One fan’s take on athletes signing autographs

Tigers outfielder Brennan Boesch signs in Lakeland during spring training in 2011.

Go to any sporting event in America and you’ll see people begging. I’m not talking about homeless folks outside the arena, I’m talking about people from middle class and upper class families with their hands out. Usually with a ball and a pen in them.

It’s the business of the autograph. The fan begs, the athlete stops and complies with a scribble, or walks by. In one scenario the athlete is a hero, in the other he’s a jackass. But is it fair? Should athletes have to sign their names on our scraps of paper, baseballs, photos, and trading cards? What do these celebrities in jockstraps owe to their fan base? And how far can the fan go to acquire the autograph?

I’ve witnessed the autograph game from different angles. At one of my first big league baseball games, at Tiger Stadium in Detroit, my family and I sat just a few rows away from recently retired Tiger catcher Bill Freehan. When he got up to go somewhere, I reluctantly stood myself in front of him and asked him to scrawl his name in my program, which he did.

I wasn’t really sure why my parents goaded me to ask Freehan for his autograph, and I don’t have the program anymore, but I have the memory. Maybe that’s the point. I have only asked for an autograph twice since, with strikingly different results. In the early 1990s, as a fan outside Tiger Stadium, I was part of a small crowd situated next to a bus that was slowly filling with members of the Kansas City Royals. Gary Gaetti was one of the few who stopped to sign, and as I stood there with nothing other than my ticket stub for him, I blurted, “Why did you have to beat us up so bad [as a member of the Minnesota Twins] in the ’87 Playoffs?” Gaetti just stared at me and skipped past me on his way to the bus. Then, in 2004, when I attended the Detroit Tigers Fantasy Camp in Lakeland, I asked Jack Morris to sign the baseball I was trying to get every member of the ’84 World Series team to autograph. He was happy to do so.

As a part of the Baseball Hall of Fame staff I witnessed the opposite side of autographs – former players and managers getting hounded. For the most part, the Hall of Fame members were compliant, almost humbled. In fact, many of the players who had been out of the game for a while seemed to enjoy being asked. I saw Tigers great George Kell sign for fans in New York, almost ecstatic that anyone remembered who he was. Wade Boggs, Gary Carter, Phil Niekro, and Dave Winfield were notable for being very generous to autograph seekers.

Other Hall of Famers milked the business side of it. Fergie Jenkins signed at a table on Main Street in Cooperstown. It cost fans a few bucks to get his name on a piece of memorabilia. Willie Mays and Pete Rose demanded huge sums to sign anything. For players like Jenkins who never made millions in his prime, the fees he got for his signature helped him make an income. The ironic thing about signing is that the more a player signs, the less his autograph is worth. If he doesn’t sign much at all, however, he’s an ass.

Many fans consider it an athlete’s duty to sign autographs. Players who are conscientious are singled out. Part of the reason that Brandon Inge was so popular during his tenure win Detroit was that he famously went out of his way to sign. Ditto Alan Trammell as player and manager. I once saw Trammell sign for so long in Lakeland that his hand cramped up and I’m not sure how he signed as many as he did.

But are fans entitled to the autograph? In my opinion, no. I think athletes are required to play hard and to fulfill their contracts. A ballplayer can tell fans they don’t sign in a nice way, and most do. Or they can choose to sign, that’s their prerogative, but it’s not a requirement, in my opinion. I’ve seen how much time players commit to their jobs, how much travel they endure, how much  family time they sacrifice. We can argue about their huge salaries all we want, but the fact is that the market warrants the big dollars they and other celebrities get. Few people gripe when Will Smith gets $100 million for a movie.

It’s always struck me as sort of bizarre that fans can get so excited about getting an autograph. After all, it’s a signature, that’s it. What is so special and why are many fans so thrilled to accumulate them? Are they written proof that you were close to someone famous? I don’t know. But despite my early Freehan experience, I’ve never been a big autograph seeker.

Today, in ballparks all over the country, there will be fans who will scream and holler and beg for an autograph. Some players will walk right by and others will stop and sign. The goodwill earned by signing is great for the game, but players who choose not to sign shouldn’t be hated on. If they signed every single time they were asked, for every single person, they wouldn’t be able to do their jobs. And as much as we fans love baseball as a game, to the players it is their job.

What are your experiences with autographs? Have you seen players be generous or rude about it? Let me know in the comments below.

10 replies on “One fan’s take on athletes signing autographs

  • Paul Muchez

    When i was young i used to go to Tiger Stadium to get autographs in the late 90s. The two players i remember that would sign alot was Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi for the A’s. Griffey was one auto i could never get cause he never really signed

  • Tammie

    I am attending the series in Pittsburgh and plan to arrive early all 3 games in the hopes of obtaining autographs. For me, it is not about the monetary value of the autograph, but the experience of obtaining it and having it…

  • Jeff Gooch

    I had the sincere pleasure of attending a West Michigan minor league game with Mark “The Bird” Fidrych prior to his unfortunate death. He could not have been nicer. He signed an old Tiget pennant for me that I had bought from “Dancing Gus” by Tiger Stadium. He signed it ROY Mark Fidrich – Rookie of the Year.

    We had a wonderfull conversation. I told him I saw him pitch 11 times as a 17 year old in 1976. He asked “How did you get tickets?” Most his games sold out. I laughed the I was just a HS kid and we usually sat in the LF grandstands. I still remember in particular the game against NYY on Monday Night Baseball, Tigers winning 3-2 if I remember correctly.

  • Brian Blight

    I don’t agree with your article. Sure ball players are not obligated to sign autographs but they don’t have to be rude jerks either. I was in St. Louis and just happened to spot Justin Verlander on a golf cart getting ready to enter Busch Stadium. I was the only fan there…..and dressed in my Tigers shirt and cap. Notice I said the only fan there!!and there at the Cardinals ball park to support and root for him and the Tigers that day. Just me and him. He wouldn’t even look at me….but said catch me on the inside…which meant NO! I know that ball players work hard to stay in the major leauges….but you really need to talk to Ken Harrelson or Tommy LaSorda….Players are paid the big bucks because of the fans…I would gladly sign my name or at least be polite to be a mega millionare and to do something in life that I actually enjoy. Sparky Anderson said he couldn’t believe the kind of money they made to do something we loved to do for free as kids..He was right. Autographs come with the territory….Just like movie stars…you don’t like it….get another job that pays a hundred times less and join the majority of us who pay from our eager funds to watch multi-millionares do there job!

  • Tom Bialy

    Some years ago in the early 2000’s, the Internation Leauge All-Star game was held in Toledo, Ohio at Fifth Third Field home of the Mud Hens. As we were sittin waiting for the game to start, I noticed people ging down to the seats a dn watching the person sign autograhs. It was Tony Gwynn. He was in town to see his son play. I do love my autographs but very seldon ask and when I do its someone that I think has made an impact on the game. Som I grabbed my big ticket which was hanging around my neck a away I went. As I asked very politely, he turned to me and beratted me for moming to him. I was dumbfounded and could feel myself turn red. I watched him play for 20 years and always admired his hitting skills and batting titles. I wanted to let him have it but decided not to, he did sign and off I went. My point is that after complaining, instead of moving or asking to be moved so as no to be bothered he kept signing. After awhile I noticed that he was standing in the isle in back of me still watching. I believe it was one of those cases where he wanted to put on this big show of annoyance, but yet he wanted to be noticed. What did he expect? He should have made better plans and if he waould have, no one would have known he was there….in the 30 seconds I had with him, he erased the 20 years that I admired him. First impressinons mean alot. All he had to say was NO. I remember him more now for what he did to me that day rather then for what he did on the field.

  • mark byberg

    I was at a restaurant/lounge on a saturday night singing karaoke when I noticed a large table full of people.It was Mike Babcock,coach of the Red Wings and his family and friends.I did not want to bother him so I sat at my table and ate and sang a couple of songs.When I got done with one song one of the people at table came over and we talked for a few minutes and he invited me over to meet Coach Babcock and his freinds.I told him I did not want to bother him while he was with his family and he said it was ok and he signed my Wings coat for me.What a great jesture and what a great person Mike Babcock is.

  • Bob

    Signing autographs are part of the territory, in MHO. Same thing for rock stars, movie stars and TV personalities. If you rely on the paying public to pay your salary, give the paying public what they want. I understand they can’t sign each and every time they step out of the dugout, but they should at least try to humor the ticket-buying fans once in awhile. Example, in the Detroit/Texas series, a few players such as Coke and Benoit walked the railing for 10-15 minutes each signing every auto request. That earned HUGE respect from the fans. Prince only signed on the third day for about 20 people next to the dugout. Cabrera a total of four autos in the three game set right before game three. Leland signed all three days. Verlander? He wouldn’t even look at the fans, much less sign. If he’s going to be a p**ck about it, just tell the fans, “I’m not signing today” so they don’t get their hopes up and keep trying. Or announce, “I’ll sign 20 for the kids.” Max came out twice and said, “I’ll just sign for the kids.” I’m not a kid so I missed out, but I totally respected him for signing. On the other side of the field, other than Michael Young and Kinsler who rarely sign anymore, the other Rangers are great about signing for the fans before and after batting practice.

  • R McGillivray

    I will second the other fan that stated Verlander is a punk. My family just got back from Baltimore to watch the Tigers play the Orioles. We stayed in the same hotel where the Tigers stayed. On Saturday, when Verlander, did not even have to pitch, I observed a couple of kids about 10 years old ask him for an autograph when no other fans were around. By the time it took him to the tell those kids That he didn’t want to sign because he would have to sign for everyone else, he could have easily signed their baseballs. Despite no longer being a Verlander fan for the arrogance he displayed, Coke and Valverde were awesome stopping for a picture with my daughter. Even Cabrera signed a few things for the fans.

  • Florida Collector

    I agree with many that players should sign for the fans. We buy tickets, hats, jerseys, expensive food and drinks, etc. for the love of the game that they get paid to play. On Friday, I was at the Tigers @ Braves game at Disney. I saw Victor Martinez sign, Prince sign, and Cabrera sign twice. Am I upset that I didn’t get any of their autographs? Of course not. Although I came close, its just nice to know that those guys are willing to take the time to appreciate the fans. I will also say that on a separate occasion, my one experience trying to get Justin Verlander to sign a ball was a success.

    Now like some of your opinions of Verlander, one of the most noticeable hot heads I see is B.J. Upton. I have been to a ton of Rays games and now the first three Braves games this year at Disney, and out of all of these times, I have seen him sign only once for a couple minutes outside of Tropicana Field. I have seen him yell at fans asking politely on multiple occasions, but usually just completely ignores everyone. This is a 0 time All Star, 0 time World Series champion, 0 time anything. I just don’t understand. And even today, I got his brother Justin’s autograph.

  • Goochland Native

    After reading this article, I kindly disagree. I think players have a certain obligation to their fans. No fans means no ticket sales. No ticket sales means no salary. Let’s face it, baseball is not the sport that it once was.

    This leads me to Just Verlander. He was once asked by an old coach for an autograph. The esteemed Justin Verlander refused. Rather than thanking his coach with a simple autograph, he decided to deny the request. For this reason alone, I will never cheer for him again or offer any monitory contribution to his team again.

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