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Lot # 1023 (of 1743)   < Previous Lot | Next Lot >

1901 Fred Clarke Handwritten Letter to Honus Wagner

Starting Bid - $300, Sold For - $1,175

One-page letter, dated March 18, 1901, and scripted on official Pittsburgh Athletic Company (Operating the Pittsburgh Base Ball Club) letterhead, signed by Hall of Fame outfielder Fred Clarke. One of the many interesting aspects of this letter is the fact that it is addressed "Dear Honas." The spelling anomaly notwithstanding, it is obvious that this letter was written to Honus Wagner, all the more so given the remarkable information we discovered during our research (detailed below).

In full: "Dear Honas: If tomorrow is a nice day I will be out and shoot you a match. I will be out about 2:00 or 2:30 and will meet you in the Pool Hall so meet me there and if you can have every thing ready. I hope it will be a nice day this time. I am your friend, F. C. Clarke." Both the text and signature have been scripted in black fountain pen and grade "9/10." This letter was written just two weeks prior to spring training. Unlike prior seasons, the spring of 1901 was a difficult period for all National League clubs due to the emergence of Ban Johnson's newly established American League. The American League had declared itself a rival Major League and quickly waged a bidding war for many of the National League's top players. Pittsburgh players, in particular, were heavily targeted by clubs from the American League, with National League batting champion Honus Wagner the most coveted of the group. Player/manager Fred Clarke, along with owner Barney Dreyfuss and secretary Harry Pulliam, were resolved to keep the Pirates together. According to Arthur D. Hittner, author of Honus Wagner: The Life of Baseball's Flying Dutchman (McFarland & Company, Inc., North Carolina, 1996), the contract negotiations between Clarke and Wagner that March were conducted not in an office room, but in a pool hall! Hittner writes:

Dreyfuss, Pulliam, and Clarke set out to defend themselves against the American League raiders. By early March of 1901, Pirate officials had visited or written virtually all of the Pirate players, hoping to prevent the wholesale defections which had already badly crippled several National League clubs. Fred Clarke dropped in on Wagner in Carnegie on March 4. He found Wagner at his brother's pool hall. 'Wagner is keeping himself in shape doing stunts about a pool table,' reported Clarke, where 'he manages to win out enough coin from the villagers to keep him in spending money.' After a 'heart-to-heart' discussion with Wagner, Clarke returned to Pittsburgh confident of retaining the National League batting champion. Clarke's confidence was justified. Two days after the visit Wagner signed a 1901 Pirate contract for a 'nice fat raise in salary.'

Given that information, it seems a virtual certainty that this letter was written to Wagner, who, as Hittner writes, was a fixture at his brother's pool hall that off-season, during this most turbulent time preceding the start of the 1901 season. Since the Pirates were scheduled to open spring training on April 2nd in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Clarke was probably visiting Wagner one last time to go over the travel schedule, and, most important, to make sure he hadn't received any desperate last minute offers from American League clubs that might still be pursuing him. The Pirates were extremely successful in keeping the team intact that spring and their efforts were rewarded at season's end. The Pirates won their first of three consecutive pennants in 1901, thanks in large part to another phenomenal season by Wagner, who batted .353 with a league-leading 126 RBI. Clarke himself was no slouch at the plate, and he finished his twenty-one-year career with a .316 lifetime average. As a manager Clarke won four pennants and one World Championship, all with Pittsburgh. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945. This is both a rare and extremely historically significant Fred Clarke letter dating from the start of Pittsburgh's 1901-1903 dynasty. It is also the earliest Fred Clarke letter we have ever seen. The letter (5.75 x 8.75 inches) displays two horizontal mailing folds, moderate soiling, light creasing, two small areas of adhesive residue (appears to be from the seal of the original mailing) and a few small edge tears. Additionally, the reverse has a number of numerical notations written in pencil that are partially visible from the front. In Good to Very Good condition overall. The letter has been mounted (most likely by means of an adhesive on the reverse) and framed together with a Perez-Steele Hall of Fame postcard of Clarke. Total dimensions: 11 x 21 inches. LOA from James Spence/JSA. Reserve $300. Estimate $500/$1,000+. SOLD FOR $1,175

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