By Ross Forman
It wasn’t just fans and collectors who were star-gazing at the 35th annual National Sports Collectors Convention, which ran from July 30-Aug. 3 at the I-X Center in Cleveland. There were a lot of stars seeking out other stars, too.
Bobby Cox went out of his way to meet Roberto Duran.
Bobby Hull walked over to shake hands with Cal Ripken Jr.
Mike Singletary went over to Sugar Ray Leonard and had his photo taken with the former boxer, selfie style.
Heck, Carlos Baerga returned to The National’s Autograph Pavilion, organized by Houston-based Tristar Productions Inc., almost daily – just to see former teammates, longtime friends and meet other autograph guests.
As always, the Autograph Pavilion is a special place at The National – and the 2014 edition didn’t disappoint fans, collectors or the signers themselves.
Tristar arranged 103 athletes to appear at this year’s National, and only Sonny Siebert, due to medical reasons, had to cancel. So the 102 autograph signers at the 2014 National was the most ever in National history.
“The show overall was very strong,” said Tristar Vice President Bobby Mintz. “The big-name guests all delivered, as expected. They were really strong sellers. There also were several surprises, signers who sold a lot better than we first thought they would, such as Bobby Knight; he was a really, really strong seller. Overall, Bobby Knight was among the Top 10 sellers (of autograph tickets), and I would not have predicted that going into the show.”
Coach Knight, who personalizes autographs but does not inscribe (“HOF,” for instance), was another one of the star-gazers. Athletes came up to meet him, and he went to greet others. Knight, for instance, talked for at least five minutes with Rod Carew – and afterward continued to speak highly of the Baseball Hall of Famer.
Dale Murphy was the show’s big hit on Wednesday, signing free autographs.
“He was huge. People loved seeing him, and he couldn’t have been nicer to the public,” Mintz said.
Andy Van Slyke and Howard Johnson were popular signers on Thursday – and HoJo offered one of the most unique inscriptions: “Only Switch-Hitter to Lead NL (in) HR and RBI, 1991.”
Jim Kelly was certainly the most emotional appearance in the Autograph Pavilion, as he’s battling cancer.
“The interaction with the fans and him was really special,” Mintz said. “There were fans who drove in from Buffalo just to see him – and there were a lot of tears around his appearance.
“Based on everything he’s going through, just the fact he still wanted to appear, and then to hear the response from fans . . . that certainly was the show highlight for me.”
Julius Erving, the Basketball Hall of Famer known simply as “Dr. J,” was one of the most cordial signers, asking fans where they are from, who they cheer for and more.
Torre also was among the more cordial signers. “Just a down to earth guy,” Mintz said of Torre. “You wouldn’t know he was so huge with the New York Yankees, based on his persona.”
Torre even asked, repeatedly, if people wanted “HOF 14” or “HOF 2014” as their inscription.
Gary Bell left a hand-written note for Len Barker.
Cris Carter was a busy signer, especially of Ohio State-related souvenirs.
Jerome Bettis signed his share of Notre Dame relics.
Bettis and Hines Ward could not have been nicer to the collectors.
“I had this preconceived notion, since they are more ‘current’ players, so often they aren’t as appreciative of the fans. But those two guys were phenomenal with the public. They were super nice to everyone – shaking hands with fans, posing for pictures, smiling and more,” Mintz said. “I was really impressed with each of them.”
Kenny Lofton, often considered a tough signer during his playing days, was popular and personable to collectors. And many former baseball players walked over to greet Lofton. Lofton also told Pedro Martinez that he dominated the dominant pitcher. Both laughed.
David Justice was a surprisingly strong autograph seller, Mintz confirmed. “We’ve had him appear at other past shows, but he really got a strong response at this show, no doubt because he was part on the Indians when they were having great seasons.”
Pete Rose had a lengthy line of collectors wanting his signature. “I’ve heard people joke, as they did for Bob Feller back in the day, that if there was an unsigned photo of him, it’s worth more money than a Rose-signed photo,” Mintz said. “Pete didn’t make the top 10 most popular of autograph signers, but he definitely was top 15. There was a big response for him, and I was truly surprised, given how many appearances he has made over the years.”
Mike Hargrove took more than 40 photo-ops with collectors.
Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson spent time talking before signing for the public, and when Johnson asked if he could get his picture taken with Glavine, Glavine jokingly grabbed a chair and said he’d stand on the chair for the photo.
Numerous athletes walked over to meet Mike Tyson, and Tyson replied to each that he knew who they were – and he really did. Tyson mimicked Joe Morgan’s batting stance and more.
Rocky Bleier brought his four Super Bowl rings to The National – and left them on the table where he was signing, so fans could see them up close, hold them, take pictures, you name it.
“That was really nice,” Mintz said.
Len Barker was among the athletes getting autographs from fellow athletes.
“Prime Time” Deion Sanders was followed everywhere at the I-X Center by TV cameras, filming for a documentary to air on the Oprah Network.
Billy Sims was among the slowest signers – because he interacts with almost every collector. Truly a class act.
Mintz said he acquired autograph baseballs for his sons from Jim Thome and Joe Torre, among others. Mintz joked with Thome that, when The National returns to Cleveland in four years, he will have to bring the balls back – so Thome can inscribe “HOF” on them.
“Jim Thome was a first-class guest all around. He couldn’t have been nicer or more accommodating,” Mintz said.
Tommy “Hit Man” Hearns could have won the “Best Dressed” Award for his stylish suit and colorful tie.
Jason Giambi was cordial and “seems to go out of his way to make (the collectors) feel comfortable when you’re talking to him,” said collector David Blakley.
“Raging Bull” Jake LaMotta became, at age 93, the oldest signer to ever appear at The National, according to many longtime National attendees. “His signature was pretty crisp for a 93 year old,” Mintz said.
Tommy Henrich, a five-time All-Star and five-time World Series champion for the New York Yankees, appeared at a Tristar show in San Francisco when he was about 90. Henrich, who played in the majors from 1937-42 and then again from 1946-50, passed away in 2009 at age 96.
Mintz ranked the 2014 National Autograph Pavilion among the top three dating back to 2006 when Tristar first started coordinating the signing area, in terms of name-recognition, number of players and smoothness.
Blakley, a collector who lives in Northern California, got autographs from Torre and others – and reminisced with Baerga about their stint together as minor league players in 1987.
“We talked about (former teammates) who neither of us had probably talked about in 27 years,” Blakley said, laughing. “It was good catching up.”
Ross Forman is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.