A rare Cuban issue

1923 Billiken Mendez FrontOur Winter auction features a number of difficult Cuban issues, none more so than this 1923-24 Billiken Cigarettes card of Hall of Famer Jose Mendez.

The Billiken Cigarettes set of 1923-24 was a Cuban-issued set that featured 2×2 5/8″ cards depicting 60 players from the Cuban Professional League.  Each black and white glossy photo contains an ad on the reverse, either for Billiken or La Moda Cigarettes.  One of the more popular Cuban League sets, this issue includes many stars of the American Negro Leagues, including Oscar Charleston (perhaps the key card in the set), Pop Lloyd, Andy Cooper, and this card of Jose Mendez.

Jose Mendez was a Cuban pitcher and manager in the Negro Leagues, elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.  Mendez’ notoriety began in the summer of 1908, when he pitched 25 consecutive scoreless innings in three appearances in Havana against the visiting Cincinnati Reds.  In addition to being a standout in the Cuban League, Mendez pitched with various Negro League teams, notably finishing his American playing career with the Kansas City Monarchs, where he played and also managed from 1920 through 26.

1923 Billiken Mendez BackOn his Billiken card, he is depicted with the Santa Clara Leopards, a team loaded with American Negro League players and often considered the most dominant team in the Cuban professional league.  Mendez was a legend, the author of a 10-inning perfect game in 1909.  His dominance against American teams in Cuba made him the first internationally-known Cuban star.

The Billiken issue remains very scarce (as are most Cuban card issues), and extraordinarily difficult to find in top condition.  The cards are printed on photographic paper and are subject to significant wrinkling and creasing.  Much like American N172 Old Judge cards, the photos are often found faded, similarly making the numeric grade less important than the image quality and contrast.  While this card has been graded POOR by SGC, less due to the minor staining and wrinkling and more to the two small circular holes in the card itself, the image quality is fantastic, with sharp contrast and very clear definition to the image itself.

Cards of Hall of Famers in the Billiken set are extremely desirable, and extraordinarily scarce.  Aside from the 1910 Punch Cigars card of Menedez, no earlier issue of the player exists, and just six card sets featuring Mendez during his playing days – all Cuban issues – are known. An outstanding collectible from an international Cuban and Negro League Hall of Famer.

The fun of amateur baseball

Wilmington Cabinet FrontWe often receive consignments featuring photos of turn of the century amateur or factory teams, and love trying to identify the teams and their players.  Hosting an auction is fun, but researching these old photos of nameless players, and giving them back their names is one of the most rewarding parts of doing this.  The pieces usually wind up not being incredibly valuable, but the gratification of learning about these regional teams is more than worth it anyway.

Wilmington PinThis auction features two such pieces from the great The Wilmington, Delaware A. A. team of 1902. The team was managed by Jesse Frysinger, a local baseball legend who received accolades in the Northeast as well as nationally.  The team posted an outstanding record, prompting a mention of Frysinger in the October 25 issue of Sporting Life under the headline “Worthy of Promotion: An Independent Manager Who Made a Great Record Last Season.”  The article went on to describe Wilmington’s 93-34 record, including six victories against Major League teams, suggesting that Frysinger was destined for bigger and better things.

The young manager left Wilmington for Harrisburg in 1903, then departed to the Holyoke, Massachusetts Paperweights team of the Connecticut State league in 1904 and bringing several of his players with him.  At the conclusion of the 1904 season, he jumped the team and returned to the Tri-State League to manage the Lancaster Red Roses.  He later had surgery for an appendicitis and developed an infection from the surgery, dying in 1906 at the tender age of 33, his whole life still ahead of him.

Pictured in the cabinet and matching pinback are: Back Row (L-R): Harry Kuhn, Snake Deal, Chick Hartley, Winham P Aubrey.  Center Row (L-R): Russell, Harry Tate, Stirlith, Frysinger, Harry Barton, Doc Blough.  Front Row (L-R): O’Neil and Bert Everson.  The African-American mascot is an anonymous Wilmington resident.

Of the members of this team, several went on to play briefly in the Majors.  Snake Deal had 243 plate appearances with the 1906 Cincinnati Reds.  Chick Hartley went 0-for-4 in one game with the 1902 New York Giants.  Harry Barton had 65 plate appearances in 13 games with the 1905 Philadelphia A’s.  Severeal other players had brief minor league careers as well.

The cabinet photo is in outstanding condition, taken by Bucher studios of Wilmington.  Unlike the pinback offered elsewhere in the auction, where the image is small enough to be difficult to identify faces, this particular photo is very strong.  It is very difficult not to focus on the team mascots – a young, African-American boy, and a goat.  Envisioning these young ballplayers, each in their late teens or early 20s, their imaginations transfixed on a possible Major League career while the young boy is ineligible to do anything but be a mascot lends a sort of sadness to the photo that is almost visible in the young boy’s eyes.  This makes for a poignant image, and an excellent document not only of a great amateur or semipro team, but also of the social issues of the time.

We’re offering the pinback and the cabinet photo as two separate lots in our auction.

Pedigreed cards in our Winter auction

1895 N300 Haddock FrontThe card grading industry has, in many ways, changed the face of modern collecting.  Long-time collectors often resist the best-known changes brought about by grading: the price explosion among “low pop” commons and set registry competition resulting in exorbitant prices paid for minute increases in set “GPA.”  Many more embrace the security of being able to purchase reliably-graded cards online, often sight unseen.

But none of those developments are actually new to the hobby.  We’ve always judged cards by their condition, and deep-pocketed, quality-conscious collectors have always paid top dollar for pristine examples of the hobby’s marquee cards.  Well-known collectors have always jockeyed to have the “best” collection.  All this happened long before the names that dominate today’s set registries became household names within our hobby.  Clear proof of this resides in long-time collectors’ knowledge of where the best “unregistered” collections lie, who has the “best” Wagners, Planks and Ruths outside the graded arena of the hobby.

1955 Topps Aaron Horiz FrontWhile assessing condition and creating competition among collectors for the hobby’s top sets aren’t developments that were invented by grading companies, there is one hobby area that grading has helped develop, if not singlehandedly invented: the pedigree.  All hobbyists agree that provenance is a critical component of collecting; tracking a card back to its original owner helps to trace a card’s lineage or create a virtual guarantee of authenticity (and reduces the likelihood of alteration along the way, in many cases).  Indeed, many collectors are willing to pay a premium for cards once owned by hobby pioneers such as Lionel Carter or Frank Nagy or Barry Halper.  Other collectors go out of their way to purchase cards once owned by a player.  Some collectors have begun collecting subsets of pedigreed cards, each memorializing a specific player, collector, or hobby event.  As more pedigreed cards enter the market, pedigreed card collecting is becoming more prevalent among collectors.

1948 Ruth Story Horiz FrontWe are pleased to offer a significant pedigreed card collection in our Winter, 2014 auction.  The collection includes many cards of all eras, owned by both hobby pioneers and significant figures in the game – collecting legends like Frank Nagy and Lionel Carter, as well as Hall of Famers like Mickey Mantle and Bob Feller.  Many of the cards being offered are not necessarily super valuable cards in their own right, however, they are an important piece of hobby history with impeccable provenance.

E90-1 Jennings Nagy FrontTo add to their provenance, the majority of the cards we will be offering are part of the collection of noted collector, dealer, and friend to everyone Jay Wolt.  One of the most personable and lovable guys in the hobby, Jay has been a long-time collector of pedigreed cards, seeking out such cards as a student of hobby history.  Jay collects pedigreed cards due to their historical significance, recognizing that in many cases, the hobby and the players who play the game we love are closely intertwined.  As many are aware, Jay has been battling illness, and has decided to auction a large portion of his pedigreed card collection in an effort to defray medical expenses.  We have allocated a special section in our auction just for pedigreed cards, most of which have been a part of the Wolt Collection, as a way of recognizing the interesting nature of pedigreed cards, and also out of respect for Jay.  Jay is a long-time friend and mentor, and we – along with the entire hobby – are firmly in his corner as he fights his battle.

The auction will go live this week – stay tuned.

1954 Bowman Feller FrontE90-1 Jennings Nagy Front

The Babe Slept Here.

Babe Ruth Ball 4Every year about this time, PSA/DNA publishes their list of the ten “most dangerous” autographs.  By “most dangerous,” of course, they mean the autographs that are most at risk of fraud.  It’s no secret in the hobby that the autograph business, along with many other facets of sports memorabilia collecting, is rife with fraud and forgery, and PSA believes that the hobby’s biggest name – Babe Ruth – is also the most dangerous.  In fact, 60% of the Ruth signatures submitted to PSA for authentication are rejected as fraudulent.  When autographed Ruth items often bring six figures at public auction, authentication is critical.

Equally important, however, is provenance.  The provenance of a piece can provide documented evidence of authenticity, and in the process, add significantly to its value.  In fact, it is our opinion that authentication and provenance are as important as the attractiveness of the signature itself, particularly with a Ruth signature.  In the case of Babe Ruth, who signed autographs virtually every day of his adult life, provenance is paramount.  With more than half the Ruth signed balls deemed fraudulent, and well-preserved signed balls easily reaching into five figure range, tracing a ball back to its original owner becomes a key element in determining its value.

We are thrilled to offer this beautiful signed Babe Ruth baseball, authenticated by PSA/DNA, along with a letter and well-documented story from the ball’s original recipient.  Such ironclad provenance is rare in pieces such as this.

Upon Ruth’s retirement from baseball in 1938, he almost immediately took up the cause of raising money for the war effort by participating in various fundraisers.  One such event involved a well-publicized 1943 exhibition game at the Polo Grounds where Walter Johnson served up the last pitch that the Sultan of Swat would ever deposit over an outfield fence.  We offered a press photo documenting that game in a previous auction.

More often, however, Ruth’s philanthropic activities took the same form as that of today’s pro athlete: the celebrity golf tournament.  Ruth played frequently, as evidenced by the many pictures of The Babe out on the links.

Ruth golfing in Westport, CT in June, 1946
Ruth golfing in Westport, CT in June, 1946

Such an event took Ruth to the town of Westport, CT in late June of 1946, where at the behest of his friend, Dr. Vito Edward Caselnova (golf chairman at Westport’s Longshore Country Club), Ruth was to participate with New York Giants Hall of Fame halfback Ken Strong.  Ruth, along with his wife Claire and their boxer puppy, would stay with the Caselnova family for the entire week, playing golf at Longshore, talking with local Boy Scouts and visiting victims of a recent fire at a local hospital.  Ruth’s visit to Westport, along with his stay with Vito Caselnova and his family, was well-documented in local newspapers at the time.

The Longshore golf course still stands in Westport today, as do members of the Caselnova family.  It was young Kenneth Caselnova, the recipient of this signed baseball from the Great Bambino, who penned the notarized letter that accompanies the ball.  Among other stories Mr. Caselnova relates in his letter, is this one:

My parents spent the week having nightly dinner parties for Babe, Claire and friends.  In those days the lady of the house still wore aprons when they cooked.  I remember as clear as if it were yesterday, Babe walking right up to my mother in the morning, taking off her apron, putting it on and telling her “Move over Mrs. C, The Babe is making breakfast now!”  Breakfast consisted of eggs, Canadian bacon and toast.

Ruth signed several items that week for the members of the Caselnova family (along with, no doubt, most of Westport).  But the more poignant memory, as related by Caselnova’s letter, is a chilling one:

I remember Babe pulling cans of Budweiser out of my parents’ refrigerator, not to drink, but to subdue the headaches that he was experiencing in his eyes.

Those headaches were, by 1946, debilitating for Ruth, getting worse as the summer progressed.  By fall, Ruth’s face was swollen and he was unable to eat solid food, and by late 1946 he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.  Sadly, the greatest player the game had ever known would be gone within two years.

Presented here is a spectacular memento of that week in Westport, where Babe Ruth entertained an entire town, raised the spirits of injured firefighters, raised money for charity, and left indelible memories with young Kenneth Caselnova.

Babe Ruth Ball 1The ball, authenticated by PSA/DNA, is inscribed “To Big Kenneth Caselnova From Babe Ruth” in Ruth’s unmistakeable handwriting.  The signature and inscription remain bold and clear nearly 70 years later, very visible with very little fading and no smudging.  The ball itself, while worn and toned with age, remains well-constructed, though any identifying stampings that may have once been on the ball are no longer visible.  While we do not attempt to grade autographs as we find that to be very subjective, this signature would clearly rate at the higher end of any grading scale.

This is an outstanding ball, one of the most spectacular items we’ve had the pleasure of handling at Love of the Game.  It is, of course, the stories, the history, and our ability to document names and events that we find most compelling, and this ball comes with history aplenty.  Along with the ball and PSA/DNA holder, the winning bidder will receive the LOA from PSA/DNA as well as the notarized, signed letter from Kenneth Caselnova, the recipient of this baseball, relating the fascinating story of how and when he received it.  Further documentation of Ruth’s June, 1946 visit to Westport and his stay with the Caselnova family is readily available online.

A spectacular ball, signed by the most famous player in the game’s storied history, remarkably well-preserved and with impeccable provenance.  Easily a cornerstone piece of even the most advanced, sophisticated collections.

Getting warmed up.

Okay, it’s cold.  Really cold; below zero throughout a good chunk of the United States.  We’re also smack dab in the middle of the NFL playoffs, hurtling towards the Big Game on February 3.

This also means it’s time to get “warmed up” for our Winter, 2014 auction, and it’s going to be a great one.  We’re loaded with special cards, memorabilia, and autographs, and we can’t wait to tell you all about them.

But we’ll start with this.


This is a spectacular collection of vintage football card display boxes, ranging from 1954 Bowman right through 1977 Topps Mexican.  While we can’t help but imagine what treasures might have been inside the packs that were once held in those boxes, we also think that the boxes themselves are pretty cool; featuring gorgeous graphics from Bowman, Fleer, Philadelphia, and Topps, each in fantastic condition for display, and many wrapped in cellophane and fitted with styrofoam inserts to fill out the box.  We’ll be offering most of the boxes individually or in small groups – while it’s a very cool collection, it’s also the type of thing we’d like everyone to have a chance at winning, so by keeping the lots small, we also keep them affordable.

There’s more than what is pictured in this photo, as well, with some additional graded boxes, as well as a few actual 1950s and 60s unopened packs (all PSA-graded, including a 1952 Bowman Large Wax pack), 1974 and 81 vending boxes, a 1935 National Chicle wrapper, and a rare box of 1977 Topps Mexican cards.

So we’re kicking off a Super auction with a Super group of football display materials.

We are feverishly taking photos, writing and proofing descriptions, and getting ready to present you with our best auction yet.  Stay tuned.  And stay warm.