How an Ingenious Collector Landed One of the Rarest Autographs in Baseball - Atlas Obscura
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How an Ingenious Collector Landed One of the Rarest Autographs in Baseball

It took 17 years to find the signature of “Moonlight” Graham, who played a single major-league game.

A postcard of the Scranton Miners, Graham's minor league team. Graham is in the middle row, third from left.
A postcard of the Scranton Miners, Graham’s minor league team. Graham is in the middle row, third from left. Love of the Game Auctions

When Jonathan Algard, a construction worker from just outside of Allentown, Pennsylvania, began his passionate quest to obtain one of the 20th century’s rarest and most coveted baseball autographs at an affordable price 17 years ago, he knew the deck was stacked against him. Only four autographs of Archibald “Moonlight” Graham were known to exist, according to PSA/DNA, a top authentication company. A signed 1963 check by Graham sold for $3,000 in 2008 auction and a 1906 minor league postcard with just his last name fetched $5,000 in 2015. Since Graham played just two innings in 1905 for the New York Giants without ever coming to bat or making a putout in the field, the value of his memorabilia is more disproportionate to his performance than any other player’s in sports history.

Algard devised a brilliant strategy to land his Graham autograph for just $15 (plus $4 shipping) on eBay. The brilliant plot relied on the player’s double life—while playing baseball, Graham moonlit as a medical student.

Graham became a pop-culture icon after being included as a character in the 1982 W.P. Kinsella novel, Shoeless Joe, and its film adaptation, Field of Dreams (1989). After obtaining his medical degree, Dr. Archibald Wright Graham spent the rest of his life as the community and school doctor in the tiny town of Chisholm, Minnesota.

A Graham baseball card.
A Graham baseball card. eBay/courtesy of The Doc Graham Memorial Scholarship Fund

The “Moonlight” nickname is steeped in mystique. Perhaps, as PSA suggests, it derives from him going to med school at night. More likely, it referred to his speed. In 1905, the New York World reported that he was “known as ‘Moonlight’ because he is supposed to be as fast as a flash.”

Jonathan Algard’s pursuit of a Graham autograph began in 2000. He hunted in vain for postcards associated with Graham’s minor league team, the Scranton Miners. (Scranton, Pennsylvania is about 75 miles away from Allentown.) He also researched Graham’s body of published work about blood pressure and hypertension in children. Nothing.

One day in 2006, the friendly nurse at the elementary school of his son William called home because he was in her office fighting chronic food allergies. A Yankees-Red Sox game on TV was playing in the background. A light bulb switched on in the father’s head. Since Graham was a school doctor and tight with his students, he was probably featured in yearbooks, and maybe he signed one. Plus, people save yearbooks.

After 17 years, collector Jonathan Algard managed to track down the coveted signature of Moonlight Graham within a yearbook from the small town of Chisholm, Minnesota.
After 17 years, collector Jonathan Algard managed to track down the coveted signature of Moonlight Graham within a yearbook from the small town of Chisholm, Minnesota. Courtesy PSA

Algard began snapping up Chisholm yearbooks on eBay for $15 to $20 apiece. What complicated his task was that he couldn’t ask the sellers if Graham had signed his photo, because that might tip them off about its potential value. When the boxes arrived, he, William, and his other son, Joseph, tore them open with the fervor of kids diving into unopened packs of baseball cards.

“I always enjoyed the movie Field of Dreams and was amazed that there weren’t more of his autographs available,” Algard says. “I guess the more I researched him, the more I became fascinated with the real man. From the accounts of the people that knew him, he was a good guy that legitimately helped a lot of people.” (Graham was indeed known to give away eyeglasses to local children and provide free medical services to needy families.)

Two dozen yearbooks and $450 later, Algard finally landed his Holy Grail last May. Flipping through it, he discovered a page signed by several faculty members, including Graham.

The coveted and extremely scarce signature of Archibald “Moonlight” Graham.
The coveted and extremely scarce signature of Archibald “Moonlight” Graham. Courtesy PSA

The eBay seller hadn’t included Graham’s autograph in the auction pictures, but he did show a photo of the page opposite Graham’s signature. Last month, Algard had PSA authenticate his prize at a big card show in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

Ironically, Kevin Keating, the authenticator, is a Graham collector who owns two of the five known autographs. “He is probably the most knowledgeable Graham expert in the world,” Algard says. “He joked that it was like stopping to pick up a hitchhiker who said his name is ‘Archie Graham.’”

The yearbook is worth about $3,500, according to Ron Keurajian, the author of Collecting Historical Autographs. A photo of Graham’s World War I draft card in that book perfectly matches Algard’s.

A photo of Dr. Archibald Moonlight Graham attending one of his students was included in the yearbook.
A photo of Dr. Archibald Moonlight Graham attending one of his students was included in the yearbook. Courtesy PSA

The yearbook has a lot going for it besides Graham. “It was owned by a then 18 year old named William Cox,” Algard says. “Reading his well wishes it was quite clear he was going into the military in 1943. He returned from WWII and I believe he passed last year. He seemed to have had a well lived life, so it all adds to a great story.”

He considers his total $450 investment in the 24 yearbooks money well spent. “I like them as a group, even the ones without Graham,” Algard says. “I still have all of them in my attic. It’s fascinating to me just to research some of the people in them.”

Meanwhile Algard has six yearbooks he hasn’t searched yet. “They are technically a gift,” he says, “so I won’t get to flip through them until Christmas.”.