Monday, December 17, 2012

Do Ty Cobb-signed bank notes exist?

Artist's conception of a Ty Cobb-signed National Bank Note
of Lavonia, Ga. (Note photo courtesy Heritage Auctions.)

Most collectors have an item atop their want list that is often known in hobby parlance as their "holy grail" or "white whale."

It is an item that may not even exist, and often -- even if found -- would be beyond the collector's means. However, if collecting did not present challenges of varying degrees of difficulty it would not be a hobby, but merely shopping.

Presented herewith for consideration of addition to the wish lists of collectors in both the paper money and baseball memorabilia fields is an item for which I searched in vain for several decades. Now I'll pass the quest on to future generations.

What I sought unsuccessfully was a National Bank Note signed by Ty Cobb.

Among the investments that made Cobb a rich man during and after his career as a Hall of Fame outfielder for the Detroit Tigers in the early decades of the 20th Century was his ownership of a considerable portion of the stock of The First National Bank of Lavonia, Ga. 

That bank had been chartered in 1906 under the title The Vickery National Bank of Lavonia. The title was changed to The First National Bank of Lavonia in January, 1913. Under the new title, the bank issued only large-size $10 and $20 notes of the Series 1902 Blue Seal Date Backs and Plain Backs.

I first got wind of the story of National Bank Notes signed by Ty Cobb more than 20 years ago, while reading microfilm of The Sporting Life, a weekly sports newspaper headquartered in Philadelphia. 

In a roundup column titled "Latest News By Telegraph Briefly Told," The Sporting Life picked up an Associated Press article virtually verbatim in its Sept. 27, 1913, edition.

As written by AP, the article read:

(By the Associated Press)
Washington, Sept. 22.--Collectors doubtless will be on the lookout soon for some national bank notes which were signed a few days ago by "Ty" Cobb, centerfielder of the Detroit baseball club.
When the star player was here recently he visited the Treasury Department. While being shown through he asked to see some of the bank notes of the First National Bank of Lavonia, Ga. On informing the office in charge that he was a director in that bank, and as such was entitled to sign money printed for that institution, the ball player placed his signature on several sheets of the notes.

More recent googling around the internet revealed that Cobb's actions that day at the Treasury had repercussions.

The Pittsburgh Press, Sept. 24, 1913, carried a short article headlined, 


Datelined Washington, D.C., the article read:

Fans at the Treasury Department got a severe calling down today from Acting Comptroller of the Currency Kane for granting Ty Cobb unusual freedom of the building when the famous ballplayer was sightseeing. Cobb was permitted to enter money vaults, and to autograph several national bank notes issued on the Lavonia (Ga.) bank, of which he is a director.

Despite the fact I served two terms as editor of Bank Note Reporter in the 1970s-1980s, I either never knew or have forgotten which bank officers were authorized to sign National Bank Notes during the large-size issuing era. I do know that some notes exist with vice president as signatories, and perhaps assistant cashiers.

I have my doubts that bank directors had that privilege,m but I do not doubt that if they were so empowered, the fiscally astute Cobb would have known about it.

I like to think that when he signed those sheets of Lavonia notes, Cobb used the green-ink fountain pen that he so regularly used  in his later years.

Given that Treasury officials were not amused by Cobb's autographing, it's possible that the Cobb-signed notes were never actually issued. 

Again, my recollection of NBN history indicates that in the large-size period, four-note sheets of national currency were conveyed to the issuing bank unsigned. At the bank, the cashier and president (usually) would affix their signatures and cut the sheets into individual notes. 

It shouldn't be ruled out that the Comptroller of the Currency withheld the notes bearing Cobb's signature from subsequent shipments to Lavonia. 

It is also uncertain whether Cobb would have preempted the space for the cashier's or the president's signature. All Series 1902 notes of The First National Bank of Lavonia that I have seen show purple rubber-stamped signatures of Walter N. Harrison as cashier and C.A. Addington, president. 

A green-ink autograph of Ty Cobb on such a note would have made a colorful collectible. 

Surviving large-size notes of the bank are not rare, and in typical mid-range grades have a retail value of $600-900 or so. That's about the same as recent sales of checks authentically signed by Ty Cobb, It cannot be assumed, however, that if a Cobb-signed Lavonia National was to come to market, its value would be about the sum of its two parts. I'd guess such a note would sell in the mid- to high-four figures.

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