America at Large: Jeff Bagwell the latest to cash in on his fame

Sports memorabilia remains a multi-billion dollar industry throughout the USA

Jordan Speith: said  he didn’t sign for professional autograph hunters who collect stuff just so they can later sell it online for profit. Photograph: Tyle Terada/USA Today Sports

Jordan Speith: said he didn’t sign for professional autograph hunters who collect stuff just so they can later sell it online for profit. Photograph: Tyle Terada/USA Today Sports

 

Last month Jeff Bagwell received word that, after seven years on the ballot, he had finally been voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame, a singular honour in a sport where that institution retains a quasi-religious significance.

Last Sunday, the former Houston Astros first baseman started to cash in on his newly-elevated status.

Even among a plethora of retired and active icons from various codes, Bagwell was the star attraction at an autograph show at the NRG Arena in Texas. There, he sat behind a table and scratched his name on memorabilia and photos presented to him by fans willing to pay for the privilege.

For somebody whose last professional contract was worth $17 million (€16.1m) a year, the price list for his afternoon’s work was interesting.

A simple inscription cost $39 but the charges went up steeply from there. A photo opportunity with a player whose entire career was dogged by steroid allegations went for $99.

Getting him to sign larger objects like jerseys set people back between $105 and $155. There was no shortage of die-hards willing to pay those exorbitant rates because the obsession with autographs has long been an especially curious wing of America’s sporting culture.

Owning something touched by the hand of a superstar is regarded as such an essential and traditional part of the fan experience that individuals are willing to fork out sometimes ridiculous money for these rather dubious bragging rights.

The autographed baseball in a glass case is a staple ornament in the American corporate office and the family den, replete with the vaguely pathetic story about how it was procured. The market for these goods is so bullish that some have even made lucrative careers out of supplying them.

This sordid aspect of the whole business came into renewed focus following an incident at the AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach eight days ago. At the conclusion of his Wednesday practice round, Jordan Spieth refused to sign autographs for a group of men proffering items in his direction.

Collectibles partner

“I’m not appreciative of people who travel to benefit off other people’s success,” said Spieth afterwards.

“Go get a job instead of trying to make money off of the stuff that we have been able to do. We like to sign stuff for charity stuff or for kids or – and if you ask anybody universally it’s the same way, it’s just, they frustrate us. And a couple of them were saying ‘you’re not Tiger Woods, don’t act like you’re Tiger’, I mean it’s just like, whatever, guys, so.

“You’re still trying to benefit off me and I’m not even Tiger Woods. So, you know, what’s that say about you? So I was just a little frustrated at the end and I didn’t appreciate the language that was used and just some scums that just, it just bothered me.”

That individuals would try to make money from this stuff is inevitable. A multi-billion dollar industry in America, sports memorabilia is such an integral part of the game that clubs like the New York Yankees even have an official collectibles partner to help them wring more money from gullible fans.

During Derek Jeter’s farewell season with the Yankees, widely acknowledged as the most crassly-monetised departure in the history of sport, it was possible to purchase almost everything he wore during matches. His used socks were retailing for $409.99 each because nothing says hardcore supporter like something that reeks of your favourite player’s toe-jam.

Auction block

As a trip through eBay will show, there’s good money to be made from flogging just about anything with an authenticated sports star’s signature on it.

A Titleist PRO V1 inked by Spieth is currently available for $199.99. The asking price for a signed copy of the Sports Illustrated magazine with him on the cover beneath the headline “Jordan Rules” is $149.99. An autographed 2015 Masters’ pin flag will set you back almost three times that amount.

You’d wonder how many of the 252 items currently on the auction block Spieth knew would end up there. It doesn’t matter to the sellers or those who will buy them as gifts, long-term financial investments or even heirlooms, hopefully appreciating in value as they are handed down through the generations.

In 1993, Joe DiMaggio earned more than $3 million in eight hours selling signed baseball bats on one of the home shopping television networks. A stunning illustration of how a legend could still generate impressive income streams decades after he stopped hitting curve balls.

This explains why just about every Sunday some place in America, faded stars of varying wattages, can be found in the convention rooms of hotels. They are the ones with the pasted on smiles, risking repetitive strain injuries as they hurriedly scrawl their names for a lot less money than Bagwell was making in Texas last week.

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