GOING, GOING, GONE: Autographed Ball Co. prepares to close
Dick Culler Jr. rubs his chin thoughtfully, contemplating a question about the Autographed Ball Co., the sports-memorabilia business his dad started nearly 70 years ago.
On the wall behind Culler’s desk hangs a collage of enlarged sports-page clippings about his late father and namesake. Richard Broadus Culler, who went by Broadus before switching to Dick as a young man, played major-league baseball for several seasons during the 1940s before settling down in his native High Point and becoming a respected businessman and civic leader.
Scattered randomly throughout the small office are several baseballs, each one stamped with facsimile signatures of pro ballplayers from years gone by.
A computer monitor at Culler’s desk displays an unfinished solitaire game, a telling reflection of a business that’s no longer as busy as it once was.
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Culler says softly, his well-chosen words catching in his throat. “We’re closing — we have no choice.”
By month’s end, the Autographed Ball Co. will be — in the vernacular of the sport itself — going, going, gone.
Culler, 74, knew a long time ago that his father’s idea of mass-producing autographed baseballs was a good one. As a boy, he’d been to many a game of the Boston Braves — the team his dad spent the most seasons with — and he’d seen firsthand how much time his dad and the other ballplayers spent, per the owner’s orders, signing baseballs for fans before the games.
Indeed, the unique business — at one point the only such company in the world — grew and thrived for decades, peaking with its best year in the early 1990s.
But demand for the company’s baseballs has shrunk significantly in recent years. Culler blames a slow economy and the continually waning interest in a sport which, though still the national pastime, has lost much of its favor with fans who’ve become increasingly disillusioned by outrageous player salaries, escalating ticket prices and repeated steroid scandals.
That decline, coupled with a minor stroke Culler suffered four months ago, led him to the difficult decision to close the Autographed Ball Co.
“We’ve sold every baseball we had left — every bit of the inventory,” he says. “We’ll auction off everything else — computers, desks, chairs, everything — by March 24, and then we’ll be gone. Sixty-seven years will be over.”
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Officially, Culler traces the company’s founding to 1947, in an unused bedroom of a house on Carter Street, where the elder Culler’s parents lived. The idea was to stamp all of a team’s 25-plus ballplayers’ signatures on a single baseball, and each team’s ball would be sold through concessions at its games.
“He never did ‘onesies,’” Culler says, referring to individual autographs. “He only did it by team, so that’s what we’ve always done. That was our niche.”
According to Culler, major-league players signed contracts allowing the company to use a facsimile of their signature on a team ball, in exchange for a small royalty on balls sold — a penny per ball.
“Nobody got rich,” Culler says with a grin.
The company’s success, of course, hinged not only on the players contracting with the company — which almost all of them did — but also on Culler’s clever invention for stamping the balls. The device he came up with allowed a baseball to be hand-stamped with a spherical stamp six times — once for each panel on the ball — with three to five autographs per stamp. The result was a baseball covered with the replica autographs of every player and manager of a particular team.
“The trick was to do it without the names smearing,” says Culler, who grew up in the business and learned around age 12 how to stamp the baseballs.
Culler estimates he could hand-stamp a gross of baseballs — 144 balls — in roughly 1½ to two hours, and the messy process always left him covered in ink.
That changed in 1977, when he and two friends invented a pneumatic machine that could stamp the baseballs much more efficiently, and with minimal mess.
“It doesn’t look like it, but it’s a pretty sophisticated piece of equipment — it took the three of us a year to design it,” Culler says. “And it made a difference. We could print more balls faster, so we made a little more money.”
By that time, the business belonged to Culler. His father had died in 1964, at age 49, and the son had taken over the business, ditching his plans of becoming an engineer.
He steered the Autographed Ball Co. through its best days, including the 1991 season, when the Atlanta Braves went from worst to first in their division and rode the momentum all the way to the World Series.
“We were still selling Braves baseballs — those World Series balls — the next year, when the new season was starting,” Culler recalls. “We had 20 people working for us during that time, where we normally had about 10 working for us during the Series, and only about three or four people the rest of the year. We did half a million dollars for that World Series — we didn’t do that much for the whole rest of the season.”
By contrast, the 2013 World Series this past October only sparked about $10,000 worth of business, Culler says.
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The mood has been somber this past week at the Autographed Ball Co., which since 2000 has occupied a small, nondescript building on N. Main Street, across from Kepley’s Barbecue.
Culler was joined by his brother, Larry; his sister, Nancy Culler Gekas; and Nancy’s husband, Harry, who have been helping him finish up orders for the 2014 season before the business closes for good. Coincidentally, the final order of baseballs — an order of about 5,000 balls for the Red Sox — will be shipped to Boston, where the elder Culler played when he came up with the idea for the company.
Ordinarily, teams would reorder throughout the season, Culler explains, but that won’t happen this year. Once they sell out of their current orders, they’ll have to look elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Culler will be left to reflect on what has been a unique piece of history in High Point — and in his own family.
“I hate that we’re having to do this,” he says. “This business helped put me through school, and my brother and my sister. It’s meant so much to our family, but we can’t keep it going forever.”
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