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Autographed Baseball Cards & Autograph Terminology

Autographed baseball cards have been a favorite of fans and collectors since the dawn of modern sports. They remain among the most sought-after hit in most releases to this day.

Autographs come in a variety of forms, however, and it’s important to understand the differences if you’re going to successfully build your autograph collection.

What are the different types of autographs you’ll come across? What are the key terms to know? And which ink is worth chasing?

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Why are autographed baseball cards so popular?

Collecting autographs of your favorite athletes and celebrities has been a popular obsession for a very long time. Babe Ruth, for example, signed so many autographs in his life (some estimate as many as 600,000) that the running joke at one point was about the “rarity of a baseball NOT autographed by Babe Ruth”.

A subset of the autograph obsession, getting baseball cards signed has been popular more or less since baseball cards were invented. The autograph represents a closeness to the player that a simple photo, or even a relic, just can’t deliver.

An autograph can serve as the physical representation of a memory, be it of a special game, a special player, or a special moment.

In addition, to collectors of ultra-modern cards, autographs provide an element of scarcity – a player only signs so many of a particular card, after all. The combination of an autograph and a serial number provides a special card to chase, especially if the card design and signature present an attractive visual package.  

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mickey mantle autographed cards

In Person (IP) Signed Autographs

An In-Person or IP signed autograph is, as the name suggests, one that was acquired in person.

This can mean a collector got their card signed at the ballpark, spring training, or at a signing at a card show or other event.

While getting a card signed in person can be free in some situations, in others it requires paying a signing fee. For the biggest names, these fees can be expensive, but you potentially get to briefly meet the player and you also get to select what card or other item you’d like them to sign.

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Through the Mail Autographs (TTM)

TTM, or “through the mail” autographs, is a fun subset of the autograph-collecting world. For the price of a couple of stamps, you have the chance to acquire an autograph. Typically, players who will sign through the mail tend to be lesser-known players who are retired.

To save yourself a lot of time and stamps, it’s best to subscribe to a site such SportsCollectors.net to see whose signing and what addresses are correct.

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TTM autographs don’t always have the highest value in terms of resale, but collecting them can be a fun and inexpensive part of your hobby experience.

How To Get Started With TTM Autograph Collecting

TTM Autograph collecting can make trips to the
mailbox a lot more fun!

Authenticated Autographs

IP and TTM autographs are pretty cool, but how can you be sure they’re really signed by the pictured player? To know for sure, and likely increase the value, consider getting the autograph authenticated. Or if you’re buying an autograph and want to be sure, buy an authenticated version.

What do we mean by authenticated? The same companies that will grade and slab your cards (such as PSA) will also authenticate your autographs and slab. This can be done in combination with grading the card, just authenticating the autograph, or even “grading” the quality of the autograph.

Once authenticated and slabbed, you have peace of mind that your autograph is authentic, plus protection for your signed card. While the authentication process isn’t inexpensive, it can be worthwhile for your best non-certified autographs.

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A PSA Authenticated Autograph

Certified Autographs

A certified autograph comes in a sealed baseball card product. The autograph was signed by the player under the observation of the card company, which certifies the autograph as authentic.

Certified autographs are one of the most popular hits in ultra-modern packs, and have been since the introduction of autographed cards in packs back in the early 1990’s. Many modern hobby boxes come with at least one certified autograph included, and some have multiple, or even ONLY autographed cards, included.

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On Card Autographs

A subset of certified autographs, on-card autographs feature the player’s autograph directly on the card (as opposed to a sticker autograph, which we’ll cover next).

These are more desirable for collectors, as the player actually holds the card in their hand to sign it, and they tend to look nicer than the alternative. These types of cards also do present a challenge to the manufacturer, as the period between when a card is printed and will be distributed (aka, the time when the player can sign the card) is short.

When the time period proves too short, this can lead to the manufacturer inserting a redemption card in the product instead of the actual autographed card. Nobody likes pulling an IOU instead of the real hit, and Topps and others have committed to avoiding redemption cards at all costs.

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On card autographs are preferable to sticker autographs

Sticker autographs

The alternative to on-card autographs, sticker autographs are easier on manufacturers but less desirable for collectors. A player signs a sheet of stickers for the card company, who then applies the stickers to the card to make them “autographed cards”.

The stickers may be signed before it’s even clear what card set they’ll go into. These elements, plus the fact that sticker autographs usually pale in comparison visually to on-card autographs, tend to make them less desirable and therefore less valuable than on-card autographs.

There are plenty of sticker autographs that hold significant value, but all other things being the same, on-card autographs tend to be the more valuable.

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Sticker autographs are often not quite as desirable as on card autos,
but allow for some really interesting combo cards

Cut Signature Autographs

Cut Signature Autographs are a somewhat unique type of certified autograph that can be found in packs. They tend to be a tough pull — in fact, the vast majority of these cards are 1 of 1s. The cards feature autographs, almost always of deceased players or other celebrities that have been “cut” from other sources and included in the card.

These could be signatures from a letter, check, official document, index card or scrap of paper, or many other sources.

The fact that these include autographs of someone who is deceased, and often someone who perhaps didn’t sign nearly as many autographs as a modern player, makes these unique collectibles. These tend to be quite desirable and valuable, and if you hit one when breaking a box or pack, you’ve got yourself a very successful break!

Some collectors, however, don’t like the fact that the original document was defaced to remove the signature. This is not surprising, as some people feel the same way about uniform relics for long-retired players.

My take is that nobody is destroying key documents of historical significance for these cards, and in making it into a collectible in packs and on the secondary market, the signature gets a new life.

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Cut signatures offer a chance to pull an autograph of a deceased
all-time great from a modern box or pack

Buyback Autograph

A Buyback Autograph is another collectible that is given a new life. A previously released card is “bought back” from the secondary market by the manufacturer. They then get the card signed by the player and release the card in a new product.

A foil stamp or other marking is then added to differentiate the card from an IP or TTM-signed autograph. Depending on the product, these buyback autographs can be from a recent release and feature active players, such as 2024 Topps Archive Signature Series Baseball Active Edition or from the distant past with a long-retired player featured.

The Buyback Autograph gives fans a chance to pull a taste of the past out of a current pack, and also can give new life to a card that may have been languishing in a common box somewhere.

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Buyback autographs give new life to old collectibles

Final thoughts on Autographed Baseball Cards

The variety of autograph offerings available means that there is something for every taste and budget. Hopefully, you now know where different autographs fall on the spectrum of value, from the lower-end TTM autographs up to the best on-card autographs and cut signatures.

Autographs remain among the most sought-after hits in the hobby. What is your take on autographs? Which are the ones you enjoy the most? Are there any you avoid? What’s the best autograph you’ve hit while breaking a box or pack? Tell us about it at CardLines on Twitter.

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Mike D.

Mike D

Mike D. has collected cards for over 35 years, since he bought his first pack of Topps at the corner store in 1987. His fandom,  collecting interests, and contributions to Cardlines center around baseball in general and the Baseball Hall of Fame specifically.

Mike's collecting focus is centered on graded cards, mostly rookie cards, of Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers. Lately, he's been enjoying dabbling in graded minor league cards. A collector/investor with a "buy and hold" approach, Mike takes the long-term view with his collection.
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