Collecting Sports Autographs

Rob Rosen
Jun 2, 2010

Au-to-graph... noun, from the Latin autographus, meaning a) something written by one's own hand. b) a person's handwritten signature. The latter definition is the more pragmatic usage as it pertains to the hobby of collecting autographs, also known as philography. Autograph collecting is one of the most popular and rewarding forms of collecting and easily dates back several hundred years. This begs the question, "What drives the collector to obtain the signature of another?"

Listed below are 10 suggestions that will help a collector accomplish this goal.

As an autograph collector of thirty years, I can only answer based on my own experiences of collecting, since what is enjoyable and rewarding to collect for one person may not be the same for another. However, I do believe there is a common thread running through all autograph collectors ... a strong passion for and respect of history.

Almost all autograph collectors, often without realizing it, are history buffs and, to some degree, collectors and curators of history. What better way to explore the history of baseball, for example, than collecting autographs of its players? Autograph collecting not only tends to help the hobbyist build a better knowledge of a particular player, but of the sport itself, potentially introducing the collector to the history of ballparks, cities, culture and ultimately to American history.

Baseball is not called our national pastime on a whim. It binds generations and connects fathers and sons in a way that can't be explained. Since the birth of baseball in the mid-1800s, there's not a single piece of American history that cannot be seen and studied through the eyes of this grand sport and autograph collecting truly preserves a piece of our past.

Many collectors believe a signature tells a great deal about the person who did the signing. For example, look at the large, bold signature of Babe Ruth in contrast to the smaller, lighter signature of his more demure teammate Lou Gehrig. Further, Gehrig's signature is usually found on the side panel of most baseballs, avoiding, as in life, becoming the center of attention. We admire the fluid, graceful "sweetness" of a Walter Payton signature. We respect the strength, confidence and quiet resolve of a Jackie Robinson-penned item as well as the stately and regal manner in which Joe DiMaggio leaves his signature.

A player's signature can go through many changes during the course of the player's life, often mirroring the struggles and triumphs endured by the man himself. A collector of Mickey Mantle autographs will notice the smaller, tighter and more unsure signature of a young Mantle fresh out of Commerce, Oklahoma. He doubted himself and was initially unable to handle the pressure of carrying the torch of Yankee greats that was bestowed upon him at such a young age. That signature went through a metamorphosis. It appears to have changed each year into a larger, bolder and more confident signature as both the player and the man grew into a success and an American icon.

In addition, autograph collecting can be financially rewarding. The price of autographs, particularly vintage examples, has steadily increased over the years. Some have outpaced other non-traditional investments such as fine art and antiques, as well, as many traditional investments.

There are several factors that determine the value of an autograph, including who the signature is from, the medium signed, and the condition of both the autograph and medium.

The most important factor in determining the value of the signature is the signer. The fame of the person and their place in history are the most determinative factors to be considered here. The signatures of athletes such as Babe Ruth and Muhammad

Ali will always have far greater value than Barry Bonds and Mike Tyson. All four were either homerun champions or world heavyweight boxing champions in their prime, but their impact on their respective sport and the world around them in general is what separates the value and appeal of these particular athletes.

I mention these particular athletes to merely state a point. Comparing Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali to any other athlete in terms of value and appeal is unfair as Ruth and Ali are the only ones in history to transcend sport. Their contribution to culture and history is of equal importance to their unparalleled feats of greatness in their respective sport. If you ask most autograph collectors to identify the most important signature in the hobby, they will tell you the answer is, without hesitation, Babe Ruth.

Another factor in determining the value of an autograph is the medium upon which it is signed. This is as subject to individual taste as is the theme of what genre of autographs to collect. In the baseball collecting arena, the most popular item to have signed by a player is the baseball itself. Regarding contemporary signatures, the type of baseball signed is important but not nearly as important as it pertains to vintage, pre-1960s signed items.

Assuming the condition of the autograph and baseball are comparable, a Jackie Robinson signature, for example, is far more valuable on an official National League Ford Frick baseball than on a commercial baseball of the same period. Taking this one step further, a Babe Ruth signature on a "Barnard" baseball is of greater value than on a "Harridge" baseball. It almost assuredly tells the collector that this was a playing day signature of Ruth, signed while he was still wearing Yankee pinstripes, hitting home runs and winning championships.

Photographs are also a very popular choice of autograph collectors. The appeal of this medium is obvious since you have captured not only the player's autograph, but a moment in that player's life. Many vintage photographs are appealing without an autograph but, if one of these prized images happens to be signed, the collectible can be enhanced significantly. Further, many collectors of autographed photos prefer an image of the player in uniform as opposed to street clothes or those taken after their playing career, since the former represents the player as most fans are able to, and want to, remember him.

A handwritten letter is easily the rarest of autograph mediums, and depending on the letter's content, may provide a very special and unique insight into the player's personal life that all other mediums are unable to provide. Most collectors of handwritten letters prefer that the letter contain either content about that player's sport or something about an integral part of the player's personal life. In this medium, the content of the letter can greatly enhance the value of the autograph.

Other very popular mediums for collecting sports autographs are on sportscards, government postcards, Hall of Fame plaques or index cards. Each of these types has its own appeal. Depending on rarity, condition and eye appeal, the item can vary in value.

Regardless of whose signature it is and what has been signed, autograph collectors care greatly about the condition of both the autograph and the medium upon which it rests. The item must have eye appeal, a display-oriented factor that makes the item pleasant to look at and present. A smeared signature, a stained index card, a photograph with torn or frayed edges, or a badly scuffed baseball will greatly affect the eye appeal and value of the autograph. Strength of the signature is also a very important factor and, in most instances, the determining factor in the value of an autograph. Bold, clear and legible signatures are preferred for obvious reasons over faded or light examples.

Another factor that affects eye appeal is the legibility of the autograph itself. The reader shouldn't have to rely on guesswork to figure out who signed the item. What would be the point of having an autograph if you are unable to tell who signed it? Regarding condition, it is important to remember that the items with the most potential for an increase in value are the best of the best, both in regard to the condition of the medium and strength of the autograph. These are the items that most astute collectors look for and, therefore, command a premium in the hobby.