PSA Set Registry
A Classic Combination
Collecting Signed Baseball Hall of Famer Rookie Cards
by Kevin Glew
For decades, it had been taboo to get a rookie card signed.
"When I grew up in the1980s, it was a faux pas to get your rookie card signed," explained veteran collector Bob Evans. "There was almost this notion that if you got a Mickey Mantle rookie card signed, it would render it worthless."
Over the past five years, however, collector perspectives on this topic have begun to shift. And while there are still some hobby holdouts, signed baseball Hall of Famer rookies have become highly sought after. The lofty prices being paid for cards to complete the Baseball Hall of Fame Players - Post-War Rookies Autographs set on the PSA/DNA Set Registry are evidence of this.
"I think the hobby has gone through a metamorphosis," noted Mike Urann, who is an active collector of these cards and participant on the PSA/DNA Set Registry. "I think the metamorphosis has happened over the last two or three years ... Six years ago, there's no way I'd be sending a Rickey Henderson rookie off to a signing, and I pretty much do things like that once a week now."
Duane Tom, also an active collector of the Baseball Hall of Fame Players - Post-War Rookies Autographs set, credits Mike Navarro as being the pioneer of this trend. Navarro started amassing signed rookies back in 2007 and his collection was actually featured in the October 2012 issue of SMR in an article entitled "The Controversial Collectability of Signed Rookie Cards."
"I always had people telling me that they thought I was ruining the cards," recalled Navarro, who even remembers players being hesitant to sign their rookies. "But I just thought the autograph added a personal touch to the rookie card. I like the fact that the athletes themselves had interacted with that piece of cardboard for even a brief, few seconds of their life. So to me, it was more personal than just a card that came off a printing press ... I also think it's a great marriage between rookie card collecting and autograph collecting."
Bob Zimmer, who owns the top Baseball Hall of Fame Players - Post-War Rookies Autographs set on the Registry, offers a similar assessment.
"I think the autograph makes the card worth more," he said. "In my opinion, the autograph is just as important as the card, and the fact that the player touched the card makes it worth more to me."
It was this type of thinking that spawned the Baseball Hall of Fame Players - Post-War Rookies Autographs set on the PSA/DNA Set Registry. This set is comprised of 89 former players that have been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and whose rookie cards were produced after World War II. For cards to qualify for this set, PSA must have authenticated and/or graded both the card and autograph.
Tom says building a collection with PSA-authenticated and -graded cards gives him peace of mind.
"I think the fact that PSA will authenticate and grade the autograph on a rookie card makes a world of difference," he said. "In the old days, if you got a rookie card signed, it was still your word against whoever's, but having it authenticated by PSA just gives you the assurance that it's real. And I think that's huge."
"When you're entering into this, you're entering into two of the most dangerous hobby territories. After all, what are the two things counterfeited most out there in the hobby? It's rookie cards and signatures," he said. "So when you have a company like PSA that can lay to rest any of your fears about (a) picking up a fake rookie card, (b) picking up a fake autograph, or (c) picking up a fake signed rookie card, it wipes that fear away."
Some deliberation went into the composition of the Baseball Hall of Fame Players - Post-War Rookies Autographs Registry set. For example, a decision was made to include a signed 1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle rookie rather than his more cost-prohibitive 1952 Topps single. The set also offers some flexibility. For instance, collectors can include either signed 1948 Leaf or 1949 Bowman singles of Warren Spahn, Stan Musial, Satchel Paige, George Kell, or Larry Doby.
The 1940s through 1960s rookies have proven to be particularly difficult in terms of finding signed examples. And this is not only because of the longstanding taboo against getting rookie cards autographed, but it's also because many of these players have passed away. Urann and Zimmer point out, however, that there are a few old-time collectors who attempted to have every card in sets from this era autographed, and some of the signed rookies from these sets have surfaced on the market.
Complicating the composition of this set was the fact that multiple companies entered the baseball card market in the 1980s. This resulted in players having more than one rookie. The card chosen for this set is generally their most prominent and desirable mainstream rookie. For example, collectors must track down Cal Ripken Jr.'s regular 1982 Topps rookie, not his Fleer or Donruss singles or even his more valuable Topps Traded card.
Hobbyists will tell you that cost is one of the obstacles to completing this set. The rookies of legends like Mantle, Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, and Roberto Clemente are expensive in any form. But the biggest challenge to putting this set together is the scarcity of some of the cards.
"There's a finite number of cards out there that are available of the players that have passed away," noted Tom. "And the whole stigma of getting rookie cards signed has kept the number of examples really low. The saying 'Beggars can't be choosers' couldn't apply more to a situation because these cards are so scarce that you really don't have a choice. You just take what you can get."
Urann says the scarcity of these cards is reflected in the prices they're commanding.
"The prices for the deceased Hall of Famers have tripled or quadrupled in the last three years," he said.
Even Navarro, who has sold many of his signed rookies to help pay his way through law school, marvels at some of the prices being realized.
"I've actually been shocked at some of the prices I'm seeing lately - like a [signed] 1984 Fleer Update Kirby Puckett," said Navarro. "You're looking at $2,000 to $3,000 if you want to obtain one of those, and you're going to be looking for three or four years before you find one."
Evans has witnessed the same trend.
"With the prices that some of these cards are commanding today, it's easy to see that the stigma [against getting rookie cards signed] is washing away," he said.
Hobbyists also feel there will be a strong market for signed rookies in the future.
"The future is bright for the vintage, signed rookie cards," said Navarro. "For what I call the staples - the 1951 Bowman Mantle, the 1955 Topps Clemente, the 1952 Topps Eddie Mathews, the 1963 Topps Stargell, the 1984 Fleer Puckett - the supply for those cards is finite and they're not going to grow, but almost everybody needs them. So I think if you sit on those cards, you can stand to make a significant appreciation on your investment."
The following is a summary of some of the key rookies in the Baseball Hall of Fame Players - Post-War Rookies Autographs set:
1948 Leaf Jackie Robinson #79. Robinson's 1948 Leaf card can command thousands of dollars on its own, but the fact that Robinson died in 1972, when he was just 53 years old and before the autograph hobby was as organized as it is today, makes this card almost impossible to find signed. The PSA Population Report indicates that there are two examples graded with an authentic signature. Collectors can expect to pay into five-digits for one.
1948 Leaf Hal Newhouser #98. Newhouser was an excellent pitcher who won 207 big league games and is the only hurler to win the American League MVP Award in back-to-back seasons (1944 and 1945), but his name doesn't carry the hobby weight of the other legends on this list. He was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1992, 37 years after his final big league pitch and six years before he passed away. The reason Newhouser is a key card in this set is that there is yet to be a PSA graded example with an authenticated autograph.
"That [a signed Newhouser rookie] will be the next super find," said Tom.
1948 Leaf (#8) or 1949 Bowman (#224) Satchel Paige. Though Paige passed away in 1982, he was a gracious signer who regularly returned mail-in requests. Some of those, however, were reportedly signed by his wife or daughter in the early 1980s. With that said, he died before he could participate extensively in the card show circuit. The 1948 Leaf and 1949 Bowman Paige cards command big bucks on their own, but PSA has never graded and authenticated a signed example of either.
"If you were to get the 1948 Leaf Paige signed, I think that would be the biggest [card in this set]," said Evans. "The Paige and Robinson cards [signed] are two keys that I would probably buy even if they were spray painted," he added jokingly.
1949 Bowman Roy Campanella #84. In 1958, just two seasons after he won his third National League MVP Award, this legendary Dodgers catcher was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident. Though he was still able to sign his name, there are some secretarial examples of his signature, and in the 1980s, he signed with the assistance of a machine. He lived until 1993, so there were opportunities to have his 1949 Bowman rookie signed, but collectors didn't do it because it was frowned upon. There has been just one graded example with an autograph authenticated by PSA.
1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle #253. It's not the iconic 1952 Topps Mantle, but the 1951 Bowman rookie can still command big money in almost any condition. Mantle was a regular guest on the autograph circuit before he passed away in 1995, but while there would have been plenty of chances to have this card autographed, the taboo against having rookie cards autographed - especially an extremely valuable rookie like this - deterred collectors.
"The Mantle is not even rare relative to some of the other cards, but it's just that it's so expensive," explained Tom. "It's just out of the range of many of collectors."
The PSA Population Report indicates that there have been 13 examples graded with an authenticated autograph. One example that was deemed "Authentic" and the autograph graded PSA MINT 9 sold for $21,600 in a Goldin Auctions sale in October 2016.
1952 Topps Eddie Mathews #407. A member of the 500-home run club, Mathews was a frequent card show guest. Unfortunately for signed Hall of Fame rookie collectors, few people had the Milwaukee Braves slugger autograph his 1952 Topps rookie prior to his death in 2001. This was likely due to the rookie card taboo, combined with the fact that this was the extremely valuable and condition-sensitive, last card in the 1952 Topps set. Just five examples have been graded by PSA with an authentic autograph.
1955 Topps Roberto Clemente #164. This legendary Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder, who finished his career with exactly 3,000 hits, was killed in a plane crash while attempting to deliver relief supplies to Nicaragua on New Year's Eve in 1972. His rookie card is very pricey on its own, but Clemente, like Robinson, died well before the autograph hobby became organized. Collectors also have to be wary because during the final five or six seasons of his career, Clemente reportedly had Phil Dorsey, his assistant and valet, sign some of his fan mail.
"The Clemente card is one of the hardest [to obtain signed] just because of his untimely death and the fact that people didn't get rookie cards signed," said Evans.
According to the PSA Population Report, there have been seven Clemente rookies graded with authentic autographs. One example with the card deemed "Authentic" and the autograph graded PSA NM-MT 8 sold for $16,730 in a Heritage Auctions sale in August 2016.
1963 Topps Willie Stargell #553. This two-time World Series champ and seven-time All-Star was featured on a Rookie Stars card with three other players. Stargell was a gracious signer, but on top of the rookie card taboo, his photo was squashed into the bottom-right corner of his rookie. For this reason, this card was never thought of as desirable for autographs. Stargell died in 2001 at age 61.
"The 1963 Topps Stargell is a four-figure card as well," said Navarro.
Six signed examples have been graded by PSA.
1984 Fleer Update Kirby Puckett #U-93. The 1984 Fleer Update set is one of the rarest issues of its decade, and this Puckett rookie commands a significant premium over his 1985 offerings. A .318 career hitter and two-time World Champion, Puckett was a prolific signer prior to his premature death from a stroke at the age of 45 in 2006. Unfortunately for signed Hall of Fame rookie collectors, due to the rookie card taboo and the overall scarcity of Puckett's 1984 Fleer Update rookie, very few of them were autographed.
"The toughest modern baseball card in this set is probably Kirby Puckett's 1984 Fleer Update card," said Urann. "At the time, I think most people thought his 1985 Topps card was going to be his most important card, so I don't know if many people were really going after the 1984 Fleer Update set."
Zimmer shares a similar assessment.
"I've never seen an example of the Puckett card signed," he said. "He signed a bunch of cards, but they weren't the Fleer Update rookie. The card, itself, was rare."
Just five signed examples have been authenticated and graded by PSA.
1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. #1. While this is not a difficult card to find signed today, Navarro feels that getting a signed 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. could be challenging in the future.
"He did sign earlier in his career and at the ballpark on occasion, but he doesn't do shows anymore," said Navarro, adding that Griffey didn't do any signings leading up to his 2016 Hall of Fame induction. "I know that's left a large void in the collections of a lot of people that collect Hall of Fame autographs on specific pieces."
In November 2011, Griffey also signed an autograph deal with Topps. The terms of that deal are not public, but it's likely that he's now less willing to sign his 1989 Upper Deck rookie.
There are currently 150 signed examples authenticated and graded by PSA.
For more information on the autographs, please visit http://www.psacard.com/AutographFacts.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Thanks to Duane Tom, Bob Evans, and Mike Urann for providing images for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of January 2017.
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