Recently sifting through possessions she’d collected over the years at her home in California, Gail Franzone meticulously tried to identify an autograph on a San Francisco Giants-emblazoned baseball. Her quest led her to dead end after dead end — no one could place the signature — but also to an article on baseball’s rarest autographs.
Among those named: Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, a subject of both cinema and baseball lore.
Graham, who attended the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore amid a brief pro career a century ago, played a single game for the New York Giants in 1905. He later was immortalized by Burt Lancaster in the 1989 film “Field of Dreams.”
He also, Franzone knew, worked for decades as the doctor at her mother’s high school in Chisholm, Minnesota. Upon realizing how scarce his signatures are, Franzone decided to flip through her mom’s old yearbooks, just in case one was hiding within its pages.
She later learned that the San Francisco baseball she’d been trying to identify was not much of a keepsake — it had been signed by “Lou Seal,” a puny Giants mascot, not a player.
But inside the 1951 Chisholm yearbook she found a gem. Franzone’s late mother had, evidently, asked many members of the faculty and staff to sign her senior yearbook. On a page dedicated to the then-74-year-old doctor and onetime ballplayer, he signed his name: “AW Graham MD.”
Graham autographs are especially rare because his fame — created by a 1982 novel and the subsequent movie — came years after his death. Only a handful had been discovered until 2021, when Larry Pitrof, the University of Maryland School of Medicine alumni association’s executive director, uncovered correspondence from Graham in a filing cabinet at the school. He found several letters from Graham, including four signatures, which brought the number of known Graham autographs to roughly 10.
The alumni association plans to display the letters at a school library, once it is renovated in about 18 months.
But the most recently discovered Graham signature — the one Franzone found in her mother’s yearbook — now has a new home. Franzone and her three siblings consigned Hunt Auctions to list the yearbook among its All-Star 2023 Auction lot.
During an auction Tuesday, the yearbook sold for $9,400. The auction house said Tuesday evening that it didn’t know who purchased it.
“Just kind of in disbelief,” Franzone said Monday of expectations that the yearbook would fetch thousands.
She had known Graham worked at her mother’s high school, but never thought to check the yearbooks until earlier this year, nearly two decades after her mother’s death, upon reading about others’ searches. One Pennsylvania man, Jonathan Algard, purchased dozens of Chisholm yearbooks over a span of 17 years in hopes of finding a Graham signature, finally landing one in 2017.
Franzone, 61, and her siblings plan to contribute some of the proceeds from the auction to a Chisholm-based scholarship fund in Graham’s name.
“It just brought a big smile to my face,” Franzone said of discovering the signature, “that our mom is still giving after her passing.”
Hunt Auctions noted that the yearbook has been authenticated and that the signature is “exceedingly scarce.”
“It may be many years before another Graham autograph is offered,” the item’s description stated.
Since Pitrof, the Maryland medical school’s alumni director, discovered the correspondence from Graham, there’s been persistent interest from alumni and others. In his 30 years with the alumni association, Pitrof’s never had more fun with a project, he said. One alum, a 78-year-old retired surgeon fascinated by the discovery, reached out to Pitrof, noting that he is playing in a recreational baseball league for seniors.
“There hasn’t been a week gone by that I haven’t heard from someone,” said Pitrof, who shared copies of Graham’s letters and matriculation card with the library at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York.
Graham has become a sort of folk hero for his fleeting pro career, his decades as a doctor, and the loving portrayal of him in “Field of Dreams.” In real life, he was adored, too: The yearbook staff noted that kindness was one of his “outstanding qualities.”
“The graduating class of 1951 will always remember ‘Doc’ as will the rest of us who have made his acquaintance,” the yearbook stated, “for he is a grand old gentleman and has proved himself our friend as well as our doctor.”