Autograph Collecting as a Feat of Historical Inquiry

The graphing community [“graphing” is a term for the craft of autograph seeking] is one of uncommon depth, into which people have spent decades carving their fiefdoms and burrowing out their niches, whether that be players in the single-A Midwest League or members of the Whig Party. Flam’s fellow grapher Rich Hanson supervises inspections at a meatpacking plant in Monmouth, Illinois by day and occupies his nights and weekends by graphing minor leaguers in the region, a pursuit he supplements by also collecting the signatures of American authors and of Civil War personalities. He’s got Johnny Clem, a drummer-boy for the Union Army who enlisted at age 12, and James Shields, who challenged Abraham Lincoln to a duel that never came to fruition. Their scrawls are perhaps more aptly described as signatures than as autographs, since they were left behind incidentally rather than at the solicitation of a fandom.

Indeed, Flam’s and Hanson’s collections are feats of historical inquiry, of the innately human impulse for record-keeping more so than celebrity worship. Whereas the cachet of a Derek Jeter autograph, for example, is attributable to the same preoccupation with fame that brought us paparazzi, these graphers follow more in the tradition of Herodotus or Audubon. That is, they aspire above all to documenting the simple fact of their subjects’ existence (grandiose accomplishments aside) at a certain point in time. How else can one explain three decades chasing the Burlington Bees’ backup right fielder who will play out his career in obscurity?

John Stillman writing for Vice Sports about the weird, noble world of true autograph collectors.

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