The group, which includes two cards of his Cleveland Spiders teammate Cy Young, were passed on through his family over the years. Virtue’s great-grandson Ed has been the most recent curator of the collection. He recently recounted that it was something cherished by the family of over the years. Now they’ll be available to collectors looking to add some rare 19th Century cards to their collection. It’s expected the entire group will sell for more than $250,000.
“The collection spent most of its time in a box on a closet shelf,” Ed Virtue recalled. “It was brought out on special occasions, like a thrill similar to your train set at Christmas time.”
Jake Virtue was born on March 2, 1865 in Philadelphia. He played for several clubs, including a few in the Eastern League and International League before joining the Spiders in 1890 after the International League folded. He remained in Cleveland until 1894 when his career ended following a stroke at the age of 30.
Cabinet cards are pictures that were mounted onto a backing and they were usually intended to be displayed in homes. Often, they featured pictures of family members or other non-famous subjects. However, some featured important historical subjects such as these pictured baseball players. Cabinet cards were extremely popular in the late 1800s and today, they are highly desired by baseball card and memorabilia collectors.In all, the auction will include ten Cleveland Spiders cabinets that date to 1891-1894. While cabinets featuring Virtue are desirable in their own right, the centerpieces of the auction include two cabinets featuring Young, the legendary Hall of Fame pitching ace. One in particular will have collectors talking as it is from 1891-92 and features what is believed to be the earliest image of Young in a professional baseball uniform. Young’s first season was with Cleveland in 1890 when he appeared in only 17 games, according to Baseball Reference. Bidding for the two Young cards alone reached $70,000 within the first 24 hours.
In addition to Young, the cabinets up for sale also include Hall of Famers John Clarkson and George Davis. Other players included are Virtue teammates George Davies, Ed McKean, Tom Williams, and Chief Zimmer. Virtue himself is also pictured on one. The condition is exceptional, with the cards having been preserved and passed through the Virtue family for more than a century.
The cabinets were created by Pifer & Becker and John H. Ryder. The Pifer & Becker cabinets are particularly exciting because they featured some familiar images. Some pre-war collectors familiar with the rare 1893 Just So Tobacco issue will recognize the images of the six Pifer & Becker cabinets as being the same ones used in that legendary set.
“The matching images of these cabinets with their Just So counterparts leaves no doubt that these cabinets are the parents of that revered issue,” stated SCP Auctions Vice-President Dan Imler. “When discussing items of such extreme rarity, condition is often rendered secondary. In the case of the aforementioned cabinet group, the magnitude of their rarity is all but equaled by their astonishing state of preservation.”
While Virtue’s Spiders cabinet cards are the keys here, the collection also includes several other unique items, including two of his player contracts with the team, his Major League Baseball lifetime pass, and other early cabinet photos, including a high-grade 1887 Detroit Wolverines cabinet. Letters of provenance from the Virtue family will accompany each item.
Bidding is underway at SCPAuctions.com and continues through March 24.