Wednesday, May 31, 2017
Just the fax
The facsimile signature -- the replicated autograph of a major league player on a baseball card -- was a fact of life for me as a young collector.
Facsimile autographs appeared on just about every card in the first set I ever collected, 1975 Topps. I didn't give it much thought. But I think somewhere in my collecting subconscious I liked them, because those signings -- even if they weren't real signings -- seemed to symbolize the stamp of approval from the player pictured. "Yeah, this is me. I'm signing off on it."
Those facsimile signings didn't appear on every Topps set I collected as a kid, but they appeared on them often enough that it was a constant in collecting for someone my age, just like vibrant designs and cartoons on the back. They were an ever present aspect of card collecting.
Those facsimile days are gone. Looong gone. They were so long ago that I never hear the term "facsimile signature" used by anyone but me. For a long time, I thought "facsimile" was associated completely with a replicated signature on a trading card. But "facsimile" means "an exact copy," and has been in use in a variety of ways for centuries. Unbeknownst to me for the entire time I was using the device, "fax machine" is short for "facsimile machine." That bit of knowledge would have come in handy around 1993.
So, I guess I could call the signatures on many of the cards I collected as a kid "fax signatures." Sounds a bit cooler now, doesn't it?
Facsimile signatures, or fax signatures, didn't suddenly appear when I first plopped coins on the counter in 1975. I can't tell you when they first showed up on trading cards. I know they were around in the 1930s and 40s, and if I had to guess, I'd say they migrated to sports cards from movie star memorabilia.
But because I'm a collector of a certain age, history often begins with Topps, and in 1952 that was a watershed year for much about the hobby, including duplicated signatures.
In its first major set, Topps featured a signature for each player within a box, beneath the player's printed name. It was classy, didn't "mar" the photo and actually became the template for sets 50 years into the future -- but we'll get to that.
Bowman also debuted a reprint signature in 1952, but didn't separate it in a box. I know collectors who think facsimile autos detract from the card. If you think that way, here is the ugly beginning of the modern era.
The "fax" signature was a constant for Topps (and for Bowman, except for 1955) just about every year through the 1950s, a regular part of the set.
But then in 1957, Topps shrank its trading card to 2 1/2-by-3 1/2 inches, and the facsimile signature was thrown out with that excess cardboard. Signatures didn't show up in the 1957 set, nor did they in 1958. I think the fact that there are no signatures in the '57 set makes it popular among collectors who like "pure" sets, which are mostly image.
But the facsimile signature appeared again in 1959. As if there wasn't enough crowding the photo in the '59 Topps set, a signature was wedged into the picture as well. It doesn't bother me at all, but I can see why people might think it cramped.
That was the end of a replicated signatures for several years for Topps. A couple of other sets filled in the gaps for those who craved stamped sigs on their cards.
The Bell Brand Dodgers sets of the early 1960s is one example.
But Topps didn't come back to the facsimile signature until the 1967 Topps set. Save for a few oddball issues (the 1969 Deckle Edge set comes to mind), this is about the only example of fax sigs on a 1960s Topps set.
Why 1967? Just a guess but given the clean design, perhaps Topps believed a signature was needed. I can see that. Some of the later '90s sets seem spare and really could use a signature of some sort.
The 1970s marked the "second heyday" of facsimile signatures on Topps cards, as, Topps featured replicated sigs on its cards three separate years. The first time was in 1971.
The 1973 and 1974 Topps sets didn't feature fax sigs on individual player cards, and Topps seemed to acknowledge that by issuing separate team checklists each year that featured a bunch of facsimiles all on one card. It was as if you had one of those autograph books -- except the sigs weren't the real deal.
The fax sigs were back in 1975. There's Mike Marshall giving his card the seal of approval. Yup, these fake sigs made sense to me.
After being away for a year, the fax sig showed up again in 1977.
Then it skipped two more years and returned for 1980. I think this was the first time I was aware that the signature had returned.
The 1981 Topps set is an interesting case as facsimile sigs don't show up on the cards.
But they do show up on the Drake's Big Hitters set issued that same year, which was produced by Topps.
1982 Topps marks an end of an era. It is the last Topps flagship set to feature fax sigs for a long, long time. I probably should give '82 Topps a little more respect because it's also the last Topps base set to feature cartoons for quite awhile.
By the early '80s, Donruss and Fleer had appeared on the scene and neither of them thought fax sigs contributed to their cardboard product.
There was a trend toward action and photography during the '80s. The photo was the star and fake scrawlings were deemed unnecessary. So throughout the '80s, nobody, not Donruss, Fleer, Topps, or late-decade newcomers Score and Upper Deck, used fax sigs on their cards.
I think this is what contributes to younger collectors thinking that fax sigs are so unusual (or unappealing). They never saw them in the 1980s.
Only one other major product in the 1980s dared to display facsimile autographs.
Bowman reappeared in 1989, and was trying to appeal to that old-school Bowman vibe -- everything that was once good about baseball cards. And one of those things was replicated signatures. It was just one year, but they were back. And it kind of looks sharp.
The '90s was even more of a fax sig wasteland than the '80s. More and more companies started making cards and none of them thought fake sigs was worth their time. I wonder whether acquiring these signatures required effort or money and perhaps that was the reason. But I suspect another reason is that they were dismissed as "clutter".
It's interesting because in 1993, fax sigs showed up in Donruss' Studio set. It's a very classy design and I think the signatures were used to class it up even more. It looks good. It should have been used more often in the '90s.
But instead it was used as a gimmick. Collector's Choice used fax sigs for three years or so as a parallel beginning in 1994. This was about the only way Upper Deck would touch fax sigs.
It's a shame that the '90s issued stuff like this, but no, a fax sig was too distracting.
But by the late 1990s, pulling actual autographs became the name of the game. It was such a huge deal (and remains a huge deal) that who has time for fake autographs? If you look at just that one aspect, you can understand why facsimile signatures disappeared and why few even think about them.
Still, there was one card company that picked up the fax sig cause. Bowman started putting facsimile signatures back on its cards in 1998. It didn't want to mess up the photo, of course, so it placed it off in a corner, sideways.
That was the format for Bowman for three straight years. Down the side. Sideways.
In 2001, the signature shifted to a box near the bottom. Kind of reminds you of 1952 Topps, huh?
This was the style for Bowman for several years afterward. Box it off, somehow. I think it looks pretty snazzy.
Bowman was your source for fax sigs. Except for retro products like Fleer Tradition, Heritage and Fan Favorites, you couldn't find replicated signatures anywhere. Collectors were too busy looking for the real thing.
In fact, if there was going to be fax sigs in a product, the company made sure to telegraph it right in the product name. "Pro Sigs," "Autographix". Just so everyone knew what they were getting. People were so accustomed to their photos unsullied.
Then, in 2007, a complete surprise. For the first time since 1982, Topps issued a flagship set with facsimile autographs on each card.
I don't remember any noise about this at all. Maybe people were too distracted by George Bush in the stands, but this was fairly significant. One year after cartoons returned to flagship, now fax sigs were making a comeback.
They even appeared in back-to-back flagship sets as they showed up again in 2008. It was the first time that facsimile signatures appeared in back-to-back Topps sets since 1955-56.
The experiment, however, must have been a failure because fax sigs haven't shown up in another Topps flagship set since.
Even Bowman got rid of facsimile signatures in 2010.
Although I have a slight attachment to fax sigs just because they were around when I was a kid, it's not a big loss.
I've never been much of an autograph seeker and there is part of me that cringes when I see a signature across the face or body of a player. I'm all about the card, not the scribble.
But all I have to do is go back to my 1975 cards and I need to see that fax sig for that stamp of approval from Steve Yeager.