New York Knickerbockers Photo Story

Published by Robert Lifson on Tagged Uncategorized

We’ve gotten such an enthusiastic and positive response (which we very much appreciate!) to our recent mass email about the Knickerbockers photo (pictured above) that we thought we should reprint the text of story in its entirety on the REA blog, for those who might be interested but are not on our mailing list.

Here it is:

Really Cool Collecting Story

We’ve gotten a lot of calls over the years with interesting finds, sometimes relating to houses being cleaned out, when people are moving in or moving out. Usually it’s nothing special, but we can’t blame people for checking with us to make sure. That’s exactly what we want them to do! You never know when and how something special will turn up. That’s part of what makes this auction business exciting for us. In the past we’ve had calls with valuable cards that have been found in basements or attics, and we’ve handled many collections of items that were long forgotten in the homes of former ballplayers, sometimes found by relatives of the ballplayer when cleaning up, and sometimes by the new owners of their homes, who happened to stumble upon items left behind decades earlier. That’s how the Neal Ball Collection (which was auctioned by REA in 1997) for example, was discovered. The family had been living in the old house in which infielder Neal Ball had previously lived for many years. They had never explored the attic. When they did, they found all kinds of baseball items related to Neal Ball’s major and minor league career, including his contracts, panoramic team photos, even the letter asking his permission to include him in the T206 set (the only surviving letter of this type known).

This past Sunday, we received a call that for us will always be remembered as one of the most remarkable ever fielded at REA. It was from a gentleman who had just bought an old house in East Moriches, New York. He had purchased the house and moved in just two months ago. In addition to the house, on the property was a second small structure that he referred to as a “cottage.” It was very old and didn’t have any running water, but came with the property. The previous day he was checking out the cottage, when he happened to notice that it had an attic that was only accessible from the outside. So he got a ladder and went up to check it out. Inside he found all kinds of items, mostly junk, stored there from a long ago previous resident, a Mr. Walter T. Avery, and based on what he could tell from looking over the items, and doing some quick research, it appeared that Mr. Avery had been a member of the original New York Knickerbockers in 1846. This, indeed, was the case. In fact, Walter T. Avery played for the Knickerbockers in the very first baseball game between two different teams on June 19, 1846 at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken.

So, naturally, we were pretty excited. It’s one thing to get a call about some cards, or an unlikely find of baseball items from a ballplayer such as Neal Ball, but items from the old home of an original Knickerbocker from 1846? It sounded preposterous! Things like this just don’t happen. This was simply too good to be true. To some extent it was too good to be true right off the bat, as we were told that the only item which was baseball related was a framed photograph of some Knickerbocker team members. But even a single team photograph of the Knickerbockers would be an incredible find.

The following day the owner and his wife brought the framed photograph, along with various miscellaneous paper items and correspondences relating to Walter Avery, to our offices. What they had was truly remarkable.

The photograph, still housed in its original frame measuring 22 x 27 inches, is an original large format salt print display photo taken in December 1862. Pictured (with all players identified on the reverse) is literally an All-Star team of great early Knickerbockers, all key members of the club from 1845 to 1850. (Note: The Knickerbockers were formed in 1845). When this photograph was taken, most but not all of these players were past their playing days. This is truly a photograph of the “Old Guard” of the original New York Knickerbockers: the earliest, most  respected, and most important members of the team that were able to pose for this momentous occasion, including Knickerbocker legends such as Doc Adams and Duncan Curry. Perhaps most incredible of all is the fact that this photograph includes the only known images of some of the most important early Knickerbockers.

Renowned baseball historian John Thorn has suggested that this photograph may have been taken in honor of Knickerbockers president Doc Adams’ departure from the club. Late in 1862 Adams announced his plans to leave New York and the Knickerbockers, to move to Connecticut to get married.  This is, in fact, exactly what he did. It is very likely that this historic assemblage of early original Knickerbockers was gathered to pay tribute to founding member Doc Adams, and that the photograph (a very rare artist-enhanced solar-enlarged salt print) was taken to create a special keepsake for Adams and the other key early team members pictured. We will never know with certainty, but that is a very likely explanation for this historic gathering, and the production of this very expensively-produced photographic display.   

Many other items in the upcoming REA auction will no doubt have a greater value than this New York Knickerbockers display photograph,  but it is unlikely that any other will compare with it in terms of historical significance. There is no other photograph in the world known to exist that remotely compares to this in terms of capturing the images of these important early baseball pioneers.

One last additional fascinating note: There is an extremely strong connection between firemen and the earliest baseball teams. Most early social clubs were extensions of each neighborhood or town’s local fire company and the New York Knickerbockers were no exception. The early connection between fire companies and baseball, in fact, is the reason early baseball uniforms were designed in the style of fire uniforms, often displaying a shield design on the front of the jersey, and utilizing fire uniform belts. We mention this because of what we think is an amazing and most appropriate coincidence regarding the Knickerbockers photo discovery: The profession of the gentleman who found this photograph could have been anything, but of all the possible professions in the world, he is a fireman.  

It has been a thrill for us to have this piece literally “fall from the sky” into the auction. Its historical significance was so great, and the circumstances of its discovery so unusual, that we thought it would be fun to share our excitement and the story. We hope you have enjoyed hearing about this discovery which occurred just a few days ago.  

An image can be found on the REA blog:


Robert Edward Auctions LLC


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