There have been countless lists compiled surrounding baseball autographs. Many of them have to do with the highest prices realized at auctions, while others focus on the popularity of the players themselves. But what I’d like to do with this entry is recognize six signatures from our National Pastime that deserve high marks for their legibility and all-around beauty.
In compiling this list, what I found interesting is that all the gifted signers were superstars from yesteryear. Perhaps grade school teachers from the 20th century were more focused on developing their students’ penmanship skills? Of the six players chosen, the last one to compete in the major leagues was the late Harmon Killebrew, who retired following the 1975 season. The remaining five retired a bit earlier: Mickey Mantle (1969); Sandy Koufax (1966); Ted Williams (1960); Joe DiMaggio (1951); and last, but not least, Babe Ruth (1935). Only Koufax remains among us.
In no particular order, here is my purely subjective list of some of the most beautifully penned signatures (all authenticated by PSA/DNA) the sports collectibles hobby has ever seen:
A kinder, gentler slugger than Harmon Killebrew would be hard to find. The former Minnesota Twins’ bruiser crushed 573 home runs during his illustrious, 22-year Hall of Fame career. In 1965, in his only World Series appearance, Killebrew batted a team-high .286 but the Twins lost in seven games to the L.A. Dodgers. I had the privilege of working alongside Harmon in 2000 during a special autograph signing show in Richmond, VA. He took his time with each item he signed and was terrific with the fans. Though at 64 years of age, he had shrunken down from his playing days size of six-feet and 195 pounds, he was still a consummate professional when it came time to lay down his autograph. Though he passed away in 2011, his elegant scrawl will live on forever.
“Joltin’ Joe” DiMaggio, who died in 1999, was one of baseball’s greatest stories. From his still-standing MLB record 56-game hitting streak from 1941 to his headline-grabbing marriage to starlet Marilyn Monroe, DiMaggio’s name was recognized and revered in households across the country. His 13-year career with the New York Yankees included three A.L. MVP awards and nine World Series rings in 10 trips to the Fall Classic. Beyond baseball, he was known to an entire generation as an impeccably dressed businessman who pitched everything from Mr. Coffee to the Bowery Savings Bank. Just like his demeanor in business, DiMaggio’s autograph was nothing short of meticulous. He took his time with his signature and made every one count. I was able to meet DiMaggio and get a baseball signed by the legend at the 1996 National Sports Collectors Convention. Unlike every other signer that day in Anaheim, DiMaggio wore a suit. He really was all business and his steady autograph stroke reflected the man’s attention to detail.
As elusive as his fastball once was, Koufax is a tough man to pin down. He doesn’t sign as frequently as many of the other MLB legends doing the show circuit, which makes his autograph more sought-after. A three-time N.L. Cy Young Award winner for the Brooklyn/L.A. Dodgers, Koufax was a dominant southpaw who struck out 2,336 batters over 10 full seasons. He also helped Dem Bums win three World Series titles. He’s a proud man who takes great pride in the items he signs. Legibility, coupled with a smooth, high-arching stroke (much like his legendary delivery from the mound) makes his autograph one of the most beautiful in all of baseball. His surprising retirement announcement on Nov. 18, 1966, at the age of 30 stunned many baseball followers, but has no doubt helped preserve his left hand so that he can still pen a signature like nobody’s business.
“The Mick,” as he was commonly referred to, was a generous signer whose signature seemed to evolve as he and his legendary status grew older. By the time he reached age 60 and inked an exclusive two-year signing contact with Upper Deck Authenticated, Mantle was easily one of the hobby’s most sought-out signers. Always affable, he understood the territory that came with trying to please his adoring fans. I was fortunate to interview Mickey in 1992 during my tenure with Trading Cards magazine. He was making a special appearance for Upper Deck at the company’s short-lived Universal CityWalk store in Los Angeles. I can still see him picking up snow white baseballs out of multiple 12-count Rawlings boxes, signing them all with precision, and then placing each one back in its holster with utmost care. All the while he was reminiscing about his career and seemed genuinely surprised by all the attention he was getting. When we were done chatting, he handed me one of the signed baseballs. He died just three years later. It remains a prized possession in my personal collection. His signature is perfect.
“The greatest hitter who ever lived” was also one of the greatest signers who ever autographed a baseball. A two-time A.L. MVP who launched 521 home runs during his 19-year career with the Boston Red Sox, Teddy Ballgame was also a decorated military hero in both World War Two and the Korean War. A Naval Aviator and then Marine fighter pilot, Williams was incredibly precise at the controls of his aircraft. His steady hand and excellent eyesight made him not only a very good pilot, but also a very good hitter. His career .344 batting average is testament to that fact. It was with that same attention to detail that Williams signed baseballs, 8×10’s and even trading cards. I met up with Ted in 1993 during the launch of his startup operation called “The Ted Williams Card Company.” Our meeting/interview took place at his home in Hernando, Florida, and during that time I was awarded both a baseball and an 8×10 photo taken of the two of us the day before. He signed both items in front of me and even personalized the photo. His nearly continuous connection of every letter in his name is what impressed me along with the legibility. Ted died in 2002 and both cherished pieces remain front and center in this diehard Red Sox fan’s collection.
No lineup of quality, legible and beautifully penned sports signatures would be complete without including baseball’s most popular player in history. “The Bambino” was a prolific signer who seemingly never turned down a request for an autograph. His frequency for signing baseballs on the sweet spot forever cemented the practice for all who followed. His signature was deliberate, and his popularity only grew with each new scrawl. Despite his propensity to sign, Ruth’s signature remains the most sought-after in the hobby. In 2006, a Babe Ruth-signed home run baseball from the 1933 All-Star Game (MLB’s first Mid-Summer Classic), sold at auction for $805,000. Six years later, a single-signed Ruth baseball sold for $388,000. And earlier this year, a multi-signed baseball sporting the signatures of all 11 original Baseball Hall of Fame inductees (including Ruth) sold for $623,000. The Sultan of Swat has been gone for 70 years, but his signature has never been more popular.