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. You can order his book at baseballaddresses.com.
Smalling said Traber’s attitude is in the minority.
"There are a certain percentage who don’t want to be found,” Smalling said. "But it’s pretty small. I get very few complaints. I get more people who say, ‘hey, here’s my new address.’ ”
Owens remembers his first autograph. Miami, Okla., Owens’ hometown, just a few miles from Commerce, Mickey Mantle’s hometown. Circa 1960.
Mantle’s cousins lived in Miami and were friends with Owens. On a Big Chief tablet, the Yankee superstar signed for the boy who, at least in Oklahoma, would become an even bigger star.
Talk about living a dream. Years later, Owens and Mantle became friends and would golf together.
And somewhere in Owens’ Norman home, on a Big Chief tablet piece of paper, sits a signature now half a century old.
LaGuardia grew up in Corning, N.Y. Trips to Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame inductions were routine.
LaGuardia has autographs from Mantle, Willie Mays, Yogi Berra, Brooks Robinson, Steve Garvey and Terry Bradshaw.
He’s still collecting, in his 40s. Still gets a charge out of the thrill of the hunt.
His favorite item is a baseball signed by Sandy Koufax, Bob Feller, Henry Aaron and legendary umpire Ron Luciano.
"To a collector, it’s probably not worth as much,” LaGuardia said. "But that ball has some sentimental value.”
First, the ball itself was a veteran, fouled off into the stands during a Hall of Fame Game at Cooperstown’s Doubleday Field.
Second, getting the Koufax autograph was a monumental feat. He rose between 4-5 a.m. and got in line along a fence in Cooperstown.
That morning, Koufax was the only player signing, "and he didn’t sign many. I guess I was the loudest, most obnoxious 12-year-old out there.”
‘Never been a hassle’
Some athletes avoid autographs. Some revel in them.
"Me personally, I love it,” said Sims, who won the 1978 Heisman at OU. "I’ll stop people on the side of the road and ask if I can sign something.
"It’s never been a hassle for me. Some guys don’t like it. But I love it.”
Sims, Owens and Jason White (2003 Heisman winner) sign together often. They are in demand.
"It’s a pleasure,” said Owens. "To see our fans come up and say, ‘Hey, I remember when you played, I remember the Kansas game, I remember the Nebraska game, or Texas.’ It’s an honor for us.
"It’s pretty touching, really. Overwhelming sometimes. It’s important to them.”
Sims, who has encountered financial troubles since he left the NFL, has appeared in public with his Heisman and charged fans who want to be photographed with him and the trophy. But the stories also are many of Sims signing autographs until the last fan is standing.
"I never looked at it as a hassle,” Sims said. "I always try to be accessible. I always say, ‘if you don’t want to do it, don’t become something.’ I hate to walk away.”
Sims also played with the Detroit Lions; he still does signings in Michigan. Even appeared with Barry Sanders a few months ago.
"I enjoy people when they come through the line,” Sims said. "I’m privileged to do it. You gotta worry when they stop asking for autographs. Then you know it’s over. Same as yelling ‘Boomer’ at the Heisman ceremony, I will continue to do it until the day I die.”
An on-field usher tried to shoo Frank Johnson away that night in the Astrodome 39 summers ago. Said, no autographs.
But Johnson wouldn’t leave. "I gotta take care of my fans,” the man, who would hit four major league homers over six years, said with a smile.
He signed my program.
I’m no Steve Owens and Frank Johnson is no Mickey Mantle. I don’t still have that autograph. Truth be told, that signature probably didn’t survive the trip to Astroworld the next day.
And I’ve never asked for another autograph. But Bill Russell was wrong. A connection was made. Those 1970 San Francisco Giants included Mays, Willie McCovey, Bobby Bonds, Jim Ray Hart, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry.
But Frank Johnson I remember no less.
405-760-8080; Berry Tramel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1.