Collecting baseball player autographs has long been thought to be a 20th century creation. In fact, few signed baseballs exist that can be dated before the 1920's. Those that are dated from that period sometimes come under skepticism. However, that notion took a step backward in time on Tuesday, when Robert Edward Auctions revealed a couple of a old newspaper clippings referencing the collection of autographs.
One clip posted to the company's blog was penned in 1888 by Foster Coates, the former editor of the New York American. In a column entitled "Prices of Autographs of Eminent Living Personages", Coates writes of an encounter with a "Broadway shopkeeper" who had autographs of various well known figures for sale including Mike 'King' Kelly, the legendary 19th century Hall of Famer.
Coates called the hobby "a new fad of the season" and in an era when just about everything in the paper was originally taken down by hand, he painstakingly catalogs the prices the man was asking for those signatures. An autograph of poet Robert Browning was $450, a princely sum at the time. The shop owner had a letter from Mark Twain to President Garfield ($5) and a Horatio Alger autograph for 50 cents. Kelly, the "ball tosser" according to Coates' article, could be had for a dime, which may indicate the less than stellar reputation pros enjoyed during the era.
The other article also references Kelly. Written in the Boston Herald in 1932, it is a recollection from the spring of 1890, when Kelly and his teammates were preparing to depart for spring training by ship. Sitting in a bar (Kelly was a notorious drinker), he carried three baseballs he'd been asked to sign. Suddenly, as the ship prepared to leave without him, Kelly scurried off.
….For God’s sake, Mike, get a move on! The boat’s going…Kelly was on his feet. He grabbed his travelling bag. “Good-bye boys! See you later. (I will) Autograph the balls when I get back. Good luck!”
If the story is accurate, it would represent the earliest known reference to the signing of baseballs.
We don't know if King Kelly ever did sign those balls, but it's clear fans were asking more than 120 years ago and at least one dealer was selling.