Pro baseball as we know it today traces its history to 1869, when the Cincinnati Red Stockings were organized as the first fully professional club.
So-called “New York-style” baseball had grown quickly in the years following the Civil War as men from both the North and the South spread the game across the East and Midwest, having taken a great interest in the sport during their time in camp amid the 1861-65 conflict.
Yet baseball itself goes back further, although there is little to document the game’s antediluvian era.
However, one of the oldest bits of baseball memorabilia as yet uncovered has recently gone on the auction block – a baseball card dating to either 1859 or 1860 featuring the Brooklyn Atlantics, baseball’s first championship team.
The card features the entire team and is the only known card to have been printed before the War Between the States. Needless to say, it’s one of a kind.
Being offered by Heritage Auctions, bids have already reached $28,000 ($33,460 with buyer’s premium). It could fetch $50,000 or more by the time bidding ends later this month.
The featured item is a carte de visite, a studio photograph affixed to card stock to be handed out as a calling card. It is mounted on a 2.5 inch by 4 inch cardboard and was taken in a Brooklyn photo studio.
“The technology to print multiple copies of photographs at comparatively cost was developed in France in the 1850s, and calling cards with photographs depicting their owners soon followed, as did collectible ones featuring celebrities, military and political figures,” according to The History Blog. “Photography studios would take the pictures and produce the cartes. The Atlantics carte de visite was produced by the Farach & Lalumia Studio at 336 Fulton Street, Brooklyn.”
The Brooklyn Atlantics were established in 1855 and in 1857 would become one of the founding members of the National Association of Base Ball Players, the first official governing body of American baseball and made up of 16 New York City clubs.
In 1859, the first year that National Association of Base Ball Players teams played a full season, the Brooklyn Atlantics won the pennant. They won the title again in 1860 and in 1861.
Players on the Atlantics included Richard “Dickey” Pearce, a pioneer at shortstop and inventor of the bunt, and outfielder Archibald McMahon.
It was McMahon who kept the carte de visite of America’s first baseball champions.
From him it passed to his brother John, a Civil War veteran, and has remained with John McMahon’s descendants since.
The card is being offered by Florence Sasso, 75, the great grand-niece-in-law of Archibald McMahon.
Without children to pass it on to, Sasso has decided the time has come for a new caretaker for the artifact.
By comparison, an 1865 Brooklyn Atlantics card sold at auction in 2013 for $92,000.
The most money ever paid for a baseball card is one of Pittsburgh Pirates star Honus Wagner designed and issued by the American Tobacco Company between 1909 and 1911 that sold for $2.8 million in 2007.
(Top: circa 1860 carte de visite of Brooklyn Atlantics, the oldest-known baseball card, now up for auction.)