An astounding collection of 36 signed original baseball player contracts of Hall of Famers representing the careers of some of the game’s all-time greats has been consigned to Robert Edward Auctions and will be sold to the highest bidders next spring.
The one-of-a-kind contracts owned by a long-time collector include one signed by 19th century Hall of Famer Jim O’Rourke, who was paid a salary of $3500 to play for the New York Giants in 1892 at the age of 41, Christy Mathewson’s 1902 Giants pact and a 1930 minor league contract signed by St. Louis Cardinals’ pitching great Dizzy Dean. The O’Rourke is believed to be the earliest Major League Hall of Famer contract known to have come on the open market.
The contracts span parts of nine decades, reflecting the explosive growth of baseball from an often maligned ‘pasttime’ into a game that made players with sought after skills into multi-millionaires.
“This is a remarkable—and very unusual—collection,” said Rob Lifson, president of Robert Edward Auctions. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Hall of Famer contracts are so rare people don’t usually get a chance to collect them in any kind of quantity. To see these all at once is really something.”
Purchased one at a time by a baseball memorabilia collector one at a time over the last 25 years, the contracts will be sold in the same fashion during Robert Edward Auctions’ always-anticipated catalog sale that begins in April of 2011.
The list includes:
1892-94 James O’Rourke
1902 Christy Mathewson
1921 Rogers Hornsby
1926 Mickey Cochrane
1926 Red Faber
1927 Rabbit Maranville
1927 Zach Wheat
1928 Earle Combs
1928 Tony Lazzeri
1929 Frankie Frisch
1929 Bill Dickey
1929 Chick Hafey
1930 Dizzy Dean (minor league)
1930-31 James ‘Cool Papa’ Bell (Cuba)
1931 Jim Bottomley
1931 Waite Hoyt
1932 George Kelly
1933 Al Lopez
1938 Lloyd Waner
1941-42 Monte Irvin (Puerto Rico)
1944 Chief Bender
1944 Paul Waner
1946 Ralph Kiner
1947 Pee Wee Reese
1950 Whitey Ford
1950 John Mize
1955 Bob Lemon
1962 Roberto Clemente
1964 Bob Gibson
1972 Reggie Jackson
1973 Rollie Fingers
1973 Harmon Killebrew
1976-78 Rod Carew
1980-84 Dennis Eckersley
1985 Wade Boggs
“This is by far the biggest and best group of Hall of Fame contracts to ever be offered,” Lifson said.
The 1892 O’Rourke document, which long ago was once part of famous “Hot Dog King” Harry M. Stevens’ personal collection, may be the earliest known Hall of Famer contract ever to come up for public sale.
Known as ‘Orator Jim” for his skills as a practicing attorney and penchant for talking on the diamond, O’Rourke’s place in baseball includes recording the first hit in National League history, the first person to hire an African-American minor leaguer (when he was a front office executive) and the oldest player to hit safely in a Major League game (a single for the Giants when John McGraw signed him to play in a pennant-clinching game in 1904). The contract covered three years at $3500 for each of the first two years and $3,000 for the 1894 season, but O’Rourke left to become player-manager of the Washington Senators after 1892.
Several of the contracts set for auction are from memorable seasons for that particular player. Fans remember Reese putting his arm over the shoulder of Jackie Robinson during Robinson’s historic first big league season of 1947. The document signed by Ralph Kiner in 1946 is from his rookie season when he burst on the scene for the Pittsburgh Pirates and led the National League in homers. Whitey Ford’s 1950 contract is for his rookie season with the Yanks. His 9-1 record in 1950 helped the Yankees to the World Championship and launched one of the greatest pitching careers in history.
They are a time capsule of baseball history, with the player’s signature alongside those of his employer. One can imagine the very brief negotiating that usually went along with player-owner relationships in the first half of the century, accomplished mostly by mail and telegraph, as well as the lawyer-driven deals inked during the dawn of free agency.
The salaries are fascinating to dissect. The collection includes a 1921 Rogers Hornsby contract signed April 16 of that year. The last National Leaguer to hit .400 was paid for $10,000 for the season. Dizzy Dean’s 1930 contract with Houston of the Texas League that reveals the future Hall of Famer’s pay to be $350 per month. Bell, a Negro Leaguer who played winter ball in Cuba to help make ends meet, made just $200 per month during the short winter season of 1930-31. Even Clemente, coming off his first batting title in the spring of 1962, signed with the Pirates again…for $26,000. Even in today’s dollars, one of the game’s greatest players was a bargain.
Several of the early contracts are short but contain pointed references to penalties that could be put in place if the player was involved in “dishonest play”, fighting or drinking. All were major headaches for club owners in the first late 19th and early 20th centuries. O’Rourke’s contract mentions the consequences of “excessive indulgence of malt or spirituous liquors”. A first offense would result in a $25 fine with penalties increasing until a fourth offense that would result in suspension without pay for the rest of the year.
“The reputation of players in the early days of professional baseball was not so great,” said Lifson, whose company has handled thousands of historic baseball pieces. “Very few were educated although O’Rourke and Mathewson were notable exceptions. Having a college background was a very big deal. Especially in the early days of the game, the owners were used to dealing with a rough crowd of guys on the roster.”
Placing a value on player contracts is difficult since there are few sales of similar items on which to judge them. While the signature on the contract has an inherent value, it’s a small element in the overall worth of the document.
“The value is very subjective,” Lifson said. “Players like Roberto Clemente have a tremendous following and Clemente collectors consider personal items, especially items directly relating to his career like his contracts, to be extremely desirable. Clemente contracts from other years have been offered before and they are always highly prized by collectors. For many other Hall of Famers, their player contracts may have never been offered at auction before and value is really unknown. It’s easy to look up what a Whitey Ford signature is worth. But what’s his rookie contract worth?”
Robert Edward Auctions provides free catalogs upon request and is still accepting consignments for its next auction. To receive a complimentary copy of the catalog, or to inquire about consignments, visit www.robertedwardauctions.com or call 908-226-9900.