Buyer Beware: How To Spot Baseball Autograph Forgeries
By David Seideman
Years ago, I enjoyed a huge adrenalin rush at a flea market in Brooklyn’s Park Slope section. For a few hundred dollars I bought a beautiful baseball from the late 1940s with the signatures of the great Brooklyn Dodgers such as Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and Roy Campanella. But my baseball was a bust when I tried consigning it to an auction held by Lelands, a top New York house. Mike Heffner, the president, informed me that many of the autographs were penned by the Dodger’s clubhouse boy.
“The vast majority of Hall Fame autographs are forged,” claims Ron Keurajian, author of the indispensable reference guide, Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs. When it comes to pre-World War II autographs, Keurajian told me that he believes that 90 percent of the Hall of Famers are not real, particularly those of immortals such as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Honus Wagner, and Cy Young.
The Babe Ruth(above) and Ty Cobb (below) signatures are genuine, says Ron Keurajian. They look fluid and effortless.
In his book, Keurajian, a bank portfolio manager and attorney in the Detroit area, shares 30 years’ worth of knowledge and experience. To build a reference library that’s probably second to none, he has taken full advantage of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s archives and access to some of the best private collections. Keurajian has also combed the country’s court records, probates, and deeds for signed documents. On top of that, he went to hand-writing school. “When you put thousands of hours into your hobby and are exposed over and over to signatures you can determine what’s really good,” Keurajian says.
At stake can be a small fortune. “Back in the early 1980s Ruth single-signed baseballs were selling for about $100-$200,” Keurajian writes. “Today that same ball now sells for 5,000 to $10,000. A Ruth museum-grade ball typically sells for $50,000. The beautiful thing about the signatures of Cobb and Ruth is that they are recession-proof. Due to the tremendous demand, economic conditions do not affect values related to these two greats. In good times or bad the value seems to always increase.”
“When you get a real signature it’s something that Babe Ruth actually held,” he told me.
This Ruth is a “secretarial, likely accomplished by Mrs. Ruth,” Keurajian says.
“Note that it looks nothing like a genuine signature.”
A forger has taken an album page with authentic Tigers like Schoolboy Rowe and Charley Gehringer and added a Cobb. “Note that the Cobb forgery is labored and methodic in appearance,” Keurajian explains. “This Cobb, like most forgeries, shows a labored appearance and lacks the carefree reckless flow of a genuine signature. Any signature the exhibits unsteady strokes, even a trivial amount, must be considered suspect. This is a telltale sign of forgery. The one exception is shakiness of hand due to illness or infirmity due to advanced age.”
Fakes have many fathers. “The grim reality is that some of the greatest players treated the requests for autographs as a nuisance and had clubhouse boys and others sign them,” writes former baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent in the book’s Foreword. These “clubhouse” creations, like my Dodgers ball, appear on team-signed baseballs. Examine the “flow of the ink,” Keurajian explains. Rather than the “rapid flow found in genuine signatures,” autographs done by the same hand show a “labored appearance [where] the thickness of ink will be wide and uniform.” In addition, a real team-signed baseball should have “ink strokes of various thickness, some thin, some fat, some in between as each person signed differently.” Plus, the signatures usually overlap.
Certain “secretarials” (signed by secretaries) tend to stand out, too. For example, Ed Delahanty is a holy grail because he was a Hall of Famer and died at 36; after being kicked off a train for drunkenness he was apparently swept over Niagara Falls. A few hand-written letters with his name misspelled, Delehanty, are floating around, including one that sold for almost $30,000.
One of his most exciting finds was the signature of Hall of Fame legend Rube Waddell who died of tuberculosis in 1910 at age 37. Keurajian tracked it down on a divorce agreement in long-forgotten file in St. Louis. He believes it does not match those sold over the past 50 years, except one example.
Keurajian shows how modern forgers have taken blank, unused Jefferson and Lincoln postcards, used rubber stamps to create old postmarks, and duplicated signatures with fountain pens. Other mediums included rent receipts, and notarized documents. There are even bank checks “signed” by the likes of Ruth, Cobb Christy Mathewson, and Lou Gehrig. Keurajian says to look for the “bleeding effect” that comes from recent writing on old paper which is much less absorbent than new.
Authentic single-signed baseballs from players in the early 1900s are exceedingly rare for two reasons, says Keurajian. The first is that fans did not start collecting popular celebrities like Ruth, Charles Lindberg, and Charlie Chaplin until the 1920s. The second is that baseballs were too valuable to be signed by just one player.
Unless your name happened to be Babe Ruth. At the opening of baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1939 a joke circulated that the rarest thing was a baseball “not signed by Babe Ruth.” For much of his life the Bambino was asked to sign “bizarre items,” including bowling pins, cricket bats, and a shoe for a broadcaster.
Babe Ruth was such a prolific signer that there are photos of him signing buckets of baseballs. Keurajian says the one above with other stars from the 1940s is the real deal. With their prices now exceeding $50,000, he says to exercise extreme caution with “museum-grade” balls (i.e. “a mint signature on a cream to snow-white ball).” Says Keurajian,, “A kid in the 1930s did not go out and buy a new baseball for Ruth to sign, he simply couldn’t afford it. That is why so many signed Ruth balls are on used and soiled baseballs. (Courtesy of the Ronald S. Glaser collection.)
A favorite oddity regards Jackie Robinson. In a show of support for Richard Nixon’s presidential bid in 1960, he signed baseballs “Vote for Nixon,” which are highly collectible. (Robinson favored Nixon’s stronger stance on civil rights, but soured on him by 1968.)
“The best way to get vintage material is through a trusted dealer or an auction house (emphasis, mine),” Keurajian writes. “Auctions come in all forms and sizes from the established houses to a home-seller using an on-line site like eBay.” But even if a piece comes with letters from the top authentication companies, do your homework. “Third party authenticators make collectors look lazy,” Mike Heffner of Lelands told me when I interviewed him for an earlier post. “They are only human. A lot of people put too much value on a letter. You need to compare everything. It’s always important to learn what you are collecting.” Whether you’re a seasoned collector or a novice, a good place to begin is Keurajian’s fun and fascinating guide.