Evolution of autographs: Which ones do you remember?


By CHRIS OLDS | Beckett Baseball

Imaging getting paid $20, $50 or $100 for a single swipe of a pen … for your autograph.

Collectors know all about the practice of autograph signings for cash — we see it all the time at shows. However, have you ever put yourself in an athlete’s shoes?

For a multi-millionaire, a private autograph signing might be work — if an athlete even bothers because, after all, time is money. (Meeting and signing for fans? That’s another story. Many athletes have no worries about doing those events — or signing for free if it’s the right place and right time.)

And, when you think about it, signing autographs is work in a different way, too. Can you imaging sitting down and signing your name 500 or 1,000 times with only a break or two?

Many collectors don’t — and that’s why they complain when they get autographs that look like chicken scratch. (To some degree, I understand why they sometimes look the way that they do.)

We all have heard about the “give-up graph” — and we all know about the checkmark autograph of former Houston Texans running back Vernand Morency — but there’s another type of autograph out there that has always interested me.

It’s the “early” autograph — the one where an athlete either hadn’t yet adopted a shorter version of an autograph or a rarer signature where we just don’t commonly see it on items signed in bulk.

There are countless examples where an athlete’s handwriting changes over time — just like a person’s handwriting changes with age or time. (Believe it or not, your handwriting shouldn’t look like it did when you were an 8-year-old — if it does, I’m sorry.) For example, Mark McGwire has a distinctly different looking autograph from circa 1997 on compared to his earlier signatures. Why? While there could be a steroid transformation joke here, it’s likely about supply, demand and the venue in which the autographs were signed. (And, yes, handwriting is one way a personality change could be manifested, but we’re collectors not psychologists, here, Jim.)

But there’s another reason autographs are getting smaller and less intrinsically interesting these days — and it’s not just based on the volume of them being signed. It’s what’s being signed, too — you don’t get the same type of signatures on manufactured patches or teeny, tiny stickers as you do on a card or an even larger object.

(Here’s where the critics of sticker autographs discover another reason to hate them.)

This isn’t some grand discovery — but it was reinforced for me when I sat down recently to sign a handful of “baseball card business cards” that are larger than Allen & Ginter minis but not the same size as a standard-size card. As much as I like Ginter minis, there’s flat-out no way that my signature would fit on one without signing the cards sideways or vertically, which would be awful-looking. (And of course, autograph No. 1 can be quite different than the final one if in a hurry.)

You can bet that these smaller cards — and small stickers — have aided in the deterioration of some athletes’ signatures.

But the issue really isn’t new to stickers, minis or whatever that’s being signed. I’ve always has some fascination with “early” autographs — like the Nick Swisher baseball up top that has a distinct different signature than any you will find on a certified autograph card, sticker or not. (Since Swisher is a player I collect, I’ve found that the full signature sometimes appears on items in charity auctions — a more “special” autograph — but more often than not these days it’s the shorter, quicker version that’s used.)

Changes happen.

There are other memorable examples out there… sometimes it’s an evolution seen from autograph No. 1 to autograph No. 757 in a signing like a pair of 1995 Andruw Jones Best cards and then comparing those to today. Or the changes from Vladimir Guerrero‘s early Classic autographs to what we see now.  Or Manny Ramirez‘s first certified autograph to what his signature looks like now.

It’s obvious in my book that one version of the autograph would be in smaller supply — and there might be aesthetic reasons that make a card more valuable, or at least more interesting.

But what do you think?

All that said, we also want to know … what autographs that have become dramatically different over time amuse you?

Chris Olds is the editor of Beckett Baseball. Have a comment, question or idea? Send an e-mail to him at colds@beckett.com. Follow him on Twitter by clicking here.


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  1. Kay 18 May, 2010 at 15:16

    its because of this that some people will question the authenticity of a signature because it doesnt look like the ones they are used to seeing. some players signed differently when they first came up and then got older and wiser. also, some players dont take the time when signing in a crowd or on the run instead of at a table getting paid. i wonder how the auto graders can keep up with this all and not make any mistakes?

  2. Sean 18 May, 2010 at 16:15

    To Kay’s point, Mickey Mantle’s iconic signature that we all have looks nothing like his autograph when he was coming up — his stylized M’s didn’t begin until he was in the majors a year or two. Similarly, I have a 1994 Derek Jeter Classic Four-Sport autographed card (#’ed to 1125), which has a signature that is not as wide (for lack of a better word) than his current John Hancock, and which has the names “Derek” and Jeter” with a lil’ space in between them, as opposed to when he signs it now and it’s seemingly all one word.

  3. chrisolds 18 May, 2010 at 16:43

    Yep. As much as the original is rarer, I’d be much more comfortable with a “newer” Mantle — despite it being faked more.

  4. Interesting Links | Paul's Random Stuff 18 May, 2010 at 22:49

    […] Beckett’s Chris Olds takes a look at how different some early examples of popular players autographs are compared to their current signatures. (I actually have one of those 1991 Front Row Manny Ramirez cards.) 40.659500 -74.288354 […]

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