By Peter J. Nash
July 25, 2013
When Baseball Hall of Fame historian Lee Allen secured August Herrmann’s entire archive of correspondence from Cincinnati Reds owner Powel Crosley Jr., it was a feather in his cap and a huge addition to the developing baseball library he headed.
Allen, a former employee of Crosley’s Reds, was in Cooperstown in 1960 when the archive of over 45,000 documents arrived via several delivery trucks and The Sporting News quoted Allen as saying, “This is the most valuable accumulation of baseball lore ever assembled in one place.”
After the collection arrived Allen reached out to his friend Dr. Harold Seymour to tell him about some of the treasures he’d found buried in the files. Allen wrote, “The Garry Herrmann papers have arrived….The most interesting thing I have found so far is a letter from Hank O’Day to the NL office written the night after the Merkle play, explaining exactly what happened.”
Over the years, similar letters from the Hall archives which were sent by O’Day and others to the league and Herrmann have mysteriously found their way into auctions and the personal collections of autograph collectors obsessed with obtaining the genuine signatures of as many Baseball Hall of Famers as possible. To date, enough evidence has been compiled and presented by Haulsofshame.com to illustrate that the National Baseball Library’s Herrmann Papers archive was the victim of a large scale heist of historic documents in the 1980s at a time when the collection was disorganized and had not yet been microfilmed. Thus, any document addressed to Herrmann appearing for sale is considered a possible stolen item from the Hall’s collection and several have been pulled from sales conducted by Heritage and Robert Edward Auctions while others have been auctioned off by Clean Sweep and Huggins & Scott despite warnings.
Adding to the controversy is the fact that the Baseball Hall of Fame itself has failed to claim title or pursue recovery of any of the rare and valuable documents allegedly claiming they cannot determine if they were stolen. That being said, the Hall has also failed to pursue recovery of other stolen photographs which were visually documented as Hall property in photo shoots conducted at the museum in the 1980s. Incident reports alleging the thefts and documenting the sales of stolen property can be found at the Cooperstown Police Department.
Back in February two more documents addressed to August Herrmann appeared for sale in what hobby veteran Lew Lipset called his “final auction.” One was a letter from Hall of Famer Miller Huggins regarding his playing for Herrmann’s Reds and the other was a 1921 letter signed by the entire Reds team supporting the team’s hiring of a trainer named George Hoskins. The second document became more notable when the Reds’ manager, ex-umpire Hank O’Day, was elected to the Hall of Fame for induction this summer in Cooperstown. The Huggins letter is estimated to be worth between $5-10,000 and the letter signed by O’Day at least $20,000 considering the scarcity of the newly minted Hall of Famer’s signature.
Both letters were removed from Lipset’s auction when this writer pointed out the issues to the auctioneer but remarkably Lipset said his consignor had some interesting information to offer about the provenance of the two extremely valuable letters. The consignor, veteran autograph collector and dealer, Jack Smalling, told him that both letters were given to him as a gift by Hall of Fame historian Lee Allen for research work he’d assisted with. Lipset also said that Smalling told him they were the only two letters given to him by the Hall historian who passed away in 1969. Back when they were given to him the letters had little monetary value, perhaps a few hundred dollars at best.
Back in March Lipset sent out an email to customers stating, “The two letters have been withdrawn because of erroneous information given to us. The letters are owned by Jack Smalling (of the long time best selling Baseball Address Book). They were given to Jack in the 1960’s by Lee Allen, an officer at the Hall of Fame as a thank you for research done by Jack for the Hall. The Huggins letter has Kevin Keating’s COA, the 1912 letter did not, as I didn’t realize the significance of the Hank O’Day signature at the time. The letters were confused with Herman papers taken in a HOF theft about 15 years ago. These were obviously not included. The disposition of these letters will be decided after the auction.”
Most recently Lipset sent out another email indicating the letters will be appearing for sale in the “Heritage auction concluding Thursday August 1st in Chicago at the National in Chicago.” Lipset added, ”These letters were pulled from my auction because some questions were raised, not on their authenticity, but how they were obtained. There is no doubt in my mind they were obtained legitimately.”
But how could Lipset know for sure? In our last report it was revealed that around 1990 Lipset sold several rare documents signed by the 19th century New York Giants that appear to have been stolen from the National Baseball Library and he had no recollection where he acquired them. How could he determine whether these Herrmann letters were legitimately transferred without having answers from Lee Allen? One thing that is for sure, however, is that the two letters given to Smalling originated from the Herrmann Papers archive in Cooperstown and the Heritage Auction lot description makes no mention whatsoever of the provenance of the letters and the story told by Smalling. Chris Ivy of Heritage did not respond to our inquiry for comment.
When I was first informed by Lipset that these two documents were being offered in his auction I notified him about the Herrmann Papers provenance issues which I assumed he was already aware of. Lipset said he consulted with a friend who was an attorney who suggested he contact the Baseball Hall of Fame. I also consulted with a prominent baseball historian for his advice and it was suggested that since Lee Allen worked for the Reds before he came to the Hall of Fame it could have been possible that he took possession of these two letters before the entire archive was donated to the Hall by Reds owner Powel Crosley Jr. in 1960. I asked Lipset to confirm with Smalling if he was given the documents at the National Baseball Library or at Allen’s Cooperstown home? Lipset said Smalling responded that the letters were sent to him by mail.
Based upon that information I thought it was still plausible that these two letters could be the only “Herrmann Letters” in private hands which were not wrongfully removed from the Hall of Fame. I even mentioned the O’Day letter to a collector who then asked me to pass along an offer to Smalling via Lipset if the letters were found to be legitimate.
Looking further into the situation, I emailed historian Dorothy Seymour Mills, who was the first researcher to have access to the Herrmann Papers for her book Baseball: The Golden Years. Mills had also been a good friend of Lee Allen and knew him personally and had actually been a guest in Allen’s Cooperstown home with her late husband Dr. Harold Seymour. I asked Mills for her take on Smalling’s story and whether she thought that Allen could have legitimately given away Herrmann documents for the work that Smalling had done at the Hall. Mills had never been given any letters for assistance that she and her husband had furnished for Allen. Mills responded to my inquiry saying, “When we were researching the Herrmann Correspondence in the same room with Lee while he wrote one of his books, we found that Lee had “put aside” in his desk drawer certain documents he had found that he thought would be most helpful to him in his work. He showed us those documents.” In regard to Allen gifting the Herrmann letters to Smalling Mills noted that Allen was a “kind and gregarious” man and added, “I would not be surprised to learn that he had made a gift of some Herrmann Correspondence documents to a friend that he felt he owed something to. I think he had a strong ownership feeling about the correspondence and may not have considered such an act wrong, although of course it would have been.”
Mills’ response cast additional doubt as to whether the two documents could ever be determined as being legitimately gifted by Allen to Smalling and I advised the potential buyer and Lipset of the new information. Lipset responded that he had contacted the Hall of Fame and said, “I was told that a very small part of the Herrmann items were stolen and that the donation was voluminous and that basded on what I said regarding Lee Allen, he didn”t think there was a problem selling them.” Lipset did not identify the Hall employee he spoke with. Lipset added, “I have an email from the Hall of Fame apologizing for not getting back to me and I am still waiting for a response as to whether there is a problem selling them. If there is, they will be pulled and returned to Jack Smalling. Otherwise, they will be auctioned as intended.”
The letters were pulled from the Lipset auction but have now resurfaced as a consignment from Smalling to Heritage Auctions’ 2013 National Convention Platinum Night Auction. Despite the questions as to whether Allen legitimately gifted the O’Day and Huggins documents to Jack Smalling, they will likely not be scrutinized by officials at the Baseball Hall of Fame who have historically ignored any evidence of thefts from the Herrmann collection and have failed to pursue recovery of property owned by New York State under the Museum’s charter. It is ironic that the Smalling documents have landed at Heritage, an auction house that has already pulled numerous documents from prior sales because of suspicions they were stolen from Cooperstown and also employs Mike Gutierrez as a consignment director despite the fact that he was the prime suspect in a 1980s investigation into stolen documents and photographs from the Hall of Fame. An eyewitness who accompanied Gutierrez on a trip to the National Baseball Library in the late 1980s told the hobby newsletter, The Sweet Spot, that he saw Gutierrez stealing documents from the Herrmann Papers collection. A source tells Haulsofshame.com they have knowledge of Gutierrez directly selling another similar letter from Huggins to Herrmann in a private transaction with a collector.
If the appearance of letters addressed to Herrmann in auctions were not enough of a mystery the new claims made by Smalling of being gifted rare documents by Lee Allen make the Herrmann Papers saga even more confusing. Smalling is the only hobbyist known to ever make such a claim and would have been given the documents by Allen prior to his sudden death on May 20, 1969. Sources indicate that Smalling provided Allen with desperately needed information regarding the addresses and whereabouts of retired ball players that bolstered Allen’s own research which Marty Appel has described as “30 years collecting the largest baseball demographic file in the country.”
Smalling is regarded as a trailblazer in the hobby who tracked down and documented the current addresses of former players for autograph hounds and shared his information in columns he wrote for early hobby publications like The Trader Speaks. But Smalling also operated as an autograph collector and dealer and over the decades has amassed a considerable collection of baseball rarities. Lipset says that when Deacon White was elected for induction earlier this year, the Hall reached out to Smalling for an exemplar of White’s autograph. Lipset said Smalling had a White autograph in his possession but Hall officials didn’t realize that they already had a letter written by White which is part of the Herrmann Papers.
From his home in Ames, Iowa, Smalling declined to be interviewed today in regard to his selling his “gifts” from Allen at Heritage, but several dealers and hobbyists have expressed their feeling that Smalling is undoubtedly telling the truth about Allen giving him the valuable letters addressed to Herrmann. While every other Herrmann letter appearing for sale at auction has had absolutely no reference to its origin or provenance, it is refreshing to see these two with an actual history dating back to the 1960s, in the same decade Lee Allen secured the Herrmann archive for the Hall.
We spoke with one autograph collector who was active in the 1960s and he confirmed that several other very young collectors had helped Allen obtain addresses and information just like Smalling had and that Allen, instead of paying them, gave them new addresses and autographs for their collections. The collector made it clear that he had never heard that a Herrmann letter or other historic documents were ever given in exchange for work.
We may never know the actual circumstances under which Lee Allen “gifted” Jack Smalling letters from Herrmann’s archive in exchange for work he had done for the Hall. As someone who knew him personally, Dorothy Seymour Mills felt Allen displayed a sense of ownership over the Herrmann archive and that feeling is echoed in a 1963 letter he wrote to Hall of Fame President Paul Kerr to informally apply for the Hall’s Director position. In the letter Allen made the case that his “wide acquaintance in the world of baseball,” his “personal honesty,” and his dedication in building the library collections, including “obtaining the Herrmann papers,” qualified him for the Director position.
But although Allen said he “would rather be Director of the Hall of Fame than President of the United States” his desire to hold that position would never be fulfilled. As Hall historian he had experienced what he described as a “spiritual rebirth” after “years of wandering” and said that in Cooperstown he had “Found a home where I want to spend the rest of my days.” He was devoted to the Hall and the inductees who had achieved excellence in the game and although he felt he ”did not have the God-given ability to join their ranks” he was “determined to excel also, as their interpreter.” Allen ended his plea to Kerr with a prophetic pledge to the Hall as he wrote, “My only remaining ambition then would be to serve you until I was ready for the coroner’s table that awaits us all.”
Whether Lee Allen gave away the Herrmann letters legitimately or not, one thing is clear. He gave his life to the Hall.