There’s a popular story where music journalist Jon Landau saw Bruce Springsteen perform before his first album was released and wrote, “I saw rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”
I’ve seen the most impressive autograph collector in the world, and...his name is Steven.
And it’s weird that I even met Steven, because I’m going to make a confession about being an autograph collector. I don’t tell people that. Now, I have a few old radios and jukeboxes. Nothing wrong with telling people I like collecting those. But if you tell someone you collect autographs, you’re not sure how they’ll take it. They might think I’m like those little kids at the railing of Padres games, holding a baseball in one hand and a Sharpie in the other. They might think I’m one of those guys that sent a fan letter to Mick Jagger. Whatever they may think about the hobby, I assume their thoughts can’t be positive. So I don’t tell anyone.
Yet I met these neighbors a few years back. These were the two coolest cats ever. Jonathan Rosenberg and I started talking about our favorite bands. And we both loved a lot of the same artists. I then found out he was writing this musical, 33 ½ -- House of Dreams. Now as a writer, the amount of times I’ve met somebody who’s writing a memoir, or some screenplay they think is going to be brilliant -- is too often to count. So I took Rosenberg’s story about his play with a grain of salt. Then it opened at a big theatre in San Diego and it had a lot of sold-out shows. I brought my wife and parents, and we all loved it. And now there are talks of it going to Broadway, while his second play (Americano) did well in Arizona and is being shopped around the Great White Way. When I finally met his wife Idonna, I thought she was even cooler. She used to write and perform comedy, and is not only adorable in every imaginable way, but she still has her quick wit.
One day Jonathan said to me, “Don’t you collect autographs?”
My mind started racing. How could he know this? It’s something I keep secret. I then remembered, when he was going to the House of Blues to interview Little Steven, I had been outside the venue trying to get his autograph (my wife is from New Jersey, and a huge Springsteen fan, so...it was more for her to get to meet him). Another time Jonathan and I were talking about some of the concerts we had attended, and I talked about getting albums signed by those artists. So the cat (stevens) was out of the bag.
I sheepishly admitted that I did collect autographs. Then he started talking about the most impressive collection he saw recently. I figured he’d tell me he met someone that had a handful of baseballs signed by players. Who doesn’t have a Pete Rose and Tony Gwynn ball on their shelf? Yet what he told me I couldn’t believe. I said, “I have to meet this man.”
Arrangements were made, and I spent two different days up there seeing Steven’s beautiful house, wonderful wife, and what is quite simply -- the best autograph collection I think may exist in all of California. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the best collection in the world. And that’s not hyperbole.
We exchanged pleasantries, and talked for a bit. When it came time to check out his collection, we walked into another room. On the wall behind his desk, were some of the big ones. John F. Kennedy, JFK, Jr., and other Kennedy’s, in framed photos. There was an Albert Einstein letter framed. Something signed by Sigmund Freud. There were a lot of world leaders, and dignitaries from Israel and other parts of the world. That was impressive enough, but we then walked down a hallway. I saw a jukebox, which had two framed photos over it. One of them was a signed Beatles picture. Steve told me, “I have a lot of the Beatles autographs on other things, too.”
I would later see a book signed by John Lennon on the front page, a few George Harrison signed books, and something signed by McCartney. He even had the original Beatles drummer Pete Best -- but poor Ringo. When people name their favorite Beatle, nobody ever says Ringo Starr. And he’s the one that Steve has the least amount of signatures from.
The early black-and-white Beatles photo was slightly faded and he admitted, “This photo and the one below it, I had on a wall where the sun got to them.”
You could still see the Fab Four autographs fine, but the photo below was painful to look at. It was a picture of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, with their signatures underneath. The sun really faded those out, but I loved the way he had them framed. There’s nothing worse than when someone frames an autograph poorly. This was brilliantly done, with the mat in the Yankee pinstripes. It was beautiful. I told him about a Fats Domino photo I have signed, where I glued dominoes all around it to frame it.
From those photos, we walked another 100 feet over to his bookshelves. Now, we’ve all been in a nice house that has shelves and shelves of books, making it look like a library. The difference here was...every book here was autographed. The first few books I saw, I remember also getting when these actors came to San Diego for book signings -- Tony Curtis, Karl Malden, etc. Yet then I started seeing books by every actor that’s ever written a book, or had one written about them. Some of these are people that didn’t even do book signings.
Steve then told me about the different sections. One whole set of bookshelves was dedicated to Hollywood. The next bookshelf over, was all political figures. I asked how many Presidents he had signatures from and he smiled and said, “A lot.” He started rattling off the Presidents, and I think he named every President I’ve ever heard of. He had signatures from them all. Wait...I don’t think he mentioned Rutherford B. Hayes, but who knows? Maybe he did and I just forgot.
And when he’d pull something out to show me, I got scared. I didn’t want his Abraham Lincoln autograph getting ruined.
When looking at the actors, I shared stories with Steve on when I met those people. A few times, we were at book signings at the same time.
With the athletes’ books, I was in awe. A few Wilt Chamberlain books, and literally, any athlete that’s ever had a book out. Every baseball player, football, basketball. My favorite is a book I offered to buy from him. It was the 50 best players of the last 50 years. And almost every page was signed by the player in the photo. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and the list goes on.
When I got Magic Johnson to sign my book, I had to drive to L.A. He wouldn’t sign my Sports Illustrated or basketball card, only the children’s book he wrote. And my car got towed while I was inside (after already driving two hours to get there!). One of my worst autograph experiences. But this isn’t about me and my nightmare experiences, but my dream come true -- seeing the best autograph collection in the world.
Just after I resigned myself to not boring him with my autograph stories, I saw the page signed by Wilt Chamberlain, and had to tell him about when I sent him a letter as a kid, and he sent me back a signed index card. I told him in my letter how I was moved by the section where he said they didn’t have a lot of money when he grew up and his socks didn’t fit right, so he had to use rubber bands to hold them up. I spent a year doing that as a tribute to him (until I realized my floppy socks looked like Pete Maravich).
When I saw a book signed by Bill Russell (the Celtic great, not the Dodger), I told him how I met him and Rick Barry when they were broadcasting a basketball game. Barry signed for me. Russell, who is known for not signing autographs, did not. Steve said, “I know. He’s a jerk. I saw a kid go up to him and ask for an autograph. He didn’t say anything, he just turned his chair around so he wouldn’t be facing the kid.”
I told him about a documentary I saw where a Celtics player had their team photo signed by the entire team, except for him. He refused to give an autograph -- even to his own teammate!
When I saw the Bill Walton signatures, I talked about being in a basketball tournament playing against his son. There were a handful of times I met Walton (I even interviewed him for a cover story I did in the San Diego Reader, another time behind him at a Keith Richards concert), but I never got his autograph at those times, but instead when he was at a book signing. He was the same way, and added, “I was once on an airplane, and he sat down right next to me. He said hi, then put on his headphones. I didn’t talk to him that entire flight, or ask for his autograph.”
It was when I was looking at his baseball autographs, I found out Steve, an OBGYN, delivered the babies of Hall of Fame pitchers Goose Gossage and Rollie Fingers. I asked if he said, “Congratulations, it’s a baby boy! Oh, and can you sign this baseball I have in my coat pocket?”
He smiled and said he didn’t do that, but got their autographs at other times. Steve then said, “I had a neighbor call me once. He had Ted Williams over for dinner and asked me if I wanted to come over and meet him. I was over there before he even hung up the phone!”
He then showed me his photo with the Splendid Splinter and the many signed things he had from him.
Steve’s wife has the most beautiful smile, and as we were there, I asked them if she was into autographs. She wasn’t, but shared this story. I think they were in New York and someone invited them to a dinner Cher was going to be at. Steve got to meet her and get an autograph, but his wife was more interested in another singer there who was the opening act -- Cyndi Lauper. Girls do wanna have fun, too.
A few people he got autographs from, led to correspondences. One was with John Wooden, whom he was a big fan of. I told him about the only Wooden signature I had -- a UCLA memento signed by him and Walton I bought at an auction. He pulled out a handful of letters, and I realized -- there probably isn’t an autograph I have that he doesn’t. And then some.
When I brought up my hundreds of signed albums, I asked if there were any singers he was a fan of that he might want to trade for one of my records. I was hoping I could get his signed copy of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, the funniest American novel ever written. He said, “I was a big fan of Olivia Newton-John, but I got her autograph. She wasn’t very nice.”
It was at a meet-and-greet and Steve said, “I heard her say to someone, maybe her manager, ‘Let’s hurry up and keep these people moving.’ She was in a hurry to leave.”
After we moved by the bookshelf of actors, and then the athletes, it was on to the politicians. The shelves went up to the ceiling, and it was just amazing to think that every book in here was signed. He also had a book signed by many of the First Ladies.
When I saw the Donald Trump book, I pulled it out and said, “I kind of like his signature. I’m guessing this was signed well before he was President.” (It was.)
We started talking a bit about Trump, but then I thought -- maybe we shouldn’t start talking about politics.
From the politicians, it was on to the classic books. I saw a Mark Twain and said, “I always thought it would be cool to have a signature of his that said Samuel Clemens.”
He pulled it down, opened it up, and showed me. It was signed “Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens.”
I hinted again about wanting his Catch-22 novel.
I was blown away when I saw a Jane Austen novel signed. I’ve been collecting autographs, reading about them, and writing stories on the subject -- for over 35 years. I’ve never seen or heard of anybody having an Austen signature. And as he opened the book, I was afraid the pages were so fragile that the thing would fall apart. I’m guessing that’s easily worth something in the six figures. Now, when I’ve looked at autographs, even on the walls of the Hard Rock Cafe, the idea of how much they may be worth never enters my mind. But upon seeing the Austen book, and other books signed by authors like Hemingway, Dickens, Steinbeck, and others...I figured this collection is worth millions. Easy.
I asked if there were any autographs he wanted that he never got for his collection. He said no. I asked if he had an Elvis or Marilyn Monroe signature. He said, “No, but...I never wanted one.”
So after looking at all his autographed books, I figured that was it. Nope. He mentioned his sports collection that filled up an entire room downstairs. So, down a spiral staircase, where a box is kept at the top of the stairs to keep the dogs from going down there. There’d be nothing worse than having one of his two dogs play fetch with a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth.
Walking into this room was more fascinating than walking into a sports museum. For all intents and purposes, it was a sports museum. From his great collection of baseball and basketball cards on the table, to the shelves filled with baseball bats, baseballs, footballs, basketballs, and jerseys. The signatures were...beautiful. Some of them would be signed by teams. I’d notice Walt Frazier, and a few other players from those early ‘70s Knicks teams. I don’t think there was an athlete he didn’t have a signature from. There must have been over a thousand sports things signed. I laughed when I saw a basketball signed “Rudy T.” I said, “Did Tomjanovich think his whole last name wouldn’t fit on it? It’s a basketball, not a golf ball?”
Steve smiled and said, “It is a long name.”
The next time I came back for a visit, and to take photos of his collection for this story -- I brought him some Autograph Magazines I had written stories for (remember when this fine publication wasn’t just online?). I inscribed one to say “To Steve, save this autograph. In 20 years, it’ll be worth 85 cents more than it is now.”
He said, “I used to get this magazine.”
It made me happy to think that...this guy who has the best autograph collection I’ve ever seen (and probably the best anyone has), may have read things I’ve written before.
When he told me he planned to leave his collection to his kids but that they didn’t seem all that interested in it, I tried again to buy his signed basketball book, and Catch-22. But just as Yossarian didn’t get what he wanted in Catch-22, I left empty handed.