‘Boston Red Stockings’ Collection Is a Treasure Trove of Baseball History

Basbeall cards and a letter from the team dating back to the late 1800s will be the focus of the season premiere of 'Antiques Roadshow.'
Photo by Meredith Nierman for WGBH, (c) WGBH 2015

Photo by Meredith Nierman for WGBH, (c) WGBH 2015

Antiques Roadshow appraiser Leila Dunbar is a die-hard Red Sox fan. So when a woman with Massachusetts roots brought in a collection of baseball cards and a letter written by players from the “Boston Red Stockings,” which date back to the late 1800s, it was a grand slam-moment in her career.

“This lady came to the table [in New York], and I could see from the portfolio, and the faces sticking out, that this was definitely something special,” said Dunbar. “It was the pinnacle of my career.”

That career-defining moment, which is being hailed as the “largest sports memorabilia” find since Antiques Roadshow first aired 19 years ago, will be the centerpiece of Monday night’s season premiere on PBS.

“I’ve been doing the roadshow for nearly 20 years, and we have seen some fabulous items that come in the door,” said Dunbar. “It’s a tremendous treasure hunt. The vast majority of what comes in is $50 or below, so when you see something rare and exciting like this, even after all this time, the feeling you get never changes. It’s like a great discovery.”

The discovery comes in the form of a stockpile of “cards,” or portraits, of players from the Boston Red Stockings, the name of the National Association baseball team—they would years later become the Atlanta Braves after a series of name changes and a move from city to city—that played in Boston around 1871. The cards are believed to be some of the first of their kind, said Dunbar.

Not to be confused with the Boston Red Sox, the Red Stockings, “the oldest continuously operating professional sports franchise in America,” was a team of players that included former Cincinnati Red Stockings players Harry Wright, his brother George Wright, and Al Spalding, whose name is now synonymous with baseball gear and sporting goods.

The cards that are part of the treasure trove featured on Antiques Roadshow, which carry a retail replacement value of $1 million, are accompanied by a handwritten letter from members of the team to the collection owner’s great-great grandmother, who ran a boarding house for the players when they were living and playing in Boston.

The letter, with excerpts from the Wright brothers and Spalding, details their fondness for her hospitality, as they lament their time out of state while staying at a different boarding house in Washington, D.C.

“Here are players in their twenties, it’s a great time in their lives, and most of their compatriots at this point are working on the farm. But they are playing baseball, and they truly miss this woman—she’s their family,” said Dunbar. “They wrote her from another boarding house telling her how much they missed her big meals, and how they couldn’t wait to come back and see her.”

Dunbar said the letters matched with the cards create a unique and exciting glimpse at the history of the sport, as well as the city of Boston in the 1800s.

“We have never seen a letter like this before,” she said. “I had three other specialists with me, and none of us had seen anything like this, and we have all been in this business between 20 and 40 years.”

To celebrate the exciting find and the season premiere Monday night, Antiques Roadshow is hosting an “Ask Me Anything” discussion on Reddit, featuring Dunbar, appraiser Sebastian Clarke, and staff from the show. The chat will take place online from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., prior to the show airing at 8 p.m.


Steve Annear Steve Annear, Digital Writer at Boston Magazine sannear@bostonmagazine.com