There’s nothing quite like death to get the memorabilia market buzzing. The trade in Ted Williams trinkets was hot when he had a pulse. As his body grows cold—on its way to very, very cold—the demand for the stuff he left behind gets hotter. eBay had more than 6,000 Williams-related commodities up for auction two days after his death. And they’re selling: A 1972 baseball card in mint condition of Williams as skipper of the Texas Rangers, something considered at or near the low end of Williams collectibles, went for 55 cents two weeks ago via the popular online flea market. A copy of the same card fetched $37 over the weekend.
But Kevin Keating, a guy who deals in collectibles as a profession, claims no joy over Williams’ passing.
“It’s a sad day for me,” says Keating.
Keating, an Alexandria resident, owns what is widely regarded as the pre-eminent baseball-autograph collection on the planet. He now has the signature of every player inducted into the Hall of Fame in his inventory. Nobody else can make that claim. He has the only known autograph of Smokey Joe Williams, a Negro Leagues superstar who in 1914 went 41-3 pitching for the New York Lincoln Giants. That Williams wasn’t inducted into Cooperstown until 1999.
But it’s the John Hancock of another Williams, Ted, that Keating prizes above all others in his stable. The Splendid Splinter was Keating’s first Hall of Famer. When Williams was managing the Washington Senators, Keating got him to sign a baseball.
“I was a 10-year-old kid at Comiskey Park, standing with my dad near the Senators dugout, when Ted Williams walked in,” says Keating, now 43. “I was shouting, ‘Mr. Williams! Mr. Williams!’ and he turned and looked me right in the eye. I can still see him looking at me.”
He still has the ball, too. On the day he got it, Keating says, he decided he wanted to live his life like Williams, who forfeited several years of his baseball career to do two tours of duty during World War II and the Korean War. When Keating realized in high school that his baseball skills weren’t close to Williamslike, he figured he could at least mimic his hero’s devotion to country by enrolling at West Point.
“I gave up 11 years of collecting autographs while I was in the military, like Ted Williams gave up what he loved most: baseball,” says Keating.
He left the Army in 1988 and founded a high-end dealership, Quality Autographs and Memorabilia, as a part-time vocation in 1992. He took it full-time in 1998. Williams memorabilia has always been among the most desired by his customers: Keating says he typically charges from $500 to $1,000 for a baseball signed by Williams.
According to collectibles experts, the market for autographs is never hotter than immediately post-funeral.
“Autographs are like paintings when it comes to death,” says John Middlebrook of Weschler’s, the internationally acclaimed E Street NW auction house founded in 1890 and often seen on Antiques Roadshow. “If you’re a painter, obviously, death means you’ve stopped producing. Death means you’ve stopped signing, too. So suddenly, there’s a finite amount to sell, and the passing creates a spike in interest.”
Keating says that his office has been getting a flood of calls since Williams’ death, but, at least at his shop, there will be no postmortem price hike on the deceased’s signature.
“My assistant asked me the other day, ‘What are we gonna do about the prices [of Williams collectibles] now?’” he says. “And I told her they’re staying the same. To be honest, my Ted Williams baseballs were priced at a premium already. Most forgers don’t know this, but because of strokes, he’s only been able to sign flat objects, like posters or photos, for about a decade. So from the standpoint of autographs on baseballs, he was dead a long time ago. I’d already factored that into the cost.”
Because of his job, Keating was able to meet Williams on several occasions. He says their meetings were often marred by the bizarre conduct of John Henry Williams, the Hall of Famer’s only surviving son. John Henry has been in the headlines a lot lately, first for trying to start a pro baseball career at 33 despite not having played the game at any level beyond high school, and, more recently, for flying his father’s body to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, an Arizona outfit that specializes in cryogenic freezing. In wire stories, Bobby Jo Ferrell, Ted Williams’ daughter, has said that her father wanted to be cremated and that John Henry ignored those wishes in the hope of profiting from sales of the remains. But perhaps the shipping is just a last-ditch attempt by the younger Williams, who has profited from his father’s name for years, to get his longtime meal ticket up and signing again.
And if that happens, even Weschler’s, which doesn’t often deal in sports memorabilia, might get interested. “I think having somebody come back from the dead would be good for his collectibles,” Middlebrook deadpans. “As far as I know, nobody’s ever done that.” —Dave McKenna