Saturday, March 14, 2015

Food (Issued) for Thought: Autograph Supply and Demand

March 6th would have been Willie Stargell's 75th birthday.  Pops tragically died in 2001, at just 61 years old.  But even then, he left a trail of cardboard for his collectors to chase that remains strong to this day.  Despite being one of the franchise icons for the Pirates and dying before the autograph and sticker boom really came into full force, Stargell autos can be had for under $15, and even under $10 if you're particularly patient.  Admittedly, those are logo-less food issues.  A pack issued auto will run you a fair bit more, since Stargell's few pack issued autos came in some of the landmark autographed sets of the late 90's/early 00's.  But the point remains that despite dying at a very young age, a steady stream of autographs are available to collectors some 15 years later.

I started thinking about autograph supply when Fuji posted some great flea market pickups, including a pair of Bob Feller baseballs for $5 each.  Rapid Robert is well known for being one of the most prolific signers on the planet.  My lone Feller autograph came from a dime box.  And other of the game's immortals can probably be put on the same list.  Pete Rose autographs from Leaf routinely sell for about $10-15 a box.  Again, no logos.  But we're talking about the all time hit king, for better or worse.  Or look no further than the supply of Duke Snider stickers Topps continues to slide into new products.  The Duke of Flatbush was a great TTM signer for years, in addition to his certified autographs.

I think about a player like Jim Palmer.  Undoubtedly an all time great, he is still a ripe 69 years old, and as far as I know appears to be in pretty good health.  And he has been signing a steady stream of cards, stickers, and anything else since the early 1990's.  He is already one of the more common HoF signatures out there.  What could another 10-15 years of signing ultimately do for his market?

So it begs the question of what does the longterm autograph market look like for players whose entire career and post-career will fall into the autographed card era?  I'll exclude players like Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr., Greg Maddux, etc whose careers were already well established by the time autographs became commonplace, and thus had their supply limited simply due to cost.  But even then most of them have already started popping up in recent Topps products.

Take a player like Albert Pujols.  His autographs still don't fall below $50 or so, and most push north of $100.  But Pujols could presumably have a steady supply of autographs from his rookie year until his death, hopefully well off into the future.   Even if he doesn't sign in Feller-ian quantities, I imagine there should be a plentiful supply out there to meet collector demand.

Of course it's impossible to predict these things.  Tony Gwynn was a fantastic signer throughout his lifetime, but his untimely death has left a far more limited supply.

1999 Hillshire Farms Home Run Heroes Autographs [Autographed] #NoN - Frank Robinson - Courtesy of

As a collector, I love the fact that you can get an autograph of some of the game's greatest players for $10, or lower.  I bought a Frank Robinson a few months back on COMC for a whopping $6.  It was a food issue card, no logos...but it was a Frank Robinson auto.  A guy who was an outstanding player and manager, and perhaps one of baseball's best modern ambassadors.  I'd love to live in a world where you can pick up even some of the HoF'ers who played during my lifetime for that kind of cash.  You'll hear those in the hobby to make a buck crying about over saturation, and losing out on profits.  But for the health of the hobby, for collectors, and for those of us who just flat out love the game of baseball, I can't see that becoming a bad thing.

Now whether today's athletes, anointed with multi-million dollar contracts from the day they are drafted and with agents continually telling them to limit what they sign so they can command top dollar will be as gracious and accommodating as the generations of stars that came before them?  Maybe I'm a bit more pessimistic on that account.  But I guess time will tell.  


  1. I thought this was a pretty funny recent "1/1" Pops cut auto from Topps.

    1. It just about makes me sick to think about how many cards, 8x10's, and Perez Steele postcards have been cut up for the hobby's "cut auto" fascination. Checks, index cards - fine. But I'd much rather have a full autographed piece than a butchered chunk of the auto and some serial numbering. *end rant*

  2. The autograph debate is one that me and my buddies have on a regular basis. I personally think that in the long run... supply is going to outweigh demand as more and more fans focus on the "now", instead of the "then". Sure... the all-time greats will always be in demand to some extent. But just think about Pops, because he's the perfect example. If I ask any of my students if they have heard of Mr. Stargell... I'd be surprised if a single person raised their hand. Is it possible that ESPN makes a movie on the 70's Pirates or a documentary on Stargell? Sure... and if they do... there will be a little spike in his values. But 50 years from now, Willie is going to blend in with players like Ron Santo, Ryne Sandberg, and Don Sutton. And when he does blend in and most of us who collected his autographs start passing away... are there really going to be enough new collectors out there to buy up all of those autographs? My guess is "no". That's why I no longer think of values when I'm buying cards... even high end cards. I buy cards that I want for my collection and have come to accept the fact that most of my collection will never be worth what I originally paid for.

    It's kinda like when I visit my parents in Vegas. I go to the casinos knowing that 9 out of 10 times, I'm walking away with less money in my pocket. But it's all worth it because I walk in with the understanding that I don't expect to win. I just want to hang out with my mom and entertain myself while playing video poker.

    On a more optimistic note... I know that there are ways to win at the casino... just like I know that there's ways to make money in our hobby. However the hard work I'd have to put into both of these situations would take all of the fun out of each of these present forms of entertainment. And if I'm not having fun... then there's no point in me doing either of these things anymore.

    1. Agreed. I think we already see that to a a smaller extent with modern star/semi-star players. There was a time when you were looking routinely paying $10-15 for an auto of Brian Giles, Jason Bay, or Jason Kendall. They were all-star level players, but it was pretty clear they had already hit their peak and weren't ever going to be HoF caliber players. I can buy their autos any day of the week for under $5, and most often in the $2-3 range. I've seen Ryan Howards under $10, and they might be even cheaper now. This hobby is obsessed with the here and now, with "potential" even when a player is already in their peak.

      Certain isolated cases will probably maintain that balance of supply and demand. I don't expect to see a Jeter or Griffey auto for $10, or even $25, in my lifetime. And HoF collectors will keep the price floor above the Bays or Kendalls. But I agree that those beneath the "icon" tier of HoF'ers will see similar price declines. Hell, within the past two years I've added certified autos of John Smoltz and Andruw Jones (who may not quite reach the HoF, but that's a different debate) for $2 each. As the hobby continues to shrink, I wonder what demand will look like in 10 or 20 years, especially as some older collectors die off and those collections come back into the market.

    2. Wow... a Smoltz and Jones for $2 each? That's awesome. I try to focus on the positive and embrace that values are going to drop... but that also means we can end up affording more cards for our own PC's.

    3. Smoltz was on ebay, while the Jones came out of a discount box at the National. I see it ultimately as a positive for collectors. If you told me I'd be able to afford autographs of some of the players I have in my collection today ten years ago, I would have said you were insane.