ATLANTIC CITY — They came by the thousands, streaming into the Atlantic City Convention Center with the goal of obtaining an autograph from their favorite players and/or coaches.
Some came from close by, but many traveled a great distance to be there, and they usually came with a purpose and a specific item that would fulfill their mission.
They paid for flights, gas, meals and hotels. They bought tickets for autographs and photos that guaranteed they would get the signature or memento they desired.
On July 27, some 45 minutes before the signings started, there were already three long lines formed in the VIP Party hosted by Pristine Auctions, the kick-off event for the 42nd National Sports Collectors Convention.
Warren Huff traveled from Greeneville, S.C. to see former Philadelphia Phillies slugger Greg Luzinski.
“What I have brought is a Sports Illustrated with him on the cover,” he said of the issue dated 8/29/77. “This one has no mailing label, which means that it probably has come off of a newsstand back in the day. There are lots of Sports Illustrateds out there, but finding one without the label is getting harder to do.
“This is one of the main things I like to collect and get signed.”
Huff has been coming to The National for years. I ran into him again on Friday at the TRISTAR Autograph Pavilion, where he had just gotten the signature of former Pittsburgh Pirate Bill Madlock. He was there for the duration and had his days mapped out.
“I spend most of my time here doing this, but it is what I came for. I really don’t spend a whole lot of time out on the show floor,” he said.
Ron Lashmit hails from Iowa City, Iowa. He brought with him a 1986 set of McDonald’s football game cards and was near the front of the line waiting on famed Philadelphia Eagles quarterback and NFL TV broadcaster Ron Jaworski. He shows me the card.
“This has never been scratched off, you see, which are hard to find, and it makes them more valuable. I like to collect things that are somewhat different,” he said.
“I like WFL and USFL football items from their first go-around, and I also have a RC Cola can, flat off the line and never used, of course, with a picture of Luzinski on it, and I am moving over there as soon as I am done here.” Later, on the show floor, he tells me it was mission accomplished.
Sean Huff of Palmyra, Pa. is there to see NHL Hall of Famer Bernie Parent. He holds up a black and white photo of Parent from the outdoor Winter Classic Alumni game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers at the football stadium in Philadelphia a few years back. Parent is laying out to make a save on a shot on goal.
“It gave me goose bumps when it happened, and it is giving them to me now as we talk about it,” he said, rubbing his arm. “I have to get him to sign it to me and this is a great place to get that done!”
Mean Joe Greene rose to fame as a star defensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers and also for his famous “Hey Kid” Coca-Cola Super Bowl commercial in 1979. Darrell Neagle and his son, Ryan, from Bergan, N.J., had just finished getting his signature on an NFL Hall of Fame helmet.
“This is the first of five signatures we are getting here on this helmet at the convention,” he said, showing it to me. “It is costing me a lot of money to do, but we are doing this together and it means a lot to the both of us. It is the reason why we have come to The National.”
For a lot of father and sons, there are some things you can’t put a price on.
Kylie and Jake Hordych, brothers and sisters from Erie, Pa., traveled to Atlantic City with a special print of former Philadelphia Eagles star linebacker Bill Bergey for him to sign.
“You know the crazy thing is, I’m actually a Steelers fan,” Jake said with a laugh.
New York Mets World Series star and longtime coach Mookie Wilson signed a photo and two of his rookie cards for Scott Naeker of Tom’s River, N.J.
“He is my all-time favorite player and idol, and this is my first opportunity to actually meet him and get his signature,” Naeker explains, holding up the picture. “This moment is what has brought me here.”
I ask Wilson what is the most unusual thing he has ever been asked to sign. He thought for a moment and said: “I would say the time a guy showed up with an old pair of my uniform pants and asked if I would sign them. Now that took me back a bit.”
Wilson said he doesn’t do a lot of big shows as much as he used to.
“I like to do smaller things, you know, more of a meet-and-greet thing where you can spend more time with the fans,” he said.
This was the first time he had been asked to do The National. “This is something else,” he said.
Cyril Goddeeris of Rumson, N.J. has a pair of game-worn Converse high-top leather sneakers worn by Dr. J Julius Erving.
“He looked them over and told me they were authentic, and from the 1984 season, when he was with the Philadelphia 76ers,” Goddeeris said. There is a small ‘Dr. J’ logo embossed on the side of each shoe. “That’s how he knew,” he said.
I asked Dr. J if he remembered his days playing in my hometown of Roanoke, Va. when he first started out with the Virginia Squires of the ABA. (They played their home games at different arenas around the state, which landed them at the Salem Civic Center in the Roanoke Valley a few times.)
“Oh yes, those were fun times,” he said. “Did you pay or were you part of the bunch that snuck in back then?” he said with a laugh, referencing how the upstart league famously handled their business.
Frank Nodjagest said he was from “up in New Jersey.” He had a large photo of former MLB players and managers Tony LaRussa and Lou Pinella from the 1991 All Star game. LaRussa had already signed it a few years back, and on this day he came to get Pinella’s signature.
As he signed it, Pinella said, “What a lot of people probably don’t know is that Tony and I were high school teammates in Tampa, and there we were managing the All-Star game.”
How about a 13-hour drive to have your picture taken with former Boston Red Sox star and new Hall of Famer David Ortiz? That’s what the Stiles family of Indiana were doing. Cammy and Todd and their two sons, Brynden and Ayden, were all decked out in Red Sox gear as they waited their turn to get a photo with the big slugger.
Red Sox fans Tom and Chris Brode drove from Ohio to meet Ortiz and get him to sign their three-foot bobbleheads. They spent more than $3,000 to get a photo with Ortiz and get their bobbleheads and jerseys signed.
“He was very classy. Not all athletes can say that,” Tom Brode said. “He made my son’s day.”
Dave Fowler of Chatham, N.J. came with several items for Johnny Bench to sign, including a nice art print by Ron Lewis.
“I’m from right outside New York City, so I’m actually a Mets and Yankees guy,” he said with a big grin. “Really, I just love baseball, so that’s why I came to get Bench, probably the best catcher ever.”
He also purchased tickets to get autographs from Mariano Rivera and Bill Madlock as well.
“We are also surprising my nephew, who we have secretly set up to get Ricky Henderson,” he said. His nephew, he said, is a big base stealer and models his game after Henderson.
Former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann is always a big hit when he appears at The National. Pete Rice and his son, Brian, came from Hasbrouck Height, N.J. “Just seven miles from New York City,” Pete said.
They are huge Notre Dame fans and have with them one of the gold helmets the Fighting Irish are known for. They already have more than 20 signatures on the helmet, including the likes of Joe Montana, Paul Hornung and “Rocket” Ismail. On this day, they are adding another famous alum in Theismann.
I ask Pete who was his favorite of all the signatures he had gotten on the helmet, and he quickly said Montana.
This last one is my favorite. Chris and Andee Cochran drove all night from Johnson City, Tenn. To meet Braves great Chipper Jones. What they have with them is the “Save the Date” card from their wedding in 2020, with the date of 10/24. The significance of the date? She is a Jones fan, hence the #10, while his favorite player was Ken Griffey Jr., so therein lies the #24, and why they picked that day. On the invitation, which is made to look like a baseball ticket, they sit with the jerseys of both players in a stadium, where you can read the numbers.
So here they are, with a ticket to get Chipper to sign it, which he did. Now, all they have to do is figure out where they can catch up with Griffey. I’m guessing he’ll be glad to sign as well.
It was fun meeting and talking with collectors and fans that came to Atlantic City with a set purpose to obtain or add to their prized collections and experiences with their favorite athletes. I look forward to seeing you there next year in Chicago.
— Barry Blair is a writer/author from Jonesborough, Tenn. You can reach out to him at email@example.com or check out his website rightfieldpress.com.