Some exciting new discoveries travel great distances. This 1865 Silver Trophy Ball is not one of them.

Published by Robert Lifson on Tagged Uncategorized

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Many exciting newly discovered baseball items travel incredible distances, often thousands of miles, over the years. That is not the case with this exciting newly discovered item. During the past 142 years, this 1865 Silver Trophy Ball traveled an incredible distance of…. a few miles.

The trophy ball was found just months ago at an estate sale, practically walking distance from where it was originally presented at The Ulster County Fairgrounds in Kingston, New York in 1865. It will appear in REA’s spring auction.

The catalog description appears below:

1865 Silver Trophy Ball - Mutuals vs. Actives

Presented here is one of the most extraordinary and important nineteenth century baseball items we have ever offered: the presentation silver trophy ball awarded by the Ulster County Agricultural Society to the Mutual B. B. C. in honor of their victory over the Active B. B. C. on September 21, 1865.  In the 1860s, the ultimate prize that could be won by a team for being victorious in an organized baseball tournament was a “silver ball.” The coveted “silver ball” was the earliest formal baseball trophy, presented to honor the tournament champions. This is the first important silver trophy ball that has ever come to auction.  Many items travel incredible distances, often thousands of miles, over the years, and we are often at a loss to understand how they happened to wind up so far from their original location. That is not the case with this newly discovered item. This trophy ball was discovered in an estate sale just a few miles from where it was originally presented at The Ulster County Fairgrounds in Kingston, New York in 1865. Though we will never know exactly how it came to reside in this estate, it is fascinating to know that it remained in the same area, literally just a few short miles from the Fairgrounds, during the past 142 years during which its whereabouts were unknown.

Its extreme rarity aside, the ball has many dimensions of great historical significance both within and outside the field of baseball, and is all the more noteworthy in that the baseball tournament and the presentation of the ball is extremely well documented, including an account published in The New York Times. This ball has a direct connection to baseball’s first gambling scandal. It was just one week after playing this game that the Mutuals were involved in the first major gambling scandal in baseball history, in which players were for the first time ever banned from baseball for throwing games. Political historians will note that the Mutuals were owned by infamous Tammany Hall politician “Boss” Tweed, who, after the game, was personally presented this silver trophy ball by the secretary of the Agricultural Society. Both the game and the subsequent presentation of this ball to Tweed are well documented in the newspapers of the time.

The ball (nine inches in circumference) is elaborately decorated, featuring an embellished floral pattern, and bears an engraved inscription on each side. The front is lettered “Presented by the Ulster County Agricultural Society to the Mutual B. B. C. Sept 21st 1865.” The other side notes the score of the game, “Mutual 26 - Active 20 - Sept. 21st 1865.” A small mounting hole is present along the base. The ball is lightly tarnished and displays a few minor “dents,”  it is otherwise in Excellent condition and displays much as it did when originally presented to the Mutuals.

Silver ball trophies, so named because most were literally crafted by artisans of silver, are the earliest form of championship trophies. In the 1860s, cigars were named after them, songs were written about them, and many battles on the ballfield were fought over them. They are extremely rare, with literally only a few surviving examples known. We have seen only one other silver trophy ball ever offered at auction, and that was for a very obscure team (unlike this example which was presented to the Mutuals, one of the top teams of the era). The explanation for the great rarity of silver trophy balls is combination of several factors: 1) Each silver trophy ball represented a special tournament or even an entire season of games for an organized league; therefore, relatively few were ever needed for presentation; 2) They were very expensive. One 1860s advertisement quoted a price of $10 for a silver ball. This was a lot of money at that time, and this alone probably caused many baseball tournaments and leagues to pass on the purchase of a silver ball due to expense; and 3) The tradition of awarding a silver trophy ball was almost exclusively associated with the 1860s. In addition, because they were made out of silver, most silver trophy balls probably fell victim to being melted down over the years. All of these factors make the survival of any silver trophy ball dating from the 1860s unlikely, let alone a silver ball awarded to a team of the stature of the Mutuals, one of the most important teams from the earliest days of organized baseball. 

Silver trophy balls were only awarded by outside parties or organizations. Teams did not purchase their own silver balls to commemorate important victories; they were prizes to be won. In that way they differ significantly from the gold-painted trophy balls from the era, which were game balls from the match that were elaborately decorated and given to the victorious club for display in their clubhouse. The announcement that a silver ball would be presented to the winner of a match game conferred a special status upon that contest and always served to increase fan interest. In that manner, it was also an effective promotional tool for the organization or individual offering the silver trophy ball.

The Ulster County Agricultural Society offered this ball as a special prize in order to attract two of New York City’s premier ball clubs, the Mutuals and the Actives, to play a match game at the Ulster County fair in Kingston, New York. As reported in the September 29, 1865 issue of The Roundout Courier, the lure of a baseball game was used to promote attendance: “Two city clubs condescended to play a match for a silver ball, on the inexplicable invitation of the managers of the Fair - inexplicable if one tries to find anything germane to the society in the game or the fancy who did it. But the ruling idea in the Society management seems to be, the Ulster county folk are not at all rationally interested in agriculture proper and other industrial pursuits, and to draw a crowd that will ‘pay,’ it is necessary to get up some excitement in the shape of a horse race, balloon flight or ball play.” The game was heavily promoted as evidenced by an entry in the September 20, 1865 issue of The New York Times, which made special note of it under the headline “THE NATIONAL GAME - MUTUAL VS. ACTIVE FOR A SILVER BALL.” The entire article reads in full:  “The managers of the Ulster County Fair, now being held in Kingston, N.Y., having offered a silver ball as a prize to be contended for by base ball clubs, the Mutual and Active Clubs of this city will contend for the trophy to-morrow afternoon, on the fair grounds. A first-class game may be expected, as both clubs will take their best men with them. The Actives will introduce HATFIELD for the first time, while the Mutuals will probably play HARRIS in place of THORN. The players and their friends will take the 7:30 train on the Hudson River road to-morrow morning.” The game had the desired effect at the gate, as later noted in the September 29th issue of The Roundout Courier, “the grounds had more visitors than would have been attracted by the starveling show of stock, agricultural products or manufactures. And then there was a large representation of the city swells and bruisers and black legs who flock to such places ‘like ravens to their feast.’ The rail-cars and steamers and omnibuses carried their crowds, and among the agricultural experts and enthusiasts were recognized very many of the most notorious of the New York swell mob.” Two local Kingston papers, The Kingston Argus and The Kingston Press, also reported the game. On September 28th The Press wrote “In the afternoon two ‘crack’ clubs also contested for a silver ball - the ‘Mutuals’ and ‘Actives,’ from New York. This match we had the pleasure of seeing. Both clubs played splendidly, and much to the admiration of a large concourse of people, who witnessed the match. Each had the regular innings, and at the close the ‘Mutuals’ stood 26 runs to the ‘Actives’ 20.” The September 27th issue of The Argus further added, “At the close of the game, the ball was presented to the Mutuals by C. S. Stillwell, Esq., the secretary of the Fair. It was received by Supervisor Tweed, on behalf of the Mutuals, in some well-timed and appropriate remarks.”

“Boss” Tweed was one of the most corrupt politicians in New York City history and was later convicted of stealing millions of dollars from the City. Even his ballclub was a drain on the city coffers, as Tweed rewarded membership on his club with no-show jobs as city street sweepers. Not surprisingly, the club had a reputation for dishonest play. The Mutuals were one of the best clubs of the era, but they had a history of “suspicious” losses, and it was openly known within the gambling community that many of their players could be “bought.” Incredibly, just one week after its game with the Actives in Kingston, the Mutuals were involved in what is recognized as baseball’s first major gambling scandal. On September 28, 1865, the Mutuals lost a game to the Brooklyn Eckfords by a score of 23-11. Following that loss it was discovered that three Mutual players, Thomas Devyr (shortstop), William Wansley (catcher), and Edward Duffy (third baseman), each accepted $100 to throw the game. After admitting their involvement in the conspiracy, all three were expelled from baseball shortly after. Incredibly, the trio was eventually reinstated a few years later: Devyr in 1867‚ Duff in 1869‚ and Wansley in 1870. (It appears that Tweed even had pull within the executive committee of the National Association of Amateur Baseball Players.) Devyr, Wansley, and Duffy all participated in the game against the Actives on September 21st, and their names are duly noted in the box score as reported by The Kingston Argus. Gambling and the fixing of games was a major problem in baseball in the 1860s, and the Mutuals were one of the worst offenders. It’s interesting to note that The Roundout Courier commented upon the widening crises the in its September 29th report of the game between the Mutuals and Actives, thus foreshadowing the scandal, “Base ball is just about this time abused and degraded into a mere machine for black-leg operations. We mean the ‘national game’ as played by the city clubs making it a business, and composed of the ‘roughs’ and ‘sports’ who find it profitable for the time to spread the gambling, betting and drinking frenzy, with all the concomitant vices, through the whole country.”

All baseball items relating to the most prominent teams of the 1860s, the era immediately predating professionalism in the sport, are exceedingly rare, and few are as rare or as significant as a documented silver trophy ball. Today, silver trophy balls are virtually nonexistent. Even the Baseball Hall of Fame does not have a silver trophy ball dating from the 1860s. This is a simply phenomenal relic dating from the earliest days of our national pastime, just months after the Civil War had ended and the great popularity of the game was just beginning to spread throughout the land. The fact that it was awarded to the Mutuals, one of baseballs most historically significant and notorious clubs, just one week prior to their gambling scandal, and was also personally presented to the infamous Boss Tweed, only adds to its great historical significance.  Photocopies of the newspaper articles cited in the description accompany the ball. Reserve $5,000. Estimate $10,000+
 



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