The earliest known professional baseball contract ever offered at public auction, dating to the 1871 season – from the Andy Leonard Collection, a grouping of nine baseball documents – will cross the block in New York on Feb. 20 as part of Heritage’s Platinum Night Auction at the Fletcher-Sinclair Mansion.
The documents have been consigned by Leonard’s grandson, Charles McCarty, 83. McCarty said that he plans to use some of the proceeds from the auction to build a suitable monument to honor his grandfather, who is buried in an unmarked grave in Boston.
“He was one of the original boys of summer,” said McCarty. “He deserves to be remembered for his contribution to the game.”
Andy Leonard, an Irish immigrant, played for several amateur clubs in the mid-1860s before signing on with the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1869 as part of the team commonly considered the first professional baseball team. After that season, when the Red Stockings disbanded, Leonard and three other teammates signed with the Washington D.C. Olympics. It is the contract from that season that opens the Leonard collection.
For compensation, Acting Treasury Secretary William Richardson appointed Leonard to a position as an Assistant Messenger of the Second Auditor, basically a sinecure that provided Leonard with money and a title so he could be free to play pro ball.
“The Olympics team was not paid by the baseball club, but by the government,” said Chris Ivy, director of Sports Memorabilia Auctions at Heritage. “So this is a baseball agreement, not just a Treasury letter.”
The fact that the contract appoints Leonard to a position with an everyday job, instead of stating that he will be playing baseball, points to the schism in the nation at the time between those who thought baseball needed to remain an amateur sport, and thus pure, and those who saw the commercial potential in paying the best at the game to play full time. It was also not uncommon at the time for wealthy business owners in cities where baseball was played to offer “paid positions” to players in their town so that it looked as though the men were gainfully employed and ensured that there would be no protests from the baseball purists.
“Andy was at the seat of that transition where baseball moved from covering up any discrepancy between professional and amateur baseball,” said McCarty.
“What’s extraordinary about the 1871 contact is, first, that Leonard was employed by the government,” said Ivy, “and second that this is the first agreement that has come to light that unequivocally documents the practice of compensating the earliest professional baseball players with ‘no-show’ jobs. It’s rather exceptional.”
After the 1871-72 season, Harry Wright – Leonard’s former manager in Cincinnati and a legendary figure in the early history of pro baseball – who had taken the other half of the ’69 Red Stockings to Boston, retaining the name of the team, approached his former players and wooed them back to the revamped Red Stockings in Boston. The result is that pro baseball had its earliest dynasty – and the auction has Leonard’s official contracts for that season, as well as every season through 1880.
Also included in the trove is Leonard’s diary from the Red Stockings’ 1874 “World Tour,” wherein the team played a series of games in England and Ireland. The games garnered very little press and even less fame, but nonetheless represent an important step in baseball’s progression as it became the National Pastime in America.
Heritage Auctions intends to join McCarty’s quest to create a suitable monument for Leonard and donate a portion of its proceedings from the sale of these documents its’ construction.
“Leonard was an important part of the early history of baseball and deserves to be recognized as such,” said Ivy. “My colleagues and I would be proud to help cement that legacy.”
For current bidding on these items and the rest of the lineup in the Platinum Night sale, click here.