CONCORD, N.H. - The items presidential candidates are asked to sign on the campaign trail range from the mundane - think magazine cover - to documents as politically defining as an antitax pledge. But these days, it’s all about baseballs.
Getting a candidate to sign his “Mitt Romney’’ or “Newt Gingrich’’ onto the stretched cowhide of that all-American icon has become a cottage industry. Its practitioners regularly show up at campaign events not to offer support, but to get the autograph that can make a $6 baseball worth big money.
The business is so lucrative that at least one candidate considered entering the market himself.
Decked out in baggy jeans, hooded sweatshirts, and baseball caps, the entrepreneurs stand at the back of the crowd with satchels full of baseballs, waiting for the right moment to approach the candidate as they exit. If they didn’t already have a rapport with security guards and advance aides, they would be cast out as suspicious.
“It’s like fishing or hunting,’’ said Mike Marsh, a 38-year-old from Woburn who approached Romney four times one day last month and got about 10 baseballs signed. “You go out in the day and see what happens when you come back.’’
Romney - who sits behind home plate at some Red Sox games but concedes he’s never been much of a ballplayer - has become the most sought-after autograph. The price for his signature, like his poll numbers, have been consistent as others soar and plummet.
Last week, the online auction site eBay offered 35 baseballs with Romney’s signature. One was a 2004 World Series baseball with Romney’s signature for $400; another signed by both Mitt and his wife, Ann, was carrying a $750 price tag.
Other candidates are in demand, but less so. A Rick Santorum ball could be had for $100. For Rick Perry, bidding starts at $75, with Jon Huntsman coming in at $30.
Baseballs are in high demand in part because round surfaces mean they can’t be forged by a machine, making them more authentic as collectibles. That fact was not lost on Romney, the former venture capitalist.
“I don’t think a machine has yet figured out how to sign a baseball,’’ Romney said at an event last week. “But when someone invents one, I’m going to buy it, I’ll tell you that.’’
The actual process of getting an autograph has become a ritualized choreography. It requires politicians used to signing flat pieces to paper to try - awkwardly - to autograph a round ball with a felt pen. Advance aides, charged with keeping their candidate on time and out of trouble, try to play traffic cop.
Brush an autograph-seeker aside - particularly if it’s a youngster holding something as American as baseball - and they might look callous. But allowing the candidate to stand for too long signing memorabilia - in some cases from the same person, coming to multiple events - and they risk looking too entrepreneurial.
Romney normally happily obliges the profit-seekers who approach him, supporting what he calls in his stump speech the “free market economy.’’
As he exited French’s Toy Shop in downtown Concord last week, a crowd formed. Four men, holding baseballs in both hands, thrust them in front of Romney as he signed with a blue ink pin until he’d had enough.
“OK, that’s it on the baseballs guys,’’ Romney said. (To prevent the autograph-seekers from intruding upon voters, the campaign recently started trying out a new policy. Memorabilia is turned in ahead of time, and Romney signs it all on the way out).
At one point, the Romney campaign was so intrigued by how successful the business is that they considered getting into it themselves.
“We were actually thinking about signing 1,000 of them and putting them on eBay and then having the money come into the campaign,’’ Romney said. “It was too complicated. The campaign finance rules are just such that they said, no, we can’t do that.’’
Marsh said the number of people who routinely seek autographs from candidates has been growing since the 2008 race, when baseballs signed by Barack Obama fetched upwards of $1,000.
Several autograph-seekers declined to speak with a reporter. One man in Concord last week pleaded with a reporter not to publish his 16-year-old son’s name. His son, wearing a Romney hat and getting several balls signed, is trying to raise money to buy a car. And he was skipping school to do so.
Former governor John Sununu said signing baseballs has been become part of the fabric of New Hampshire politics.
“I’ve been asking candidates to sign baseballs for 30 years,’’ he confessed. “I have Reagan, both Bushes, I think Jimmy Carter.’’
He then took out his phone, and displayed a photo. On one side were autographs from Red Sox legend Ted Williams and President George H.W. Bush. On the other, scrawled in both English and Arabic, was the signature of a president no longer in the game: Hosni Mubarak.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.