Keurajian,Ron. Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs,Second Edition. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.,2018. Pp 303. Appendix, bibliography, glossary, illustrations and notes. $49.95 paperback.
Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo.
It’s a sign of the times: Collecting sports autographs is a big business, with potentially lucrative paydays. In August, a baseball signed by 11of the original National Baseball Hall of Fame class when the facility was dedicated in 1939 sold for a record $623,360 at SCP Auctions’ Summer Premier Auction.
But for every legitimate autograph on the market, forgeries are plentiful and scammers are lurking, ready to bilk unsuspecting collectors. “The autograph hobby is not for the faint of heart,” Ron Keurajian writes in his valuable reference work, Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs: A Reference Guide, Second Edition. This work expands greatly on Keurajian’s first effort, which was published in 2012. In between editions, he wrote Collecting Historical Autographs: What to Buy, What to Pay, and How to Spot Fakes in 2016. His latest baseball autograph book contains more than 100 new pages of information, and the number of autographs have increased from 745 to 988. That includes authentic signatures and forgeries of every Hall of Famer, from Hank Aaron to Robin Yount, plus autograph specimens of the top 50 players not in the Hall of Fame. Keurajian also devotes a section to autographs of the Chicago White Sox players who fixed the 1919 World Series. Many of the autographs in the book are reproduced from the Hall of Fame archives, which include the Frederick Long and August Hermann collections. Keurajian also dug through court and probate records and deeds in more than 30 states, looking for documents that had contained a player’s signature.
Keurajian, who has analyzed signatures for 35 years, was bitten with the autograph bug early. As a middle school student in Michigan, he was writing an essay about Ty Cobb when he got the idea to contact Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer, who lived nearby. The telephone interview went well, and Gehringer invited Keurajian to his home to view his memorabilia and talk baseball. As Keurajian was about to leave after his hour visit, he was stopped by the “Mechanical Man.” “Don’t you want my autograph?” he asked. Keurajian did, and Gehringer signed a post card-sized photograph of his Hall of Fame plaque. “It was my very first Hall of Fame signature,” Keurajian writes in the introduction to Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs. “That left my Dave Rozema signed baseball in the dust.” (p. 4). Now grown up, Keurajian is a commercial banker and attorney in his native Michigan who also buys and sells autographs. Still a devout Detroit Tigers fan, he insists that Cobb’s lifetime batting average is.367 (although official records have taken away two hits to drop his figure to .366), and he continues to champion the cause to get Cobb’s teammate, Bobby Veach, inducted into the Hall of Fame.
But sentiment goes out the door when Keurajian examines autographs. He takes pains to throw in some historical perspective behind every autograph and does not mince words when it comes to identifying forgeries. That has not made him a favorite among some autograph sellers, but he always backs up his assertions with evidence. One example concerned the autographs of George “Rube” Waddell, an eccentric pitcher from the dead-ball era who rarely signed. Keurajian found a 1909 divorce decree in the basement of a circuit courthouse in St. Louis, and Waddell signed the document in three places. The signature was authentic and rendered all but one Waddell autograph on the market as forgeries. The signatures “did not match the autographs sold over the past 50 years, save one piece,” Keurajian writes. (p. 5).
The first part of Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs is a handy reference guide for those who want to start or build upon their collections. In fact, Keurajian advises against collecting rare autographs ofHall of Famers when starting out, suggesting that collectors should concentrate on the more inexpensive items. “Collect what you like but don’t bite off more than you can chew,” he writes. “Don’t throw around big money, at least not yet.Remember you are a rookie and until you become seasoned in the science of signature analysis you need to keep it simple.” (p. 9).
Keurajian discusses the various types of signed items, including postcards, baseballs, bats, books, programs and baseball cards, giving a brief history and describing the advantages and pitfalls of each. Fraud rears its ugly head many times, and in his second chapter Keurajian explains five levels of forgery: Poorly executed, traced forgeries, freehand forgery, well executed and secretarial signatures (one authorized by the signer but basically “ghost-written” by someone else.(p. 35). The third and fourth chapters guide the reader into ways of getting autographs through the mail and via auctions, and the idea of provenance and authentication.
The meat of this book is found in Part II, where Keurajian takes 192 pages to examine the autographs of Hall of Famers. Keurajian recognizes that signatures can change as players age, so he does provide examples of a baseball immortal’s autograph through the years. Each player is examined in four categories: Signature study, signature population, known forgeries and price guide. There is tremendous detail, particularly in the area of signature study. Keurajian notes that Sparky Anderson signed in “an aggressive and nonconforming hand,” (p. 70), Jesse Burkett signed in “a pensive and thoughtful hand,” (p. 88), Rod Carew’s signature “is basically a scrawl with poor letter construction,” (p. 89), and Ty Cobb signed “in a bold and confident hand that matched his personality.” (p.99).
The signatures show varying degrees of elegance, in Keurajian’s opinion. While Joe DiMaggio’s signature is marked “with effortless flow,” (p. 117), Billy Herman’s signature was legible but “lacks flamboyance.” (p. 148). Phil Rizzuto signed in “a wonderfully flowing and artistically whimsical hand,” (p. 209), but Robin Yount signed in“an extremely sloppy and unattractive hand.” (p. 259). Keurajian believes the autographs of Harry Wright, Gehringer, Barney Dreyfuss and Alexander Cartwright are among the finest of the Hall of Famers due to their finely crafted lines and full flowing handwriting.
Forgeries are naturally a problem for autograph collectors, and Keurajian notes that “the majority” of photographs signed together by DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams are forgeries — one of the three holding bats “is probably the most forged photo of all time.” (p. 181). Mantle is a particular target for forgers, and Keurajian writes that many well executed forgeries of the Mick’s autographs are plentiful, especially on baseballs and bats. Mantle forgeries have been known for decades. In his 1970 epic, Ball Four, pitcher-turned-author JimBouton writes that longtime New York Yankees clubhouse attendant Pete Previte forged “thousands” of Mantle signatures on baseballs.
The section that examines the top 50 players not in the Hall of Fame is an interesting section, although the exclusion of Pete Rose is a curious omission. Players who are included are those who are either strong candidates for the Hall of Fame (since Rose is ineligible, that would explain the omission) or are associated with a great or infamous moment in baseball history. Some, like actor Chuck Connors, are famous outside of baseball. Others, like Ray Chapman and Carl Mays, are tied to a tragedy— Chapman died in August 1920 after being hit in the head by a Mays pitch. It’s doubtful that one exists, but if a fan in the late 1910s or in 1920 had the good fortune to get Mays and Chapman signatures on the same baseball or on a scorecard, the value would be enormous. Keurajian also examines the autographs of Hal Chase, Abner Doubleday, Roger Maris, Curt Flood, Babe Herman, Jim Thorpe and Gil Hodges.
The section about the infamous Black Sox of 1919 naturally revolves around the signature of “Shoeless”Joe Jackson, who was illiterate but learned to sign his name. Keurajian notes that Jackson signed “in a ghastly labored hand” that makes his signature appear childlike (p. 289). He also warns that no genuine signed images of baseball ofJackson in existence and writes that the autographs that are real are all on legal documents. Later in life, Jackson passed out autographs on index cards that were signed by his wife. Other autographs examined include the other“eight men out”: Eddie Cicotte, Chick Gandil, Swede Risberg, Buck Weaver, Happy Felsch, Fred McMullin and Lefty Williams. In a nice twist, Keurajian addressed the autographs of gambler Arnold Rothstein, who engineered the fix; and middleman Abe Attell.
Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs is a scholarly, exhaustive look at baseball autographs. Keurajian writes with effortless flow, to borrow one of his phrases, and injects personal and professional experiences into his prose.His advice to collectors chasing Hall of Fame signatures is blunt, but sensible: Don’t try to find a signature of every member enshrined inCooperstown. “It is easier to find a cure for cancer than it is to obtain a signature of every Hall of Famer,” he advises. (p. 17).
BobD’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New HampshireUniversity in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New BooksNetwork.