If you think that autographed memorabilia items are a recent phenomenon, think again.
More than a century ago, the Detroit Tigers and the New York Highlanders met in a charity game for the benefit of Sam Crane, a former major-leaguer who became the dean of New York City’s sports writing corps during his quarter century with the New York Journal-American. The Tigers, winners of the American League pennant for the third straight year and headed to Pittsburgh for the World Series against the Pirates, stopped in New York for an Oct. 6, 1909, exhibition game at Hilltop Park.
Crane, who was 55, was “in a bad way physically,” according to United Press, and it was hoped that proceeds from the game would give the writer a year of vacation in a milder climate. Game receipts netted $7,000 for Crane, which translates into $182,814.51 in 2018 dollars, according to statistics by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ consumer price index. The New York Sun calculated the gate at $6,000 and the Baltimore Sun called it $5,000, but regardless, Crane received a tidy sum that day.
The memorabilia came in the form of a baseball autographed by Christy Mathewson and a bat signed by Ty Cobb. Even though Mathewson pitched for the New York Giants, he took the mound for the Highlanders in this exhibition game. His opponent was his former Giants teammate, Joe McGinnity. Mathewson pitched three innings and allowed two runs.
After the seventh inning, play was stopped, and the ball signed by Mathewson and Cobb’s autographed bat were auctioned off. The ball fetched $275 ($7,182 in 2018 dollars) and was won by the Highlanders’ co-owner, Bill Devery. Cobb’s bat sold for $50 ($1,305.82 in 2018 cash) to Thomas Aloysius Dorgan, a newspaper cartoonist known as “Tad” and Crane’s colleague at the Journal-American.
The Tigers won the game 8-4 in front of 8,000 fans in a game that took 1 hour, 45 minutes to play. Umpires for the game included two big 19th-century stars: John Montgomery Ward and Dan Brouthers.
Mathewson allowed two runs and three hits while striking out three; McGinnity struck out nine in three innings and allowed two runs during his three-inning stint. McGinnity was no longer pitching in the majors, but the “Iron Man” could still bring it against the game’s top pros.
Pitching for the Newark Indians of the Eastern League in 1909, McGinnity’s stats were staggering: a 29-16 record, 1.66 ERA, 46 games started, and a mind-blowing 422 innings pitched. The Indians finished second that year in the EL standings behind Rochester.
Mathewson, meanwhile, had gone 25-6 for the New York Giants in 1909 and led the National League with a 1.14 ERA and 26 complete games. Cobb, who did not play in the exhibition game, was coming off a Triple Crown year in 1909, leading the American League with a .377 average, nine homers during the dead-ball era and 1107 RBI. The batting title was Cobb’s third straight, and he collected a career-high (to that point) 216 hits. It’s regrettable that Cobb did not come to bat against Mathewson. It would have a been a classic pitcher-hitter confrontation.
As for Sam Crane, he recovered from his illness and continued to write sports, covering the New York Giants until his death on June 26, 1925 , at age 71. During his seven-year major-league career, he mostly played second base.
Crane played sporadically for three different major leagues from 1880 to 1890:The National League, American Association and Union Association. He was a much better writer than a hitter, batting .203 for his career. His career fielding percentage was .879. horrible by 21st century standards but rather respectable during an era of tiny gloves — or no gloves at all — and poorly maintained baseball fields.
What happened to those two signed baseballs has been lost to history. It’s mind-boggling to wonder how much they might sell for in today’s market. Even in 1909, baseball officials realized the value of a piece of memorabilia signed by some of the game’s biggest stars.