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Autograph University Interview – Brandon Steiner (Part 1)

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.

Brandon Steiner book - You Gotta Have Balls

Brandon Steiner’s book, You Gotta Have Balls, will be published September 19.

In part one of this two-part interview, Steiner discusses his personal collection, his opinion of in person autograph collecting, and why he thinks fans collect memorabilia.

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 90s 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 60s and 70s 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.

Read Part Two of this interview.

About the author: is the founder of Autograph University. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and two sons. Connect with him on Twitter at @mattraymond.

1 comment… add one

  • Dale Galbreath September 13, 2012, 10:26 am

    Nice job. Looking forward to the next part

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