11-08-2001 Issue

edited by David Rudd Cycleback

comments, questions, submissions are welcome




-- On Autographs: Interview with James Spence

-- Boxing Review: The Shelby Debacle, by Murray Greig

-- The World's Smallest Theft


NEXT SALE will me sent out on Monday Morning


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(James Spence, lead authenticator at PSA/DNA Authentication Services, is widely regarded as one of the country's leading sports autograph experts.  You can visit his website at   )



CYCLEBACK: I've heard you referred to as James, Jim and Jimmy.  What's your preference?


SPENCE: Professionally I advertise/ trade under James Spence, however all my life I've been Jimmy.


CYCLEBACK: Where are you from and how did you become an autograph authenticator?


SPENCE: I was born in New York City, grew up in Englewood, NJ and have lived the past 12 years in Orwigsburg, PA (north of Reading rural town).  My grandfather and father were both autograph collectors dating back to the 1930's.  They both worked at Yankee Stadium during the 1940's. They performed ushering duties and as a teenager my dad was a stadium vendor.


CYCLEBACK: Do you have a favorite athlete and/or sports team?


SPENCE: As long as I can remember I have passionately followed the NY Yankees.


CYCLEBACK: Do you collect non-autograph memorabilia?


SPENCE: With the exception of some stadium seats everything else in my collection is signed.


CYCLEBACK: Are there special challenges when authenticating 'foreign alphabet' signatures, such as from Ichiro and other Japanese players?


SPENCE: We have only accepted items signed in our known alphabet in English.  Ichiro, Irabu, Park, Nomo etc. sign their name in this fashion since coming to the States and playing.  Early on they would sign both ways but they always shorten it up to save time.


CYCLEBACK: Are you like a medical doctor, in that when you attend a dinner party or similar gathering people want you to authenticate their autographed items for free?


SPENCE: Funny you mention that.  These occurrences do happen, but even more so people tell you what they have, lost, what was stolen, damaged or what their relatives have.  I especially listen to stories of events when they were in the company of a celebrity.  Getting an autograph proves to be an indelible memory that is recounted over the years.


CYCLEBACK: I read a story about a Princess Diana signed obituary (the obituary being hers).  Do you come many similar bonehead fakes?  Do you ever get a good laugh out of them?


SPENCE: Every week there is at least one autograph that appears on an item that was manufactured after the death of the individual.  This happens quite often with baseballs, especially Major League baseballs where the forger is unaware of the specific dating marks on the ball.  I'd have to say the best laugher I've seen is the wire photo signed by Kenesaw M. Landis.  The photo was a shot of Ford Frick at a ballgame.


CYCLEBACK: I've heard that Mr. and Mrs Lou Gehrig had nearly identical signatures.  Have you found it challenging differentiation between the two?


SPENCE: No, it is quite obvious in the manner in which the letters are formed.  Her version was flattened and elongated (less rounded) and not as the same angled pitch.


CYCLEBACK: I saw an 1877 carte de visite of George Wright signed on the back (something to the effect of 'Greetings from Geo. Wright'), indicating the autographed photo was a gift to someone.  Was collecting autographs a popular hobby in the 1800s?


SPENCE: Baseball autograph collecting didn't get much respect until Ruth came along.  Home Run balls were retrieved from the stands and put back into play until fans wanted to keep them as mementos and have Ruth sign them.  Autograph album books rarely predate 1920 an even then they were uncommon.  Cabinet cards were often identified in another hand and in isolated instances actually signed by the pictured player.  In the late 1800's, autograph collecting was more popular with Civil War generals.


CYCLEBACK: What is your assessment of the number of forged autographs on eBay and similar online auctions?


SPENCE: Based on what comes in for authentication that has derived through eBay there is serious reason for concern.  They basically take a caveat emptor approach and let people take their chances. If I was to get involved in a purchase I would use a credit card so that I have a way of placing a charge back on the vendor if returning the item proved to be a hassle.  Ebay has turned non-business people into a swarm of mail order companies that has been difficult at best to regulate.


CYCLEBACK: Who's autographs should the collector take special care before buying?


SPENCE: The most common subjects for forgery that come in for authentication are Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Roger Maris, Muhammad Ali, Mark McGwire and Thurman Munson.


CYCLEBACK: A common collector's complaint about the plethora of forgeries on the market (other than the forgeries themselves), is that it casts a dark cloud of suspicion on legitimate autograph collections that do not have formal documentation of authenticity.  For example, a collector may have gathered a financially modest but personally valuable collection of autographs by going to the ball parks during summer vacation.  Twenty years later, when considering selling the collection on eBay, she realizes that many people won't take her word that they are authentic.  What should this type of collector do in trying to sell the collection?


SPENCE: Initially photographs with the players help but are not ironclad forms of authenticity.  As an authenticator, I can get a sense or feel from the collection by seeing it in it's entirety.  Having a respected authenticator examine the collection will cost but with the certification it will get more attention and increase the overall value.


CYCLEBACK: What past or present player has notably attractive handwriting?  Notably poor?


SPENCE: The sloppy (why do they bother) autographs include Greg Maddux, Nomar Garciaparra, recent Mike Piazza and the ballpark version of McGwire.  these are tough opine and often end up in the inconclusive pile.  My favorite signatures include the classic and legible beauties such as Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Dizzy Dean, Hughie Jennings, and Rogers Hornsby.  The best penmanship award goes to a two year pitcher from the 1939-40 seasons.  He gets my vote as the finest example in the hobby.  Lillard's ornate style could replace John Hancock on the D. of I.  He died in 1991 and will probably cost under $25.


CYCLEABCK: I have a collection of autographed index cards.  In the case when I have doubles or triples of one player, there are trends in the placement of the signature.  For example, on my index cards Burleigh Grimes signed small and in the upper corner, while Monte Irvine signed on the lined side.  Are there notable instances were players had especially eccentric placement habits?


SPENCE: Many of the old timers such as Cool Papa Bell, Burleigh Grimes, Max Carey and Ernie Lombardi would favor the top of the index card.  This makes it more challenging to mat the signature.  They must have envisioned other players would also ink their names to the same card so they were leaving some room. It's almost like they were leaving the center of the card (sweet spot) for a better player.  This may show something in reflecting their modest demeanors.  Lined side signers include Carey, Irvin, Lindstrom and Sewell.  This habit probably derived from learning penmanship on lined paper from grade school.  Some players like Ruffing or Hartnett preferred signing vertically.  Others like Sam "Wahoo" Crawford, Ty Cobb and Judy Johnson almost insisted on nicknames, dates personalizing or adding a statistic or affiliation.


CYCLEBACK: What's the deal about Mr. Mint and the 2001 National Convention in Cleveland?  I wasn't there, but have heard identical stories that start with him giving away an expensive autographed ball and end up with him having a temper tantrum.


SPENCE: My mother told me if I don't have something nice to say don't say anything at all.


CYCLEBACK: Do you have any recommended books on autographs?


SPENCE: One of the best "Detecting Forgery" by Nickell (University of Kentucky Press-1996).  The IADA/IACC  International Autograph Dealers Alliance/Collectors Club print monthly pamphlets with great articles from active hobbyist. Subscribe!


CYCLEBACK: Since the 1990s, the major trading card companies have issued countless autographed cards.  Are you aware of any authenticity problems?


SPENCE: I've seen some problems, but the majority are authentic versions.


CYCLEBACK: I assume that you have a list of players whose autographs you authenticate.  Is there a specific process to adding new names?  For example, when some suddenly popular rookie, do you make a conscious effort to study his signature?


SPENCE: My threshold for adding a new name to the examination list relies on my comfort level.  There are some players that have been around for a while whose penmanship makes it difficult including him.


CYLEBACK: At private autograph signings, do the celebrities bring along entertainment to help pass the time (music, friends, a book)?  I won't ask what Dennis Rodman brings.


SPENCE: Wives, entourages, booze and championship rings come to mind.


CYCLEBACK: In your experience with famous athletes, which ones stands out as class acts?


SPENCE: Joe Sewell and Brooks Robinson were my all-time favorites.  I know fewer non-celebs that are this gracious and these two haven't let fame go to their heads.  They haven't forgotten where they come from.  Willie Mays and Frank Robinson must have gotten lost along the way.


CYCLEBACK: What's your favorite movie, television show book?


SPENCE: I can't get through "Pride of the Yankees" without getting misty-eyed.  Gary Cooper didn't look much like an athlete but was able to portray Gehrig's humble and self-effacing nature.


"Rudy" and "Pumping Iron" have a special place in my heart.


"The Old Man in the Sea" by Hemingway is a must read for everyone.  His remarks about baseball and DiMaggio are well placed and show his reverence for the game of baseball.


I use to like a show back in the early 1980's called "Fernwood Tonight" with Martin Mull.  God knows why that first came to my mind.


(end of interview)


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By Murray Greig


One of the most rewarding aspects of collecting boxing books is discovering local or regional histories of fights that grabbed national and international headlines. These 'hometown' treatments often shed a new perspective on the event, and because they were usually not written for mass-market distribution they¹re often more truthful.


I unearthed one of these gems during a recent trip to Shelby, Montana ­ the unlikely site of the July 4, 1923 world heavyweight title bout between Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons. In addition to the fabulous display of Dempsey-Gibbons memorabilia at the Marias Museum of History and Art, the sleepy town of 3,000 offers several other attractions related to the fight ­ not the least of which is the site of the 40,000-seat stadium. At the time it was built (at a cost of $82,000), Shelby had no paved streets and a population of just 500 residents. As the massive octagonal-shaped arena was being constructed (it covered six acres and used 1.3 million board feet of timber), people from all over the state bid on the lumber so that they could build homes after it was torn down.


The museum and sightseeing aside, the other must for any visitor to Shelby is to pick up a copy of The Fight That Won't Stay Dead, a fascinating 62-page booklet written by the fight's co-promoter, James W. (Body) Johnson and edited by John F. Kavanagh. Published by the Shelby Promoter newspaper for Montana¹s 1989 centennial, the booklet is a combination of Johnson's original notes and a manuscript he wrote in the early 1960s, fleshed out with dozens of never-before-published photos, personal recollections and a round-by-round recap of the fight by the editor¹s uncle, sportswriter C.T. Kavanagh. There¹s also a chapter on the arena construction written by architect F.H. Keane, and capsulized biographies of all the principals.


The most interesting reading in The Fight That Won't Stay Dead is Johnson¹s first-person accounts of dealing with Dempsey and his manager, Jack Kearns.  While making no bones about the fact Kearns 'slickered' the Shelby promoters (total gate receipts were $202,000, but Dempsey was paid $255,000 and Gibbons only $7,500), Johnson clarifies many of the myths about the event that subsequently became part of boxing lore. "Right here let me say I never saw or spoke to Kearns or Dempsey since the fight, " Johnson notes in a passage penned in 1964. "Many times Dempsey has been in the same town or community as me, and several times I've been invited to say hello, but declined. I've never even been in Jack's restaurant in New York, but many, many times I've walked past it. Why? I don't know ... except that the adverse and unfair publicity we received and the abuse we absorbed has made me want to forget the whole darn thing. I've tried to do so all along, but then along comes some biased or misinformed story by some new author , with everything but the truth ..."


Johnson also delves into subjects like Kearns absconding with the IRS receipts, Dempsey's threat to leave town if his full purse wasn¹t paid in advance, and dozens of other fascinating tidbits. As an insider's eyewitness account of one of the most bizarre ­ and misunderstood ­ chapters in boxing history, The Fight That Won¹t Stay Dead is eminently more readable that most of the glossed-over versions of the Shelby debacle contained in the many Dempsey biographies. A companion publication, the reprinted souvenir program of the fight, is also available at several Shelby outlets. For information on both booklets, contact the Marias Museum of History and Art, Shelby, MT. 59474.



Speaking of vintage boxing memorabilia, many of the finest images from the Harry E. Winkler Collection of boxing photographs have been posted on the Internet at  Winkler was a longtime Los Angeles area boxing aficionado and California correspondent for The Ring from 1939-53. His extensive collection of photos­ most dating from the 1920s and 30s ­ was acquired by the University Libraries of Notre Dame in 1977, including 4,000 4x5-inch glass negatives.  Among the fighters best represented in the collection (more than 30 plates each) are Dempsey, Tony Canzoneri, Speedy Dado, Jackie Fields, Jimmy McLarnin, Tommy O¹Brien and Mickey Walker.


The Winkler Collection of boxing photos is part of the UND's massive Joyce Sports Research Collection, which also includes huge holdings of vintage baseball, basketball, and football memorabilia. Next time I'll look at some of the baseball holdings. Until then, happy collecting!


(The author, Murray Greig, lives in Western Canada and specializes in vintage hockey memorabilia. He is the author of Big Bucks & Blue Pucks: An Anecdotal History of the World Hockey Association, and The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Biggest Deals in Hockey History.)


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Some of the world's smallest pieces of art, which fit into the eye of a needle, have been stolen.  Three pieces created by the British sculptor Willard Wigan vanished, while being packed after an  exhibition in London's Covent Garden. The three minute carvings, Snow White and the Seven  Dwarfs, Tower Bridge and Jesus, are together worth £100,000. They are each less than a millimetre in size and are mounted in the eyes of needles.


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That's all, thanks for reading.