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July 19, 2012

HOVG Heroes: Al Reach


As a young boy, Al Reach peddled newspapers on Broadway and soon after cut his teeth as an amateur ballplayer on the sandlots of Brooklyn in the late 1850s. In the 1860s he was one of the game’s first paid professionals as a member of the Athletic Base Ball Club of Philadelphia and by the close of the nineteenth-century he had become one of the most prominent figures ever connected with the National Pastime. However, nearly a century after his death in 1928, Reach stands in relative obscurity as one of baseball’s forgotten pioneers who Hall of Fame immortality has sadly passed by.

Not only has Al Reach been dissed by the baseball Gods, his name has only appeared recently in the news because rare photos of him were stolen from the New York Public Library’s famous A. G. Spalding Collection and have appeared for sale on eBay. Today’s BBWAA or Veterans Committee members might not know the Reach name from a hole in the wall, but FBI agents tracking his stolen photos online know him well. And not only has Reach been passed over by Cooperstown voters, the Hall of Fame has also lost a rare donated artifact that ties him to early Philadelphia baseball history. Al Reach hasn’t been able to get into the Hall, but an 1870 picture of him sure did make its way out, thanks to some sticky fingers.

This rare cabinet photo of Al Reach was stolen from the NYPL and appeared for sale on eBay, before it ended up in the hands of the FBI.

When the Hall of Fame was founded in the late 1930s a concerted effort was made to identify and honor the pioneers of the game with permanent enshrinement into the newly formed institution. Reach’s contemporaries like brothers Harry and George Wright, Albert Spalding, Henry Chadwick, Candy Cummings and even Alexander Cartwright were honored with bronze plaques in the Cooperstown shrine. It could be argued Reach’s contributions to the game equalled, and in some cases even surpassed, the accomplishments of some of these enshrined Hall of Famers.

A great case for Reach’s deserved enshrinement was made in a SABR National Pastime article, “Philadelphia Baseball’s Unappreciated Founders,” written in 2003 by early-Philly baseball authority Dr. Jerrold Casway. Casway presented a biographical sketch of Alfred J.Reach as a player, team executive and sporting goods magnate whose accomplishments were extraordinary. Born in London in 1840, Reach’s family emmigrated to America in 1841 and ended up settling in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. It was there in the late 1850s that Reach first joined the Jackson Juniors Base Ball Club as a catcher and by 1861 had moved on to the prominent Eckford Base Ball Club as an amateur infielder.

Reach was one of the key members of the 1862 Eckford team leading them to a 14 and 2 record in the NABBP and, having defeated the 1861 champion Atlantics, the Eckfords claimed the 1862 championship. Casway noted that, “Reach was known as the “Scratcher” for his ability of “digging” up hard-hit balls.” Of his prowess in the field he also wrote that “Reach set the standard for playing second base” as one of the first “to play his position mid-way between the bases.”

In 1865, Reach joined the ranks of the very first openly professional players in the game as he accepted a salary of $25 a week to commute to Philadelphia and play for Thomas Fitzgerald’s Athletic Base Ball Club. Another Philadelphia baseball historian, Tom Shiffert, said of the pioneer in his book Base Ball in Philadelphia: A History of the Early Game, “Reach got to Philadelphia for the 1865 season, and never looked back, establishing himself as the premier individual name in Philadelphia baseball for the next 60-odd years, or at least until Connie Mack started winning pennants with regularity.” During his career as an Athletic player, Reach excelled on the field offensively and defensively putting up numbers that were always near the league leaders. In 1871, Reach led the Athletics to the first National Association championship and as Shiffert also noted, was named as the best second baseman on theNew York Clipper’s All-Star team.

In 1874, he acted as the player-manager of the Athletics in England during baseball’s first European tour, but three years later in 1877 his playing career was over and he established his sporting goods business in Philadelphia.

Reach would end up becoming the founding President of the Phillies franchise of the National League and also partnered with the likes of Ben Shibe and A. G. Spalding to further revolutionize the sporting goods industry. In addition, Reach was instrumental in helping his partner Ben Shibe establish the first American League club in Philadelphia, Connie Mack’s A’s. If that wasn’t enough for his baseball resume, Casway also describes Reach’s skills as “an innovative ball park designer” who enhanced the fan experience in the city of brotherly love. Alongside Harry Wright, Reach is, no doubt, one of the most significant figures in the history of Philadelphia baseball.

In an interview last week Casway expressed his opinion that Reach was, perhaps, the most important. Said Casway, “Al Reach was a seminal ballplayer, successful manager, franchise president and sporting goods manufacturer. He was among the first professional ballplayers, and until his retirement in the mid-1870s, was considered the game’s best second baseman. He led the Athletics on the first overseas exhibition tour and became the Philadelphia Phillies first president. Reach, together with Ben Shibe changed the nature of the sporting goods industry. He and Shibe pioneered the (manufacturing of) the modern baseball.”

An argument could be made for Reach to enter the Hall singularly as either a player an executive or a pioneer. Considering his career in its totality, its hard to believe he’s been overlooked. Whatever baseball politics played a part in the Hall of Fame committee’s overlooking his accomplishments are unknown.

The 1870 Philadelphia Athletics CDV produced by Gihon is extremely rare. Here are seven of the known examples that have survived.

One of the few surviving artifacts to document Al Reach’s career as a standout player for the Philadelphia Athletics is an 1870 carte-de-visite card featuring the portraits of Reach and his teammates. Produced in 1870 by Philadelphia based photographer A. Gihon, the card is one of the earliest visual representations of Reach’s career as a ballplayer and the card is of the utmost rarity with less than ten examples known to exist.

Back in 1984, the Society for American Baseball Research conducted a photo shoot at the Baseball Hall of Fame for a publication slated as a photographic “Review of Baseball History in the Nineteenth Century. A copy of the 1870 Athletics CDV was part of the Hall’s collection and was documented in the photo shoot on a Kodak contact sheet along with many other rare images housed at the National Baseball Library. The SABR contact sheet was marked on the front and reverse as “HOF-9.”

The same CDV photographed at the Hall of Fame in 1984, with its unique scratch visible on this contact sheet image (left), appeared several years later in a book published by Mark Rucker (right).

The CDV captured on film at the Hall featured an imperfection unique to this particular card, a fine scratch on the bottom of the albumen print affixed to the cardboard mount. The same card, with the exact same imperfection, appeared in the 1988 book, Base Ball Cartes by Mark Rucker, however, it was not credited to the Hall of Fame. Like many other images featured in the book, the card was listed as part of Mark Rucker’s collection.

The same card that was originally photographed at the HOF appeared for sale in Robert Edward Auctions 1994 auction catalog.

In 1994, the same card appeared again as an offered lot in a Robert Edward Auctions sale. The auction description noted the rare card had a “single insignificant scratch in brown background.” It was One of the finest of the very few examples of this important card in existence.” The auction also noted “an extremely small abrasion” on the card’s reverse. It is likely that handwritten Hall of Fame accession numbers were defaced on the reverse of the card.

The image of the 1870 CDV is strong evidence of a Hall of Fame heist. notified the Hall of Fame of the evidence of the 1870 Athletics photo theft last year but Hall officials refused to comment.

Since the early 1980s the Hall has fallen victim to massive thefts of rare documents and photographs from the National Baseball Library collections, but they have never vigorously pursued recovery of the donated artifacts they were entrusted to safeguard. Ex-Hall of Fame officials and employees have confirmed that recovery efforts have been thwarted to avoid what one official called a “potential PR nightmare.”

So, will the kidnapped CDV featuring the portraits of Al Reach and his fellow Athletics ever make its way back into the Hall of Fame archives? If it does make it home to Cooperstown it would be fitting if a bronze relief of “Pops” Reach was already hanging in the Gallery of Plaques.

Until that day comes, Mr. Reach will have to enjoy his extended stay in the Hall of Very Good.


Peter Nash joined the Society of American Baseball Research at the age of 12 as an avid baseball fan and card collector. His early research intensified his interest in the pioneers of the game like Harry Wright, Albert Spalding and Henry Chadwick, and he moved from collecting bubble gum cards to rare and unusual baseball artifacts of the 19th century. By the time he graduated magna cum laude from Columbia College in 1989 he was known as the recording artist Prime Minister Pete Nice of the Def Jam Recordings group 3rd Bass. Still, even as he toured the world performing with the likes of hip-hop artists Public Enemy, De La Soul and LL Cool J, he managed to keep up with his baseball research and collecting, becoming more involved in the growing baseball memorabilia business.

But from 1989 to 1995 Nash experienced the dark side of the baseball collectibles field as he discovered, with the help of his friend and world renowned handwriting expert Charles Hamilton, that close to a quarter million dollars worth of materials he’d purchased were either bogus or stolen goods. Some of the stolen items were believed to originate from the collections of the New York Public Library and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Over the past fifteen years, Nash has conducted his own personal investigation into the hobby, which now constitutes the backdrop for his compelling exposé on the fraud-ridden industry. In particular, Nash has succeeded in unraveling some of the hobby’s greatest mysteries involving massive thefts from the historical baseball collections housed at the New York Public Library, Boston Public Library and National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Nash is the author of two baseball history books, Baseball Legends of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery (Arcadia 2003) and Boston’s Royal Rooters (Arcadia, 2005) as well as the writer and producer of the 2007 Emmy-nominated baseball documentary, Rooters: Birth of Red Sox Nation. In 2008, Nash re-opened Nuf Ced McGreevy’s 3rd Base Saloon at 911 Boylston St. in Boston, MA.

You can visit Nash's site online at Hauls of Shame.

1 comment:

The OCP said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this piece... thanks for sharing.