Breaking News

By Peter J. Nash

June 23, 2010

c. 1879 Portrait of Harry Wright that was stolen from the New York Public Library

 

In just a few weeks, Major League Baseball will host its annual FanFest extravaganza in conjunction with the 2010 All-Star Game to be played in Anaheim, California.  Billed by MLB as an “interactive baseball theme park and the largest baseball fan event in the world,” FanFest offers a host of unique attractions that will be showcased from July 9th to July 13th. The price of admission will grant visitors access to video batting cages, exhibits from the Baseball Hall of Fame, a “Steal Home Challenge,” and even a live auction of vintage treasures of the game.

Last years FanFest auction in St. Louis featured an offering of a “cache of 19th century letters” written to Harry Wright, the “Father of Professional Baseball,” but the FBI stepped in and the auctioneer stopped the sale after it was confirmed that at least some of the letters were stolen from the New York Public Library’s Harry Wright Correspondence Collection. Now it has been revealed by Haulsofshame.com that in 1998, MLB vendor, Hunt Auctions of Exton, PA, unknowingly and unintentionally sold off part of the stolen last will and testament of Harry Wright. This was the very document written in 1895 that stated Wright’s last wishes that his baseball archive be left to the National League to establish “the beginning of a historical collection of…our grand national game of baseball.” Wright’s collection had been preserved by former National League president A. G. Spalding and it was donated to the New York Public Library by Spalding’s widow in 1921.

In 1998 an FBI investigation led to the conviction of a Boston court clerk, Joe Schnabel, who admitted to stealing wills signed by several Baseball Hall of Famers including Hugh Duffy, George Wright and “Old Hoss” Radbourn. The will of Harry Wright was likely part of the Schnabel thefts, but it is unclear if Schnabel ever confessed to having stolen it. The codicil to Wright’s will was sold by Hunt Auctions in February 1998. The conviction of Suffolk County court officer Joe Schnabel led to the recovery of many stolen wills but it appears that several documents from other courthouses, including that of Harry Wright, were never returned even though the story of the thefts made national news. It is believed that the wills of many other players including Jackie Robinson may still be among the missing.

The Philadelphia Register of Wills’ Chief Deputy, Ralph Wynder, confirmed that the will of baseball pioneer Harry Wright is, indeed, missing from the courthouse probate records. When informed that the will of Wright, who was the Philadelphia Phillies’ manager from 1885 to 1894, was worth upwards of $10,000, Wynder was stunned. Said the deputy, “Wow, I never even heard of Harry Wright until I looked to see if his will was in our files, who would have thought the will of an old Phillies manager could be worth so much?”

But Wright was much more than just a Phillies manager. Having started his career as an all-star player with the New York Knickerbockers in the late 1850s, Wright went on to lead the Cincinnati and Boston Red Stockings to national championships in the late 1860s and 1870s as a player-manager. Wright was at the forefront of establishing professional baseball as big business and his work in the National Association’s formative years aided the establishment of the National League in 1876. Of Wright’s accomplishments historian John Thorn says, “Like any good idea, baseball has many fathers (bad ideas have none). Harry Wright may truly be said to be father of the professional game, and one of the five most important persons in the history of the game.”

Close up of Harry Wright's Instructions to Bequeath his Baseball Archive to the National League.

Wright’s great great granddaughter, Pam Guzzi, is understandably disturbed by the theft of the baseball pioneer’s 1895 will. Guzzi expressed similar concerns last summer with the attempted 2009 MLB/Hunt Auctions sale of Harry Wright’s letters . When she was interviewed by Jack Curry of The New York Times, Guzzi said of the rare letters, “Why would someone have them if they weren’t related to him? Why would they be in their grandmother’s attic?”

The controversy over the stolen baseball wills was first reported in October of 1998 by a host of news organizations including the Associated Press, CBS News, ABC News, USA Today/Baseball Weekly and the Boston Herald. But by February of 1998, Hunt Auctions had already sold what they advertised as the “very important 1895 codicil to Hall of Famer Harry Wright’s last will and testament, signed twice by Wright.” Hunt placed a pre-auction estimate on the document at “$6,000-$8,000.”

By May of 1999, Boston Court officer Joe Schnabel plead guilty to the thefts of baseball player wills and the same news organizations published articles detailing the facts of the Schnabel plea, which included descriptions of other wills still missing from the Boston probate court, including the will of Baseball Hall of Famer Tommy McCarthy.   

When Hunt Auctions president, David Hunt, was first interviewed by The New York Times in regard to the 2009 sale of Wright’s letters he vehemently supported his consignor stating he had not seen  “one piece of evidence” that suggested the letters were stolen.  However, when evidence surfaced indicating that one of the letters was stolen, Hunt withdrew all of the Wright letters from the auction.  At the time of the withdrawals, Hunt issued a statement to the Times detailing how the auction house was “working closely with the FBI throughout the investigative process.”  Now, close to a year after the auction, the FBI is in possession of all of the Wright letters.  Additional research unearthed in Cornell University’s “Seymour Papers Collection” has confirmed that most of the letters offered at the 2009 auction were, in fact, stolen from the New York Public Library.

Harry Wright helped create the organization today known as Major League Baseball, and he also entrusted the organization to safeguard his historic baseball archive. Now, over a century after Wright dictated his final wishes, Major League Baseball has been unintentionally associated with the illegitimate sale of Wright’s legacy. MLB’s association with a company involved in the shady world of baseball collectibles is troubling for one of Wright’s relatives.

In a recent interview, Wright’s great great granddaughter Pam Guzzi said, “I would think that MLB would be concerned that all of Harry Wright’s documents remain where they were intended to be preserved. I would think that MLB would make every effort to disassociate itself from an entity found to have (on more than one occasion) sold items that have been proven to have been stolen. Harry Wright was a man concerned with fairness and integrity and certainly he would consider the theft and sale of his items a slap in the face.”

In response to inquiries made, Matt Bourne, MLB’s vice president of business public relations, issued the following statement: “Hunt Auctions is a vendor at MLB All-Star FanFest.  MLB has had numerous conversations with Hunt Auctions about the process of obtaining and selling auction items.  Hunt has assured us that they obtain all of their items legitimately but that it is extraordinarily difficult to accurately trace the history of ownership, which can date back more than 100 years, for all of the items they auction.  If it is uncovered that any auction items have been obtained inappropriately, they have promised to immediately remove them from the auction.”

Based upon MLB’s statement detailing the auction process and noting the fact that the offerings of Wright’s will and his letters were separated by twelve years time, it is reasonable to view both Hunt Auctions and MLB as victims of circumstance.  Hunt Auctions, by no fault of their own,  simply accepted two consignments that ended up having checkered pasts and links to Harry Wright’s donation of his archive.  The real culprits in this improbable scenario are the thieves who originally pilfered Harry Wright’s letters and will.  Investigations conducted by Haulsofshame.com also confirm that many of the owners of stolen baseball items are good faith buyers and sellers who could also be considered victims of the original thefts. 

Although the theft of Harry Wright’s will has been reported to the authorities, it appears that no formal investigation has yet been opened. The Philadelphia Probate Court’s Chief Deputy Ralph Wynder confirmed that he has not yet been contacted by either local law enforcement or the FBI. “No one has called our office to help recover the Harry Wright will,” said Wynder.

Codicil to Harry Wright's 1895 Last Will and Testament, Sold by Hunt Auctions

The FBI is currently investigating the thefts of the Harry Wright letters and hundreds of other items from the New York Public Library’s A. G. Spalding Baseball Collection, and a source familiar with that probe has commented that, “there are so many stolen items out there its difficult to keep track.”

That source may be right. Over a month ago it was reported that another stolen, will-related, document signed by Harry Wright’s brother, George (also a Hall-of-Famer), was being sold on the website of Quality Autographs of Virginia for $6,500. Even though it was reported to the authorities and the Boston Probate Court it was confirmed stolen from, the will still appeared online and for sale for several weeks. Just last week, it appears that the George Wright document was removed from the Quality Autographs’ website. Boston probate officer Richard Iannella declined comment for this article and directed all inquiries to Detective Steven Blair of the Boston Police Department’s Special Investigations Unit. When contacted, Blair stated he was unable to comment on his investigation into the matter.

c.1889 Photo of George Wright that was stolen from the New York Public Library

When notified of the sale of his great grandfather’s signed legal document on the internet, George Wright’s great grandson, Denny Wright of Brookline, Massachusetts, said, “My great grandfather would be appalled that his autograph would be sold for a profit that benefits nobody except the thief. In 1869, he would (never) have guessed that future players would be paid millions and a ballpark beer would cost $8.00; or that a George Wright autograph would be offered for almost $5,000 on the internet. In this day and age when government oil rig inspectors are paid off to ignore problems, should anyone be surprised that the personal artifacts of long-dead baseball players are stolen and sold for profit?”

(Editors Note:  The images of the portraits of Harry and George Wright featured in this article were preserved on contact sheets produced in conjunction with a SABR photo shoot at the New York Public Library in 1983.  Both rare photos are missing from the A. G. Spalding Collection.) 

(This article has been modified to reflect additional information received from Major League Baseball and Hunt Auctions after its initial publication.)

Stolen probate court document signed by Hall of Famer George Wright


3 Comments

  1. This is an excellent and well put together piece on this continuing shameful occurrence of selling stolen items which has been going on for far too many years through various ‘ reputable ‘ auction houses / memorabilia dealers who should know better …

    We have found many instances like this ourselves and feel that the various authorities have not followed up anywhere near enough to crack down on such activities nor to attempt to enforce some serious penalties for those undertaking these thefts and sales …

    You are to be commended most highly for your efforts in bringing these matter to light in this regard …

    Shame on Major League Baseball for allowing themselves to be even remotely associated with such distasteful and criminal happenings.

    Comment by CLAY MARSTON — June 24, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

  2. Mr. Nash, please keep up the good work to keep this matter public. I’m not a collector of baseball or other sports memorabilia, but have enough experience in the realm of historic collectibles to know how auction houses work (or, at least should work). The statement from the MLB rep speaking of the auction house, “it is extraordinarily difficult to accurately trace the history of ownership, which can date back more than 100 years, for all of the items they auction,” is a total whitewash of the issue. Try to consign an item, especially a manuscript, with an auction house without evidence of authenticity and see how fast they turn you away. If they DO decide to list the item for auction, the level of documentation should be made clear in the auction listing, and priced accordingly. No reputable auction house (at least none that I would ever consider dealing with), should accept a LEGAL DOCUMENT for auction without permission of the individual or estate to whom it pertains or belongs. It doesn’t matter whether it is 100 days old or 100 years old or whether it pertains to a celebrity or sports figure or not. What we have here with MLB and auction houses and collectors is “DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL.” It is also called collusion. For law enforcement, it doesn’t have the historical/political weight or dollar value that say, middle eastern antiquities or old master European paintings have, so it isn’t as important or as politically sensitive. Law enforcement has its limits in budget and manpower and must set priorites. Meanwhile, auction houses and collectors can claim ignorance if discovered, and if not discovered, take the money keep quiet (for years and future auctions). Again, thanks and please continue to keep this matter public.

    Comment by Gene Zonarich — July 1, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

  3. [...] and also added that, “No decision has been made regarding the (Harry Wright) telegram.”   Auction Sold The Stolen Will of The “Father of Pro Baseball” in 1998; Harry Wright Gifted His Le… [...]

    Pingback by THE USA BASEBALL HISTORY COLLECTIONS | Driwancybermuseum's Blog — May 24, 2012 @ 1:18 am

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