by Pasco Gasbarro, columnist for Fine Books & Collections magazine.
The first book devoted entirely to baseball, The Base Ball Player’s Pocket Companion, was published in Boston in 1859. Score one for Bean Town. What I didn’t know was that 150 years ago there were two sets of rules for the sport. The “Massachusetts” game used stakes instead of bases and had a now-peculiar ball field. By the time the Pocket Companion was published, the “New York” game, with its diamond-shaped field of bases and a batter at home plate, predominated. Thus Boston lost the first round in its long rivalry with New York. Between the Covers Rare Books has a copy of this extraordinarily rare volume - perhaps ten copies survive - for $39,500. If that seems expensive, consider that a nice example of the most sought-after baseball card, the Honus Wagner tobacco card from 1909, sold in February for $2.35 million. And it’s not even close to rare—about sixty of them are known to exist.
For some reason, collecting and baseball go well together. Baseball is by far the most widely collected sport among book collectors. Perhaps the languid pace of the game suits people willing to lose themselves for an afternoon in the pages of a novel. Collectors pursue the early history of baseball most avidly. The first color illustration of the game, a chromolithograph of a game in progress, as seen from behind second base, appeared in the 1864 American Boy’s Book of Sports and Games. Douglas Palmieri of Palmieri Fine Books has a somewhat worn copy of this 600-page guide, which also includes color lithographs of hockey, fencing, and gymnastics, for $625.
Henry Chadwick wrote the most important early books about the sport. While Abner Doubleday, who was credited for many years as baseball’s inventor, may be more famous today, even in his own time his credentials were called into question. “He means well,” Chadwick supposedly said of Doubleday, “but he don’t know.” Although Chadwick was born in England, he was an early and enthusiastic promoter of the great American pastime. He organized national tours and served on committees that codified most of the rules of the modern game. As a writer, he championed the sport in his articles and books, and pioneered the use of statistics, developing the batting average. Chadwick wrote and compiled Beadle’s Dime Base-Ball Player, a compendium of rules, diagrams, stories, and statistics, published by Beadle & Company in New York from 1860 to 1881. The first installment is extremely scarce, but Tavistock Books has a copy of the 1867 edition, rebound without the original wrappers, for $2,250.
Spalding founded a Chicago sporting goods store and was also was an amateur scholar of baseball history and a collector. When Henry Chadwick passed away in 1908, Spalding acquired his archive. Using the materials, Spalding wrote America’s National Game, one of the first histories of the sport. Spalding mixed hard facts liberally with his own nostalgic memories. James Cummins has a very good copy of the first edition, published by American Sports Publishing in 1911. It bears Spalding’s rare inscription and is priced at $5,500. A. Parker’s Book has an unsigned copy, in “sound” condition with bumps on the cover and a few stains internally, for $1,500.
While the historians hit for accuracy in their books, the autobiographies of players often swing and miss by miles. Many early players were barely literate, and if the books weren’t ghostwritten, then their stories were as whitewashed as Tom Sawyer’s fence. “Because of the era, they really couldn’t get into the nitty-gritty of baseball,” explains Noel Hynd, author of The Giants at the Polo Grounds. “They put a respectable middle-class veneer on what was a rough and tumble sport at the time, populated for the most part by tough-assed Irishmen.”
Early chronicles, like “King” Kelly’s 1888 autobiography, Play Ball: Stories of the Diamond Field, are quite scarce. Memoirs published in the first part of the twentieth century are more readily available and affordable. Christy Mathewson, for example, during seventeen years with the Giants, won 373 games and lost 188. He’s still ranked today among the best pitchers of all time. Antique Enterprises in Detroit has a copy of Mathewson’s Pitching in a Pinch, published in 1912. It contains twenty photographs, including a black-and-white picture of Mathewson on the frontispiece, and costs $500 (without a dust jacket).
Adrian “Cap” Anson was another player who penned a memoir and history of the sport, A Ballplayer’s Career, published in 1900. Wayne Greene in New York has a first edition of Anson’s book, in good condition, for $300. Anson was the first player to make 3,000 hits in his professional career and is credited, along with Spalding, with the idea of spring training. He was also a progenitor of baseball’s shameful racist policies, refusing to play games with or against black ballplayers.
Before the 1970s, there was very little published literature on the Negro Leagues and African-American ball players. The exception was Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide of 1907. “This is the Holy Grail of baseball book collecting,” Greene said. It was the first book that chronicled the games and stories of the early Negro League, and for many years it was the only book on the subject.
In 2006, the Baseball Hall of Fame elected its first and only woman, Effa Manley. Manley co-owned and managed the day-to-day operations of the Newark Eagles, a National Negro League franchise in New Jersey. In 1974, Manley self-published her autobiography, Negro Baseball... Before Integration.
With so much potential ground to cover, most baseball book collectors will want to focus on a particular niche: regional leagues, early history, a specific team, or even baseball in fiction—fodder for a column of its own. Douglas Palmieri recommends hunting for books in shops and at auctions devoted to sports memorabilia, where baseball cards, photographs, balls, and gloves get most of the attention. Once published material enters the book world, “the value usually doubles or triples,” he said.