I got my last autograph about eight years ago from the pianist Lang Lang. It was following a performance and I had to first purchase a CD (his) for him to sign. As he was signing it he didn’t ask me my name or where I was from or what my favorite concerto was. Rather, he scribbled his name (I think) across the CD, and passed it to a handler who returned it to me. It was all assembly line stuff; no interaction let alone a perfunctory connection.
That experience came into sharper relief last week when I took my seven year-old to a Twins game. We got there plenty early and as we were settling into our seats and hot dogs our neighbor and his two boys walked by on the way to their (better) seats. The boys had their mitts with them, which made sense, and also baseballs, which didn’t. I asked about the baseballs and apparently the practice these days is for kids to give baseballs to a handler, the handler then passes the balls around the dugout, and sometime later in the game signed balls are returned to their owners. No player interaction, no chit-chat, no getting nervous by being so close to a hero. At least Lang Lang looked at me.
After the Twins game I thought about the various sporting events I’ve been to recently and the current state of the autograph. It seems that it’s – thankfully – not the “wanting” of the autograph that’s changed in the 30 years since I was an autograph-seeker, but more the autograph “getting”. I remember seeing an ad in the paper several years ago for a sports memorabilia show where Kirby Puckett would be signing autographs for like $25 and thinking “that’s just wrong”. I’m sure it’s the way of the world these days, and probably has been for some time, but paying for that 15 seconds of chit-chat isn’t my idea of how to get the autograph. There’s no story attached and the story oftentimes equals the actual procurement.
To this day I remember seeing an ad in the paper (I really loved newspaper ads), for an autograph signing in about 1979 at Lupient Oldsmobile. The draws? Steady Freddy Barrett and Steve Payne, a couple of Minnesota North Stars, neither superstars, which didn’t matter in the least. They were professional athletes, names I heard on the radio as I fell asleep in my room, and I could actually see them. So right there on the showroom floor they signed a 4″ x 6″ glossy action photo of themselves, we got into a little friendly hockey banter (“oh yeah, you just gotta pit the puck in the back of the net, eh?), and while it likely cost the dealership a few bucks, it didn’t cost me anything. Those guys were heroes to me and I’ll never forget it.
As I’ve been seasoning a post about autographs for awhile now, a couple months ago I asked my mom if she’d go through my old stuff looking for the Barrett-Payne pictures. She didn’t find them – probably disintegrated from too much time under my pillow – but she did unearth a memento of handwritten youth maybe of even greater value; the Elf-a-gram.
In December at my high school a person could spend 25 cents, write a note to another student, and that note along with all the other notes were then delivered at the same time to the recipient’s classroom. Actually, as I think more about it, the whole thing was kind of terrible. It was just like every other day in high school in that it was a popularity contest with nowhere to hide. The cool kids got tons of grams and attendant candy canes, (you wonder if the receiver was also the giver), while others got none. Uff da.
But while the message and intent may have been mixed, the medium of communication undeniably wins top praise. It wasn’t a text or an IM but an actual note with its far fewer chances for misinterpretation. I mean when the captain of your hockey team tells you he loves you, and he’s two years older, and he put it in writing, you both believe and remember it. He was something of a hero to me, he gave me his autograph and it didn’t cost me anything, not even a wooden nickel, which was in among the stuff my mom found while spelunking for Steady Freddy. True story.