1887 Wheeling Base Ball Club Imperial Cabinet Photo - Integrated Team with Sol White - Extraordinary Newly Discovered Photograph

Published by Robert Lifson on Tagged Uncategorized

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The item pictured above will appear in REA’s April 2008 auction. We thought collectors would enjoy sharing our great excitement about this newly discovered piece.

The catalog description appears below:  

Presented is an Imperial team cabinet photograph picturing the 1887 Wheeling Green Stockings Base Ball Club. This is an extremely impressive professional photographer’s cabinet card, in terms of quality, and contrast, as well as size. Though it does not feature a major league team, it is also, without question, one of the most historically significant nineteenth-century baseball team cabinet photographs to ever surface. This Imperial team cabinet photo features Hall of Fame Negro-League pioneer Sol White as a member of the integrated Wheeling Green Stockings Base Ball Club in 1887. The team photo pictures fourteen members of the Wheeling Green Stockings posing together in uniform, in a formal studio setting. Sol White, the only black player on the team, is pictured standing, second player on the left. It is the only original team cabinet photograph featuring the Sol White as a player that we have ever seen. 

This cabinet photograph is a brand new collecting discovery. Incredibly, it was saved in the family archives of one of the players on this team. This photograph has been consigned directly from the  great-grandson of Wheeling Green Stockings catcher Bob “Gamey” Westlake, who is pictured in the photo seated on the far right. Bob “Gamey” Westlake’s great-grandson was recently going through his family’s photographs,  which included a few baseball-related images of his great-grandfather, a very accomplished professional ballplayer in the 1880s and 1890s. Included were team photographs of several of the high level minor league clubs on which his great-grandfather played. Knowing that baseball photographs could be valuable, he contacted Robert Edward Auctions to inquire about whether any of these baseball photographs might be sufficiently valuable to auction. This was a very good move!

Bob Westlake happened to have played on the 1887 Green Stockings of Wheeling, West Virginia, in the Ohio State League, alongside the legendary Sol White. We were stunned to find that among the few baseball photos in the family’s archive was this extraordinary team cabinet photograph, including the great Sol White, in his only season on this historic integrated team just before black ballplayers were banned from professional baseball. This was Sol White’s first significant “big city” professional team. His inclusion on this team occurred during the brief window of time in the nineteenth-century when integrated baseball was permitted. White was a star. He would not, however, ever be permitted to play in the majors, or even play alongside white players on any of the top level organized professional teams following the 1887 season. It was his misfortune to come of age as a great ballplayer at exactly the time of baseball’s “Gentleman’s Agreement,” which banned black players from professional baseball. Sol White’s talent, character, and determination, however, were soon put to use in an all the more important manner. Shut out of organized “white baseball,” he would go on to be one of black baseball’s great leaders and pioneers, creating opportunities for himself and others, in the face of organized baseball’s shameful opposition. As a player, organizer, and manager, Sol White immediately became one of the key figures who helped lay the groundwork for the alternate baseball universe known as the Negro Leagues, for the benefit of all the great black ballplayers who wanted to play organized ball and who, like him, were locked out of the opportunity to play in established professional leagues alongside white players. Sol White was a great ballplayer, but also a great man whose impact on the game is immeasurable. In this photo he is captured in the calm before the storm that would become his destiny and life’s work. Sol White lived to witness Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in 1947, an event further validating his lifelong efforts. He passed away in 1955, but remained a legend and promoter of the game even in the relative obscurity of his final years. White was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.

The Wheeling Green Stockings were a member of the Ohio State League (later renamed the Tri-State League), what today would be considered a minor league club. White was just nineteen years old at the time of this photo but his age belied his skill. He joined the club on July 2nd on the recommendation of player/manager T. M. Nicholson, who had been White’s teammate a few years earlier on the Bellaire Globes, an amateur club from White’s home town. Nicholson knew of White’s ability and quickly put him in the starting lineup at third base in the hopes of improving his club’s fortunes. White easily justified Nicholson’s confidence in him and finished the season with a .381 average. The fact that Sol White, at the age of just nineteen, was a standout on this club is remarkable, especially given the fact that two of his teammates, Jack Stenzel and Sam Kimber, played in the Major Leagues at one time. Stenzel later batted .339 over the course of nine Major League seasons, while Kimber is best remembered today for throwing a no-hitter in 1884 as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Our consignor’s grandfather, Bob Westlake, was also a catcher of note and later served as the battery mate to Hall of Fame pitcher Clark Griffith on Milwaukee of the Western League a few years later.

Unfortunately, at almost the exact same time as White’s debut with Wheeling, another incident was taking place in Newark, New Jersey, that would impact his, and every other black ballplayer’s fate, for decades to come. On July 14, 1887 the Chicago White Stockings, managed by Cap Anson, were scheduled to play an exhibition game against Newark, whose members included two black ballplayers, Moses Fleetwood Walker (the first black player in the Major Leagues) and George Stovey. Anson, who was baseball’s reigning superstar at the time as well as an affirmed racist, would not allow his team to take the field unless Walker and Stovey were removed from the lineup. Anson’s influence at the time was so great that his demands were quickly met by the Newark club. On that same night, perhaps galvanized by Anson’s defiant stance, team owners voted to adopt a new resolution that would ban the signing of any new black ballplayers. Organized baseball’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” to not allow black ballplayers to play in the same leagues as white ballplayers evolved, almost overnight, into an accepted formal policy, supported by the most powerful ruling forces of organized baseball. As a result of that agreement, Sol White was “cut” from the Wheeling roster the following season. White did play with a few less prominent white ball clubs over the next few years but the era of integration in baseball quickly ended by the early 1890s. Undaunted, White became one of the key early pioneers of black baseball, not just as a player, but also as an organizer, manager, and historian. During the 1890s, White was a member of the top independent black teams, and later, in 1902, he founded the Philadelphia Giants, the top black ball club of the early 1900s, for which he served as player/manager through the 1909 season. Although he was instrumental in the formation and success of the Negro Leagues, yet another great contribution to the game was his 1907 book, Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide. That guide documented the rise and history of black baseball up until that time. It is the earliest and most important manuscript chronicling the early years of black baseball. Much of the early history of black baseball that he documented is found nowhere else and has been preserved by only by this historic work. Even the publishing of this book was a brave expression of civil rights, foreshadowing all that would follow relating to the great future success of the Negro Leagues, and beyond.

It seems incredible that a photo of such historical significance would be found in a pile of mundane family photos, but that is exactly where this photo has resided for the past 120 years, and exactly how it happened to survive. It is very likely the case that each member of the team received one of these team photographs as a keepsake. After learning of its value, the Westlake family was delighted, and they have decided to auction it. They were even more excited when told that Robert Edward Auctions would be able to supply them with high quality reproduction photo prints and also a disc with a high-resolution image so that copies can be made for all their family members and for their family archives.

A period matting (not affixed and removable) accompanies the cabinet photograph and bears both the name of the team and the year along the top border (”Wheeling Base Ball Club - 1887″), while each of the players (along with their respective position) is identified along the bottom border of the matting: “Nicholson Manager, Baily, C., White 3rd B., Bell 1st B.. Spidel RF, Sullivan P, Stenzel C, Kimber P, Mallory P, Crogan LF, Westlake C, Nichol CF, Smurthwait SS, and Dunn P.”

This cabinet card has obviously been stored in the most ideal conditions, and is perfectly preserved. The mounted photograph (8.75 x 6 inches) itself is in Near Mint condition; the green cabinet card mount (9.75 x 6.75 inches) is blank-backed, has a single small tack hole along the top border, and just a hint and light corner wear. The original red trim along the bevel edge of the thick cabinet card mount is virtually undisturbed. The photographer’s name and city (”Parsons - Wheeling, W.Va.”) is printed on the mount along the left border. The word “Imperial” also appears printed on this border, referring to the style of the large-format cabinet card photograph. The cabinet photograph is in overall Excellent to Mint condition. Reserve $1,000. Estimate (open).

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