Babe Ruth looms large in American history — a legendary baseball player whose name evokes a classic era in the game.
In the sports memorabilia world, a Ruth signature can bring thousands of dollars. It can also bring headaches, as collectors and authenticators try to distinguish real signatures from an ever larger body of forgeries.
In April, Lewis Johnson of Gold Coast Pawn in Bonita Springs bought one of those fakes, swapping $1,000 for a baseball with a purported Ruth signature and a certificate of authenticity.
Both were forged.
The man who sold it to Johnson is suspected of doing the same at pawn shops between Alachua and Collier counties.
“We got duped, and evidently this guy was duping all across the state,” Johnson, 52, said Wednesday.
The unnamed suspect is now being sought for statewide prosecution by the Largo Police Department, who contacted the Lee County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday, according to an agency report. Wednesday, a detective with the police department declined to confirm or deny the investigation.
Such cases are a fact of life in the sports memorabilia world, those involved in the hobby say.
“These guys try to do everything, every which way,” said Richard Simon, a New York City memorabilia authenticator who has testified in forgery cases. “The Internet is rampant with forgeries. It’s made it much easier for criminals to operate with impunity.”
Simon checks signatures by collecting “examplars” of player scripts — verified signatures from legal documents or old autograph books. He also looks for incongruities between the signature and the item.
An example on Simon’s website is a signed photo of baseball greats Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. The photo was printed on Kodak Image Magic Paper, released in 1996. Mantle died in 1995; Maris died 10 years prior.
According to Simon, fake signatures are often found on Harwood brand baseballs, a brand used professionally in the early 20th century and now found in yard sales or junk shops.
The signed baseball purchased by Johnson was a Harwood, and it came with a certificate by authentication company PSA-DNA. The seller described himself as a realtor from Tampa, and he said he purchased the ball for $5,000.
He told Johnson he needed cash fast.
Aware a real Ruth ball could fetch thousands, Johnson was intrigued. He compared the signature to examples on the Internet. Everything looked good.
A call to PSA-DNA later proved his mistake — the certificate number had been used in several transactions across the area.
A spokeswoman for the Collier County Sheriff’s Office said the agency turned over a similar case to the Largo Police Department.
Don Gunther, 72, a memorabilia collector in Naples, said he’s also been burned by forgers. He recalled almost purchasing a baseball with the signature of Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson before discovering it was a forgery.
Because Ruth was a constant signer, baseballs with his signature aren’t exceedingly rare, Gunther said. The collector estimates he owns as many as eight of the balls, and he recently sold one for $10,000.
Ruth is beloved for his pitching, his hitting and his charisma. But his signature was also something to behold, Gunther said. The ‘R’ in “Ruth” loops high and settles over the rest of his last name.
“It’s beautiful, absolutely stunning,” Gunther said. “He has one of the best handwritings of anyone I’ve ever seen.”
It’s even better when it’s the real thing.