There are a few players in baseball history who possessed as much talent and skill as Lou Gehrig, and even fewer players in baseball history that possessed as much humility. However, out of all the baseball players to ever play the game, none combined the talent level and humility the way Gehrig did. His accomplishments and the way he carried himself on and off the field made him a hero for the ages. The way he faced tragedy elevated him to legendary status and helped make him one of the most desired autographs on the market.
Gehrig’s character and athleticism came from very humble beginnings. He was the son of German immigrants from New York City and was the only surviving child of the four children in his family. Because of his humble beginnings, his mother demanded that he get a good education. His football prowess earned him a scholarship to Columbia University. In the summer before his first semester, Gehrig played professional baseball under an assumed name after John McGraw of the New York Giants baseball team advised Gehrig to do just that. Because of his professional involvement, he was banned from playing any sports his freshman year.
During his sophomore year Gehrig played fullback on the Columbia football team. In 1923 he played baseball for Columbia. When New York Yankees scout Paul Krichell saw Gehrig play he signed him to a $1,500 contract. He was called up to the Yankees major league club in September of 1923 and hit .423 in 26 at bats.
As the now-fabled story goes, Gehrig replaced Wally Pipp at first base for the Yankees in 1925 and didn’t leave the lineup until 13 years later. His streak of 2,130 consecutive games played earned him the nickname “Iron Man” and the streak was long considered a record that would never be broken. It would be broken by Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr in 1995.
This legendary accomplishment overshadows the phenomenal career that Gehrig had. He retired with a lifetime batting average of .340 and collected more than 400 total bases in five different seasons, a major league record. Gehrig hit 23 career grand slams and had the highest RBI average of any player to hit more than 300 home runs. He was the first American League player to hit four home runs in one game, accomplishing the feat on June 3, 1932.
Gehrig won two Most Valuable Player awards, one in 1927 and again in 1936. He also won the Triple Crown in 1934, with a .363 average, 49 home runs and 165 RBIs. Gehrig played every game for the New York Yankees for 13 straight years despite major injuries. X-rays taken of his hands showed 17 different fractures that had healed while he continued to play during his amazing streak.
In baseball lore, Gehrig has always been overshadowed by his eccentric and widely celebrated teammate Babe Ruth. Gehrig was far more reserved than the flamboyant Ruth and in turn, his signatures are far rarer than his counterpart’s.
Genuine Gehrig signatures are far scarcer then many other players of his era. When Gehrig would sign baseballs he would almost always defer to Ruth by leaving the sweet spot open for him to sign. Most examples of Gehrig’s signature on baseballs are multi-signed, leaving a single-signed autograph extremely valuable, regardless of the placement of the signature. After the 1934 season Ruth had parted from the Yankees and gone on to the Boston Braves, Gehrig would then start to adorn his name on the sweet spot, mostly on team-signed baseballs (Example 1). There are a handful of single-signed baseballs with Gehrig’s signature on the sweet spot, but expect to pay a hefty premium in excess of $20,000.
Throughout his career, Gehrig’s signature was fairly consistent. Normally his signature would be very straight and compact with every letter spelled out neatly (Example 2). Occasionally the second “g” in Gehrig would look sloppier at the end (Example 3). Moreover, for the majority of his career he would separate the “Lou” from the “Gehrig.” Later, Gehrig would start to connect his first name straight up into making a capital “G” to start Gehrig.
As time went on his signature slowly started to get larger, and as his signature grew in size it started to lose some letters (Examples 4 and 5). In addition, the “u” in Lou would fade from his signature, but by the late 1930s what remained of his signature was “L Gehrig” with the “L” connecting into the “G.”
As the disease that would later be named in his memory ravaged his body, his signature continued to get sloppier. The classic slant to his name now disappeared and his signature would be nearly standing straight up. By 1940 his signature would be nearly unrecognizable from his early examples. Now with nearly no slant to the signature, it was bigger than ever and even more letters started to disappear. Sadly, the beautiful script of Gehrig’s early days were gone, the “L” was still there to represent “Lou” and it was followed by a large “G.” What would follow would be unrecognizable scribble ending with a sloppy “g” (Example 6). Later examples of Gehrig’s signature are difficult to find as he was a humble man and did not stay in the public eye after he retired.
Gehrig was struck down by Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis at the age of 37. The untimely death and unique role in baseball history of the “Luckiest Man on the face of the Earth” has created a demand for his signature that cannot be met. Unfortunately, there are some unsavory figures that try to take advantage of the demand by forging Gehrig’s signature. Forgeries of Gehrig’s signature have plagued the marketplace for as long as collectors have been willing to part with cash in return for autographed memorabilia. Currently, Gehrig’s signature is one of the most forged vintage signatures on the market.
When looking at a Gehrig signature, there are several things to look out for. First, one should look at the ink of the signature; most Gehrigs are signed in black ink. Most important to remember is that black ink of the early 1900s through the time of Gehrig’s death would fade to grey. Brown ink was used primarily in the 1700s through the end of the 1800s. In 1884 Lewis Waterman patented the first working and practical fountain pen, although there had been several other failed designs that were doomed by functional problems. His was the first pen that could hold its on ink without major spilling problems. By 1915 most pens had switched to a refillable version.
Also, when looking at the ink, beware of the ballpoint pen. It’s safe to say that Gehrig probably never used a ballpoint pen. Ballpoint pens were invented in 1938 by Laszlo Biro and George Biro of Argentina. During World War II the British Royal Air Force started using the Biro pens after the British Government bought the licensing rights. It wasn’t until Oct. 29, 1945, when Milton Reynolds, a Chicago business man, marketed his Reynolds Rocket in Gimbel’s stores to make ballpoint pens available for the first time in the United States, nearly four years after Gehrig had died.
Another tip when looking at a Gehrig’s signature is not to be fooled by older looking paper. One way the unscrupulous make paper look old is by soaking it in tea. However, in the more common occurrence a forger will use old paper from old books or other various sources, as it’s still fairly easy to find old paper to manufacture a cut signature. The biggest key when looking at the signature is looking for “feathering,” where the ink spreads on the paper away from the strokes of the signature. This happens when new ink touches older paper the ink used during the time period would not feather.
Gehrig autographs command a high premium, sometimes even higher than Ruth depending on the piece that is signed. Recently, quality Gehrigphotos have sold for nearly $10,000 in some major auctions. Depending on the quality of the signature, a cut autograph will generally fall between $700-$1,000.