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'Checking' in on vintage sports documents

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Newer vintage memorabilia sets such as Upper Deck’s SP Legendary Cuts – loaded with cards featuring mounted cut signatures – have made collecting old, signed documents such as checks and contracts fashionable once again.

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These sets, along with the popularity of authentication services, drive the market for two reasons: First of all, the attractive cards are highly desirable by vintage collectors; and secondly, because the card companies need more grist for their sets and are competing with document collectors which drives up prices in the auction space.

It’s a real Catch-22, as card companies are helping increase the value of old documents. Yet they’re also destroying history, says dealer Dan Wulkan of of Toluca Lake, Calif. He calls it “unfortunate,” adding he would prefer companies leave the vintage documents whole and not cut them up.

Wulkan said he also finds it ironic that a card company can buy a Babe Ruth check for $5,000, cut it, mount it on a card, number it 1-of-1, and the collector who finds it can turn around an resell it for $15,000.

“I don’t see the mentality,” Wulkan says. “I’m surprised that someone would want a card with a little autograph on it when they can have a full, signed Babe Ruth check for a third of the price.”

Among collectors, signed checks are probably the most commonly available and therefore collected vintage papers. And while occasional football items come up that can compete with baseball’s best, MLB Hall of Famers by far eclipse all other sports combined when it comes to desirability of signed papers at live and online auctions.

A sampling of recent eBay auctions which includes bids realized from a recent combination live and eBay auction held in May by Heritage Sports:

  • Christy Mathewson check – $11,000
  • Babe Ruth check – $5,500
  • Walter “Big Train” Johnson check – $1,100
  • Rogers Hornsby check – $1,600
  • Ty Cobb check – $986
  • Jackie Robinson check – $856

An April auction featured a Babe Ruth check made out to a liquor store for $36, which closed at $4,462. While Joe DiMaggio might be right up there with Ruth in the hearts of Yankees fans, so many more of his checks are floating around the market that they only bring around $250, as a sale a few months earlier proved with no fewer than seven DiMaggio checks sold.

“Documents are worth much more based on supply and demand and there are a lot more checks out there,” says Wulkan, whose site also features checks from non-players such as broadcasters Vin Scully and Harry Caray. “Vince Lombardi is a perfect example. There were thousands of Vince Lombardi checks in existence and they finally have been absorbed by the market.”

“Contracts,” on the other hand, Wulkan says, “are one of a kind. You won’t see 100 Rawlings glove endorsements signed by Ty Cobb; you might just see a couple.”

Checks are so common that if a signed document is something other than a check, it commands a premium. Last fall’s Mile High Card Co. auction bears this out with an excellent apples-to-apples example: Right beside each other in the listings were a Ty Cobb signed check and a handwritten letter addressed by the Georgia Peach. Winning bid on the check: $900. The letter, however, brought in much more at $1,236.

On eBay, browse through the Original Autographs/Baseball-MLB/Other Autographed Items category and you’ll see an amazing group of signed papers. At this writing, the highest recent closings included a Ruth-signed postage stamp ($4,000), a twice-signed Miller Huggins stock certificate ($3,750), and a Cobb twice signed, handwritten note ($2,200).

Even more valuable are baseball-related documents, such as team contracts or advertising endorsement deals. One example would be Major League Baseball’s file on Ted Williams, which was opened after one of the several times he spat on a fan at Fenway and was an item Wulkan recently sold.

Wulkan said demand for these baseball documents is high, especially when they include a rare or interesting variation of a popular player’s signature. On his “for sale” page on his Web site recently, he’s had a Ruth contract that allowed NBC and Red Rock Cola to use his voice on baseball broadcasts for a year.

Not only is the document intact, but it also features an unusual “George H. Babe Ruth” signature, different from the more common “Babe Ruth” or “G.H. Ruth” variations. The price tag? $25,995.

Wulkan, like many dealers, started out in the hobby as a collector, which in turn grew into a platform for buying and selling. When he was a kid growing up, his grandfather, who owned a Bronx candy store, would give him baseball cards to sort, organize and collect.

Like many document collectors might tell you, his collecting branched into cancelled checks when the card collecting stagnated and he grew bored of seeing the same pictures on the same cards from the same years, over and over again.

“It’s neat to see who they’re made out to, and it shows the timeline of their lives; you get to know these players on a much more personal level,” Wulkan said. Although he did warn that in some cases, such as when he found checks Caray wrote to his mistress, it can get “a little too personal.”

On the other hand, the details and anecdotes that personal papers can reveal are interesting to the baseball historians among us. Barring that, they can be just plain fun. One 1967 Ted Williams check Wulkan recently sold was made out to Nellie Fox for $10. In the memo field, it reads: “Bet, Last in ’60.”

The above-mentioned Cobb note that sold on eBay read “I consider Walter Johnson greatest ever over 400 games, very light hitting and not good fielding clubs back of him for many years.”

This “greatest-ever pitcher” discussion gets debated over and over on sports-talk radio every day on the airwaves and it will likely continue forever. Why not add in a Hall of Famer’s opinion in as well, interjecting the perspective from someone who was actually on the field with “Big Train” in the Dead-Ball Era? Better yet, why not frame it and hang it on the wall?

“If you’re a real fan, it kind of brings you back to that time,” Wulkan said. “This market is more for advanced people.”