I got my first autograph more than 40 years ago, from a guy named Gale Sayers. I got it in person, at an alumni event to which my dad took me, and I was so nervous that all I remember of our encounter was my hand disappearing into his — that, and his velvet bow tie.
I didn’t pay for the autograph, and Sayers wasn’t paid for giving it to me. It didn’t occur to me to sell the photo, and it didn’t occur to Sayers that I might. This was before eBay, before the Internet, before people began making a living off someone else’s name on a piece of paper, before Johnny Manziel and the hubbub over who should profit from autographs. You know, the good old days.
I also didn’t turn into an autograph hound. Sportswriters aren’t supposed to abuse their access by asking for autographs, and I have never violated that rule. However, a friend ran into Danny Manning at the airport the morning after the 1988 national basketball championship game, and he asked him to sign a just-issued Sports Illustrated cover for me. That spurred me to collect magazine covers signed by KU athletes and coaches.
I had a simple method: I wrote a polite letter and enclosed a postage-paid, self-addressed envelope. I identified myself as a KU grad, nothing else. And I got nearly 100 percent response — Paul Pierce was the exception — until a few years ago, when guys such as Sherron Collins and Russell Robinson stiffed me. Oddly, the last Jayhawk who came through was Mario Chalmers, who signed three copies (one for me, one for my parents, one for my nephew) of the SI cover showing him hitting the winning shot in the 2008 championship game.
So in the wake of the Manziel scandal, Manning and Chalmers are probably my alpha and omega of magazine covers, and that’s fine because I’m running out of space for them. Athletes are increasingly wary of giving away their signatures, and they have no reason to answer mail from fans, other than common courtesy. Pro athletes get a ton of mail, and I doubt college athletes are far behind these days, so I don’t take it personally.
I would never buy an autograph off a Web site because I don’t see how the buyer can be sure it’s authentic. A photo of the athlete signing photos isn’t enough evidence. I’m not that moved by autographs these days anyway. I enjoyed sending off my letters and checking the mailbox. I also enjoy my small collection of correspondence with various KU coaches over the years — again, as a civilian. I have letters from Larry Brown, Roy Williams and Bill Self. Since becoming a columnist, I don’t write letters any more.
My mother still does. For about 30 years she’s written goodbye letters to every senior on the KU team. Every now and then, she’ll get a reply, which thrills her no end. She still treasures the letter from Milt Newton, now vice president of player personnel with the Wizards, who loved hearing that she had kept it.
The age of innocence for autograph seekers is ending, if it ever truly existed. I can remember years ago, taking my nephew to Camden Yards and watching him try to get signatures from players, some of whom blew him off in spectacular fashion. I never forgot those players, and neither did he. Silly us — we forgot to bring cash.
For more by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.