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      Inside the Weird, Noble World of Autograph Collectors
      Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
      March 26, 2015

      Inside the Weird, Noble World of Autograph Collectors

      Brian Flam has spent a good part of the last 30 years sending letters to relative nobodies and toting cartons of baseball cards from his Maryland home to cities up and down the Eastern Seaboard in pursuit of scrawls legible only to a select few. By all relevant accounts, Flam is a master of the craft of autograph seeking, known within the field as graphing. The roughly 150,000 signed cards, filed into 5,000-count boxes that line the walls of his home office, testify to this distinction. Aspiring graphers seek his counsel on topics such as his preferred pen (the Staedtler Lumocolor, fine-point, blue) and canvas (ideally an officially-issued trading card, but the 3.5" by 2.5" "Autograph Card" of Flam's own engineering works in extenuating circumstances). Flam focuses on Minor League Baseball but not to the exclusion of the big leagues. He collects the signatures of Hall of Famers on two separate balls, one for "real Hall of Famers" and another for "scrub Hall of Famers," a material distinction he explains by posing the question, "Do you really want Bruce Sutter touching the same ball that Mickey Mantle signed?"

      The jewel of Flam's collection is a set of 300 minor leaguers' cards. He has 299 signed and counting. He exemplifies the living paradox facing modern-day graphers, especially those of the nobler persuasion—the "pure collectors," who, unlike the profiteering "dealers," accumulate signatures for the love of the craft. Flam pursues these specimens with unflagging diligence and without regard for the stature of the player in question.

      Amateur. Image via Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

      He is a fanatic in the classical sense of the term—a man of unchecked zealotry for his chosen field. Besides baseball, Flam dabbles also in the graphing of musicians. He does not award the wall space in his home to a piece of memorabilia without thorough deliberation. Hung prominently in his living room is an early Pearl Jam poster bearing the signature of Eddie Vedder, some eight or 10 inches end to end (an artifact of the band's pre-fame era so rare "it doesn't exist anymore"). Presently, it is his most treasured item, but that, he says, "changes minutely."

      The graphing community is one of uncommon depth, into which people have spent decades carving their fiefdoms and burrowing out their niches, whether that be players in the single-A Midwest League or members of the Whig Party. Flam's fellow grapher Rich Hanson supervises inspections at a meatpacking plant in Monmouth, Illinois by day and occupies his nights and weekends by graphing minor leaguers in the region, a pursuit he supplements by also collecting the signatures of American authors and of Civil War personalities. He's got Johnny Clem, a drummer-boy for the Union Army who enlisted at age 12, and James Shields, who challenged Abraham Lincoln to a duel that never came to fruition. Their scrawls are perhaps more aptly described as signatures than as autographs, since they were left behind incidentally rather than at the solicitation of a fandom.

      Indeed, Flam's and Hanson's collections are feats of historical inquiry, of the innately human impulse for record-keeping more so than celebrity worship. Whereas the cachet of a Derek Jeter autograph, for example, is attributable to the same preoccupation with fame that brought us paparazzi, these graphers follow more in the tradition of Herodotus or Audubon. That is, they aspire above all to documenting the simple fact of their subjects' existence (grandiose accomplishments aside) at a certain point in time. How else can one explain three decades chasing the Burlington Bees' backup right fielder who will play out his career in obscurity?

      Graphers gaze upon Omar Vizquel. Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

      Only rarely is it about the prestige, and for the purists it's never about the money. Flam belongs to an order of graphers who hold the craft in too high a regard to sully the fruits of their labor with lucre. The shelves stocked with autographed cards sheathed in PVC sleeves and the prowess honed in their acquisition—these are ends in themselves.

      Effective graphing—of the in-person (IP) variety, as opposed to through-the-mail (TTM)—hinges on being in the right place at the right time. It's a product of careful attention to hard-won tips from tight-lipped graphing networks, not merely of good luck. Graphers are fond of repeating the industry axiom that the key to success is information. They're also fond of harking back to the good ole days, "when it was kids at the ballpark holding balls through the fence," as Matt Raymond, founder of the website Autograph University recalls. This was before you had "dealers shoulder-to-shoulder with kids and other pure collectors," when information was harder to come by. Then enter the internet, ignite the "information explosion," and now more graphers than ever are equipped to pounce at the mention of a graphing opportunity and sell the crop the same day.

      Concerned by the commodification of autographs and the saturation of the market, pure collectors bemoan how commercialism has chipped away at players' magnanimity, but the online graphing network is not without upsides. Graphing can be a lonely enterprise—long hours commuting between stadiums or painstakingly drafting letters sufficiently sincere-sounding and specific in their admiration. The web offers a place to convene between each year's National Sports Collectors Convention, which draws some 50,000 people each year.

      Image via WikiMedia Commons

      Raymond, a marketing professional in Boston by day, founded Autograph University to institutionalize this emergent sense of community and bolster the ethics of his craft against the derogating tides of commercialization. One post on his website outlines a code of etiquette: "Don't trespass to gain access to a celebrity," "Say please and thank you," "Don't try to graph a celebrity who is with their family," and so on in the subtly admonishing tone of a Friendly Reminder.

      On another online forum, hosted by Autograph Magazine, users exchange timely leads, swap stories and offer advice. It's an outlet for honest feedback, such as when Shawn from Arizona posted a photo of his freshly-gotten Roger Clemens-autographed jersey and Winky from Brooklyn said, "Hoo-boy. With that funky 'R' the 'expert authenticators' are going to say its a fake." Or for solace, say, after approaching Bjork and getting "nothing so much as a smile." Or for celebrating the unique triumph of waking up at 3:30 a.m. and driving to the Today Show with a ceramic Jack-O-Lantern and successfully getting Jamie Lee Curtis to sign it, which feels something like, "Life is good."

      The internet teems with information that often means the difference between a rackfest (grapher slang for a windfall of signatures) and a dry spell. Baseball TTM graphers swear by the lists Harvey Meiselman compiles each year and sells for $37. This one-time payment entitles you to the home address of nearly every living player to have competed at the major league level, and also includes thousands of minor-leaguers, as well as MLB umpires, front-office personnel, former Negro Leaguers and veterans of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, complete with annotations of who's a "tough signer."

      [body_image src='//sports-images.vice.com/images/2015/03/25/taking-names-the-noble-pursuit-of-autograph-collection-body-image-1427288919.jpg' width='1407' height='1007']Yasiel Puig keeps a safe distance from young graphers. Photo by Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

      As helpful as such resources are, they foretell a harrowing future for the pastime. With such fixed and calculable inputs, commercializing the craft is, for some, too obvious to resist. At ThePit.com, users are enticed to "Trade Sports Stars Like Stocks!" That they're being dealt as such does not escape the stars themselves. They were leery of the sharp-elbowed wheelers and dealers even before the ubiquity of enhanced techniques. Sensing ever more acutely the trampling of their goodwill, athletes are hatching cleverer schemes to outfox their pursuers.

      Graphers who ask for an autograph on the baseball's "sweetspot" (between the laces at their narrowest point—the most sacred, and most valuable, place for an autograph) are increasingly thwarted by pros who deliberately "side-panel" their ball. When players impose a limit of one item per customer (known in the industry as a "1-per"), the particularly brazen graphers cozen beyond their due by donning a wig or other disguise and coming back for more. Others deploy troops of children to do their bidding. In an overabundant autograph market, just putting food on the table requires nothing less than a rackfest.

      To tell deceptive dealers from genuine fans, players ask the grapher's name and personalize their inscription to prevent its resale. Through volumes of online discussion, graphers have devised tactics to subvert this, too: experts prescribe the Pentel Clic Eraser ZE22 for removing personalizations on photos and trading cards; the Helix Auto Eraser for bats and baseballs; and peanut butter for helmets and mini-helmets. It is an arms race that impels both sides ever closer to the brink. To wit, one TTM grapher recently got back two photographs he'd sent to Nail Yakupov, a hockey player in the minors at the time, who had written on them, "Please do not bend," "For Sale."

      Michael Jordan refused to sign for much of his career, fearing that giving in would entice the masses in such a way as to make life in public impossible, or at least carpal-tunnel-inducing. Ringo Starr announced in a 2008 video that he would henceforth throw out any TTM requests: "I'm warning you with peace and love, I have too much to do." Others will sign on the condition that they get a cut of the proceeds. Banished from competitive baseball, Pete Rose now spends some 20-plus days each month in a booth in Las Vegas, charging upwards of $75 per autograph. Mickey Mantle had a notoriously sharp memory for the people he'd signed for and refused to indulge the double-dippers. Having forfeited such faculties to a career in boxing, George Foreman keeps a written record of every TTM solicitor's name and address. Tommy Lasorda only signs for graphers who say "please," but this has the unintended consequence of favoring those who approach him armed with the trade secret. Former Royals second-baseman George Brett, exasperated by a grapher who approached him for the 35th time, had a conniption and threatened to shoot him if the two crossed paths again.

      The spoils of war. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

      As any seasoned grapher will tell you, the most reliable way around the ploys and tempers of jaded sports stars is to graph them while they're still young. Many devote their energies to the minor leagues because, "You get a lot more feel-good," as Flam puts it. "They're more grateful than you are at that level." And even if the youngsters fizzle before making it to The Big Show—if the guy is "working at a 7/11 somewhere, or back in the Dominican, or he fell off the face of the earth"—Flam maintains that those graphs are worth the story that produced them: "the fun weekend with my friend, that time we went to that sushi place in Phoenix afterwards." Even for-profit graphers seem genuinely charmed by the stardust in which they traffic. "Some people were born to be political leaders, others born to be famous athletes," declare the guys who run Dream Team Autographs, LLC. "We were born to chase the dream!"

      Wedded to a hobby that drives them to extremes, graphers will often invoke the language of religion in explaining their obsession. Since Rich Hanson's son began practicing law in New York, "It's my job to keep the faith for the time being," he says. It is a faith some say has endured since the pre-Christian days of Cicero, who was himself a collector and whose autograph was part of Pliny the Elder's collection, bequeathed to Pliny the Younger when the Elder died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

      Hanson, too, will pass his collection on to the next generation to ensure the survival of the historical threads he's woven together. Flam can't help but wax sentimental on the fate of his masterpiece. "When I die," he says, "make sure you call one of my boys and have him come cherry pick the best stuff before you dump it."

      Built from scratch, graphers' troves hold deeply personal significance, the exact content of which only further confounds them in hindsight. They are an introspective lot these days, proffering diagnoses of their affliction that equivocate between righteous passion and crippling addiction. They struggle to put it into words for non-graphers.

      Their eyes have not, however, wavered from the prize. Flam has a good feeling about a 45-year-old former first-baseman who was exiled years ago to Japan on steroid charges. It's the 300th and final piece of his special-edition Minor League Baseball collection. "If I get it, great," he says. "It will go in the binder and nobody else will know."

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