February 18, 2013
When Lou Gehrig was forced to retire due to the debilitating illness that robbed him of his baseball talents, the once muscular and feared slugger was reduced to a shadow of his former stature as baseball’s “Iron Horse.” In his 2005 book, Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, Gehrig’s biographer, Jonathan Eig, describes his deteriorating physical health in detail drawing from the observations made by Gehrig’s own doctors at the time:
“On January 27, 1940, Gehrig visited a Manhattan doctor, Israel Wechsler. Wechsler wrote that “When first seen, [Gehrig] had marked spasticity in both lower extremities… generalized fibrillations, weakness of the shoulder and arm muscles, and almost complete paralysis of the hand muscles…”
By 1940, Gehrig had already come to grips with losing his picture-perfect swing, but as an ailing sports legend he found he couldn’t even sign an autograph for an adoring little kid or write a letter to a close friend. Gehrig had to use a stamp to sign his letters for his job at the New York Parole Board and his wife Eleanor would either ghost-sign his signature or use the same rubber stamp to honor autograph requests from his fans.
In his biography, Jonathan Eig utilized correspondence between Gehrig and Dr. Paul O’Leary to further describe Gehrig’s physical condition. The correspondence was originally purchased for $40,000 at a 1998 auction by collector Paul Ancel and ESPN’s Outside The Lines reproduced a selection of letters from the collection in a segment called “Sincerely, Lou” which aired in July of 2009. One of the letters posted on the ESPN site was dated January 23, 1940, just four days before Gehrig’s Doctor diagnosed the paralysis in his hands. In that letter to Dr. O’Leary, Gehrig admitted that his wife was already autographing photos on his behalf for friends and fans and stated that he was becoming “self conscious” about his “present penmanship.”
Based upon the Gehrig correspondence and other information he had gathered, Eig determined that by 1940 Gehrig could no longer sign his own name. Says Eig, “I’m fairly certain that Eleanor was signing everything for him by that time.” In support of this determination, it appears that the last letter Gehrig signed “Lou” in the O’Leary correspondence collection bears a date of December 10,1939. All of the handwritten notations on letters from Gehrig to O’Leary from that date until Gehrig’s death appear to have been signed and executed by Eleanor Gehrig.
Additional evidence also supports Eig’s assertion, as all surviving signed items attributed to Gehrig post-January 1940 are also signed by Gehrig’s wife or are the product of the facsimile rubber stamp he used for the Parole Board. In his new book, Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs: A Reference Guide, expert Ron Keurajian confirms the use of the rubber stamp and ghost-signing by Eleanor Gehrig. As to the letters written by Gehrig in 1940 and 1941 Keurajian says, “Be warned Gehrig held this position in name only and, to my knowledge, never actually signed any of these letters.”
Although he suffered paralysis in his hands, Gehrig could still write, almost illegibly, as evidenced on legal documents he actually signed in 1940 and 1941. His post-1940 signature was extremely shaky and almost illegible as compared to his signature before his illness took hold. The best examples are signatures executed by Gehrig on settlement agreements dated December 19, 1940 with the New York Daily News, and March 26, 1941 with the New York Life Insurance Company.
Heritage Auction Galleries was planning on offering, in its February Platinum Night auction in NYC, what they described as a Lou Gehrig single-signed ball ” from the thin supply of known Gehrig singles.” The bid stood at $33,460 last Friday when Haulsofshame.com contacted the auction house and asked how Lou Gehrig could have signed a baseball that is believed to have been manufactured in 1940 when his hands were already diagnosed by his own Doctor as exhibiting “paralysis”? Not only were his hands paralyzed, but the process of signing a sphere would undoubtedly present him with additional challenges. At first Chris Ivy of Heritage Auctions told us, ”
“Popular belief is that this style ball was manufactured circa 1940, but we have seen no definitive evidence suggesting an exact date. Obviously, both PSA/DNA and James Spence Authentication inspected this baseball in person and were comfortable with the signature.”
At the time Ivy gave that statement he was still inclined to include the ball as part of his February 23rd live auction event in New York City alleging it included a genuine Gehrig signature on the sweet-spot of the Official American League ball made by the Reach Company in 1940. But we still asked, how could this be?
Baseball expert, Brandon Grunbaum, of HistoryoftheBaseball.com, says he can tell that the ball in the Heritage auction was manufactured in 1940 based upon the existence of two stamped stars that appear to the left and right of the word “OFFICIAL.” Additionally, aside from the stamping being incorrect for 1939 Grunbaum says, “The stitching on the baseball appears thicker than 1939 models I have examined, and shows a variation of thicker stitching that started to appear on 1940’s model Reach baseballs.”
The American League balls were produced in the off-season and introduced to Major League play for the first time each season during Spring Training. Grunbaum has definitively dated the model of the Heritage Gehrig offering as being manufactured between 1940 and 1942.
To further illustrate his point Grunbaum presented photographic evidence from 1939 and said, “This photograph was supplied by the Baltimore Sun, and was taken April 23, 1939 for a story titled: “Baseballs Are Carefully Made”. The photograph is the Packaging & Boxing department of the Reach Factory in Chicopee, Massachusetts. After magnified inspection of the baseballs in the racks, it is conclusive that all models pictured do not have the two stars added to either side of the “Official” stamping. These baseballs would have been supplied directly to the American League Teams for use in Professional game play for the entire 1939 season.”
The Heritage ball, allegedly signed by Gehrig, appears to be a 1940 model with the two star placement on the sweet spot, however, it is likely that the last baseballs Gehrig had the opportunity to sign before the paralysis of his hands were the 1939 AL model without the stars. Researching this issue we found another Gehrig ball and it looked as if the exact same baseball was sold for over $44,000 at Mastro Auctions in 2008.
But upon closer examination it was determined to be an almost exact Gehrig signature on another OAL Harridge ball with the 2-star variation. Mastro referenced the inclusion of the stars on this particular ball and its rarity based upon the date of Gehrig’s death:
“This ball, though, is of the “Harridge” variety bearing stars that flank the stamping “Official,” thereby isolating its vintage to the period 1940-45. The chemistry of all these variables, then, necessarily isolates this signing to that narrow window between Gehrig’s retirement and his passing (June 1941). In its composition—that is, a single signed, sweet spot Lou Gehrig autograph, placed on an official American League ball of this stamping configuration—this one may not be unique, but it is decidedly among the dear few ever to become available. LOA from Steve Grad & Zach Rullo/PSA DNA and LOA from James Spence Authentication.”
Neither Mastro nor Heritage made any reference to the stars appearing on the second OAL Harridge ball which Heritage now describes as:
“The solid red stitching of the Official American League (Harridge) sphere indicates post-1934 production, and thus the aftermath of the game’s most fruitful slugging partnership.”
The Heritage ball being offered for sale on February 23rd is authenticated by the same individuals and companies, James Spence of JSA and Steve Grad of PSA/DNA.
Before any expert ever ventured to opine on this particular signed baseball, the issue of the manufacturing date of the ball itself should have been addressed first. In fact, when it was examined by the same experts in 2008, the fact that the ball was an OAL Harridge ball manufactured between 1940 and 1945 was already established and disclosed to prospective bidders. The experts were already aware of these facts and the inclusion of the two stars on the sweet spot of the ball. Authentic 1939 Yankee team signed balls which include player Joe Gallagher, who only played one season with the Yankees (April 20-June 13), appear on OAL Harridge balls with no stars. When Mastro offered a 1939 Yankee ball in 2006 they specifically noted: ” The pivotal name on the ball, isolating its 1939 signing, is that of one-year Yankee Joe Gallagher”.
Interestingly enough, authenticator James Spence also authenticated the same ball currently being offered by Heritage back in 2000 for MastroNet when it sold for a whopping $61,047. In that lot description no reference was made to the two-star Harridge variation as MastroNet simply stated the ball was:
“A Near Mint creamy OAL (Harridge) baseball with a “9″ signature. LOAs from James Spence/PSA DNA and Mike Gutierrez/MastroNet.”
What due diligence was conducted by Spence, Grad and the two authentication companies is unknown. What is known is that it was determined by someone in 2008 at Mastro Auctions that the alleged Gehrig signed ball was of the two-star variety and manufactured between 1940 and 1945.
According to ball expert Brandon Grunbaum, the particular ball being sold by Heritage was manufactured and used in Major League play between 1940 and 1942.
Contrary to Chris Ivy’s assertions, however, all of the evidence suggests that Lou Gehrig could not have signed the offered c 1940 Official American League ball manufactured between 1940 and 1942. Knowing that the 1940 Reach baseball in the Heritage sale could not have been signed by Gehrig, Ivy’s statement represents a blind faith in the skills of JSA and PSA/DNA that should scare collectors. What is viewed as blind faith, however, could very well be viewed as organized crime when it comes to the cozy relationship between the auction house and authenticators. It wasn’t until we informed Ivy that we had photographs of the Reach factory in 1939 that he withdrew the PSA/JSA certified ball from the sale. Ivy acknowledged the information we shared with him related to the stamping on a 1939 ball and said, “Even though both of the third-party authenticators were comfortable with the Gehrig signature, we wanted to err on the side of caution, so we went ahead and made the decision to remove the Gehrig baseball from the auction. We will do some additional research on behalf of our consignor to see if we can get a more definitive time-frame for the stamping on the baseball.”
Earlier this year we published an article reporting the “ Worst Authentications of 2012” and included another alleged Lou Gehrig single signed baseball sold by Heritage for over $44,000. In that post Haulsofshame.com reported:
“Author and expert Ron Keurajian goes into detail about his opinion of Lou Gehrig balls signed on the sweet spots of period baseballs in his new autograph handbook. Keurajian notes in his Gehrig signature study: ”A common forged ball (of Gehrig) is signed on the sweet spot with an overly large signature. Gehrig signed in a confined hand. A genuine signature is small and takes up very little space on the sweet spot.” The Heritage ball had a big signature and fetched a big price of over $44,000. Keurajian adds, “The forged Gehrig signatures, on the other hand, take up the entire sweet spot and are twice as large as a genuine signature. If you examine one of these balls with a large signature on the sweet spot, study it carefully as it is likely a forgery. Most Gehrig single-signed balls are signed and inscribed on the side panel.”
Unlike that ball, the current offering by Heritage shows the size and placement of Gehrig’s signature more representative of an authentic autograph of the “Iron Horse.” However, the signature itself is in conflict with the claims made by authenticators JSA and PSA/DNA in the LOA’s that accompany this very ball. JSA says the ball is authentic because it exhibits the ”slant, flow, pen pressure, letter size and formation and other characteristics typical of our extensive database of known exemplars we have examined throughout our hobby and professional careers.”
What, might we ask, is included in JSAs database representing authentic Gehrig handwriting and signatures?
In addition to the questioned single-signed Gehrig ball, Heritage is also offering other dubious baseballs alleged to have been signed by the “Iron Horse.” One is an unofficial ball allegedly signed by Gehrig and fellow HOFer Tony Lazzeri and the other is being billed by Heritage as, “The Finest 1927 New York Yankees Team Signed Baseball On Earth.” It appears that the 1927 ball came with a story that Earle Combs gave it to a neighbor, and that apparently was good enough for JSA and PSA. Experts we spoke with have identified the ball as non-genuine.
On his company website Jimmy Spence of JSA claims that, “The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Department of the Treasury (IRS) have depended on Spence as their sports authentication adviser and asked for his assistance during past investigations. Law enforcement and insurance carriers have placed their trust in Spence to assist in their analysis. Mr. Spence has successfully completed certification in Forensic Document Examination.”
Contrary to his claims, sources indicate that Spence is currently under investigation by the FBI and has misrepresented his credentials as evidenced in depositions related to litigation he has been party to. The formal training in handwriting analysis Spence claims to have completed appears to be fabricated as a source who was familiar with PSA operations revealed to us last year information about Spence’s training and told us, ”He does not have a certificate in forensic document authentication. That is not correct. The certificate just says that he completed a correspondence course in document examination, which was offered by a man named Andrew Bradley, the same correspondence course that PSA authenticators were required to take.”
Before James Spence began authenticating $60,000 Lou Gehrig baseballs he worked as a fitness instructor at Club Med and for Cunard Cruise Lines, as a salesman for American Van Equipment and as a ladder salesman for the Lynn Ladder Company until he was fired from the Orwigsberg, PA, firm in 1991. Spence had no formal training that could qualify him as a handwriting expert and in PSA/DNA advertisements published as early as 2002, Spence and his then PSA counterpart, Steve Grad, boasted of having “40 years combined expertise in the industry.”
Despite all of those years of alleged “combined expertise” the work of both Spence and Grad on Lou Gehrig single signed baseballs speaks volumes. They both are witnesses to a miracle: Lou Gehrig signing a baseball in 1940.
(See additional coverage in the New York Post of Heritage’s withdrawal of the Gehrig ball from its Platinum Auction in NYC.)