The First Baseball Card 1863 Grand Match At Hoboken Benefit Card of Harry Wright

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1863-grand-match-1st-cardRobert Edward Auctions Spring 2013 auction includes the first ever baseball card, the 1863 Grand Match At Hoboken Benefit Card of Harry Wright. REAs notes on the card are below and make excellent and interesting reading for Baseball Card Collectors.Of astounding significance, and long recognized as one of the earliest cards known to exist, presented is a card that is even more important than previously recognized by many collectors and scholars. Presented is a card that we strongly believe qualifies as the world’s very first baseball card. The 1863 Grand Match At Hoboken Benefit card pictures a full length pose of Harry Wright on the front, and instructions on the reverse to admit the bearer to a specific series of games scheduled for September 16th, 17th and 18th in 1863. This card was issued to promote attendance, and the sale of admissions, to this special series of games. Harry Wright was a member of the New York Knickerbockers from 1858 to 1863, and this card was sold to allow attendance to a series of three games: the first two were cricket matches; the third was a baseball game between the New York Knickerbockers and the Brooklyn Excelsiors. Because this card was the first card picturing a baseball player printed for the purpose of promoting the commercial retail sale of a product to the public, it is by definition the very first baseball card.There has long been debate (sometimes heated!) among collectors and historians about the answer to the question of what is the very first baseball card. While one has to define what a baseball card is to answer this question, if a baseball card is an image of a ballplayer on a collectible card available to the public that is intended to advertise and promote the sale of a product other than itself, then The 1863 Grand Match At Hoboken Benefit card of Harry Wright unquestionably qualifies for the monumentally important recognition of “The First Baseball Card.” Remarkably, this title only scratches the surface of its great historical significance.1863-grand-match-1st-card-2As summarized by Christopher Devine, the award-winning researcher and preeminent scholar on Harry Wright in his definitive book on the subject Harry Wright: The Father of Professional Base Ball (McFarland, 2003):It’s ironic that Harry Wright, one of the fiercest opponents of gambling on base ball, provided one of the first known links between money and the game. In 1863, when Wright was preparing to leave the Knicks, the club hosted a three-game series of benefits for him, Sam Wright, Sr., and others. Spectators were charged 25 cents to get in, but for 50 cents they could receive a souvenir stub with a portrait of a player on it.”As further noted by Devine in his book Harry Wright, while there may have been under-the-table payments to a few star players such as Jim Creighton in prior years, this was the very first recorded open transaction of money for playing baseball EVER. The production and sale of the 1863 Grand Match at Hoboken cards therefore represent not only the very first baseball cards, but their sale also literally represents the Birth of Professional Baseball. The more we have given thought to this fact, the more astounding its implications:

If being the first baseball card were not significant enough, it is almost unfathomable to think that the proceeds from the sale of the first baseball card (including this very card!) were used to provide the first in-the-open public payments ever recorded to a baseball player for play, thereby defining a clear and indisputable connection between The 1863 Grand Match At Hoboken Benefit Game cards and the birth of professional baseball. In short: the birth of the baseball card and the birth of professional baseball were inextricably linked, and were in fact each a part of the same event. This card of Harry Wright, “The Father of Professional Base Ball”, is both the first baseball card and the most important relic that could possibly exist representing the first ever presentation to the public of baseball as a professional sport. 

If the preceding were not enough, it is additionally remarkable that detailed records recording the production and sale of the 1863 Grand Match At Hoboken Benefit cards survive. Harry Wright’s personal ledger books are housed at the New York Public Library, and actually record the production and sale of the 1863 Grand Match At Hoboken Benefit cards. The most pertinent page from the ledgers, which are written entirely in Harry Wright’s own hand, is titled “1863 Joint Benefit for S. Wright, H. Wright, Crossley and Hammond.” The text beneath reads: “Match New York vs Brooklyn on Sep 16th and 17th. Tickets with a picture of Professional on each 50 cts Admission. The Base ball match on the 18th New York vs Brooklyn postponed on account of rain.” The rained out baseball game between the New York Knickerbockers and the Brooklyn Excelsiors was played the following day (Sept 19th). Harry Wright’s accounting below this introduction records that cards featuring four different subjects were issued: Hammond, Crossley, Sam Wright (Harry’s father), and Harry Wright. These were the three players (Harry Wright, Hammond, and Crossley) plus St. George’s Cricket groundskeeper Sam Wright that the benefit games were played for. The detailed records indicate that exactly 47 Hammond cards were sold, 57 of Crossley, 11 of Sam Wright and 150 of Harry Wright. The expenses of the card production are also noted, including $25 for photographs and $7.20 for printing. A copy of this page from Harry Wright’s personal ledger book accompanies. [Note: Period newspaper accounts advertise that tickets to the games were available for 25 cents. These special photographic benefit cards were priced higher (50 cents) and also entitled the bearer admission to the grounds. Both the tickets and benefit cards were available for sale to the public directly from Harry Wright.]

This first baseball card is the only known surviving example of the 150 cards produced of Harry Wright from what, according to Harry Wright’s records, is actually the very first baseball card set.* As noted in Harry Wright’s ledgers, the game of the 18th was postponed due to rain. It was played the following day. In fact, accompanying this lot is a copy of a notice published in the base ball section of September 19, 1863 edition of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle under the headline “Out Door Sports – Base Ball” that reads “New York vs. Brooklyn – The match between the two nines of the above cities that was to have been played yesterday will be commenced at 2 P.M. on the St. George’s Grounds. Several cricketers are to play on the part of New York.” The “several cricketers” referred to as playing for the New York Knickerbockers against the Brooklyn Excelsiors on September 19, 1863 are Crossley, Hammond, and Harry Wright.

As noted in the 1863 Knickerbockers minutes book, Harry Wright (who was a member of both the New York Knickerbockers Base Ball Club and the St. George’s “Dragon Slayers” Cricket Club) technically resigned from the Knickerbockers on May 9, 1863 (a copy of the minutes page accompanies). “The Father of Professional Baseball” is thus defined for the 1863 Grand Match At Hoboken benefit baseball game as one of the several cricket players playing for the New York Knickerbockers against the Brooklyn Excelsiors on September 19, 1863. Of special note, this redefining of Wright’s status relates directly to the birth of professional baseball and is of utmost importance in fully appreciating the historical significance of this game. At this time, it was perfectly acceptable to be paid money for playing the game of cricket, and there was no issue at all with being a professional cricket player. The St. George’s “Dragon Slayers” were professionals in every sense of the word, and were openly paid to play the sport against other professional clubs of similarly high caliber. (Interestingly, Harry Wright’s father, Sam Wright, who joined the St. George’s Cricket Club as a player in 1837 and later became the groundsman of Elysian Fields, not retiring until 1869, is universally recognized as having been instrumental in transforming the sport of cricket into a professional sport.) Baseball, on the other hand, was strictly an amateur sport. It was considered totally inappropriate for baseball players to accept any money for playing the game. Baseball was a gentleman’s game, and accepting money to play was considered blasphemy. It was against this backdrop that Harry Wright resigned as an official member of the New York Knickerbockers Base Ball Club, as he (like his father Sam, with the sport of cricket) had interest in playing for pay as a professional. Harry Wright continued to play as a professional cricket player with the Dragon Slayers, and naturally maintained close ties with the Knickerbockers, who were his friends and who also played at Elysian Fields in Hoboken. That is how Harry Wright (along with fellow professional cricket players Hammond and Crossley) were able to accept payment for playing in the Grand Match At Hoboken Benefit Baseball Game with the Knickerbockers against the Excelsiors. Had Harry Wright not resigned, he could not have accepted financial compensation for playing baseball with the Knickerbockers. The proceeds of the game from the sale of cards and tickets benefitted Harry Wright, Hammond, and Crossley (as well as Sam Wright), and though they played baseball, rounding out the Knickerbockers nine playing against the Brooklyn Excelsiors, technically all three baseball players that were benefitting from the event financially were professional cricket players, not members of the strictly amateur Knickerbockers Base Ball Club. Professional baseball did not yet exist, and even the concept was frowned upon, but Harry Wright had plans to bring professionalism to baseball as was long the convention in cricket. The1863 Grand Match At Hoboken benefit baseball game organized by Harry Wright was an extraordinarily significant event towards this end.

Interestingly, a notice was published in the Cricket section of The New York Clipper (a copy of which accompanies) announcing the benefit cricket matches of September 17 and September 18. (Because the third benefit game was a baseball game, it does not warrant mention in the published notices of upcoming cricket matches; similarly, when the baseball benefit notices are published in the newspaper baseball section, no mention is made of the cricket matches). The notice reads as follows: “The grand match for the benefit of the professionals of the New York, St. George, and Willow clubs, comes off on the enclosed grounds of the St. George club, on Wednesday and Thursday, Sept. 16th and 17th, and bids fair to be the match of the season. The proceeds will be entirely devoted to the benefit of Messrs. Crossley, S. and H. Wright, and Hammond, and we trust to see the largest attendance of cricketers on the occasion that have not yet been present at a match this season.” The article then goes on to list players that may play, including Harry and Sam Wright, Hammond, and Crossley. We were able to locate published boxscore accounts of the benefit cricket matches of September 17 and 18, 1863 courtesy of the archives of both The New York Herald and The New York Clipper (copies accompany) and Harry Wright, Hammond, and Crossley are all participants in the games, as one would, of course, expect for matches held in their honor and for their financial benefit. Sam Wright, who at this time was getting older, was a revered legend in the cricket world, and the groundskeeper of the St. George’s Cricket Grounds. He was there but he did not play in the matches with the young professionals on the field.

Some have wondered why the baseball benefit game was played on the “The St. George’s Cricket Grounds.” In fact, the St. George’s Cricket Grounds in Hoboken were routinely used for baseball as well as cricket, especially for important games. The Elysian Fields (which included the St. George’s Grounds) were the home grounds of the Knickerbockers Base Ball Club as well as seven other prominent baseball clubs of the era (among them the Gothams, Eagles, and Mutuals), and even a passing glance at the comprehensive documented game records in The Book of American Pastimes (Peverelly, American News Company, New York., 1866) identifies the site of numerous important 1850s and 1860s games as “played on St. George’s cricket grounds.” In fact, the Elysian Fields were the site of the very first organized baseball game in history in 1846 and the home of the Knickerbockers continuously from October 1845 through 1871. The St. George’s Cricket Ground was one of the several shared fields that comprise Elysian Fields but it had a special distinction: At this time the St. George’s Cricket Ground field was the only one that was ENCLOSED. The fact that it was an enclosed field on Elysian Fields is the reason the benefit games were played there. Being enclosed allowed them to control entry and charge for admittance!

Harry Wright has long been recognized as “The Father of Professional Baseball”. In light of this card and accompanying research, in our opinion there is no question that Harry Wright should also be universally recognized as being “The Father of the Baseball Card”. There are no cards of any type known to be issued earlier than the 1863 Grand Match At Hoboken Benefit cards that were available to the public and that were used to promote commerce, let alone in the form of a set, as is the case here.*

When dealing with extremely rare or unique items, value is naturally subjective. All we can do is reference past sales: An example of Hammond (at that time a newly discovered card that had been found in a CDV collection in California) was sold at auction in 2004, realizing $19,364. A different example of Hammond and a Crossley were offered by longtime dealer/auctioneer/hobby scholar Barry Sloate in a fixed price list sale in 2005. Each was priced at $15,000 and sold at the asking price. This is the only example of Harry Wright currently known to exist. When it was last presented at auction in July 2000, it sold for $82,000.

Provenance: As noted above, the 1863 Grand Match At Hoboken card of Harry Wright was last offered and sold at auction in 2000. Prior to that sale, in 1998 the card had been auctioned by legendary collector/dealer/auctioneer Lew Lipset (author of The Encyclopedia of Baseball Cards). In preparing this auction writeup, we contacted Lew Lipset to ask if he could help us with tracing any additional provenance, and Lew graciously provided us with the contact information of the consignor as well as a copy of the original auction (which included descriptions of the other items that accompanied the Harry Wright card and therefore provided additional information). We spoke to the consignor and learned that that the Harry Wright card was included in an album purchased at a (non-baseball related) Fine Books & Manuscripts auction conducted by Butterfield’s Auctions in California. (An original copy of this July 16, 1997 Butterfield’s Auction catalog accompanies). The entire lot, which included materials ranging in date from the 1860s to the 1930s, was sent to Lew Lispet for auction and was mostly sold intact, with the few more desirable items included offered separately. The materials obviously originated from a Wright family member as it contained mostly family photos and no baseball photos or content with the exception of two 1863 Grand Match At Hoboken Benefit cards (one of Harry Wright and one of Crossley), strongly suggesting the possibility that these very cards were personally used for admission to the grounds by members of the Wright family!
Condition: The photograph of Harry Wright is in Mint condition with outstanding contrast; the corners of the mount are clipped, the card is crisp and clean and otherwise in Excellent to Mint condition. Reserve $50,000. Estimate (open).

* Several other 1863 Grand Match At Hoboken Benefit card examples are known to exist (we believe fewer than ten in total are known to date), including two examples of Sam Wright and two of Crossley that are in the Spalding Collection at The New York Public Library, several additional examples of Crossley (including one that that was discovered by a non-collector in the midwest as recently as 2007!), one example featuring Harry and Sam Wright together (an astounding card with an image that has previously not been published or even seen and which is presented as the following lot in this auction) and at least one Hammond. Baseball and cricket were extremely linked in the early 1860s, with many players playing both games. In fact, many cricket teams formally redefined themselves as baseball teams in this era. Hammond and Crossley were well known as professional cricket players. This fact has led some collectors (including in some cases those with other cards “competing” for the title of “the first card”) to promote the idea that the 1863 Grand Match At Hoboken Benefit Cards are cricket cards, or tickets (or anything but baseball cards!). Collectors are free to define the term “baseball card” however they see fit. There is no one right definition. However, the facts regarding the 1863 Grand Match At Hoboken Benefit cards are well documented (ironically, more so than any other cards that date from the 1860s or 1870s) and speak for themselves. The fact that Crossley and Hammond, while primarily cricket players, played with the Knickerbockers in the 1863 Grand Match At Hoboken Benefit Baseball Game (as well as the first two cricket matches) is extremely significant. In addition, it is a fact that it is well documented that William Hammond played baseball as early as 1859 (when the All England cricketers toured the United States in 1859). Most early cricketers played baseball as well as cricket in this era. In short, the other cards in the set, therefore, could also share the title of first baseball card.

Notes Regarding Research: Over the years, there has been much confusion regarding the 1863 Grand Match At Hoboken Benefit Games and the related cards. While much of what has been written by researchers and historians in the past is accurate, it is also the case that these previous research efforts have been riddled with serious errors that have been repeated, and published in various books, catalogs, and Internet sites. Our goal for this description was to “start from scratch” and to provide a true, accurate, and verifiable record, putting together the pieces of the puzzle properly, from original source documents. It was clear to us that not everything previously accepted as fact that had been published made sense. After reading everything, and looking at all relevant original source documents we could find, many of which had never been consulted let alone collected in the same place for review, it was easy for us to see how various errors by different researchers had previously occurred. For example, a published account of a baseball benefit game organized by Harry Wright in 1864 had been confused in many accounts with the 1863 Grand Match At Hoboken Benefit Game, causing much confusion in the historical record. (The 1863 benefit match was so successful, Harry Wright repeated the exercise in 1864, but without a card set.) The similarities were so great, including even a rained out third and final benefit game of a three game series, that anyone could have been forgiven for confusing the undated 1864 game account found in Henry Chadwick’s scrapbooks as being from 1863. But it wasn’t. It was from 1864. And this caused additional confusion about exactly what teams and players played in 1863, because they are very different than those that played in 1863. (A copy of the undated newspaper article from Henry Chadwick’s scrapbooks misinterpreted by many as describing the 1863 benefit game and a copy of a matching dated account of the same game from the September 24, 1864 edition ofThe Brooklyn Eagle accompany).

We have located much additional supporting information from original sources that no one has ever thought to check, and properly organized and interpreted this information to provide a truly accurate account (we believe for the first time!) of the 1863 Benefit Games, their context, and the significance of the 1863 Grand Match cards issued for the benefit of players. The only piece of the puzzle that eluded us in our research was a published boxscore of the September 19, 1863 baseball game. We could not find it. We had one collector suggest that perhaps the reason we couldn’t find it was because when the game was rained out, maybe it wasn’t played. We know this is not the case, not just because when one sells photographic cards and tickets that enable admission to a game, one has to play the game (or it would be scandalous!), but also both from the published notice in the September 19, 1863 edition of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, as well as references to the game in newspaper accounts after the game had been played (copies of all newspaper accounts accompany):

In the Sept 21, 1863 edition of The Brooklyn Eagle, in reporting about the games upcoming for the week, the article states that “The Excelsiors have now played regular games with the Athletic club, of Philadelphia; Hudson River, of Newberg; Union, of Morisania; Newark of Newark; and Henry Eckford of New York, besides a friendly practice game with the Knickerbockers,…”

This, of course, is written immediately after the Sept 19, 1863 benefit game which would not have been counted as an official season game because (in addition to money being collected and paid to participants) “several cricketers are to play on the part of New York”. The September 21, 1863 Brooklyn Eagle article is referring to the benefit game. A second game is played between the Excelsiors and the Knickerbockers on Sept 22, 1863:

In the September 23, 1863 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, this second game between the Knickerbockers and Excelsiors is reported to have been played on September 22, 1863. It is referred to as ”not quite en regle” because the Knckerbockers did not field a proper team, and borrowed two players from the Excelsiors. The reason the Knickerbockers had to “borrow two players from the Excelsiors” is because they just did not have enough players to field a team. So this game, too, is strictly a friendly practice game, and not an official season match. The Sept 23, 1863 Brooklyn Eagle makes clear that the game played the previous day (Sept 22, 1863) between the Knicks and the Excelsiors was played at the Excelsiors field in Brooklyn.

The October 12, 1863 edition refers to a third friendly practice game of the 1863 season between the Knicks and Excelsiors to be played on that day in Hoboken. We knew from newspaper accounts that the teams played three games during the 1863 season. The October 12, 1863 game was the third and final game of the 1863 season between the Knicks and Excelsiors. We know that this is the third game because earlier newspaper accounts reference that the teams played two practice games so far in 1863.

We checked the Knickerbockers Scorebooks for 1863, hoping that maybe the September 19, 1863 game was recorded there, but unfortunately found that all three Knickerbockers vs. Excelsiors matches of the 1863 season were not recorded in the official Knickerbockers scorebooks. The reason for this is simply that the games were not considered official matches. These were all considered “friendly practice matches.”
Lastly, we checked the Knickerbockers minutes books and were extremely pleased to find yet another confirming period reference to the 1863 Benefit Game! The Knickerbockers minutes book includes a formal end-of-year summary entry that states that in 1863 the Knickerbockers and the Excelsiors played THREE friendly games – two in Hoboken (September 19 and October 12) and one in Brooklyn (September 22) in which the Knicks borrowed two Excelsiors in the game (exactly as newspaper accounts state). A copy of the minutes page accompanies and a transcription follows:

“Nov [1863]” “The attendance for this season has been very slim. Not more than 12 of 14 members have appeared on the ground at any time & only a little exercise has been had, single hand playing etc. Towards the close of the season we had three friendly games with our old friends the Excelsiors, the first and last on our ground & the second on theirs and even at these the attendance was light, on their ground we commenced with but 7 of our members & they loaned us two. But the games were very pleasant & revived old times.”
Thus, there is confirmation in the Knickerbockers minutes that all three Knickerbockers-Excelsiors games were not only scheduled, but they were played, even though the boxscores were not kept for any of the games in the Knickerbockers scorebooks, and post-game newspaper accounts were published for only one of the three games.

Acknowledgements: We at REA could not have done this project on our own! It was a team effort. We had no idea what we were getting into when we embarked upon this project and we could not have been anywhere near as successful as we were without the support and generous efforts of many others. We would like to thank Jimmy Leiderman for his tremendous insight into all things related to cricket and for his critical research contributions including supplying extremely valuable newspaper articles that were essential to understanding the true nature of the 1863 Benefit Games and cards. We thank John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball, for his extremely valuable contributions of information and feedback. His scholarly and reasoned approach to mysteries and his ability to not confuse unproven claims with facts is inspiring. He makes it look easy but we are always amazed at both his knowledge and his natural insight. We thank Susan Malsbury and William Stingone of the New York Public Library, who were accommodating above and beyond, to the point of doing research for us. Thanks! We are indebted to Deb Jayne for the courtesies extended to us from the SABR lending library. Studying the microfilm reels of the Chadwick scrapbooks was essential to our research, including allowing us to understand many of the flaws of past research. The extraordinarily professional and flawlessly competent efforts of researcher extraordinaire Peter Klarnet of Extant Americana was essential to our success. He is the ultimate Americana scholar and we could not recommend his historical research services more highly. And lastly, we thank everyone who even discussed the project with us as we were working on it, or listened to us talk about our progress, whether we were taking a step forward or two steps back depending on what day it was. Thank you for your patience, your feedback, and for appreciating our enthusiasm! In time, there will no doubt be more learned and more to say about the research presented here. But we think the “blueprint,” the foundation of understanding, that is represented by this research will have meaning not just to the world of baseball cards, but to the understanding of the history of the game itself that will be enduring and built upon in the future. It’s not every day that a catalog description for a baseball card can involve original research that has significance to the very history of the game itself. This is such a rare (perhaps unique) occurrence and it has been exciting for us to be a part of it.

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