Thursday, November 1, 2007

A storied portrait of a team set apart

Special to The Globe and Mail
October 31, 2007

Jennifer Koos slipped 17 photographs into a green-and-white plastic bag before sliding another grocery bag over the other end.

She was going to the baseball park.

No game was scheduled at Nat Bailey Stadium. A group of local baseball researchers were holding their annual meeting in the concourse, sitting at tables sandwiched between concession stands.

Ms. Koos, 39, stood apart from the others.

She had brought the photographs here after calling an executive of the Vancouver Canadians professional baseball team, who put her in touch with the team's historian, a fan named Bud Kerr who, she would say later, reminded her of her grandfather. He suggested she attend the meeting, which would be attended by fans, collectors and former players.

During the trivia contest, she quietly unveiled her keepsakes. The photographs stunned the baseball crowd. She had team portraits of players wearing uniforms reading "NBC" and "Purdy." Others wore shirts with an old English letter V. The baseball experts began deciphering clues in the photos.

Max Weder, a tax lawyer who was conducting the meeting, stopped at one image.

"This one is special," he told her.

Thirteen men stood in a row, all but one of them wearing a baseball uniform. Their wool flannels had the letters CHICAGO in a crescent stretching across the chest, with a stylized AG in a circle below that.

In the middle stood a broad man in a dapper three-piece suit, a fedora on his head, a tie around his neck, a chain across his vest, his hands shoved into his pants pockets. His face was as round as a baseball and he looked like the boss he was.

This was Rube Foster and these were his American Giants.

Some 90 years ago, the Chicago-based team barnstormed along the West Coast each winter. They drew large crowds who wanted to see in action the black players forbidden from plying their trade in the major leagues.

Vancouver has a long history as a stop for travelling sports teams in search of an audience. The Harlem Globetrotters basketball team still pops by every year, while earlier generations cheered, or booed, such baseball troupes as the Bloomer Girls (women with a handful of ringers in cross-dressing males, undoubtedly a future doctoral thesis for some enterprising student) and the House of David (bewhiskered men who promoted a religious community in Michigan).

The segregation enforced by baseball led black athletes to form their own teams and their own leagues. The demented mores of Jim Crow somehow permitted exhibition games against white teams.

Before the start of the regular season, the American Giants would travel north from California, playing teams in Portland and Seattle before facing the Victoria Bees and the Vancouver Beavers.

In time, Mr. Foster's squad would be recognized as one of the greatest teams of all time. He would be elected posthumously to the Baseball Hall of Fame, as would such other American Giants as Ben Taylor, Pop Lloyd and Bill Foster (Rube's half-brother).

Rube Foster's weight ballooned to more than 300 pounds, yet he would still sometimes seek the form on the pitching mound that made him a terrific hurler at the turn of the century.

In 1913, the Beavers beat the Giants twice. In 1914, the Giants took two of three, with Mr. Foster losing the final game after surrendering five bases on balls, the result of wildness or, perhaps, an unsympathetic umpire. The teams split their two-game, preseason showdown in 1915.

The undated photograph portrays a happy and healthy American Giants team in an age when even professional athletes did not always look hale. The miners and farmers who escaped their gruelling fate to make a living on the baseball diamond were by no means wealthy, or even comfortable, by the standards of the day.

The American Giants photograph is a magnificent portrait of a little-remembered day in Vancouver's sporting history.

Ms. Koos got the photos from her grandfather, a railway labourer and Second World War veteran named Harold Crummer from Indian Head, Sask. She found them at the bottom of a set of drawers in his bedroom. He said he had been given them by Stuart Thomson, a commercial photographer who was his father-in-law.

Mr. Thomson, himself a railway worker who had been born in England in 1881, had immigrated to Vancouver in 1910. Photography was at first a mere hobby, but he soon built a thriving business shooting events in the thriving city. He ran a commercial studio and sold images to the several competing newspapers. The Vancouver Sun bought more than 5,000 of his photographs and negatives in 1954, before donating them to the city archives in 1963, three years after the photographer's death.

Some of the photographic prints Ms. Koos had can be found in the archive's online database. The NBC team was likely an amateur nine representing the National Biscuit Co., while the club wearing the old-English letter was the Vancouver Beavers.

All but one of her prints were sold to an American collector. She has consigned the American Giants photo, measuring 16½inches by 6½ inches, to Robert Edward Auctions at Watchung, N.J.

When he first saw the image, auction house president Robert Lifson thought, "How the heck did this survive?"

The clarity of the image was striking. Mr. Lifson could even count the eyelets through which the players had laced their spikes.

The long-time dealer is not an easy man to impress. He has handled 20 of the 60 known Honus Wagner T206 cigarette cards, the Holy Grail of baseball-card collecting, including the one co-owned by Wayne Gretzky that sold for $1.265-million (U.S.). Mr. Lifson also identified the New York Yankees flannel uniform worn by Lou Gehrig as he made his emotional "I-am-the-luckiest-man-on-the-face-of-the-Earth" farewell speech. It sold for $306,000.

The Vancouver photograph will be included in the house's annual auction to be held on May 3. The two blockbuster items currently in the catalogue are a Babe Ruth rookie card from 1914 (one sold earlier this year for $199,750) and an 1887 cabinet photograph of a baseball team from Wheeling, W.Va. The latter item, which was found in a family's photo album, includes Sol White, a black baseball pioneer who was cut from the team the following year when the colour line was established.

The American Giants photograph likely will be listed without an estimated sale price. There are simply too few team photographs of Rube Foster and his players with which to compare.

"Items like this are so rare, there's no formal market value," Mr. Lifson said. "The collectors decide. It's not a hundred-thousand dollars. But it's more than a thousand dollars."

The Vancouver aficionados who looked at the photograph felt it could fetch as much as $15,000. However, if two collectors with deep pockets decide to get into a bidding war, then Ms. Koos will have hit a jackpot.

She has not yet decided what to do with the money, other than noting she has a 19-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son. "I'll take care of the kids," she said.

The men who did battle on dusty diamonds would no doubt be impressed by the worth of even their image. Were they only alive today, every man in the photograph would be a millionaire many times over, a sad truth for some who died as paupers.

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