“Why do you collect autographs?”
Kevin Keating, a life-long collector and principal autograph authenticator at PSA, asks this simple question at the beginning of his new 301-page book “Waiting for a Sign, Volume Two” (Core Publishing).
Waiting is the second installment of Keating’s books, which chronicle his time getting autographs and building lasting friendships with baseball and Hollywood legends, including Warren Spahn, George Brett, Chuck Connors, Paul Gleason, Don Sutton and Joe and Phil Niekro.
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For Keating, collecting autographs was more than just getting an athlete or celebrity to scribble their name on a ball, picture or card; it was a chance to have a one-on-one relationship with them, if only for a brief moment.
“The autograph provided me with a connection to that person. I wanted to be that person,” Keating said. “I mean, whether it was Phil Roof or Reggie Jackson or Willie Stargell or Roberto Clemente, I just wanted to make the big leagues. And so, anybody who wore a uniform and stepped out on the field to play Major League Baseball, I wanted to be that guy. This gave me the one-on-one opportunity to interface with the person who I wanted to be.
“Buying cards was great. That's how I started. I didn't know how to get autographs. I didn't really even know what an autograph was when I started collecting baseball cards. Then, as soon as I learned how to get autographs, that was it. It gave me an opportunity to interact with these guys.”
Keating started collecting autographs as a teenager in Chicago in the early 1970s. His dad would take him and his friends to his office across the street from the Executive House Hotel, where visiting teams stayed when they were in town to play the Cubs or White Sox. He quickly learned the ins and outs of collecting autographs and usually had unencumbered access to all the visiting players. Keating became a regular at the hotel, asking for autographs at a time when few people where collecting. Sometimes players just didn’t understand his fascination with getting them to sign.
“One day my buddy and best friend in high school, Mickey Lakatos, and I go to the hotel to see the Dodgers [in 1974] and Davey Lopes comes out of the hotel and we get him,” Keating said. “Lopes comes back into the hotel, and we get him again. He leaves the hotel to get on the team bus to go to the game; we get him a third time. The bus pulls away and we go to the ballpark; he's signing over the rail before the game, during batting practice. We get him, number four!”
When Lopes left the ballpark to return to the hotel, Keating and Lakatos were waiting by the players exit, and got his autograph a fifth time. They then returned to the hotel, where they approached him yet again.
“We take our position back in front of the hotel and Davey Lopes walks out again,” Keating said. “By now, he’s showered and ready to hit the town. He was dressed to kill and smelled like he had taken a bath in Hi Karate aftershave.
“As soon as he saw us, he stopped dead in his tracks. Before we could even ask him, he put his hands on his hips, and said, ‘What the hell are you guys doing back here? I’ve signed like five times for you guys today.’ All day he didn't acknowledge us. He just took our stuff and signed it. We didn't know that he had even noticed us. And now he’s accosting us in dismay: ‘You guys are crazy. You should be out (using slightly more colorful language than I will repeat here) chasing girls!’”
Still, Lopes continued to sign for them, adding, “Okay, what else do you have for me? … You know you kids are crazy …!”
“But that’s how odd it seemed to so many players, that someone would spend time to get multiple signatures of them as I did when there was no money in it and few of us did it,” Keating said. “Davey Lopes certainly didn’t understand our fascination and, for the record, he was always a great, fan-friendly signer.”
Indeed, autograph collecting has changed over the years. It has evolved from something only a few diehard collectors sought with little to no monetary value to a commodity with potential huge financial worth. Keating has seen and experienced it first-hand. The change in the autograph landscape is addressed in the book’s epilogue, which outlines the extra step Keating took to get Aaron Judge’s autograph with his sons in Baltimore.
“In April 2019, I got a hotel room in Baltimore to try to get Aaron Judge’s autograph with my sons,” Keating said. “We stayed at the team hotel with the New York Yankees. I paid the most money I have ever paid for a hotel room. Yeah, it was a lot of money, believe me. And I had to explain the cost to my wife, too. But when I told her that, for their 10th birthday gift, our twin boys had both requested to meet Aaron Judge to get his autograph in person, and that staying at the hotel would give us the best chance to make their wish a reality, she was all in, too.”
But the Keatings never got the chance to meet Judge because the hotel prohibited autograph seekers within the hotel. Instead, they were relegated to an area outside the hotel called “chaser purgatory.”
“So even though we had paid the cost to stay in the hotel with the players, we still couldn’t meet them and we were forced to compete with about 30 chasers who were also relegated to chaser purgatory,” Keating said.
“The set-up effectively prohibited any player interaction UNLESS the player chose to walk over and engage us. When I was a kid, we could access players as soon as they exited the hotel. Whether a player signed was up to him, of course, but it was just as easy for them to sign as they walked to their transportation as it was to refuse us. And most willingly signed. The whole thing has changed. It's really sad.
“But I don’t begrudge the players. Money and autograph value has forced the change. When we went to get Aaron Judge, his single-signed baseballs were retailing for $400-$500. So, if he signs a couple in a hotel lobby and they get posted online with the background, the next time the Yankees stay at that hotel they’ll be dozens of professional chasers there, too, expecting to get signs.
“Players are so bombarded with requests now that they need some control of their environment, especially at their road hotels, which are effectively their homes for half of the long season.”
In “Waiting for a Sign, Volume Two” (dedicated to his late father), Keating gives readers insight into the people we know only from baseball cards and watching them on television.
“I'm a medium in the stories. I want people to know the players the way I got to know them, and feel like they met them, too,” Keating said. “I like to think these are the stories behind the autograph that introduces the reader to the person inside the player. In the end, these guys are all just people who just happen to be great baseball players.
“‘Waiting for a Sign’ is about the person and each chapter is my personal tribute to that person, many of whom profoundly impacted my life.”
Keating’s new book is packed with great stories. He tells of the night he spent with actors Charlie Sheen and Paul Gleason, taking pictures with Charlie in front of his star on Hollywood Boulevard. And how he became friends with George Brett, Warren Spahn, Chuck Connors, Don Sutton and others. He also closes with some tips on autograph collecting.
For Keating, it all comes back to relationships.
“It happened naturally. It wasn't like a goal that I set, but even as a kid I always wanted to be polite,” he said. “And as much as I coveted the autograph, the interaction was always as important. The autographs provided me with the opportunity to interact with that person. To me, the interaction and the opportunity to meet these guys was the memory I took away. And the autograph was the link to that memory.
“And that's why I often ask guys after they'd sign — or even if they refused to sign — ‘Would you mind shaking my hand?’ I can look at my hand, as weird as it might sound, and think, ‘I’ve shaken hands with probably more than 100 Hall of Famers, including Roberto Clemente,’ and that's really meaningful to me.”
Keating closes Volume Two with his 10 commandments for collecting autographs:
2. Position yourself in a sound tactical location
3. Be persistent (but never rude or disrespectful)
4. Be polite
5. Be patient
6. Be creative
7. Expect nothing
8. Be grateful
9. Make and keep records
10. Always have fun
His book is a must-read for autograph collectors and baseball fans. It is available from Core Media Group at WaitingforaSignBook.com.
To listen to my full interview with Keating go to ttmcast.podbean.com. (https://www.podbean.com/ew/pb-pv8dq-127522f)
— Jeff Baker is a longtime collector and host of the popular TTMCast podcast. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.