OWNERS OF FOSTER ITEMS VARY IN TIME IN HOBBY AND
TYPES OF COLLECTIONS
If it isn’t the rarest sports autograph in existence, it is at least one of the hardest to find and most valuable according to the several collectors who claim to have the genuine article. And it’s so rare that even the Baseball Hall of Fame doesn’t have a copy of the signature in its files. There are reputed to be less than a half-dozen genuine signed items such as letters or teamsheets of Baseball Hall of Famer ANDREW (RUBE) FOSTER, whose contributions to organizing Black baseball led to his election to the shrine at Cooperstown.
Foster’s signatures on letters and a team sheet are known to be in possession of collectors Doug Averitt of Canoga Park, California, Bill Zekus of New Port Richey, Florida, Dan Ginsberg of Chicago, Illinois, Mike Gutierrez of Marina del Rey, California and Barry Halper of Elizabeth, New Jersey.
If you could locate an authentic cut (and authentic is the key word), it would cost an estimated $600; a signed letter would probably be in the $1,000-$1,500 range depending on the condition, content and whether the letter is typed or in longhand.
Averitt is one of the few collectors who has a signature or signed item from all members of the Hall of Fame. While he won’t go so far as to say Foster’s is the rarest autograph, he does place it at the top of the list along with 19th Century first baseman Dan Brouthers and out- fielder Ed Delahanty, who died in 1932 and 1903 respectively. In fact, he says it was equally difficult for him to acquire signatures from 19th Century pitchers Pud Galvin and Addie Joss. Galvin died in 1902 and Joss in 1911.
Averitt’s item is a typed letter dated June 26, 1915 on American Giants Baseball Club stationery. The letter discusses dates for the Giants to play games.
Averitt, a 47-year-old sales manager for Colgate-Palmolive Company, has been collecting for 20 years. One of his three sons also collects baseball autographs but he concentrates on more contemporary players.
Although Averitt started out collecting Hall of Fame signatures, his collection includes some 5,000 signed items, primarily in the baseball field. Non baseball autographs include Jim Thorpe and Jesse Owens.
Despite having rare signatures such as Foster, Brouthers, Delahanty, Galvin and Joss, Averitt is most proud of his handwritten letters from hitting greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, an 1877 letter signed by A. G. Spalding, the pitcher-owner-businessman, and a 1925 St. Louis Cardinal contract signed by pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander.
Zekus possesses a team sheet signed by an entire Negro league team including Foster. He acquired it in 1986 for cash and other items and says he would not part with it unless he could get a better Foster item such as a signed photo or letter.
Like Averitt, Zekus won’t go so far as saying Foster is the rarest signature and lists a cut by outfielder-infielder-catcher Mike (King) Kelly (who died in 1894), and letters by pitcher Candy Cummings (the man credited with inventing the curve ball and who passed away in 1924), Galvin and Delahanty letters more than the Foster team sheet. He also places Henry Chadwick (the pioneer baseball writer who died in 1908) in the same class.
Zekus says his children are not too serious in their collecting and tend to concentrate on current stars. His Hall of Fame collection is kept in a room protected by a burglar alarm. He would not be surprised if more Foster items become available through relatives and various baseball archives. And after 65 years, he’s still collecting – and always trying to upgrade his items.
Ginsberg has amassed his complete collection of Hall of Fame signatures in only seven years. His Foster item, which he values at around $1,000, is a short note which he acquired in 1984 and is securely tucked away in a safety deposit box. Ginsberg feels there may be a few more Foster items out there and believes they are most apt to come from Foster’s former teammates. Foster and King Kelly were the two hardest signatures for him to acquire.
Gutierrez, a latecomer to the collecting field since he got into the hobby in 1985, says he would never sell or trade his typed letter “because it is the item most major collectors need to complete their collection.” The typed letter on American Giants stationary is also dated 1915 and bears a clear bold Foster signature. Gutierrez says he keeps his letter in “a safety deposit box in an album with acid free material around it.” Though he brought out the letter during the interview for this article, he declined to allow a reproduction. He pointed out the recent rash of forgeries which have entered the baseball Hall of Fame market and said he didn’t want to provide a sample of the signature to the people who might be circulating bogus items.
Halper is considered by many to be the country’s leading baseball memorabilia collector and his collection includes autographs of all Hall of Famers. Halper has autograph items which include signed photographs, letters and more than 3,000 autographed balls. Non-autograph items include a million baseball cards, 900 players’ uniforms, tropies, a baseball pinball machine, grandstand seats, hand-operated peep show, games, press pins, gloves, bats, masks, photographs, posters and statues.
Are these collectors satisfied with their collections? Hardly. Averitt is looking for signed photos of Cy Young, Nap Lajoie and Honus Wagner. Zekus is actively seeking signed photos and letters of Buck Ewing, Jack Chesbro, Henry Chadwick and other older deceased Hall of Famers. Ginsberg would like to find signed items of the 19th Century slugger Pete Browning (who died in 1905) and pitcher Tony Mullane (who is extremely rare even though he didn’t pass away until 1944). He would also like to find something signed by William Hulbert, the second National League president. Gutierrez is looking for items signed by Hulbert and also is interested in autographed items of 19th Century managers. Halper? Well his baseball memorabilia collection is so wide ranging it’s hard to pin down specific items. If you have something you think is extremely rare or unusual, you might contect him. If he doesn’t already have it, he’ll probably want it.
A WORD OF CAUTION
The excitement of pursuing extremely rare autographs – such as Rube Foster’s – can be fraught with danger. Not only are there the usual problems unless one obtains an autograph in person – but lately a number of forgeries have arisen – particularly for deceased Baseball Hall of Famers – in the East.
If, in the unlikely event, you run across or are offered an autograph of Rube Foster or some other extremely rare signature, be particularly wary. To safe guard your investement, you might want to take the following steps:
- Do not buy from a collector or a dealer who will not give you an unqualified lifetime guarantee to refund your full purchase price should you want to return the item.
- Ask the collector/dealer for details of the item’s provenance such as where he/she got the item and from whom. If that doesn’t satisfy you, check with that party as to where they got the item. If they won’t tell you or can’t, maybe you should back off.
- Send a copy of the item for review to an experienced collector who has a comparable signature and ask the Baseball Hall of Fame to send you a copy of the person’s signature or handwriting if they have one.
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