19th century team photo with remarkable significance to integration in baseball.
Presented is a unique card of both tremendous rarity (it is the only example we have seen) and enormous historical significance with regard to integration in baseball. The cabinet card pictures cameo portraits of thirteen members of the 1887 Syracuse Stars of the International League, including nineteen-year-old African-American star pitcher Robert Higgins. Each player is featured in formal attire, with Higgins’ portrait situated in the lower left corner. All of the players are identified by name, including manager Joe Simmons. The team name and year, “Syracuse Stars/1887,” appears in print along the top. The name of the photographer, “P. S. Ryder,” appears at the base of the both the photo and mount.
This card was originally discovered in our consignor’s attic, along with numerous other period photos, over twenty-five years ago and has never been seen in the modern collecting world until now. What makes this team cabinet so significant is that it was issued during the very year in which organized baseball’s league owners agreed not to sign any more black ballplayers. The “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” as it came to be known, remained in effect until Jackie Robinson joined Montreal in 1946. In 1887, Fleetwood Walker, Bud Fowler, Frank Grant, Robert Higgins, George Stovey, and three other black players went to play in the newly organized International League, the equivalent of Triple A baseball and just one step down from Major League status. They were not welcomed with open arms by either their teammates or fans. It was in the middle of the year that the International League’s board of directors told its secretary to approve no more contracts for black players, although it did not terminate the contracts of the league’s few remaining black ballplayers.
Moses Fleetwood Walker, who in 1884 became the first black player in Major League history, joined the Syracuse Stars in 1888. Higgins, who was from Memphis, endured harsh treatment from his teammates during his short time with Syracuse. During his second start with the club, on May 5th in Toronto, the fielders intentionally muffed balls in an effort to have Higgins taken out of the game. The team lost 28-8 (twenty-one of the runs were unearned) and the following day the Toronto World newspaper made note of the farce by issuing the headline “Disgraceful Baseball.” The Sporting Newsoffered a different headline: “The Syracuse Plotters.” On June 4, two of the Syracuse players, outfielder Henry Simon and pitcher Doug Crothers, refused to appear in the official team picture with Higgins. Crothers, whose refusal was punctuated by a fist fight with team manager Joe Simmons, was initially suspended for the year. He was briefly reinstated before being given his outright release on July 2nd. Simon was not punished for his action, but, as the local papers made note at the time, he was far more valuable to the team than Crothers and thus his offense against Higgins was overlooked. It is interesting to note that while Simon refused to pose with Higgins in person, he was powerless to prevent his image from appearing together with Higgins’ on this card. Crothers’ image does not appear on the card, indicating it was issued after he was released. The “Gentlemen’s Agreement” allowed black ballplayers who had existing contracts to remain in their respective leagues, but by the early 1890s few remained.
Many cards have a story, but this one has a much greater and more significant story than most, with a direct connection to the history of the banning of black ballplayers from professional baseball, an event which soon led to the glorious rise of the Negro Leagues. This is truly a rare and unique nineteenth-century baseball card. The only other example of an 1887 Syracuse Stars team card featuring Higgins that we have seen (a very interesting but very different style card in much poorer condition) appeared as Lot 58 in REA’s April 2007 auction, where it realized a final sales price of $2,643. (The card was actually a promotional card issued by a local pool hall, which gave it the distinction of being the first baseball card featuring an African-American player.) The offered cabinet photo (4.25 x 6.5 inches) displays a tiny chip in the lower left corner (not affecting Higgins’ portrait or name) as well as a tiny area of light discoloration along the top (not affecting any of the portraits). There is also minor separation of the photo from the mount in the bottom left corner. The mount displays minor border wear. In Very Good to Excellent condition overall. This 1887 Syracuse Stars team cabinet card is a remarkable and extremely significant find relating to the formal end of integration in organized baseball in the nineteenth century. Reserve $1,000. Estimate (open).
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