PSA/DNA Set Registry
A Classic Cooperstown Set
Collecting Signed 1980-2001 Perez-Steele Hall of Fame Postcards
by Kevin Glew
It's a set that almost single-handedly made collecting autographs of Baseball Hall of Famers one of the hobby's most popular pursuits.
When the Perez-Steele Hall of Fame Postcards were introduced in 1980, they were the first series to offer full-color, high-quality artwork of baseball's greatest legends, and collectors couldn't get enough of them.
"I guess I'm old school, but I hesitated to get the [vintage] Topps and Bowman cards signed. So when these came out, I thought they were just beautiful due to Dick Perez's artwork and felt they were the perfect items to get autographed," explained Ronnie Perry, who owns the No. 3 Current Finest 1980-2001 Perez-Steele Hall of Fame Postcards set on the PSA/DNA Set Registry. "They were the perfect size. And some of the signers have big, bold signatures that really display well on these cards. When they were released, I think a lot of people started getting them autographed."
Jim Richmond, who has assembled the No. 2 set on the PSA/DNA Set Registry, agrees.
"They're beautiful images and they're just the right size for autographs," he said.
These postcards made such an impression that even some of the Hall of Famers, themselves, praised them. Ted Williams was one of the Cooperstowners who told Perez that he liked them.
"Yogi Berra collected them," recalled Perez in a late April phone interview. "Every induction weekend he'd bring them and he would have guys sign them."
In all, there were 275 Perez-Steele Hall of Fame Postcards released in 15 series over 21 years. The vast majority of the subjects in the first two series issued in 1980 had already passed away, so, unfortunately, it wasn't possible for collectors to have legends like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, or Honus Wagner sign one of these. But 104 inductees were still alive when their Perez-Steele Postcards were unveiled, including immortals like Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron.
A set has been created on the PSA/DNA Set Registry that requires hobbyists to track down 107 signed postcards from this series. This includes postcards autographed by the aforementioned 104 inductees, as well as autographs on three cards that shine the spotlight on non-inductees Edward Stack (one-time Hall of Fame president), Frank and Peggy Steele and Dick Perez (the co-creators and artist of this series), and Stack with former U.S. President George H.W. Bush.
Measuring 3-1/2" by 5-1/2", the white-bordered postcards feature watercolor portraits painted by Perez, as well as a sepia color action image on the front. The subject's name is highlighted in black near the bottom.
"I've always loved Dick Perez's work," said Jim Doyle, who owns the top 1980-2001 Perez-Steele Hall of Fame Postcards set on the PSA/DNA Set Registry. "To me, Dick Perez is a certified classic artist. The fact that the Hall of Fame allows him to create the paintings that go into the Hall says it all right there. The portraits, the colors, the stock that they were produced on, the whole concept of the [Perez-Steele Hall of Fame Postcards] set appealed to me. I just love the look of the cards."
The horizontal backs showcase the Perez-Steele logo on the top left and a place for a stamp on the top right. The inductee's name and brief career highlights are offered in the middle at the bottom to the left of the Hall logo. The series, card number, and serial number (out of 10,000) are printed along the left side, while copyright information is on the right.
This set represented the first baseball collaboration between Perez and Frank Steele. The idea for this issue was hatched when Perez was visiting Steele at his home where Steele had a large collection of baseball memorabilia and cards, including old Allen & Ginter cards.
"When I was visiting him, I said, 'Gee, it's a shame they don't have art in baseball cards anymore like they did in the Allen & Ginter series,'" recalled Perez. "And Frank said, 'Can you paint like that?' I said, 'Yeah, sure.'"
At the time, the Hall was selling plaque postcards of its inductees and Perez thought they should develop "a full-color, consistent, illustrated set" of the inductees. Steele knew Hall President Edward Stack from a previous business relationship and approached him with the idea for the series.
"When Frank first talked to the Hall of Fame, they weren't all that interested," recalled Perez. "But they said to do it and we would pay them a royalty or something like that. But they weren't giving us the Hall of Fame logo to put on the cards. So if you look at the very first series, the cards do not have a Hall of Fame logo on them."
After the project was given the greenlight in 1979, Perez traveled to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, and began looking for photos of the early inductees. He then worked long hours to paint the portraits for the postcards that would become the first six series (180 cards in total) that were released in 1980 and 1981.
"They were watercolor and I tend to be quite quick with them," said Perez. "So it wouldn't take more than a day or two to do one, as long as I had my research done."
When the first series quickly sold out, Perez says the Hall of Fame signed on and their logo was added to the back of the cards. After the first six series were released in relatively rapid succession in 1980 and 1981, a new series reflecting the new inductees was released approximately every two years until 2001.
Just 10,000 of each series were manufactured and they were distributed in custom boxes. The box and the cards were serial numbered. Perez says the bulk of the cards were sold by mail order, but the sets were also available at the Hall of Fame.
"I remember we did a show - my one and only - in the Philadelphia area," recalled Perez. "We sold a lot of sets there."
Perez attributes the sales success of the postcards to Steele's marketing skills and strong "word of mouth."
As noted earlier, the set offers excellent watercolor portraits of legends like Ruth, Cobb, and Wagner, all of whom died before they had an opportunity to sign their postcards. Fortunately for collectors, immortals like DiMaggio, Williams, Mantle, Mays, and Aaron were able to sign these.
"The greatest smile in baseball has got to be Mickey Mantle's," said Doyle. "And if you look at his postcard, his smile certainly stands out."
While highly coveted, a Mantle signed postcard (#145) from this series is not rare. One PSA/DNA AUTHENTIC example fetched $350 on eBay in March 2017.
For collectors attempting to complete the set on the PSA/DNA Set Registry, it's the Hall of Famers that died shortly after the release of their postcards that are the most evasive. Satchel Paige (#125), for example, was highlighted in the fifth series that was released in 1981, but he died on June 8, 1982.
"I don't think Satchel Paige was doing any shows," said Perry. "So I don't know how many he signed, but it couldn't have been more than a handful."
A Paige postcard with a PSA/DNA GEM-MT 10 signature sold in a Heritage Auctions sale in November 2013 for a whopping $17,925.
A signed postcard of Lloyd Waner from this series is almost as difficult to track down. His postcard (#107) was part of the fourth series unveiled in 1981, but he died on July 22, 1982. One example with a PSA/DNA 10 signature fetched $11,352.50 in a Heritage Auctions sale in November 2013.
Among the other most elusive signed postcards from this series are Earl Averill (died in 1983), Waite Hoyt (died in 1984), and Joe Cronin (died in 1984). The Averill and Hoyt postcards were released in 1981 and the Cronin was unveiled in 1980, so they only had a relatively short period to sign them. One PSA/DNA AUTHENTIC example of the Cronin postcard (#80) sold for $736.76 on eBay in January 2017.
Richmond also cites a signed Red Ruffing postcard (#106) as one of the toughest to uncover. The Yankees great was highlighted in the fourth series in 1981, but he passed away on February 17, 1986.
"From what I've seen, the Satchel Paige and the Red Ruffing are the toughest to get in great shape," said Richmond. "You see them occasionally, in fact I saw one of Ruffing just recently. It just wasn't an outstanding signature, but it was on a Perez-Steele card, so that was pretty impressive."
A Walter Alston signed postcard (#181) is also challenging to obtain. His card was issued in the seventh series in 1983, but he died the following October. One with a signature graded PSA/DNA MINT 9 garnered $514.80 in a Mile High Card Company auction in August 2014.
Collectors also cite signed Richie Ashburn postcards (#220) as hard to track down. Ashburn was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1995. Sadly, he died from a heart attack on September 9, 1997.
Doyle, Richmond, and Perry are not only attempting to track down all of the signed postcards for this series, but they also desire the autographs in the highest possible grade. This creates an additional challenge for them.
"It took me forever to get Sandy Koufax's signature in a [PSA/DNA] 10," said Doyle. "It was one of the last ones I obtained. There were lots of Koufax [signed postcards] out there. I probably had 100 graded before I came up with a [PSA/DNA] 10."
On top of the Hall of Famers, the signatures of some of the non-inductees mentioned earlier are also hard to find on these postcards. One card features Frank Steele, his wife, Peggy, and Perez. Collectors like to have this card signed by all three, but Steele passed away in 2000 and Perez isn't signing as many autographs as he did in the past. Perez says some collectors send him 10 to 15 items to be signed, but he now only signs one item per person.
Another card features then Hall of Fame President Edward Stack with former U.S. President George H.W. Bush. Richmond says it's tough to get high-quality Stack and Bush autographs on the same card.
"If you find one with just [former] President Bush, they're $400 or $500," said Richmond.
Richmond and Doyle say the gloss on these postcards can cause skips in the signatures, so some autographs have ink missing.
"The other thing that occurs is that if the signer does not press down, the card will slide along and the signature will almost smear," explained Doyle.
It's been 16 years since the last series of Perez-Steele Hall of Fame Postcards was released, but they remain one of the most popular items to have signed by Cooperstowners.
"I wish they hadn't stopped making them," said Richmond. "They're a great collectible. Even without autographs, they're a great collectible. I think the demand for this set has always been strong because the postcards are a perfect size to collect. They were the perfect size to mail out and they were easy to carry into a card show if you wanted to get them signed."
Perez says collectors still regularly ask him if he'd consider restarting this issue.
"People still write me and want to know why we don't continue," said Perez. "I say, 'We can't do it without Frank [Steele].' And not only that, the landscape changed over the years in that it was harder and harder to get the players to sign off."
Perez says there are now additional licensing fees and he'd likely have to deal with individual agents. He still paints portraits of the new inductees that hang in the Hall of Fame each year, and most of this artwork can be found in his 2010 book, The Immortals: An Art Collection of Baseball's Best, which he sells on his website. He'll be releasing a supplement to this book with updated inductee artwork this year.
Of all of the Hall of Fame projects he's worked on, Perez says this postcard set is the one he gets asked about the most.
"It was one of those little cottage industries that took off," he recalled. "It really worked out well, and it's like anything else, you're providing something that hasn't been done before. And that was the heart of it - a consistently produced imagery of Hall of Famers. Plus, you could build a collection, as opposed to a variety of photos."
And to many hobbyists, it remains one of the most important and prized sets in their collections.
"It was a revolutionary set in my opinion because it's the first postcard-type set where the artwork just lent itself perfectly to receive autographs," said Perry. "It's still my favorite, as far as autograph sets go. I think it has stood the test of time."
For more information on baseball autographs, please visit https://www.psacard.com/AutographFacts#4baseball-autographs.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Thank you to Mile High Card Company, Jim Doyle, Jim Richmond, and Ronnie Perry for their efforts in providing images for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of June 2017.
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