Gone forever? In search of baseball’s lost treasures

Baseball has forgotten even more than it remembers.

It was more than 140 years ago, among dusty lots up and down the East Coast, that a more professionalized and sanctioned version of the game came to be, with the formation of the National Association of Professional Baseball Players in 1871. And since that era, countless people and events and moments of great historical import have arisen, one generation after the next. Trillions of memories, most small but some big and a few bigger than life.

But that doesn’t mean we have a terribly reliable grasp on everything concerning the great moments of baseball, that our memories have steeled into any kind of precision incapable of lapses.

There have been numerous instances, often in the most visible and unforgettable moments that lead to historical voids, but that is beyond the banner of “things getting lost,” which happens without end. Bobby Thomson’s home run ball off Ralph Branca that helped the Giants win the pennant (the Giants win the pennant!) was the subject of an entire book. The baseball that Mickey Mantle struck for his oft-celebrated, much-debated 565-foot home run at Griffith Stadium in 1953 was briefly stolen from Yankee Stadium before being returned. The ball that secured the Boston Red Sox’ first World Series title in 86 years was never technically lost, but its very ownership became the source of a protracted tussle between the club and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, who temporarily pocketed the keepsake.

These are the well-known artifacts, the ones marked with instant greatness regardless of where they may rest. There are many others, however, that have been lost to time, to the incomplete trivia books that dot our shelves.

Let’s take a journey into baseball’s lost past, to remember the things that got carried away — some found and others never seen again.

* * *

The history of sports is littered with such recognizable championship awards: The Lombardi Trophy, the Stanley Cup, the Larry O’Brien Trophy, the Dauvray Cup …

Yes, you read that right. Back in the 1880s, a highly regarded actress named Helen Dauvray (born Ida Louis Gibson some time around 1860, give or take) commissioned an ornate winner’s trophy to be presented to the winner of an exhibition between the winners of the National League and the American Association, sort of a proto-World Series, 16 years before the real thing.

An announcement ran in newspapers across the country on May 21, 1887:

A LOVER OF SPORT

Miss Helen Dauvray to Present The Champion Ball Club with a Cup.

Miss Helen Dauvray has the drawings for a $500 silver cup which she intends to present to the winner in a contest between the championship clubs of the league and association at the close of the base ball season next fall. She explains that the offer of the cup is prompted wholly by her love of the game.

While in England she was an enthusiast over cricket, but she thinks base ball an infinitely superior game, and has been surprised to find that there has never been a suitable prize offered to the champion club of the country. The winner of the club will hold it only till captured by another, until one club has held it three time, when it becomes the exclusive property of that club.

The cup will have the form of a true lovers’ cup, and will be about twelve inches high. One race will have etched upon it a picture of a ball game in progress, the figures being in slight relief. Another face will contain a fine figure of a player in position to bat. The third face will be reserved for the inscriptions. Mrs. Dauvray will not present the token in person, and she leaves the arrangement and conditions of the contest entirely to the base ball men.

Dauvray was a rabid baseball fan, it’s true, but she was perhaps more specifically a fan of John Montgomery Ward of the New York Giants, who’d been playing ball professionally for 10 years. Dauvray was spotted regularly in the Polo Grounds stands during that 1887 season, and as Detroit and St. Louis were playing that fall to be the first caretaker of her eponymous cup, The New York Times broke the news that she and Ward were to be married.

From the October 12, 1887, issue of the paper, which remained skeptical of her love of the game:

Miss Helen Dauvray, the well known actress, will be married this morning to Mr. John Montgomery Ward, ex-Captain of the New-York Baseball team. …

This fact explains to a large extent the devotion to baseball recently shown by Miss Dauvray. All through the earlier part of the Summer she was a regular attendant at the Polo Grounds, and always aggressively and enthusiastically championed the home team. Her tiny hands beat each other rapturously at every victory of the Giants and her dark eyes were bedowed at every defeat.

Alas, the Dauvray Cup was not long for baseball, thanks to that pesky three-wins-and-it’s-yours clause. The Boston Beaneaters, with their third straight “World Championship” win, in 1893, took the Dauvray Cup all for themselves. Thanks to the best efforts of official MLB historian John Thorn, we believe the Dauvray Cup was likely lost for good en route from Newport, Kentucky — where one of the players lived — back to the club’s offices in Boston.  

Dauvray herself had seen better days by this point, as well. She was held in contempt of court and nearly arrested in July 1893 for not paying back a $450 loan to a Fifth Avenue theater manager, her acting career would never again reach the heights of years past, and three weeks after Boston won the Cup for a third and final time, she announced her intention to divorce Ward, which happened a month later. She later married a Navy rear admiral and was buried in Arlington Cemetery in 1923.

The Dauvray Cup is likely lost forever.

Weirdly enough, the second Beaneaters team of that Dauvray-disposing dynasty, the 1892 squad, which was the first professional team to win 100 games in a season, is also the subject of one of the long-lost prizes of early baseball history. That’s because Michael T. “Nuf Ced” McGreevy, proprietor of Boston’s 3rd Base Saloon for some 26 years, amassed the single greatest collection of early-era baseball photographs. Originally displayed in his bar, the collection was donated to the Boston Public Library in 1923, three years after McGreevy closed up shop.

A large portion of the photos were stolen from the library in the late 1970s, with many making the rounds on the auction circuit over the ensuing years. Some have been recovered and returned to the BPL since, but this historic 1892 photo —which features four future Hall of Famers: King Kelly, Kid Nichols, Hugh Duffy and John Clarkson — is still missing. Its most public surfacing came in 1999, when it was sold as one part of a prominent collection held by former Yankees minority owner Barry Halper, who died in 2005. Many Halper-connected items have been alleged to be fakes or stolen, and the BPL, which probably knows who currently possesses this particular photo, still considers it “missing and presumed stolen from the McGreevy Collection.”

The year McGreevy’s saloon closed was much more notable for what was evolving from the Black Sox World Series scandal of 1919, which was moving through its legal meanderings during the following season. All the players testified before a Cook County grand jury, and a key transcript that related to Shoeless Joe Jackson’s September 1920 testimony — somewhat different from the alleged “confession,” which might or might not exist — “disappeared under suspicious circumstances,” according to the office of the Cook County Circuit Court clerk.

But while the original has never been recovered, a copy was subsequently made from the court reporter’s notes and no one was any the wiser. The “confession,” despite a $1 million bounty for its collection, has never been seen.

Now, while a salacious confession may occupy one realm of personal fascination, the 1921 plaque commemorating the death of Eddie Grant, the first ballplayer killed in World War I, holds significance for somewhat more nobler merits.

In October 1918, just six weeks before the end of World War I, Capt. Edward Leslie Grant, a 35-year-old former infielder for the New York Giants, was shot and killed in France. Three years later, the Giants erected a plaque honoring Grant deep in the far-flung recesses of its trademark boxed-in recess in center field, some 480 feet from home plate.

But when the Polo Grounds played its final game in 1957, all hell broke loose and fans started ripping at everything they could, hoping for souvenirs. As a distinguished crowd of former Giants watched — “a few old cronies” — the plaque disappeared in the chaos. From The New York Times, September 30:

Players Forced to Flee

Ripped up the regular and warm-up home plates, the wooden base beneath the main plate, the pitcher’s rubber, two of the bases and the foam rubber sheathing protecting outfielders who crashed into the center field fences.

Those who rooted for the Giants to the bitter end also broke down and smashed the bullpen sun-shelter, gouged out patches of outfield grass, carried off telephones, signs, and even telephone book — and pried the bronze plaque off the Eddie Grant memorial monument in deepest center field. The plaque was subsequently retrieved from three youths by the police.

It was not seen again for 42 years, until it was discovered in 1999, wrapped in a blanket and buried beneath the attic floorboards of a New Jersey home once owned by an NYPD officer who had died in 1974. The plaque now resides with a Southern California nonprofit that focuses on baseball education and preservation.

But a plaque, a photo, some paperwork … these don’t truly compare to the most iconic of baseball souvenirs: a baseball. And the most famous baseball that we might never see again was launched out of Forbes Field on October 13, 1960.

It was on that day that little Bill Mazeroski, the favorite son of Wheeling, W.Va., just a 90-minute drive from Pittsburgh and her Pirates, was batting eighth in the seventh game of the World Series. Entering the bottom of the eighth, and so close to yet another World Series title — their third in five years — the New York Yankees held (unbeknownst to literally anyone, since such metrics had yet to be formulated) a win probability of better than 90 percent.

New York would never get all six outs it needed. The Pirates scored five times in the bottom of the eighth to take a two-run lead. Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra led a game-tying comeback in the top of the ninth. But Mazeroski led off the bottom of the ninth with the — still to this day — only walk-off home run to win a World Series Game 7 in baseball history.

It was at this moment, at 3:36 p.m. local time, that a 14-year-old boy named Andy Jerpe picked up the ball just beyond the left-field wall and instantly became a Pittsburgh hero. He was ushered into the celebratory clubhouse, where a giddy Mazeroski signed the ball and gave it back to Jerpe. “You keep it, son,” he said. “The memory is good enough for me.”

Alas, a few months later, Jerpe, at the behest of his friends, released the ball from the plastic protective cube, went down to a ballfield to play a little and proceeded to lose the ball when it was hit into some high grass nearby. It was, more or less, the plot of The Sandlot, 32 years before the movie was made.

To this day, the most valuable and important baseball in World Series history has never been found. And almost certainly never will be.

* * *

These are all uniquely historically valuable or important objects. In other words, they are big … but they’re not big. Certainly not like, say, an eight-foot-tall statue of Babe Ruth, the most revered baseball player of all time.

The man behind this work was Reuben Nakian, a legendary American sculptor who excelled in, as The Associated Press described his work upon his death in 1986, fusing “ancient mythology with modern abstraction.” For a man who would become myth, Nakian was the perfect choice to memorialize the Babe. He started working in 1933, six years after he stood in the Yankee Stadium stands and watched Ruth uncork his record 60th home run of the season.

Nakian traveled the world extensively in the years that followed and became renowned for a series of busts he created as tribute to President Franklin Roosevelt and some of his cabinet members. In 1933, though, Nakian wanted to do something distinctly American, something more patriotic than even a president.

There was only the Babe. So Nakian ordered a ton of clay and spent more than a year creating his towering, bat-toting golem.

On Feb. 17, 1934, the statue creatively dubbed “Babe Ruth” debuted at the Downtown Gallery, and more than 20,000 New Yorkers and tourists showed up on opening day. Author James Mote wrote that Nakian had successfully worked from themes in his other works, depicting Ruth not as a modern man but as a ball-playing god who “does not swing from the heels but from the heavens.” Mote concluded that the clay-and-plaster sculpture might represent “the finest example of heroic sculpture ever created of a baseball subject.”

Word of the Babe’s likeness went national. “A new sightseeing stop for tourists with kids is the statue of Babe Ruth at an art gallery in Thirteenth Street,” a newspaper as far away as the Bay Area said. “Reuben Nakian, the sculptor, went to ballgames all summer to get atmosphere.” So lauded was the statue that it was subsequently picked as an item in the first art exhibit held at the recently christened Rockefeller Center.

But there was also a considerable backlash. Ruth was so revered by the New York sporting public that any imperfection could potentially be blown up into something it was not. Enter the Babe’s legs, which some people deemed slightly too godlike. Wire services spread the story to newspapers around America, with a caption under a close-up photo of Nakian and his art providing the only context:

Baseball fans and art critics are in a lather over this statue of Babe Ruth now on exhibition at a New York art gallery. The Bambino’s legs, as interpreted in clay by Reuben Nakian, shown looking at his handiwork, are causing much head shaking. The consensus is that they are too big.

The statue depicts the home run king in the pose in which he spends so much of his time, watching the ball soar over the horizon.

Whether Ruth’s mammoth drumsticks were the root cause of its ultimate exile remains unclear, but the statue had another public unveiling the following summer at the Baltimore Museum of Art, in the city of Ruth’s birth.

But some time after the summer of 1935, when the statue completed its showing in Baltimore, it vanished. How you lose an eight-foot statue of the world’s most famous athlete now seems incomprehensible, but disappear it did, and there have been no sightings and even fewer clues as to its whereabouts in the intervening years.

“Stolen, misplaced, or destroyed,” says Nakian’s official website, “its whereabouts remain a mystery to this day.”

The lost Ruth statue, weirdly enough, was not Nakian’s only connection to the world of legendary ballplayers from that era. In the early 1950s, Nakian’s wife was a real estate agent who helped broker the sale of a large swatch of land in North Stamford, Conn. — where the Nakians themselves had moved in 1945 — that would eventually become a sweeping estate complete with a baseball glove-shaped swimming pool.

The buyer? Jackie Robinson.

It is these little moments, the moments that go beyond sheer happenstance and more toward outright serendipity, that make the history of baseball so richly compelling. And when you stop and consider that there is a whole other layer of lost knowledge that doesn’t make it into most of the mainstream books, that’s when you realize that any time you open a dusty trunk and rummage through a backwoods yard sale, there’s always that one-in-a-million chance you’ll stumble upon something greater.