Collecting autographs of athletes – especially baseball players – has always been a hobby of Jonathan Algard.
The general rule for Algard: the more scarce the signature, the more fun the hunt.
It was 20 years ago when a 30-year-old Algard went on a hunt that he had no idea would last for nearly two decades.
Thinking about a baseball player he wanted to collect for his next autograph, Algard opted for a name most baseball fans before 1989 wouldn’t have had a clue about his identity. But when the Kevin Costner movie “Field of Dreams”captivated the country, Archibald “Moonlight” Graham became a household name.
“To me the movie ‘Field of Dreams’ is on a lot of times as background noise in my house,” said Algard, who lives in Coplay, Pa. “My wife pointed out that last year for Father’s Day, it was the (30th) anniversary of the movie coming out, and our boys and I and my wife went and sat in an empty movie theatre and watched it again. I think it’s a great movie.”
Graham was a prominent figure in the movie. Costner, who played Iowa farm owner Ray Kinsella, hears voices from beyond and ends up building a baseball diamond in his cornfields. During the journey that eventually leads him to his father, Costner helps Graham live out a dream to play a game in the major leagues.
Graham’s role in the film was loosely based on real life. Graham had a solid minor league career before finally making it to the majors as a 28-year-old. He appeared in one game, in the bottom of the ninth inning for the New York Giants on June 29, 1905. Graham played in right field and didn’t have a ball hit to him. He returned to the minors soon after and never got called up to the big leagues again.
Graham earned his medical degree from the University of Maryland in 1905. After his baseball career ended, “Doc” – as he would be known – moved to the small northern Minnesota mining town of Chisholm. For 50 years, Graham practiced medicine in the town, which had a population of 9,000 in 1920. He was the Chisholm schools doctor during that time. He retired in 1959 and passed away in ’65 at the age of 88.
The Hunt Begins
That brings us to Algard. He decided in 2000 he wanted to find a Graham autograph.
“There wasn’t any,” Algard said. “I’d never seen one.”
Algard didn’t think it would be too hard to track down a signature of the obscure but all-of-a-sudden famous figure. Graham played seven seasons of professional baseball and followed that up by serving his community by being a doctor for a half a century. It was going to be easy to find Graham’s John Hancock, right? Well, not exactly.
“He had to have signed his name on something that’s still around,” Algard said. “That’s why I started going after it then. I knew it was attainable, it was just finding it.”
In 2000, eBay wasn’t nearly the tool it is today, but Algard did as much research as possible online.
“I first took the postcard theory, because anybody that collects stuff, you know that teams issued postcards,” Algard said. “I have seen postcards he was on on the Scranton Miners. So, I started taking that route.”
That came up empty. Then Algard zoomed in on Graham’s medical career. Having lived in the same small town of Chisholm, Minn., for the last 56 years of his life, Algard figured something would pop up.
“Anything connected from let’s say the early ’20s to 1960 connected to Chisholm, Minnesota,” said Algard, who runs the shipping department at Bridesburg Foundry Co. in Whitehall, Pa. “I would read postcards, anything you found like that.”
Along the journey, Algard purchased oddball items that he thought Graham could have possibly signed. Graham’s wife, Alecia, was a sixth-grade teacher at the Chisholm schools and was deeply involved with theatre and film. She directed a play in the 1930s, and Algard purchased one of the playbills on eBay hoping there could be a Graham autograph. After getting the item in the mail, Algard was disappointed to find out it didn’t contain the coveted signature.
Algard then had an idea. His oldest son, William – who now plays baseball collegiately at Albright College – would often talk to his high school nurse about baseball when he was in school.
“That’s when I started thinking, he talks to the school nurse all the time about baseball. I’m sure that (Graham) being a baseball player and the school physician, that had to have happened,” Algard said.
Algard turned his attention to that route. He scoped out Chisholm High School yearbooks from about the 1920s to 1960s. He was willing to spend between about $10-$20 per yearbook on a whim that Graham would sign one of the pages.
Algard purchased about 20 yearbooks from different years. Thumbing through the pages, there were plenty of photos of Graham helping out students. In about May 2017, Algard logged onto eBay and bought a 1943 Chisholm yearbook for $15 plus $4 shipping.
When the mail arrived, the envelope sat on Algard’s dining room table for about a week before he opened it.
“I knew the chance of it being inside was there, but probably not,” Algard said. “It was a Saturday until I got to opening it up.”
Algard ripped open the package. He flipped through the yearbook and stopped on one page, staring for a couple seconds.
“My son, I remember distinctly, was in our dining room and I turned the page and all I hear is, ‘No way,’” Algard said. “You see the ‘AW Graham, MD’ inside of it. It’s a near flawless signature. There’s a line from a teacher that signed above him that somewhat does come down into one of the letters of his name. But it was obviously a flat signature – he was sitting and he signed it. Not only am I happy that I have one and I found one, but to me in my opinion, it’s also the nicest one.”
Even though it took 17 years to track down the autograph, Algard never got discouraged along the way. He never wanted to give up.
“No, because it was always fun,” Algard said. “The older you get, the less fun things there are.
“Just to see if you can, more than anything else.”
Algard brought the signed yearbook to the Philadelphia Sports Card & Memorabilia Show later that year and PSA principal autograph authenticator Kevin Keating personally authenticated the signature, as did James Spence, owner of James Spence Authentication (JSA).
“I was talking to Kevin Keating and he’s the one who told me how rare it was,” Algard said. “Up until that point, I had no idea that it was that rare.”
Yes, Algard’s Graham autograph was only the fifth known example.
Heritage Auctions had a two-postcard lot signed by Graham up for sale last year. The two “Dr. Graham” postcards to “Blondie” went for $3,480. In 2015, a Scranton Miners team postcard that included Graham and his autograph with JSA authentication sold for $4,973.
Beckett Grading Service authenticator Steve Grad has four examples of Graham autographs on file, including his draft card from World War I. He analyzed the signed yearbook, and it matches well.
When Algard found the Graham yearbook in 2017, he had a couple other Chisholm yearbooks he hadn’t opened year. Algard ended up cracking those later on, but they weren’t signed.
Is Algard still interested in finding another Graham autograph?
“Sure, if I could,” Algard said. “The whole yearbook thing, the cat’s out of the bag.”
Finding the one Graham signature didn’t all but end Algard’s search. Some Sunday mornings, he’ll sit down and flip through Chisholm items on eBay.
A Great Addition
Algard didn’t know exactly what to do once he found the Graham autograph.
“It’s almost a little bit of a letdown because you have to find something else to look for,” Algard said. “That’s what I do, I collect stuff.”
Recently, Algard – who has collected over 1,000 autographs since he was little – started focusing on Negro League players. Finding autographs of some of those players can be extremely difficult.
The hunt is ongoing for Algard’s next treasure, which probably won’t top finding the Graham signature.
Algard has never gotten the signed yearbook appraised, because he isn’t concerned about its value.
“While you don’t see him much if it all, you would really need to find a niche collector who would pay a good sum for his signature,” Grad said. “Since the relation to a movie is the only driving force, I could see that being worth $1,000 to $1,500. But I feel even that would be too much for a player who did very little MLB wise and lived until 1965.”
Algard also spoke with Keating from PSA when it was authenticated.
“He said, ‘This is one of those autographs that is so subjective,’” Algard said. “He said, ‘It’s one of those that it’s worth what someone’s willing to pay for it.’”
Algard doesn’t sell his items, so he honestly doesn’t care what the Graham autograph is worth. He’s a true collector in every sense of the word.
“I never really put dollar value on anything that I own,” Algard said. “To me, the things that I have have a cool factor. It has a pretty high cool factor to me.”