DISCOVERING THE SPEED:
COLLECTING NEGRO LEAGUE MEMORABILIA
of Kansas City Monarchs player Newt Allen sold for $30,000 recently. It is now part of the permanent collection of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Kansas City, MO.
While their exploits have been legendary, Negro League collectible memorabilia is both extremely scarce and highly collectible. Museums and private collectors actively search for the few remaining uniforms and bats; historians covet the rare programs and scorecards for information and statistics.
“These players were treated as underdogs who, in return, questioned the authority that only whites were good at the game of baseball,” said Dr. Bob Hironimous, who sits on the Board of Directors of the Negro League Baseball Players Association. “A lot of people today feel that it’s a heroic stand, to identify with something that was really wrong, but had been corrected, and that they identify with that process. These guys really were heroic. My dad took me to a game, and he said, ‘Son, you’re going to see the best baseball you’ve ever seen.’ The baserunners stole second, third AND home. That was done frequently in the Negro Leagues.”
The golden era of Negro League baseball began in 1920, when Rube Foster first organized a Negro National League. Teams like the Chicago American Giants, the Detroit Stars, the Indianapolis ABC’s and the Kansas City Monarchs could now play an organized season. Three years later, an Eastern Colored League began play, and the two leagues would have an end-of-season championship. Several other leagues operated and folded and reorganized over the next three decades, including a Negro Southern League and the Negro American League.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson, a player with the Negro American League’s Kansas City Monarchs, took the field as a member of the all-white Brooklyn Dodgers, effectively breaking the “color barrier” that kept able-bodied African-Americans out of the major leagues. Robinson’s success with the Dodgers convinced other major league teams to sign black ballplayers, effectively stripping the Negro Leagues of their top talent (and their fans, who now flocked to major league games to see Satchel Paige pitch against Mickey Mantle). Some all-black teams survived until the late 1950’s, mostly by employing publicity stunts or gimmicks (some teams actually signed female ballplayers) or by adding comedy routines to the game (the Indianapolis Clowns were the most successful “comedy” squad; and its roster included a young Hank Aaron).
Collecting autographs of Negro League ballplayers has its varying degrees of difficulty and reward. A living Negro League veteran’s signature on a modern baseball can start at $35 on the open market, while the signatures of deceased Negro Leaguers, especially those who areenshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, can sell for as much as $300. Satchel Paige and James “Cool Papa” Bell lived long enough to participate in the sports memorabilia boom, and signed items by these legends are not difficult to find. An autographed Satchel Paige baseball from 1944, for example, sold for $805.25 at a recent Leland’s online auction.
On the other hand, memorabilia connected with the greatest home run hitter of the Negro Leagues, Josh Gibson, is scarce. Gibson, credited with hitting over 800 home runs in his lifetime (including 84 in a single baseball season, eleven more than Barry Bonds hit in 2001), died in 1947, just as Jackie Robinson began his career in major league baseball. The few autographs he gave in his lifetime were often in pencil; many forgeries and reproductions do exist.
“There were a few placards and photos sold,” recalled Monte Irvin, a baseball Hall of Famer who started his career in the Negro Leagues. “That was in the heart of the depression. Very few people had a camera, if you had a camera, you didn’t have money enough to buy film, and if you had a camera and film, you didn’t have money enough to have them developed. People were making maybe $15 a week. That’s the way it was in the early days. Balls were so precious then, almost no one put his signature on a ball, because there wasn’t money enough to buy a baseball. In fact, we probably would have paid somebody to ask us for an autograph. Today, baseball is plentiful, the economy is much better, and the baseball card shows all around the country proves what a great hobby it is and how much money is being paid for scarce items.”
Some souvenir pennants do exist, and have sold for as much as $300 in near-mint condition. A souvenir pennant from the 1940 East-West All-Star Game at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, considered by many Negro League baseball afficionados to be the most important game of the season, recently sold for $589.48 at a Leland’s auction.
Obtaining original uniforms from Negro League teams, including jerseys, pants and caps, is extremely difficult. Players on Negro League teams were usually issued two complete uniform sets (for home and away games), one glove, one cap and one pair of shoes. If their uniform or gloves or shoes wore out, they could purchase a replacement from the team, paying for it with an advance on their salaries.
A uniform belonging to Newt Allen, an infielder for the Kansas City Monarchs, was recently purchased at auction by the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri for over $20,000.00. “There aren’t that many original uniforms out there,” said Raymond Doswell, the museum’s curator. “Uniforms like that don’t really come up at auction all that often. We work with Leland’s - the Newt Allen uniform was acquired through them - and occasionally they will have choice Negro League items through their auctions. We also bought from Leland’s a Havana Cubans jersey. And we work with Hunt Auctions in Pennsylvania, in fact things we have bought for the museum more recently was through them.”
“I started in 1937 with the Newark Eagles,” said Monte Irvin. “Back then, the complete uniform cost $25. Today, if I had just the jersey alone, it would be worth $10,000.00. The last uniform I knew about was from Buck Leonard, he had a uniform of the Homestead Grays. So I told him, I said, ‘Buck, that uniform is very valuable, if you ever want to sell it or anything else, just let me know, I can get you a good dollar for it.’ Well, I didn’t see him for about a year, and I asked him what had happened to the uniform, he said he sold it for $2,000. At the time, they were paying $8,000 for it. Some of the fellows just didn’t know how valuable the things were that they had, and they let them go for very little money.”
While original Negro League uniforms are nearly unobtainable, one can purchase a replica Kansas City Monarchs or Homestead Grays jersey from several apparel companies, such asEbbetts Field Flannels (http://www.ebbetts.com) or the Negro League Store (http://www.negroleaguestore.com). Replicas and “throwback” jerseys often have an extra embroidered patch or logo, either on the sleeve or at the waist, denoting the jersey as a 21st-century re-creation. The Negro League Baseball Players Association, an organization dedicated to honoring the veterans of black baseball (http://www.nlbpa.com), is offering a series of replica jerseys and caps at selected JCPenney stores, with a portion of the proceeds earmarked for Negro League alumni.
Collectors searching for original Negro League team memorabilia often look for the stars, the most recognizable players, and equipment from the most famous teams. Historians, on the other hand, search for evidence that Negro League teams played actual games, whether they were league contests, exhibitions or “barnstorming” competitions. Since only a scant few newspapers gave Negro League baseball the same amount of coverage as received by the New York Yankees or the St. Louis Cardinals, any scorebooks or filled-in programs are treasures to baseball archeologists. Those scorecards, in many cases, are the only statistical evidence of the game played on that day.
“Scorebooks and programs are very collectible,” says Wayne Stivers of Denver, Colorado, a baseball fan who buys and sells Negro League memorabilia and autographs through a personal catalog. “When you find memorabilia, you don’t find hordes of it. You find somebody that has a few items from time to time, no one has a lot. It wasn’t kept like major league baseball was. I’ve got a Hilton Smith game-used glove, a Hilton Smith game-used bat, a Turkey Stearns game-used glove, several players’ bats and gloves, a few jerseys, very few. They were acquired from relatives and friends of players. They weren’t tagged like major league uniforms. There isn’t a lot out there, and what is out there isn’t in good shape.”
Not all Negro League teams played in the Negro Leagues, though. Some squads, like the Indianapolis Clowns and the Schenectady Mohawk Colored Giants, played thousands of barnstorming games and were as popular in their home cities as any other sports team, black or white. There was even a Harlem Globetrotters baseball team in 1948 (Goose Tatum, one of the Globetrotter basketball team’s most famous scorers, also played outfield and first base for the baseball Trotters). And although the House of David team is an all-white barnstorming squad, whose members came from a Benton Harbor, Michigan religious order, some people classify their team as being part of the Negro Leagues because the House of David barnstormed with several Negro League squads, including the Kansas City Monarchs.
There were also town teams, local squads where an all-black lineup would play in a local twilight league or city circuit. And many Negro League teams played against white major league all-star squads, which generated needed revenue for the Negro League players.
But because of the rarity and scarcity of original Negro League memorabilia, forgeries and counterfeit pieces exist. Signatures on modern-day baseballs, signed by players who died thirty years prior, are clear forgeries. Some banners and advertising signs promoting major games can be created in a contemporary souvenir shop.
Some players have even lost their precious artifacts through theft, or purchased far below their true market value. In 1990, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that two Pennsylvania dealers were charged with interstate transportation of stolen property, and stood trial on charges that they took uniforms and pictures from the home of James “Cool Papa” Bell - memorabilia and artifacts valued at over $77,000 - while paying Bell a scant $500 for the lot. Eventually the charges were dropped, in exchange for Bell and his family receiving the remaining property back.
But today, many collectors of Negro League memorabilia, along with players and historians, are working together to bring the story of black baseball to today’s audiences. “Exhibits USA out of Kansas City is starting a tour next fall,” said Wayne Stivers, “they are using several of my items, several bats, gloves and photos. I’ve helped out on a lot of books, with photos and research.”
“I see what happens when the grandchildren are sitting at the knee,” says Dr. Bob Hieronimous, “and the grandfather points out to them that he played on that team, and the grandchild doesn’t believe them. Where’s your baseball cards, Dad? So one of the biggest things the NLBPA did with these players, we were able to take the players to the White House - in 1992, to meet George Bush, and in 1994 they met Al Gore. Now, with all the videotapes and photographs, the kids can now see their grandpa in a different light. It’s an enormous change. ‘Gee Grandpa, you were telling me the truth after all.’”
“Today, baseball is plentiful, the economy is much better, and the baseball card shows all around the country proves what a great hobby it is and how much money is being paid for scarce items,” said Monte Irvin. “If I had been thinking back then, I would be a very rich man today, because I came along - I knew Smokey Joe Williams, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and all these great players, and I don’t have one autograph of them. And all I had to do was ask them. But during that era, nobody even asked for an autograph. They thought you were being too imposing to do it. Or being a pain in the neck.”
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