Cards and Autographing

I like collecting autographs. In those years in the early 1990s when the hobby exploded and the number of available sets to purchase had jumped from three to at least seventeen, one of the things that kept me sane was collecting autographs.*

*I prospected at college games. Pursued minor league coaches and managers. Went to Spring Training. Hung over the rail at Candlestick. Sent out some through the mail requests. Hit a couple card shows.

In many ways my card collecting hobby transformed into a way for me to be able to pull a card of any player at any time. No this was not efficient, but in those pre-internet days it was better than betting on my local shop having a card of the player I was planning to get. Having a couple years of complete Topps sets was a great way to be sure I had cards of almost everyone who played in the majors.

Getting into autographs also meant that I had to make a decision about hobby orthodoxy. In those early 1990s there were a lot of rules. Rules about what cards to collect.* Rules about how to store them.** And rules about what condition to keep them in. Chief among the condition rules was that writing on a card was bad even if it was an autograph.

*Prospects, Rookies, Errors, and inserts.

**Rubber bands out. Binders OK. Toploaders better. Screwdown cases best.

It didn’t take me long to decide that rule was stupid but it’s also part of a larger debate that we still have in the hobby. For a lot of collectors, writing on a card does indeed ruin it. Even if it’s an autograph. For others like me, there are many cards which are enhanced by getting them signed. That there’s no one way of collecting is great but it feels like the autograph divide is one where neither group understands the other.

The appeal of cards as an autograph medium is pretty simple since it piggybacks on the same appeal as baseball cards themselves. They’re mass-produced photographs so they’re usually both the cheapest and easiest thing to find. They label who the subject is and have information about him on the back. They’re small enough to carry in a pocket or send through the mail in a regular envelope. And after they’re signed they’re easily stored and displayed.

But that doesn’t mean that just any card will do for an autograph. One of the fun things about talking autographs with other collectors is discussing what kinds of cards and designs we prefer to get signed.

First off, things we want to avoid. It’s inevitable that you’ll get cards where a player has signed on his face. Cards are small and there’s almost always a time crunch. Avoiding closely-cropped portraits and picking a card that doesn’t encourage face signing is an important factor to keep in mind.

Dark backgrounds are also dangerous. Especially if you’re sending a card out through the mail or otherwise can’t control the pen being used. When I was a kid my hands were tied because silver sharpies didn’t exist and I was limited in my card options. Now though I just assume that the dark backgrounds won’t work.

What I did end up liking? Simple photo-centric designs with the bare minimum of design elements. A name. A team. A border. Nothing else. These designs often underwhelmed me as cards* but I found that I really enjoyed them signed.

*As my photo and print literacy has improved I found myself appreciating the photos and design in many of these sets.

In many ways I got into the hobby at exactly the right time as the early 1990s were a heyday for these kind of designs. 1989–1993 Upper Deck and 1988–1993 (except 1990) Topps in particular were tailor-made for my autograph preferences and are still sets I return to when I can.

The rise of full-bleed photos also occurred during this time. I was scared of gloss as a kid but have started looking for these designs whenever I can now. They’re an even more extreme point in my “simple photo-centric design” preference but the key for me is that I like the ones which adhere to the simplicity.

A lot of the full-bleed designs are anything but simple with crazy graphics and other stuff going on. But the ones where the designs are essentially just typography? Beautiful. In the same way that many of the guys who don’t like signed cards prefer signed 8×10s, these function more as signed photos than anything else.

To be clear, I’m not against more colorful designs. They just require me to think extra hard about the way things will look. In addition to considering how the autograph will work with the image there’s the additional concern about how it will interact with the design.

These cases usually result in an autograph which isn’t as pronounced but ideally still combine a bright colorful design and a nicely signed image into a pleasant and presentable result.

With these less-simple designs there’s the possibility for the wonderful occurrence when everything works together perfectly and results in an even stronger look. Would these look better just as photos? Maybe. But for me the complete package of a strong design and a perfect signature/photo combination is something I especially enjoy.

And sometimes the point isn’t how things will look but just about getting a specific photo signed because it’s funny, important, or both. These are the requests I enjoy most because I can talk about the specific photo being one of my favorites and why I chose this specific card to get signed.

The key for me is to be as intentional as possible with my card choices. An important season. A specific team. A nice photo. A special event. A favorite design. Or just something silly like a picture of a player milking a cow.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

20 thoughts on “Cards and Autographing”

  1. My own (non-baseball) card autograph story.

    About 25 years ago, I was working with a fellow whose family knew Johnny Unitas. Growing up in Baltimore in the 1960s, I was obviously a big Unitas fan and also as one of those people who managed not to have his mom toss out his card collection as I grew up, I still had and still have all my baseball and football cards from the period.

    I have the 1960 Unitas card, the one which, by the way, is the only football card in the Boyd and Harris baseball card book. I asked my co-worker if he would mind asking Johnny to autograph the card. He brought it back a few weeks later with the autograph. He told me that Johnny said he was happy to sign it but feared that by doing so he was decreasing its value.

    I don’t know if that’s true but it hasn’t mattered as I still have the card.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Have to add in the comments here that the question of getting truly valuable cards signed didn’t quite fit in the post. Basically any card which I wouldn’t feel comfortable carrying unprotected or sending through the mail in a plain white envelope is out of bounds for me as a medium for autographs. No hard/fast rules as much as I just know it when I feel it. I don’t consider the autograph as damage. But all the extra handling in the exchange of card and pen and everything means that dropping an item is half-expected.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent. Some designs do lend themselves to autos (TCMA/SSPC cards with no front text come to mind – SSPC set, 1950’s and 1960’s sets).

    I haven’t sent through the mail in years, but what I have found is that there are tons of cheap autos on COMC or at shows, I mean $2-3 cheap. It’s close enough to the cost of two stamps and you’re guaranteed to get the card. Plus you get to choose the design that works you like best; there are invariably multiple signed cards from different sets and manufacturers.

    Granted, inserts are not the same as base, and I do prefer to pick up inexpensive signed 1973 Topps when I get the opportunity.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. One thing I didn’t mention in the post is that a lot of my TTMs include custom cards. Those are fun to write because I can offer something new to the player and it’s always nice to get a unique item in return as well.


  4. Nick you mentioned a few horrors of autographing cards, such as signing on the face. I’ll add the signed-upside down horror to this. Happened to me with Scottie Pippin at a charity game and yes, he was in a hurry. Boom. Instant fugly card.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The right auto on the right card can be a work of art. I had a 1976 Topps Al Oliver that turned into one of the best looking cards in my collection, but I’ve since managed to misplace it. 😟


    1. The 1987 Classic game cards (the green bordered ones, which I think were the first set) had a box on the back for the player’s autograph. It looks like other years of the game cards have that same box. I’m not sure anyone ever had a player sign an autograph in the designated area on the backs of those cards.


      1. The backs of those Mother’s cookies cards are so much better for autographs than the backs of the Classic cards. The white background and larger space compared to the green background and cramped space due to the trivia questions on the Classic cards.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Great post! Cards are also my preferred medium for autographs for all of the reasons that you mentioned. None of the autographs that I have obtained on cards have faded. That is not the case with some of the autographs that I have on baseballs. Lately I have also been using some of the larger cards for autographs – Topps Giants, Topps Super and some of the 5×7 cards that Topps has made available on their website. I just recently started contacting players through the mail and have had some good luck with custom cards also.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m assuming you got all your autographs (aside from the ones by SSASE by mail) in person, which is just about as nice as getting the player’s autograph itself. The problem with buying autographs at shows or online is authenticity, of course.
    Very useful tips for selecting best cards to get signed!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have purchased some (almost all players where I can’t imagine it being profitable to forge) but yes in-person is the best. I’ve also found that TTM is a lot of fun as well since I enjoy the letter writing.


  8. This offseason I had the opportunity to meet all of the Reds players and I got a ton of signed cards. The best signature I got was Michael Lorenzen on a baseball card but on a baseball I got Eugineo Suarez which was the best one.


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