It’s Hall of Fame voting season in the baseball world. A good rule of thumb in collecting is that anytime a player is enshrined, the price of their memorabilia will go up. There are exceptions to this of course. One exception is a player almost entirely forgotten by modern fans, one who didn’t even make the Pre Integration Era ballot this year, but one who was celebrated as “one of the greatest players of all times” when he died in 1915. At least for what his memorabilia is valued at, Ross Barnes has long since been a Hall of Famer.
SABR member and collector Gary Passamonte has been trying since the 1990s to get Barnes enshrined, partly because they’re both from Mount Morris, New York. Barnes played just nine years in the majors, which has helped keep him from Cooperstown which has had a rule since the 1950s that any candidate need have played at least 10 years.
At one point in the ’90s, Passamonte got Veterans Committee member Buzzie Bavasi to bring Barnes up with the committee, though discussion quickly moved past Barnes because of his lack of service time. The 10-year rule applies somewhat unfairly to Barnes and a few other players who were active before baseball’s first league, the National Association, formed in 1871.
In his day, though, Barnes was one of baseball’s first stars. He played for the Rockford Forest Citys in Illinois, alongside Hall of Famer Albert Spalding from 1868-1870. An infielder for the Boston Red Stockings teams of the early 1870s that were more or less a transplant of the iconic 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, Barnes hit .400 four times. Passamonte likens Barnes to a more recognized, modern great for the amount of times that each player led their leagues in various statistical categories. “If you take Sandy Koufax and put his stats on Barnes, they’re almost the same player,” Passamonte said. “Their black ink is almost the same.”
Passamonte knows not to hesitate too much anytime Barnes memorabilia comes on the market. There isn’t a lot of it, and much of what’s out there runs the risk of being fraudulent or stolen from the A.G. Spalding, Henry Chadwick, or Harry Wright collections pilfered from the New York Public Library. “It would be highly suspect if anything was to just appear,” said baseball historian Peter Nash, who estimated that fewer that 100 legitimate Ross Barnes items are available.
Among the Barnes items that can be bought, for anyone with at least $5,000 to $10,000 to drop:
- An 1870 Rockford Forest City CDV, or carte de visite. Legendary Auctions sold one for $5,096 in 2002;
- An 1872 Boston Red Sox solo CDV of Barnes. Heritage Auctions offered one with clipped edges in 2009, with Passamonte saying it sold for $5,000;
- An 1873 or 1875 photo that Passamonte paid between $7,000 and $8,000 for some years ago. “It was competitive for everything,” Passamonte said;
- A steel engraving of the 1877 Boston team;
- Period scorecards and photos of Barnes, including a worn photo of him in street clothes;
- An 1873 Victoria card that went up for auction this spring. Nash said 11 of these cards are known to exist with four stolen from the New York Public Library.
Sometimes, Passamonte noted, five or seven years can pass between auctions with Barnes items. “If you see it and you don’t buy it, you’re probably not going to see one for a long time,” he said.
SCP Auctions is currently offering an 1876 Chicago team photo, at left, that includes Barnes for a minimum bid of $15,000. Passamonte said that composite photos can sell for as much as $30,000.
It’s curious what makes a relatively forgotten great like Barnes such a hot collectible for a small, almost cult-like following of enthusiasts. Some of it has to do with the scarcity of items for him, but then, scarcity is an issue for many 19th century stars who don’t have anywhere near Barnes’ pull on the collecting market.
Asked what could account for the popularity of Barnes’ memorabilia, Major League Baseball historian John Thorn told Sports Collectors Daily, “It beats me. He is a borderline Hall of Famer, I suppose, but you don’t have a boom in Tony Mullane or Harry Stovey memorabilia. So I don’t know what there is about Barnes in particular, except that there are quite a number of photos of Barnes from the Boston period and fewer from the Rockford period. There’s also an image of Barnes which appears everywhere identified as him, but it’s not him. Only advanced collectors will fuss about this.”
For advanced collectors, apparently, there’s plenty to fuss about with Ross Barnes.