Diving into the Complicated World of Pre-War Autographs

Despite Potential Forgeries, Pre-War Autographs are Rare and Intriguing

I’ll admit it — traditionally, I haven’t been much of an autograph guy.

Sure, I’ve usually had some in my collection. And there was even a time earlier in my collecting days when I heavily pursued them. At one time when I was still collecting modern cards, I’d amassed hundreds of autographs. But I’ve not spent much time collecting autographs in some time and have a handful of signed items that are more sentimental by nature.

The little bit of interest I had in autographs really vanished as I began to focus entirely on pre-war cards. The reason? Eh, I don’t know. I’d never really considered chasing autographs on pre-war cards because they are not plentiful, in part. And when a major autograph scandal broke on early autographs back in 2018, I became even less interested.

While I wasn’t much into autographs, owning one from the T206 set always seemed like it would be very cool. But that scandal proved just how risky it is to plunk down large sums of money for even authenticated autographs. Signed common T205 or T206 cards typically start in the $1,500-$2,000 range and that’s a lot of money to spend on someone’s opinion of a signature being real.

So given all of that, how did this crazy thing start? Why did I start getting a little into pre-war autographs? Well, it actually started with one of my first pre-war sets.

Something New to Collect

A few years ago, I built a 1936 Goudey set. At only 25 cards, the set is so easy to complete that I practically built one over a weekend just buying up singles online. And while the price on the set has, like everything else, gone up, it’s still my ‘go to’ whenever people ask me for an easy pre-war cards set build.

While I’d upgraded many cards in that generally low-grade set, I’d still had some beaters in it. So periodically, I’d look for those cards in better condition to see if I could replace some — and one of those was Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez. When searching for a Gomez, I came across an interesting prospect in one that was autographed.

Now, 1933 Goudey cards that are signed are not exactly plentiful but they are not really too rare, either. That’s because the set is large at 240 cards and the company printed a lot of them while decreasing production in subsequent years. That’s borne out in the population reports, as I’ve written before. And while the 1936 cards aren’t as popular as that massive 1933 set, those later cards are much rarer.

Needless to say, I was intrigued by the Gomez card and my suspicions that there were fewer of these out there than his 1933 Goudey cards was confirmed. PSA has authenticated 13 Gomez 1933 Goudey cards but only two of his 1936 Goudey cards.

I had to have it and picked it up at what I considered to be a steal of a price — roughly what you’d pay for a mid-grade unsigned Gomez.

I intended the Gomez to be a one-off purchase of sorts and had not planned on picking up any additional autographs. Then came ridiculously low prices on a pair of 1939-46 Salutation Exhibit cards of Hall of Famers Johnny Mize and Luke Appling. Sold. And when I had accumulated more than $100 in eBay Bucks in the last quarter thanks to several big purchases, I put it towards a larger purchase of a low-grade 1933 Goudey card autographed by Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell.

After that, I deliberately began looking for autographs. That led me to yet another that came in the mail last week. This time, it was Dom DiMaggio’s 1941 Play Ball card.

DiMaggio isn’t as popular as brother Joe, of course. But he was a seven-time All-Star and the signature was too beautiful to ignore. Plus, the card is one of the rarer, shortprinted high number cards in the set. Even more than that, the card is actually Dom’s rookie card.

Rarity again played a part here. In all, PSA has authenticated a total of six of these cards.

It’s that rarity that, ultimately, has driven me to these cards a bit. And to me, it’s all about the cards. I just don’t have much interest in autographed baseballs or other memorabilia. I love pre-war cards and autographs on them makes them even more special.

I do find it interesting that so few, by comparison, exist. Consider that Johnny Mize autograph I mentioned earlier.

Mize was known for signing a lot of stuff. And since he didn’t pass away until 1993, he signed a lot of cards when card collecting had been extremely popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Still, finding his signatures on pre-war cards and pre-1948 modern era cards is extremely difficult. Currently, there are about 70 Mize autographed cards on eBay and not a single one is from earlier than 1948. In fact, finding any Mize vintage cards there are nearly impossible as most listed were 1980s issues.

Where are All the Early Autographs?

But, why is that? Well, Mize’s case isn’t really an ideal one to make. His career spanned 1936 through 1952 and he did not appear in many pre-war sets because many sets were not issued during the prime of his career, really. But look at other players that did have more earlier cards and you still see a dearth of early autographed cards, even if those players were actively signing into the 1980s, 1990s, or beyond, when cards were heavily collected. Why didn’t collectors have more of their older cards signed?

Part of that, particularly with pre-war cards, is that the cards are just rarer, obviously. But I also remember growing up, reading an intriguing (and by intriguing, I mean dumb) article about autographs on cards. The gist was that autographing cards ‘defaced’ them and drastically decreased values if the card was expensive. The author insisted that a player signing a very inexpensive card was a better idea because the value of the autograph was higher than the then defaced card. In other words, Michael Jordan autographed rookie card, bad. Michael Jordan autographed 1991-91 Fleer card, good.

That clearly hasn’t proven true in today’s era. Last year, for example, a signed Jordan rookie graded an 8.5 by Beckett sold for a then record $125,000 — roughly ten times what it would sell for in that grade unsigned. But I also remember reading/hearing that theory more than once growing up and I wonder if collectors were more hesitant to have players sign older stuff as opposed to a shiny 1980s or 1990s modern era card.

Whatever the reason, pre-war autographs seem to be largely undervalued to me. Part of that could be due to the hesitancy of others to get into the market, fearing forgeries — and that, of course, is understandable. Personally, I can’t envision dropping boatloads of cash on a signed pre-war card, even if authenticated. But there’s plenty of room for pre-war autographs in my collection at reasonable prices.

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