The Wayback Collector is a weekly look at important news in the hobby as it relates to pre-war and vintage collectibles. This week’s topic takes a brief look at the autograph market and a rare Exhibit card.
These days, autographed items have carved out a considerable niche in the card collecting hobby. But their presence today is undeniably stronger than it was in earlier times.
I got to thinking about autographed pre-war cards recently with a current auction offering an Exhibit card featuring four Yankees Hall of Famers, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Lefty Gomez, and Bill Dickey. While the card by itself would be an impressive one, this particular card is of extreme importance as it is signed by all four players.
The card, being auctioned by Heritage, is technically in relatively low-grade condition with some writing and back damage. Still, because of the signatures, bids have already topped the $20,000 mark (with bidder premium) and it’s probably got quite a while to go as the auction doesn’t end until October 18. Heritage estimated bidding would reach $50,000 or more, which seems entirely reasonable.
The item is a reminder of just how rare pre-war autographs are. Sure, autographs were collected in that era. And, full disclosure here: Autographs on 1930s cards are significantly easier to find than early 1900s issues. But autographed pre-war cards from any decade, really, are not terribly common. That’s obvious for a few reasons.
First, many pre-war cards are well over 100 years old. Some issues from the 1930s, such as Goudey cards, are plentiful by comparison. But in general, the majority of these cards have been lost to time. Really, that’s even true of things like Goudey issues and T206, as they’ve survived in large quantities mostly due to the sheer volume in which they were printed. It is safe to say that even treasured items, such as autographed cards, were largely lost or discarded as time moved on.
Plus, autographs back in the day were not nearly as big of a deal as they are now. I understand that many card collectors do not pursue autographs. For the most part, I’m in that category, myself. But it’s clear that autographs have an unmistakably large chunk of the card and memorabilia market these days.
I attended the Robert Morris/Monroeville card show this year, which is often heralded as one of the larger ones on an annual basis. Despite many card dealers, it felt much more like an autograph show with collectors lining up for signatures from athletes. Cards seemed the secondary attraction for many. I expect other shows have ‘suffered’ similar fates.
As mentioned, autographs were pursued in earlier times, of course. We know that because a good many still exist. But it was not the high stakes game it is today and, thus, not nearly as big of a deal.
Consider, too, that players would not have been hounded for signatures as much at that time. That’s not only because the financial stakes were not as high but also because many of them would have been unrecognizable in terms of appearance outside of their own city. Sure, pictures of players existed, including on baseball cards. But without television or the internet, it would have been quite easy for even sports fans to have a difficult time identifying many players.
Finally, the ugly truth is that many players were lost to us far too soon. Gehrig is a perfect example of that, passing away at the age of 37. Many greats died relatively young for the simple fact that medicine was not as advanced as it is today. That meant, of course, that they would have signed a very limited amount of items.
It was a different world before World War II and that’s why autographed cards such as these are true rarities.