Learning Curve: Landing My First Autograph7 min read


It may sound trivial, but good manners really do go a long way. Over more than 25 years of collecting players’ autographs, I’ve found that the honest approach remains the best. By that, I mean, ask for an autograph because you want that player’s signature and not because you hope to sell it on eBay a week later. Granted, a collector’s mentality is different than that of an investor, but to a player all that matters is that somebody wants his autograph. It’s flattering. It’s humbling. It’s cool. And nowadays, it can be lucrative.

Chasing Gale Sayers

In November of 1990, just one month into my tenure as editor of Beverly Hills-based Trading Cards magazine – a monthly that was still four months away from debuting on national newsstands – I attended my first card show. We were in the process of gathering assets for production purposes including topical cards to photograph, when my boss, Chris Davidson, suggested we head to a hotel in Anaheim to check out the “weekend warriors,” a.k.a. card show dealers who set up shop in ballrooms to peddle their existing sports cards. It was a Saturday afternoon and unbeknownst to me, two Hall of Famers were in attendance signing autographs: Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers and St. Louis Cardinals hard-throwing right-hander Bob Gibson.

When I saw both Sayers and Gibson signing at side-by-side tables, I was mesmerized. As a longtime sports fan and someone who cried at the age of 9 watching “Brian’s Song,” my heart was pounding. “That’s Gale Sayers!” I thought. “And that’s Bob Gibson, the guy who broke Red Sox fans’ hearts in the ‘67 World Series.” Even though I’m a diehard Boston fan, I was still in sports heaven.

A nearby table was selling 8” by 10” photos of both Sayers and Gibson in uniform for $5 each and both HOFers were charging $10 for their autographs. Knowing we’d be setting up a company booth at the upcoming National Sports Collectors Convention in August, Chris and I discussed the possibility of getting someone to sign autographs for us. Maybe it’ll help us sell some magazine subscriptions? I suggested both Gibson and Sayers as prime candidates. Why not strike while the poker was hot, right? Chris agreed. One problem: We had no magazine to show them. We didn’t even have business cards yet! Chris said to give it my best shot.

Based purely on proximity, I walked over to Gibson first and quickly introduced myself. I asked if I could get his phone number to discuss a possible autograph deal down the road. He asked if I had a business card. I knew it! When I fumbled with my answer he said no. Discouraged but not defeated, I next set my sights on Sayers. But before I approached Gale, I went ahead and spent the $15 to get his signature. As I walked up with my 8” x 10” photo, I asked if he could personalize it “To Terry.” He said sure and responded: “Do you want an inscription?” I quickly answered: “Good luck with the magazine.” He obliged at no extra cost. And that’s when things clicked. That exchange opened the door for me to tell him a little bit about our project. I gave him the quickest download I could and he gave me his phone number. Mission accomplished.

Eight months later, Gale Sayers was back in Anaheim (on our dime) signing autographs for Trading Cards magazine at the 1991 National Sports Collectors Convention. He signed 380 autographs at our booth that day and that’s exactly how many subscriptions we sold. I still have the photo he signed for me at our first meeting. It has made its way to different offices I’ve occupied in the years since and has always served as a conversation starter when people swing by to visit.

Granted, a collector’s mentality is different than that of an investor’s, but to a player all that matters is that somebody wants his autograph. It’s flattering. It’s humbling. It’s cool. And nowadays, it can be lucrative. Click To Tweet

The Early Years

Truth be told, as a child, I did ask for autographs. On occasion. And I wasn’t always successful. I recall a chance meeting in the early ‘70s when I pursued long-distance runner Jim Ryun just minutes after he had lost a race at an indoor track meet at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. In 1964, Ryun was the first high school distance runner to ever break the four-minute barrier (3:59) in the mile and was a silver medalist for the U.S. in the 1,500 meter race at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. With a pen and the day’s track program in hand, I walked up to Ryun with my brother Pat and asked for his autograph. He seemed dejected, almost embarrassed, and said no. We were flummoxed.



A few years later, at the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montreal, my sister Kay and I were walking through the Olympic grounds and came upon U.S. light welterweight boxer “Sugar Ray” Leonard. We quickly ducked into a souvenir shop, bought two Olympic postcards and excitedly ran back up to him. He happily signed for both of us. By the way, like Sayers, Sugar Ray’s got a great signature. And I’ve still got both postcards. (Shhh, don’t tell Kay.) Two nights later, I was in the Olympic boxing arena watching Leonard win one of his preliminary bouts when in walked actor Telly Savalas of “Kojak” fame. I only had my perforated ticket stub, but proceeded to walk right up to Kojak and ask him for his autograph. With his bodyguards lurking about, he signed my ticket stub. Unfortunately, I have no idea where it is today.

A year later, after attending a wrestling seminar back at the Nassau Coliseum, I was fortunate enough to find the day’s guest lecturer and lead technician, 1976 gold medalist Dan Gable, outside waiting for his ride. I walked up to him and he signed a brochure for me. That’s one more signature that’s gone missing over the years.

Learning the Ropes

We are all students of life, learning as we go and trying to get better at what it is we do. For me, and my subsequent years of meeting athletes through my profession and my hobby, that includes learning how to ask for autographs politely and when to ask for them. My advice is to wait for a moment when your subject is not preoccupied, be respectful of his time and introduce yourself. Quickly. They usually don’t have a lot of time to chit-chat. Let them know you’re a big fan and that you would really appreciate it if they could sign an autograph for you. Have your single item (trading card, baseball, book, magazine, photo, cap, etc.) and your signing tool (writing pen, Sharpie, paint pen, etc.) ready. And don’t ever ask for more than one signature or else it’ll appear that you’re just a stand-in for an autograph dealer who’s looking to turn their scrawl into a profit.

Always remember to say thank you to the athlete or celebrity after they honor your request. They may be a public figure, but their personal time and space is important. Don’t ever take that for granted. Besides, if the exchange is pleasant enough, it may very well open the door for a fellow autograph seeker to get their signature down the road. Consider it a way of paying it forward.

I’ve acquired quite a few signatures through the years. As a Red Sox fan, I’ve landed autographs from Fenway Park legends including Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Dwight Evans, Jim Lonborg, Fred Lynn, Jim Rice, Nomar Garciaparra and “Big Papi” himself, David Ortiz. And even though I acquired nearly all of the signatures in my collection in person, it’s still a good idea to get your autographs authenticated by a third-party authentication and grading company such as PSA/DNA.

Probably the biggest reason why it’s important to get your signatures authenticated by a third-party like PSA/DNA is because if you ever want to sell the autographs, PSA/DNA’s LOAs (Letters of Authenticity) are accepted by all the major auction houses. Because potential buyers simply feel more comfortable and confident with purchasing items that have been certified by PSA/DNA. Consider it peace of mind for both the buyer and seller.

Next time we’ll dive into the best locations and situations with which to get an athlete’s signature. There’s still plenty to learn.

Posted by Terry Melia

Terry Melia is a hobby veteran who has served in various PR, marketing and content roles for industry movers and shakers including The Upper Deck Company and SCP Auctions and is currently working as PSA's Public Relations and Content Specialist.

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