It would not be an overstatement to claim the Great Bambino's autograph is the most sought after and coveted in the baseball memorabilia collecting world--the Holy Grail, if you will. It appears at the top of every serious collector's wish list, and to that end we have bought and sold literally hundreds and hundreds in the past 35 years. I first purchased one for my own collection in the late-1970's while still in school. I paid $200 for a nicely framed example from renowned New York City autograph dealer, Charles Hamilton.
That was a lot of money then, but my instincts were correct! I placed it on a wall of the family coin store just to show it off. It didn't take long for questions to start, “Is that for sale?... How much do you want for it?" That's when it became clear to me just how important Babe Ruth was--how he transcended generations and was immediately recognized by everyone.
The Babe began his professional career at the age of 19 when he was signed by the minor league Baltimore Orioles team. By 1915 he was sold to the Red Sox of the major leagues, primarily as a pitcher, but occasionally playing the outfield. He won 18 games that season and batted .315. Thus, the legend began and before long he was among the biggest stars in the game, commanding a top salary. Boston owner, Harry Frazee, in dire need of cash, sold him to the Yankees in 1919 for the then exorbitant sum of $100,000 plus a personal loan of $350,000. The Yankees were cash-rich even then.
(Young Babe Ruth.) The first two images show Ruth as a High School teenager in Baltimore circa 1914. The third image is Ruth on the Red Sox c.1917.
In 2017, Charlie Sheen (right) sold the famous Babe Ruth contract between Red Sox owner, Harry Frazee (left), and Yankees owner, Jacob Ruppert. It fetched over $2 Million at auction!
Records show Ruth earned $10,000 in 1919, his first season in New York, and $20,000 the following year. But his prodigious home run slugging and bigger than life on field performances (his individual single-season home run totals were more than some team's entire lineup!) helped save baseball's popularity after the sordid Chicago "Black Sox" betting scandal surrounding the 1919 World Series. In short, there was no bigger star in baseball--or all of sports for the matter-- for the next two decades.
Every fan wanted the Babe's autograph, and he was more than accommodating, signing his name hundreds of times a day sometimes.
Ruth loved being social with fans, but especially children. He also was known to visit hospitals and homes of fans to spend time with handicapped and ill children. He generously signed and gifted baseballs, bats, photos, scrap paper, and anything that could be signed.
I think it is fair to say this was the start of baseball autograph collecting. Fans now actively sought the signatures of all players, starting of course with that of the Great Bambino. His autograph changed over the decade of the 1920's and became quite consistent after the mid-1930's until his early passing in 1948 at age 53.
There must be 200 signed baseballs on this couch! Little did they know they were creating mounds of money. Today, the highest graded specimens are the equivalent to a significant mortgage down payment. (Record price is $388,000)
One thing remained constant, however, his beautiful penmanship, undoubtedly a result of his strict Catholic school education. Not surprisingly, he signed his name differently on checks and legal documents. I will explore this later, along with his writing style and the way his signature evolved through the years. So let's get to it...
Ruth's Earliest Autograph Style:
I define this period loosely from the late-1910's through 1923. It is not easy to find many exemplars of his signature on baseballs from this era. I believe I've owned two, possibly three, single signed examples from this period, all of which incidentally were not what I like to describe as "Brigandi Quality", i.e., they were below our condition standard. When it comes to such early pieces, I'm not necessarily looking for a near-mint example, but at least something one can view and say "wow". Instead, models commonly found from this period are just average at best, sometimes not all the letters are clear, but they are usually "readable".
1915 Red Sox Team Signed Baseball
Notice the early Ruth autograph is tightly tucked away between two other signatures. (If you've never seen an example like this it will take you a moment to find the Babe's signature.) Even today, it's common courtesy for ballplayers to leave the sweetspot open for managers and key players. At this point, the Babe had not earned his stripes to sign the sweet spot, but this would obviously change quickly.
Here we have Babe Ruth taking over the sweet spot of a 1921 and 1922 Yankee team ball. Notice the quotes around "BABE" which is something most experts believe started in the early-mid 1920's, but clearly we have evidence he was using quotation marks as early as 1921. While his autograph may look impressive here compared to years earlier; you ain't seen nothing yet! Keep reading...
The Babe's popularity surges: 1924 to the late-1920's:
By the mid-1920's his statistics and gargantuan moon-shots were unprecedented. His off the field exploits were equally impressive as well. He fought with his manager, publicly demanded more money from owners, ate hot dogs and drank "soda pop" in the dugout, stayed out all night with "friends", yet generally remained gracious with his fans. He was gregarious, funny and childlike, and the public loved him. His signature followed suit and became almost a piece of art. It's much larger, more flamboyant, and of course more in demand.
Notice the confidence in his signature--it jumps off the page!
It's also dated 1926 which is a little unusual because he didn't date his autographs often, probably because he was signing them so fast he didn't have time. Perhaps this lucky fan was able to have a 'moment' or even a discussion with Ruth, as opposed to waving an autograph album in a crowd of arms hoping Ruth would grab it.
This 1927 Yankee World Series ball was one of our most prized pieces. It bears a bold and large "Babe" Ruth and he inscribed "World Series 1927" in his hand. This sold for about $50,000, but today would probably command upwards of $75,000.
This ball is undated, but based on the large size, bold ink, and quotes around the "Babe" we can estimate this autograph comes from the mid-late 1920's. As it turned out, when we purchased the ball, it came with a letter of provenance from the owner's father who received it personally from Ruth at an event in Long Beach, CA. We did some quick research and found out the only time Ruth visited Long Beach was, in fact, January of 1927.
By 1928 and 1929 Ruth still used quotes around his first name, but it was less common. And by the early 1930’s it was rare for him to use quotes at all. Most experts believe he did not use quotes at all in the 1930’s, but I have owned a handful of Yankee team signed balls from this era with Babe in quotes.
No one has sufficiently given me a legitimate answer why he stopped using quotes. Therefore, my personal opinion must suffice, which is that he stopped because it simply took him too long to do them neatly-- the way he would have liked them to look. We must remember he was inundated by hundreds of fans. Plus he was using a fountain pen, which needs time to dry and potentially resulted in smearing of the ink. Over the years I've seen so many examples of fountain pen ink smearings--something quite unfortunate for a Ruth autograph.
This government postcard (postmarked July 1931) and album page (inscribed 11-15-31) both have Babe in quotes. As stated, it is certainly a rare occurrence, but nonetheless an example of quotes at a time when most have said it never happened. Never say never, as the saying goes.
I think I'm correct to say that Ruth mainly used quotes from 1923-1929, but although uncommon, he indeed used them as early as 1921 and as late as 1931. It's also important to note he did not always use them from 1923-29 there are examples from this period without quotes too.
An actual Christmas card Ruth sent, circa-1927. We bought and sold this one in the early-2000's, along with one from Lou Gehrig. Notice how sharp and distinct his signature is, and of course the famous quotes around the first name. Items like this one were always rare, but today it seems they have dried up in the marketplace and when they do surface, they simply command record breaking prices.
A look Babe's Signature during retirement. Mid 1930's-1948:
Most of the Ruth autographs found in the hobby are from this period and they are quite consistent in style. They tend to be dark, large in size and perfectly scripted. The high grade single-signed baseballs that fetch exorbitant sums in auction are from this later period.
A gem Babe Ruth single we sold years back. It was worth about $200,000 at the time. I can only guess what it would fetch today in auction. Notice how large he signed, and how fluid the autograph. It's mint condition and nearly flawless. May I suggest also how "flashy" and "showy" it is. This is Brigandi Quality!!
The record auction price for graded ball is $390,000 back in 2012.
This one is graded 9.5 on a scale of 10.
Finally, seen below is a signed baseball and a government postcard from Babe Ruth Day at Yankee Stadium, June 13, 1948. On that day, the Great Bambino, badly suffering the effects of throat cancer, delivered that iconic speech in a raspy voice; he soon passed away on August 14th. As we can see, the signature remains large and quite consistent.
Ghost-signer, Secretarial and Sinclair Oil:
There has been much discussion over the years regarding his 1947 to 1948 autograph, whether it was "ghost-signed" or actually his own. Theories abound--many indeed self serving of course-- and through my experience I have found that he did indeed sign the vast majority himself. The argument goes that he was often sick during this later period of his life--that he was hospitalized, convalescing, and thus unable to sign baseballs particularly. I reject that argument and have seen numerous examples of dated items from that period, baseballs and letters for certain, that are absolutely authentic and in fact certified by legitimate third party authentication companies.
Moreover, so many of these baseballs specifically were typical of that flamboyant, stylish signature. A few, in fact, were actually personalized to his nurse and doctor. Below is an autographed copy of his 1948 biography written by Bob Considine. As you can see his autograph is perfectly consistent, "non-shaky" and typical of this period style.
"To my two timer girl friend Carrie. From Her Lonesome boyfriend, Babe Ruth"
"To a nurse that was wonderful to me for many months. From Babe Ruth 7-14-47"
I agree that secretaries, clubhouse attendants, and others signed some of his material throughout his life. Even in his last year or two he likely had good and bad days. If you've had a family member or friend with a deadly illness you know some days are better than others.
In the 1937, Sinclair Oil, a major US based petroleum company, held a Babe Ruth promotion and gave out an estimated 500 signed baseballs. These, however, were not signed by Ruth himself, but a secreterial instead. This is a widely and generally agreed upon opinion by reputable dealers, authenticators, and advanced collectors. Typically, a secreterial signed autograph would be worthless, but collectors do indeed put these balls in their collections. A clean looking Sinclair Oil example is worth about $500 (not any where near the value of an authentic signed baseball, but clearly you shouldn't use it for little league practice).
Babe Ruth Sinclair Oil Contest Ball. Not only is the autograph 'off', but also the ghost-signer put quotation marks around the first and last name, a silly error and something Ruth never did.
It's also extremely important to note that clubhouse attendants, secretaries and ghost-signers were not malicious profiteers. This was done as a favor for the Babe. Even with Babe signing hundreds of autographs a day he still could not keep up with demand. These signers are very different from the forgers and counterfeiters.
As you would expect, when money is involved there will be crooks, and thus Babe Ruth is among the most forged signatures in the hobby. Obviously, be wary if you're offered an item without proper authentication. But also get the opinion of a respected dealer even when the ball has certification because even the best authentication companies can make mistakes. I should also mention that forgers create fake letters of authenticity too. And they even keep up with technology by matching their forgeries to authentic specimens from the online databases of third party authenticators.
This actually may have value as a movie prop collectible!
It was the largest bust of forgers in history.
The Babe's Autograph on Legal Documents:
I thought this post would not be complete without mentioning Ruth's signature on legal documents, such as contracts and checks. Ruth's legal name of course was George Herman Ruth and so he did not sign "Babe" on legal documents (remember, never-say-never, but this time I am convinced... well at least one has not come to market in my forty years of experience).
An atypical example of a check he wrote. Those he generally signed "G.H. Ruth". However, I have seen checks signed "George Herman Ruth", but they are rare and command a premium compared others. I've also seen him endorse the back of a check issued to him, "George Herman Ruth". Again, I have not witnessed "Babe" on a check.
Legacy and Collectiblity:
A seven-time World Series Champion with a .342 lifetime batting average, Babe Ruth posted staggering numbers throughout his illustrious Hall of Fame career. He led the league in home runs a record 12 times and he's the only player in history to post 11 seasons with 40+ home runs. He has the highest all-time slugging percentage at .690, and he is a member of the original Hall of Fame Class of 1936.
They say that records are meant to be broken, and naturally, some of Ruth's records have since been broken. In the 1961 season, Yankee slugger Roger Maris hit 61 home runs to surpass Ruth's single-season record of 60 round-trippers. In 1974, Hank Aaron belted his 715th career homer to eclipse Ruth's then-record 714. And in the late 20th century, a few other power hitters, *possibly enhanced with questionable substances*, swung for the fences to take out other slugging records in Ruth's possession. But one thing we know for certain is that no player will overshadow Babe Ruth's legacy, and no signature will ever surpass Ruth's in collectibility and value.
Call him whatever you want: the Sultan of Swat, the Colossus of Clout, the King of Crash, Babe, the Babe, the Great Bambino... it doesn't matter. George Herman Ruth went by a lot of different nicknames, but one thing that is universally understood is that he was the best ballplayer to ever set foot on the diamond.
In a world where hot-takes and GOAT (greatest of all time) conversations dominate the sports landscape for fans and media, no one can debate Ruth's impact on the game of baseball. While his autograph may have changed over the years, his persona always remained constant. He was, and still remains a larger than life figure nearly 70 years after his death.
Today we take for granted the exposure that professional athletes receive as rich, powerful celebrities, but Ruth was certainly the first. He is more than a baseball player. He is baseball lore - an American icon.
And always remember... heroes get remembered, but legends never die.
We appreciate any feedback, so please feel free to ask questions, comment, and share. If you have any further personal knowledge or insight into Babe Ruth's signature, let us know. Although we're experts in the hobby, we're always looking to learn more!