It used to be that getting an autograph was reserved for kids. It was a way to immortalize meeting your favorite player and hold a piece of that moment forever. Nowadays, it’s as much a business as it is a commodity. Autograph hunters, or “Graphers” as some have come to be known, will get autographs by any means necessary as a means to make a profit. From the amateur to the pro, graphing has evolved into a kind of science.
An amateur hunter strikes out
Cal Ripken used to stay after ballgames for hours signing anything and everything he could. Most fans were well aware of this and knew to stand by the dugout to get his signature. James is not one of these people.
James has been to maybe 10 Orioles games in his 29 years. Tonight it’s gorgeous out, no clouds, 65 degrees. Perfect baseball weather, even for September. The game is still more than an hour away, but James is here early in search of an autograph or two. As he clears the tunnel and the stadium opens up, an usher approaches to ask if he can offer assistance.
“No, we know where our seats are,” James says. “We’re actually looking for guys who get a lot of autographs to see how they do it.”
“Oh, well that guy down there in the red backpack is always here getting autographs,” the usher responds. “And the guy over there behind the visiting dugout in the blue jersey really gets after ‘em. He’ll wait outside of hotels and restaurants even. You may want to talk to those two.”
“Okay, cool. Thanks for your help.”
The guy in the blue jersey disappears before James can talk to him so instead he makes his way towards the guy in the red backpack. As he approaches, super-agent Scott Boras stands up and walks up toward the concessions area. Nobody recognizes who he is until he is already out of earshot. That would have been an autograph to have. James has his eyes locked on Mr. Red Backpack.
“Hey man, my buddy over here is doing a school project on people who get autographs and we were wondering if you could tell us your strategy,” James says.
“Actually, I haven’t even gotten one autograph this year. I just do it for fun when I can,” Mr. Red Backpack says back. James has lost interest now that he knows this guy can’t help him.
People start scurrying towards the home dugout as a player emerges from the clubhouse. It’s Pigtown native Steve Clevenger, a backup catcher who just happens to be getting a rare start tonight now the O’s have been eliminated from playoff contention. He starts signing balls, helmets, gloves, cards, and even an Orioles yearbook that he acknowledges he is not even in. James realizes that he doesn’t have a pen or anything other than his game ticket to have signed.
“Man, I wish I would have known about this before tonight,” James says. “I would have come more prepared!”
He strikes up a brief conversation with a collector standing a few feet away who mutters something about his memorabilia room at home and retired pitcher Jack Morris. James asks about Cal Ripken autographs.
“Do you have any Cal Ripken autographs? Because I have his jersey at home and I really want to get it signed.”
“I have seven of them in my room at home,” the collector says. “Cal used to stay and sign all the time after games, but I haven’t gotten any since he retired.” The conversation soon ends and James goes to find his seat.
After the game, James heads to the players’ parking lot just to the left of the Home Plate Plaza. The Orioles won, so he is hopeful they are up for signing a few things. The only player that stops is once again Steve Clevenger.
He is wearing cargo shorts and a T-shirt with ankle-high white socks and dirty sneakers. He’s holding a box of food that looks like it came from a Qdoba or Chipotle restaurant. His mom is even standing there with him. He doesn’t sign anything, but he stands and talks for a few minutes and then retreats to his white Lexus, the only hint that he is a pro. Every other player leaves one-by-one in expensive cars which James seems to be more impressed with than the actual ballplayer. He leaves empty handed tonight, but he feels more prepared for the next go-round, whenever that may be.
For pro, love of autographs started at young age
It’s a tepid evening outside a small home in East New Market. It’s 8 p.m. on a weeknight and Bryon Lipe’s two daughters are still wide-awake.
His eldest, Sophia, is adorably rambunctious – every bit of her age. She’s 3.
His youngest, Bella, could quite possibly be the happiest 8-month-old on the planet. She’s a butterball that does little more than smile.
Despite the commotion of Dora the Explorer on the big screen and the family’s two relentless barking Chihuahuas, Camelia, the girls’ mother and Lipe’s girlfriend of five years, is unfazed. She’s a stay-at-home mom, so she’s used to this.
But to really talk about his favorite pastime – which adorns most of the walls in his home – Lipe has to step outside. Though Dora and the dogs can still be heard from the front step, it’s at least quiet enough to chat.
“I’ve never understood the guys with baseball cards, I mean, if you’re going to go out and get something signed, why not get something signed that’s worth something, so you can pass it on to your kids, and they can sell it someday or something, you know?”
The baseball card industry’s “big boom” burst following baseball’s infamous strike in 1994 and has never recovered. But back when baseball cards were hot commodities, Lipe admits he had a few, most of which he mailed in and had signed.
Believe it or not, getting an autograph from one’s favorite ballplayer used to be as easy as buying a collector’s catalogue, finding team addresses and sending your favorite cards to their respective stadiums. This was a method Lipe used quite a bit as a kid.
Lipe was 5 or 6 years old when he began collecting autographs. His dad, Bobby, used to take him out to Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium for Orioles games, and afterward, would often stand outside the stadium with him to wait for players to leave the locker room. That is where is started for him.
“Players didn’t always have their own parking lots. There weren’t any gates or anything. It used to be you could wait outside a player’s car and get something signed.”
Lipe still remembers his first autograph: a torn magazine cover signed by former Orioles catcher Elrod Hendricks. He keeps it in plastic in one of his many, many binders, all stacked away in every closet in his house.
While graphing does earn him and his family some extra money here and there, Lipe’s a lifelong baseball fan and a collector first and foremost.
It wasn’t until a few years ago when he first became a father that he decided to sell any of his collection. He almost laughs at the enormity and excess of it all now.
“It got to the point where I was like, ‘what am going to do with 40 Tom Glavine baseballs?’ And then I was like, ‘what am I going to do when my daughter’s school is calling and tuition is due?’”
Since deciding to make graphing a small-time hustle, Lipe estimates he’s sold somewhere in the ballpark of 700 signed items, which, incredibly enough, still doesn’t scratch the surface of his personal collection.
Although the number might suggest he’s making a fortune, Lipe insists graphing isn’t nearly the cheap-and-easy money some people and pro athletes like to think it is. In fact, very few can make a living of it.
“The average autograph is about 40 bucks. So you got to think, by the time you buy the balls, the gas, pay the tolls – there’s only so much room left to make any money.”
But in spite of his modest operation that often requires quite a bit of time, effort and capital, Lipe isn’t remiss to say he enjoys every second of it.
“It’s a hobby for me, but I can’t lie, it’s a thrill. It’s exciting trying to find guys, waiting for them someplace and then finally meeting them and getting their autographs. It’s definitely a thrill.”
“And you know, I don’t buy any autographs, because, to me, it doesn’t mean anything to buy them. I can’t look at something I bought and say, ‘hey I remember that, I was with Camelia when I got that autograph.’”
That’s Bryon… always thinking about his girls.
Speaking of which, time to head back inside. It’s almost Sophia and Bella’s bedtime.
Father and son score ‘graphs together
It’s been a long day in Glendale, and Bryon Lipe and dad, Bobby, have done pretty well for themselves on the autograph front. While throughout the regular season they’re waiting outside hotels, local restaurants and stadium parking lots, spring training offers these graphers some rare easy access.
It’s March and its Dodgers spring training, and over the course of three days, the dynamic father-and-son duo have gotten just about every Dodger they came for.
They got Matt Kemp on Tuesday, Mark McGuire on Wednesday and Zack Greinke on Thursday. They were each able to get multiple items signed.
But there’s still one signature they’ve yet to get, and it’s one of special significance to Bryon and his father Bobby: legendary Dodger Sandy Kofax.
A member of Cooperstown and one of the greatest major league pitchers ever, Kofax is Bobby Lipe’s all-time favorite player. Kofax wasn’t just another target – he was the target.
Bryon had actually already met Kofax several times during his previous trips to spring training. His father, on the other hand, had never had the ultimate opportunity, and this trip to Arizona was supposed to be his chance.
It’s the final day of their graphing getaway, and there has been no sign of Kofax. They’re standing almost by themselves near one of the exits of the small minor-league scale ballpark. It’s around almost the end of practice at 3:30 p.m. when disappointment sets in for the elder Lipe.
“Damn it, I’ve bet we’ve missed him.”
“Nah, we haven’t, Pop. He’ll show…”
The waiting game is something Bryon, a graphing veteran, is used to. Once he’s gotten word on the whereabouts of a particular target, either from a fellow grapher or a stadium staff member with loose lips, it’s just a matter of patience. And more times than not, unless there’s a crowd, the target reveals himself.
Today, he had gotten word from several other graphers that Kofax was at the park and had come in through gate C. Bryon figured if he had entered through gate C, it only made sense that he would leave through it too.
An hour goes by, and now, the two are bored and frustrated. Hungry, Bryon goes to grab something to eat while his father continues to stand watch. Upon returning, Bryon witnesses his father’s 72-year-old wrinkled face twist and tighten as another 45 minutes passes by.
It’s now 5:15 p.m.
“Let’s get out of here…”
“You sure, Pop?”
“Yeah… he ain’t here. We’ve missed him.”
Their heads hang as they finally decide exit the facility. They begin walking to their car when low and behold…
Chaperoned by two security guards and surrounded by a throng of fans, there he is, Sandy Kofax. Dressed in kakis and a Dodger-blue polo, 1963’s National League Most Valuable Player was being escorted to his SUV.
Realizing the urgency of the situation, the two quickly scurry to their rented, red Toyota Corolla. They wait for the mob to scatter as Kofax’s silver Landrover pulls up and out of the parking lot.
They pull out behind him as inconspicuously as possible. Purposely trailing by three car-lengths, they see the silver SUV turn into a Mobile station. They watch Kofax step out of his vehicle and reach for his wallet when they finally pull in.
With their target in sight, they park at the pump right next to the legendary hurler.
“See, told you we’d get him!”
“Yeah, okay, Pop. Just grab your ball and pen. I’ll get the camera.