Frank Johnson was his name. Probably still is. He’s still alive, according to baseball-reference.com. Johnson was a reserve outfielder for the San Francisco Giants.
Spent six years with the Giants; his biggest year was 1970. Hit three home runs in 161 at-bats; drove in 31 runs. That was the year of our encounter. I was nine years old. Saw the Giants plays Houston in the Astrodome. Willie Mays rapped hit No. 2,998. But that’s not what I remember most. I remember the autograph. The last autograph I ever asked for.
Thousands of autographsSteve Owens did some math the other day. He figured he signed between 15,000 and 20,000 autographs last year. Think about that. That’s 50 a day. Sometimes Owens will sign 500 at a special event, but still. Fifty a day. "It’s incredible,” Owens said. He is 40 years from his Heisman Trophy season at OU. Almost 35 years from his NFL days with the Detroit Lions. "In Detroit, I don’t remember them being this crazy about autographs,” Owens said. The Lions had Picture Day back then; 200 or 300 would turn out for what was then a revered NFL franchise. Last weekend, an estimated 14,000 fans came to Meet the Sooners Day in Norman. An estimated 7,500 flooded Gallagher-Iba Arena for OSU Fan Appreciation Day in Stillwater. The autograph craze has not crested. Prices for collectors seem to fluctuate. Passion does not. It rides high. "For me, going out to the ballparks and getting autographs from the ballplayers is a way to get close to the game,” said Mark LaGuardia, an Edmond businessman who is an avid baseball memorabilia collector. "A way to stay close to the game.” That’s why so many fans came to Stillwater and Norman last weekend. An autograph is a connection. NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell long refused to sign autographs, saying, "it created the illusion that we had touched, when we hadn’t...” But Russell was wrong. Fan and hero do touch through an autograph, which is a tangible reminder of a golden moment, when they shared a conversation or a handshake or even just airspace. Remember in gentler times, when you’d hear stories of someone shaking hands with the President and vowing not to wash for a month? Same with the signature. "That’s as close as you’re going to get to the guy,” OU fan Pete Ramirez said. "The signature is something that belongs to him that he did for you.” That’s why Ramirez and his wife drove over from Amarillo, Texas, last Thursday night, got a motel room, rose at 3:30 a.m. Friday and got in line to get Sam Bradford’s autograph. Ramirez can’t remember seeking an autograph before. But his adopted daughter is American Indian; part Cherokee and part Creek. She loves Sammy B., who is part Cherokee. So Ramirez bought a Bradford jersey to be signed. Alas, the line was too long. Ramirez was a victim of the autograph craze.
The firstBilly Sims remembers the first autograph he ever signed. His ninth-grade math teacher in Hooks, Texas, asked him to sign. Said Sims: "She said, ‘keep becoming a pretty good student, and you might become something some day.’ ”
Too much trouble?Autographs are a hassle for many athletes. "Baseball players understand why little kids want an autograph,” former Baltimore Oriole and current WWLS radio host Jim Traber said. "But I could never understand why adults wanted it.” Traber was a teammate and good friend of perhaps sports’ greatest signing ambassador, Cal Ripken Jr., who was known for signing thousands of autographs after a game. Traber said Ripken and Nolan Ryan developed a system. They would sign with their head down, so they could get to people as fast as possible, and would study shoes. If the same pair of shoes showed up, they wouldn’t sign, having figured out that adults were paying kids to get repeated autographs. Traber said that while he was in the major leagues, 1984-89, hotel security was beefed up to where now autographs can’t patrol lobbies. Now, fans are roped off outside hotels. Traber said if he saw a group of 10, he probably would go over and sign. If he saw a group of 100, he probably would not. "One thing a lot of people don’t realize, (athletes) are human beings,” Traber said. "If your daughter was sick or you had a fight with your wife, you have bad days. A lot of it had to do with how you were hitting.” Traber pulled an envelope out of the garbage with a San Antonio postmark and said he still refuses to sign anything mailed to his house, because collectors will share his address with other collectors and he will be deluged. Too late. Jack Smalling of Ames, Iowa, has just released The Baseball Autograph Collector’s Handbook #15, which publishes the list of thousands of current and former players.