LOS ANGELES >> Documents that baseball historians have called the Magna Carta of the game have sold at auction for nearly $3.3 million.
SCP auctions says the 1857 papers called the “Laws of Baseball” sold today to an anonymous buyer after more than two weeks of bidding.
The auction house had predicted prior to the auction’s April 7 start that they could sell for more than $1 million.
The anonymous seller hadn’t realized the value of the papers he purchased in Texas for $12,000 in 1999. It was only when the auction house appraised them that their significance became clear.
The documents thoroughly change the early history of baseball, making Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams the proper father of the modern game. They lend him credit for the distance of the base paths at 90 feet, the length of the game at nine innings and the size of a team at nine players, all in 1857, three years earlier than previously thought.
As a member of the New York Knickerbockers Base Ball Club, he was as close as one could come in the mid-19th century to being a big leaguer. He began playing a primitive version of baseball in the 1830s. He was the game’s first shortstop, because he invented the position, which at the time served primarily as a relay thrower from outfielders because the balls didn’t fly far. He played every other position on the field except pitcher at various times, too, batted left-handed, and made the balls the club used. It’s difficult to know who baseball’s best players were at the time, but his prominence and longevity suggest he was one of them. Adams served several stints as president of the Knickerbockers, which in 1857 hosted a convention of 14 New York-area clubs to codify the rules of the game. It’s the decisions of that convention that led to the recently verified documents, and to the game we now recognize as baseball.
Adams’ central role has gone largely unacknowledged, but he was far from a new name for early-baseball historians. He might have been called an “uncle” of baseball. His importance has been increasingly championed since 1980, including by John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball. Thorn said newspaper accounts from the time and other historical evidence have suggested Adams’ importance, but his central role remained somewhat speculative until now.
Alexander Joy Cartwright, Jr., a contemporary of Adams who had also served as president of the Knickerbockers, has been credited with the 90-foot base paths, nine inning games, and nine players on a side, including on his 1938 plaque at the Hall of Fame. A 1953 declaration of Congress made similar statements. However, he was not in New York and was not involved in the 1857 meeting that established the rules. Hall of Fame spokesman Brad Horn said there are no plans to change or remove Cartwright’s plaque, and that a sign at the Hall lets visitors know that plaques represent the best information available at the time of induction.
Cartwright was in Hawaii when the meeting was held.
He came to Hawaii in 1849 and remained until his death in 1892. He is credited with a hand in founding a number of civic institutions, including the Honolulu Fire Department, where he served as its first fire chief. Along the way he introduced baseball, including laying out the first local baseball diamond at Cartwright Field in Makiki, which is named for him.
Cartwright founded the Honolulu Library and Reading Room and was an adviser to the Hawaiian Monarchy. He’s buried in Oahu Cemetery in Nuuanu.
Cartwright’s official Hall of Fame biography reads, “It is believed that Cartwright (a volunteer firefighter) and his friends formed their baseball club in the early 1840s and named it after Manhattan’s volunteer Knickerbocker Engine Company. In 1845, Cartwright’s Knickerbockers moved across the Hudson River via ferry to play on the spacious Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J. It was there that the club became a driving force in baseball’s rapid development.”
MidWeek editor Don Chapman, author of “The Ball That Changed the World: The Story of Alexander Joy Cartwright Jr., the True Father of Baseball,” said, “Assuming some truth to this newly unearthed (document), I suspect that after Mr. Cartwright left New York in March 1849 to join the California gold rush west, baseball was continued to be played by his rules with various interpretations, but other ball-bat-bases games such as town ball (no foul ground, unlimited players, base paths of dissimilar length, outs made by hitting a runner with a thrown ball) also continued to be played, and this 1859 gathering apparently standardized baseball’s rules and helped end town ball.”
But Chapman said, “The heart of the game remains in Mr. Cartwright’s 1845 rules. … He also was known to teach his game at what today is Cartwright Field in Makiki, just as he taught baseball to fellow gold rush pioneers, frontier men and Native Americans on his way west, as documented in his diary that forms the basis for much of my book. He had no reason to state otherwise, and I continue to take the man at his word.”
Baseball sportscaster Don Robbs, a Cartwright loyalist, said, “Part of what makes baseball special — and different from the other sports — is in its history and numbers going back more than 150 years.”
Star-Advertiser sportswriter Ferd Lewis contributed to this story.