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On Second Thought

Autograph’s value splintered

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / October 30, 2011

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I found out late last week, much to my chagrin, that Ted Williams is not going to be my ticket to retirement. He’s not even going to be my dinner for four at Legal Seafoods or my weekend away at the Cape. Almost 40 years on the job now, and I still have only one player’s autograph, the great No. 9, and I have his only because I attended the Ted Williams Baseball Camp in Lakeville in 1968 and his signature on the certificate proves I was there for a week that summer.

I’d like to think my nifty work around first base and craftiness on the mound still has ’em talking all around Lakeville, and that would be sufficient evidence of my once being there, but . . .

Anyway, Phil Castinetti, owner of Sportsworld in Saugus, has been in the autograph and sports memorabilia business since 1986. He knows his stuff. He recently sold a baseball signed by Babe Ruth for $30,000. He is hoping to get his hands soon on another baseball signed in the ’60s by all four Beatles, something that could come his way if a woman on the North Shore, who got it through a friend of Ken “Hawk’’ Harrelson when he was playing with the Red Sox, decides to sell it.

Asked how the Hawk came by the signatures of George, Paul, John, and Ringo, Castinetti said, “I don’t know. I guess Hawk was in New York for a game, and the Beatles had a concert there, and he got them all to sign it. I’m not really sure. But I can tell you, it’s really a great piece.’’

Not so my Williams autograph. Bill Buckner and Mookie Wilson were together in New York last week, and they had customers lining up to pay $199 or $299 a pop for their signed works. As a New Englander, it’s beyond me why anyone would want Billy Buck to certify that embedded nightmare from 1986. But when I saw what their signatures were getting, as documented by Stan Grossfeld in Friday’s Globe, I figured it might be time to make my score with Ted’s autograph.

“Two hundred bucks, that’s about it,’’ Castinetti told me when I asked for his estimate. “Great player, Ted, but he signed a ton of stuff. Hospitals. Outdoor shows. His autograph’s everywhere.’’

That’s it, 200 smackers. Hanging on to Ted’s autograph for 43 years now just about covers a pair of loge box seats for a game at Fenway. That’s if 1. I sell today and 2. the Sox don’t boost their prices for their much-anticipated, marketed-to-the-hilt 100th Fenway anniversary. Frankly, No. 1 isn’t all that appealing and No. 2 is a virtual lock.

To make myself feel just a little better, I’m thinking of this old school, which is that $200 in 1968 would have paid for 200 bleacher seats at Fenway. Maybe they’re not teaching that kind of economics over at Harvard, but I bet their psychology department has a term for that kind of convoluted self-denial. In ’68 dollars, I’m looking good, which is exactly what I say about the rest of my investment portfolio these days. All in all, dial me back to Lakeville and a day trip to Yasgur’s farm.

It’s really all about scarcity, said Castinetti. Lou Gehrig was by no means a recluse, but a “good’’ (i.e., clean, legible) Gehrig autograph commands substantially more than a good Ruth. And though his name isn’t as widely recognizable as either of those pinstriped legends, an autograph from the great Cap Anson, star Chicago White Stockings first baseman of the late 1800s, would fetch far more than any of the Bronx Bombers.

“In fact,’’ said Castinetti, “I’ve never seen anything signed by Anson.’’

Much of Castinetti’s industry, as well as his personal business, has changed in recent years. When we spoke Friday, he noted a recent Sports Illustrated story that said there were some 10,000 shops similar to his in North America not long ago, but today there are fewer than 500. That’s about a 95 percent shakeout.

As the entire pro sports industry has evolved into a bloated, self-absorbed, multibillion-dollar business these last 30-35 years, the related industry of card collecting, autographs, and memorabilia has been forced to shrink, adapt, change on the fly.

“For years, I ran my store out of a small shop in Everett Square,’’ said Castinetti, 55, who grew up in Revere and moved his operation just a few years ago to Route 1 in Saugus. “In Everett, we had kids in the shop every day, running in and out, mostly because they were looking to fill out their card collections. Now, we might see just a couple of kids in a week, if we’re lucky.

“I bet 75 percent of what we sell now is by the Internet [at sportsworld-usa.com], and we do a lot of auction and fund-raising stuff. We supply the memorabilia, they auction it off, and at the end we cut them a check. It’s found money for them.’’

Challenging economic times have brought a steady stream of sellers to Castinetti’s door. By his count, sellers outweigh buyers right now by a 3-1 ratio. Many of those who bring in their goods, their lifetime memories invisibly attached to what is in their hands, arrive reluctantly.

“I understand, it’s tough for them, they don’t want to be selling,’’ he said. “This is probably the last place they want to be. But some of them, they’re down to a choice: either they part with their stuff or their kids stay hungry. It’s awful. All in all, it’s tough right now, and to be honest, I see a lot of that.’’

He sees plenty of the other side, too. Castinetti knows of one very well-known ballplayer here in Boston who recently turned down $100,000 for a one-day autograph gig. And too often, he said, today’s pro athletes who agree to sign at a show are inclined to make only a fast scribble with a felt-tipped marker, their name illegible.

“So you’ve got people who come and pay their money, and now they can’t read the guy’s name,’’ said Castinetti. “They’re angry, and for good reason. That part of the business has gone crazy the last 10-15 years. The pros in today’s game are pigs. They want everything, and sometimes that’s not enough.’’

Meanwhile, I’ve got ol’ Ted, No. 9, framed and matted here on my office wall. Till death do us part, I guess, unless I’m down to my last two box seats.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.

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