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1887 The National League Official Base Ball Nine Team Cabinet Photo With A. G. Spalding and A. J. Reach
Starting Bid - $2,500, Sold For - $21,330
Extraordinary 1887 cabinet photo capturing the members of a team identified as "The National League Official Base Ball Nine" posing together in uniform on the steps of the Coleman House in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
This is the first example of this rare photo we have ever seen and frankly, when we first did see it, we had absolutely no idea what the significance of the team was, only that it included some extremely well known baseball figures, among them A. G. Spalding and Al Reach, all of whom were well past their playing days in 1887. This fascinating cabinet photo has a remarkable provenance: The photo originates from the personal collection of Charles W. Mears, longtime sports columnist for the Cleveland News and legendary pioneer collector who specialized in nineteenth-century baseball. Charles W. Mears ultimately donated his extraordinary collection to the Cleveland Public Library in the 1940s, but he did save a few items, of which this is one. This photo has been consigned directly by the Mears family.
With a little research, we were very excited to find a newspaper article that unlocked the mystery of this team. A New York Times article, dated August 16, 1887, explains that a meeting of the Directors of the National League occurred at the Coleman House on August 15, 1887. After recording the events of the meeting, the Times notes that
To-morrow a game will be played here between the local team and nine composed of the League Presidents and representatives as follows: A. G. Spalding, of Chicago, pitcher; J. W. Spalding, catcher; John B. Day, of New York, first base; A. J. Reach, of Philadelphia, second base; J. W. Curtis, of New York, third base; N. E. Young, of Washington, short stop; W. H. May, of Louisville, centre field; W. A. Nimick, of Pittsburg, right field; and J. K. Stearns, of Detroit, left field. S. V. Woodruf, proprietor of the Coleman House, will be the umpire. The presidents will give their half of the gate receipts toward defraying the expenses of the boy's boating carnival, which will be held here on Thursday night.
So "The National League Official Base Ball Nine" is literally a team comprised of the League presidents and representatives of the National League! The members of this august team, made up of the National League's governing board, are identified in print along the base of the mount: A. G. Spalding (misidentified as "A. J. Spalding"; owner of Chicago, former star pitcher, and sporting-good magnate), J. W. Spalding (Albert's brother, as in "Spalding Bros."), A. J. Reach (owner of Philadelphia, former star player, and sporting-goods entrepreneur), Nicholas Young (president of the National League), John B. Day (owner of the New York Giants), W. H. May, A. W. Kline Jr., J. W. Curtis, and G. E. Stackhouse. The umpire is identified as "D. Brewster." Additional printing along the base reads "The National League Official Base Ball Nine/Coleman House, Asbury Park, N. J., 1887." The photographer's credit, "Geo Prince Wash. D. C., " appears in gilt lettering below the players' names.
Also fascinating is the notation on the reverse of the mount which reads "Presented to Wm. M. Rankin by his Friends." We asked the Mears family about this, as numerous several other items they had also referenced Rankin, and while they had no idea who William Rankin was, they did know that their grandfather was given or purchased his collection. A quick Google search listing some details about the Charles Mears Collection at the Cleveland Pubic Library website, in fact, actually notes that Rankin's scrapbooks were part of the baseball collection donated by Charles Mears! William Rankin was a prominent New York sportswriter who was working for the New York Clipper in 1887 (he eventually became the paper's sporting editor in 1894). Rankin was the first writer to publicly denounce Henry Chadwick's long-held assertion that baseball evolved from the English game of rounders. In an 1886 syndicated newspaper article he asserted, in part, "It can no more be claimed that the game of baseball had its origins in rounders or town-ball than billiards were the issue of pool, or the latter came from bagatelle. . . . The game of baseball seems to have sprung up, just as any game has." Three years later A. G. Spalding, perhaps after reading Rankin's article, would also champion that theory, positing further that the game must have an American inventor. In addition to writing about the sport of baseball, Rankin was also one of the game's preeminent scholars and a collector. According to his obituary in the April 5, 1913, issue of Sporting Life, when Rankin died he "left one of the most complete base ball libraries in existence. It contained records of the diamond extending over a period of nearly forty years." Another obituary from the time noted that Rankin "kept a record of everything of interest from the time he first became identified with the game [baseball], and after Chadwick's death he assumed the latter's title [Father of Baseball]." It seems fitting then, that this photo was presented to Rankin as a gift. It is also presumable that the "friends" from whom this gift came were the National League officers pictured here.
What makes this photo so significant, aside from its extreme rarity (we have never even heard of another example, let alone seen one), is that is one of the few known original photos of Spalding in uniform, albeit long after his retirement from the game. That, plus the novelty of seeing the game's governing board in uniform make it one of the most remarkable nineteenth-century baseball photos we have ever come across. While we do not know the results of the game, with Spalding on the mound, we're certain that the "National League Official Base Ball Nine" more than held their own that day.
The photo (9 x 6.75 inches) displays a few light scratches (nearly all of which are only visible when viewed at certain angles) and is in Excellent condition overall. The mount (10 x 8 inches) has light soiling, including a few areas of minor staining at the base, and moderate wear to the corners and gilt-edged borders. In Very Good condition. Reserve $2,500. Estimate (open). SOLD FOR $21,330
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