Collectors still dig the long ball.
Yes, despite the steroid allegations swirling around modern sluggers, a devoted group of hobbyists continues to celebrate the Sultans of Swat.
"I think people still like to have autographs of the 500 home run club members," said Ken Harrington, who owns the PSA/DNA Set Registry's fifth-ranked collection of single-signed 500 home run club balls.
Steve Grad, principal authenticator at PSA/DNA, agrees.
"There are always going to be core collectors who don't care about the steroid allegations. They just want to have every signature. There are guys that started 500 home run balls that have just got to finish them," he said.
The 500 home run fraternity has grown at a suspiciously high rate in recent years. After boasting just 15 members in baseball's first 120 years, 10 power hitters have taken up membership in the past 11 years. Unfortunately, steroid allegations or admissions of steroid use accompany seven of them (Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Gary Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez). It's a trend that has soured some collectors.
"With Barry Bonds and McGwire and the steroid allegations, I'm not eager to go and purchase autographed balls of them at this point in time," said Eric Sanders, who owns the PSA registry's No. 9 Current Finest set of single-signed 500 home run club balls.
But the drug accusations haven't deterred Arthur Lobbe, proprietor of the registry's No. 8 Current Finest 500 Home Run Club Autographs (Any Medium) set.
"Maybe I'm in the minority, but you don't know how level the playing field was. What pitchers were on steroids? If Cal Ripken took an Advil so he could play, does that make it a performance-enhancing drug? I don't know," he explained. "I guess I just look at the steroids as a part of the game."
A large number of collectors seem to agree with Lobbe; the 500 home run club sets on the PSA/DNA Autographs Set Registry continue to be popular. One registry set requires hobbyists to track down a single-signed ball of each of the 25, 500 home run hitters, while another encourages hobbyists to track down an autograph in any medium.
"If you're collecting 500 home run club autographs in any medium, then you're not going to have much of a problem," said Grad. "Some of the autographs aren't easy, but you can find them, they're just going to cost you."
Generally, the higher the PSA grade of the autograph, the more the signature will sell for.
The Holy Grail 500 home run club autograph is, of course, Babe Ruth. Sure, The Bambino signed thousands of items, but demand for his autograph is unparalleled. In fact, in 2005, a PSA Mint+ 9.5 signed Ruth ball fetched a record $150,000 in a deal brokered by Memory Lane, Inc.
"I don't know whether I'll ever actually own a Babe Ruth autograph, that's a pretty high-ticket item. But you know what? You never know," said Neil Downey, a respected PSA/DNA autograph collector.
Sanders, who owns a PSA GOOD + 2.5 signed Ruth ball, says that Mel Ott and Jimmie Foxx autographed balls are harder to track down than balls signed by The Babe.
"There are so many Babe Ruth balls out there. You can go to any auction and it will have a single-signed Babe Ruth ball. So, if you have a certain amount of money set aside, you can get a Babe Ruth ball. I think it's different for a Mel Ott or a Jimmie Foxx autographed ball. There just aren't that many of them. And once they're in the possession of a collector, they're not going to be released any time soon," he said.
Experts agree that Ott is the most elusive 500 home run club autograph.
"Ott is a very, very tough autograph on a ball," said Lobbe.
"I would say that Mel Ott would probably be the toughest," he said.
Grad notes that Ott died in 1958 before autograph collecting really took off as a hobby.
"When Mel Ott played in the late 1920s and all throughout his career, the practice of getting a guy like him to sign a ball on the sweet spot wasn't something that was really thought of," he said.
The simplicity and brevity of Ott's autograph also makes it one of the easiest to forge.
"Ott is heavily forged. Most of the stuff I've seen on him is bad," said Grad.
In August 2002, a single-signed Ott ball sold for $35,186.
Grad says that Foxx autographs are a little less difficult to find than Ott.
"Foxx tended to sign more on the sweet spot. I see a lot of those from the 1950s and 1960s, because he lived until 1967," said Grad.
A PSA EX-MT+ 6.5 Foxx autographed ball (signed on the sweet spot) from the George S. Hipp collection sold for $30,000 in an Antique Helper sale in October 2005.
Compared to Foxx and Ott, the autographs of modern sluggers are readily available. Once considered a tough autograph, Barry Bonds has signed a lot of items in recent years.
"I believe that at least half of true baseball fans and collectible fans believe Bonds is a total sham, and subsequently don't get his autograph. This lowers the amount that are going to be out on the market," noted Downey. "It's the whole steroid era thing that I think is going to not only tarnish his legacy, but it's going to cause somewhat of a shortage in the autograph market, just due to the fact that many people don't like him."
An autographed Bonds baseball certified by PSA/DNA sold for $129 on eBay in July 2011.
The cachet of the 500 home run club, however, remains evident. Demand for autographs signed by Gary Sheffield, the latest to belt his 500th, spiked immediately after he reached the vaunted plateau on April 17, 2009.
"Nobody cared about a Gary Sheffield signed ball before he hit his 500th home run, now collectors have to have it," pointed out Harrington.
Another common goal of 500 home run collectors is having each slugger sign the same item (e.g. a ball or picture). A show in Atlantic City in 1989 brought together the 11 living members of the 500 home run club at that time. Ted Williams, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Reggie Jackson, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mike Schmidt, Ernie Banks, Eddie Mathews and Willie McCovey were all present at that function. Memorabilia signed at this show still regularly surfaces on the market. Grad recommends buying only authenticated balls that include the 11 signatures from this show.
"I've seen so many forged 500 Home Run Club baseballs over the years, it's scary," he said.
Albert Pujols seems destined to be the next 500 home run club member. At his current pace, he'll likely sock No. 500 late in the 2013 campaign. Chipper Jones and Vladimir Guerrero are both approaching 450 homers, but are in the twilight of their careers.
So, is now a good time to load up on items signed by Pujols or other prospective 500 home run club members?
"From an investment perspective, before they hit the 500th home run is when all the hype is, and hype drives the market," said Downey. "It's best to buy it after it's done, when the full-blown hype has subsided and you pay the real value."
And despite steroid allegations, the value of PSA-graded, autographed items of 500 home run hitters remains relatively high – proof that collectors do, indeed, still dig the long ball.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Eric Sanders, Neil Downey, Ken Harrington, Adam Cohen and Heritage Auctions provided pictures for this article. Please note that Set Registry rankings are those as of press time.
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