Jan. 26, 2011
Baseball fans regularly argue who should be, and who shouldn’t be, enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. Names like Gil Hodges, Ron Santo, Pete Rose and Marvin Miller usually pop up in the discourse, but very rarely do you hear the name of Al Reach in the discussion. A true baseball pioneer, Al Reach, started his career as a player for the Brooklyn Eckford’s in the 1860s and soon after jumped to the Philadelphia Athletics. Says, historian John Thorn, “Reach wasn’t the first professional player; several were paid under the table in the 1850s. But when he moved from Brooklyn to Philadelphia in 1865, for no evident reason other than to play for the Athletics, the landscape of baseball changed. For this alone Reach might claim a place in the Hall of Fame, but he was also a club owner, sporting goods magnate and an appointed member of the Mills Commission in 1905.”
Now, thanks to unsolved crimes, including thefts at the New York Public Library in the 1970s, Reach is wanted by the FBI, not the Hall of Fame. A rare cabinet photo of Reach, that is.
In 1921, a cabinet photo of Reach was donated to the New York Public Library by the widow of Hall of Famer Albert Spalding. The photo was part of a huge archive owned by Spalding and now constitutes the library’s great “A.G Spalding Baseball Collection” housed at the main branch on 5th Avenue in New York City.
In 1987, the library did an inventory of the Spalding Collection’s photographic holdings and it was discovered that many of the photos in the collection were missing, including a cabinet photo of Reach taken by the photographer C. M. Gilbert of Philadelphia. The library compiled a “Missing List” and that list included the entry, “Reach, Al. (C.M. Gilbert).” The entry was based on the original 1922 inventory of the collection published in the New York Public Library Bulletin. In 1911 A. G. Spalding used this same photograph in his book, America’s National Game.
In 1992, a photograph fitting this description was sold at auction in San Francisco by Richard Wolfers Auctions as: “A. J. Reach Autographed Cabinet Card….turn of the century Gilbert Cabinet Card and scarce portrait of one of baseball’s true pioneers.” The auction estimate was $5,000-$6,000.
Luckily, the NYPL made their collection available to baseball publications like The Sporting News, who ordered a “photostat negative” of the original Reach photo at the library before it was stolen in the 1970s. Recently the John Rogers Archive purchased the entire photographic files from the Sporting News and have been selling the original prints with several well-known baseball auctioneers. In the current MEARS auction, lot 552 is the actual “photostat negative” ordered by TSN for publication. The negative shows many of the imperfections visible on the original and appears to be the exact same photograph as the example offered at Wolfers Auctions in 1992. The most telling sign is a distinctive blemish or mark on both the photograph and the negative, to the right of Reach’s head.
The back of the Sporting News photo ordered from the NYPL is stamped accordingly, “Photostat Negative Made By The New York Public Library.”
The Gilbert photograph of Al Reach that was originally sold at Wolfers in 1992 has also appeared in subsequent auctions at Christies (as Lot 256) in 1994 and in a Mastro Fine Sports sale of 1999 (as Lot 1193). The Reach cabinet also appears on the Hauls of Shame, “Halper Hot 100 List” as number 56: http://haulsofshame.com/blog/?p=1465 The reverse of this cabinet card most likely exhibits surface paper loss or alterations that conceal the NYPL ownership stamps and markings. It is the only Gilbert portrait of Reach ever offered at a public sale and is believed to be the only known surviving example of this cabinet card.
If you own this photograph or have any information as to the current whereabouts of this stolen item from the NYPL’s Spalding Collection, please contact us at: Tips@Haulsofshame.com or the New York office of the FBI at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The auction lot featuring the “photostat negative” from the NYPL can be found on the MEARS site:
(Editor’s Note: After this story was published, one of our readers incquired about the marks in each of the four corners of the Sporting News’ ”photostat copy” of the NYPL’s original Al Reach photo. We confirmed that those marks are pin holes on the TSN copy, not the original NYPL copy. The pinhole marks can also be seen on the reverse of TSN’s “photostat copy” being offered in the MEARS auction.)