A tradition started by William Howard Taft has become a lucrative and competitive avocation for some New Hampshirites.
MERRIMACK, N.H. -- Mitt Romney has run out of plastic forks and napkins at his VFW spaghetti supper, but supporter Noelle Spinosa doesn't care. She's hoping to get an autograph from the man she believes will be the next president before he outsources his scribbling to the autopen.
"I got Mitt to wish my friend a happy 50th birthday," the bubbly preschool teacher says. "This will be on his wall forever!"
Romney signed a picture of himself posing at the Green Monster, the iconic left field wall of the Boston Red Sox. Baseballs are a common sight at New Hampshire Primary events -- almost as ubiquitous as glossy 8 x 10 photos and candidate autobiographies stuffed in the backpacks of political autograph hunters.
The awkward practice of having politicians sign baseballs dates back to 1910 when President "Big Bill" Taft threw out the ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day for the Washington Senators. Future Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson later asked Taft to sign the game ball, a request that has evolved into today's collectors routinely getting autographed balls from governors, senators, and ambassadors.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is frequently gets to sign Yankees memorabilia. And perhaps because of an embarrassing campaign faux pas involving the Bronx Bombers, Hillary Clinton reportedly tries to avoid these requests. During her 2008 White House bid, her Secret Service agents often told autograph hunters to put away their baseballs as they potentially could be used as weapons.
New Hampshire real-estate broker Ken Dufour takes his political baseballs seriously. Eighteen of them -- representing all the major Republican candidates as well as those who briefly flirted with 2012 presidential bids -- share his living-room entertainment center below his family wedding pictures.
If the Smithsonian ever needs baseballs signed by Donald Trump, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former UN Ambassador John Bolton, or Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the Dufour TV stand offers one-stop shopping.
"Rick Santorum has the perfect signature," says the collector, who insists that everyone signs with a blue Bic ballpoint. "His autograph is well centered on the sweet spot (the most narrow blank space between the stitches) and to write cursive on a ball is really tough. Santorum told me that Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning (the former U.S. Senator from Kentucky) taught him the right way to sign a ball."
Dufour positions his baseballs from Santorum, Romney, Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman, and Newt Gingrich in the center of his TV stand, reflecting their recent standings in the polls. For every guy like Dufour, there are several other autograph hounds scurrying around the campaign trail in pursuit of a quick buck.
"It makes it a lot tougher for me when you see guys with four or five baseballs in their bags, shoving them in the candidate's face," he says.
Bob Eaton, founder of the R & R Auction Company in Amherst, N.H., has been dealing in autographed New Hampshire Primary memorabilia since 1976. Although the company specializes in presidential signatures and correspondence dating back to the George Washington administration, it also auctions off fresh 2012 Republican signatures.
The latest catalog features a Mitt Romney baseball and signed copy of his book No Apology book for a minimum bid of $100 -- half the starting ask for a canceled check signed by Jack Ruby, the nightclub owner who shot JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
Eaton says political autographs fluctuate wildly and that a sitting president's selling price is often the highest when he first earns his party's nomination.
"We must have more than 50 signed Barack Obama books left over from the last election. When he was running, an autographed copy of The Audacity of Hope would get $800 to $1,000 at auction. Now you'd be lucky to get half that," he says.
"When John Kerry was the Democratic nominee in 2004, his signed photo was getting up to $400. Now you might be able to sell it for $3. It's all about supply and demand, and nobody wants a loser," Eaton adds.
Right now, autograph speculators are betting big on Romney. On the eve of the New Hampshire Primary, these were the top asking prices for signed baseballs listed on eBay: • Mitt Romney -- $500 • Newt Gingrich -- $300 • Ron Paul -- $200 • Rick Perry -- $195 • Rick Santorum -- $100 The first lady memorabilia sweepstakes has already begun as well. One owner of a ball signed by both Mitt and Ann Romney is hoping there's a Republican sucker willing to part with $750.
As for Dufour, the living-room curator who says he has no intention of ever selling his collection, he insists he feels no ill will toward the profiteers.
"They stood outside in the cold for three hours, so they deserve a few bucks," he says. "When Mitt Romney signs a ball, he knows it will be proudly displayed in someone's office or living room, regardless of whether it is kept as a souvenir or sold somewhere else. It's just another means of advertising -- and I think the candidates all realize it."
Image: Darren Garnick