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. 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.’ ”
The connectionOwens 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.
Sentimental valueLaGuardia 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.”
Still rememberAn 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. Berry Tramel: 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.