An original copy of the 1830s Philadelphia Olympic ball club’s "constitution" has been discovered and is heading for the auction block.
—"It’s the document that records the birth of organized baseball"—
Whiile browsing through the offerings of the Brattle Book Shop in Boston 36 years ago, a man with a fondness for the history of sports stumbled upon a very old piece of literature. Not having seen anything of such rare vintage, the fan and collector purchased the booklet entitled The 1838 Olympic Ball Club Constitution. The name was somewhat deceptive. The contents did not pertain to the ancient Olympic games, but something ultimately more important to the history of American sports. It was, scholars discovered, documentation of the dawning of organized baseball.
The Constitution was not a copy, published long after the Philadelphia-based club was born. It was an original, which sat undisturbed in the man’s collection, it’s existence unknown until Robert Edward Auctions President Rob Lifson was contacted by that same person several months ago. The man, who wishes to remain anonymous, had now decided to see what the sports memorabilia market would bear for such an historic treasure.
The Olympic ball club was born in the early 1830s, playing informally what was then considered strictly a children’s game. By the summer of 1837, there was enough interest to form an organized club, complete with by-laws. In December of that year, the organization’s constitution was drafted. It was printed in time for the club’s 1838 season and distributed to each of the 29 club members. The constitution acquired by REA is the only known surviving example.
"This is the earliest relic of organized baseball from the first organized baseball team in existence," reads the preliminary catalog description of the item in REA’s spring 2007 auction obtained exclusively by SportsCollectorsDaily.com. "It is arguably the single most historically significant item relating to the origins of the National Pastime in existence. This is the document that records the birth of organized baseball."
The Olympic club existed for decades after it’s birth and a photograph of the club sitting outside it’s clubhouse sometime in the 1860s resides in the Baseball Hall of Fame. "The Olympics were very proud of being the first organized club," Thorn said. "Reverence for the history of the game didn’t start in modern times. And their biggest game of the year was typically held on July 4, which established a connection between baseball and patriotism we still see today."
For Lifson, discovering such an important piece of baseball history was the culmination of years of searching for what he regarded as baseball’s Lost Ark of the Covenant.
"Inevitably each new lead I followed was simply another copy," Lifson said. "I thought we might never actually see an original. We knew it existed at one time because otherwise where would the copies have come from? When I went to see this one, I wondered if it might actually be ‘the one’. And then there I was looking at it. To me it was monumental."
The document is eighteen pages long and retains it’s front and back covers with some type of staining from a binder-like wrap. REA has set a minimum bid of $50,000.
The Olympic club’s Constitution reads much like a typical constitution, defining the responsibilities of members and officers, setting up behavorial expectations for the club’s players and contains a preamble and fifteen articles. Quite serious about the game, the club’s officers set up a fine system and expected players to appear in uniform at games and practices. Unfortunately the team wasn’t able to compete against other clubs until several years later, when they finally found other clubs, like New York’s Knickerbockers, by then organized and willing to play.
Two years ago, Thorn himself discovered an ordinance written in 1791 to protect the windows of a new meeting house in Pittsfield, MA by prohibiting anyone from playing baseball within 80 yards of the building. He believes the discovery of the Olympic club’s Constitution to be a vital link to baseball as we know it today. "Without the Olympics, there is no baseball," Thorn stated.
"Part of our job is to tell the history of the game," Lifson explained. "This piece may sell for a lot of money and if it does, that’s great. But what’s really neat is that with items like this, we get to present a story of the game’s past that hasn’t been told. We get to present the history of baseball using the artifacts we sell as props."