The 100 Greatest Baseball Autographs

Touching Treasures Created by the Hands of Legends

While it has been the great minds of this world that have given us innovation after innovation in technology, travel, architecture, agriculture, medicine, the arts - every aspect of life - the actual manifestation of all things that exist has come into being by virtue of hands carrying out the mind's mission.

The same is true in baseball.

It was in the fifth inning of Game 3 of the 1932 World Series that the hand of baseball's greatest legend pointed to the outfield bleachers in Wrigley Field, grabbed the handle of a bat and placed a pitch in that very spot.

It was a man's hand that on July 4, 1939, wiped away tears from his eyes as he proceeded to tell a sold-out crowd in Yankee Stadium that he considered himself to be the "luckiest man on the face of the Earth."

The 100 Greatest Baseball Autographs

It was the hand of a Scottish-born outfielder that swung a bat in the Polo Grounds in 1951 and rendered a hit the entire world seemed to hear as the New York Giants won the pennant.

It was the gloved hand of a man nicknamed "The Say Hey Kid" that made one of the game's most improbable and memorable catches in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. 

And on September 9, 1965, it was from the skilled hand of a Los Angeles Dodger pitcher that a horsehide sphere was so perfectly delivered to the plate, time-after-time, that not one of 27 Chicago Cubs batters ever got to first base.

The same hands that made these historic feats a reality also used another tool, other than a ball, bat or glove, to make history - a pen. The result of those hands taking up a writing instrument, in what represents a little moment of their legendary lives, and affixing their signature to a ball, bat, photo or piece of paper has left this world with a treasure trove of historic artifacts: their autographs.  

To magnificently document what experts in the sports autograph world consider to be the most treasured and coveted of these signatures, authors Tom and Ellen Zappala have collaborated on a new book: The 100 Greatest Baseball Autographs (Peter E. Randall Publisher, 2016).

This beautifully illustrated coffee table tome, which is to be officially launched at PSA's booth during the 2016 National Sports Collectors Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, showcases some of the most valuable and desirable signatures in the history of America's national pastime. Moreover, the book includes touching, fascinating and surprising stories of the professional and personal lives of the men whose hands created those penned treasures.

The Zappalas were joined on this project by sports writer John Molori, a syndicated newspaper and magazine columnist who is the recipient of a Cable Ace Award and a New England Emmy Award, and Joe Orlando, who serves as the president of PSA and PSA/DNA. A renowned expert on sportscards and memorabilia, Orlando is also the editor-in-chief of Sports Market Report and has authored numerous articles and books for Collectors Universe, Inc. Rounding out this all-star team is the principal autograph authenticator for PSA/DNA Authentication Services.  

Zappala Zapalla

The 100 Greatest Baseball Autographs is the third volume in a set of award-winning publications the Zappalas have authored, which includes The T206 Collection: The Players & Their Stories (Peter E. Randall Publisher, 2010) and The Cracker Jack Collection: Baseball's Prized Players (Peter E. Randall Publisher, 2013).

A businessman in the Greater Boston area, Tom Zappala is the owner of ATS Communications, a multimedia and consulting company that handles publicity and personal appearances for several authors and a variety of artists in the entertainment field. In addition, he is a passionate collector of vintage baseball and boxing memorabilia.

His wife, Ellen, who was the publisher of a group of six newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire for many years and served as the president of the New England Press Association, currently serves as the president of ATS Communications and worked closely with former welterweight champion Tony DeMarco on his autobiography, Nardo: Memoirs of a Boxing Champion (Legas Publishing, 2011).

Sports Market Report recently visited with Tom Zappala to get an insider's understanding of how their latest book came to fruition. We began our conversation by asking why, after doing two books on baseball cards, they decided to feature autographs?

Tom Zappala (TZ): It was Joe Orlando who gave us the suggestion. Ellen and I had been tossing around a couple of different ideas for projects we wanted to do with PSA, and after talking to Joe about doing a book on baseball autographs, we brought PSA/DNA's lead authenticator into the conversation. 

So we all put our heads together and thought we could put out a really nice product. And I'll tell you, this book is beautiful - even beyond what I had envisioned. We are very pleased with the results, and we're very happy to have brought back John Molori, who worked with us in the past, to co-write the book. He is a respected sports writer in Massachusetts - a guy with a great pedigree. We also brought in Arthur K. Miller, who is an incredibly talented artist. Arthur provided us with wonderful images, and I could not be happier with the results.

The 100 Greatest Baseball Autographs

Sports Market Report (SMR): The images in the book are nothing short of stunning - really beautiful stuff.

TZ: Yes, and we are very pleased with that. We have gotten a lot of great feedback. Tony Dube of White Point Imaging was also a part of our team, and the overall look of the book just couldn't be better.

SMR: Let's talk about the hard part of creating a book like this - who to include and who to leave out. Also, is this a ranked list of the greatest from one to 100, or is this just the top 100?

TZ: [Laughing] Yes, you're right, that was the hard part. So what we did was divide the book into four chapters based on the expertise of Joe Orlando and PSA/DNA's principal authenticator. The first chapter is dedicated to the most desired baseball autographs, and each signature is ranked from one to 20.

Then, the rest of the book is broken down by era, from the 19th century to the modern era. So we broke the other 80 autographs out by era. There was really not much debate regarding who should be included in the top 20, although there was some discussion on their ranking. I don't think it will come as any great surprise that Babe Ruth came in at the top of the list. Then two is Christy Mathewson, three is Josh Gibson and it goes on from there: Joe Jackson, Lou Gehrig, Roberto Clemente, Ty Cobb, Eddie Plank, Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson, etc.

The criteria for their ranking was based on a combination of factors. Things like the player's popularity, historical significance to the game and the rarity of their autograph all came into play. Take Harry Wright, who assembled, managed and even played for baseball's first professional team - the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. His autograph - something actually created by his hand - that is real history! Not just baseball history. It is true artifact of American history.

The 100 Greatest Baseball Autographs

SMR: To be sure, there will be readers and collectors who will question who made the cut and who didn't.

TZ: Absolutely. We imagine that we will stir up a little controversy as it pertains to who made the cut. We want people to do that - to take issue with why this one or that one was included or not included. That is a great discussion to have, and I could see people debating about the inclusion of a player like John Clarkson. He is a Hall of Famer but, perhaps, not a name that would first come to mind in compiling a list of the greatest baseball autographs.

But what we learned is that his signature is very rare because he spent the latter part of his life in a mental institution and died at the age of 47. There is actually an interesting sidebar to the story of Clarkson. As we were working with Joe and talking about how rare his signature is, I heard something that peaked my curiosity. In 1909, after having spent time in mental hospitals, he became very ill while visiting with his family and was admitted to the McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, where they had a psychiatric clinic.

Well, the reason this story got my attention is because I have a dear friend who is one of the directors at McLean Hospital. So I called him and told him the story. I asked if he could look into the hospital archives to see if any documents exist with Clarkson's signature. They are looking into that right now, and who knows what they may find. Obviously, this is a personal and confidential matter, so if they were to find something, they couldn't release it. But at least they will know if there is a rare and historically significant document that exists somewhere deep in their old forgotten files.

SMR: As you worked on this project, were there times when you found yourself in awe of the various signatures penned by these legendary figures?

TZ: Constantly. So many times. Looking at the signature of Joe Jackson was just unbelievable. Another one that really touched me, because of the narrative of his life, is Roberto Clemente. This man touched many people's lives in a very positive way.

SMR: Did you limit the list to players or did you include anyone who played an important role in the history of the game?

TZ: It isn't just players. We included people like Henry Chadwick, Branch Rickey and Casey Stengel, who was a player but is best known as a manager. So we did mix it up a bit.

SMR: Throughout its history, the game has produced far more than just 100 individuals who have played significant roles and whose autographs would be desirable. I imagine some real tough decisions had to be made when deciding who should be kept or removed from the final list.

TZ: That was really PSA/DNA's call; they know better than anyone who should have made the cut. I do know that towards the end of the project, there were an additional 10 to 15 names that they had to whittle off the list, but that is the beauty of working on a project like this. There is no right or wrong answer.

The 100 Greatest Baseball Autographs

SMR: Your other two books on T206 and Cracker Jack cards are not only beautiful but very informative. And this book is as well, but it seems like it may have been more fun to work on.

TZ: It was a very fun project. I have said it is an eclectic collection of eclectic individuals. Each figure, in their own way, is really fascinating. We dedicated two pages to each person, so each spread contains a nice, personal narrative along with some interesting information from the experts at PSA/DNA on the actual autograph.

As I mentioned before, we have beautiful photos, artwork and quotes by or about the featured person. We really had fun digging up those quotes. Not all of them have quotes, but most of them do.

In one instance, for Jimmy Collins, we used the lyrics from a song written by Dick Johnson, who is the curator at Boston's Sports Museum of New England. Dick wrote this song about Collins called "Jimmy Collins' Wake" that was recorded by the Dropkick Murphys. So we got permission to use some of the lyrics from that song that tells the story of Collins' funeral.

The story is about the day Collins was to be buried in Buffalo, New York. Members of the Royal Rooters, who were a fan club for the Boston Americans, sent an entourage up to his wake with the championship cup they got for winning the 1903 World Series. They propped Collins up in his casket with the cup and then started drinking beer and singing Irish songs. So, along with the factual information it imparts, it's easy to see how people will find this book to be a lot of fun.

SMR: You mentioned that the PSA/DNA experts played a big role in this book. Do they address the reasons why an individual's autograph is so rare or desired and if there are any inherent issues with certain autographs?

TZ: Yes, that is all addressed in the PSA/DNA portion of the book. Joe and the lead authenticator brought a vast wealth of information to the project. I mean, it just could not have been done without them. They talk about forgeries, which is a term that automatically conjures up the notion of corrupt forces at play. But in many cases, they weren't being produced by unscrupulous forgers. They were done by other people at the request of the players themselves.

Take Mickey Mantle as an example: There are Mantle signatures out there that were not produced by his hand. They were done by guys in the clubhouse that Mantle asked to sign on his behalf. The same is true with Babe Ruth and others.

The 100 Greatest Baseball Autographs

SMR: Ellen, you have just joined us, so let's get you in here. Everyone who writes a book learns something. Tell us some of the things you learned by working on this book.

Ellen Zappla (EZ): First of all, it was a really nice change for us. I enjoyed learning about players and the game from a period other than the dead-ball era, which we dwelled in with our other books. This was enjoyable and enlightening because we got to research many more players and their pasts.

The other thing I enjoyed was learning about many players like Satchel Paige that were big in the Negro Leagues. It is a very well-rounded book. We feature Martín Dihigo, who may not be well known to the average person. He was a Cuban player who played in baseball's Negro Leagues. Dihigo is a good example of the individuals that were chosen who are not necessarily household names with baseball fans, but they did play a big part in the history of the game and their autographs are scarce.

Another thing I liked about doing this book was getting to research and write about modern players like Tony Gwynn and Ricky Henderson. So, from our perspective, everything about creating this book was a learning process. We now know so much more because of Joe and the principal authenticator. We are so grateful for that because with learning and understanding comes a higher level of appreciation.

You can't spend any time with either of those guys without being extremely impressed with what they do and their knowledge. It is really amazing to see the process PSA/DNA goes through to authenticate signatures.

SMR: Are either of you autograph collectors?

TZ: Ellen isn't, and neither am I. I only own one autograph - Stuffy McInnis. I have always been a big Red Sox fan, and I always thought he was a very good first baseman. So I have never been an autograph collector myself, although, when my son was a little boy, we got into autograph collecting and he has a lot.

When he was a kid, we got one of those books that had the addresses of all the players and it became sort of a father-and-son project. We would write out four or five requests a day on three-by-five cards. Then we would send them out with a self-addressed stamped envelope. It was amazing; we got back some really neat autographs.

The 100 Greatest Baseball Autographs

 SMR: This is such a beautiful book that one may be curious to know: would you now consider doing similar books on the autographs of players from the NFL, NBA or NHL?

TZ: That would be a lot of fun. We would love that. However, we are in the process of another project that we can't disclose at the moment. Let me just say this: It will be something collectors will find very interesting. So we are committed to that for the better part of the next year or two.

SMR: We don't mean to get too deep or existential here, but someone once said that the autograph of a noteworthy person is a tangible capture of a moment in the life of someone who has left a significant mark on the world - more personal than a photograph, because it was created by the person's own hand. After doing this book, can you summarize your personal feelings on what an autograph means or represents?

TZ: Ellen and I have talked about that a lot. When you see a Henry Chadwick autograph or something signed by Casey Stengel or Branch Rickey - any of those towering figures who have passed on - there is something that touches you and connects you to them on another level.

As a kid I was a big Rogers Hornsby fan. While we were working on this project, I would love to stare at his autograph - it was something his hand actually produced. Same thing with Roy Campanella. You look at something with his signature on it and then think of what happened to him - the car accident, what he went through, what it may have taken for him to sign that autograph. Things like that bring these legends to life, and it touches you in a very personal way.

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