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Dave Birdsall

  • Series: The Old Man
  • City: New York
  • Team: Union of Morrisania
  • League: National Association (NABBP)

As Ars Longa strives to honor the long tradition of baseball-on-cardboard, and as we have great reverence for the history of this storied art form, it is only appropriate that we depict what may be the first-ever baseball card. As with many “firsts,” this entry is not without controversy and partisans. No less an authority than John Thorn has nominated “the illustrated ticket to the inaugural soiree of the Magnolia Ball Club, an event that took place in 1844 to celebrate the club's founding the year before.” The Birdsall card can't compete with the Magnolias in seniority. Yet, it is a card, not an admission stub.

In 2013, REA offered the famed “1863 Harry Wright 'Grand Match at Hoboken'” card as the first. It is a card. It is a photographic image of a ballplayer, indeed perhaps the most famous of the early game. But it doesn't identify him. And, like the Thorn favorite, it is clearly an admission ticket to a three-game cricket/baseball exhibition. Another contender is the “only known pre-Civil War baseball team card” as the circa 1860 Brooklyn Atlantics' carte-de-visite was billed when Heritage Auctions offered it in 2015. Is a calling card a baseball card? It wasn't sold as advertising, it wasn't even sold. Such vehicles were used by teams to gift their inner circles of family and friends, more mementoes than collectibles, perhaps?

Ars Longa's Pioneer Portraits I series celebrates another candidate for “first” status: Mort Rogers. His scorecards contained photos of players that were cut into what was probably the first “set” of baseball cards. But he was a printer promoting team events and wasn't involved in the earliest entries in the competition at hand.

Enter our “Old Man.”

Dave Birdsall was the “grizzled” and dour catcher for one of the great teams of the early post-war era. In 1867 he and battery-mate Charlie Pabor led the Unions of Morrisania (lower Bronx) to the first championship outside of Brooklyn. Birdsall's gloomy demeanor was undoubtedly spawned by the rigors of catching in the days when backstops wore no protection; and he was, by far, the eldest member of the squad. Pabor was famously dubbed The Old Woman in the Red Cap. So, perhaps, Birdsall, as the oldest guy on the team and battery mate of The Old Woman, naturally became The Old Man. Years later, when Harry Wright selected Birdsall to staff the Boston Red Stockings in 1871, Dave was again many years older than the next-oldest player.

The card is a hand-drawn image of a Union of Morrisania player labeled “The Old Man.” When Robert Edward Auctions (REA) offered the card in 2008, they mis-identified it as depicting Bernie Hannegan, who had gained a measure of infamy as the star hurler for the Unions when Jim Creighton swung, missed and died of injury, becoming the first “martyr” of baseball in 1862. REA issued a lengthy mea culpa thanking the Wentz brothers for straightening out the mix-up and crediting Birdsall as the player on "The Old Man” card. In support of the “first-card” standing, REA offers: “It is the only card from this early era that we have ever seen featuring the image of a specific current player who is identified on the card.” These, they assert, are “defining characteristics for baseball cards, dating from the 1880s all the way up to modern cards.”

1867-1868 Union of Morrisania Champion Base Ball Club. Dave Birdsall is pictured fifth from left; Charlie Pabor is sixth from left.
It is appropriate to the legend of these friends and their nicknames that The Old Man and The Old Woman in the Red Cap are standing side-by-side in the center of this team image.

Auction History

Mort Rogers

  • Series: Pioneer Portraits I: 1850-1874
  • City: Brooklyn
  • Team: Resolute BBC
  • League: National Association (NABBP)

Maxson Mortimer Rogers (1845-1881) had a profound impact on both the national pastime and the innovation of the baseball card. Unfortunately, his unique contributions have been largely lost to memory and obscured by history.

Rogers began his sporting life as a cricketer and, by the mid 1860s, had become a prominent star baseball player and executive for Civil War era teams such as the Resolute BBC of Brooklyn. By 1864, Rogers was secretary of the NABBP, baseball’s first professional league, and was elected the league’s first vice-president in 1867.

As a professional printer and entrepreneur, Rogers self-published a weekly sports paper called the New England Chronicle from 1869-1870, devoting substantial ink to the developing game he loved.

By 1871, Rogers was umpiring NABBP games in Boston while self-printing and selling “Base Ball Photographic Cards” at the games for .10 cents a piece (the price was later dropped to .05 cents). Rogers’ stated ambition was to produce a card for every prominent player in the country, but as so few of his cards exist today it is difficult to know the exact diversity or quantity of cards he was able to produce.

The Mort Rogers’ Scorecards were foldable scorecards with an image of a baseball player on the front pane (including the player’s name, position and team), a scorecard in the center two panes for that day’s game, and a group of advertisements on the rear pane. Rogers produced and sold the cards from 1871-1872.

Although there is still great debate over which card or set of cards should be considered the very first, a solid case can be made to declare Mort Rogers the Father of the Baseball Card. Ars Longa pays homage to Rogers’ legacy with this very Pioneer Portraits I series of art cards.

  • A testament to his playing prowess is Mort’s inclusion in an 1865 woodcut in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper depicting the “leading players” among NYC clubs (The woodcut includes a black-shrouded Jim Creighton in memoriam and an unidentified non-player thought to be Henry Chadwick)
  • Mort’s younger brother Fraley Rogers was an early star in NY and Boston, but had an ill-starred fate as the first pro player to take his own life, at age 30, three days before Mort’s death
  • Historian John Thorn, who has done groundbreaking work on contenders for “earliest baseball cards,” honors and cites Rogers’ work as the “first numbered set”
  • In Mort’s honor, his Ars Longa card is numbered 60, the last in the set. The complete set will be numbered 1-58 & 60 with number 59 omitted from the series to represent the original Mort Rogers' Scorecards that are likely lost to us.

Auction History

Ivers Adams

  • Series: Pioneer Portraits I: 1850-1874
  • City: Boston
  • Team: Red Stockings (NAPBBP)
  • League: National Association (NABBP)

Ivers Whitney Adams (1838-1914) was a young and ambitious visionary when he first laid eyes on Harry Wright’s new invention: professional baseball. The Cincinnati Red Stockings came to town to trounce the local Lowell lads in a June exhibition on the Boston Commons June 10, 1869. Adams was intrigued and pursued a notion for transforming Boston into a leading post-war metropolis with baseball as an engine of growth. By January 1871, the plans were laid, the Wright brothers were brought on board and the most enduring franchise in professional sports was established -- then the Boston Baseball Association, now the Atlanta Braves.

Ivers was already well on his way to wealth and fame as a patron of Boston’s industrial and social scene. His love of outdoor sports and camaraderie with his up-and-coming peers fit perfectly with the new game about to sweep America. He procured the incorporation, acquired a playing field, set the ticket prices (at Harry Wright’s urging: double the usual fee), and marketed them through George Wright’s sporting-goods emporium. Thus was baseball born in Beantown.

  • Adams had vowed to friends that, if he couldn’t recruit the Wrights, he’d abandon the effort to bring the game to Boston. He only wanted the very best.

Auction History

Bob Addy

Second Base
  • Series: Pioneer Portraits I: 1850-1874
  • City: Rockford
  • Team: Forest Citys (NABBP)
  • League: National Association (NABBP)

Robert Edward Addy (1845-1910) was in mid-career when he played for the Hartford Dark Blues in 1874. Having spent his early amateur and pro years with the Rockford Forest Citys, Bob was just the type of player Hartford treasured: an innovator. The hometown club of Mark Twain, the Dark Blues produced a remarkable string of “firsts” (for good and ill): 1) first team to have a captain; 2) who was also the first Jewish player in the majors—Lip Pike; 3) first to throw the curve—Candy Cummings; 4) first to bunt—Tommy Barlow; sadly, Barlow became the first big leaguer to forfeit his career to drug abuse; 5) first (and only) umpire to be expelled for throwing a game—Richard Higham, retired player. To this list was added Addy, the first to slide, a feat he piloted long before his season in CT. Not content with one “first” Bob sought years later to add “inventor of baseball on ice” to his resume, but for some reason, the idea never caught on. Ars Longa is indebted to historian David Arcidiacono for the above tidbits about Hartford's ball club. Addy was nicknamed “The Magnet” for his skill afield that helped the Boston Red Stockings to a pennant in '73. In fact, Addy was paid a superb tribute by no less than Cap Anson who, in a turn of the century book said: “Bob Addy, who was one of the best of the lot, was a good, hard hustling player, a good base runner and a hard hitter. He was as honest as the day is long . . . He was an odd sort of a genius and quit the game because he thought he could do better at something else.” Something involving bats and rinks apparently.

  • Addy batted .277 for his pro career with a sole home run
  • He managed parts of two seasons with the Philadelphia White Stockings and Cincinnati Reds

Auction History

Thomas York

  • Series: Pioneer Portraits I: 1850-1874
  • City: Troy
  • Team: Haymakers
  • League: National Association (NABBP)

Thomas Jefferson York (1850-1936) began playing amateur ball on a big stage with the National Association of Base Ball Players’ Powhatans of Brooklyn in 1869. He joined the Troy Haymakers in 1871 as their left fielder in the now openly professional NAPBBP. Tom stayed in the nascent pro circuit with the Baltimore Canaries and Philadelphia White Stockings through the 1874 season. The following year saw York in Hartford with the Blues and migrated with the club to the new National League in 1876. The team became the Hartfords of Brooklyn in 1877. He really came into his own when he was signed by the Providence Grays in ‘78, beginning a five-year tenure during which he led the league in several batting categories including total bases and triples. He hit over .300 three of the five years and also served as the team’s first manager. He moved to Cleveland’s Blues in 1883 and finished his long career back in Baltimore with the Orioles of the American Association 1884-1885.

  • York was pretty good. In 963 games over 15 professional seasons he fell just short of 1,100 hits and sported a .273 career average
  • A few years ago, a Cardinals blogger with time on his hands one Fourth of July determined the all-time major league roster of players sharing the name of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson York made the squad, along with Thomas Jefferson Davis Bridges.

Auction History