Dec. 4, 2012
Ford C. Frick was a former sportswriter and broadcaster who served as the National League’s President from 1934 to 1951 and as Baseball’s Commissioner from 1951 to 1965, but his greatest contribution to the game may have been his brainstorm to honor baseball’s greats in a “Hall of Fame.”
It all started back in 1935 when Frick was approached by Alexander Cleland and Stephen C. Clark with an idea to establish a baseball museum in Cooperstown, New York. Clark, an heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, and his employee, Cleland, were soliciting the endorsement of organized baseball to ensure that their concept would become a reality. Frick saw the potential in their planned venture and not only did he endorse the concept, he expanded on Alexander Cleland’s ideas and contributed his own—to honor baseball’s “immortals” in a similar fashion as the Hall of Fame For Great Americans at New York University’s campus on the Hudson River. Frick’s vision dictated that players would be honored with bronze plaques hung in a “Hall of Fame” that would work in conjunction with a newly constructed baseball museum which would house important relics of the National Pastime.
Hearing that Clark and Cleland had recently discovered what was alleged to have been the “Doubleday Baseball,” a sphere that was said to have been used in play in the first game in Cooperstown in 1839, Frick immediately made his own contribution to the fledgling museum on behalf of the National League–a magnificent Victorian sterling silver trophy known as the “Hall Cup,” which had been presented to the New York Giants for the championship of 1888. From that day forward there was always a special place in Ford Frick’s heart for Cooperstown and that feeling endured all the way up until 1970 when Frick was honored as a Hall of Famer with his own plaque hanging in the Hall’s gallery alongside Ruth, Gehrig and the other greats of the game.
Frick also realized the importance of establishing a National Baseball Library and as early as 1960 worked with Hall historian Lee Allen to contribute the National League papers and files (including his own) to the Cooperstown institution. Considering Frick’s key role in the establishment of the museum and the library it was understood that the Hall would benefit from his generosity and his awareness that baseball’s history needed to be preserved in an official repository like the National Baseball Library. In 1968, Frick stated in an interview for his autobiography, “At last a Baseball Library has been added, the first library ever established by any sport as a private enterprise anywhere, anytime. The Library appeals to me particularly because it is essentially a tribute to the writers whose contribution has been immeasurable…”
Frick viewed the establishment of the Hall of Fame and its library as one of his greatest accomplishments in the game and in 1978 the Hall decided to honor Frick again by naming the award presented for lifetime achievements in broadcasting–The Ford Frick Award. Later today, from Baseball’s Winter meetings in Nashville, the Hall will release the name of the 36th Ford Frick Award winner who will join past honorees including legends Red Barber, Vin Scully, Mel Allen, Curt Gowdy, Ernie Harwell and Joe Garagiola. Last years recipient was Tim McCarver. Unfortunately, today is also the day that Haulsofshame.com releases its findings in an on-going investigation into the multi-million dollar thefts of baseball artifacts and documents from the National Baseball Library. It appears that many documents originating from the files Frick donated to the National Baseball Library have been stolen and sold on Baseball’s “black market.” (Correction: The Frick Award winner will be announced tommorrow, Dec. 5th)
After a three-year investigation into the Ford Frick-related documents that have surfaced in the hobby and have been sold at public auction since the early 1990s, it has been determined that the Frick papers housed at the NBL have been compromised to the tune of close to $500,000 including valuable autographs representing some of the greatest rarities in the game. Most all of the stolen documents are thank you notes written to Frick and the National League office from old-time players who had received ”lifetime- passes” from Frick for free admission to Major League games.
The first substantial cache of these letters appeared in the 1999 Barry Halper Collection auction at Sotheby’s in New York City. In that auction, correspondence addressed to Frick thanking him for lifetime passes from rare Hall of Famers like George Wright, Joe Kelley, Jesse Burkett, Sliding Billy Hamilton, Jimmy Collins, Nap Lajoie, Kid Nichols, Bill Klem and others were sold for tens of thousands of dollars.
In 2009, this writer presented to Hall of Fame officials a detailed 200+ page report identifying scores of stolen and suspected stolen documents and photographs that had appeared in public auctions and private collections since the 1980s. In that report was information illustrating how the NBL’s August Herrmann Papers collection had been compromised and there was a separate section devoted to the Ford Frick Papers and the documents sold by Halper at Sotheby’s. The report stated: “Considering the numerous documents suspected to have been removed from the Herrmann Papers, this group of correspondence warrants further investigation.” Since receiving the report in 2009 the Hall has not investigated the Frick letters and, in addition, has still not inventoried or cataloged its contents. Visitors to the NBL are able to handle the original documents in the Frick file despite the fact that they remain the target of theft.
Currently the National Baseball Library designates the uncatalogued and un-inventoried Frick Papers on its ABNER database as, “1933-1944 Ford Frick- Thank You Letters For Lifetime Pass.” The existing file is as thick as a phone book and features hundreds of thank you notes to Frick and Bill Brandt for sending lifetime passes to old-time ballplayers whose careers dated back to the nineteenth century. Examining this file, we were able to identify scores of letters written by marginal and star ballplayers like Stuffy McInnis, Jack Barry, Bill Wambsganss, Smoky Joe Wood, Larry Gardner, Bill Dineen, Bobby Veach, Deacon Phillippe, Buck Freeman, Joe Gunson, Tommy Bond, Jack Glasscock and Dan Casey. These letters would have a current value ranging between $100- $1,000 depending on the individual player. In addition, the file also had a smaller group of letters written to Frick by Hall of Famers like Jimmy Foxx, Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb, Nap Lajoie, Eppa Rixey and others. These letters would have values ranging from $500 to $1,500, again, depending upon the player. In some cases there are multiple letters from players sent for the receipt of multiple lifetime or season passes. All of the correspondence is written between 1933 and 1937.
What is striking about the current NBL file is the absence of the letters written by the most valuable players and Hall of Famers who had also written thank you letters to Frick. Somehow, it is those extremely rare and valuable letters that are now missing from the Hall’s current file and have surfaced at auction over the years selling for tens of thousands of dollars. Case in point is one of the rarest Hall of Fame signatures in existence–Vic Willis. A thank you letter written to Frick by Willis was sold in a Mastro Auction in 1999 and today would be estimated with a value in the range of $30,000 to $40,000. That letter features a pencil notation with the players last name in the upper left-hand corner of the document, just like many of the letters still housed in the NBL’s Frick file. One similar letter still at the Hall is a thank you letter from another Pirate pitching legend who never made the Hall–Deacon Phillippe. Phillippe’s name is also written in the same hand on the document in pencil, just like the Willis document.
Haulsofshame.com estimates that the value of the letters wrongfully removed from the Frick correspondence collection could exceed $500,000. Multiple letters from some players like George Wright have been sold at public auction but it is believed many others are buried in private collections including letters from the likes of Ned Hanlon, Amos Rusie, George Davis and the newly elected Deacon White. As it stands, the hundreds of letters that remain in the Frick file at the National Baseball Library could easily be appraised at a half-a-million dollars.
One of the few surviving letters at the Hall with exceptional value is a thank you letter written to the National League by Hall of Famer Bid McPhee. A legitimate letter written by McPhee sold at public auction a few years ago for close to $75,000. It is likely the McPhee letter survived in the NBL files because he was elected to the Hall in 2000, many years after the original heist is suspected to have occurred. One other extreme rarity that has survived in the NBL’s Frick files is a 1933 thank you to Frick penned by “Smilin” Mickey Welch. Industry experts estimate the value of that letter at over $50,000.
When confronted with the findings of our investigation, the leadership at the Hall of Fame was, as usual, silent. In fact, another letter believed to have been stolen from the NBLs famous August Herrmann Papers Collection is currently being sold by Steve Verkman and Clean Sweep Auctions in Carle, Place, New York, and last week Hall spokesperson Brad Horn failed to respond to similar inquiries for comment. Clean Sweep sold another letter stolen from the Hall’s Herrmann archive last year as Horn and the Hall allowed the document to be sold without claiming it as library property. Auctioneer Josh Evans, who first helped uncover the HOF thefts in the late 1980s, was critical of the institution’s negligence. At the time, Evans said, ”Now they are complicit in their own degredation.”
Just last year, Hall of Fame Chairman, Jane Forbes Clark, dedicated a space honoring Bud Selig and the office of the Commissioner located in the National Baseball Library atrium in the former offices of the Hall’s Education Department. At the dedication Clark said, “The Selig Center for the Archives of Major League Baseball Commissioners will ensure a permanent home for the documentation and preservation of the Office of the Commissioner’s contributions to baseball history. This archive will provide a central location for the study and research of the importance of the Office of the Commissioner, and its role in shaping and advancing the National Pastime for nearly a century.”
We contacted Matt Bourne, MLB’s Vice President of Business Public Relations, at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville, where Bud Selig is attending MLBs Winter Meetings and asked for a reaction from Selig to a former Commissioner’s archives having been looted. Bourne told us, “We aren’t going to provide any comment.”
Bourne and MLB are all too familiar with the issue of stolen MLB-related documents ever since the 2009 All-Star Game Auction was conducted by Hunt Auctions. Included in that sale were a “rare cache” of stolen letters that had originally been bequeathed to the National League in 1895 by Hall of Famer Harry Wright. Those documents are currently the subject of a three year FBI investigation into hundreds of documents and photographs stolen from the New York Public Library.
Hall of Fame spokesperson, Brad Horn, failed to respond to inquiries about the thefts from the Frick collection and did not return calls to his hotel room at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville.