For a lifelong baseball fan and collector, it was the find of a lifetime.
I've been collecting baseball memorabilia since the age of eight, when I first discovered Topps Baseball Cards at Schuler's, the neighborhood drug store. Since then, I've expanded my collecting pursuits to include autographs, original art, game-used equipment and even bobblehead dolls. I've also become an amateur baseball historian, researching the origins of baseball in Chicago and the city's first star, Adrian C. "Cap" Anson. This website is the fruit of my labors. I hope it does adequate justice to Anson's memory. I never expected to be rewarded for creating it, but sometimes fortune smiles.
Such was the case when in April of 2005 the opportunity of a lifetime stumbled into my lap. I was looking through eBay auction listings as I so often do when an item caught my eye and sent shivers down my spine. There in a listing was a first edition copy of Anson's biography "A Ball Player's Career," a remarkable and rare book in its own right. Yet what had my heart racing was a photo of an inscription on the first page of the book. There in beautiful, flowing fountain pen was the inscription "May 28, 1906. To my little friend Edwin D. Wrenn. Adrian C. Anson."
Why did this simple inscription have my pulse pounding? To answer that question, I must stress just how rare and desirable authentic Anson autographs are. You can read all about Anson's career on this website. What's important to remember is that his career ended 108 years ago. The rarity of his autograph is due mostly to age. Anson's career ended before collecting baseball players' signatures was a common practice. The demand for his autograph is fueled by his stature as the 19th century's most recognized star, his membership in the Hall of Fame, and his affiliation with the Chicago Cubs (then the White Stockings). These factors, combined with the rarity factor of his signature, have driven up the value of his signature to startling heights. The most basic certified cut signature carries a value of $1,000 to $1,500. An inscribed book page, cut out of his autobiography, sold for $2,088 (with buyer's premium) in April of this year through Robert Edward Auctions. The last inscribed book to be offered at auction sold for $2,981 in June of 1995. Anson's autograph on an original period photo portrait is valued at $7,000 to $10,000 and on a single signed baseball $35,000.
It should also be noted that this particular example happens to be the rarest of the rare in that it is a full name signature. Anson seldom signed his full name of Adrian C. Anson. Usually he shortened it to A.C. Anson. Finding a full name signature is highly unusual. It makes sense, however, that Anson would sign a copy of his autobiography, a book he was immensely proud of, with the more formal full length signature. And while all Cap Anson autographs are valuable, the greatest prices at auction are achieved by full length signatures.
So it's no wonder that when I saw the eBay listing and accompanying photographs that I was excited. But my twenty plus years of collecting have also instilled in me a healthy dose of skepticism. I know that a large percentage of autographs are forgeries and fakes. And that if a deal appears too good to be true, it often is. The listing was attracting few bidders and was receiving little in the way of bids due to a poor listing and lack of proof of authenticity. Yet there were a number of factors about this listing that had me curious to learn more.
For one, the inscription was definitely in an authentic first edition copy of Anson's book. Published in 1900, "A Ball Player's Career" was the first baseball biography ever published in book form. The distinctive green binding and cover art were present, the pages toned as expected from age, the title pages accurate. The condition of the book was poor, with an extremely damaged spine, but still all the pages were attached and in good condition. It seemed unlikely to me that an autograph forger would go to the trouble of locating a copy of this rare book and incur the expense of obtaining one, which can cost from $100 to $500, depending on condition.
Secondly, the inscription was remarkably similar to the one sold at auction in the April 30, 2005 Robert Edward Auctions sale. That page carried the inscription "Chicago Dec. 25th 1901. Merry Christmas to my old friend Emma B. Ross. Adrian C. Anson." Besides the similarity of the signature, I had the handwritten word "friend", and the numerals "190_" to compare between the two inscriptions. The eBay listing photos compared very favorably to the Robert Edward lot.
With those facts in mind, I contacted the listing party to learn more about the book. I discovered that it had been purchased by a man whom frequented thrift stores, garage sales and auctions in search of rare books. He had found this book in 1995 at a Salvation Army thrift store in Lasalle-Peru, Illinois and purchased it for $1.00. He found the inscription and knew the book was worth holding onto. He himself had seen the Robert Edward Auction listing for the page like the one in his book, and the listing's $400.00 reserve price. It was at that point that he decided to place it on eBay.
I made plans to meet the seller and see the book in person. I traveled two and a half hours from my home in Lake in the Hills, Illinois to the tiny town of Sheffield, Illinois where the man and book resided. We met at his house and after talking a little bit about baseball and books, he showed me his find. In person, it more than exceeded my expectations. The paper of the book and the ink of the inscription had just the right amount of toning to account for the almost 100 years that had passed since Anson signed the page. The inscription was neat, crisp and altogether superior in quality. There was no doubt in my mind that I was holding onto a book that the great Anson had also once held in his mighty hands and signed with his pen.
The owner and I negotiated a deal that made us both quite happy. He made a tidy profit on his $1.00 investment while I had added to my baseball memorabilia collection an item that I would otherwise never have been able to afford. Of course, my purchase carried some risk. It was still possible that I had purchased a forgery. I myself had little doubt about the signature's legitimacy, yet I knew third party verification would be required for others to be convinced.
But first, I did some research on the mysterious Edwin D. Wrenn to whom the book was inscribed. I wrote to the City Clerk of Chicago and was able to obtain two documents of interest. The first was the 1900 state census listing an Edwin D. Wrenn living in the city of Chicago with his father William, mother Lillian and two brothers in the South Township. Edwin's date of birth is listed as Feb. 1893, making him seven at the time of the census and thirteen at the time the book was inscribed to him. The second document was the 1940 state census showing Edwin as the head of household living in Downers Grove Township in the west suburbs of Chicago. He is listed with wife Marjorie and sons Edwin D. Jr. and Louis W.
In an internet whitepages search, I found a listing for an Edwin D. Wrenn III currently living in Northern Illinois. I phoned this man and he did indeed turn out to be the grandchild of one Edwin Duffield Wrenn born in Chicago in 1893. Edwin III informed me that his grandfather had passed away before he himself was old enough to remember him (Edwin I having passed sometime in the late 1950's), but that he did know that his grandfather was indeed a Chicago Cubs fan, a trait that he had passed down to his father, Edwin Jr.
My thoughts now turned to third party authentication of the signature. The leading authenticator of historic baseball signatures is Professional Sports Authenticators (PSA) of Newport Beach, California. PSA is used by many leading auction houses and baseball memorabilia dealers to verify an item's authenticity. A certificate of authenticity from PSA serves as proof positive for most collectors that an autograph is genuine.
Encouraged by my research, I took my book to Professional Sports Authenticators (PSA) at the Chicago Sportsfest Convention in June of 2005. PSA is widely considered the leading authenticator of historic baseball autographs. PSA is used by many leading auction houses and baseball memorabilia dealers to verify an item's authenticity. A certificate of authenticity from PSA serves as proof positive for most collectors that an autograph is genuine. PSA's renown sports authenticator Steve Grad personally inspected my book and its inscription. He took detailed notes and digital photographs. I did not get the results of his review the day of the show, as he took his findings back with him to compare my item to exemplars of Anson signatures in the PSA archives.
On the afternoon of July 5, 2005, the results of PSA's investigation into my item reached my mailbox. My assessment of the book was correct. The inscription and autograph were, in the professional opinion of PSA's most senior authenticator Steve Grad, signed by Anson's own hand. Here is a copy of the Letter of Authenticity that I received.
Holding the book in your hands, the ghosts of the past come to visit. I can imagine a little thirteen year-old boy happily handing his book up to Anson to sign, and Cap obliging with a wink. A satisfying and warmhearted quality pervades Anson's choice of words "To my little friend." It is gratifying to imagine the joy this book must have brought to little Edwin, the young baseball fan looking up to his towering sporting hero as the once great athlete scribbles him a memento of their meeting.
How the book eventually found its way from Edwin Wrenn's hands to the shelves of a Salvation Army thrift store in Lasalle-Peru is a tale lost to time. Did Edwin keep it in his possession until his death? Did he hand it down to his son Edwin Jr.? These are questions that will likely never be answered. Thankfully, it survived and its reemergence has once again allowed Adrian Anson to bring great joy to one of his admirers.
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