Breaking News

By Peter J. Nash

May 7, 2010

 

"1874 Harry Wright Photo Missing From NYPL's Spalding Collection"

 

When a “cache of 19th century letters” written to baseball pioneer Harry Wright appeared last summer in the Major League Baseball All-Star Game FanFest auction, baseball historians suspected that the correspondence may have originated from the A. G. Spalding Baseball Collection at the New York Public Library. The New York Times published a series of articles questioning the provenance of the letters and based upon the recollections of baseball historian Dorothy Jane Mills, who worked with the Spalding Collection in the 1950’s, letters from the MLB sale were determined to be property of the New York Public Library. In particular, Mills proved that one letter offered in the auction written by player Jim Devlin was cited in her husband Harold Seymour’s 1956 Cornell dissertation on 19th century baseball.

The revelation attracted national news coverage, and the letters were withdrawn from the MLB/Hunt Auction as the Federal Bureau of Investigation commenced a probe into the thefts of baseball materials from the NYPL collection. Even Harry Wright’s direct descendants expressed their dismay that the donated archive had disappeared and was being sold. Pam Guzzi, Wright’s great-great granddaughter, passionately stated her hopes that all of Harry Wright’s treasures would “eventually be recovered and returned to their public homes for all to view.”

Now, close to a year after the Wright letters first appeared for sale, investigations into the matter suggest that the thefts of baseball artifacts from the New York Public Library were not limited to the group of letters offered at the 2009 All-Star Game auction. An independent investigation conducted by haulsofshame.com has uncovered evidence that links other stolen materials from the Spalding Collection to the now deceased and legendary baseball collector Barry Halper. The investigation has determined that the 1999 sale of Halper’s collection by Sotheby’s also included items that originated from the Harry Wright Correspondence Collection at the New York Public Library.

One such item appeared as lot 206 in Sotheby’s $25 million dollar sale of Halper’s collection in 1999 and was described by the auction house as a “historically significant document” that “declared the Boston Base Ball Club the champions of the National Association for 1875.” The letter awarded the Boston team the championship pennant for 1875 and was signed by both league president Morgan Bulkeley and Boston manager Harry Wright. The letter, which was previously offered in the early 1990’s by Richard Wolfers Auctions of San Francisco with an estimated value of “$25,000-30,000,” was sold by Halper at Sotheby’s for $14,950.

"Letter Awarding Boston the Pennant of 1875. Sold at Sotheby's in the 1999 Barry Halper Auction"

Newly discovered evidence, however, confirms that the 1875 letter awarding the pennant to the Boston team, sold by Sotheby’s in 1999, was once found on page 21 of the New York Public Library’s Harry Wright Correspondence Scrapbook, volume 1. Dorothy Jane Mills and her late husband Harold Seymour wrote extensive research notes when they examined the A. G. Spalding Baseball Collection at the library in the 1950’s and their entire archive of notes and papers were donated to Cornell University in 1994. The Seymour Papers are presently housed in Cornell’s Carl A. Kroch Library as part of the University’s Rare and Manuscript Collections. Harold Seymour’s handwritten notes, recently discovered in the Cornell collection, document that the 1875 letter once owned by Barry Halper is the property of the NYPL.

Seymour quotes the content of the auctioned letter, almost verbatim, in his handwritten document housed at Cornell. With a heading indicating “Championship to Boston 1875,” Seymour memorialized how the letter he originally examined as part of the Harry Wright Correspondence stated: “Committee of the Nat. Assoc. of B. B. Players resolved to award pennant to Boston for 1875-said club having won most games as appears from records on file.” Seymour also wrote that the letter was autographed by the parties, noting: “Bulkeley & H. Wright signed.” In addition, historian Seymour specifically cited the letter as originating from the “Wright Corres. 1. P 21.” Today, some fifty years later, Seymour’s wife, Dorothy Jane Mills recalls their research at the NYPL: “We took careful notes, most of them on 5 x 8 note paper, recording the subject at the top, the information in the body, and the source at the bottom.”

The content of the original 1875 letter sold by Sotheby’s states: “At a meeting of the Committee of the National Association of Base Ball players…it was resolved that the championship pennant for the season of 1875 be awarded to the Boston Base Ball Club, said club having won the greatest number of games during the season of 1875 as appears by the records on file…”  The letter was also signed by Hall-of-Famers Morgan Bulkeley and Harry Wright.

 The Seymour note serves as unimpeachable evidence that the letter sold by Sotheby’s was once part of the Spalding Collection and wrongfully removed from the NYPL. When informed of the revelation provided by the Seymour Papers at Cornell, Dorothy Jane Mills stated, “I’m glad to know (our notes) were helpful in tracking the ownership of stolen materials.” The haulsofshame.com investigation into the Wright thefts has uncovered other documents housed at Cornell that support NYPL’s ownership of additional items that have been sold at public auction, including an 1879 contract signed by Boston player Ezra Sutton.

"Original Notes of Dr. Harold Seymour c.1953 From the Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell Univ."

The correspondence of Harry Wright was donated to the NYPL in 1921 by the widow of Baseball Hall-of-Famer Albert Spalding. The collected letters and documents of Wright were compiled in four volumes of scrapbooks constructed by the NYPL in 1922. The library is still in possession of one volume of the correspondence, but the other three volumes have been missing from the collection for decades. When historian John Thorn and other groups, including the Baseball Hall of Fame, funded the microfilming of the NYPL’s Spalding manuscript collection in 1983, it was officially documented that the three volumes were missing.

The three missing volumes of Wright’s correspondence are believed to have contained well over a thousand documents pertaining to Wright’s career in baseball from 1866 to 1894. Sources indicate that the FBI’s investigation that commenced with the sale of the Wright letters last summer is active and that their probe has led to their collecting additional items suspected to have originated from the Wright scrapbooks. The media office of the FBI in New York declined to answer whether their investigation had uncovered information as to where Barry Halper originally acquired the 1875 letter.

Wright’s great-great granddaughter Pam Guzzi confirmed that she has been contacted by the FBI and in regard to the on-going probe said, “I am very encouraged by the progress made in the investigations and most grateful to all of those involved in bringing this travesty to light.” Guzzi also expressed her hopes for a speedy return of the Wright letters “to their rightful home at the New York Public Library.” When asked to comment on the revelations that Sotheby’s had also sold her relative’s donated items she said she was “not familiar with the legal obligations a selling agent such as Sotheby’s has.” Guzzi added, “That items of such historic importance are stolen and sold for the sake of profit only to sit on the mantel in the home of someone with no rightful ownership is most shameful and disappointing.”

Despite several inquiries to Sotheby’s about the sale of the 1875 NYPL letter, the auction house declined to respond to questions or issue a formal statement. 

 Angela Montefinise, a spokeswoman for the NYPL, confirmed that the library is cooperating with the Federal probe but, due to the on-going nature of the investigation, could not comment further.

For Harry Wright’s descendants the mystery of the thefts continues. Said Pam Guzzi, “I don’t know for certain how Mr. Halper ended up with Harry Wright’s donated letter. But I do know my great-great-grandfather’s intention would have been for his letters to remain where they belong, at the New York Public Library for all-time.”

(Editors Note- The 1875 Boston Pennant Letter to Harry Wright appears as the #5 item on the haulsofshame.com “10 Most Wanted Missing National Baseball Treasures List.”)


4 Comments

  1. Peter,

    Excellent job of reporting. I certainly encourage all SABR members, particularly members of our Nineteenth Century Committee to follow these reports and to take particular notice of missing documents and other artifacts from public and private archives and to report such circumstances immediately to the nearest office of the FBI.

    Peter Mancuso, Chairman
    Nineteenth Century Committee
    Society for American Baseball Research

    Comment by Peter Mancuso — May 6, 2010 @ 11:33 pm

  2. It’s good to see the New York Public Library is pursuing the recovery of Harry Wright’s Letters. Hopefully the FBI will find where Halper acquired this letter and that may lead to other recoveries of what may to be thousands of documents. Good luck to Wright’s family.

    Comment by pat kennedy — May 8, 2010 @ 11:15 am

  3. Good for you, Dorothy. It is a great that Society for American Research members peruse the auction house catalogs for incorrect information of all sorts, and especially for items known to have been stolen.

    Comment by Alma Ivor-Campbell — May 13, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

  4. For those of you that haven’t seen it yet, here’s the full story:

    http://haulsofshame.com/ArticlesLinks.html#a

    Comment by Max Levine — May 14, 2010 @ 2:35 pm

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