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On the spectrum of baseball rarities, a signature from Shoeless Joe Jackson — the turn-of-the-century star who never learned to read or write — is high on the list.
Jackson never spent a day in school, instead joining his father doing odd jobs at the Brandon Mill in his hometown of Greenville, S.C., as a child and taking the baseball path to stardom from the time he was barely a teenager.
Jackson, who hit .408 for Cleveland in 1911 and was banned by baseball for his role — a highly disputed role — in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, did sign a few important documents along the way, though. One of those rare signatures is up for auction right now, with the bidding at Leland’s ending on Friday. It’s a signed mortgage voucher from 1916. At the time of this story’s publishing, the high bid is $20,886.
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Here’s a portion of the official item description.
“This rarity is a Joe Jackson signed voucher of a mortgage payment made by the White Sox. It is dated February 28th, 1916 in Savannah, Ga and paid to the order of the Savannah Realty Investment Corporation and value received and charge the same to the account of Harry Grabiner, Secy. Chicago White Sox. This is a scarce piece of baseball history. It is in very good to excellent condition with two minor vertical folds and a tiny chip on the right edge. It has been authenticated and encapsulated by PSA/DNA.”
I visited Greenville a few months ago to see how Shoeless Joe’s hometown views its most famous son — spoiler: The town still loves Joe! — and when I was there, I talked to Michael Wallach, the managing director of the Shoeless Joe Museum, about Jackson signatures, among many, many other topics. The museum owns Jackson’s will and has a blown-up picture of the will on display (the original is safely tucked away in a different location).
“We know of only six legitimate, proven signatures. I personally believe there are a lot more,” Wallach told me. “The reason I think there are many more is because I can imagine times when somebody might have said, ‘Joe, give me the best you can.’ ”
Mostly, though, he took another approach.
“Because he couldn’t sign his name, he would sign his name like many people who couldn’t write back in those days, with an X,” Wallach said. “And then the person next to them would say, ‘I witness that X as being Joe’s legitimate signature.’ ”
I reached out to Wallach to ask about the Leland’s item.
The document, he said, is believed to be the real thing. The challenge with authenticating Jackson signatures, Wallach explained to me on my visit, is that because Jackson couldn’t write, he was basically trying to draw his name without any sort of writing muscle memory, which meant each time he wrote his name a different variation was produced.
Jackson signed his will in 1950, and he died the next year.
“For the will, he wanted to sign his real name,” Wallach said. “He was practicing with his wife, Katie. They got to the lawyer’s office like 20 minutes ahead of their scheduled time, and the lawyer gave them a large envelope, an 8 1/2 by 11 big envelope, for him to sign his name, and for 20 minutes they practiced his name. And then they threw the envelope out. Can you imagine what that envelope would be worth? I don’t think there’s anything in sports that would come close to the value of that envelope.”
You won’t find the “Shoeless” part on any of his signatures, though. Jackson hated that nickname, which originated from one game in Anderson, S.C., in 1908, when Jackson ditched a new pair of shoes that were hurting his feet.
The document up for auction, though, probably isn’t the only time Jackson signed some sort of mortgage document. Joe and Katie Jackson were active participants in the Greenville real-estate market.
“Katie, I think, was the original flip-this-house person,” Wallach said. “They bought probably 20 different homes in the Greenville area that they lived in over the years. Sometimes they lived there for less than a year. I don’t know if she was really flipping them, or because he was on the road all the time, or whatever. But he’d buy homes for his parents, for her families, and sell them. I think she’s the original flip-it person.”