Three Noted Baseball Historians Make Discovery That Further Illustrates "America's Pastime" Took Root Alongside Our Nation's Founding

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Baseball historians Henry W. (Hank) Thomas, Kevin M. Keating and Frank J. Ceresi announced today that they have uncovered the first known baseball card, which dates to the early 19th century and predates other known cards by several decades.

Baseball historians Henry W. (Hank) Thomas, Kevin M. Keating and Frank J. Ceresi announced today that they have uncovered the first known baseball card, which dates to the early 19th century and predates other known cards by several decades.

This historically significant discovery will make its public debut at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, July 14, 2005.

Thomas, grandson of Baseball Hall of Fame Pitcher Walter Johnson, recently acquired a card depicting a “bat and ball game” after its discovery in an attic in Maine. He immediately teamed with Keating and Ceresi to examine and authenticate the find. The card, part of a children’s educational game, illustrates several boys playing together in a field as one pitches a ball to another holding a bat. As the card’s caption states, “Boys delight with ball to play…” The three historians, after a battery of tests and analyses, determined that the card was manufactured in the first few decades of the 19th century.

“It is fitting that this card will be first displayed in our nation’s capital, said Thomas. “The game that many Americans know and love debuted in George Washington’s time and carried through Walter Johnson’s illustrious career as a Washington Senator to the present day. It is a humbling experience,” he added, “to have unearthed a card that affirms the existence and growth of the sport early in our nation’s history.”

Thomas is a renowned baseball historian, collector and dealer of vintage sports memorabilia specializing in the Washington Senators, where his grandfather pitched for 20 years. Walter Johnson finished his career with 417 wins—second only to Cy Young—before being inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in its inaugural 1936 class, which also includes Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Christy Matthewson, and Honus Wagner.

Thomas wrote the definitive biography Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train, which won the Casey Award for the best baseball book of 1995. He also produced and edited the 5-hour audio version of Lawrence Ritter’s classic baseball oral history, The Glory of Their Times, from Ritter’s original taped interviews.

West Point graduate Abner Doubleday (USMA 1842) has long been reputed by many to be the “Father of Baseball,” and now another West Pointer finds himself part of baseball history. Kevin Keating (USMA 1982), a former Army Ranger turned baseball historian, autograph expert and agent to Hall of Famers Warren Spahn and Whitey Ford, has worked to verify the origins of “The Card” since Hank Thomas’s discovery. Thomas went to Keating, longtime owner of Quality Autographs and Memorabilia, for assistance from an individual who has made his authentication services available to the White House, the National Sports Gallery and the Federal Bureau of Investigation among other national and international entities.

“When Hank brought me the card, I couldn’t believe what he had discovered,” said Keating. “I knew immediately that I was looking at a period card depicting the genesis of baseball.”

Joining Thomas and Keating in their effort to unveil “The Card” to the American public and increase general awareness about the origins of baseball is distinguished columnist, appraiser and former museum curator Frank Ceresi.

Ceresi, owner of FC Associates—a Virginia-based museum consulting and appraisal firm, served as Curator and Executive Director of Collections for the National Sports Gallery until 2001. He has written extensively on the history of sports and the value of sports artifacts and other national treasures as an essayist and columnist for several publications, including Sports Collectors Digest and The Vintage & Classic Baseball Collector, and for BaseballLibrary.com, Baseball-Alamanac.com, AuctionWatch.com, and others.

“Baseball is an inextricable part of our national identity,” said Ceresi. “This card is more than a two-dimensional representation of the early origins of the game. It illustrates the formation of a uniquely American character and its development parallels that of our own fledging nation.”

Ceresi continued, “Early settlers and immigrants brought rounders, cricket, ‘stool ball,’ ‘old cat’ and ‘goal ball’ to our shores, all of which lent themselves in one way or another to the formation of what became ‘baseball’ in 18th century America.”

Among Ceresi’s recent writings is a detailing of what is being termed as the Pittsfield find among historians and academics. The Pittsfield find refers to a discovery by baseball historian John Thorn and former major league baseball player Jim Bouton. In an ever-exhaustive effort to find the most exacting earliest reference to baseball, Thorn and Bouton uncovered a 1791 bylaw from a small-town courthouse. In the quiet town of Pittsfield in western Massachusetts, the two baseball aficionados found a statute among other musty centuries-old records that sought to protect windows in the new town meeting house by prohibiting anyone from playing “baseball” within 80 yards of the building.

Framed in the proper historical perspective, this newly discovered reference to the game of baseball was written by the Pittsfield town elders only four short years after the United States Constitution was written. With the find in Massachusetts and the card discovery in Maine, experts are readily confirming that the histories of the sport and our nation are woven together like the threads of a baseball.

“The Card” will be on exhibit as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s presentation of “The Greatest Baseball Stories Never Told: Origins of a National Pastime” on Thursday, July 14, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the South Dillon Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Drive, S.W., Washington, DC 20560. That evening, Ceresi will moderate a panel discussion joined by the aforementioned John Thorn, an early-baseball expert and commentator on ESPN and the History Channel; Tom Shieber, curator of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and David Block, author of Baseball Before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game. Hank Thomas will also be in attendance.

Thereafter, “The Card” will be on display at the National Sports Collectors Convention at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Illinois (a Chicago suburb) from July 27 until July 31. The display will be located at Booths 160 and 162.

Editor’s Note: Messrs. Thomas, Keating, and Ceresi are available for radio, television, and print interviews. Reporters wishing to request an interview may call (703) 522-5549. They may also email Thomas J. Ratcliff at TheFirstBaseballCard@yahoo.com.

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Henry W. Thomas or Thomas J. Ratcliff

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