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Base-ball, as it was called in the mid-1800s, was a lawless enterprise.
Alcohol, gambling, rudeness, disloyalty and quitting (by players and teams) in the middle of a season, players sitting among the spectators disrupting play on the field were symptoms of a game that was in many ways considered disgraceful.
All that officially changed Feb. 2, 1876 at the Grand Central Hotel in New York City. On that day, the constitution and founding documents of the first National League were introduced and signed by Chicago White Stockings owner William Hulbert, the driving force to reform the game, and seven other team owners.
For what is expected to be the price of an adequate middle reliever (potentially more than $3 million), you can own the document that changed professional sports forever.
The original signatures, by-laws, on field rules and hand-written notes — 74 pages in total — from the day base-ball became legitimate will be sold in an online auction by SCP Auctions of Laguna Niguel beginning May 24.
The meeting of 1876 had five main objectives:
1. To encourage, foster and elevate the game of base-ball.
2. To enact and enforce proper rules for the exhibition and conduct of the game.
3. To make base-ball playing respectable and honorable.
4. To protect and promote the mutual interests of professional base-ball clubs and professional base-ball players.
5. To establish and regulate the Base-Ball Championship of the United States.
The auction will end June 10. To participate, you have to show proof of the funds, and the opening bid is set at $100,000.
A decade ago, SCP Auctions sold the Honus Wagner T206 baseball card (once owned by Wayne Gretzky) for $2.35 million. A year ago, SCP Auctions sold the “Laws of Base Ball” 1857 document, which set the dimensions for the field and rules of the game, for $3.26 million.
The constitution bidding could go higher.
“This 1876 volume could fetch a price beyond the auctioneer’s most fervent hopes,” Major League Baseball historian John Thorn said. “This ought to be, in my view, vastly more valuable than a T206 Wagner card, or any other baseball collectible of which there are several fine examples.
“As a historian, my preference would be for the winning bidder to be an institution with archival staff, or an individual dedicated to making these documents available to scholars.”
Rich Mueller, editor of Sports Collectors Daily, said he hopes all sports fans will have a chance to see this collection of documents someday.
“I suspect the buyer will not only be someone with access to a lot of money but someone who might have an interest in donating or loaning to a place where it can be seen by everyone,” Mueller said. “That would be my hope anyway. We’ve seen that with historic sports documents and uniforms in recent years and this document certainly lends itself to that. Either that, or someone will have one heck of a conversation piece in their den.”
Base-ball began to be baseball (no-hyphen) with this document, said Dan Imler, vice president of SCP Auctions. And then, other sports followed.
“These are the documents that put everything in place, and started it all,” Imler said. “All major professional sports leagues were built on this foundation.”
Imler said baseball, prior to these documents, “was a rocky endeavor. It was fraught with corruption, mismanagement and gambling was rampant. Professional baseball was really in peril.”
Thorn said: “Drunkenness, open pool-selling at the ballparks and game-fixing were commonplace.”
Imler said Hulbert was the visionary who changed the game.
“Hulbert created something that could last.”
William Ambrose Hulbert was a grocer and coal trader. He loved baseball and became owner of the Chicago franchise. He grew frustrated with mismanagement and players jumping from team to team during seasons, selling their services to the highest bidder. He convinced other owners that baseball needed regulation.
Hulbert’s secretary, Nicholas Young, summarized the 1876 meeting, and baseball founding luminary Harry Wright took minute-by-minute notes. Fifty years later, in 1926, Young’s son Robert turned over those founding documents to the National League. Later, they were given to the family of a National League executive.
That family, which has requested anonymity, turned those documents over to SCP Auctions. The documents underwent rigorous testing. The age of the paper, time period of the ink and handwriting on the pages were analyzed.
“I have been studying baseball’s history all my life and I never imagined that, for example, Harry Wright’s minutes of the meeting of February 2, 1876, recorded on the spot, survived,” Thorn said. “Or that the Constitution, brought to the Grand Central Hotel in New York, might survive, with amendments and alterations recorded on that day.”
Base-ball has never been the same.