Ever since I entered this great hobby, I’ve been collecting on-card autographs. The majority of them I got signed in person. I’ve always found it fascinating to watch a player sign his cursive, and then see if he adds anything personal to the scrawl. Perhaps a jersey number? Or a smiley face? Maybe even a religious reference?
I’ve seen all of the above.
There has been much debate on whether autographs lend beauty to a card front or actually detract from it. The decades-old argument about getting a player’s autograph on his rookie card continues to rage, only nowadays it isn’t necessarily considered taboo. A player’s signature on his rookie card – or any card, for that matter – can actually add value, certainly sentimentally if not financially. Just ask PSA/DNA Principal Autograph Authenticator Kevin Keating.
“Some collectors consider an autograph on a card as ‘card graffiti’ and as a result will only collect clean, unsigned cards,” he said. “For me, an autograph on a card makes that cardboard both unique and special. The autograph means that the signer came in contact with the card; therefore, owning a signed card provides a direct, physical link to its signer. That link makes the card special and forever distinguishes it from all of its unsigned cousins.”
My hunt for gathering signatures on cards got an early boost during the 1993 Pro Bowl festivities in Honolulu. I was on assignment for Trading Cards magazine, but I was a kid in a candy store for those few days. I stayed at the Ilikai Hotel – which is situated right next door to the Hilton Hawaiian Village, where the Pro Bowl stars were staying – so I had easy access to the NFL’s best players.
As a credentialed member of the media, I was able to board the players’ buses each day as they headed over to their respective practices. I simply walked across the street at 7:45 each morning and jumped on whichever bus I chose. On Thursday, I headed over to Aloha Stadium to watch the AFC squad practice, while on Friday, I rode along with the NFC players to the University of Hawaii. Afterwards, when I finished collecting quotes from players on questions ranging from their thoughts on signing autographs for adoring fans to what it felt like to be featured on their very own trading cards, I turned in my reporter’s hat for a collector’s cap. I simply pulled a card of theirs (along with a blue Sharpie) from a Pro Bowl fanny pack I was wearing and politely asked for a signature. Subtlety was key; no need to look too anxious. Most of the cards I brought along were 1992 Upper Deck; I chose them because they had the best action photos. I batted 16-for-18 that week (89%) with my impromptu autograph requests. The only rejections I got came from Jerry Rice and the late Reggie White, and both of those occurred near the Hilton Hawaiian Village’s valet station as they awaited taxi cab rides. But many of the ones I did walk away with were pure gold: Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, all six of whom now reside in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.
I’ve always believed that a card signed by the featured player is better than one unsigned. I recall when Upper Deck first inserted signed “Heroes” cards of MLB Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson inside high-number packs of its 1990 Baseball set. They followed that effort by inserting Hank Aaron signed “Heroes” cards in its ’91 Baseball release. The cards, numbered to 2,500, still fetch as much as $200 in the secondary market and sometimes much more at auction. Autographed insert cards – or chase cards, as they’re called – continue to pique collectors’ interests in various releases across all sports.
Panini America, Inc., one of today’s leading card manufacturers, has an exclusive NBA license to produce sought-after cardboard treasures of hoops stars, past and present. Tracy Hackler, the company’s Hobby Marketing manager, shared the following thoughts when asked about Panini’s philosophy behind including hard-signed, on-card autographs in its various releases.
“We pride ourselves on bringing fans and collectors as close to their on-court heroes as possible – and one of the most intimate and popular ways we do that is by acquiring authentic autographs from the sports world’s biggest stars. The on-card autograph is a direct connection to the player. It’s been in the player’s house or in his office or in the locker room and, most importantly, it’s been in his hands.
“And while that autograph can be credited for adding market value to the card, there’s something to be said for the hefty sentimental, emotional and aesthetic values it provides, too.”