In the long and varied history of sports heroes — from Pheidippides to Johnny Football — none has signed his name more often, nor more energetically and whimsically, than Pete Rose. Signing for dollars has been at the core of Rose’s livelihood, and lifeblood, since he was banned from baseball 25 years ago. For years now he has appeared four days a week, in five-hour shifts, at a memorabilia shop in a Las Vegas mall. The crowds don’t swarm, but they do come, steadily. An autographed ball costs $99, a bat $200, a jersey $40. Items are also bundled and sold in packages. It’s not unusual for Rose to move more than $10,000 worth of merchandise in a day.
Prices and item choices are set not by Rose himself but by the company, Hit King Inc., that employs him. (He gets a flat fee for his work, but if sales pass a certain level, he receives a percentage of the extra money.) That means that when he’s signing somewhere else and has a different employer, the prices, and the menu, can vary. Just the other day, for example, Rose was in Cooperstown for Induction Weekend, where he has made almost annual autograph appearances for the past two decades. He signed at the Safe at Home shop on Main Street, less than 400 feet from the Hall of Fame to which he has been famously denied induction. In Cooperstown, customers could do a lot better for themselves than they could at The Art of Music store, Rose’s autographing venue in Vegas.
Here’s a look at some of the price variability of baseballs with two popular Rose inscriptions, by retailer (keeping in mind that an autographed item for sale on eBay may be less reliably authentic than one signed in person or bought from Steiner Sports):
The first inscription refers, of course, to Rose’s record career hits total; the second is a winking apology for the crime (betting on baseball) that landed him in the boat he’s in. Rose likes to lampoon his situation further: In certain circumstances he’ll sign baseballs with “I’m sorry I broke up the Beatles” or “I’m sorry I shot JFK.”
Downtown Cooperstown is many things to many people on Induction Weekend but it is most conspicuously a bazaar for players selling their signatures. At any moment you can find scores of former big leaguers signing things in shops or at sidewalk tables along the narrow streets. Voices ring out, carnival-barker style, to let you know where to look for your favorite players. “Ernie Banks! A Hall of Famer, he’s right here! Come on in! Ernie Banks here today!”
Special inscriptions like Rose’s are sometimes part of the transaction. This year, for example, the former Braves closer John Rocker, famous for his anti-New York rant in the late 1990s, was in town, capitalizing on the influx of Atlanta fans who’d come to see Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Bobby Cox get inducted. You could get a ball signed by Rocker for $20, plus $10 for a personal inscription. The inscription price rose to $25, though, if you wanted him to write “F New York” or “F the New York Mets.”
So how does Rose’s Cooperstown fee of $60 compare with other players’ fees? Below is a look at the rate for some notable autographs during Induction Weekend. Typically, a Hall of Famer’s autograph sells for more than a non-Hall of Famer’s. So leaving out Rose’s figure, and relying on help from a pair of fine reporters (big cheers to David Bauer and Larry Mileo), I also calculated the average price for each of those two subsets of players. The autograph prices are set by the vendor and are determined, naturally, based on demand. It sometimes happened that a player appeared at more than one venue during the weekend and his autograph sold for slightly different prices. I took that into account.
In comparison with Hall of Famers (the group Rose’s supporters believe he should be part of), Rose commanded 6 percent less than the average price. (Among teammates from the 1970s Big Red Machine, Rose drew about 13 percent less than Hall of Famers Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan and about 9 percent more than Hall of Famer Tony Perez.) Compared to other non-Hall of Famers, however, Rose killed it. Braves pitcher John Smoltz, who had the Atlanta contingent in town and who was billed on a price flyer as a “Future Hall of Famer” (he’ll get in next year) was the only non-Hall of Fame player whose autograph went for as much as Rose’s.
Most surprising, given how long Rose has been at it and how deeply he has saturated the market for his own signature, is that his price has remained stable as he has continued to sell. At Safe at Home, the signed ball fee went up from $55 to $60 about seven years ago, according to store proprietor Andrew Vilacky, and has remained at that price. In Las Vegas, Rose’s autograph on a ball cost $79 when he was selling at the Field of Dreams in 2009. Today, at The Art of Music, he gets a 25.3 percent higher rate without any drop in volume.
So why does Rose, now 73, still draw? As the eBay price in the first table suggests, no one is investing in his autograph in hopes of making much resale profit. Part of the allure is Rose’s continued fame — he may be the most famous non-Hall of Fame former baseball player alive. But there is more to it than that.
What people keep buying is not just the autograph, but also the experience of getting it. Plenty of ballplayers can engage with the fan base, but nobody does it better or embraces it more than Rose does. Pete is extremely good at being Pete. You sit with him for five minutes during an autograph session. He’ll banter cornily (“Your name is Bob? Mind if I spell it backward?”) and crassly (“The whole time your wife was taking that photo with me, she had her hand on my ass”). He will give batting tips to kids (essentially, “Be aggressive”) and recall old at-bats with astounding clarity and detail. He’ll break off an anecdote about Willie Mays in a urinal, and he might, without warning or provocation, hold forth on the subject of blow jobs. However all this may sound to you, many customers clearly view it as value added. I have seen people wait to get their ball signed, spend the time with Rose, then get back in the queue and do it again.
People are also drawn to Rose for the contradictions in his character — what to make of someone who both honored and dishonored the game so profoundly? Rose, through his gambling and his recalcitrance, has the lure of an outlaw hero. He’s also the only player in baseball history to be expressly denied a place on the Hall of Fame ballot, and that gives customers something edgy to discuss with him. As much as Rose might like to get inducted one day, he is not blind to the notoriety that his banishment has given him, nor to the understanding that, in the autograph trade, it may have helped his bottom line. “You know,” he once said to me. “Not being in the Hall of Fame — that’s my shtick!”
For the right price, I’m sure, Rose will write that on a baseball for you.