I believe that Bob Feller signed more autographs than anyone else, ever.
I might be wrong about that. There might be an old soccer star in Italy, or some guy in Vermont who writes a lot of checks. But I can't imagine which American athlete would have signed more autographs than Bob Feller did, between reaching the majors when he was 17 and passing away Wednesday night, at 92.*
* According to Feller, he signed one of his first autographs near the end of his "summer vacation" with the Indians in 1936, just before beginning his senior year of high school. The recipient was a nine-year-old aspiring pitcher named Robin Roberts.
I've got a signed photo, and Feller signed both of his autobiographies for me. Therein, a quick story ... Sometime in the early 1990s, Feller appeared at a baseball-card show in Kansas City, and so I showed up with a copy of "Strikeout Story," his 1947 memoir. There were no handlers or in-between men, and the line wasn't long. You just waited your turn, you handed Feller whatever you wanted him to sign, and could speak to him for a moment or two. I asked him about the Detroit Tigers' (alleged) sign-stealing in 1940, and he gave me his stock answer (which I was happy to hear directly from him; today, I'm sorry I didn't ask him about his Indians' stealing signs eight years later in another pennant race). Sitting on the table in front of Feller was a copy of his latest book, "Now Pitching: Bob Feller," along with a placard indicating one could purchase a signed copy for (as I recall) $25.
At that point, I was sort of collecting signed baseball books, and that seemed like a pretty good deal to me. I said I would like to buy one of his books, wrote a check, and expected Feller to reach under the table and retrieve a book, then sign it.
Nope. He took my check, asked me to write my name and address on a note card, tucked both into his shirt pocket, and sent me on my way. I assumed that would be the end of the matter. Hey, it was only 25 bucks and I'd just been in the presence of an Immortal. I could hardly complain.
Some months later, I was shocked when the postman delivered a package from Bob Feller.
I probably shouldn't have been shocked, because Bob Feller took his signature seriously.
During Feller's career, he made a great deal of money on the side, putting together barnstorming tours, doing big endorsement deals, and generally building the Bob Feller business whenever and wherever he could.
After his career, all of that just sort of went away, and the business was simply being Bob Feller. He would spend many years criss-crossing the country, driving alone from town to town, and making whatever money he could by selling his signature. For many years, if you wanted to meet Bob Feller, you could. If you had five or 10 dollars in your pocket, it was easy.
Mind you, this was before the stars of the 1950s and '60s turned baseball memorabilia into a huge business. And even with business booming, Feller just didn't excite Baby Boomers the way DiMaggio and Mantle and Mays and Williams did. My guess is that well into the '80s, Feller was still routinely selling his signature for less than 10 bucks a pop. And he sold a lot of them. Which is why it's easier to find a signed Bob Feller on eBay than an unsigned Bob Feller. And why, before today anyway, you could find one for an exceptionally reasonable price.
It's a funny thing, though. The fact that my Bob Feller autographs aren't "valuable" doesn't make them any less valuable to me. They are, in the only way that matters to this baseball fan, priceless.