As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, May 15, 2022. Illustration by Emma Walsh.
Getting the autograph of your favorite professional baseball or basketball player in 1968 cost you six cents – the price of a first-class postage stamp.
As a young fan, I made treks to the mailbox on the corner of Smith Street and River Avenue in Providence with a sealed white envelope in my hand and the cloying taste of stamp glue still in my mouth. The mailbox swallowed my letter, and all I could do was wait.
In that pre-digital, pre-email world, through the marvel of the postal service, my handwritten letters would, at least in theory, reach Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees and Sam Jones of the Boston Celtics. Each would see, after my effusive two-sentence declaration of his athletic greatness, that I was asking for his autograph.
For weeks, I checked our mailbox at home. Finally, an envelope with my name on it arrived, postmarked New York, and I carefully slid out my treasure: a glossy black-and-white photo of Mickey Mantle with his signature on it. Two days later, there was another envelope, postmarked Boston, and now I had Sam Jones’s autograph, too.
Sounds quaint, for sure, especially when you consider what a big business sports memorabilia has become. By 2021, it was estimated to be a $15 billion industry annually and growing fast.
Autographed photos like the free ones I was sent as an 8-year-old are the second most popular item in the memorabilia market, topped only by autographed jerseys. And today’s John Hancocks don’t come cheap. Athletes now command handsome fees for attending signing events and charge $20, $50, $100, or more for a quick swipe of their pen.
And then there’s this: a Mike Trout baseball card bearing the three-time MVP’s signature was recently discovered in an attic in New Hampshire. Its value hovers around $10,000 – a grand slam for the woman who found it.
Back in my childhood bedroom, I noticed a difference between the two signed photos that I had thumbtacked to my bulletin board. Mickey Mantle’s autograph was printed, not written; when I rubbed over the letters with my thumb, they didn’t smudge. The Sam Jones autograph had been scribed by hand: the photo of him in his white Celtics uniform was debossed ever so slightly by the markings of a ball-point pen.
Something else made Jones’s autograph stand out. In addition to his signature, there was a message for me: “With kind regards to John.”
Had Sam written those words himself?
All this came back to me last New Year’s Eve upon seeing reports of Jones’s death at age 88. Just two months earlier, he had been named to the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team with the likes of better-known superstars such as Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James.
A tribute in the Boston Globe celebrated the quiet and gracious man who, after retiring in 1969 as a 10-time NBA champion, became a substitute teacher for 30 years in Montgomery County, Maryland. When students asked what brought him back to middle school after reaching the heights of basketball glory, Jones said he always wanted to be a teacher and, besides, he was too old to guard those young bucks in the NBA now.
According to the Globe piece, a student learned of Mr. Jones’s exceptional bona fides on the day class pictures were handed out. He asked his favorite substitute to sign one of his photos.
I smiled as I read of the Celtic great complying with the star-struck student’s request – just as, I am all but certain, he had responded to mine.