Heritage Auctions – Any baseball autograph collector will tell you that the biggest stumbling block in the hobby is the dreaded forgery. A major FBI crackdown, termed “Operation Foul Ball,” thankfully cracked down on some of the worst offenders, though it remains an ongoing problem in the industry. Endless articles have been written on the theme, but we thought that today we might discuss the “honest forgery.”
Obviously this terminology requires clarification. “How could a forgery be honest?” you ask. One must remember that it is only in relatively recent times that any dollar value was assigned to autographs, and that the purpose of signing had long been nothing more than fan appreciation. The innocuous philosophy had been, “if the fan believes the autographs are real, what’s the harm?”
Take the Brooklyn Dodgers, for example. Literally hundreds of the balls treasured in the 1950’s by the fans of Jackie, Pee Wee and Campy were actually penned entirely by Charlie DiGiovanna, a thirty-year old chainsmoking “bat boy” who was thrown into service as a one-man forgery operation by the Ebbets Field front office. Hardly a week goes by when we don’t receive an inquiry about one of DiGiovanna’s works here at the Heritage offices. And if your Bums ball has Robinson, Campanella and Erskine together on the panel with the Spalding logo, you’ve almost certainly got a DiGiovanna ball yourself.
The Sinclair Oil Company likewise unleashed a flood of forgeries upon the autograph collecting world in 1947 when it offered the prize of a Babe Ruth signed baseball to its petroleum patrons. For quite a few years these baseballs, always signed “Sincerely, Babe Ruth” on a ball with Sinclair Oil stamping, were considered to be the genuine article. But the hobby has since come to realize that these treasured keepsakes were all secretarially autographed.
The final point we’ll address today is autograph tracing, which was likewise an innocent practice among collectors seeking to maintain the boldness of their cherished signatures. Today any autograph collector will tell you that a traced-over autograph simply destroys the financial value of a piece, but nobody could have known this back in the days before the hobby evolved. Some of the “tracers” back in the day were true artists, so collectors are well advised to keep a sharp eye out. Slight hesitations in ink flow are dead giveaways, as are two different colors of ink in the same signature. Recently a gorgeous Lou Gehrig single we had in house was found to be traced, and it broke our heart. Heritage would never sell a traced ball unless noted, but other sellers might not be so forthcoming.