For us Michiganders, youthful memories of the Detroit Tigers and the game of baseball kindle no greater joy. I remember fondly the Tiger teams of the 1970s with Rusty Staub and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych; they weren’t what you would call great but they were still my Tigers. I can remember my very first trip to Tiger Stadium and those late-summer nights listening to Ernie Harwell on the pocket radio broadcasting the West Coast games. It seems every baseball fan has their own cherished memories of the grand old game. From Cobb to Kaline, they love baseball here in Detroit.
This column examines signatures of four men who are forever entwined with the history of the Detroit Tigers.
Robert “Fats” Fothergill
During an off-season in the 1920s, Detroit utility man Bob Fothergill was involved in an intense contract negotiation with Tigers owner Frank Navin. A meeting was scheduled to hammer out the final details. Not wanting Navin to see how much weight he packed on during the off season, Fothergill devised a plan. He decided to wear a heavy full length overcoat to the meeting.
The crafty Navin, being wise to Fothergill’s stunt, cranked up the heat in his office to 90 degrees. As the two men chatted, an uncomfortable Fothergill began to sweat profusely. Navin continued to talk. Well, to make a long story short, Fothergill, who was in near meltdown, signed a contract for $500 less than he wanted just to get out of Navin’s office.
Fothergill was another of Ty Cobb’s prized students. He was one of the greatest utility men in the history of the game. In a 12-year career that began in 1922, Fothergill hit a lifetime .326. His best year was 1926 when he batted .367. Due to his weight problem, Fothergill died suddenly of a heart attack on March 20, 1938 in downtown Detroit.
Fothergill signed in an extremely plain hand. His signature is legible, unattractive and rudimentary in construction. Fothergill’s signature is very easy to forge. He is considered very scarce to rare in all forms and is highly treasured by collectors. Examples 1 and 2 are fine illustrations of his signature.
Fothergill signatures are generally limited to material signed at the stadium such as album pages, team balls and scorecards. Government postcards are rare. Single-signed baseballs, 8-by-10 photos, and letters are very rare, as I have never seen any of them, at least not genuine examples. Due to the demand and the ease to forge his signature 95 percent of the Fothergill material in the market today is fake so caution is warranted.
Additionally, due to his sudden death in 1938 at age 41, Fothergill never reached old age. A genuine Fothergill will exhibit no shakiness of hand.
As to a price guide: A signature is worth $300, with government postcards at $400-$500. Values of other mediums are not known.
Rudy York began his career with Detroit in 1934. He would play big league ball for 13 years and hit 277 home runs. A six time All-Star, York is still a fan favorite in the Motor City. York died in 1970 at the relatively young age of 56.
York signed in a strikingly bold hand. His signature is large with powerful vertical strokes. Examples 6 and 7 are nice vintage examples of his signature.
York was a good signer throughout his life and many fine specimens from his playing days are available in the market. York can be found on album pages, government postcards, and scorecards. He should be considered scarce on 8-by-10 photos and single-signed baseballs. He is rare in letter form.
There are many forged teamsheets that feature teams from the 1939 and early 1940s seasons. Many of these sheets contain a block of the 1939 purple centennial baseball stamps affixed to them. There are many forged Tigers team sheets. The forgeries are poorly executed and evidence a labored appearance. Example 8 is a forged York from one of these teamsheets. Forgeries exist on other team sheets as well so caution is warranted. If you run across a signed team sheet with baseball stamps affixed in the center, proceed with caution.
In the last five or so years of his life, York’s hand became less flamboyant, resulting in a small and plain signature.
Premium items are few and far between, the exception is single-signed baseballs. A surprising number of genuine examples are available and make a great addition to any collection.
A York signature sells for about $50. Government postcards are highly desirable and are worth $100. Any 8-by-10 photographs will be very tough and start at $300. A single-signed ball (typically signed on the side panel) sells for $700-$800. I have always considered York an undervalued name and his signature should increase in value in the coming years.
Known as “Old Poker Face” for his stoic look and emotionless constitution, Navin was the long-time owner of the Detroit Tigers. Navin and fellow club owner (and auto magnate) John Kelsey transformed the struggling franchise into a big-league organization.
Navin was one of the “Founding Fathers” of the American League and even served as its president, albeit briefly.
Navin signed in a flowing and sophisticated hand (see example 5). His signature has nice eye appeal and reflects a powerful personality. Navin died in 1935 after falling off a horse. Basically, all Navin material in the market today is document related. Many letters exist with fine baseball content. Promissory notes, usually dated in the 1920s and drawn on various Detroit-area banks, are also available. They are typically for large sums of money on a 90-to 120-day basis.
As to non document-related items, about the only mediums you will find Navin signatures on are album pages and scorecards. I have never seen a genuinely signed photo or single-signed baseball. Every once in a great while, Navin’s signature will turn up on a Tigers team ball, but this is a rare occurrence.
Due to his sudden death, Navin’s hand did not suffer from infirmity due to old age. A genuine Navin signature will exhibit no shakiness of hand.
I am under the assumption that Navin will eventually find his way into Cooperstown. His immense contribution to the early days of the American League warrants his induction. Due to his “pending” induction into the Hall of Fame, Navin is in good demand. A signature (usually removed from a document) will sell for $150-$175. Typed letters sell for $300-$400, as do the aforementioned promissory notes. Should Navin gain entrance into the Hall of Fame, prices would increase markedly. A signature would sell for $700-$800 and letters would be worth $1,250-$1,500.
David J. “Davy” Jones
Jones was an early star of the “Dead-Ball Era.” Jones began his career in 1901 and gained national fame with the Detroit Tigers during the team’s pennant winning years of 1907-09. Known for his speed, Jones swiped 207 bases and was the master of the hit and run. He would end his career as in outlaw in the Federal League.
Jones was part of one of the greatest outfields of all time and today remains a highly desired signature. Jones signed in a large and bold hand. His signature is highly legible and has excellent eye appeal. Examples 3 and 4 are nice illustrations of Jones’ signature.
Jones was a willing signer throughout his long life, resulting in a good supply of autographs mostly limited to items that could be obtained in the mail, including index cards, government postcards, and small book pictures. Signed letters exist but should be considered scarce. Single-signed baseballs are considered rare. Signed team baseballs from Jones’ playing days do not exist.
Jones teamed up with Hall of Famers Sam Crawford and Ty Cobb to form one of the most potent hitting combinations of all time. Trying to locate a piece signed by this trio is a daunting but not an impossible task. In my 20-plus years of collecting, I have seen two 8-by-10 pictures signed by all three. They were both inscribed and likely signed at Crawford’s Hall of Fame induction in 1957, where the three reunited for the ceremony. The values of these photographs are beyond price but rather national baseball treasures.
Jones died in 1972 at the age of 91. Despite his age, his hand remained relatively strong until the very end. Only those signatures signed very late in life evidence some unsteadiness and only a slight amount at that.
Jones is a fine link to the early days of the Cobb era of baseball; he was also featured in the classic book Glory of Their Times. Jones is still a popular figure in the game and his material is in much demand. Values for Jones are as follows: a signature is worth $40-$50; government postcards are valued at $100. Typed, signed letters sell for $150; and handwritten letters sell for double that amount. Signed photos (mostly smaller book pictures) sell for about $100. A single-signed baseball generally can be picked up for $800-$900.