By Pete Williams
When I was little, my Dad took me to a lot of Richmond (Va.) Braves games. One night in the summer of 1977, Dad pointed to an old guy in a Cleveland Indians uniform signing autographs and mentioned that the man was one of the best pitchers of all time.
“Dad,” I said. “Bob Feller played in Cleveland, right?”
“So what’s he doing here?”
Bob Feller, who died Wednesday at the age of 92, will be remembered for being many things: flame-throwing teenage pitching prodigy, Hall of Famer, decorated World War II veteran, outspoken baseball legend, a real-life Iowa farmboy combination of The Natural and Field of Dreams.
He also was the first Hall of Famer to realize it’s possible to make a comfortable living being a Hall of Famer. Years before the sports memorabilia industry exploded, Feller barnstormed the country appearing at minor league ballparks and other baseball-related events signing autographs, talking ball and just being Bob Feller.
Current baseball players can (and should) thank Marvin Miller for their $3 million average salary and $414,000 big-league minimum. Hall of Famers and other former sports stars can thank Feller for creating the post-career business model that provides comfortable six-figure incomes for many.
Feller signed more autographs than anyone who ever lived, many for free, many for fees. He signed so many that those in the sports memorabilia industry long have joked that anyone who doesn’t have a Feller autograph simply doesn’t want one and that unsigned Feller memorabilia is rarer than autographed stuff.
Feller recognized that he wasn’t just selling signatures; he was offering a chance to interact with a legend. Unlike most athletes who sign with their heads down at assembly-line card shows, rarely looking up at fans, Feller was happy to pose for pictures and talk baseball. He always asked fans for their hometowns. No matter how obscure the city, the well-traveled Feller could offer a quick anecdote about a visit there decades earlier. After all, he had hit the Richmonds of the world many times as a barnstorming player in the winter or during his decades on the autograph circuit.
He signed only in blue ink because when he reached the Majors, American League baseballs had blue and red stitching. (National League balls were laced with black and red.)
Feller signed hundreds of thousands (a million?) autographs in his lifetime and yet his penmanship never deteriorated. Take a look at your own signature from five years ago and you’ll understand how incredible that is.
Because Feller signed so often, he devalued his autograph. You never hear talk about Feller forgeries because, well, what would be the point?
If every ex-jock signed as frequently as Feller – and guys like Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, and Reggie Jackson seem hell-bent on breaking his signing record – the autograph industry would collapse. Would that be such a bad thing?
Feller understood that he was selling the opportunity to spend a few quality moments with a living legend, which is why rich guys pay big money to enter pro-am golf tournaments. It wasn’t about the autograph. Guys like Rose, Schmidt, and Reggie, along with Willie Mays and others, have reputations for being aloof, distant and occasionally rude at autograph signings. It’s a business transaction to them, nothing more.
It reached a point where most everyone had a Feller autograph, but people didn’t get tired of talking to Feller. Nor did he get tired of interacting with the fans, which is why he could keep signing and making appearances.
Since I’ve written two books on the sports memorabilia industry, I occasionally get calls from reporters upon the passing of sports legends. The media usually wants to know how much the value of a player’s signature will rise now that, presumably, he won’t be signing anymore. (It’s remarkable how many autographs Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams continue to sign.)
I have yet to get those calls today regarding Feller and my guess is I won’t. That’s because there’s plenty of Feller memorabilia out there. The man was as accessible as any sports legend ever. Plus he still was making the rounds until recently, drawing bigger audiences than he did in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
In 1986, Feller, Ernie Banks, and a couple of other ex-greats appeared at the Potomac Mills Mall in Northern Virginia. It was an odd setting, as I recall, with Feller and Banks seated at a table right out in the middle of the mall going largely unnoticed by Saturday afternoon outlet shoppers.
I paid a nominal fee — $3 or $5 tops – and got to chat briefly with two Hall of Famers.
Feller signed a photo – in blue Sharpie, of course – “To Pete. Best Wishes. Bob Feller. ’86.”
Think about that. Can you imagine Randy Johnson or Greg Maddux hanging out in a mall some time in 2035 mingling with the fans and signing autographs? Both made more than $100 million in their careers, so there’s no need, though neither is above doing lucrative private signings for memorabilia dealers.
They can thank Bob Feller for the opportunity.