Autograph collection becomes a business
For 28 years, baseball fans Barbara and Mickey Brinkley of Ellijay, Ga., traveled to spring training camps around the country collecting autographs from players.
"He'd watch the games, and I chased the players," Barbara says, laughing. "We got to know a lot of them because we went every year. We learned who'd sign and who wouldn't, where they'd sign, where they wouldn't, and when they'd sign."
The Brinkleys built a massive collection containing thousands of baseball, and later golf, memorabilia -- 3,000 signed cards, 400-500 autographed bats, balls, photos, caps and more.
"There's a story behind every autograph we got," Barbara adds with pride.
She says they always thought they would leave their collection to their eight grandchildren, but found they weren't interested.
"They'd sell it at yard sales and get nothing for it," she worries. So the couple opened a kiosk inside North Star Emporium in Ellijay, where they are slowing selling off their personal collection.
"The ones who come in here don't expect to find such good pieces because this is a mountain store," she describes of her surprised customers. Her best sale to date: a Tiger Woods autographed flag for $500.
"Tiger Woods' autograph is hard to come by. I have a couple Tiger Woods photos left, and lots of golf stuff not even in the shop yet," Barbara says.
Collectors may want to call the Brinkleys to check on a specific athlete's memorabilia before making the 90-minute drive to Ellijay. The North Star Emporium's number is 706-697-7827.
At 11 years old, Blaine Savage has already gotten some enviable autographs in his collection.
"I have a jerseys signed by (New Orleans Saints teammates) Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham, an autographed baseball, bat and photos," says the rising sixth-grader at East Hamilton Middle School.
Blaine says he started collecting at age 6 for a specific reason: "Because it will make money one day."
In fact, it already has.
According to Marty Davis, owner of Marty's Sports Card Exchange on Lee Highway, a Drew Brees autograph on a a store-bought jersey is valued at $100, but one signed on an authentic NFL jersey can bring $400 or more.
But is the handwriting on the wall for these old-school signatures? With the ubiquitous cellphone in the hands of fans ages pre-teens to grandparents, will the selfie-with-star supersede the desire for autographed memorabilia?
According to country superstar Taylor Swift, it already has.
In an op-ed piece she wrote for the Wall Street Journal, Swift termed the autograph "obsolete" and said she hasn't been asked for one "since the invention of the iPhone with front-facing camera."
"The only memento kids these days want is a selfie. It's part of the new currency, which seems to be how many followers you have on Instagram," she writes.
The selfie's popularity lies in the fact that a photo of yourself with your favorite celeb can be instantly transmitted by Facebook or Instagram to all your friends. Everyone can share in your 15 seconds of fame, almost in real time. It's a lasting souvenir that is priceless to the owner, but really won't increase in value.
The old-school autograph lasts (with care) as long as the selfie, but will increase in value, depending on the career of the celebrity. Davis says the only way a selfie has value is "if you had a way to print it, then get the star's autograph on the paper."
"In the social age of a sight-and-sound generation, pictures are preferred," says Gator Harrison, program director for WUSY-FM/US 101 radio, which regularly brings country's rising stars and superstars to town for concerts.
"There have always been two cool things about meeting celebrities: 1) The peek behind the curtain and face time to see if they are who you've imagined they are, and 2) a souvenir that you can show your friends that 'you did so meet them.' Pictures are just a more compelling and fun story to tell all your friends -- and who doesn't love a fun story? So, I agree with Taylor," she says.
Davis says autographs are still thriving in sports memorabilia, but the way they are being collected is what has changed. Now athletes gather at huge sports expos, where fans can get their memorabilia signed for a fee set by the player. The bigger the athlete's name, the higher the fee.
Paying for a pro athlete's autograph isn't really new. Marvin "Stump'" Martin, director of East Ridge Parks and Recreation, recalls going to baseball card shows in Atlanta in the 1980s, where he paid $30 to $50 to get Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays' signatures on bats and cards. Martin has been collecting autographed sports memorabilia for more than 50 years -- his first collectible being a Dallas Cowboy bobblehead circa 1960.
But the change in showcases from a gathering of a single sport's top names to bringing together high-profile athletes from multiple sports is new.
Davis just returned from the Collectors Showcase of America in Chantilly, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C., where 5,000 fans from across the country convened for the chance to get the signatures of athletes such as Chip Lohmiller, Tony Romo, Pete Rose, Ralph Sampson, "Mean Joe" Greene and Joe Theisman.
At these collectors' conventions, a basic admission fee of $15 for the two days is charged, then an additional fee is charged by the athlete for signing either a "small flat" (something that is 11-by-14 inches or less such as a photo, book, card or magazine) to a "premium item," which could be a jersey, helmet, ball, hockey stick, etc.
At last week's CSA Chantilly show, for example, small-flat fees ranged from $25 for NBA All-Star Ralph Sampson's signature to $125 for former Dallas Cowboy Michael Irvin's.
If you want a photo with the star, that's an additional $80 or so, says Davis. But selfies are strictly banned. The fan must let a contracted professional photographer take it.
"They won't allow you to bring a cellphone to signings," says Davis. "There is security everywhere. Bill Russell is notorious for no cellphones in his line. The way it works is that you buy a ticket, get in line and security checks you to make sure you have the right ticket and no phone."
Athletes aren't the only ones charging for a photo. Internet reports show Sylvester Stallone's asking price for a photo was $445 at Comic-Con last year. At a Star Trek convention, William Shatner charged $72 for either a photo or an autograph.
Steve Wrate, owner of All-Star Sports Cards on Highway 58, says there are still athletes who will sign for free -- if you know how to catch them at the game. And, he adds, even those who charge don't always keep the cash and, instead, give it to charity.
As far as autograph collecting in baseball and football cards, Wrate says it's still a growing hobby.
"I have customers who go down to Atlanta Falcons games and don't even catch the game, but wait for the players to come out afterward. That's when they can get cards signed. I sell thousands of cards a year to fans who go to Lookouts or Braves games and to customers who travel to spring training camps to get them signed," he says.
Wrate says another growing trend is athletes creating their own websites, where fans can send memorabilia to be signed and returned. However, the money paid for that autograph is donated to a charity.
"Older Hall of Fame members are doing this. Google athletes like Phil Neikro, and you can find who they are."
Contact Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.
Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...