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Identity crisis: The death of the legible autograph
Question of the Day
Drew Storen swears it’s simple, and watch — he’ll even show you.
First comes the capital D, which to the naked eye looks like anything but. A loop here and there, more like a figure eight, follows, and suddenly the capital S is woven right on top of it, following nearly the same path as the first initial before it.
For the T in his last name — lowercase, as logic dictates — there’s a vertical cross, rounded with a quick hitch, before a slant for the rest of the last name. A longer, horizontal loop follows, almost like a pretty little bow that tidies up the gift for the autograph seeker.
“It’s simple,” the Washington Nationals reliever said again as he pulled the felt-tip pen away from a white piece of paper. “It’s always been pretty much the same, but it’s just smoothed out a little bit over the years.”
Autograph hunting, the pastime within the national pastime, has been pretty much the same since the days of Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle and Harmon Killebrew, except it hasn’t. No longer does an immaculate, full-bodied, legal identification stain cowhide or parchment. Now, any casual jotting of figures, if one would care to call them that, does the job — not just loops, but arches and whorls as well.
One almost needs to check for fingerprints to determine the autograph’s creator. When Storen’s teammates are introduced at Nationals Park, their signatures flash on the video boards. They aren’t hard to see, but making them out? That’s a different story.
“If the signature isn’t with a picture, you wouldn’t know who it was,” said Nationals center fielder Denard Span, whose autograph is arguably the most legible on the team. “I can say that I want my signature to be recognized, whether it’s on a picture or on a piece of paper.”
Memorabilia market breeds sloppiness
Many players say the sloppy signatures are the result of increased demand, and leaving only initials or nicknames helps them work quickly through a crowd that always wants one more.
That trend is nothing new. The proliferation of ballpoint pens in the 1960s and the explosion of the sports memorabilia marketplace in the 1980s changed the autograph-seeking dynamic, said Mike Gutierrez, a Dallas-based vintage sports autograph and memorabilia appraiser.
Players, increasingly suffocated by collectors looking to sell their autographs for hefty profits, could get away with leaving a few quick strokes and moving on to the next item. Penmanship, romanticized by signatures like Ruth‘s, is no longer stressed.
The online marketplace has facilitated that appetite for memorabilia. It’s difficult, Mr. Gutierrez said, to authenticate current players’ signatures because the distinguishing characteristics examined by handwriting analysts are missing. At times, authentication isn’t worth the cost to the collector.
“It’s here to stay and to get worse,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “There’s no positive sign that any of this could go back to the way it was. There’s no chance of that.”
J.J. Hardy, the Baltimore Orioles’ shortstop, said he tries to sign for as many people as possible, but players’ schedules at the ballpark often do not allow enough time to get to everyone. His autograph is a vaguely symmetrical jagged heap of diagonal lines that looks like more like an electrocardiogram tracing than a signature.
“There’s a number of times when it’s not readable,” said Hardy, who was coincidentally interrupted with an autograph request by a clubhouse attendant while speaking about his signature. “When I’m in a hurry to sign a bunch of them, it kind of turns into more of a scribble, but if I’m just signing a couple, and I have time, I try to make it pretty legible.”
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