We can't emulate the deeds of our sporting heroes in their chosen field but we can capture a part of them if we collect their signatures on a photo or a programme.
People have prized handwritten letters and documents by famous personalities for many centuries. As far back as Roman times, the great orator Cicero was known to have treasured a letter by Julius Caesar written in his own hand.
The related hobby of signature collecting, however, is thought to have originated in 16th century Germany when students carried notebooks or albums in which their friends wrote out and signed verses, proverbs and classical quotations (a practice which still continues today). From this it was a short step to asking a famous scholar or teacher, either resident at or visiting the university, to sign the album and so enhance its interest and value.
By the mid-19th century, when more and more newspapers and journals were keeping people informed of current events, autograph collecting had become a fashionable hobby. At first, royalty and newsworthy politicians were the quarry of autograph hunters but soon sportsmen and theatre and music hall performers joined the ranks of celebrities. Since most sports had universal appeal, players' achievements and setbacks were widely reported - in the same way as the doings of today's TV and showbiz stars.
The British public avidly followed the short but spectacular career of the great jockey Fred Archer (who committed suicide in 1886) and that of the burly, bearded cricketer W G Grace. Their signatures on a race programme or scorecard, or on a drawing or photograph were as prized by enthusiasts then as those by Lester Pigott or Ian Botham, or Mark Waugh are now.
AUTOGRAPHS CATCH ON
In the first few decades of the 20th century sportsmen and women were, along with movie idols, the heroes of the day; where the press and photographers congregated, autograph hunters were never far behind. As a result, there are many thousands of sports autographs to be found from pre-war years and even more from relatively modern times.
Most collectors concentrate on a particular sport. Cricket, football and golf are perennial favourites but tennis, rugby, boxing, horse racing and athletics also have a strong following. Within each sport, many specialize even further by limiting their interest to certain fixtures or teams or to certain periods, such as the 'golden age' of football (1930s to 1960s).
Signed photos can be framed, or collected in an album along with signed letters and autographed match programmes.
There are many thousands of genuine sports autographs to be found at fairly modest cost but, because signatures of famous people are relatively easy to fake and because genuine facsimiles exist, it is best to buy from established dealers or from the major auction houses; otherwise, you may find yourself with a worthless collection of copies or outright forgeries. Be wary, particularly, of golfing autographs, which are now much sought after by enthusiasts worldwide but especially in Japan and the US where the sport has a cult following and collectors are prepared to pay very high prices for rare or interesting material.
CLASSIFICATION AND VALUE
The word 'autograph' means anything that is handwritten. Although signatures and signed photographs are the most common form of collectable autographs, experts have adopted a classification system.
The most desirable is an ALS, a letter entirely written and signed by the writer; a document typed but signed by the writer is a DS, while a letter typed but signed is an LS. A signed photograph is known as an SP but one which also carries a personal inscription to the recipient is prized. A mere signature, which may have been cut off from a letter or document and stuck in a book or album, is a Sig. This grading appears in many catalogues and, in descending order, is a general guide to value.
Generally, the signatures and letters of living sports personalities are not especially valuable, although this should not deter you from collecting contemporary autographs. For many, the pleasure of owning a personal memento from a sporting idol is more important than monetary value. An exception is when the personality is a very famous but reluctant celebrity from whom few autographs are known to exist. Rarity is invariably the most important factor in determining values.
Having begun a collection, the best way to preserve your finds is in a modern photograph album where each leaf is covered with a sheet of transparent acetate. Don't tamper with your pieces or attempt to repair any damage such as tears or creases in paper and on photographs. Simply position each autograph separately under the clear sheets without gluing or fixing them to the bottom leaf. Store the album in a cool, dry place and your collection should remain in excellent condition, to be appreciated in years to come by your children.