Circa 1870 Excelsior Silk Ribbon

Sold For: $840

Auction Year: 2017 spring

Lot: 1756

Item Year: 1870

Category: Pre-1900 Baseball Memorabilia

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Rare circa 1870 silk ribbon issued by the Excelsior Base Ball Club. The blue ribbon (2.75 x 7.75 inches) features the team name, "Excelsior," above an illustration of various baseball equipment, including bats, balls, cleats, a base, and a belt. Although no city is noted, and the name "Excelsior" was used by a number of clubs, we believe this ribbon was issued by the Excelsior Base Ball Club of Brooklyn, New York, one of the top clubs of the era. (This ribbon is identical, including the exact illustration in the center, to other silk ribbons issued by the Excelsiors of Brooklyn, with the exception of "Brooklyn" not being printed at the base.) Team ribbons such as this have always been among the rarest baseball items, and, along with trophy balls, among the few surviving relics directly related to players of the 1860s and early 1870s, but at the same time have always been something of an enigma to collectors. It has always been known that they were worn, but we have never been entirely clear as to what purpose they served. So we asked noted baseball historian John Thorn. He has solved this mystery for us, providing us with the following explanation: According to an article by author Clarence Deming that appeared in the Outing (June 1902, No. 3, pp. 357-360), these ribbons were not actually worn by players from the teams whose name appears upon them, but by their opponents: "One or two of the customs of the old game were unique. Such for instance was the habit of the better class of clubs of exchanging, just before each match, silk badges imprinted with the club name. The players wore those accumulated trophies pinned upon the breast, sometimes with startling color effects; and the baseball man was proud, indeed, who could pin on the outside of his deep strata of badges a ribbon from the mighty Atlantics, Mutuals or Eckfords, attesting his worth for meeting giants, if not mastering them." The custom of exchanging silk ribbons was not a long-standing one, and it appears that the tradition started and ended within five years on either side of 1870 (1865-1875). Even in its heyday, the planning and expense limited the practice almost exclusively to the most accomplished and highly respected teams. The better the team, the greater an honor it was to be able to have a ribbon from that team to wear as a badge of honor. Because these ribbons are made of silk and are naturally fragile, and were actually worn while playing, few have survived. All are very rare. The fact that this ribbon is slightly larger and more elaborate in terms of illustration than most ribbons from the 1860s (which also tend to be horizontal in design) suggests that it dates from the early to mid-1870s. The offered example is in a remarkably fine state of preservation, especially given both its age and fragile nature. There is some very minor fraying, including a few tiny tears, along the top and bottom borders. In Excellent condition. Reserve $300. Estimate $500+.

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