For a good number of autograph hounds, the collecting of autographs is about the connection between us, who become caretakers for items of historical import, and those notables who penned them. Few medium provide a closer connection than signed correspondence. Although what follows is slanted to the baseball end of collecting (the obvious preference of this writer), most of the general thoughts can be applied to all fields.
There are a few “technical” definitions which all collectors should be familiar with in this area:
ANS – Autograph Note Signed: A short missive penned in the hand of the signer, usually only a few lines in length and signed at the close.
ALS – Autograph Letter Signed: A longer correspondence usually covering an entire page, penned in the hand of the signer and signed at the close.
TNS – Typed Note Signed: Same descriptive as the ANS except the body is typed, rather than hand written, and signed at the close.
TLS – Typed Letter Signed: As with the ALS, the TLS will encompass more content than the TNS with the body being typed as opposed to hand written and signed at the close.
Holograph: Although not widely used by autograph dealers and collectors in the sports field, it is worth noting the handwritten letter (ALS) is often referred to as a holograph in the wider autograph community.
What to collect:
As in all areas the old mantra of “collect what you like” certainly applies to the realm of correspondence as well. Some prefer to go after letters in which the subject has outlined their best memory of playing the game (check out the George Sisler letter shown at right), or their favorite player when growing up. A rather ambitious collector may seek to only add letters on visually appealing stationary to their holdings (the Comisky shown here is a choice example). For some, simply anything written in the hand of a desirable name is worthy of inclusion in a collection. The best advice is to combine passion for material with a realistic budget and proceed from there.
Worth noting is that although Hall of Famers are by far the most desirable of all in the baseball field there are volumes of material available in the star or lesser known player category. Often letters from these players can offer up choice references to their more notable teammates or a unique moment and can certainly be acquired for a lesser monetary investment. Another advantage is that many of these individuals still take the time to answer their mail and with the right prodding will answer any questions that you may have. To best reach these players I would suggest the minimal cost required to obtain a copy of Jack Smalling’s Autograph Collectors Handbook (www.baseballaddresses.com) which is chock full of valid current and former player addresses. Smalling, incidentally, is a name that all autograph collectors should be familiar with. We all owe a great deal of thanks to this hobby pioneer as it was his groundbreaking work which first offered collectors an organized listing of player addresses.
What to watch out for:
As in all areas of autograph collecting, those looking to amass a collection of correspondence should be on alert for several things:
Secreterial Signatures/Handwriting – Oftentimes, those notables who receive copious amounts of mail do not take the time required to address each piece, or perhaps are not physically able, instead leaving the task up to an assistant. These “non malicious forgeries” are often traded as valid and can be quite deceiving. In some cases the assistant would assume the role of both writer and signer of correspondence and other times would write the body of a letter and have it signed by the intended. The Rogers Hornsby letter shown at right would make for a desirable piece in any collection except this one was both handwritten and signed, very convincingly, by an assistant on his behalf. The Cool Papa Bell letter shown on the right was written for the aging Negro League star by his wife Clarabell and subsequently authentically signed by the Hall of Famer.
Forgery – As with any popular area of collecting where high values are involved, forgers will soon encroach. With letters containing good content fetching record prices at auction, the temptation in this area is more than many can take. Entire multi-page handwritten letters of Ty Cobb have been “manufactured” and entered the hobby through unscrupulous or unknowing sellers. Babe Ruth is another popular target with handwritten letters being very rare and often selling for $25-50,000+. Do not be lulled to sleep by the though that no one would take on the task of mastering not only an individuals signature, but handwriting and grammar patterns as well. There are many questionable letters, both handwritten and typed, floating around the marketplace.
Where to get it:
As already stated, caution is warranted when looking to acquire correspondence. It is best to stick with reliable autograph dealers (and there are a good many who stock this sort of material) and auction houses (typically where the choice material ends up). Also, a healthy amount of correspondence gets offered up on eBay and can often be had at what appears to be a good price. Please do keep in mind that is a rather dangerous venue to search out any autographed material and all should be approached with much caution. It is possible to build or add to a collection from eBay however all are best advised to buy with a money back guarantee and have the pieces reviewed by a competent authenticator or dealer as soon as possible.
As in all areas of collecting, it best to educate oneself before delving into a new genre. Try to get a feel for the overall market for letters and the like. Know which players are common (Ty Cobb and Jackie Robinson were prolific letter writers) and who is rare (Satchel Paige nearly never wrote at length). Familiarize yourself with the habits of those whom you seek to add to your collection (Walter Johnson handwritten letters often originate from Germantown, MD). Knowing the general look and feel of an individuals’ handwriting can be of great help (take a look at Hall of Fame Umpire Bill Klems’ inimitable script).
Study auction results and dealer inventories for a good feel on the value that collectors place on letters. Although price guides do exist, they are often not all too relevant in this area. For example, a Babe Ruth letter is given the paltry value of $4,200 in a recent issue of the SMR. At auction last December a handwritten example fetched $29,900 and in the same sale a letter the Babe wrote to his one time mistress (pictured at right) hammered down an eye popping $86,250. Guide value also place little to no relevance on the value that good content can add. As a collector of letters, you will quickly learn just how much choice content can increase the value of what you seek.