Signed, Sealed, and Delivered
Sigurd Berg's Meticulous Collection of Sports-Related Autographs
Greg Rice, a longtime sports memorabilia collector who also works as a private dealer, was not a fan of autographs.
"I've been collecting cards and various other items since I was a kid," says Rice. "But I never had any interest in autographs."
That lack of interest turned to downright disillusion when, after purchasing some signatures, most of them turned out to be forgeries.
That disillusion, which confirmed Rice's reason to snub signatures, made it easy for him to ignore any autograph offerings, until one day a dealer friend showed him something that would completely change his feelings towards signed material.
The handful of photos the dealer shared with Rice were just the tip of the iceberg of what was a collection of 320 signed envelopes amassed by a man named Sigurd Berg who was obsessed with writing to people of renown and requesting their signature.
What was it about the power of this particular collection of signatures that reached out and captured the imagination of Rice, a man who had solidly come to terms with the repudiation of autographs as a viable collectible? We, here at Sports Market Report (SMR), were intrigued and sought out Rice to find the answer to that question.
Greg Rice, we learned, was born in Cooperstown. No, not the Cooperstown baseball fans visit to pay homage to the greats of the game, but rather a speck-on-the-map city in eastern North Dakota whose census has never hit 1,000.
In the early 1960s, when Rice was a young boy, his family migrated 100 miles southeast of Cooperstown and settled in the state's most populous city, Fargo. It was there that Rice discovered his interest in sports and the collecting of cards that bore the image of the men who played the games he loved to watch.
Greg Rice (GR): The people in Fargo tend to root for the Minneapolis teams: the Vikings, the Twins, the North Stars, who were there back then, before they moved to Texas in the 1990s. I was a big fan of all those teams when I was a kid. I went to my first Twins game with my dad when I was eight, and when I was older and could go on my own, I went to a few Vikings games.
Sports Market Report (SMR): When did the collecting bug first bite you?
GR: I started collecting baseball cards when I was eight. When I was a kid I bought everything I could get my hands on. We had neighbors who had older sons, and when they went off to college, I asked them for their cards. Some of them gave me their cards and some didn't, so between getting those cards and the ones I had bought, I put together quite a collection. That went on until the early 1970s when I put them all in boxes, stored them away in the closet, and moved on to other things.
SMR: As most of us did. When did you get back into cards?
GR: In 1986, when I was in my mid-20s, I moved out to Southern California in search of work and got a job with a tobacco company. A few years later, I was in San Diego and had walked into the hotel room of one of our company's sales representatives. He was sitting at a desk opening up packs of 1989 Upper Deck cards.
It had been a while since I'd kept up with cards at that point, and when I sat down and started to look at those Upper Deck cards, I was really taken by them. They seemed so different than the cards I collected as a kid. The photography and layouts were so much better.
I asked him where he had gotten them and he told me he had picked them up at a little store near the hotel. So I went over there, bought up every pack they had [laughs], and that's what got me back into card collecting. I continued to buy modern cards until 1993. That was the year the baseball strike hit and my interest sort of waned a bit.
But that was also the year I got a call from my father back in Fargo who told me he had decided to sell the house and wanted to know what he should do with all the boxes containing my old cards which had been in that closet all those years. At first, I told him to just toss them but then changed my mind and asked him to send them out to me.
When I got them, I started going through all the boxes and looked up what some of them may be worth. That was what really got me hooked on cards once again, especially on collecting vintage cards.
SMR: Did you come across any treasures in those old boxes?
GR: Well, they had been handled pretty well when I was a kid. I had rubber bands around them and most were showing their age. I did find a Nolan Ryan rookie card and a couple of Mickey Mantle cards. I also found a Rod Carew card and a Harmon Killebrew. Then I came across a Hank Aaron card, a Willie Mays, a Pete Rose, and a Roberto Clemente. But they were all pretty worn, so they weren't worth what they could have been had they been in good condition.
SMR: When you got back into card collecting, more than just the look of the cards had changed. You were coming back into the new world of authentication and grading. How did that change the way you approached collecting?
GR: When I got back into collecting, I was buying from auctions. I was also an early eBay user. I also went through a period where I really got into collecting hockey cards and was buying sets.
I had heard about PSA early on and looked into what they were doing, which intrigued me. That intrigue came from having purchased cards from various dealers around the country, and then when I received them, feeling that the condition was not what the dealer or seller had claimed it to be. So I really liked PSA bringing in a third-party grading standard.
When PSA first started out, I thought it would be great if they could establish an accepted standard and grading guidelines that everyone could adhere to, and that is just what they did. I was so interested in what they were doing that I actually went to their offices and began submitting my cards to be graded.
I became a big believer in what PSA was doing because it had proved to be extremely beneficial to me as both a buyer and a seller, and it became evident to many in the hobby. I have never been disappointed in buying anything that has been graded by PSA. They dramatically changed card collecting.
SMR: Besides hockey cards, what else where you collecting?
GR: Like many collectors, I was always on the lookout for cards that I had as a kid. So I was interested in baseball cards from the early 1970s, especially those of Minnesota Twins players. I still do that today.
But, as I had more money to spend, I started looking at cards from the 1960s and then the 1950s, and that led me to pre-war cards. I had a lot of dealers and collectors tell me that once I started getting involved with vintage cards it would just lead me back farther and farther, and that is exactly what happened.
SMR: Let's make a transition here to talk about this unique collection of signed envelopes you bought.
GR: I'm a card guy and not an autograph guy. I never had any interest in autographs; although, over the years, I had bought a few. I once purchased some raw [uncertified] material, and when I took the autographs to PSA/DNA to be authenticated, I learned that three of the four wouldn't pass. That kind of confirmed my lack of interest in collecting autographs. In fact, it really left me with a bad taste in regards to autographs. So, I never gave any thought to autographs after that - just had no interest in them at all.
And then, one day, I was in a card store that is owned by a longtime friend of mine, and he said he had something he wanted me to see. He had copies of what was a 320-piece collection of signed envelopes that had been put together by a man named Sigurd Berg. There were envelopes signed by Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Cy Young, and while I am the type to be more than leery about autographs, I just felt very confident that this material was real.
SMR: Who was Sigurd Berg and how did this collection come into existence?
GR: Sigurd Berg was a guy who lived in Minneapolis, and back in the 1940s, he started writing to people from all walks of life, sending them self-stamped and return-addressed envelopes, and requesting that they sign them.
He wrote to many of the era's big names but also to some who were pretty obscure. He wrote to baseball and football players, basketball and hockey players, boxers, wrestlers, tennis players, billiard players, jockeys, Olympians and bowlers. There were also autographs of college athletic directors and coaches, even a skeet shooting champion.
He wrote to people in 25 different categories of sports, so the collection was extremely diverse - very eclectic and just all over the map. So, while it was extreme in its diversity, that is really what attracted me to it and what made the provenance of it impeccable to me. I mean, who would take the time to forge the signatures of some obscure skeet shooter or billiard player whose name recognition was highly limited?
SMR: So Berg was sending people stamped envelopes addressed to himself and asking them to return them signed?
GR: Yes. He would write the person's name under a line where he wanted them to sign on the envelope. They would be stamped and addressed so all they had to do was sign them and drop them in the mail. And it's important to note that approximately 90 percent of these envelopes had Minneapolis postmarks, which is where Sigurd Berg lived; however, there were some that were postmarked from other locations, simply depending on where Berg was located at the time of the returned envelope.
In these envelopes, he would also include an index card that he hoped they would also sign and put in the envelope. So he was fishing for two autographs from each person he wrote to, and several people did sign both.
SMR: And this collection was authenticated and graded by PSA/DNA?
GR: Yes, but PSA/DNA could only authenticate 270 of them. The main reason they didn't authenticate all of them is because, in some cases, the signers were so obscure they just couldn't find exemplars to compare them with.
SMR: Who are some of the big names that responded to him?
GR: As I mentioned before, Babe Ruth signed and returned one of his envelopes, and that signature, which is just beautiful, received a PSA/DNA MINT 9, which is huge. Then there was Ty Cobb, which was also graded a PSA/DNA 9.
There were two Grover Cleveland Alexander signatures. Alexander had played for a few different teams through 1930 and was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1938. His signature is very rare, so not only was it a big deal to get those, but one also graded a PSA/DNA GEM-MT 10!
There are also envelopes signed by Honus Wagner, Cy Young, Tris Speaker, Jack Dempsey, and a really beautiful "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias signature that graded a PSA/DNA 9. There's a James Jeffries signature - Jeffries had been the world heavyweight boxing champion - and a Jesse Owens signature that was postmarked 1946.
There were also two Jack Nicklaus-signed envelopes that were postmarked 1962. The date makes it significant because that was the year he won his first major tournament. He would have been 22 years old and just turned pro the previous year, so 1962 was when he defeated Arnold Palmer in the U.S. Open.
I think that because the envelopes are postmarked, it adds another layer of interest to the collection because there is no questioning when they were signed.
SMR: Tell us a bit about some of the more obscure individuals who are included in the collection. Did you find anything really odd or quirky?
GR: Well, as far as quirky, some of the people who responded to Berg also included notes in the envelopes. There was a woman named Bessie Largent, who was the first female scout in Major League Baseball. She returned his envelope with a note that told him how interesting she found his hobby to be and was honored to have been asked for her autograph. She also told him she herself had an autograph collection that she kept in a scrapbook.
There was also a note from a man named Don Holleder who was an All-American end on the Army football team and had appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1955. I did some research on him and found that he had been killed in Vietnam when he was 33.
Another thing worth mentioning is that Berg had gotten a response from Stan Musial, but the signature had clearly been stamped on the envelope. So Berg typed a note on it that said: "Rubber Stamp Autograph ... Will not be added to my collection."
Occasionally, Berg would receive a secretarial signature or stamp, which was the case with this Musial ...
... even though he specifically requested otherwise.
There's an autograph from the wrestler Gorgeous George signed "Gorgeously yours, Gorgeous George" that was postmarked 1954. I think that is very unique.
And one of my favorites is a Connie Mack signature. Now, from what I have learned, Mack's autograph is not tough to come by. However, this one is special in that he signed "Cornelius (Connie Mack) McGillicuddy." Every autograph collector and dealer I have shown this to, the ones who really know their stuff when it comes to sports autographs, has told me they have never seen a Mack signature that included his full name.
SMR: Is Sigurd Berg still alive?
GR: No. He has been gone for some time now.
SMR: How did your dealer friend come into possession of his collection?
GH: He knew Berg's niece, who had inherited the collection. She had gone into my friend's store and showed him the collection, which is how he came to know about it. And then when he showed me the copies and I was intrigued by it, he put us in touch and I told her I loved it and wanted to purchase it.
SMR: Let's talk about that. For a guy who had been pretty turned off by autographs, you sure seem passionate about this collection. May we ask: what was it about the set that fascinated you enough to buy it?
GR: My issue with autographs has always been the authenticity, and I felt that the authenticity of this collection was beyond question. The postmarks were all of the right dates - from 1945 to 1962 - for someone to have gotten each person's signature. I was just very assured they were all real, and that proved to be so by PSA/DNA, at least with the ones they could authenticate.
As for the others, I have no doubt that they are genuine because, as I said before, who or why would someone forge the signature of some unknown skeet shooter? I also think that this set of signatures appealed to me because of the quality of the signatures. These envelopes were signed in the people's homes or offices, probably while they were relaxed, going through their mail, and sitting at a desk.
The signatures are clear and bold. They're not a scrawl or scribble like many autographs you see that have been obtained while they were walking or hurried at some event, or game, or perhaps while they were leaving a restaurant.
SMR: Has owning this collection given you a different feeling about or connection with autographs?
GR: Until I bought this collection in 2017, autographs had never been a part of my wheelhouse. But, since purchasing it, I have certainly educated myself on autographs. I am now much more versed in autograph authentication, grading, and collecting.
SMR: At the end of the day, like with sports cards, these autographed envelopes are only bits of paper adorned with ink. With that said, what are your thoughts on why they mean so much to so many of us?
GR: They really do take you back in time. And in the case of this particular collection, a very specific time that is documented by the postmarks.
We were just coming out of World War II when Berg started this collection, so you wonder what was going through the minds of some of these legendary individuals about where we were as a country when they signed them.
The postage stamps, the postmarks, and the signatures themselves, they all give you pause. They are little captured moments in time by some people who left their mark on our country - on the world.
SMR: Does this mean that the once autograph-leery Greg Rice may become a, dare we say, passionate autograph collector?
GR: Well, we'll see. After I bought the collection, as Berg's niece was leaving, she turned back and kind of casually, almost with a teasing wink, said: "There's a lot more, ya know." Well, that got my attention, and I am very interested in learning just what else she has.
She did tell me that what I bought was everything of the sports-related material. But she said that her uncle hadn't just written to people from the sports world. She said he did the same thing with politicians, movie stars, and who knows who else.
So we shall see. I can only imagine what may surface as time goes by. And in the case of anything Berg would have put together, yes, I would be very passionate about seeing those things and purchasing them.
For more information on autographs, please visit https://www.psacard.com/autographfacts/.