Almost every weekday morning, one of my new friends at the wonderful coffee house where I do a lot of my work, the Brooklyn Commune in my Windsor Terrace neighborhood, folds his New York Times up in a small square to work on the crossword puzzle. We talk current baseball— both of us are long-suffering Mets fans— and baseball history.
He’s old enough to have grown up in Harlem, a 15-minute bus trip from the Polo Grounds, watching Willie Mays play in his prime— baseball’s equivalent of watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel.A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned to Howard (he asked that I not divulge his real name) my Forbes beat and his eyes lit up. Going through his great aunt’s papers years ago, he told me that he came across a letter to her and her family from Babe Ruth written in 1947 while he was in the hospital fighting the cancer that would claim his life the following year.
One of my friend’s ancestors clipped an example of Babe Ruth’s signature from a magazine to compare it to the one on the letter.
The next day at the coffee house Howard pulled out of his satchel a small envelope like the kind you use to mail a wedding invitation. “BABE RUTH NEW YORK” was printed on its back. The Sultan of Swat typed and signed a letter on matching stationary thanking the family for their good wishes.
After writing so much over the years about the big-shot dealers and collectors, now it was my turn! Here was a Babe Ruth autograph fresh to the hobby and worth several thousand dollars. I would pay Howard straight up for his letter and keep it. Or maybe flip it. Or maybe I would broker a deal with one of the top sports auction houses for Howard to show him and the world that I am a heavy-hitter. Babe Ruth’s autograph looked exactly like the one Howard’s relative had torn out of a magazine a long time ago and precisely like examples on the web.
I immediately photographed the letter and envelope and emailed them to two autograph authorities I like for, among other reasons, responding quickly to my Forbes inquiries. “I have often said that the world could be coming to an end and the value of [Ty} Cobb and “[Babe] Ruth would continue to increase,” writes Ron Keurajian, the hardline author of Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs. “These are the two giants of baseball and demand is so great it cannot be quantified. The beautiful thing about their signatures is that they are recession proof and discovery proof. In good times or bad, the value always seem to increase.” Josh Evans, founder and chairman of Lelands, one of the country’s oldest sports auction houses, also believes demand outstrips supply.
The heart-warming sentiments Babe Ruth expressed on his stationary during his terminal illness still makes this an interesting collectible.
In their opinion, Howard’s Babe Ruth is a “secretarial” or is “ghost signed.” There was no intention to deceive, merely keep up with the overwhelming demand. In this case, given the mail bags of letters Ruth was surely receiving every day, he probably designated his nurse or his secretary to sign for him. “I don’t think it’s a stamp,” Evans says. “I think it’s just a very clean looking secretarial. This looks like a one of a kind letter in the content.” Since it was vintage Babe Ruth material, Evans estimated its worth to still be from $300 to $500, though he declined to buy or sell it in one of his auctions. He didn’t want an unscrupulous buyer passing it off as genuine.
Josh Evans thinks the letter may be one of a kind, but the autograph is a secretarial.
By many accounts, Ruth’s signature is one of the most commonly forged in the hobby. Keurajian says to look for telltale signs like the “fast bouncy feel of a genuine Ruth,” “uniform lines,” and “variant pressure.” If this sounds a little arcane and stressful, it is; and it’s a big reason why you should be leery of autographs peddled by unknowledgeable dealers at flea markets and antique shows; you’re playing with fire. In addition to relying on the top authentication companies, PSA/DNA and JSA, do your own homework and buy from reputable sources like the respected auction houses I write about.Howard was disappointed with my news, but took it in stride and said he would keep his Ruth letter for sentimental value because he cherished it as a family heirloom.
Babe Ruth signed baseballs are not that rare. He was very accommodating to fans and there are photos of him signing buckets of balls. Several are up for sale now through Lelands, Heritage, and other auction houses. (Courtesy of Ronald S. Glaser collection)