Mike Gutierrez is a Consignment Director at Heritage Auction Galleries and an appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. As a sports autograph authenticator, Gutierrez is probably best known for his initial appraisal of Mark McGwire’s 70th-home-run ball, which sold at auction for $3 million. In this interview, Gutierrez talks about how he got into the sports-memorabilia field, how the field has changed, and the challenges of authenticating an autograph.
I played baseball, basketball, and ran track from the time I was eight years old all the way through high school. Like the other kids in my neighborhood, I also grew up collecting baseball cards. I’d get an extra 5 cents and run down to the liquor store to buy packs of 25 or 30. Unfortunately, my mother threw out my cards before I was even in high school. That’s what makes baseball cards so valuable—all the mothers in the 1960s and ’70s did that.
In 1979, after I was well ensconced in another business, I read one day that there was going to be a sports card collectors’ show at the Anaheim Convention Center, and that Hank Aaron would be signing autographs. The idea of that just grabbed me.
I went to a baseball-card shop—I didn’t even know such places existed—and bought a photo of Hank Aaron to bring to the show. When I got there, I was stunned to see all these people selling baseball cards and memorabilia that I had as a kid and were now worth hundreds and thousands of dollars. I went up to Hank Aaron and got him to sign my photo. I still have that photo today.
After getting Hank Aaron, I thought, “Well, now I want Babe Ruth and then I’ll have the home-run hitters.” I was as green as could be, but collecting autographs of famous baseball players captured my imagination.
“In the 19th century, baseball players were considered to be a bunch of hooligans.”
Someone handed me a flyer as I was walking out, with information about other shows in Southern California venues, so I went to those, too. At those shows, I purchased a lot of material, mostly signed photos. I met other autograph collectors in the Southern California area who had the same interests as I did. I read national publications that introduced me to collectors and sellers in other states. Before long I was attending some of the bigger shows in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Chicago, because that’s how you found the better pieces.
But I have no idea how, why, what, where, and when I started collecting baseball Hall of Famers. One thing just led to another. My collection grew. I grew up in the business, you could say.
At that time, autographs were small compared to cards, so I became known for my knowledge of these guys’ signatures. Baseball-card dealers would come to me with pieces from the mid–1960s and say, “What do you think of this? Do you think it’s good? What do you think the value is?” Eventually I started writing letters of authenticity.
Collectors Weekly: Do you still have that first collection?
Gutierrez: I sold it in the late 1980s. I collected photos, letters, checks, documents, and paper items. I would get whatever I could for those Hall of Fame players, though some died in the 19th century and materials weren’t available.
I found most of the items through meeting collectors at shows, finding out what they had, and seeing what they were willing to let go of. Back then you couldn’t buy. We had to trade. It was, “Well, I’ll give up this thing that you need, but I want to get something good in return.” Now it’s all about money.
It was a whole different breed of collector then, too. These were people who talked about baseball because they were interested in it. The themes they collected were large landscapes, great ideas. All the old theme collectors are going away.
The collectors determine what’s popular and what’s not. Just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s going to be worth more in the future. People ask me for appraisals and I tell them what I think. They think they can keep a piece for 10 years and it’ll increase in value. It’ll probably be worth less due to inflation.
Nowadays, collectors aren’t baseball people. They’re just people who are into it for ego, who want to say, “Well, look at my signed Lou Gehrig photo. It’s better than anyone else’s.”
It started to change in the ’80s and early ’90s, as the business became bigger. I was working with a price-guide publication, and it was out of date every time we released it because the business was thriving. It became a $2-billion business pretty quickly.
Collectors Weekly: Do people still collect cards for their historical value?
Gutierrez: I see very few people collecting for history anymore. In fact, there are pieces that 15 years ago would have gone for a thousand or more, but now are only worth a hundred or a couple hundred. The older collectors are gone.
Today’s collectibles businesses are focused on the current crop of ballplayers, which is totally uninteresting to me. It’s like the stock market. If the players are good, their memorabilia is very expensive. If they do badly, well, then their prices drop. I was dealing with players whose careers were over, so you knew what you were collecting.
I’m interested in history. I don’t care what a Derek Jeter signed baseball can sell for as opposed to his rookie card. I’m interested in the fact that through the 19th century, baseball players were considered to be a bunch of hooligans. And how that perception didn’t change until President Taft went to a World Series game. He was the first president to throw out a first pitch. Taft was a heavyset man, so in the seventh inning, because he’d been sitting so long, he wanted to stretch his legs. When he stood up, everyone else also stood up. Hence, the seventh-inning stretch.
Collectors Weekly: When did sports memorabilia become collectible?
Gutierrez: It goes back to Jefferson Burdick, who cataloged all the baseball cards in 1940. He was a janitor from midnight to 6 a.m. at a school, and all he did during the day was catalog baseball cards. There were a handful of guys back then. You were always an accountant or whatever it was that you did during the day, and then you did this as a hobby.
I’ve seen catalogs from the 1950s and ’60s, but it started to really take off in the ’70s. By 1980, people were working in this business full time, which was unheard of before.
In the 1970s, collectors of my generation realized that they were making money on sports memorabilia, and that spawned all the other collectibles categories, including rock ’n’ roll and entertainment. People like me invested in performers we liked as kids, and a lot of other people followed suit.
Before that, baseball cards, rock ’n’ roll, and entertainment collectibles were all skimming the bottom of the auction business. Baseball cards and memorabilia were the first to take off, though, and they are still far stronger categories than the others.
Collectors Weekly: Who are some of the most collectible Hall of Famers?
Gutierrez: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, Cy Young. Those are the basis of a serious collection. From there, you collect other home-run hitters, other pitchers. You can collect teams. There are so many different themes to pursue and that’s what makes baseball so collectible. People collect by team, by player, by home-run hitters, by strikeout leaders, by players in the 3,000-hits club, the 500-home-runs club.
If someone is collecting a single player, they usually start out with baseball cards. They can go into jerseys, signed photos, signed balls, signed bats, game-used bats, game-used uniforms.
Collectors Weekly: Are signed items the most sought after?
Gutierrez: It depends on the collector. Some people just don’t like autographs. Some people want autographs from early on, like when the person started his career, or they might want a particular kind of photo or document.
Baseballs with lots of inscriptions are another collectible area. Same thing with signed jerseys or signed game-used jerseys, or autographed bats or game-used bats. There are loads of ways you can go.
Signed items are sexier, and because of that forgers prey upon collectors. Because the business grew so fast, there was an influx of forgeries, and the forgeries scared off a lot of people. A lot of bad material has been bought over the years.
Collectors Weekly: What’s the best way to acquire items now?
Gutierrez: The sports-memorabilia business has taken a strong turn toward auctions. It used to be about buying and selling through dealers. The dealer population has dwindled considerably because people like the fact that they can buy out of auction. They feel that they’re buying items at the price the market will bear, as opposed to someone saying, “I’ll sell this to you for $2,500.” You don’t know if that’s a good deal or a bad deal. But at auction, that piece of memorabilia you got for $1,800, you know it was worth it.
Plus, at auction, essentially all autographed material is now authenticated. There are two major autograph authentication companies that are well known and accepted in our business: James Spence Authentication, based in Parsippany, New Jersey, and Professional Sports Authenticator, in Newport Beach, California.
Of course, the only way that you can positively know that an autograph is authentic is if you watch someone sign something in front of you. Less than one percent of all autographs are made in front of collectors, though.
In order to keep the business honest, it’s important to use these authentication companies, not only for autographs but in other areas, too—for jerseys, for bats. There are authenticators for all that material because these people have exemplars they can use for comparison.
Collectors Weekly: What’s the most popular era in baseball to collect?
Gutierrez: Well, I don’t know that there is a most popular era, to tell you the truth. In baseball, vintage is generally considered as pre-1970. The farther back you go, the harder it is to find material, and the more expensive it is. Collectors are enamored by the ’20s and ’30s, and by the ’50s and ’60s because many of them grew up in that era. It’s the vintage memorabilia that sells for the most money.
Modern memorabilia, which is anything post 1980, is produced at private signings and convention shows. These are items that current players sign by the thousands. Companies buy and mass market them.
I think Mickey Mantle did the first signing for money around 1976 or 1977, and then Joe DiMaggio followed. People went to the convention shows and bought their autographs. After that, promoters started booking Warren Spahn, Bob Gibson, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron, and that drew out the Hall of Famers.
Today it’s important for a lot of these players to make the Hall of Fame because with that comes a guarantee of at least $100,000 a year for private signings and attending convention shows. It’s a way for the older players to make far more money than they ever did in uniform.
Before the 1950s, just signing a ball would have been considered rude. Players always wrote, “With good wishes from Babe Ruth.” Now collectors are more interested in balls with just the signature. Nowadays, it’s about time and money. “I’m being paid X amount of money to sign X amount of balls at X amount per hour, so I’ve got to get rolling. You want a ball signed for your little boy? Sorry. Next.”
Collectors Weekly: What types of signed baseballs are most valuable?
Gutierrez: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, and Yankee team-signed baseballs are the most desirable. The Brooklyn Dodgers are also very collectible. Most collectors like to focus on signatures from when a player was still in the game because it would be on an older ball, with a different kind of signature.
Modern memorabilia dealers sell balls with a player’s career highlights printed on them. The player will sign the ball in the sweet spot, and then the dealer will put on all their home runs, how many hits they had, what their batting average was, the teams they played for, and some little ditty about their personal career.
Home-run balls are hard to authenticate. Dealers and collectors want some kind of documentation, but there was no documentation back in the 1930s or ’40s. Back then if you caught a Babe Ruth home-run ball, it would buy you a beer and a free dinner at a local restaurant. These balls, if they can be documented, are worth, in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars. If you were able to find Babe Ruth’s “called-shot” home-run ball from the 1932 World Series, I’d venture that would be worth six figures.
In modern times most of the big home runs have been on TV. So you could see where it was hit and who caught it. Usually those people come forward and they say, “I’ve got Barry Bonds’ 61st home run, 67th home run, Mark McGwire’s home run.”
In fact, I did the initial appraisal of Mark McGwire’s 70th-home-run ball that sold at Guernsey’s in New York for $3 million. I got no part of that—the insurance company of the guy who caught it went to Bonhams & Butterfields auction house in San Francisco. They paid me to appraise it. If that ball was resold right now, my guess is it might bring a couple hundred thousand. When things are hot, they’re hot, and after they cool off, it is what it is. People hate him now because of his steroid use, so his memorabilia is considerably down.
Collectors Weekly: Is it more common to collect by team or by player?
But then the collector will say, “God, I love Sandy Koufax. You know what? Because I love Sandy Koufax, I love Don Drysdale. Because I love Don Drysdale, I love the Los Angeles Dodgers. And because I love the Dodgers, I want to get into the Dodgers of the ’40s, the ’50s.” Jackie Robinson—that’s another great Dodger name.
There’s a guy I knew who had a nice collection, but I never thought of him as an expert in autographs or cards. Then all of sudden he started getting involved in Spalding World Tour collectibles—photos, balls, uniforms, programs—from the 1880s. Now he’s an expert because he’s collected the most stuff in that area and knows more than anyone else.
Collectors Weekly: What are the most difficult autographs to authenticate?
Gutierrez: Autographs by 19th-century players are the most difficult to authenticate because there are so few examples by those players. Back then, when those guys finished playing baseball, they went back to their farms. There are few-to-zero comparables we can use on some of those guys. “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, for example; I know of less than 10 of his signatures on balls or paper that are legit. Same with the Negro League Hall of Famers. Some of those players lived long lives and stayed in baseball, and other ones just faded into obscurity.
Collectors Weekly: Can you tell us about the collection of balls and photographs you appraised when we met you at the San Jose taping of Antiques Roadshow?
Gutierrez: The guy’s great grandfather, I think, only played in the pros two years, but in those two years he collected and kept items that are now worth a considerable amount of money. It was nice that he did that. Most players at the end of their careers say “Here’s my uniform,” and then they leave, they walk away with nothing.
So that was a family situation, and I gave them an appraisal for insurance purposes. On Antiques Roadshow, we’re not there to try to get them to sell their stuff or have them go to auction. I ask the people on camera, “So all of this old stuff; do you plan on keeping this? Is this part of your family history here?” If it is, if these are heirlooms, we tell them what we think they should insure it for. I’ve worked with a lot of descendants of players who have material, and they’re usually not interested in selling their family heirlooms, either.
Collectors Weekly: What about game-used uniforms and gloves?
Gutierrez: The home uniforms, which are usually white or off-white, are the most coveted because they have the name of the team on them. The road uniforms are usually gray or a darker color, and they usually have the name of the city that the team is from.
You want to see some wear in a top-of-the-line uniform. On jerseys, you look for signs of sweating. If the player was an outfielder, you look for sliding and all kinds of stuff. Usually, those uniforms have been washed considerably if they’re vintage, which is a good thing. The newer ones are almost impossible to figure out. They ones they sell at the fan stores are essentially the same as those they make for the guys on the teams.
On game-used pieces like bats, you definitely want to see some ball marks. With vintage Spalding and Wilson gloves, you want to see some wear. If it’s in perfect condition, like it came out of the factory, it would probably be worth less. I mean, how could you prove that it was actually used?
Collectors Weekly: Are photographs also collectible?
Gutierrez: Expect to pay a premium for signed original photos. An old AP or UPI wire photo from the ’20s or ’30s signed by Ruth or Gehrig? That’s cool.
Years ago, people used to collect photos from newspapers because they were trying to get whatever they could on a player. Well, the collectors today are too uppity to do something like that. They’ll say, “Well, that’s a really nice Rogers Hornsby-signed newspaper photo, but it is newspaper. I’d rather have an 8-by-10 photograph.”
The condition of the photograph is important. The fewer the creases and imperfections, the more it can be sold for. But the market for original photos isn’t really very big. If something is selling for a few hundred dollars, that’s pretty good. Something selling for a couple thousand dollars is great. There are large-sized cabinet photos from the 19th century and from the early 20th century that have sold for $20,000 to $40,000.
It also makes a difference if the photo is reproduced. If you have a photo of Hank Aaron from 1965 and it’s signed, “To Maribeth, best wishes. Hank Aaron,” a dealer might say, “Nice, but it’s reproduced.”
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the oldest pieces of baseball memorabilia you’ve come across?
Gutierrez: The earliest professional baseball piece that I know of is the 1869 Peck & Snyder baseball card, which highlighted the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. A collector in New Jersey owns the bat Babe Ruth used to hit the first home run in Yankee Stadium when it opened in 1923. In fact, I talked to him this morning. And we at Heritage just sold the earliest known Babe Ruth bat from about 1917 when he was with Boston for $537,000. I thought it was going to sell for $120,000. That’s scary isn’t it?
Collectors Weekly: Do you think the market for baseball collectibles will remain strong?
Gutierrez: There are too many collectors for it to fall apart. That’s not going to happen in my lifetime. But as far as the next generation, it depends on whom they collect, who they want to put money into, and how much they appreciate history. Forget about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Ty Cobb. Everyone is going to know them and respect them forever. But who’s going to carry the torch for Cy Young, Chuck Klein, Al Simmons, or Connie Mack? Who’s going to do that?
(All images in this article courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries)