By RON KEURAJIAN
—Autograph June 2010
When I was a young boy my neighbor, Bill Sinclair, would speak of the majesty of the Dead Ball era and those mythical baseball legends of old. During the turn of the last century, Mr. Sinclair spent many a summer’s day at Navin field and witnessed the Detroit Tigers of old. He had the honor of watching “Wild Bill” Donovan, Sam Crawford, Harry Heilmann and a player he called the “greatest that ever lived,” Tyrus Raymond Cobb.
Ty Cobb began his career with the Tigers in 1905 and would remain there until 1926. He finished up his career in 1928 with Connie Mack’s Athletics. He retired holding more records than any other player in baseball history. Cobb’s .367 lifetime batting average is the highest of any player and his 12 batting crowns are simply mind boggling. Both are records that will never be broken. In 1936 Cobb became the first player inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and remains, to this very day, the greatest player in baseball history.
The demand for Cobb’s signature is insatiable, but fortunately for collectors Cobb was a willing and gracious signer throughout his life. He received countless autograph requests, both through the mail and in person, and honored just about all of them. There are literally tens of thousands genuine signatures in the market.
In addition, the family released thousands of canceled bank checks in order to raise money for the Cobb Educational Foundation, a charity that helps under-privileged children. Years ago I spoke with Cobb’s daughter, Beverly McClarren and she stated that the family sent out at least “5,000 bank checks” to those who donated money to the Foundation. The supply of Cobb’s signature is very strong. The problem is, the demand is far greater and values of Cobb’s signature continue to rise. For years he has been the target of highly skilled forgers. Based on my 30 years in this field it is safe to say that the vast majority of Cobb signatures in the market are forgeries.
Cobb’s signature is one of the most studied of all the members of the Hall of Fame. Nicknamed the “Georgia Peach,” Cobb signed in a nice and flowing hand. His signature evidences powerful lines that are free from hesitation of any kind. His signature exhibits good letter construction resulting in an autograph that is very legible with superior display value.
Earlier signatures, those generally accomplished before 1940, are signed in a clean and precise hand. The signature is flowing and uniform, exhibiting crisp strokes and a certain neatness that would disappear as the years went on.
Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Eddie Collins and Grover Cleveland Alexander were among the class of 1936 when Ty Cobb was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. From that point on Cobb was bombarded with requests for his autograph, mostly through the mail. Cobb’s hand evidences a noticeable change. Signatures accomplished in the 1940s until just about up to his death in 1961 are signed in a more careless hand. The signature still exhibits good flow but the precision of the hand is impaired. The signature tends to increase in height and the length is curtailed, albeit slightly.
Cobb had essentially two variant forms of his signature. Signatures shown from 1949 and 1953 illustrate a capital letter “T” with a separated top, this is commonly referred to as the “mushroom” cap version of the letter. While he used this form of letter most of the time he would, on occasion, sign with a variant form of letter “T” that looks like the number “2.” Some authorities in the field have stated that Cobb ceased using this type of signature by the 1940s, but letters written in the 1960s still exhibit this form of signature. In actuality, Cobb used both types of signature throughout his life.
In the late 1950s, Cobb’s health began a downward spiral, hypertension, sugar, and cancer, began to take their toll. Despite this Cobb’s hand remained strong. Cobb signed through the early part of 1961 until declining health forced him to stop. Even his signature on his final will and testament shows hardly noticeable hestiation.
For collecting purposes a genuine Cobb signature will exhibit no measurable shakiness of hand and one that does should be considered suspect and avoided. I say this because after May of 1961 Cobb only signed autographs for the staff members at Emory Hospital where he spent his final days. Signatures accomplished in June and July of 1961 do evidence a measurable unsteadiness but only a handful of these signatures exist and rarely, if ever, enter the market. Post May 1961 signatures should be avoided as they cause too much controversy especially since the supply of genuine material is strong and you can obtain a clean signature from just about any era with little effort—all it takes is cash.
Cobb can be found on just about all mediums including index cards, government postcards, bank checks, photographs, and the like. Signed baseballs exist in quantities and there are many nice single signed baseballs in the market including a small supply of museum grade specimens, though these should be considered rare due to condition. Signed team balls from Cobb’s playing days are rare and pre-1920 team balls are near nonexistent. Cobb was a prolific letter writer and the supply of handwritten letters seems endless. Cobb letters are actually common and many have superb content baseball or otherwise. Cobb letters are well written and spelling errors are rare.
About the only medium that is considered rare are signed baseball cards of any kind. A handful of genuinely tobacco cards exist but there are very tough to find and are gems of the field.
Cobb forgeries are very common and the supply of spurious material seems limitless. Listed below are two of the better known forgeries.
Shortly before his death Cobb selected Al Stump, an unknown author, to write his biography. Stump obtained a lot of Cobb’s personal items from Cobb’s estate among them countless sheets of blank stationary complete with letterhead. Years later, typed letters purportedly signed by Cobb entered the market directly from Stump and the content was stunning. Letters discussing Shoeless Joe Jackson, Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Honus Wagner were offered that compared skills and spoke of famous games. Overall the forgeries are very amateurish and almost childlike. If you happen to run across any Cobb letter addressed to Stump, my advice is to avoid it completely.
Back in the mid-1990s a group of forged government postcards, complete with postmarks, entered the market and have been circulating ever since. A couple of things to watch for: The fake cards are very nice and neat. They look clean, not 50 to 70 years old, and mellow shades of age are lacking. The paper is crisp and bright with nice and sharp corners. The signatures are centered and exhibit a slight labored appearance. They lack the nice reckless flow of a genuine signature. The fake postmarks are very close to the real thing but the stamp lines appear just a shade thicker. All fake cards I have examined do not have the machine ocean wave postmark but rather have a hand cancel that is commonly found at the post office window. Cobb was not the only target as fake postcards exist for Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Amos Rusie, and Jimmie Foxx. I am sure other names exist as well.
When I started collecting, Cobb’s signature could be purchased for $10. Today Cobb’s signature is valued at $750 with pre-1930 specimens selling for $1,500. Government postcards sell for around $1,000 but the earlier the postmark the more valuable the signature. Bank checks sell for around $1,000 but checks dated in the 1920s are rare and sell for $2,000. Signed 8×10 photos sell for around $2,000 to $2,500 but superior specimens can easily cross the $10,000 threshold. A single signed baseball of fair and average disposition will sell for $5,000 to $7,500 while a nice museum grade specimen can reach auction prices of $40,000 to $60,000. An autograph letter signed sells for around $2,000 but good content letters are worth substantially more, easily $10,000. A signed T206 tobacco card will sell for around $15,000-$20,000. A couple of Cobb’s major league contracts do exist and if one were to re-enter the market I don’t think $150,000 is unreasonable.
With his typical tenacity Cobb fought the spread of cancer, but on July 15, 1961 Death finally struck Tyrus Raymond Cobb out. He was 74 years old. On that date, the boy from a sleepy little town in Georgia slipped into history. Cobb’s signature is a grand memento of the game of days gone by that he represented so well.