If you mail them, they will come (back): A baseball card collector's adventure in autograph hunting

As long as companies have been printing baseball cards, fans have been getting them autographed.

To the uninitiated, an autograph may just be a scribble of ink on a piece of cardboard. But to baseball fans young and old, it's a connection with a favorite player — a reminder of hard-hit singles, blazing fastballs, well-turned double plays and homers into wooden seats that have been faded by years in the sun.

To them, an autograph is a conduit to a game that millions have loved but only a relatively lucky few have been able to play at the professional level.

I am one of those fans. This summer, inspired by the unexpected return of two framed, autographed cards I had given to a relative who had died, I have dug into the boxes that hold my childhood collection and mailed hundreds of cards to retired players from the 1970s and 1980s with hopes they'll find their way back home, embellished with fresh signatures.

Never before have my daily trips to the mailbox been filled with such anticipation. My heart swells as the metal door swings open and I peek inside, hoping to discover white, self-addressed and stamped envelopes — known in the hobby as SASEs — containing autographed cards from former professional athletes I followed as a kid.

Take, for example, the delicately lettered signature of former A's, Cubs and Dodgers outfielder Rick Monday, who was kind enough to sign all three cards I sent even though I invited him to keep one for his own collection. That's been a standard offer.

And then there's the “BB” mark of former player and ex-Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, who was portrayed by Brad Pitt in the hit film “Moneyball” and now is an adviser for the A's. Not to be outdone, ex-A's manager Art Howe — played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Moneyball” — cleanly signed three cards from his playing days for me.

North Aurora resident Mike Sabonis understands the thrill of acquisitions like those.

“One aspect I love is the history,” Sabonis said. “I love sending to retired players, mostly long- since-retired players. They are more likely to answer questions or write a short note back. Also ... their autographs are typically far more legible than current players.”

Mark Gubicza, a former pitcher for the Kansas City Royals and the team then known as the Anaheim Angels, was the first veteran to return signed cards I'd mailed. In a subsequent interview, Gubicza said he receives about 10 such requests each day.

“It's the best feeling in the world to still have people want my autograph,” said Gubicza, now an Angels broadcaster.

Former White Sox catcher Marc Hill, who also returned two signed cards, enjoys the requests, too.

“I like the letters people send,” he said in a handwritten note. “I'm glad people remember us.”

Like most of the ex-players I contacted, neither Hill nor Gubicza charge for autographs. I've paid only a few — including ex-Cub and Hall-of-Famer Ryne Sandberg and ex-White Sox hurler Jack McDowell — and donated to a couple others' preferred charities. The amounts were affordable, no more than $10 each; I think it was money well spent.

And to answer your question: Databases of who charges for signatures or doesn't — as well as who signs or doesn't — are available online. My favorites are and

There have been disappointments. Some cards have been out for weeks and haven't returned; others came back in unopened envelopes with yellow “Return to Sender” labels affixed to the fronts, likely because the addresses I used were out of date.

The successes, however, make up for the defeats.

The signatures I got from former Texas Rangers and Cubs pitcher Jose Guzman were especially memorable. I sent him two cards and he sent two back — but not the same ones. One replaced a card he kept in an old-fashioned baseball card trade.

And then there was the note that accompanied the three cards signed by ex-pitcher Dan Schatzeder, an Elmhurst native who now lives in Elburn. In my letter, I asked how he wound up there. “Just lucky,” Schatzeder responded.

One of St. Charles autograph collector Ross Parse's favorites is a 1978 Topps card featuring a quartet of rookie second basemen that's signed by all four players: Garth Iorg of the Toronto Blue Jays, Dave Oliver of what was then the Cleveland Indians, Sam Perlozzo of the Minnesota Twins and Lou Whitaker of the Detroit Tigers.

The back-and-forth hunt took months.

“Finishing a multi-signed card is exhilarating,” Parse said. “So many variables have to work out for it to get completed.”

Connections, indeed.

Autograph adventure, by the numbers

  Cubs great and Hall-of-Famer Ryne Sandberg signed this 1987 Leaf card for a $10 fee. Russell Lissau/
  Rick Monday, who played for the A's, Cubs and Dodgers, signed these three cards. He's perhaps best known for preventing protesters from burning an American flag at Dodger Stadium in 1976. Russell Lissau/
  Billy Beane, whose personnel decisions as general manager of the Oakland A's were immortalized in the book and film "Moneyball," didn't charge a fee for this autograph. Russell Lissau/
  Former pitcher Mark Gubicza was the first veteran to return my cards autographed. "It's the best feeling in the world to still have people want my autograph," he said. Russell Lissau/
  Former White Sox catcher Marc Hill signed two cards and answered some questions about fan mail for Daily Herald senior writer Russell Lissau, who sent the cards from his own childhood collection. Hill says he enjoys reading letters from fans. Russell Lissau/
  Former Arlington Heights resident Rick Reuschel has a reputation as a reliable through-the-mail signer. Russell Lissau/
  Aurora native Bob Kipper signed and returned two rookie cards. Russell Lissau/
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