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Signature moment: Hall of Fame autograph guide a compelling read

Posted Dec 4, 2012 by Bob D'Angelo

Updated Mar 27, 2013 at 10:18 PM

It’s a sign of the times. Autographs of sports stars are big business, and prices have risen dramatically from the days when a kid could lean over a stadium railing and get a player to sign a card or a program.

I was at Municipal Stadium in West Palm Beach before a Braves-Yankees spring training game in 1977, walking along the concourse down the left-field line, when I literally bumped into New York Yankees manager Billy Martin as he leaned against a fence. Startled, I stopped and extended my game program to him.

He never said a word, but signed it and handed it back and nodded when I said thanks.

Today, he would have been mobbed.

“The once gentle pursuit of collecting signatures has turned into a high stress endeavor with forgeries lurking around every corner,” autograph collector and dealer Ron Keurajian writes in “Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs: A Reference Guide” (McFarland & Company, paperback, $49.95, 248 pages).

The book contains 745 different photographs of Hall of Famer signatures (and forgeries) from Hank Aaron to Robin Yount.

Many signatures are reproduced from the baseball Hall of Fame’s archives, which includes the Frederick Long and August Hermann collections. Keurajian also combed court and probate records and deeds in more than 30 states, looking for documents that had a player’s signature. Reminds me of genealogy, which is one of my hobbies. And like tracing one’s family tree, there are times when you strike gold.

One such jackpot moment occurred when the 1909 divorce file signed by Rube Waddell was found in the basement of a circuit courthouse in St. Louis. There were three authentic signatures on that document, and Keurajian asserts that only one other genuine Waddell autograph exists.

Keurajian writes in a straightforward, clear fashion that won’t confuse the novice collector — but he includes enough detail and analysis to satisfy veteran autograph seekers.

Keurajian was bitten by the autograph bug as a youth. He began collecting baseball cards in 1976 as a 9-year-old and gravitated toward autographs because it reminded him “of a simpler time when life was free of care and worry and the only thing that mattered was baseball.”

The first signature he obtained was from Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer. Keurajian was in middle school at the time and was writing a report about Ty Cobb. He got the idea to interview Gehringer about Cobb, and as he was leaving, the former second baseman gave him an autograph.

“From that point I was hooked,” Keurajian writes.

In his book, Keurajian takes the reader through a sensible, money-saving process.

“Collect what you like, but don’t bite off more than you can chew,” he advises.

He addresses forgeries and authentication, and may give some autograph collectors some anxious moments. Keurajian asserts that the “vast majority” of Ty Cobb, Base Ruth and Lou Gehrig are forged. He classifies forgeries into five categories: poorly executed, traced, freehand, well executed (“the most ominous group of forgeries) and ghost signed.

Keurajian warns that collectors should be leery of official government documents like signed custom forms or wills. The originals, he says, “should not be in the market.”

“If you happen to see one, it was likely stolen from the courthouse where it was filed,” he writes.

He offers helpful hints, too. For example, when requesting an autograph through the mail, always send a self-addressed, stamped envelope so the player can return it. It’s a small courtesy that goes a long way and makes plenty of sense.

The bulk of the book is spent examining signatures of members of the Hall of Fame. And this is where Keurajian really shines, as he analyzes the signatures of baseball greats. These are not cursory observations, either.

For example, Keurajian writes that Johnny Mize never dotted the “i” in his last name, but dragged his pen over the letter to make a dash — and yet, many forgeries exist of the Big Cat’s autograph (look at the “i” next time).

Keurajian reports on known forgeries of each Hall of Famer (and how easy or difficult a particular signature is to forge). He also discusses demand and market value. His descriptions are worth repeating.

Sparky Anderson signed in “an aggressive and nonconforming hand.” Yogi Berra’s autograph “is pleasing to the eye,” and Alexander Cartwright’s is “one of the most artistic signatures around, baseball or otherwise.” However, George Brett’s signature “is one of the more unattractive autographs of Hall of Fame members.” Lou Gehrig’s autograph is considered scarce, but Keurajian claims there is only one authentic signature of Addie Joss in existence.

Umpire Bill Klem’s signature “is one of the few that is illegible but has great display value” because it “almost looks like a drawing.” Whereas, Cy Young signed in “a very meaningful and pensive hand.”

Not only is this book a reference guide, it also is an education. Baseball historians and autograph hounds will find Keurajian’s book a compelling read.

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