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    The earliest known "baseball contract" in private hands

    1871 Andy Leonard Washington Olympics Baseball Contract via U.S. Treasury Department Appointment Letter.
    It's one of the most extraordinary documents to derive from the infancy of our national pastime, possibly the only surviving tangible proof of a theory debated among leading baseball historians for years. It has long been understood that the earliest days of baseball professionalism were cloaked in shadow, with paid practitioners posing as amateurs, surreptitiously funded by organizations with no obvious affiliation with the teams the players represented.

    In the biography, "Harry Wright: The Father of Professional Base Ball," author Christopher Devine traces the practice back as far as 1867, to the Nationals of Washington, D.C. The team enjoyed the services of George Wright two years before he would join his brother and fellow Hall of Fame inductee Harry in membership within the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, widely considered the first fully professional baseball club. In 1867, George Wright's employment was listed in the amateur files as a "clerk" at 238 Pennsylvania Avenue, an address that corresponded to a public park.

    Many of his teammates held positions that seemed to strongly suggest that it was American tax dollars hidden behind this thin veil of amateurism, as other listed sites of employment included the Comptroller of Currency and the Internal Revenue Department. This data was located in the August 8, 1867 issue of Ball Players' Chronicle, the sport's first weekly periodical.

    Until now, no clear paper trail had ever emerged to validate the theory that the United States government itself was one of the earliest funders of professional baseball. This remarkable document serves as that smoking gun, one of the most fascinating and important revelations of early baseball research. The issue is clarified with the knowledge that the standard salary for the position assigned to Leonard was $300 to $400 per year, or approximately half the figure stipulated here.

    The single page, gorgeously handwritten on "Treasury Department" letterhead, is dated "April 25th, 1871." The full text:


    You are hereby appointed an Assistant Messenger in the office of the Second Auditor of the Treasury at a compensation at the rate of Seven hundred and twenty Dollars per annum.

    I am very respectfully

    Wm. A Richardson [signed]
    Act'g Secretary."

    The recipient, "A.J. Leonard, Esq." appears at the bottom of the page, beneath a chief clerk's stamp applied the following day.

    The involvement of William Richardson is likewise of particular note, as his questionable fiscal stewardship in the cabinet of President Ulysses S. Grant is widely cited as a leading cause of the Panic of 1873 that precipitated a five-year national depression. It was likewise Richardson who had hired private civilians to act as collection agents for the Internal Revenue Service in the related financial turmoil, spawning a tsunami of corruption remembered as the "Sanborn Incident" that makes this Leonard affair seem charmingly quaint in comparison.

    Leonard would lead all Olympics with thirty runs batted in during the 1871 season, the first of National Association of Base Ball Players' professional era, but Washington would finish at an even .500, splitting their thirty games played. The team's fortunes would take a significant downward turn upon Leonard's departure for Boston for the 1872 season, which would prove to be Washington's last.

    The page measures approximately 8x9.5" in size and presents as well as could possibly be imagined, with no condition issues of note beyond original fold lines. All ink is as bold as the date of its application. Letter of provenance from grandson of Andy Leonard. Full LOA from PSA/DNA. Full LOA from James Spence Authentication.

    The Andy Leonard Collection

    The first appearance of the term "the national pastime" in our American lexicon is attributed to the December 5, 1856 edition of the New York Mercury, notable as both the first newspaper to provide regular baseball coverage, and the first Eastern periodical to publish the writings of Mark Twain. Yet, today, that early honorific reads more like prophecy than point of fact. Other publications of the day had toned down the hyperbole, with fellow New York weekly the Spirit of the Times qualifying the assertion, calling baseball "the National game in the region of the Manhattanese" the following year. In 1859, Harper's Weekly likewise protested: "We see no evidence that baseball is so generally practiced by our people as to be fairly called a popular American game."
    It would take one of the most terrible and important conflicts in our nation's history to begin to validate the term, the Civil War serving as the wind that swept the sport across the American landscape, every step of the marching armies expanding the sport's geography. But still, even as the terms of surrender were inked at Appomattox, the sobriquet had not reached its fullest, truest expression.

    That would only come with the infusion of that most American pastime of all--the profit motive. As post-Civil War Reconstruction heralded the economic transition from agricultural to industrial, the enormous innovation and possibility of the latter gave everything the sudden appearance of an opportunity to monetize. Only then, with the interjection of the capitalist incentive, could the sport stake an honest claim to its patriotic nickname.

    Historians will readily admit that the earliest incidents of baseball professionalism are both too varied and too poorly documented to provide anything approaching an accurate biography. As soon as gambling became a part of the sport, which it had from the earliest days, the hiring of "ringers" could not have been far behind, and corruption has always been conducted in the shadows. But when we narrow our focus upon those tributaries that would eventually flow into the river we identify today as Major League Baseball, the headwaters have indeed been charted.

    Those maps lie here, in the extraordinary collection that follows, an archive that could be considered the most significant ever to emerge from the infancy of the professional game. As is the case in the construction of so many great American success stories, the early builders' hands are not always entirely clean. This was the age of Tammany Hall, of bribes and kickbacks, of misused influence. But baseball has always been a microcosm of America, slowly bending toward the light and away from the Black Sox scandal, from racial segregation, from performance-enhancing drugs. It is only proper that these earliest documents of professional baseball should contain more of the same.

    Andy Leonard was born in Ireland during the Potato Famine to parents who had never set foot on American soil but nonetheless named their son for the young nation's seventh President, Andrew Jackson, who passed away less than a year before Leonard's birth in 1846. The sport of baseball was entirely unknown to the nation of Ireland at the time Leonard's family set sail for America in 1848, though today the Most Valuable Player Award of the Irish Baseball League is named in Leonard's honor.

    The family settled in Newark, New Jersey at the heart of the burgeoning phenomenon, just a dozen miles from Hoboken's Elysian Fields where the first organized game had been played just eighteen days after Leonard's birth. The young Irish immigrant developed a fondness and aptitude for the sport in his teenaged years, playing five seasons for the Newburgh (NY) and Irvington (NJ) clubs of the amateur era of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) beginning in 1864.

    But it was a move to Cincinnati in 1868 with fellow journeyman Charlie Sweasy that carries us to the edge of the history of this historic archive. After distinguishing himself as a member of the Buckeyes, Leonard was hired at a salary of $100/month by Harry Wright of the team's chief local rivals in 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, thereby earning the distinction of membership upon the very first fully professional baseball team.

    No contracts of that 1869 team have ever surfaced, and it is far from certain that such covenants were ever documented on paper. To be clear, no baseball contracts known to exist outside the archives of the Baseball Hall of Fame or any other public or private institution predate the listings that follow, a remarkable assembly consigned to auction by the octogenarian grandson of Andy Leonard, a gentleman named Charles McCarty.

    The archive finds Leonard in the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of the Cincinnati Red Stockings team precipitated by the board of directors' rejection of professionalism following the 1870 season. The impending reversion to amateur status fragmented the club into two main factions. Harry and George Wright would retain the club's nickname in a new home in Boston with a portion of the old team, while Leonard, Sweasy and three others would head to our nation's capital to help found the Washington Olympics. But soon Leonard would rejoin his old teammates to once again become baseball's dominant force.

    While the tiniest handful of other contemporary baseball contracts exist in private archives, the Leonard paper trail that leads us through the first decade of organized professional ball is quite simply unparalleled within the historical record. These seminal documents represent the very first pages in the publicly available history of "league" baseball, likewise the earliest of organized professional athletics of any breed.

    McCarty informs us that his grandfather, despite his extraordinary relevance to the infancy of professional baseball, lies today in an unmarked grave at New Calvary Cemetery in Boston, less than twenty miles from the South End Grounds where he represented the Red Stockings for seven seasons, the lineal forefather of the modern Atlanta Braves. Both our consignor and Heritage Auctions intend to donate a portion of the proceedings from the sale of these primary documents of our national pastime toward the construction of a suitable monument. All lots within The Andy Leonard Collection will be accompanied by a letter of provenance from McCarty.

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    February, 2016
    20th-21st Saturday-Sunday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 3
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