for rhyming his phrases. However, in a prior lifetime Clyde was regarded as one the premier guards in NBA history and showed a flair for “swishin’ and dishin’ in transition.”
As I said earlier, it boils down to a science. It was halftime, so I strolled down to the press area at midcourt. Since the Knicks were playing out the string in another woeful season and were on the road, Frazier did not attract the same notice as he might have at the Garden. Once security left to fetch Frazier a hot pretzel, my youngest brother and I pounced. I hoisted him over the rope. Frazier looked startled and bewildered, but then he saw the throwback jersey with his name on it that my brother was wearing and he knew what we wanted.
He was very polite and outgoing. He signed “Walt Frazier #10” and we headed back to our seats. Mission accomplished. All it took was a couple of minutes and like that Frazier became a hero.
Peyton Manning once said, “My dad always said, ‘It takes the same amount of time to smile as it does to be a jerk, so you might as well be nice.’ I used to watch him and how good he was about signing when he won and when he lost.” It’s this type of philosophy that makes Manning a fan favorite. It’s why Babe Ruth was beloved. Everyone has stories about players who go out of their way. It’s part of the attraction.
Unfortunately, this kind of behavior is becoming extinct. The only member of the starting five of whom did not have an autographed photo was Bill Bradley. And, I guess it is destined to remain that way. Every year when baseball holds its annual Hall of Fame induction in July not too far from here, old timers return to Cooperstown to set up outside shops and charge set rates for their autographs. Pete Rose, who was rightfully banned from baseball for betting on the sport, even makes his annual appearance, similar to the groundhog on the 2nd of each February, to sign for money. While the “Say Hey Kid,” Willie Mays, might arguably have been the greatest five-tool player in history, was his signature really worth $250 a pop during July’s induction ceremony?
Fortunately, there are those who just get it and if you are careful about your approach and polite when you ask, you might be one of the lucky few to receive an autograph. In fact, if you are lucky, you might catch me outside of the Statler Hotel today from noon to 2:00 p.m. signing copies of The Cornell Daily Sun. Don’t forget your wallet.