The year was 1967, when as a third-grader I wrote a hand-written letter to St. Louis Cardinals rookie quarterback Jim Hart requesting an autographed photo. I licked the back of a 5-cent postage stamp, put it in the mail and waited.

A month or so passed and then, in late autumn, I received return mail with “St. Louis Cardinals Football” emblazoned in the upper left-hand corner. Anxiously, I opened the letter and there it was — a 4-by-6 autographed photo of Jim Hart. Never mind that the signature was clearly a facsimile, I was thrilled. That he had responded at all was like magic to me. Thus began my hobby of collecting autographs that lasted over 30 years.

Through the years I collected hundreds, and only made one deal with myself — never include return postage. Sure, this cost me a few autographs through the years, but I also know that other than postage this was a hobby I never spent a dime on. The way I figured it, those I was sending letters of request to had a whole lot more money than me. Besides, I needed that cash to buy baseball cards.

It was a fascinating ride.

You learn a lot about people and organizations when you send off for an autograph — and most of my requests early on were sent directly to the athlete’s home arena, stadium or ballpark.

For instance, my favorite baseball team growing up was the Cincinnati Reds. I’d send off for a Pete Rose or Johnny Bench or Joe Morgan autograph, and the Reds would respond promptly, albeit with a black-and-white photo card replete with a facsimile signature. After awhile, I quit wasting my postage on the Reds. Other teams such as the Baltimore Orioles, Houston Astros, San Francisco Giants, Houston Astros and New York Yankees responded in a similar fashion.

Then, there were teams like the St. Louis Cardinals and Minnesota Twins. They, too, would send back photos with facsimile signatures, but the stars would sign a genuine autograph on another portion of the photo and send it back. This was cool. Rod Carew and Harmon Killebrew are just two Hall of Fame examples that I received from the Twins, with Bob Gibson and Joe Torre being a pair of examples from the Cardinals.

In the NFL, Baltimore Colts players were some of the best signers, and shortly after receiving my Jim Hart autograph, I received one from Hall of Fame wide receiver Raymond Berry inscribed, “Little Jim, Thanks for your letter! Raymond Berry” — I suppose my 8-year-old penmanship betrayed me.

On the flip side, I wasted a lot of stamps attempting to get an autographed photo from legendary Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas.

Week after week, month after month, season after season I sent Unitas a letter — NOTHING! (Can you believe it?). What really burned me up was that my neighborhood friend Phil Kelley, a Colts fanatic, had by mistake received TWO Unitas 8-by-10 autographed photos in the same envelope. Eight years later, I traded a Bear Bryant-signed index card for one of those Unitas autographs. It’s framed and hangs on my bedroom wall today.

Other framed autographed photos on my wall include, yes, Bear Bryant, Pete Rose, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, John Wooden and Georgia football coach Vince Dooley. Why Vince Dooley with that crowd? Well, his inscription, written thickly with a black magic marker, was too good to resist: “To Jim Pickens, A Great Friend of Football, Vince Dooley.” That’s how Dooley made the cut.

I have another framed autograph on my wall signed by a guy named Muhammad Ali, but there’s enough in that story to be saved for another column at another time.

As the years passed, I drifted from MLB and the NFL to the NBA. Jerry West, John Havlicek and Willis Reed were three of my favorites from the early ‘70s. Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) sent back a nice little picture card with a facsimile autograph, and a nice little note with a facsimilie autograph. Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all, right? I sent off for superstars like Pete Maravich and Michael Jordan, too — crickets.

Some of the best signers, in fact, were from the NHL, and one of my favorite all-time autographed photos is that of “The Great One” — Wayne Gretzky, when he was a whirlwind for the Edmonton Oilers. Gordie Howe? Got him. Bobby Orr? Got him. Bobby Clarke? Got him.

Golfers are great too. Arnold Palmer was a terrific signer. I also have Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Greg Norman.

The best signer of them all? I’m going to stun you: Bobby Knight.

I’m telling you, I sent four autograph requests to Knight over a period of 25 years and he sent me back everything but a piece of the playing surface at Indiana University’s Assembly Hall. The man could not have been more generous or gracious, always including a signed letter with the photo, as well as other materials pertaining to the Hoosiers program. Just fantastic.

The most autographs I ever received from one individual? Seven. They came from NASCAR legend Richard Petty, and I always liked to think that I had one for every driving championship he won on the circuit. We share the same birthday (July 2), and his staff over in Randleman, North Carolina even sent me a birthday greeting along with, yes, another autographed photo for my collection.

By the end of my collecting days, hobby stores were actually producing books with the home addresses of famous athletes, entertainers and politicians, and over the last five years or so I expanded the scope of my collection considerably. Robert DeNiro? Great signer. Billy Joel? Great signer. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas? Great signer.

Autograph collecting really is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’ll get.

And that, my friends, is half the fun of it.

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