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Lot # 681 (of 1411)   < Previous Lot | Next Lot >

Extraordinary 1859 Knickerbocker "On The Fly" Challenge Acceptance Letter

Starting Bid - $800.00, Sold For - $1,856.00

In baseball's pioneer days, before the era of professional baseball and before schedules were drawn up, teams formally challenged each other to matches exclusively by letter. Offered is an extremely rare and early challenge letter response which is an especially remarkable specimen as it involves the legendary New York Knickerbockers, New York's first organized baseball club. The letter (5 x 8 inches), penned in black ink on a lined sheet of paper, is written by the secretary of the Excelsior Base Ball Club of Brooklyn to J. Wenman, the secretary of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York, in response to the Knickerbocker's formal invitation to play the Excelsiors. The letter, dated May 19, 1859, reads in full: "Dear Sir, Your corr: of May 10th is at hand, in answer permit me to state, that at an official meeting of the Excelsior Club, held May 18, the challenge from the Knickerbocker Club was read, + accepted, to play "on the fly," at a time to be hereafter stated, and of which I shall take pleasure in informing you, as soon as it may be decided upon. With Respect, I am your Obt Sevt - Gil L Haight - Secy Excelsior BB Club." While this is an extraordinary pre-Civil War challenge letter response to the Knickerbockers, our research regarding the game has uncovered that the contest in question has an extraordinary historical significance to the evolution of the game. A faint hint of the nature of this great significance is provided by the underlining of the term "on the fly" by the Excelsior secretary. This proved to be a remarkable contest. As reported in the New York Times on July 1, 1859, the match game, which was won by the Excelsiors by a score of 26-22, took place at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, where it was viewed by an estimated three thousand spectators. What was unusual about the contest was that it marked a key turning point in the evolution of the rules. Beginning in 1857 the Knickerbockers openly campaigned for a change to the fly/bounce rule; proposing that in order to retire the batter the ball must be caught on the fly and not on one bounce. The issue soon became a hotly debated topic among organized clubs; however, it never gained enough support to be officially written into the rule book. Here, in this game, the Excelsior's agreed to play the match in accordance with the Knickerbockers' rule change. The Times reports: "The game was an experimental one, to determine the relative merits of putting out men when fair struck balls were caught on the fly: as contrasted with the rule adopted by the Base Ball Convention of allowing men to be put out when fair struck balls were caught either on the bound or fly. In all other respects the game was played according to the rules of the Convention." Mr. Wenman, the secretary of the Knickerbockers and the gentleman to whom the offered letter is written, is listed in the box score as the team's official scorer. Interestingly, the following year the rules stated that the "fly rule" would be allowed if both contesting clubs agreed. Most clubs at the time did see its merits and elected to abide by the Knickerbockers' "fly rule." Four years later the "unwritten" rule was formally adopted at the Convention. The offered letter of acceptance to the Knickerbocker's challenge by the Excelsiors to play "on the fly" documents a pivotal moment in the evolution of the rules of the game. This letter literally paved the way for the adoption of the "on the fly" rule, one of the most significant early rule changes of the game. All baseball materials dating from before the Civil War are very rare, especially those relating to the most prominent teams of the era. This is an extraordinary baseball document dating from the earliest days of organized baseball with an extraordinary significance to the evolution of the game as we know it today. The letter displays normal mailing folds and a very slightly uneven left border. Excellent to Mint condition overall. Reserve $800. Estimate $1,500/$2,500. SOLD FOR $1,856.00


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