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Staff Report

June 30, 2010

Hall of Famer Ty Cobb wrote letters to TSN's Taylor Spink


On the morning of May 19, 2010, Dr. Ron Cobb of Marietta, Georgia was perusing items for sale on eBay, as he often does. An amateur baseball historian and memorabilia collector, Ron often searches out baseball collectibles on eBay, and on other auctions sites that allow internet bidding.  As a lifelong Ty Cobb fan, and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Ty Cobb Museum in Royston, Georgia, Ron is particular interested in memorabilia and other items related to Ty Cobb. (However, he is not a descendant of Ty Cobb, or a close relative of the Ty Cobb family) On this particular morning there was an interesting new item up for auction on eBay with the following description:

“Ty Cobb – Signed Letter Authenticated by PSA/DNA.

Baseball great Ty Cobb handwrote this letter on his personalized stationery, in his signature green ink and it is accompanied by the original post-marked mailing envelope, also from Cobb’s stationery and hand-addressed by him. This is an original, authentically signed PSA/DNA certified document. It is not a copy or reprint. Image shown contains a watermark. The actual document does not contain this watermark.”

The photo shown on the auction page was a very fuzzy image of a two page letter, dated October 26, 1953, handwritten in green ink, and the air mail envelope in which it had been sent. The eBay seller has placed a large watermark onto the photo, presumably to make the image unusable to those who might download and use it for other purposes.

Nine years earlier in 2001, Ron had done an exhaustive survey of material about Ty Cobb that was indexed or available on the internet. He was gathering information to be used in a writing effort on Ty Cobb he was contemplating as his retirement neared. One interesting discovery from this survey was a collection of handwritten letters that Ty Cobb had sent to his friend, Taylor Spink, the Editor of The Sporting News. Images of these letters were shown prominently on the TSN website, as well as typescripts. At that time, Ron carefully studied these letters and made notes for his research purposes, thinking that they might someday be useful in his planned efforts. As it turned out, Ron never actually used The Sporting News letters, as the thrust of his planned efforts changed from writing to editing and publishing. But, he did not forget these Ty Cobb letters.

From his 2001 survey, Ron had discovered a large amount of early published material by or about Ty Cobb. These early documents gave a much different portrayal of this baseball icon than did the many publications since Ty’s 1961 death. Rather than undertake the effort to write a new book about Ty Cobb, Ron decided to edit and publish some of the long forgotten material he had discovered. He started by editing and publishing “Memoirs of Twenty Years in Baseball” in 2002. Ty had written the chapters of this autobiography as a series of syndicated articles in 1924, amid speculation that Ty would end his career completing his twentieth year at Detroit. The series was very popular and widely read at the time, but was soon lost in the archive stacks and library microfilm, as no modern biographer had referenced this early work. Ron felt that editing and publishing this work now would present a new and interesting perspective on Ty Cobb as both a person and a player. After selling several hundred copies through the internet, Ron donated all the profits from the book to the Ty Cobb Museum in Royston, Georgia, which still sells this work in its gift shop and internet store. Later, Ron released an edition of Ty Cobb’s ghost-written 1914 book “Busting ‘Em,” again donating the rights to the book to the Ty Cobb Museum.

In his 2001 survey, Ron had also discovered Harry Salsinger’s 1951 biography of Ty Cobb titled “Which Was Greatest: Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth.” Salsinger had written this serial biography of Ty Cobb for The Sporting Newsin 1951, a time where there was a swirling controversy about the relative greatness of Ruth and Cobb. This biography, also largely forgotten, was unlike all biographies of Ty Cobb published before or since – it was written by a someone who actually knew Ty Cobb well, and had actually seen him play throughout his entire career. Salsinger, long-time Sports Editor for the Detroit News, had a unique perspective from which to write about Ty Cobb, and produced a biography was vastly different from other biographical works. Ron felt strongly that it, too, should have a much wider distribution.

However, to reprint Salsinger’s biography, it was necessary for Ron to get permission from TSN, which still held the copyright. A blind inquiry to TSNled him to Steve Gietschier, then Editor and Chief Archivist for TSN. Ron described his proposed project to Steve, emphasizing that all profits from the reprint would benefit the non-profit Ty Cobb Museum. Steve agreed that the project was worthwhile, and charged Ron the nominal sum of $100 for the right to print 5000 copies. This biography was finally issued in 2008 and is now sold exclusively through the gift shop of the Ty Cobb Museum in Royston.

When Ron first discovered this eBay auction page for the Cobb letter to Spink, he was surprised that the seller had posted only a single fuzzy image of the two-page document, obscured even further by the superimposed watermark. While portions of it could be read with some difficulty, much of it was not legible at all. Additionally, the seller did not offer a typescript of the letter in the item description. Any auction for a valuable letter such as this always shows a detailed image, and if there is interesting baseball historical content, will usually include the text of the letter as well.

The photo that was posted, however, was legible enough to show the date of the letter, and that it was addressed to Taylor Spink. This immediately raised Ron’s suspicion as he recalled the letter images from The Sporting News website. By enlarging the posted letter image, Ron was able to make out a few of the words in the letter, but not enough to read it entirely. Ron again went to the TSNwebsite and searched for the Ty Cobb – Taylor Spink letters he recalled. He found that the images of the letters he recalled were no longer displayed. However, the typescript of eleven letters from Cobb to Spink were still shown.

One of the letters still on the website was dated October 26, 1953, and had a postscript from Ty describing his investment in Coca-Cola stock and its dividends and future earnings. In this postscript Ty strongly advised Taylor, apparently not for the first time, to purchase this stock as he himself was continuing to do. Ty even noted that he had advised his own daughter, and his widowed daughter-in-law, to purchase shares of Coca-Cola as well.

By examining the enlargement of the fuzzy letter image from the eBay auction page, Ron was able to make out the word Coca-Cola, and with some difficulty a few of the other words in Ty’s postscript. Comparing the dates and the Coca-Cola reference to the posted letter convinced him that this was, without a doubt, the Ty Cobb – Taylor Spink letter from the TSN collection.

TSN's Stolen Ty Cobb Letter was offered on eBay for $3,999.99. The image of the letter was blurred and there was no mention of the letter's content.

First, Ron contacted Peter Nash, operator of the Hauls of Shamewebsite, which delves into the world of stolen and fraudulent baseball memorabilia and exposes new discoveries for collectors and historians. Only a few weeks before, Ron and Peter had corresponded about an article that Ron was writing for publication in the summer 2010 issue of SABR’s The National Pastime. Since Ron’s article dealt, in part, with fraudulent baseball memorabilia, he had asked Peter to assist in the final review of his text before publication.

The May 19 email Ron sent to Peter included links to the eBay auction page for the Ty Cobb letter, and to The Sporting News website. It asked that Peter make the same comparisons that he had already made. Ron concluded his email with: “Check out the first line of the PS – about Coca-Cola stock. Then look carefully at the same line in the fuzzy image posted on eBay. It has to be the same! So, unless The Sporting News has decided to sell their Ty Cobb letters, then this must have been stolen.” Peter’s reply was that it certainly looked suspicious to him, and he encouraged Ron to contact The Sporting News to investigate.

Next, Ron emailed his old acquaintance from The Sporting News, Steve Gietschier, to ask if he was aware if any of the letters in their archive collection had been sold. Steve no longer worked at The Sporting News, but since he had organized and archived the Cobb – Spink letters in their collection, he was familiar with the entire archive. Steve replied that he was not aware of any items having been sold from the TSN archives, and that he strongly suspected that the letter had been stolen.

Peter Nash made the initial contact to The Sporting News, and was directed to Shawn Schrager, TSN’s director of commerce and licensing. Neither Shawn, nor anyone else at The Sporting News was aware that a possible theft had occurred. An inspection of the archive files indicated that there were gaps in the sequence of numbers that had been written on the bottom of each letter, leading to a suspicion that perhaps several letters were missing. Shawn was able to make out a barely legible number on each page of the two page October 26, 1953 letter on eBay – a further indication that this was indeed a letter from The Sporting News archive. On this basis, Shawn contacted eBay to ask that they investigate the item, and the seller, but was told that he needed to have law enforcement make official contact.

Peter then emailed his contact at the FBI who has investigated other baseball memorabilia thefts, and asked him to review the auction for the October 26, 1953 Cobb letter. After completing his review, the contact concurred that the letter was likely stolen, and contacted Shawn to advise that he first contact authorities either in Charlotte, NC , the present corporate home of TSN, or in St. Louis, the former headquarters of TSN and the stated location of the seller.

Following several phone calls, Shawn reached the police department in the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield. They quickly evaluated the information given to them and agreed to take the case. An official contact was made to eBay for the name and email address of the seller. With this information, the seller’s physical address and phone number were located, proving proper jurisdiction in the case. Posing as an interested buyer with a fictitious name, the Chesterfield authorities made contact with the seller and arranged a meeting to examine the letter and make the purchase.

On June 9, without disclosing details of their interaction with the seller, Chesterfield authorities notified Shawn Schrager that the letter was in their possession and would be returned to The Sporting News within a few days.

The 1953 Cobb letter shown back safe at home at the Archives of The Sporting News with other Cobb letters in the collection. (Courtesy The Sporting News)

On June 24, Shawn Schrager was notified by Chris Pollman of the Chesterfield P.D. that the letter had been sent, and on the next day the purloined letter arrived in good condition at The Sporting Newsoffice. According to Pollman’s email, the seller had given multiple stories about how she came into possession of the letter. After being contacted by the Chesterfield authorities office, the seller “came in and gave me the same song and dance. I know she is lying, but I don’t think she stole your letters.” Her first story was that the letter had been given to her by a friend. But, “her story now is she found them in an astrology book she bought at a book fair,” and she could not produce the book alleged to contain the letter because it “was sold at a garage sale recently.”

There is doubt that a warrant for possession of stolen merchandise will be issued due to lack of evidence that the eBay seller knew the item was stolen. So, unless some further evidence can be gathered implicating the eBay seller in the actual theft, no action will likely be taken against her.

The case is not yet closed, however. When Shawn Schrager returned the letter to the vault, he confirmed that at least one additional letter is missing. Steve Gietschier had carefully numbered each page of this collection of letters when he originally archived them for The Sporting News a decade ago. The two pages of the recovered October 26, 1953 Cobb letter were numbered 15 and 16. Pages numbered 17, 18 and 19 are missing from the archive vault, and are now assumed to have been stolen at the same time.

Chesterfield authorities hinted that other letters might be in possession of the eBay seller as well. While all of the details of the investigation are yet to be released, there is no doubt that the archives of The Sporting News were pilfered. Many questions are yet to be answered: Was the eBay seller the actual thief?  How was access to The Sporting News archive achieved?  What other valuable and historically significant letters are missing from the archive? will follow this developing story and report further details as they are available.

By Peter J. Nash

June 23, 2010

c. 1879 Portrait of Harry Wright that was stolen from the New York Public Library


In just a few weeks, Major League Baseball will host its annual FanFest extravaganza in conjunction with the 2010 All-Star Game to be played in Anaheim, California.  Billed by MLB as an “interactive baseball theme park and the largest baseball fan event in the world,” FanFest offers a host of unique attractions that will be showcased from July 9th to July 13th. The price of admission will grant visitors access to video batting cages, exhibits from the Baseball Hall of Fame, a “Steal Home Challenge,” and even a live auction of vintage treasures of the game.

Last years FanFest auction in St. Louis featured an offering of a “cache of 19th century letters” written to Harry Wright, the “Father of Professional Baseball,” but the FBI stepped in and the auctioneer stopped the sale after it was confirmed that at least some of the letters were stolen from the New York Public Library’s Harry Wright Correspondence Collection. Now it has been revealed by that in 1998, MLB vendor, Hunt Auctions of Exton, PA, unknowingly and unintentionally sold off part of the stolen last will and testament of Harry Wright. This was the very document written in 1895 that stated Wright’s last wishes that his baseball archive be left to the National League to establish “the beginning of a historical collection of…our grand national game of baseball.” Wright’s collection had been preserved by former National League president A. G. Spalding and it was donated to the New York Public Library by Spalding’s widow in 1921.

In 1998 an FBI investigation led to the conviction of a Boston court clerk, Joe Schnabel, who admitted to stealing wills signed by several Baseball Hall of Famers including Hugh Duffy, George Wright and “Old Hoss” Radbourn. The will of Harry Wright was likely part of the Schnabel thefts, but it is unclear if Schnabel ever confessed to having stolen it. The codicil to Wright’s will was sold by Hunt Auctions in February 1998. The conviction of Suffolk County court officer Joe Schnabel led to the recovery of many stolen wills but it appears that several documents from other courthouses, including that of Harry Wright, were never returned even though the story of the thefts made national news. It is believed that the wills of many other players including Jackie Robinson may still be among the missing.

The Philadelphia Register of Wills’ Chief Deputy, Ralph Wynder, confirmed that the will of baseball pioneer Harry Wright is, indeed, missing from the courthouse probate records. When informed that the will of Wright, who was the Philadelphia Phillies’ manager from 1885 to 1894, was worth upwards of $10,000, Wynder was stunned. Said the deputy, “Wow, I never even heard of Harry Wright until I looked to see if his will was in our files, who would have thought the will of an old Phillies manager could be worth so much?”

But Wright was much more than just a Phillies manager. Having started his career as an all-star player with the New York Knickerbockers in the late 1850s, Wright went on to lead the Cincinnati and Boston Red Stockings to national championships in the late 1860s and 1870s as a player-manager. Wright was at the forefront of establishing professional baseball as big business and his work in the National Association’s formative years aided the establishment of the National League in 1876. Of Wright’s accomplishments historian John Thorn says, “Like any good idea, baseball has many fathers (bad ideas have none). Harry Wright may truly be said to be father of the professional game, and one of the five most important persons in the history of the game.”

Close up of Harry Wright's Instructions to Bequeath his Baseball Archive to the National League.

Wright’s great great granddaughter, Pam Guzzi, is understandably disturbed by the theft of the baseball pioneer’s 1895 will. Guzzi expressed similar concerns last summer with the attempted 2009 MLB/Hunt Auctions sale of Harry Wright’s letters . When she was interviewed by Jack Curry of The New York Times, Guzzi said of the rare letters, “Why would someone have them if they weren’t related to him? Why would they be in their grandmother’s attic?”

The controversy over the stolen baseball wills was first reported in October of 1998 by a host of news organizations including the Associated Press, CBS News, ABC News, USA Today/Baseball Weekly and the Boston Herald. But by February of 1998, Hunt Auctions had already sold what they advertised as the “very important 1895 codicil to Hall of Famer Harry Wright’s last will and testament, signed twice by Wright.” Hunt placed a pre-auction estimate on the document at “$6,000-$8,000.”

By May of 1999, Boston Court officer Joe Schnabel plead guilty to the thefts of baseball player wills and the same news organizations published articles detailing the facts of the Schnabel plea, which included descriptions of other wills still missing from the Boston probate court, including the will of Baseball Hall of Famer Tommy McCarthy.   

When Hunt Auctions president, David Hunt, was first interviewed by The New York Times in regard to the 2009 sale of Wright’s letters he vehemently supported his consignor stating he had not seen  “one piece of evidence” that suggested the letters were stolen.  However, when evidence surfaced indicating that one of the letters was stolen, Hunt withdrew all of the Wright letters from the auction.  At the time of the withdrawals, Hunt issued a statement to the Times detailing how the auction house was “working closely with the FBI throughout the investigative process.”  Now, close to a year after the auction, the FBI is in possession of all of the Wright letters.  Additional research unearthed in Cornell University’s “Seymour Papers Collection” has confirmed that most of the letters offered at the 2009 auction were, in fact, stolen from the New York Public Library.

Harry Wright helped create the organization today known as Major League Baseball, and he also entrusted the organization to safeguard his historic baseball archive. Now, over a century after Wright dictated his final wishes, Major League Baseball has been unintentionally associated with the illegitimate sale of Wright’s legacy. MLB’s association with a company involved in the shady world of baseball collectibles is troubling for one of Wright’s relatives.

In a recent interview, Wright’s great great granddaughter Pam Guzzi said, “I would think that MLB would be concerned that all of Harry Wright’s documents remain where they were intended to be preserved. I would think that MLB would make every effort to disassociate itself from an entity found to have (on more than one occasion) sold items that have been proven to have been stolen. Harry Wright was a man concerned with fairness and integrity and certainly he would consider the theft and sale of his items a slap in the face.”

In response to inquiries made, Matt Bourne, MLB’s vice president of business public relations, issued the following statement: “Hunt Auctions is a vendor at MLB All-Star FanFest.  MLB has had numerous conversations with Hunt Auctions about the process of obtaining and selling auction items.  Hunt has assured us that they obtain all of their items legitimately but that it is extraordinarily difficult to accurately trace the history of ownership, which can date back more than 100 years, for all of the items they auction.  If it is uncovered that any auction items have been obtained inappropriately, they have promised to immediately remove them from the auction.”

Based upon MLB’s statement detailing the auction process and noting the fact that the offerings of Wright’s will and his letters were separated by twelve years time, it is reasonable to view both Hunt Auctions and MLB as victims of circumstance.  Hunt Auctions, by no fault of their own,  simply accepted two consignments that ended up having checkered pasts and links to Harry Wright’s donation of his archive.  The real culprits in this improbable scenario are the thieves who originally pilfered Harry Wright’s letters and will.  Investigations conducted by also confirm that many of the owners of stolen baseball items are good faith buyers and sellers who could also be considered victims of the original thefts. 

Although the theft of Harry Wright’s will has been reported to the authorities, it appears that no formal investigation has yet been opened. The Philadelphia Probate Court’s Chief Deputy Ralph Wynder confirmed that he has not yet been contacted by either local law enforcement or the FBI. “No one has called our office to help recover the Harry Wright will,” said Wynder.

Codicil to Harry Wright's 1895 Last Will and Testament, Sold by Hunt Auctions

The FBI is currently investigating the thefts of the Harry Wright letters and hundreds of other items from the New York Public Library’s A. G. Spalding Baseball Collection, and a source familiar with that probe has commented that, “there are so many stolen items out there its difficult to keep track.”

That source may be right. Over a month ago it was reported that another stolen, will-related, document signed by Harry Wright’s brother, George (also a Hall-of-Famer), was being sold on the website of Quality Autographs of Virginia for $6,500. Even though it was reported to the authorities and the Boston Probate Court it was confirmed stolen from, the will still appeared online and for sale for several weeks. Just last week, it appears that the George Wright document was removed from the Quality Autographs’ website. Boston probate officer Richard Iannella declined comment for this article and directed all inquiries to Detective Steven Blair of the Boston Police Department’s Special Investigations Unit. When contacted, Blair stated he was unable to comment on his investigation into the matter.

c.1889 Photo of George Wright that was stolen from the New York Public Library

When notified of the sale of his great grandfather’s signed legal document on the internet, George Wright’s great grandson, Denny Wright of Brookline, Massachusetts, said, “My great grandfather would be appalled that his autograph would be sold for a profit that benefits nobody except the thief. In 1869, he would (never) have guessed that future players would be paid millions and a ballpark beer would cost $8.00; or that a George Wright autograph would be offered for almost $5,000 on the internet. In this day and age when government oil rig inspectors are paid off to ignore problems, should anyone be surprised that the personal artifacts of long-dead baseball players are stolen and sold for profit?”

(Editors Note:  The images of the portraits of Harry and George Wright featured in this article were preserved on contact sheets produced in conjunction with a SABR photo shoot at the New York Public Library in 1983.  Both rare photos are missing from the A. G. Spalding Collection.) 

(This article has been modified to reflect additional information received from Major League Baseball and Hunt Auctions after its initial publication.)

Stolen probate court document signed by Hall of Famer George Wright

By Peter J. Nash

June 16, 2010

“1913 Comiskey letter withdrawn from Heritage Auctions June sale”

In its April sale of baseball collectibles, Heritage Auctions of Dallas, Texas, withdrew two letters written by Hall of Famers Joe Tinker and Fred Clarke after it was brought to their attention that the letters appeared to be missing from a file of the August Herrmann Papers archive at the National Baseball Library in Cooperstown, NY. Last week Heritage removed another letter suspected to have originated from the same Hall of Fame files; a 1913 letter to August Herrmann from Chicago White Sox owner and Baseball Hall of Famer Charles Comiskey. Scheduled to be sold as lot 41095 in their Sunday July 4th internet auction, the letter, dating from October of 1913, appears to have originated from “Box 52, Folder 26″ of the August Herrmann Papers archive. Folder 26 includes all correspondence from Comiskey to Herrmann from 1911 to 1914.

The Herrmann Papers collection, donated in 1960 by Cincinnati Reds owner, Powel Crosley Jr., includes Reds owner August Herrmann’s entire files of correspondence (over 40,000 documents) spanning from 1902 to 1927. The treasure trove of documents remained uncatalogued in boxes for decades at the Hall of Fame until a recent grant provided for the proper conservation and catologuing of the important collection. 

Although access to the collection was limited over the years,  suspicious correspondence addressed to August Herrmann has been appearing in private and public sales since the early 1990’s. In 1988 reports of alleged thefts from the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Herrmann Papers collection were the subject of an apparently unresolved FBI investigation. Since that time the baseball collectibles marketplace has seen a wide array of Herrmann-related documents suspected to have been stolen from the Cooperstown shrine. Heritage Auctions also offered and sold another 1913 Charles Comiskey letter to Herrmann in their May 2007 auction.

When notified by that the 1913 Comiskey letter was likely stolen from the Hall of Fame‘s collection, Heritage’s Sports Auctions Director, Chris Ivy,  responded via email stating, “We will remove the lot from the auction.” Ivy was able to review the remaining contents dating to 1913 in the Hall of Fame’s Folder 26 from Box 52 of the Herrmann Papers archive. Remaining in that file are eight letters (and several postcards) from Comiskey to Herrmann from the year 1913. Nowhere in the Heritage Auctions lot description was it mentioned that the Comiskey letter was addressed to August Herrmann. In addition, the letter was accompanied by a letter of authenticity from James Spence Authentication, stating that the document bore an authentic Comiskey signature, even though the letter clearly displays a secretarial signature of the famous White Sox owner.

(8) 1913 Comiskey letters and (1) postcard from the Hall of Fame's August Herrmann Papers Archive

The Baseball Hall of Fame declined to make comment back in April when Heritage withdrew two other letters suspected stolen from the Herrmann papers archive. The letters written by Hall of Famers Fred Clarke and Joe Tinker were withdrawn from the auction, and Heritage’s director of sports auctions, Chris Ivy, then stated: “ I will contact the consignor of each lot to get more background on the items.” When asked last week if he had gathered more information on the Clarke and Tinker letters Ivy responded, via email, “I do not have any additional information to share on those items.”

Brad Horn, the director of communications for the Baseball Hall of Fame declined to make any statement regarding the Heritage letters and the alleged thefts. He also declined to answer queries as to whether the FBI had reopened the investigation into the thefts, which dates back to 1988.

New Jersey auction house, Robert Edward Auctions, also withdrew three lots suspected stolen from the Hall of Fame in their recent May auction. Several affidavits signed by Chicago Cub players in 1908 were alleged to be part of the August Herrmann Papers archive and a collection of 19th century Boston Base Ball Association stock certificates were suspected to have originated from their Frederick Long Papers collection. A third item, a rare 19th century cabinet card of Hall of Fame pitcher Mickey Welch was also removed from the May auction. The Hall of Fame has photographic evidence of the exact same Welch cabinet card being documented in its collection years before the theft. Horn and the Hall of Fame also declined comment on the items withdrawn from the New Jersey auction.

Jim Margolin of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s New York press office could neither deny nor confirm whether the Hall of Fame thefts were the subject of a current investigation, but did direct further inquiries to the FBI’s public affairs department  in Albany.  The upstate New York office of the FBI in Albany has jurisdiction over any investigation related to the Hall of Fame.  Reached in his Albany office the FBI Chief Division Counsel, Paul M. Holstein, stated he was checking into the status of any open investigation regarding the Baseball Hall of Fame.

1913 Comiskey letter to August Herrmann sold in 2007 Heritage sale

By Peter J. Nash

June 8, 2010


Historic Cartwright Letter Used in Ken Burns' Baseball, Before Archive of Hawaii Stamp Was Removed


Alexander Joy Cartwright Jr. was a founding member of New York’s famous Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in the 1840’s and was later elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1938. Credited in the Hall with setting the bases “90 feet apart” and “establishing 9 innings” for a game, his Cooperstown plaque also calls him the “Father of Modern Baseball.” In recent years, however, Cartwright’s accomplishments have been diminished as other members of the Knickerbocker Club and members of earlier organizations have been given credit for their part in the development of the game. Still, Cartwright maintains his place as an important baseball pioneer.

Cartwright’s Hall of Fame plaque also states that he, “carried baseball to (the) Pacific Coast and Hawaii in Pioneer Days.” Cartwright left his fellow Knickerbockers and headed west, ultimately settling in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1849 and, as the years passed on, he occasionally wrote to his old Knickerbocker teammates. On April 21, 1865 he wrote to his old catcher Charlie DeBost back in New York City and reminisced:

“Dear Old Knickerbockers…I have in my possession the original ball with which we used to play on Murray Hill…Sometimes I have thought of sending it home to be played for by the Clubs, but I cannot bear to part with it, so linked in is it with cherished home memories.”

The only known surviving draft of the historic letter was Cartwright’s own pressed-letter copy, which was documented on onion skin paper. Onion skin copies of Cartwright’s letters were bound in several volumes and were years later donated to the State Archives by his family. Thanks to the Cartwright family’s preservation of the volumes of correspondence, the famous 1865 letter written to Charles DeBost was available to baseball historians like John Thorn, who ordered a photocopy of the letter from the Archives in the mid 1980s.  As senior creative consultant to filmmaker Ken Burns for his acclaimed PBS documentary film, BASEBALL, Thorn supported the letter’s inclusion in the first “inning” of the documentary.

Historians and baseball fans alike might assume such a national treasure would be safeguarded under lock and key at the Baseball Hall of Fame or the Smithsonian. However, earlier this week it was the State Archives of Hawaii that confirmed the famous letter penned by Alexander Joy Cartwright was missing from their collection. In fact, an entry in the archive’s finding aid indicates that the letter was first discovered missing on June 2, 1998. Each volume of Cartwright letters in the archive features pages numbered in the upper right hand corner. Chief of the archives’ historical records branch, Luella Kurkjian, confirmed the theft and noted that the letter to DeBost was “removed quite expertly.” Six pages, numbered 26-31, were removed from the letter press volume in the archive, including the three page DeBost letter. Kurkjian indicated that the apparent theft was something that might fall under the jurisdiction of Hawaii’s Attorney General.

Further investigation into the theft reveals that the same letter has been sold several times in the past fifteen years by major auction houses Lelands, Sotheby’s and Robert Edward Auctions. When Sotheby’s sold it in 1999 it was part of a lot featured as one of the most important items in the Barry Halper Collection. The letter was paired with a baseball alleged to be the very ball Cartwright described in his 1865 letter- the one the Knickerbockers used in their first match in 1846. At the time of the Sotheby’s sale many in the industry questioned the authenticity of the ball, which was a recent “discovery” by a member of the Cartwright family.   

Cartwright family tradition and an article by Harold Peterson in Sports Illustrated in 1969 revealed that the ball was nowhere to be found for nearly a half century and that Cartwright’s granddaughter, Mary Check, once stated that her father, Alexander Cartwright III, “remembered having cut up a baseball when he was a child.”  Check added that, “Years afterward, he often thought that that might have been the Knickerbocker ball, the original ball.” Reports in Honolulu’s Sunday Advertiser as far back as 1910 indicated that the family could not locate the famous ball.  Finally, in his 1973 book, The Man Who Invented Baseball, Harold Peterson quoted Cartwright’s grandson, Bill, as stating that his father had once seen the ball but that, “The family lived in a hotel for a time, and the ball was definitely lost.”  Despite the questions about the authenticity of the ball, Sotheby’s lot 149, which included Cartwright’s 1865 letter to DeBost, sold for $129,000.  The ball and letter were sold again two years later in 2001 by Robert Edward Auctions, realizing a sale price of only $74,917. 

(Left) The Cartwright letter as it appeared in the 1980s at the State Archives of Hawaii. (Right) The Letter as it appeared at auction in the 1990s with State of Hawaii Archive page numbers clipped off.

 New York auction house Lelands handled the first public sale of the famous letter back in 1995.  Lelands then described the letter as, “Easily the most important letter that exists in the sports collecting hobby today.” The catalogue description also claimed that the document was “deacquisitioned by the Cartwright Family in the 1990’s.” The State Archives of Hawaii, however, shows no record of the letter being de-accessioned. In fact, the letter offered at auction was clearly vandalized with the corners cut to remove page numbers and additional sections cut from the third page to remove the “Archive of Hawaii” ownership stamp (see illustration). The most recent correspondence the Hawaii Archives has with the Cartwright family dates back to 1969.

(Top) Cartwright Letter as it appeared at Sotheby's in 1999, with page number and Archive of Hawaii mark removed. (Bottom) The same letter as it appeared with stamp in the State of Hawaii Archives c1980s

How the letter came to be described as de-accessioned by the State Archives of Hawaii will likely be the focus of any probe into the missing document.  An investigation will likely reveal how the rare and valuable letter made its way into the private hands of high-end baseball memorabilia collectors like Barry Halper.

 Sotheby’s 1999 auction of the Barry Halper Collection included the sales of numerous items confirmed stolen from the New York Public Library, Boston Public Library and the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The thefts from the New York Public Library are presently the focus of an on-going FBI investigation. Significant artifacts stolen from NYPL’s Spalding Collection include the actual score sheets used by Cartwright and the Knickerbockers for their first match played on June 19, 1846. Like the documents removed from the Archives of Hawaii, the Knick score sheets were expertly cut from a bound volume.

 Sources indicate that an investigation into the theft of the 1865 letter may reveal that additional items were wrongfully removed from the Archives of Hawaii.  The Sotheby’s sale of the Halper Collection also featured another lot that included “Fifty-nine ‘Letterpress’ Letters from the Archives of Alexander Cartwright.”  It remains to be seen if those documents sold by Barry Halper were also the property of the Archives of Hawaii.

By Peter J. Nash

June 2, 2010

Ezra Sutton's 1879-80 Boston Baseball Contract


The historic contract was signed in 1879 and for many years preserved in the hands of Baseball Hall-of-Fame pioneers Harry Wright and A.G. Spalding.  It was once featured in a special exhibition at the world’s greatest research library and it was for years hidden-away on the walls of a New York Yankee owner’s New Jersey home. It was sold for a hammer price of $4,312 on the floor of the world’s most famous auction house and most recently resided in a collection that also features the famous “Bill Buckner/Mookie Ball” from the 1986 World Series, owned by the songwriter who wrote Taylor Dane’s 1980s dance hit, “Tell it to My Heart”.  Yes, Ezra Sutton’s 1879 Boston Red Stockings contract gets around. 

It’s unknown exactly when the rare document mysteriously vanished from the New York Public Library, but here’s a brief history chronicling its amazing travels:

October 16, 1879 (Boston): Ezra Sutton meets with Boston owner Arthur Soden and manager Harry Wright to sign a “Form Of Player’s Contract” securing his services for the baseball season of 1880. Player Sutton, magnate Soden and the Hall-of-Fame manager Wright each scrawled their John Hancock on the contract and the transaction was officially executed with the raised seal of the Boston Baseball Association.

September 28, 1895 (Philadelphia): Sutton’s 1879 contract is saved in the personal archive of Harry Wright who prepared the codicil to his last will and testament stating: “All of my books and memoranda bearing upon or concerning the National Game of Baseball….I give and bequeath unto the National League and American Association of Professional Base Ball Clubs and their successors in the sincere hope and wish that they may use them as a nucleus or beginning of a historical collection of memoranda and facts bearing upon our grand national game of baseball…” The contract most likely spends time in storage at the National League offices in Chicago.

June, 1907 (Point Loma. California): Having taken possession of the Harry Wright archive and the baseball library of Henry Chadwick, magnate Albert Goodwill Spalding built a fireproof vault in his California residence to safeguard the Sutton contract and other treasures of the game from the threat of fire. Having traveled “coast-to-coast,” the Sutton contract rests in Spalding’s vault for over a decade.

July 17, 1921 (New York City): Six years after Spalding’s death, the New York Times reports the arrival of the A. G. Spalding Baseball Collection to the New York Public Library. The archive is donated by Spalding’s widow, who states that she has decided to send the collection to New York so that it could be “most accessible to the greatest number of lovers of our national game.” The Ezra Sutton contract arrives at the library in what is described by the NYPL as a “package of correspondence” that once belonged to Harry Wright.

February 6, 1922 (New York City): Sutton’s 1879 contract is a featured item in the NYPL’s special public exhibition of the Spalding Collection in the library’s main exhibition room. The Christian Science Monitor highlights the contract in an article by Robert A. Curry who wrote: “At the end of the case along the last wall an interesting old contract is displayed. It is dated in 1879 and represents the agreement between the Boston Baseball Association and a certain E. B. Sutton…to pay him for his services at the rate of $171.43 per month during the continuance of this contract.” The report also called attention to the fact that, “while traveling with the ‘nine,’ the sum of 50 cents per day shall be deducted from the player’s wages on account of the board of the player.”
The Sporting News also publishes an article devoted solely to the contract at the time of the NYPL exhibition.  The article, entitled “Those Good Old Days Not So Good After All,” utilizes the contract to illustrate how poorly players were treated by ownership in the 19th century.

The 1879 Sutton Contract appears in 1922 newspaper articles published in the Christian Science Monitor (left) and The Sporting News (right). The CSM reporter noted that the contract guaranteed Ezra Sutton a monthly salary of $171.43. The TSN item mistakenly reported the date of the contract as “1887.”

Summer of 1953 (New York City): Dr. Harold Seymour and his wife Dorothy research the Spalding Collection at the New York Public Library’s main branch on 5th Ave. and 42nd Street. In the course of their research they encounter the Sutton contract, which had by 1953 been pasted into one of the four scrapbook volumes of the incoming correspondence of Harry Wright. The Seymours documented the information contained in the contract on several sheets of paper, which were included in their research notes for Seymour’s 1956 Cornell dissertation and the later book, Baseball: The Early Years (Oxford, 1960).

The notes of Dr. Harold Seymour and Dorothy Seymour Mills taken at the NYPL in 1953 document that the 1879 contract of Ezra Sutton was part of the Wright Correspondence Scrapbook Vol. 2. (Courtesy Rare and Manuscript Division, Carl Kroch Library, Cornell University)

November 10, 1953 (New York City): NYPL’s “Keeper of Manuscripts”, Robert W. Hill responds to an inquiry made by Dr. Seymour as to what the actual date of the Ezra Sutton contract is. Hill wrote:
“…that group of Harry Wright records is shelved with our great Spalding Collection. Upon examination of these Wright volumes, I find that the baseball contract between E. B. Sutton and the Boston Base Ball Association is in volume 2 of Wright’s Correspondence. At no place upon it do I see the date, Sept. 30th; in truth, it appears to have been executed and sealed on the 16th of October 1879.”

Letter from NYPL’s “Keeper of Manuscripts” , Robert W. Hill, to Dr. Harold Seymour verifying the execution date of the 1879 Ezra Sutton Contract as October 16th. Hill also documents that the contract was part of “volume 2 of Wright’s Correspondence.” (Courtesy Rare and Manuscript Division, Carl Kroch Library, Cornell University)

August 22, 1983 (New York City): The New York Times reports that at the instigation of baseball historian John Thorn, The Sporting News, the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Society for American Baseball Research have partnered with Thorn to fund the microfilming of the manuscript holdings in the NYPL’s Spalding Baseball Collection. In the course of the microfilming process it is discovered that three entire volumes of Harry Wright’s incoming correspondence are missing. The whereabouts of the 1879 Sutton contract officially becomes a mystery.

Spring of 1984 (Livingston, New Jersey): After sitting in the Harry Wright Correspondence Scrapbook (Vol.2) on the shelves of the NYPL’s special collections since the 1920‘s, the Sutton contract mysteriously appears in an article written by Bill Madden for the 1984 New York Yankees Yearbook. In a profile of the baseball collection of Yankee minority owner Barry Halper, the contract appears hanging in a frame on a wall in Halper’s Livingston, NJ, home, among scores of other baseball treasures.

Barry Halper appears c. 1984 with his baseball treasures on display in his Livingston, NJ home. The 1879 Ezra Sutton contract, originally part of the NYPL’s Spalding Collection, appears hanging on the wall in a frame directly above the head of the bronze baseball figure held by Halper.

Spring of 1995 (Livingston, New Jersey): Sports Illustrated publishes a feature article on Barry Halper and his massive baseball collection, entitled “The Sultan of Swap.” The 1879 Sutton contract is highlighted as one of the most important pieces in the Halper collection along with a copy of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club’s rules and by-laws. Sports Illustrated incorrectly describes the Sutton contract as, “the earliest known player contract, that of E.B. Sutton of the Boston Baseball Association in 1879.” While the Sutton contract is rare, there exist at least fifteen other agreements pre-dating it.

October of 1999 (New York City): The Sutton contract travels back to Manhattan to Sotheby’s auction house as part of the sale of the “Barry Halper Collection.” In the record-breaking auction that grosses over $25 million for Halper, the contract appears in the catalogue as “Lot 226” and sells for $4,312 to California songwriter and collector, Seth Swirsky.  Swirsky purchased several items from the 1999 Sotheby’s sale and was quoted in Sports Collectors Digest in June of 2000 in regard to his friend Halper.  Swirsky stated, “I say thank God for Barry Halper.  He saved these things and preserved them.”

The Sutton contract as it appeared in the 1999 Sotheby’s Auction catalogue for the Barry Halper Collection sale.

October 1999-Summer of 2009 (Beverly Hills, California): The Sutton contract travels back west with new owner Seth Swirsky, acclaimed songwriter and author of the best-selling books, Baseball Letters and Something to Write Home About.  The Sutton contract joins an eclectic and impressive group of baseball artifacts selected by Swirsky and is included as a featured item from his collection on his website, The contract appears amongst other storied items from the game’s past, such as the “Buckner/Mookie Ball” from the 1986 World Series, along with Bill Buckner’s spikes; the letter that banished “Shoeless Joe” Jackson from baseball; Reggie Jackson’s third home run ball from game six of the 1977 World Series; and the 1882 letter that admitted the New York Giants into the National League.

Seth Swirsky’s website,, featured the Sutton contract amongst other impressive artifacts like the letter that banished “Shoeless Joe” Jackson from baseball. The contract appears in the same frame it was housed in at the time of the 1984 photograph taken at Barry Halper’s house.

 In July of 2009 a controversy developed as rare 19th century letters written to Hall-of-Famer Harry Wright were offered in Hunt Auctions’ MLB All-Star Game FanFest Auction. Allegations were made by collectors and historians that the letters were possibly stolen from the NYPL’s famous Spalding Collection. The New York Times published an article reporting how baseball historian Dorothy Seymour Mills led investigators to important information that helped prove that two of the letters were the property of  the New York Public Library and the letters were pulled from the sale . One of the items Mills provided was the 1953 NYPL letter documenting that the 1879 Sutton contract was once part of the Spalding Collection. This letter and the original Seymour research notes from their work at the NYPL in the 1950s are located in the Rare and Manuscript Collection of Cornell University. Subsequently, the Boston Herald published a story including information claiming that the Sutton contract and other items from the famed “Barry Halper Collection” had been stolen from the New York and Boston Public Libraries.

Boston Herald reporter Dave Wedge contacted New Jersey auctioneer Rob Lifson to inquire whether Lifson had any knowledge that the contract sold by Sotheby’s was stolen.  Lifson, a Halper associate and cheif consultant to Sotheby’s for the 1999 Halper sale, stated he had no knowledge that the contract was stolen, but recalled that Halper had obtained the contract in the “mid-1970s” from pioneer baseball dealer Goodwin Goldfaden.

Goldfaden, 95, for many years operated the ADCO Sports Book Exchange in Los Angeles and is considered by many in the hobby to be the oldest and first baseball dealer in the history of sports collecting.  Contacted at his home in Sherman Oaks, CA, Goldfadden stated that Barry Halper had been one of his regular customers.   But when asked if he recalled ever selling Barry Halper the ultra-rare Ezra Sutton contract Goldfaden responded,  “No, I don’t remember.”

Seth Swirsky declined to make any comment regarding his ownership of the 1879 Sutton contract.  Sources indicate that, like other purchasers of stolen items in the 1999 Sotheby’s Barry Halper auction, Swirsky was a typical good faith buyer who thought he was acquiring an artifact with clear title.  A prominent collector, who asked to remain anonymous, referred to Swirsky and other buyers as victims in the Halper stolen-artifact scandal. 

Special Agent James Margolin in the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation could not confirm or deny whether the FBI had seized the 1879 Sutton contract from Swirsky or if the collector had voluntarily returned the document.  Margolin could only confirm that the federal probe into the Spalding Collection thefts “was on-going.”  Although numerous items like the Sutton contract have been traced back to the Halper Collection, the FBI has also declined to reveal whether their investigation has uncovered where and when Halper originally acquired the stolen goods.  The 1879 contract no longer appears on Swirsky’s website,

Sotheby’s did not respond to inquiries into their sale of  items owned by the New York Public Library.  Sotheby’s also declined to comment on how good faith buyers would be reimbursed for purchasing  stolen items.  It is likely the buyer and the auction house, itself, might have recourse against the estate of Barry Halper, who died in 2005. 

The New York Public Library declined to answer specific inquiries regarding  the Sutton contract  but, through their spokesperson Angela Montefinise, did say, “ We cannot comment on an on-going investigation, but we are cooperating fully with the authorities.”