Offered here is what we believe to be the earliest American League contract in private hands, not to mention one that made Roderick Wallace the highest-paid player in baseball. The three-page contract, dated September 29, 1902, between Roderick Wallace and the St. Louis American League Base Ball Company, is signed in black fountain pen by "Roderick John Wallace" (grading "9") and "Ralph T. Orthwein" ("10"), owner of the team. Also signed by notary "Max R. Orthwein." The St. Louis Browns embossed team seal appears on the final page. The five-year agreement, for the seasons of 1903 through 1907, calls for Wallace to receive a total of $32,500, to be distributed as follows: $6,500 to be paid upon the signing of the contract, and then the remainder ($26,000) to be paid in equal amounts for the years 1903, 1904, 1905, 1906, and 1907 (an annual salary of $5,200). Incredibly, the agreement also includes a "no-trade" clause in that any assignment of this contract to another club cannot be made without Wallace's written consent.
This is one of the most significant baseball contracts we have ever handled. As stated previously, to the best of our knowledge, this is the earliest American League contract in private hands (the American League officially became a "major league" in 1901.) Equally important, this is is also both one of the earliest Hall of Fame contracts and multiyear Major League contracts we have ever seen. It also comes with the provenance of originating from a Wallace family member.
Multiyear Major League baseball contracts prior to the advent of free agency in 1976 were the rare exception rather than the rule. The reason for that was the reserve clause, which basically bound a player to a team for life. In general, multiyear deals were offered only to the top players who could command a small degree of leverage, such as Cobb, or Ruth, or during the rare times when a rival league would form, which usually precipitated a bidding war for players' services. Such was the case here with Wallace, who was one of the top players in the National League prior to his joining the Browns in 1902. The American League officially declared itself a "Major League" in 1901 and its clubs immediately began raiding the National League of its top players. Nap Lajoie was the earliest star to "jump" to the new league when he signed with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1901, and Wallace followed one year later. Not wishing to lose Wallace after just one season, the Browns signed him to this lucrative deal before he had even finished his first season with the club in 1902. This contract actually made Wallace the highest paid player in baseball for a short period. (At the time, the National League had a maximum salary limit of $2,400 per year; the American League had no such limit, which was one of the main reasons players were eager to join the newly formed league.) Because of the amount of money it had invested in Wallace, the Browns took out a life insurance policy on him in case he suffered an untimely death before the contract's expiration.
It probably seems strange to learn that Roderick Wallace was the highest paid player in baseball in 1903, because today he is probably one of the lesser-known Hall of Fame players. His relative obscurity is most likely the result of his having played for the woeful St. Louis Browns for fifteen seasons, and the fact that his only post-season appearance was in the 1896 Temple Cup Series, as a pitcher no less (he began his career as a pitcher and moved to the infield in 1897; Wallace still holds the record for having played the most years in the Major Leagues without appearing in a World Series game.) Wallace was an outstanding defensive shortstop and even though his lifetime average of .268 is one of the lowest for any Hall of Fame player, his career batting totals are more than respectable, including 2,309 hits, 1,057 runs scored, and 201 stolen bases. In 1911 Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss, who had Honus Wagner at shortstop, was quoted as saying "The best player in the American League, the only man I would get if I could, plays on a tail-end team, and few people pay any attention to him. I mean Bobby Wallace of St. Louis. I wish I had him." Wallace was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953, but died just seven years later, leaving autograph collectors just a short period of time in which to obtain his signature. The contract (8 x 13 inches), which remains affixed to its original paper docket by means of two metal clasps along the top border, displays two horizontal folds and remains in Excellent to Mint condition. Auction LOA from James Spence/JSA. Pre certified by Steve Grad and Brian Sobrero/Beckett Authentication. Opening Bid $5,000. Estimate $20,000+.
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