Rare imperial cabinet photo capturing the Cleveland Forest City Base Ball Club, circa 1868, including Hall of Famer Deacon White (his real name was James Laurie White), who is seen standing in the back row, second from the left. This is only the second example of this imperial team cabinet we have ever seen and its provenance is as significant as its rarity. This photo once belonged to Deacon White and was one of a number of items from his collection that came to auction in 2006 (all were consigned directly by the White family). Interestingly, at the time of the original sale, the identity of both the team and other players was open to speculation. It was until a few years later, with the discovery of a newspaper clipping taken from the February 14, 1908, issue of the Cleveland Press, that the mystery was finally solved. Featured in that clipping was this very photo, which was identified by the headline as “The Original Forest City Base Ball Club.” In addition to identifying each of the players along the base, the paper also noted that the published photo belonged to E. C. Luce and was gifted to him by the family of team captain Pikey Smith following Smith’s death. According to the paper, the players pictured here are, standing (L to R), Chas J. Sheffield, Jas. L. White, J. W. Clarke, and Arthur E. Burt, and, seated (L to R), Geo. W. Stockly, A. J. "Pikey" Smith (capt.), Wm. P. Johnson, Harvey Brown, and Leonard C. Hanna (brother of Mark Hanna, a former U.S. Senator and political adviser/manager of President William McKinley).
Deacon White was twenty-one years old when he joined Forest City in 1868, and in 1869 the club tested its mettle twice against the powerful Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball's first all-professional team (like all of the Red Stockings' opponents that year, Forest City lost both games). Two years later Forest City joined the professional ranks by becoming a charter member of the National Association. White was one of the game's top players during the early years of professional baseball. Considered the finest bare-handed catcher of his day, he left Forest City in 1873 to join Harry Wright's Boston Red Stockings, where he was known as one of baseball's "Big Four" along with Al Spalding, Ross Barnes, and Cal McVey. White led Boston to three consecutive pennants before joining Chicago in the newly formed National League. He later played with Cincinnati, Buffalo, Detroit, and Pittsburgh of the National League, and Buffalo (of which he was part owner) of the Players League. It was during his tenure with Buffalo (which later became Detroit) that White teamed with Dan Brouthers, Hardy Richardson, and Jack Rowe, to make up baseball's second "Big Four." White led the American Association in batting with a .366 average in 1875. Two years later, in 1877, his .387 mark was tops in the National League. He also led the National League in RBI in both 1876 (60) and 1877 (49). White retired after the 1890 season with a .303 lifetime average. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2013.
Early baseball photos dating from the 1860s, let alone of this size and featuring both a prominent team and players, are exceedingly rare. This is one of the finest we have ever seen and one that would be a welcome addition to any advanced nineteenth-century or baseball photograph collection. The photo (13 x 10 inches on a 17 x 14-inch mount) displays outstanding clarity and both the photo and mount remain in Excellent to Mint condition. Matted and framed to total dimensions of 21 x 18 inches. The substantial size/weight of this item requires that there will be a shipping charge for this lot. Reserve $2,500. Estimate (open).