When baseball begins to celebrate the 60th anniversary season of the major league debut of two of its greatest post-War stars, a rare relic from that very year will be offered at auction. The earliest known Willie Mays professional jersey, one worn during his brief but spectacular minor league career, has been consigned to Robert Edward Auctions’ spring 2011 catalog.
The jersey dates to Mays’ 35-game stint with the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association in 1951. It was worn by the future Hall of Famer as he continued his transition from the Negro Leagues to stardom in the Giants organization in the turbulent early days of integration in Major League baseball. The story of its survival and rare confluence of identifying factors is nothing short of remarkable.
“This is one of the most significant jerseys in existence from a true legend of the game,” said REA President Rob Lifson. “It’s one of the most historically significant jerseys ever to surface. And from a treasure hunter’s perspective, it has a fascinating history.”
Minneapolis was Mays’ second minor league stop after being signed by the New York Giants not long after players like Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby first brought down baseball’s color barrier. Even four years after Robinson’s arrival, there were few players of color in either league. Mays’ meteoric rise through the minors and into big league stardom helped even more fans focus on the game rather than the color of the players’ skin.
In fact, for the last five years the jersey has been on display at the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, a nod to Mays’ status as one of the most talented players ever to appear in that circuit. He starred briefly with the Birmingham Black Barons before signing with New York’s National League entry in 1950. After spending the latter part of the season in Trenton, he began 1951 with Minneapolis.
Fans may identify Mays with the number 24, but scorecards and photos from the 1951 season show him as #28. It was that clue which helped the jersey go from a small collectors show to a museum-quality piece of baseball history.
A Minneapolis resident had purchased the jersey for $50 at a small collectors show in the mid-1980s, knowing only that it was an original Millers shirt. As the years went by, he became more curious to know which player or players had worn it.
Research showed Mays had worn number 28 while in Minneapolis. Photos located at the Minnesota Historical Society matched the jersey the collector had discovered to the one Mays was wearing in both.
A hole on the jersey’s right sleeve had been sewn up, known in hobby parlance as a “team repair”. The photos clearly show the jersey being worn by Mays has the identical repair. The rest of the jersey’s color, style, button placements and other characteristics proved a perfect photo match.
“Minor League jerseys, especially those dating from the 1950s or earlier, have often presented a problem with regard to player attribution for a number of reasons,” Lifson explained. “First and foremost is the fact that nearly all minor-league uniforms were constantly recycled, going from player to player, year to year, until the garment was basically unusable. Because of that, teams rarely had reason to stitch a player’s name or a year designation in its jerseys. The jersey number was often the only identifier for a player during a given season. That presents a problem when trying to match it to a certain player, unless it has a trait like a repair that can be seen on a period photograph. That’s why this jersey gets collectors excited. It’s unquestionably the same one Willie Mays wore with Minneapolis in 1951.”
In 2004, the collector took it to the hit PBS TV program Antiques Roadshow where it was discussed and appraised. Suddenly, it looked like the bargain of the century.
The collector sold the jersey at auction in 2005 for a price of $49,306. He agreed to loan the jersey to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, where it has resided ever since. The loan agreement ended this year and for personal reasons, he has decided to bring it back to the auction block.
“It is his great hope that someone else will take over its stewardship and preserve it for the next generation of collectors and historians,” Lifson said. “With this in mind, we took it upon ourselves to contact The Negro Leagues Museum to inquire if it were the case that the future owner was as generous as the past owner and would allow the jersey to be displayed once again at The Negro Leagues Museum, would they be interested? The answer was a resounding ‘yes’, and we hope the winner will consider this course of action, which would put the jersey to its best possible use.”
The jersey is being offered with the two identifying photos taken from the historical society’s archives and an LOA from MEARS, which has been graded A8.5. It carries a $10,000 reserve but is expected to sell for a significantly higher price.
Robert Edward Auctions provides free catalogs upon request and is still accepting consignments for its auction, scheduled to begin in April of 2011. To learn more about Robert Edward Auctions, to receive a complimentary copy of the catalog, or to inquire about consignments, visit www.robertedwardauctions.com or call 908-226-9900.