(By Troy R. Kinunen, Owner of MEARS) – MEARS Auctions is going vintage. After analysis of the current market, it is the author’s opinion that vintage sports memorabilia (pre war football, basketball, and baseball) is severely undervalued at its current price point. In recent months I have became re-acquainted with vintage memorabilia which includes flannel baseball uniforms and gloves, leather football helmets (harness, 4-spoke, 8-spoke, rain cap), and early basketball uniforms with quilted pants. When handling these items which often are often more than 100 years old, the quality of construction of the items and history of the user always leave a strong impression on my collecting memory.
With respects to early sports memorabilia, the stuff is really neat, and quite affordable. Vintage photography, early pennants, equipment, jerseys, balls, gloves, shoes, pinback buttons, and postcards can all be found with a little hard work and serve as fantastic tributes to the early days of American sports history. Additionally, they make great display items.
As I have been building collections for the MEARS museum, I assembled a small grouping of vintage football artifacts containing a leather helmet, leather shoulder pads, cleats, period CDV and a melon football. When I was done, it really made for an impressive display which truly captures the essence of the game during that specific era.
Vintage sports memorabilia is defined in this article as non professional sports teams. This encompasses town teams, high school, college, semi professional and industrial leagues. With its inception during the late 19th century, football and baseball continued to explode during the early 20 th century. Many fans were first introduced to the sport while playing locally. Access to major league (professional) sports was limited in the early years by newspaper accounts only, with radio soon to follow, and then TV becoming prevalent. The surviving relics of this early era memorialize the pioneering men that helped build modern day sports and should be considered with the same collecting importance as our professional brethren.
Just as reflected in the modern memorabilia market, baseball is still king. With its earliest roots as a sport, the game of baseball was first played in the early 1800s. This head start gave baseball a huge lead among future athletes, and also introduced future collectors to the hobby first. Baseball card collecting was the first formalized hobby with organization developed from the National pastime.
In today’s market, much promotion and organization has been geared towards baseball cards, autographs, and game used collecting of professional baseball teams. Much of the nation’s true baseball history which was born from the tavern leagues, independent leagues, and local ball diamonds is overlooked as we search for members of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Grandpa Fronsee, Great Uncle Kinnunen, and members of the local Elks lodge contributed to the love of the game at a very personal level. While doing so, they were photographed, wore jerseys, gloves, mitts, and had broadside posters made to notify the locals of the next big game. Their memorabilia exists, and it should be collected and appreciated.
Although not easy to find, with a little hard work CDV’s and cabinet photos can be found with crystal clear depictions of early equipment. Many team photos will show players holding Spiderman catchers masks, workman’s gloves, and lace up jerseys with quilted baseball pants. The details of the image help document the evolution of the game.
Baseball glove collecting has been around in an organized manner for almost 25 years now. Much research has been done on the study of manufactures (Reach, Spalding, D&M) and the types of gloves they supplied – fingerless, workman’s, 1” web, tunnel web, Bill Doak Model, etc. This hobby again captured the evolution of the sport and helped document the history of the game. During the 1920s when player’s names first appeared stamped on the glove, collectors can now associate an artifact with a big league player. Gloves bearing the names of O.L. Bluege, Joe Cronin, Howard Emke, Babe Ruth, and Bill Sweeney serve as reminders to all of the players that contributed to the nation’s love affair with our national pastime. Although bearing a facsimile signature, but not worn by the players represented, these store model gloves offer an affordable way to collect items that capture the individuality of the player and the companies they represented.
Moving onto football, Walter Camp is credited with inventing football in 1876. Within a couple of decades, his version of the game was adopted by colleges along the east coast. In order to support football’s growing popularity, sporting goods company like the A.G. Spalding Company began supplying teams with helmets, uniforms, shoes, nose guards, and shoulder pads. Sporting goods catalogs offered pages of beautifully illustrated merchandise which helped document the styles of early football gear, and also served as a checklist for future collectors of early football memorabilia.
Football also was photographed as early as the 1880s. These vintage images capture the men that played the game and the early gear they adorned. Early examination of cabinet photos capture images of players wearing lace up union suits, Chicago style head harnesses, Morrell nose guards, wood cleated shoes, and shoulder pads sewn on the outside of their protective uniforms.
Football was certainly a sport which epitomized student school spirit. My research has uncovered images of young adults playing football in college, high school, and even kindergarten. The six year old were outfitted in youth sized union suits, miniature melon footballs, and 4 spoke helmets. Memorabilia from all of these stages exist.
As the popularity of football grew, the sport moved to the Midwest. Football teams were found in Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota, and eventually, west of the Mississippi. My research has captured images of players in college, high school, semi-pro, and industrial leagues all playing football.
For collectors, each era of football creates a new collecting challenge. For example, football pants changed. The 1880s found players wear quilted pants, very similar to what was worn in baseball, with the exception of internal pockets which allowed for the addition of extra padding. By 1900, reeds had been inserted and created the earliest version of football body armor. By the 1920s, hip pads were added and noted in images as he design reached high above the belt line.
Review of images of the evolution of football helmets also help chronicle the changes of football gear. The early 1880s found players wearing simple head harness that only protected the ears. The 1890s introduced the 4-spoke helmet design, which boasted padded ear muffs and a criss cross head support. Technology moved slowly, and the next major style innovation was the 8-spoke helmet, which only double the number of straps, but offered no other major advancement.
By 1910, full head covering helmets were created, which were similar to rain caps. Other styles such as the Princeton model became popular. The 1920s found hard leather shell “Red Grange” styles supplied by Reach and Spalding to be quite popular among grid iron participants. By the 1930s, technical advancements continue to improve the safety of football equipment. It is an obtainable goal to try to collect one each of each early football helmet. All of these styles are available, and I encourage collectors to consider adding these homegrown artifacts to their collections.
Last but certainly not least is James Naismith, the man credited with inventing basketball in 1891. Touted for its physical fitness attributes, basketball could be played indoors and soon became a staple exercise regiment for high schools through the United States, and both boys and girls could play. Typically consisting of teams made of 12 or less, organized team basketball equipment offers the greatest challenge for collectors, as the small number of spots on the team created the shortest supply of inventory. Although rare, early 1900-20s basketball jerseys were quite colorful and often multi colored in design. Again, early cabinet photos capture and document the transformation of the game and the equipment worn by the participants.
In sum, early baseball, football, and basketball equipment offers collectors many potential areas of interest of which to collect. With the soaring prices of major league memorabilia and the relatively low market pricing on vintage sports memorabilia, today’s market place can still afford many opportunities for the collector willing to venture from the center of established collecting paradigms.
Watch in upcoming month as MEARS Auction will begin to feature quality, rare, and vintage sports memorabilia.