When I was a child, my father returned from a business meeting in Cleveland with a special gift for me. Bob Feller, the legendary pitcher for the Indians, had been involved in the meeting and had autographed baseballs. Mine read, “To Kirk, a future Major Leaguer. Bob Feller.”
Bob Feller was not nearly as good as predicting the future as he was at humming one past a batter. Kirk was no threat to be a major leaguer, but did enjoy playing and on a day when our sandlot group ran out of baseballs, the Bob Feller ball was volunteered to finish the game. Just an hour or so of play wouldn’t matter, it seemed, but at the end of the day the autograph was gone.
I had all manner of “Paul Bryant” signatures on memos and the like when working for him at Alabama, but saved none of them. I do have two of his autographs. My family got one from him on the cover of the first ’BAMA Magazine in 1979. And in 1982, after he had announced his retirement, he hosted a dinner for a handful of writers who had covered him, most from within the state and some from around the Southeast. All of us had individual photographs made with him which he autographed.
I have asked two sports personalities for autographs, both after rounds of golf with them. On my birthday in 2005, Mal Moore asked me if I could host Joe Namath for a round of golf. After the round, I asked Joe to sign the scorecard and he wrote, “To Kirk. Happy Birthday to a great Alabama guy. Joe Namath.”
Once I was invited to participate in a golf outing and found myself paired with Charley Boswell, a former Alabama football player who earned international fame after being blinded in World War II. He went on to learn the game of golf and won 16 national blind golf championships. Following the round, I asked him if he would sign the scorecard, which he did.
The only other autographs I have sought are from the former players who were chronicled in a book I wrote, “What It Means To Be Crimson Tide.” When (and if) I complete that task, the books will go to my children.
By the nature of my work, I could have collected hundreds of autographs of famous sports personalities, but that never really interested me. I bring that up because sports autographs – and particularly those of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel – have dominated college sports news.
That led to a question for Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban on his team policy for players giving autographs.
Saban said, “I think our compliance people do a good job with our players of making them understand that it's not a problem for you to autograph for people. It's not a problem for you to autograph but it is against NCAA rules for you to accept anything for them. It's in our team rules and policies, but we also have compliance meetings with our players once a month or whatever that we try to reinforce those rules.
“When something comes up that brings attention to it, we usually try to go reinforce it again. We try to keep a close watch on our players so that that's not an issue or a problem.”
Saban said it is a demanding task.
“We have to watch everywhere,” he said. “We have to watch here in town. We have some people in town who want to get stuff signed so they can sell them in their stores or whatever. Players have to be aware of who those people are. We've had a plan to be aware of certain folks who have tried to do stuff to the players in the past, whatever it is. We just have to monitor those things all the time, but I trust our players. I trust our players to do the right thing. And it's the right thing for them, it's the right thing for the team and it's the right thing for the organization and the university. We all have a responsibility to do that the right way.”
It’s not just a job for the compliance personnel or the coaching staff. Saban said he involves the players as a part of the peer intervention process.
“Somebody, sometime, is probably going to do something stupid,” Saban said. “Hopefully, what we tell our guys all the time, the leadership of the team, you need to help your teammate do the right thing and don't allow other people to do the wrong thing or you're not doing them any favors.
“We're trying to hit from a compliance standpoint, from a coaching standpoint, from a team leadership standpoint, every way that we can so that guys don't make the choices and decisions that will have negative consequences for the future.”
Saban said that while he and the players want to be cooperative in signing autographs, that he hopes that Bama fans will understand the demands on their time. To that end, each year the Crimson Tide has a Fan Day (it was last Sunday) in which Saban and players are available to sign photos or other memorabilia.
The celebrity autograph business must be big business. It seems to me that acquiring an autograph should have personal meaning, but obviously many are willing to purchase autographs.
And now I’ll lament – as I have many times – the loss of my Bob Feller autograph.