Sharon Bowen thought her late husband was a bit crazy for buying a scrapbook filled with black and white photos of Cleveland ballplayers from the early 1900s - but not anymore. It turns out that book held what may be the only autographed photo of Shoeless Joe Jackson, the Holy Grail of baseball signatures.
Jackson, who was tossed out of baseball for throwing the 1919 World Series and remembered in the movie "Field of Dreams," was illiterate and rarely signed anything but paychecks and legal documents, making his autographs among the rarest in sports.
How many Jackson signatures are in existence isn't clear, but most experts agree that it's probably fewer than 100. But this is the first signed photo authenticated by autograph experts, according to Heritage Auctions, which is handling the sale of the century-old photograph this month.
It could fetch at least $100,000, according to the Dallas-based auction house.
"If I were a betting man, I'd say the chances of another one surfacing would be highly unlikely," said Joe Orlando, president of Professional Sports Authenticator, which validated the signature and photo.
Bowen's husband, Bill, first saw the scrapbook about 10 years ago.
It was stored in a barn near Cleveland and belonged to a couple whose family was friends with Frank W. Smith, a photographer with The Plain Dealer newspaper. He shot the photo of Jackson along with those of Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and Napoleon Lajoie during spring training in 1911.
The family offered to sell the scrapbook five years ago to Bowen's husband because they knew how much he treasured the 60 photos. The price tag: $15,000.
"I told him 'absolutely not,'" Bowen said. "Luckily for me, I lost that argument."
Her husband kept the book in a trunk, looking at it almost every day and showing it off to friends. A collector all his life, he appreciated its history and connection to his hometown. Not knowing the book's sky-high value, they never locked it up or worried about keeping it out of sight. "It wasn't an investment," she said.
Bill died at age 67 last April, and the family decided someone else should enjoy the photos.
The signed photos of Jackson and other members of the Cleveland Naps, the team that later became the Indians, will be sold in New York City on Feb. 21. The photo of Jackson - taken the year he became the only rookie to hit over .400 - had an online bid of $42,000 as of last week.
A baseball bearing Jackson's shaky signature brought $78,000 in 2011. Even a scrap of paper with his autograph sold for $23,100 nearly 25 years ago.
The experts at Heritage Auctions were skeptical when the Bowen family contacted them. "We get calls and emails on a daily basis about stuff that turns out to be reproductions or they're not authentic," said Chris Ivy, the company's director of sports auctions.
That changed quickly once they saw the images. They sent the photos to Professional Sports Authenticator whose sports memorabilia experts looked at them from all angles.
"Our job is to be the skeptic, especially if it is too good to be true," said Orlando.
They first set out to determine that the photographs were originals and from the early 1900s, and they looked at the story behind the scrapbook and its origins.
And they verified the autographs - not an easy task when it comes to Jackson's childlike signature. It's known that Jackson more or less signed his name by mimicking a pattern that his wife had made. She often signed his name, too.
The experts at PSA looked at the pen pressure and the spacing of the Jackson signature while comparing it to other examples.
"The stars aligned," Orlando said.
Mike Nola, official historian for the Shoeless Joe Jackson Society and a board member of the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum in Greenville, South Carolina, said he can't remember seeing another signed photo of Jackson.
There are well over four dozen legitimate Jackson signatures that he knows of, including several bats and at least a dozen baseballs, he said. "That's still pretty rare especially by today's standards when guys are signing everything," Nola said.