(Born November 25, 1914, Martinez, California – Died March 8, 1999, Hollywood, Florida)
“I’ll be happy to sign your photo.”
Of the many players who signed through the mail in my youth, Joe DiMaggio was arguably the most iconic. As if his records, championships, and marriage to Marilyn Monroe were not enough, Simon and Garfunkel further immortalized the legend in one of my favorite songs, Mrs. Robinson, with the unforgettable line, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio…?”
In fact, Joe had gone back to his native California, where he retired from baseball.
I sent him a request with some items to sign, and to my surprise and delight he signed EVERYTHING I sent! Like countless other fans, I couldn’t get enough of Joe, so I repeated the process, sending him between five and ten items each time. The average turnaround back then for less famous Hall of Famers was about two weeks. But Joe’s return rate was dependably swift, usually within seven days. I found this remarkable, especially for someone of his stature, whose mail I surmised, was probably mountainous—not to mention other demands on his time. Still, by the time I left high school my collection boasted 70+ Joe DiMaggio autographs, more than any other player, and included one of my favorite pieces.
In those days, getting high-quality images for signing was not easy, but I managed to find a gorgeous black-and-white 8” x 10” glossy photograph of Joe, which I bought for $1.00. The cost was no small sum for me, but I knew my investment would become a priceless possession once Joe added his name to it. I wasted no time sending it off with a special request for him to sign and personalize it to me. Like a boomerang, it was returned a few days later, beautifully signed with the sentiment, “To Kevin Best Wishes Joe DiMaggio.” It was instantly one of my most prized keepsakes, especially because Joe had personalized the image just as I had requested.
Or did he?
Years later, around 1990, I read that Joe DiMaggio had stopped answering his fan mail decades earlier, and the duty of signing Joe’s name to the endless stream of material that fans like me had been sending all that time was outsourced to his sister, Marie. Not surprisingly, the article stated that the chore of signing autographs for her brother was a “full-time” occupation. Marie was not only diligent in returning those items to their unwitting and thankful recipients as fast as a Joe D line-drive, she was also reasonably good at replicating his rather unremarkable writing style.
Could it be that my coveted collection of Joe D material was, in fact, a hoard of “Marie DiMaggio” autographs masquerading as the Yankee Clipper’s? Say it ain’t so, Joe!
The possibility prompted my first in-depth analysis of a player’s writing. Using samples I knew to be signed in person compared to those obtained through the mail (including my entire boyhood stockpile), I noticed subtle but distinct differences and consistent distinctions between the two groups. The examination was revealing, and my verdict was as disappointing as it was conclusive: Marie DiMaggio was the creator of all the “Joe DiMaggio” autographs I had received through the mail. Joe signed none of them, including my prized 8”x10”!
Joe’s ghost autograph signed by his sister, Marie DiMaggio.
This episode introduced me to the terms “ghost signed” and “secretarial” autographs. Neither are genuine as represented, but are instead nonmalicious forgeries created by a person who is authorized to sign someone else’s name. Both terms are often used interchangeably, since the signer in both cases is empowered to produce a nonauthentic signature. Forgeries, of course, are also nonauthentic signatures. Unlike their aforementioned counterparts, however, a forgery is unauthorized and created with malicious intent to deceive and/or defraud a third party.
Forgers also do their best to mimic the autograph they try to replicate. A designated ghost signer may or may not attempt to copy the genuine signature style they are authorized to sign. Whether or not Marie consciously attempted to duplicate Joe’s signature, she was good at it. So good, in fact, that some of her work is still bought and sold today as her brother’s genuine autograph.
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"Kevin Keating's love of baseball has a purity that matches its longevity. It has brought him into charming contacts with many of the sport's greatest stars. To read his charming stories is to experience first love a second time."
- George F. Will, Author, Men at Work
Waiting for a Sign Volume One