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By Peter J. Nash

June 29, 2015

“Too Late” Davis will finally get his dying wish and have a fitting headstone placed above his unmarked grave at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. The pending fulfillment of the wish is 115 years late, but that’s all the more fitting for the baseball pioneer nicknamed “Too Late” by his Knickerbocker Base Ball Club colleagues. Over the weekend at the SABR45 conference in Chicago it was announced that a newly formed committee devoted to placing grave markers over 19th century players buried in unmarked graves would make Davis their first official project.

Bob Gregory, the Chairman of the newly formed 19th Century Baseball Grave Marker Committee, distributed a flyer to SABR members revealing the plans to erect a monument over Davis’ gravesite and detailed how members could contribute to the project.  Gregory said, “Donations may be made in any amount, large or small, but to help initiate the project, a $25 donation is suggested; approximately the equivalent of one dollar at the time of Davis’ passing in 1899.”  The announcement was a long time coming as plans for the monument date all the way back to the 19th century when Davis was still living and as recent as 2004 when it was first discovered that Davis was, in fact, buried in an unmarked grave.

James Whyte Davis, whose career in baseball spanned from the 1850’s to the 1870s, wrote a letter in 1893 to New York Giants owner Edward B. Talcott which was published in the New York Sun and included the manner in which he saw fit to be honored by the baseball fraternity:

“My good friend,

Referring to our lately conversation on Baseball I now comply with your request to write you a letter on the subject then proposed by me and which you so readily and kindly offered to take charge of, after my death, namely, to procure subscriptions to place a Headstone on my grave.

My wish is that Baseball players be invited to subscribe Ten Cents each and no matter how small a sum is collected, it will be sufficient to place an oak board with an inscription on my resting place, but whatever it may be, I would like it as durable as possible without any ornamentation—simply something that “he who runs may read.”…

All relations and immediate friends are well informed that I desire to be buried in my baseball suit, and wrapped in the original flag of the old Knickerbockers 1845, now festooned over my bureau and for the past eighteen years and interred with the least possible cost.

I suggest the following inscription in wood or in stone:

Wrapped in the Original Flag Of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of N.Y.,Here lies the body of James Whyte Davis, A member for thirty years. He was not “Too Late,” Reaching the “Home Plate.” Born March 2, 1826. Died ______ ….”

Unfortunately for Davis, Talcott and the National League never got around to honoring him with a monument after he passed away in 1899 and he ended up buried in Brooklyn’s storied cemetery without any recognition at all.

James Whyte's letter to NY Giant owner Edward B. Talcott was published in the NY Sun and stirred up some controversy amongst baseball fans (left). Davis was one of the best-known figures in 19th century baseball with his likeness included in the famous 1865 baseball print published by Leslie's (right).

In 2004, while researching for my book Baseball Legends of Green-Wood Cemetery, I discovered that the majority of Davis’ Knickerbocker teammates were interred in the same Brooklyn cemetery and was able to confirm that Davis’ last resting place was also in Green-Wood. But unlike my discoveries of monuments erected above the graves of his other teammates like Duncan Curry and Fraley Niebuhr, my search for Davis’ final resting place ended with the realization that his final wish was never fulfilled and that he’d been buried in an unmarked grave in the “public section” of the cemetery.

Hoping to deliver Davis his dying wish I formulated a loose plan to establish something called the “Elysian Fields Monument Trust” which I hoped could work in conjunction with Green-Wood’s excellent “Saved In Time” program to refurbish and erect monuments for long-lost pioneers of the game like Davis. I enlisted the help of historian John Thorn, who jumped on board immediately, but our plans never took flight with the two of us being the only contributors to the cause.  I thought it would be fitting to collect 10c from each current MLB player, but that plan never materialized.  A decade later, the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) brought the original idea to fruition when they worked with Green-Wood to refurbish the monument of Brooklyn Excelsior pitcher Jim Creighton.  But despite the interest and support for Creighton, James Whyte Davis was still buried in an unmarked grave.

The public announcement made by SABR this weekend was originally initiated this past Spring when John Thorn attended SABR’s Frederic Ivor-Campbell 19th Century Conference in Cooperstown and had a dinner discussion about Davis’ plight with Ralph Carhart and Marjorie Adams, the great granddaughter of Davis’ former teammate “Doc” Adams. As a result of the informal meeting, Thorn reached out to several SABR members and started the ball rolling to develop a formal plan to institute the new program to aid players without headstones or markers, with “Too Late” Davis being the first project on the agenda.

After corresponding with several SABR members, 19th Century Committee Chairman Peter Mancuso secured the support of SABR and its Executive Director, Marc Appleman, while Ralph Carhart discussed details with Jeff Richman of Green-Wood to get the go-ahead to start work on the Davis headstone. In an email sent to interested SABR members back in May Mancuso said, “SABR’s authorization and support will also increase exponentially the publicity (and in turn donations) necessary to the project’s mission.  Marc Appleman has already offered to announce this new project initiative during his report at SABR’s Annual Business Meeting at SABR 45 in Chicago next month.”

While Davis’ prospects look good for finally having a suitable headstone above the grave site where he was buried in the original Knickerbocker team flag, there is a much more troubling reality for Davis’ personal archive which included the team correspondence, score books, rule books and meeting books spanning from the 1840s to the 1870s.  As described in John Thorn’s book Baseball In The Garden Of Eden, Davis left his Knickerbocker treasure trove to his good friend and baseball scribe Henry Chadwick.  Chadwick, in turn, left Davis’ Knickerbocker archive (along with his own) to Albert Goodwill Spalding in 1908 and after Spalding’s death in 1915 his widow bequeathed the entire collection of baseball history to the New York Public Library.

Jame Whyte Davis' archive of Knick BBC correspondence was compromised at the NYPL when thieves cut and sliced important letters and documents out of NYPL scrapbook volumes housing the Spalding Collection. In some cases portions of scrapbook pages were cut out (left) while in others portions of letters were cut and removed from documents which remained pasted in scrapbooks.

Sadly, many of the treasures that Davis’ generously passed on to Chadwick have become victims of vandalism and theft as greedy dealers and collectors schemed in the 1970s to wrongfully remove hundreds of rare and important documents that Davis had preserved for posterity.  With the aid of sharp objects, the thieves excised rare letters from the Knickerbocker Correspondence Collection scrapbooks and score pages from important matches in the team’s score books.  They also swiped rare pamphlets and rule books issued by the ball club. The evidence of some of the thefts is clearly visible in the scrapbooks and bound volumes which still show the aftermath of the cutting and slicing which enabled the robbers to safely abscond with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of baseball treasures.

The Knick scrapbooks at the NYPL include correspondence written to and by James Whyte Davis and examination of the actual scrapbooks today reveals numerous instances of vandalism and theft where portions of pages and entire letters have been removed from the volumes.

Missing from Davis’ contribution to the Spalding Collection are numerous “Challenge Letters” to and from the Knickerbocker BBC requesting matches against the top teams of the era as well as important club membership and resignation letters, one of which was written by the “Father of Professional Baseball,” Harry Wright, when he left the Knicks for the rival Gotham Club in 1863. Also missing are important score sheets from the famous June 19, 1846 Knick match against the “New York Club” as well as other items listed on the original 1922 inventory including the Knick By-Laws and Constitutions from 1858 and 1866. The thieves even managed to smuggle out the original panoramic photograph of Davis on the field with the Knickerbockers and the Brooklyn Excelsiors in 1859.  The image is one of the most important in baseball history as it represents the earliest image of baseball teams on an actual playing field. It is also very likely that the uniform Davis is wearing in the photograph is the same garment that he was “wrapped in” when he was buried at Green-Wood in 1899.

This original photo of the Knickerbockers and Brooklyn Excelsiors taken in 1859 is currently missing from the NYPL. James Whyte Davis appears in the photo (circled in red) and enlarged to the far left.

The thefts from Davis’ archive are tantamount to grave-robbing but little action has been taken by the baseball research community to spearhead any effort to recover and restore the NYPL’s Knickerbocker archive to its original splendor. In fact, it is actual SABR members and advertisers for the most part who have acted as the buyers and sellers of the stolen materials from the Davis and Chadwick baseball libraries.

One such SABR member even went so far to reveal on collector forum Net54 his knowledge of the whereabouts of the original letter Davis wrote expressing his wishes to be buried in the Knickerbocker flag.  The member, a Brooklyn memorabilia dealer named Barry Sloate, said that the letter (which was likely stolen from Davis’ NYPL archive) was “in the same place for many years” and later joked, “So, if his wish came true, all we have to do is dig him up and the flag is ours!”

SABR member Barry Sloate (right) revealed knowledge of a stolen Davis letter on Net54 as well as joking that he could dig up the body of James Whyte Davis to secure the Knickerbocker flag he was buried in.

Interestingly enough, Sloate is also the dealer who claimed on the same internet forum that he had owned and sold many artifacts stolen from the NYPL’s Spalding Collection including: the 1852 By-Laws of the Eagle Base Ball Club; (8) challenge letters to and from the Knickerbocker BBC; a tintype photograph of Harry Wright; and a host of score pages stolen from Henry Chadwick’s personal score book from the late 1850s. (Only the 1852 Eagle By-Laws have been recovered by the NYPL). When questioned about his ownership and sale of the stolen materials on the same collector forum in 2009, Sloate responded stating, “As for pieces I have sold in the past I have sold dozens of rare items and I will admit I do not know the provenance of any of them. I hope all of them were good but like I said, I do not know their source.” Responding in particular to the sale of one of the stolen Knickerbocker challenge letters in his own auction Sloate added, “The person who consigned the Knickerbocker letter is now deceased. I can not go back to him anymore.”

The photograph of the Knickerbocker Score Book at the NYPL shows evidence of score sheets being cut from the spine of the volume. One sheet excised from the volume was from a June 19, 1846 match. The image of that same page was documented in several baseball books before it was stolen.

The first signs of the thefts of Davis’ Knickerbocker materials from the NYPL surfaced in 1983 when John Thorn discovered that the important score pages for the famous June 19, 1846 match between the Knicks and the New Yorks had been sliced out from the spine of the NYPL volume housing the team score books.  Luckily for researchers these pages had been previously photographed by authors like Dr. Harold Seymour, Dorothy Seymour Mills and Robert Smith who had included images of the score sheets in published works.

In a Hauls of Shame interview in 2010 Thorn described his discovery stating, “I was surprised to find that the game of June 19, 1846 was not present, nor was the second game played that day, whose date had erroneously been “revised” to June 20. Inquiring of an NYPL staffer about this I was informed in writing that in the microfilming process the “second game” had been missed, and I was supplied with a clear photocopy. But there was no comment about the absence of the game of June 19. I returned to the NYPL in about 1987 to view the game books again, and saw clearly that the page on which the June 19, 1846 game would have been recorded had been excised by a razor blade or Exacto knife.”  As far as the value of the stolen sheets today Thorn added, “One can’t place a price on this any more than one could have placed a price on the Mona Lisa after it was stolen from the Louvre back in 1911. The only person who would buy it would be one who could pay big bucks for an object he could never display to friends.”

Perhaps, some of the publicity that may come with SABR’s planned placement of a headstone at his grave will shine an additional light to help locate the whereabouts of “Too Late” Davis’ plundered Knickerbocker treasures.

Anyone who would like to contribute to the Davis monument fund can make a tax exempt donation with a check payable to: “SABR” with “19cBB Grave Marker Project” written on the check’s memo line.  The checks can be sent to:

Society For American Baseball Research

Cronkite School at A.S.U.

555 N. Central Ave #416

Phoenix, AZ 850041