By Bert Lehman
Several rare Tim Keefe, Buck Ewing and John Montgomery Ward autographs headline Memory Lane Inc.’s next auction, which begins Dec. 22 and ends Jan. 13.
The autographs are part of “The Northeast Find,” which includes documents rescued from a dilapidated building in upstate New York in the 1990s. The documents are connected to the 1890s Players’ League, which was formed after players revolted against team management for players’ rights. The league was formed Dec. 17, 1889, but lasted only one year.
According to a Memory Lane press release, “The 1890s Players’ League represented a significant moment in baseball history, preceding the Federal League and professional baseball players eventual challenge to the ‘reserve clause’ that ultimately led to ‘free agency’ and expulsion of the owners’ once tightly secured grip on players’ rights.”
Joe Tomasulo, East Coast consignment director for Memory Lane, said he first saw the documents in The Northeast Find when he was set up at a White Plains show in March 2017. He said a couple came to the Memory Lane booth and showed him the documents.
“They said they wanted to show me something and they wanted my opinion on what they had,” Tomasulo said. “They start pulling out these old documents and right away I start seeing the dates and some of the signatures. Basically I knew that this was a historic moment in the hobby.”
Tomasulo said at first he didn’t see any extravagant or valuable signatures. Most of the signatures he saw were of important people in New York, but not prominent in the baseball world.
When Tomasulo saw the Buck Ewing and Tim Keefe signatures on a single document he knew this was an historic find in the hobby.
“There are only a couple of known Tim Keefe signatures, and there are only a couple of Buck Ewing (signatures),” Tomasulo said. “To have them on one document is exponentially impossible. It’s hard enough to get them alone on a document.”
Tomasulo said he was almost 100 percent positive the signatures were authentic. To verify that, though, he had autograph authenticators at the show take a look at the signatures.
“They had pretty much the same reaction, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing,” he said.
Along with the documents featuring the Ewing and Keefe signatures, The Northeast Find includes several documents that include the signature of John Montgomery Ward, who was one of the leading proponents of the players’ revolt.
“He’s the guy that riled up the players so they could get equal rights to jump ship from the American Association and National League to join this Players’ League, which unfortunately collapsed after a year because it went bankrupt,” Tomasulo said.
Tomasulo said the owners of the documents knew the documents were historic as they had done some research prior to attending the show. They knew that because the documents were related to the Players’ League and they were 127 years old, that there was some value associated with them.
“He wasn’t aware of the significance of having Tim Keefe, Buck Ewing and John Montgomery Ward signatures and their potential value,” Tomasulo said. “That’s where he needed guidance. He was pleasantly surprised when I told him of potential value of items like that.”
As amazing as the documents are themselves, how they were found is equally amazing.
The consignor of the documents was a contractor before he retired. In the mid-1990s he was contracted for a job in upstate New York to replace termite infested wooden floors in a building with cement floors.
“In one particular room where the floor had to be replaced there were all these boxes of old papers, newspapers, invoices, manuscripts, you name it,” Tomasulo said.
After asking the owner of the building what he should do with the boxes of documents, the consignor was told to do whatever he wanted with them. Not having time to search all the boxes, Tomasulo said the consignor quickly looked through some of the documents.
“He just kept some of the stuff he found interesting and dumped the remainder of it, which makes you wonder what he did throw out,” Tomasulo said.
He added, “He and his wife loved the documents. When they first got them, they weren’t thinking money. He found them interesting. Now I guess in retirement they wanted to see what they had and if there’s a reason to sell them.”
In addition to the document signed by both Ewing and Keefe, the find included six documents signed individually by Keefe, including invoices relating to the construction of the grandstand for the Polo Grounds, Tomasulo said. Two of those items are included in this auction, while the remaining four will be offered in 2018.
The find also included three Montgomery Ward signed letters, of which two are included in this auction. A telegram entirely written in the hand of Ewing is also included in the auction.
Tomasulo said he estimates the value of the individual Keefe signatures between $20,000-$50,000. The Ewing telegram is estimated between $20,000-$50,000, and the Montgomery Ward letters between $15,000-$25,000.
He added it is impossible to place an estimate on the document signed by both Ewing and Keefe.
“Think of how rare it is finding a Ewing and Keefe individual signed invoice document,” Tomasulo said. “Now exponentially increase that value with both of them on one page. I couldn’t even begin to estimate it.
“We’re going to defer to the advanced collector and we will let them ultimately decide what the value of that is worth.”
Tomasulo said he is excited to see what that winning bid is.
“It’ll be taking a nap that afternoon of auction day so I can stay up all night to three, four in the morning,” he said.
Besides the value of the signed documents, Tomasulo said he doesn’t want the historic aspect of the documents forgotten.
“There’s something else going on here and I don’t want this to get lost in the shuffle in the midst of the autographs. The historical significance of this relates to baseball and our country,” Tomasulo said. “This was our national pastime’s inaugural attempt at getting players to have equal rights and not being treated like cattle. I think that’s a critical principle that needs to be stressed, and why the 1890 Players’ League was such an important moment in time, not just in baseball but for our country.”
Other auction highlights include Players’ League Articles of Agreement, Constitution and By-laws; signed agreements binding several teams to the Players’ League; and signed documents detailing the sale of the Cincinnati National League franchise to the Players’ League.
For more information about the auction, visit www.memorylaneinc.com.
Bert Lehman is the editor of Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at Bert.Lehman@fwmedia.com.