Autographs hard to read in the era of scribbles

By Tyler Kepner / New York Times News Service

The walls of the steakhouse at Yankee Stadium are decorated with signatures of past New York Yankee greats. David Robertson, the team’s young closer, marvels at the fact that he can read the names.

“All the old-time autographs are really neat,” Robertson said. “It’s a lost art.”

Robertson, 28, is the heir to the retired Mariano Rivera, who leaves behind a legacy of brilliance in the bullpen and precision with a pen. Rivera may have spent more time on his signature than any of his peers, meticulously crafting his M’s and R’s and all the lowercase letters that followed.

Few modern players take similar care. In the last generation or so, the classic script of Babe Ruth, Harmon Killebrew and Rivera has largely deteriorated into a mess of squiggles and personal branding.

It is not just baseball, of course. The legible signature, once an indelible mark of personal identity, is increasingly rare in modern life. From President Barack Obama, who sometimes uses an autopen, to patrons at a restaurant, few take the time to carefully sign their names.

Baseball fans still clamor for autographs — as keepsakes, commodities or both. But today’s treasures have little of the elegance of those that came before. A recognizable signature, let alone an artful one, now seems as quaint as a Sunday doubleheader.

“Fans say, ‘Can you put your number on there?’” said Javier Lopez, a reliever for the San Francisco Giants. “Because there’s no chance they can read them.”

Lots of signatures

Curtis Granderson, a veteran New York Mets outfielder, said he used to write his name neatly. But as a young player, he often found himself with hundreds of items to sign at a time — for memorabilia companies, for his team, for fans.

For a person with a 10-letter last name, it was overwhelming.

“As you’re sitting there signing, your thought process is, ‘How do I get out of here as quick as possible?’” Granderson said. “That’s how things start to shorten and shorten and shorten.”

Granderson added: “A lot of people just want the fact that you signed it. They really don’t care how it looks.”

If they do care, fans of Carlos Gonzalez, Cliff Lee, Tim Lincecum and other prime offenders will be disappointed. Toronto’s R.A. Dickey, a former Cy Young Award winner, said he had a neat version he might use in a private setting. But at the ballpark, he said, he makes two discernible letters and moves down the line.

Washington reliever Drew Storen, 26, said he could rarely read the autographs he collected growing up. Now his signature looks more like a butterfly than a name.

“I put my number on it, usually, but I think of it as a design,” Storen said. “I challenge people to try to do it, to see if they can, but it’s just autopilot for me, like, ‘Boom.’ It looks cool. It’s like your own little logo, because most of the time you’re signing a card, so they know who it’s supposed to be.”

Some players, like Brett Gardner, Manny Machado and Mike Trout, offer little more than initials. Even Jackie Bradley Jr., a Boston Red Sox prospect who usually spells out each letter, can lapse into the habit. He once signed for Scott Mortimer, a fan and avid collector from Merrimack, N.H., with a simple “JBJ.”

Change over time

Mortimer, 43, said he was not very choosy; he just enjoys the pursuit and the experience. But he also has a signature on nearly every card in the 1983 Fleer set and can say with authority that times have changed.

“You can make out the names of everyone,” he said, referring to the players from 1983. “Bob Forsch had a great signature. Even Pete Vuckovich, he’s notoriously grumpy about autographs, but you can read his signature. Ozzie Smith signed nicely. Rollie Fingers’ is like artwork. Don Sutton always signs big. Carl Yastrzemski’s got that cool, looping Y. You can almost go through the entire Hall of Fame, and they all had nice signatures.”

Kate Gladstone, a handwriting instructor from Albany, N.Y., and director of the World Handwriting Contest, said Ruth had a model signature. Ruth attended St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, a Baltimore orphanage and boarding school where a scribbled name, Gladstone guessed, would not have been tolerated.

Whatever players’ upbringing, signatures mostly stayed legible for decades. Even after Depression-era budget cuts de-emphasized handwriting in schools, Gladstone said, people born in the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s tended to be taught by well-trained instructors.

Today’s players, many born in the 1980s, were not. Children learned print and cursive then, as now, but handwriting was generally less of a priority in curricula.

“In the ’80s, we started to have people basically say, ‘Oh, handwriting’s not important, because in five or 10 years everything in the world will be computerized,’” Gladstone said. “But I don’t think we’re yet at the stage of typing our names onto baseballs.”

Killebrew, a Hall of Famer who played from 1954 to 1975, mostly for the Minnesota Twins, was considered the dean of the dignified autograph. After he died in 2011, the Twins honored him by recreating his signature across the right-field wall at Target Field.

When young Twins players signed baseballs, Killebrew watched closely, said Tom Kelly, a former manager of the team. If their penmanship did not meet his standards, he corrected them until it did.

A piece of history

“I had a swerve like everybody else — a T and a line, a dot dot, an H and a line, and something like a t,” said Torii Hunter, a veteran outfielder who now plays for Detroit.

But, he added, Killebrew told him a story.

“Think about this: 150 years from now, you’re dead and gone, and kids are playing in a field,” Hunter recalled Killebrew saying. “A kid hits a home run, hits the ball in the weeds — far. They’re looking for the ball, they find it, and it says, ‘T, line, dot dot, H.’ They don’t know who it is. They’re like, ‘Oh, we found another ball to play with,’ because they can’t read it.

“But just rewind that. A kid hits a ball, hits it in the weeds, they’re looking for it, they pick it up and they can read it. It says, ‘T-o-r-i-i H-u-n-t-e-r.’ And they’re like, ‘Wow.’ So they go and look it up and they see this guy was a pretty good player, and they put it on the mantel and cherish it.”

Killebrew said, “You didn’t play this long for somebody to destroy your name,” Hunter recalled.