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Signing Up for Life

In a bygone era athletes graciously gave autographs to a boy who cherishes them now as much as ever

In January 1962, Milwaukee Braves pitcher Warren Spahn changed my life. I was 15 years old, an avid sports fan who read everything I could about baseball. A magazine had just published an article about Spahn, with one of the nicest photographs I had ever seen. It showed the smiling Spahn, in uniform, against a bright red backdrop.

During that same week there was another photograph of Spahn, in the New York Herald Tribune. He was on a pitcher's mound, wearing sweat clothes and spikes, with his right leg kicking high in the air. The caption said that Spahn was working out at his home in Hartshorne, Okla.

Something in my mind clicked. I had sporadically collected autographs before. Now, hoping against hope, I put the magazine photo in a nine-by 12-inch manila envelope with a piece of shirt cardboard to keep the photo from bending. I added a self-addressed stamped envelope and a note telling Spahn that I was a fan and would be eternally grateful if he would autograph the photo and send it back to me. Then, trusting the U.S. Postal Service, I mailed it to "Warren Spahn, Hartshorne, Oklahoma."

Ten days later, my return envelope came back. Spahn's picture was inside. He was smiling at me. And across his chest, in blue ink, were the words: TO TOM HAUSER, BEST WISHES, WARREN SPAHN.

I freaked. I had never gotten anything that good in the mail before. Warren Spahn had written to me. And then that something in my mind clicked again. I had a baseball yearbook that featured every major league roster and listed every player's hometown. Some of the players lived in large cities, but others came from more rural places. Richie Ashburn lived in Tilden, Neb. Roger Maris, who had hit 61 home runs the previous year, made his home in Raytown, Mo.

I went through my collection of magazines, tore out the photos of 10 players who came from small towns and mailed them out. And when the baseball season began, I sent photos to players in care of their respective teams. Each mailing cost eight cents in postage, plus another six cents for the lighter return fare; my father provided the manila envelopes, and the shirt cardboards came from the laundry. Every day after school, I came home to check for returned envelopes in the mail.

The world was different in 1962. The New York Yankees were always in the World Series; the Boston Celtics always won the NBA championship; Pete Rose had yet to put on a major league uniform; and there was no such thing as a Super Bowl. The westward expansion of professional sports had only just begun. Large network TV contracts were unknown. Marvin Miller was with the steelworkers' union. Kids wore sneakers, not hundred-dollar specialty shoes, and we collected sports memorabilia for fun. Baseball cards were traded and flipped, not stored in plastic binders. The idea of an auction at Sotheby's was so foreign to sports as to be absurd.

The ballplayers were different, too. Ninety percent of the photos I sent out were returned; in most instances, with obvious care. Many of my heroes put their own return address in the upper lefthand corner of the reply envelope. Others wrote, "Photo—Do not bend," on the outside. Quite a few—Roberto Clemente, Len Dawson, Bobby Hull, Bill Mazeroski, Maurice Richard, Jim Taylor—enclosed photos of their own in addition to the ones I had sent. Others enclosed letters. Mel Allen wrote that he was "quite flattered that you have asked for my autograph." Larry Wilson thanked me for the kindness of enclosing a return envelope. Most of the players didn't just sign their names. They took care to write something special on their photo—"To Tom...Best Wishes...Good Luck...."

Dizzy Dean and Jack Dempsey both wrote that I was their "pal." So did Sugar Ray Robinson. Gene Mauch signed a photo that showed him insisting to an umpire, "I'm telling you, Tom Hauser is my friend." Sonny Liston wrote, "Best regard [sic] from Sonny Liston." Sonny obviously gave his regards sparingly. Later, I got a second photo from Liston on which "best" was crossed out and rewritten because initially it had been misspelled.

Many of the athletes I wrote to were generous with their time. Raymond Berry, then an All-Pro receiver with the Baltimore Colts, signed, "To Tom, with best personal regards, Raymond Berry, John 3:1-18." This was before it was fashionable for ballplayers to wear their religion on their sleeves, so I wrote Berry back, asking why he had signed with a reference to the Bible. Over the next year, he sent me three long letters explaining his philosophy of life.

Another time, I mailed out what I thought were two photos of Baltimore Oriole pitcher Steve Barber. Barber returned both of them. He had autographed one, and as his cover letter explained, "The other one isn't me; it's Milt Pappas." And sure enough, Barber had gotten his teammate to autograph the other.

No response was more generous or exciting than the one I received from Vince Lombardi. LIFE magazine had run a story about pro football, with the famed Green Bay Packers on a gatefold cover. I mailed it to Lombardi for his autograph; I thought he epitomized football's greatest team. Lombardi returned my photo autographed by every member of the Packers.

One by one, the pictures I collected went into frames on my bedroom walls. Eventually, I ran out of space, and I began to store them in my closet. Over the years, I collected more than 500 photos from some 300 different sports heroes.

Last March there was an auction of sports memorabilia at Sotheby's. A Honus Wagner baseball card sold for $451,000. Over two days, the auction grossed nearly $5 million. Reading about the sale, I thought of my photos. I still have them, still in a closet. I took out the envelopes and began to look at pictures I hadn't seen for 25 years.

There were Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson. Also, Max Alvis, Sam Mele, Woodie Held, Pete Ward. Most of the players looked very young; when they had autographed the pictures, they were younger than I am now.

I began making lists. I had autographed photos from 33 members of baseball's Hall of Fame. There were 29 MVPs, 10 different Cy Young Award winners, 21 home run champions and 19 players who had won batting titles. Eight of my signatories had had 3,000 or more base hits. Ten had hit more than 500 home runs. Six of my pitchers had won 300 games. And that was only baseball. Fifteen of my photos were from players now in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Thirty-five of my football correspondents were in that sport's hall. And there were superstars from other sports—Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Rafer Johnson, Willie Shoemaker, Gordie Howe and Cassius Clay (before he changed his name).

It was inevitable, of course, that I would ask that horrible question: "How much are my pictures worth?"

Harlan J. Werner is the chairman of AW Sports in Irvine, Calif., a card manufacturing company. In a business in which an honest appraisal is a rarity, Werner is considered an honest man. "It's a nice collection," he told me after I had faxed a master list to him. "But there are several factors to keep in mind."

"Like what?" I asked.

"Well, first, in this business you have to consider the nature of the item signed. For example, Joe DiMaggio's signature on a baseball bat is worth several thousand dollars. That's because he refuses to sign them. DiMaggio on a baseball is worth about $200. On an eight-by 10-inch real photo, $75. Your DiMaggio autograph is only on a picture from a magazine, which makes it worth about $40. That's what Joe charges for his signature at a card show.

"Also," Werner continued, "I should warn you, some of your signatures are probably phony. Back in the '60s, Mickey Mantle had the clubhouse boy or a club secretary sign for him. After Roy Campanula had his car accident, his wife did almost all his signing. Now if you want verification...."

I felt like a six-year-old who has been told that Santa Claus doesn't exist. I made another call, to Mike Gutierrez, co-owner of MVP Autographs and Sports Memorabilia in Woodland Hills, Calif. Werner had told me that Gutierrez was "a nice guy who knows more about sports autographs than anyone else in the business."

To my relief, Gutierrez expressed the view that most of my signatures were "probably real." Like Werner, Gutierrez figured about a third of my pictures had "value"—$10 or more. He pointed out that it was economically fortuitous that some superstars had died. Perhaps my most valuable signature is on a picture of Bill Russell, who simply refuses to sign autographs. I know my Russell signature is real, because he gave it to me in person outside the Celtics' locker room at Madison Square Garden. It's now worth $500. My photo of Bobby Jones is also in the $500 range, as is that Green Bay LIFE magazine cover. Roberto Clemente, Cassius Clay, Lew Alcindor, Sonny Liston, Jackie Robinson, Roger Maris and Walter O'Malley are each worth several hundred dollars. By contrast, my Hank Aarons are worth $10 to $15 each; I have eight of them, dating back to when Aaron had 253 home runs.

All told, Gutierrez thought my collection was worth $10,000 to $15,000. But the truth is, for me, its value can't be measured in dollars. Looking at the photos as I did last week, I was young again. Once more, I was 15 years old, in communion with Warren Spahn. Spahn was smiling at me. And I gave thanks for his kindness, which led to the fulfillment of a boy's dream.



The Spahn that started it all still brings a smile to the grown-up Hauser's face.

Thomas Hauser's most recent book is "Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times."