It may not come as a surprise but I was never much of a fan of reading in my youth. That all changed in 1989 when my grandmother bought me a $5 dollar grab bag of comics at the local convenience store. I guess you could say I became an instant comic book fan until a year later when my mom, by complete accident, bought me my first “pack” of baseball cards. Even though baseball cards ultimately became a lifelong passion, I always picked up Marvel comic books throughout the years. My romance with Marvel even picked up steam in the early 90s when Impel and Skybox began producing comic trading cards. This new venture exploded and for a short while, it certainly seemed like they were outselling sports cards. Unfortunately, it turned out to be nothing more than a fad.
I still remember the day I pulled a Stan Lee card from Series 1 of Impel. I had heard and even seen the name a few times but you have to remember I was a snot-nosed, 10 year old punk and there was no such thing as the Internet or even the billion dollar Marvel movie studio we have today for reference. Even without much background information, I knew Stan was an integral figure in the comic book industry and followed his work closely. When he appeared in Kevin Smith’s cult classic, ‘Mallrats’ in 1995, I became a fan for life. You can imagine what his status had become to me and millions of other comic and movie fans by 2018. He was now a cultural pop icon and a national treasure. He was our version of Babe Ruth. The man could do no wrong.
As Stan’s health began to deteriorate, very strange rumors of elder abuse and shady business deals began to surface. First, was a blood transfusion that left Lee sick and dizzy for days. Turns out that blood was used for actual comic books. If that’s not disgusting to everyone reading this, I don’t know what is. Later, his fortune began to dwindle and no one really knew why. Then everything started to get really dark when Keya Morgan made his public debut, acting as Stan’s new manager. It was clear now, thanks to videos released on Twitter, that Stan’s health was failing rapidly. That didn’t stop his management from booking Lee in every comic book convention imaginable during a time when the legend should have been resting comfortably at home.
No one really knew the extent of Stan’s health problems until this YouTube video was posted. In the shocking video, Stan falls asleep while signing and perhaps most tragically, has to be constantly reminded how to spell his own name. No elder should ever have to live out his last days like some sort of circus animal being forced to perform but that’s exactly what we all witnessed. I talked to the collector who shot the video and she told me Stan was in such rough shape that several of the valuable comics he signed, were ruined. You can even see Stan’s manager pushing Stan to sign (dressed in all black, including sun glasses). After this video, Kevin Smith stepped in hoping to help Stan and the hashtag #SaveStanLee began to trend on Twitter.
Sadly, Stan Lee died within a couple of months of this video but incredibly this appearance wasn’t even his last public signing. The man worked almost until the very end of his life. On Twitter, several fans even posted photos taken with Stan at the show (for a fee) and it was almost as depressing as the YouTube video. When called out, many basically insinuated they weren’t concerned with Stan’s health and just wanted to be photographed with the legend. Kind of the same attitude you get when a circus animal is retiring and everyone comes out one last time to see it put on a show. Unfortunately, we will never know how much of these appearances Stan chose to do and which ones he was forced to.
Recently, Yankees close Mariano Rivera was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Turns out if you wanted a moment with the closeted Donald Trump supporter, you’d have to shell out $500 dollars for the pleasure of meeting the greatest closer baseball has ever seen. At the Hall of Fame gift shop, signed and non-game used baseballs with Rivera’s signature go for $699. For non-collectors, you can actually find both of his first, pack-inserted autographs (’96, ’98) for less than the ball combined. Why you’d want to pay more for an impersonal and many times rushed, 10-second meet and greet is beyond me. My advice? Save your money and get one of these two, absolutely gorgeous baseball cards. I’d suggest a graded copy, just nothing GEM MINT, which has fraud potential all over it.
As for public signings … where did we go wrong? Check out the advertisement below for a signing that took place in the early-90s. You have Mickey FREAKING Mantle for a whopping $85 dollars, followed by the all-time home run king, Hank Aaron, at $25. Every autograph was authenticated by Upper Deck on site, free of charge. Let’s just say this show took place around 1994 because Mantle died in 1995 and it’s not likely he was making public appearances as his health began to deteriorate. According to the Inflation Calculator, that Mantle, in-person autograph signing would cost you $147.16 in 2019. As for Aaron, it would be just $43.28.
It’s likely Mantle was so expensive because the show’s organizers knew that Mickey wasn’t long for this world. He was also much more popular than Hank Aaron, that cannot be denied. As you can imagine, the tables have now turned and “Hammerin’ Hank” is now the one with failing health who is signing non-stop. How much will a baseball card signed by Hank Aaron cost you? Well, on September 19th, just $325 dollars. A bat? $550. A jersey, only $650. Let’s say realistically, 100 people come in for baseball cards, 50 for balls, and 25 for jerseys. That event now theoretically took in over $75,000 dollars in one single day. Oh, I almost forgot … to get your item authenticated, JSA will charge you another $20 dollars. The site hosting the event claims the funds will benefit a foundation. Not specified anywhere, however, is the actual percentage to be donated.
If I participated in this private signing, I’d want my Hank Aaron rookie card signed. That would be $325. I’d also request one of the 3 approved inscriptions. That’s another $250. Finally, please let JSA “authenticate” my purchase. That’s a total of $595. Say what you will about inflation but please just let me go back to 1994. If you’re lucky, your signature might look like the card below, signed in 2018. Realistically, with another year of Father Time settling in on Hank Aaron’s mind and body, it will likely look much, much worse. My advice? Grab a late-90s, Hank Aaron pack-inserted autograph from Upper Deck or Donruss and make sure to get yourself a low-graded copy. Avoid GEM MINT. It will cost you a lot less and look much better.
I’m not blaming the players, especially those that have been long retired and have bills to pay. Even with his baseball pension, an 85-year old with failing health has a lot to pay for. This may be Aaron’s only way to earn a large lump sum of money in a very short time. It’s clear a commentary job is out of the question so this truly may be his only resort but one has to wonder what his fee is versus what the show’s promoter is paying for his time, supplies, travel arrangements, etc. I could be way, way off but I can’t imagine Hank earning more than $15,000 a day. If his appearance ultimately clears $100,000 for one day of work, it seems like everything is paid off and the profit is immense. Of course, only someone with first hand knowledge can say but it’s unlikely anyone will ever speak up while the money is this good.
My advice, again … save your hard-earned money and find yourself a 1991 Upper Deck Baseball Heroes pack-inserted, certified autograph. There may be a lot of them by today’s standards (2,500) but the signature is clear and neat and they sell on eBay regularly for under $300, if you are persistent. In the end, almost always, a good, signed baseball card Trumps (pun intended) an overpriced convention autograph. Trust me, folks. Remember your heroes as they once were and at all costs, avoid seeing them the way I watched Stan Lee in 2018 as he fell asleep and needed to be reminded how to sign his name. Life is a precious thing and our final days should be spent in peace with one’s family and not working for some greedy dealer looking to make a quick buck.