Jeff Pearlman

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Ron Keurajian

#201
He's evaluated the signature of every member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and is a leading expert on sports forgery. Which doesn't mean I can't ask about Scott Choy's long-ago decision to buy 100 Mike Greenwell rookie cards. Does it? POSTED April 7, 2015

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Back when I was a kid, I was quite certain my autograph and baseball card collection would make me rich.

Hell, why wouldn’t it? My binders were filled with some of the hottest cards on the market—Scott Bankhead’s Topps rookie, Billy Swift as a kid just out of the University of Maine, Gregg Jefferies and Cameron Drew and Dave Fleming and Roberto Kelly and Jeff Kunkel. My autographs were just as dazzling. Men like Brad Arsnberg and Dave Collins had taken time from their busy days at Yankee spring training to sign my 50-cent program.

Um, it didn’t end well.

Today, all those cards and signatures sit on a shelf in my office, and they’re worth oh, $250. Which is sad and disappointing and an enormous letdown. But it also serves as the perfect setup for Ron Keurajian, the historic 201st Quaz and a man who has devoted much of his life to sports memorabilia and, in particular, autographs (and the authentication of autographs). Ron’s riveting book, Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs, is a breathtaking breakdown of every Baseball Hall of Famer’s signature. Which, to be honest, sounded sorta dull … until I opened the text and found myself still reading two hours later.

Anyhow, the man does his research. Which makes him a wonderful ally of sports history.

And an even better Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Ron, you’re the author of Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs, a book that evaluates the signatures of every Baseball Hall of Famer. I’ll ask a very blunt, open-ended question, and feel free to go crazy with it. Namely, why do you care about this stuff?

RON KEURAJIAN: It is very difficult for a collector to explain to a non-collector the desire to possess something. It is sometimes hard to believe that a mere scrawl of ink can be worth so much. The really rare baseball signatures, like Addie Joss, Jake Beckley, and Sam Thompson are valued well over $25,000 each.

Why do I care about this stuff? I have often asked myself that question. I am sure many other collectors do the same. I thought maybe it’s a way of preserving history or perhaps the way signatures display so nicely on the wall. Upon reflection, I think the real reason is much more personal. Baseball autographs take me back to a time of my youth when life was a lot simpler. They remind me of listening to Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey broadcasting a Tiger’s game on radio. I have signed baseballs of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. I can remember visiting with Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer, who lived close by. He would tell me stories of Cobb, Ruth, Gehrig, etc… That signed baseball takes me back to a time I wish I could have visited. In short, baseball autographs take me back to my childhood.

Besides, they have proved to be a great investment as well.

J.P.: Familiar question I’ve wanted to ask for a long time—back when I was a kid, I thought my baseball card collection would, one day, make me rich. Tons of Ken Griffey, Jr. rookies, a bunch of Reggies, Pete Roses, Tony Gwynns, Jim Rices. Now, however, it seems as if the collection is worth less than it was 30 years ago. What the heck happened? And would you like to buy a mint-condition 1980 Topps J.R. Richard?

R.K.: The key word in your question is “tons.” The card manufacturers simply produced too much inventory. The market is flooded with this stuff. The cards you have were produced in the tens millions. They will never be worth anything. Two hundred years from now when you and I are long gone these cards will still be worthless. The cards that have value are pre-1960 Topps cards. The older the better. Cobb, Ruth, Gehrig and Mathewson will always be treasured by collectors. Those are the gems of the industry. Wouldn’t be interested in J. R., but if you have an old Honus Wagner card lying around … give me a call.

An authentic Babe Ruth-signed baseball.

An authentic Babe Ruth-signed baseball.

 J.P.: Your book is insanely detailed. Like, insanely, insanely detailed. You include, for example, examples of 11 different signatures from Ty Cobb’s life. What is your reporting process? How do you go about finding these things? How long did the book take to complete?

R.K.: I am told the unofficial title in the industry is “The Reference Guide From Hell,” so that’s got to be good. The text was easy, that took maybe six months. I have been studying signatures and forgeries for over 30 years. I have everything catalogued in my head. The hard part was getting the illustrations. That took close to four years. The best source for the rare material was local government offices. I had municipal employees in over 30 states digging through probates, mortgage records, deeds and the like to locate that elusive signature. Some really rare signatures turned up. Eddie Plank’s will and a document signed by Kansas City Monarchs’ owner J Leslie Wilkinson were some of the finds. The National Baseball Hall of Fame granted me access to some rare baseball documents dating back to the 1870s. The National Archives in Atlanta scoured through World War I draft cards and found some pretty amazing stuff. I am currently working on a second book titled “History of Autographs.” It’s a guide to historical autographs and I find myself doing the same again. This time I am contacting governments in Armenia, Russia, England and Germany.

J.P.: I have two kids—one in middle school, one in elementary. And penmanship simply is not taught like it once was. My kids are pretty much learning script on their own, for example. It’s all typing, typing, typing. I’m wondering, as a guy who has devoted so much time to penmanship issues, what you think about this …

R.K.: It is sad but the art of the written word is dying off. When I was in grade school proper penmanship was a requirement. Today, nobody really gives a damn. You can see this evolution (or perhaps de-evolution) in the world of autographs. A signed baseball of the 1935 Tigers, for example, has many legible signatures. Greenberg, Goslin, Gehringer, Cochrane and Rogell. You can read them all. A signed baseball from a current Major League team contains a bunch of chicken scratch. Nothing legible, just nonsensical gibberish. It’s not limited to sports signatures. In general, handwriting has taken a backseat in favor of expediency. Recently, I received a signature of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. I couldn’t read it. It looked like a spider that had been stepped on. The death of good penmanship will likely be impossible to reverse.

 J.P.: What was your path, memorabilia-wise, from birth to here? What got you into collecting? What was your first autograph? When did it go from something to occupy time to passion?

R.K.: You don’t pick a hobby, it sort of picks you. Once you are targeted there’s no escape! Like most kids, I started collecting fossils. No money involved. Just go to the nearest rock pile and find limestone with a trapped brachiopod or crinoid. I started collecting baseball cards in 1976. I tried to complete Topps sets. I was a Rusty Staub fanatic … I used to hoard all his cards.

My first Hall of Fame autograph was from Charlie Gehringer. When I was in middle school I was assigned a book report. My choice was either Ty Cobb or Panzer General Heinz Guderian. Who do you think I took? I called up Charlie for some insight on his manager, one Mr. Cobb. After we talked he invited me over to his house. He showed me his collection and signed an autograph for me. I was hooked! I started to write through the mail for signatures and the names started to roll in. Joe DiMaggio, Al Lopez, Duke Snider, Joe Sewell, Stan Musial, spitballer Burleigh Grimes and on and on. My first big purchase was a 1920s bank document signed by Tiger Hall of Famer Harry Heilmann. I paid $35 for that one back in the early 1980s. I don’t really collect anymore. The vintage material is way too expensive and forgeries and counterfeit material are everywhere.

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J.P.: When I was a kid, my grandparents would take me and my brother to Ft. Lauderdale Stadium for Yankees spring training. We’d line up along the railing with all the other kids and beg for Roy Smalley, Andre Robertson, etc to sign. Nowadays, when I hit parks, I see adult collectors elbowing kids out of the way or paying a kid $5 to snag Mike Trout’s signature. What have these people done to collecting, if anything? And where did they come from?

R.K.: Collecting autographs was, at one time, a gentle pursuit. Back in the old days (the days of Smalley and Robertson) signatures had little monetary value. In the early 1990s the popularity of autographs exploded and prices soon followed. When I started collecting a pristine signed baseball of Cobb or Ruth was valued at $75 to $100. I mean, these were high-grade gem baseballs. Today, those same balls now sell at auction for more than $50,000. Baseball has such a powerful grip on America; it’s almost a sacred religion. This fuels demand for signatures. Signatures of modern players have good value—Cabrera, Trout, Jeter, etc. If there is a buck to be made, suddenly greedy individuals surface like weeds. Paying kids to be shills makes me nauseous. It sets the wrong example. When players get wind of these dubious tactics it turns them off to signing autographs. It hurts the kids who genuinely want an autograph from one of their heroes. Where did they come from? Probably crawled out from under a rock. I wish they would go back there. As for me, I like the Cobbian-era signatures so the guys I want have been dead for more than 30 years.

 J.P.: It seems to be you have to be a special type of greedy asswipe to forge the signature of another person. Maybe it’s too vague a question, but who are these people? Like, who are the guys faking celebrity signatures? Is there a common profile? A kingpin?

R.K.: Most forgers are inept and their work product is rudimentary. These types of forgeries are exposed on cursory examination. The skilled forger, on the other hand, will produce convincing forgeries that sell for big money. The really good forgers never get caught and their identities remain a mystery.

It used to be the biggest threat to the autograph hobby was forgers. Today, it’s the authentication companies. These companies will, for a fee, certify autographs. They have become the forger’s best ally. They certify so much bad material as genuine it will make your head spin. It allows fake material to seamlessly enter the memorabilia market. Forged signatures are now everywhere and not just baseball. Hollywood, rock, presidents, science autographs are all targeted. The amount of fake material that comes with a Certificate of Authenticity (COA) and dumped in the market is mind boggling. I would say it is at least a $100,000,000 million dollar a year problem, if not a criminal enterprise.

It’s sad to say but at least 90 percent of the vintage hall of fame autographs in the market today (Cobb, Ruth, Gehrig, etc ..) are nothing but forgeries—and many come with COAs. Authentication companies fuel the black market of forgeries by certifying thousands upon thousands of forgeries as genuine. If a signature comes with a COA, chances are pretty good it is a forgery

The authentication companies have attracted the attention on law enforcement. I would urge anyone who has had problems with the major authenticators to contact the New York office of the FBI. They want to hear from you. Their number is 718-286-7100.

J.P.: You’re an expert on spotting fakes. Are there dead giveaways for the common fan to suspect something isn’t legit?

R.K.: Studying signatures takes years. You can’t learn this stuff overnight. Having said that there are certain red flags to look for. Signing your name is second nature. You don’t really think about it. Your hand takes over and it produces a nice flowing signature. You and only you can sign your name. A forger, no matter how good, cannot replicate the target signature perfectly. There will be some defect that usually manifests itself as hesitation in the stroke. A genuine signature is flowing and exhibits a certain reckless appearance. A forged signature will, at most times, contain slight hesitation. The strokes will appear labored and wobbly. This is a telltale sign of forgery.

When looking at old-time autographs (Cobb, Ruth, Cy Young, etc.), the ink and the paper should look vintage. Mellow shades of ink and aged paper have a wonderful take-you-back-in-time look. It is an antique patina that only time can create. If the paper is too clean or the ink is too bright that should send up a red flag. A signature created 80 years ago should look 80-years old and not like it was created yesterday.

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J.P.: Greatest moment of your memorabilia career? Lowest?

R.K.: The greatest would have to be the interaction with players and collectors. I have made many friends over the years and learned a lot about history and baseball. I knew Ernie Harwell, Charlie Gehringer, golf legend Henry Picard, and crime author Elmore Leonard. Former Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent was gracious enough to write the foreword for my Hall of Fame autograph book. His words greatly enhanced the final product. Collectors were ever so helpful in providing signatures for illustration in the book. In a nutshell, it’s the friends you make along the way.

Lowest: Every time I examine a forgery. This seems to happen more and more. The criminal element seems to become more dominant in the sports memorabilia industry as the years go on. It’s not just autographs. Fake game-used equipment, counterfeit baseball cards and altered photos seem to spring up more and more these days.

J.P.: Apparently no known signatures of Rube Waddell exist. How is that possible? And to what lengths have you searched?

R.K.: Actually, during the course of my research Rube’s 100-year-old divorce file was unearthed in the sub-basement of the St. Louis court house. It contained three genuine signatures. Those signatures did not match any Waddell signature that had been sold over the past 50 years except for one specimen. Imagine that!

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH RON KEURAJIAN:

• I often make the case Rickey Henderson is the greatest ballplayer of the last 40 years. Am I closer to being right or wrong?: Wrong. It’s George Brett. All time—Ty Cobb hands down.

• Why are so many ballplayers assholes?: They are pampered, given big signing bonuses and paid $20 million a year. They can afford to be jerks. Gosh, I would love to see these prima donnas play in the olden days against the likes Cobb, Wagner, Carl Mays and the days of the sharpened spikes.

• The next president will be …: Scott Walker.

• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and Archi Cianfrocco? How long does it go?: Archi who? Better him than Jack Dempsey, I suppose.

• One question you’d ask El DeBarge were he here right now?: Where’s Johhny?

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Abraham Lincoln’s hat, Marty Lyons, maggots, Coke Zero, Tears for Fears, pantyhose, O Magazine, the smell of tapioca pudding burning, KISS, Prime Minister Pete Nice, Garry Templeton: Abe’s Hat, Garry Templeton, KISS, Marty Lyons, pantyhose, burning pudding, Tears for Fears, maggots (they do serve a purpose in nature), Coke Zero. Never read O, so can’t comment. As to PM Pete Nice (a.k.a. Peter Nash), as a baseball historian I would rank him fairly high. As a music artist, well that’s a different story. Give me Vivaldi over 3rd Bass any day.

• When I was a kid, my friend Scott Choy bought 100 Topps Mike Greenwell rookie cards. Best-case scenario, how much are those worth right now?: Try using them for kindling.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I find flying dreadfully boring. I take a Xanax and sleep through most of the flight. So if a plane I was on were about to crash I wouldn’t know it until the splat. By that time who cares?

• As I write this, I feel like I’m about to vomit from the shitty slice of pizza I just ate. What should I do?: Don’t resist. Get it over and done with. You’ll feel better.

Christina Ruiz didn’t kiss me at the end of my senior prom. Am I entitled to still hold a grudge?: Never hold a grudge. It’s like allowing someone to live in your head rent free.

  • Kirk

    While I do not dispute his assessment that the real good money is in pre-1960’s cards and memorabilia, there is a market and money can be made for every other era…except the era from about 1986 to about 2003. The only people that find those cards of value are those with sentimental value to those cards, but those people already have them and the market is zilch. Works great as kindling…

  • bxcyclist21

    Great interview. My first job ever was at a baseball card store of an avid autograph collector when I was in high school in the early 90s and this brought back memories. I have a relatively large autograph collection, most of which I got for free, but have not added anything to it in about 15 years due to theis crazy price inflation and the fact that players arent as willing to sign for people anymore. I remember the shock when Joe DiMaggio charged $100 for a signed baseball at a show and Mantle was asking for $60 but it seems every player nowadays seeks that amount. I would have loved to have gotten my 7 year old son into this hobby but it would be nowhere near as fun as it was then. Anyway, great Quaz once again.

  • Jeff McKenney

    This interview perfectly outlines the importance of obtaining signatures in person. Unless the autograph seeker hands the item(s) to be signed to the player/celebrity there’s a good chance it’s a forgery.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life