You Gotta Have Balls

Written by  on September 13, 2012

Read Part 1 | Part 2

You may know Brandon Steiner as the eponymous founder of Steiner Sports, the New York-based sports memorabilia empire that has become a polarizing force—but a force, nonetheless—in the world of autograph collecting. But in his new book, You Gotta Have Balls, Steiner tells the tale of a poor Brooklyn-born kid who started working in grade school to help his family keep the heat on in their small Flatbush apartment. It’s a story of struggle and perseverance, resourcefulness and creativity. It’s a story of achieving success against all odds. It’s his story.

Autograph University: Tell me about the first autograph you ever obtained.

Brandon Steiner: It’s a funny story. I was with three of my friends on a street corner—you know in Brooklyn you didn’t hang out at people’s houses, you tended to hang out on street corners or on someone’s stoop—and it was a nice day out so we said, “Hey, let’s go to a Yankee game today.” So I ran upstairs and said “Mom, you’re not going to believe this, some of the older boys are going to the Yankee game. I’m going to be their fourth, can I have some money?” She says, “Here’s five dollars, bring home the change.”

So we take the train to the Yankee game and one of the guys says, “You’re not going to believe this but I got these seats four rows over the on deck circle!” Now, we never sat in seats like that and we went to a lot of games as kids. We went to 25 to 30 games—every time there was a doubleheader we would go—and we always sat in the $1.50 seats all the way down the line, obstructed. We get to the game early and Tom Tresh and Joe Pepitone come over. Tresh won’t give us the autograph, but Pepitone does. I cannot believe I’m this close to the players. I say to Pepitone, “Look, I really want to thank you for the autograph but we really wanted Tom Tresh.” He gets Tresh and says, “Tresh, get over here and sign an autograph for these kids!” So we got a Tom Tresh and Joe Pepitone autograph, those were my first.

When I went home—after fifteen cents for the subway, fifteen cents for a hot dog, a nickel I think for the program—the first thing my mother says after I told her about the autographs, how close to the field I sat, and how it was the most amazing day I can remember, her first words were “Where’s my change?” She went crazy that I would spend four dollars on a ticket. Then she went downstairs and chased those boys down and got her change.

AU: You’re best known as a businessman but you were a collector long before that. What did you collect as a kid?

BS: I collected cards. I was a big saver and always kept my ticket stubs, newspapers, articles and magazines. I was a big magazine collector. A lot of oddball things that I felt were relevant to the time. That was basically it because I didn’t have a whole lot of money so it wasn’t like I was able to go and buy a lot of things. But the few things I did have, if I had a program or scorecard I would save it—whatever I could.

AU: Thousands of items pass through the doors of Steiner Sports each year. What are some of the memorabilia you have kept for your own collection?

BS: I collect the things that I love and I collect the things that are relevant to my experiences, in most cases with a particular player or a particular event that I’ve attended. If you came and saw my collection—I have an unbelievable sports room—but I’m really not a big collector like, “Oh, I’ve got this Lou Gehrig this and I’ve got this Babe Ruth that, and I’ve got this thing from the 1946 this.” I don’t have a connection to that. And I respect it and I really enjoy it but I’m not a vintage collector that way.

I’ll collect the stuff I’ve been to whether it’s an autographed photo from a particular game I was at or a player who I met, or a product line I created. Or maybe I was the first ever to do something—a different way of doing a photo. We’ve doctored up photos and come up with different ways of creating a photo so it would look different. Superimposed and sepia tone photos on which we’d have a player’s autograph. I was the first person to do “Remember the Moment” and gather a whole line of moments. When I jumped into the business in the 90's people were just signing anything. So I’d go back into my magazine collection and try to find pivotal moments that I thought would be in people’s top five moments of their life. And then finding the photographers for those moments and having athletes sign the photos. That was one of the first things I did and it’s probably what put Steiner on the map.

The second thing was having players not only sign their names but doing inscriptions. We were the first ones to put together a full line of inscriptions and get people really into them. I save a lot of those kinds of things, and photos of those players who I have signed up and have real relationships with and have put together product lines with. I’ve put together a whole Staubach-Landry line of product back in the mid-90s which stemmed into licensed products and all kinds of stuff. Messier holding the Cup with that big grin. The Branca-Thompson homerun. That’s the stuff that I like. It’s a very quirky collection. I think if you came and saw it you’d be impressed but I don’t think you would be like, “Wow!” I think there are a lot of people who have much better collections than I do, but my view of the collectible world—and the way I run my business—is to collect with your heart. Don’t collect with the division that you’re going to make outright money on things, collect things that make you feel something.

AU: I’m an in person collector and I tell people I have a collection of stories, the items are just reminders that trigger those memories.

BS: I’m a big fan of that, what you just said. Even though I’m in the business, I always tell people anything you can go and get in person, I love it. I’m here to extend that. So if you go to a game and you meet a person and everything else, if I can extend that experience for you by getting you some other things possibly that remind you of that game and support that whole thing—great . But go get it. Love it! Get it in person.

AU: What one item means the most to you?

BS: There’s a bunch. I could share so many great stories in my sports room. But there was one from when I went to Boston with my mother in 1975 when I was fifteen. I talked my mother into letting me go to a game by myself. It was against the Yankees and I just did not stop yelling. I got there at the crack of the gates opening, just yelling at Thurman Munson like a lunatic—so excited. I bought a single ticket outside and being a New Yorker I hustled and scalped it.

I get back to the hotel—we stayed at the hotel the Yankees were at—and I get into the elevator and all of a sudden an arm stops the door from closing and in walks Thurman. I’m like, “Oh. My. God.” I mean, lump in my throat, I froze. And he says, “Kid, what the hell were you yelling at me for? What’d you want?” I didn’t know what to say. I said, “I just wanted your autograph sir,” and he signed my program. I still have it and I love that moment. I loved Thurman, my kind of guy. You know I’d probably play the game the same way—so intense, fierce, a competitor, feisty. It’s really very much the way I am. So I love that and I love some of my Mickey Mantle stuff. I had a nice relationship with Mickey and I just remember going through the trials and tribulations when I was just getting into the business. I took a lot of pride in some of the projects I had done with him early on.

AU: What isn’t in your collection that you wish you had?

BS: Well, there’s two things. I feel like I need a Babe Ruth something but I just haven’t found the right piece. I’ve bought and sold a bunch, I just haven’t found the right one. There are definitely a couple of trading cards that I’m looking for that I’ve been dying to get. I like those old basketball cards. I’m a big fan of 60's and 70's basketball stuff—they were my favorite players. I would have probably liked a Walt Frazier game-used item from when he played because he was a pivotal player for me. He was one my idols and I would have loved to have a game pair of sneakers. Those Puma sneakers really motivated me. When I was 10 I started working to support myself and help with money for my family, and part of it was that I wanted to buy those Pumas and my mother would never ever spend twenty dollars to buy them. So part of me working was to help buy food and also so I could afford to get my Pumas.

AU: Our culture idolizes celebrities and athletes and I find the psychology of that interesting. As an autograph collector I question why I collect and I’m still trying to uncover that answer. You’re in the business of connecting fans to sports stars through an appearance or a piece of memorabilia. Why do you think people collect autographs and have a desire to spend time and money to meet ballplayers?

BS: First of all, ballplayers are intriguing, they do things most of us can’t do and that intrigues us. But I think when you talk about collecting, it’s very simple. I think in our lifetime we have the birth of our kids, our marriage and then the next thing is probably a sports moment for a lot of us. Those are the moments that are emotional. It’s an experience that is way above and beyond, almost a religious sort of experience. I think we want to hold on to that and when you’re meeting a player or buying something that relates to that moment, it extends that moment and it’s not necessarily what you’re buying but how what you bought makes you feel.

Every time I go in my room and I see Mark holding the Cup with that shit-eating grin I think of the success of starting Steiner Sports Collectibles. When I started the second business he was there at the beginning as the first spokesman and I love that. If my house was on fire I’d make sure my kids and wife and dog were safe, then I’d run in and get that friggin’ photo! I love that photo. He signed it “To Brandon, we did it!” It was a thought that I had, it was a photo that I saw, and I said I think I can start a business with this. And then I did it and made it happen. It’s one of my favorite sports moments. It’s the number one game I’ve ever been to and I want to extend that. I don’t want to forget about it so when I collect around the event it just enhances it for me even more. That’s how I feel about it and what I try to do for others. Relive it, man. Relive it, extend it, expand it, have fun with it. Why not? Why dwell on negative things of the past that didn’t go great? Dwell on the things that are positive, especially if it’s inspiring and something that made you feel good.

AU: What criteria do you use to identify athletes to add to the Steiner Sports roster?

BS: It’s a basic criteria—have they done something that will stand the test of time? It’s being hot and being relevant. Is that athlete relevant? What they’ve accomplished doesn’t necessarily have to be one thing or another, but have they accomplished something that will be remembered and will stand out over the course of time? Hall of Fame stats are always a nice little thing because people are always collecting Hall of Famers. Or that special game-winning moment or the Cy Young or the 5,000 strikeouts or scoring 50 points in a game, or obviously, championships. Those things generally are staples for us to go take a big position on somebody. Because if all else fails and the guy gets traded or things don’t work out, then now what are we doing?

And I’ll tell ya, that’s a great question and the answer has become really, really hard. It’s getting harder and harder now as time goes on and there’s more talked about and more sports. Moments get kind of watered down a little bit so you have to be careful making those decisions with your heart and making them really strategically and making sure you really know what you’re talking about…a la Curt Schilling.

AU: How often are you prospecting—trying to sign a player before they peak—versus reacting to an event such as a championship or a phenomenon that comes out of the blue like Linsanity?

BS: You try to anticipate where you can—and in some cases you can—but I’ll tell you something, reacting…you need to capitalize that word. Because everything is moving so fast, there are a lot more sports on and a lot more sports that are relevant because there is so much available to so many people. You gotta respond, you gotta react. I think it’s the make or break of our business and what has given us an edge and got into people’s minds—that they know when something great happens in sports, we’re going to be there. I like to look at us like FedEx. We’re going to get there and we’re going to get there early. We try to anticipate some things and on some occasions you can with certain records. We know Derek Jeter is going to get 3,000 hits, certain players are going to go in the Hall of Fame. But I think reaction is huge.

AU: As their exclusive memorabilia partner, do you advise athletes about signing for fans at the ballpark or in public?

BS: No. First of all, it wouldn’t matter if I did because the level of athletes that matter the most to me are doing what they want to do. They’re very sensitive to the fans and the quality of athletes we’re trying to sign are not going to walk away from kids, they’re not going to walk away from fans. What I would say to you is, some have asked me, “What should I do here?” And we’d try to get them to personalize and try to get them to be more aware of the guy that…all of a sudden there is a kid with a jersey and behind him is a guy with twenty jerseys in a bag. That’s what makes things kind of complicated. It’s just so confusing now because there have been so many scams where they’ve got kids working for them and they’re working out of a hub at a dinner. They’re at a table and they’ve got all kinds of collectibles and stuff and they’re just working the gamut. You know we had a guy go to a Yankee dinner and walk away with 60 Derek Jeter autographs, 85 A-Rod—it was insane. So you’re dealing with some of that kind of mistrust and all of a sudden it gets misconstrued that players don’t want to sign for fans. But first of all, I’m a big fan of the fan getting the autograph—I don’t think a fan has to get his only and last autograph from me. I just want to do it in an orderly way that is not taking advantage of a player to the point where you’ve got these guys that are trying to scam them.

AU: In your new book you write about growing up poor in Brooklyn, scraping together a few dollars to see Yankee games which led you to your first autograph experience. What advice would you give to a poor Brooklyn kid today who wants to get an autograph from a hero like Derek Jeter or Mark Teixeira but almost certainly won’t be able to afford to sit close to the field or purchase an autographed item from a memorabilia company?

BS: That’s a good question and it’s another one of those questions that I’m definitely going to have to think about tonight before I go to bed. Because it always bothers me that the purpose of what you’re doing is to share it with as many people as you can and not discriminate, and not just have people with a lot of money be able to participate in what you’re doing, and that’s certainly not my purpose and my goal of Steiner. Having said that, that’s a great question and a tricky one to answer because it is hard—more now that even when I was a kid. It’s harder now because the better seats are so much more exclusive and expensive.

What I’d tell the kid is, don’t focus on what you don’t have, focus on what you do. And work really hard at being really good at something. At least that was my goal as a kid. I just wanted to make sure that I had good seats to the game and could go when I wanted to go. And I worked really hard—I didn’t really realize I was going to be in the sports business. But I would tell the kid, hey, there are people that will support you going to school as long as you want to go to school, as long as you try really hard and do your best. There’s a lot of financial aid, regardless of the economy. Work really hard and you might not be able to meet that player now but you will be able to meet that player and do what you want when you get a solid job a get a good career going. I’d also tell the kid, listen, in today’s world with the Internet, keep your eye on sweepstakes, keep your eye on contests—not as many people register for those. You never know. I always say, luck does play a part sometimes in good fortune. So if it’s important to you, keep an eye out for those things and you could win.

I’m perpetually grabbing people off my Facebook, off my LinkedIn and haphazardly inviting them to meet players and sending them free autographs and stuff like that. I always do it, and I’ve inspired some kids who would never ever be able to afford anything like this. So I try to surprise the kids when I can—and certainly not enough—but I try to do it. When I’m at the ballpark ever now and again I’ll go up to the top level to the bad seats and give them my seats. I try to do that when I can. That’s always more fun to me that even going to the game, just seeing the look on these kids’ faces and knowing the experience when they get to sit in my seats. I’ll go up to not the greatest seats and give out gift cards and my card and when they email me I’ll send them gifts, autographed stuff I know these kids can’t afford. That’s what I do.

AU: As a kid my dad would take me to a sports card show for my birthday. Along with some cards I’d buy a few autograph tickets. I remember getting Emmitt Smith shortly after one of the Cowboys’ Super Bowl wins for $35. Over the last twenty years the business of autographs has exploded—a Super Bowl MVP today routinely commands a couple hundred dollars for a signature. What are your thoughts on the industry sustaining this growth over the next two decades?

BS: First of all, I feel better about the business for two reasons. One is, I think the business is a lot more cleaned up, and I’m not saying there are no bad autographs on the market, but there are a lot of ways to educate yourself and be careful and aware. So the business has never been better that way, as far as authentication and knowing that if you want to find a real autograph you can get it. That’s a good thing. On the second hand, what happened with this last drop in the economy—and it hasn’t really gone full circle like I was hoping it would—is a lot of players have come down. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been the big name players. The big, big name players I really don’t have a solution for, but the small and middle-level guys have now come back down to Earth a bit. So, that’s a little promising. The width of the variation of collectibles that are out there is certainly expanding with a lot more affordable stuff, and I see a lot of my competitors being extremely sensitive to price points—I think we all are.

The unfortunate thing I don’t have the answer for at this point is the bigger name guys who are still very pricey. We need that to come back down to Earth but I’m not sure that’s going to happen. It definitely has an effect on the growth and stability of our business. It’s a game-breaker and it’s certainly out there in the balance. I’m just dying for a big name player to say, “You know something? I’m going to sign for thirty-five bucks an autograph. I know I can get a hundred but I’m going to do this for the fans. I’m going to sit here and sign the extra three or four hours every couple months and more people can get an autograph.”

AU: As their business partner would you support that decision?

BS: I’ve tried. I’ve done it with Mariano. Mariano is one of the few players, when he broke the record we actually lowered the price. With Mariano I said, “Listen, I want to do something different. You’re going to break this record, everyone’s going to want it and we normally say you’ll go for X but I want to lower the price for this record. Let’s see how it does.” And I think people really appreciated it. The retail value of it was $200—all in, with a case and a ball and everything else—but for him it was a lot lower than what we had been selling it for. We just did a signing with Derek Jeter with 8×10 photos and we’ll be doing some promotions around that. He bought into it and was supportive.

Little wins. I’m very supportive of it. I’m not only supportive of it, I’m acting on it. But if you were an avid collector out there with not a lot of money I’m probably not your favorite person in the world. “You’re killing the business! You’re overpaying these guys!” I don’t know, in today’s world the reality is these guys may just not sign at all. You think these guys are going to say, “You know something? Screw Steiner, I’m just going to sit here and sign my fan mail all day.” No way.

AU: There is certainly that sentiment in some segments of the collecting community. The fact is, if you sell a Jeter photo for X and you sell out, there isn’t a whole lot of incentive for you to sell it for less next time.

BS: Imagine it from the players’ standpoint. Why sign for $50 when I can get $100? I’m signing as much as I want as it is now. It’s a debacle all the way around. Listen, I bite and scratch and claw for price. It’s expensive to do this stuff the right way—you know, with authentication, the leagues and licensing. If you’re an avid collector and you go in my B.I.N., which is my outlet store, you can steal stuff at very affordable prices. I’m very proud that when you go look at some of the prices of balls and autographs that you can get for $15, $20, $30, it’s pretty cool. It may not be LeBron James but there are some decent names, some good stuff. I love that outlet because that’s where I would have been as a kid.

AU: Steiner Sports is bigger than ever, you’re involved in a number of community projects and you have a new book being released. You also recently blogged about how you wished you spent more time with your family earlier in your career. Looking forward, what are you most passionate about and where do you see yourself spending more time?

BS: It’s helping others. It’s focusing on sharing my relationships to help the most people. It’s definitely split up—some of that I do for the business but I’m definitely looking to do that for charity and cause-related situations. If you see what I’ve been up to the last four or five years—I’m not just saying that, I’m pretty committed now to goodwill and good projects. I definitely want to do some speaking around the country, share my story and hopefully inspire and motivate others. The reason for the blog and the speaking and the book is to help people understand the importance of business, which is to do as much as you can for as many people as you can. You can do things that are going to help people with their dreams. That’s really where the fun comes in. That’s my hope. Am I going to go golf all day? No, I’m not going to do that. I’ve never been that kind of guy. I like working and I’ve definitely made it home for dinner a lot more the last seven or eight years. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I’ll be here at six o’clock in the morning until two in the morning anymore, those days are probably over. I like working, especially when I’m committed to creating and doing something. But there’s definitely a portion of my time—not at the end of the day—but at the start of the day that is going to be helping others, and giving people some hope that need that help and support.

Song of the Day: "3AM" by Matchbox Twenty

Movie Quote of the Day: "If you build it, he will come" (Field of Dreams)


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