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‘Laws of Base Ball’ document could fetch $1 million at auction

Baseball historian John Thorn calls it baseball’s equivalent to the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s a good parallel. The 159-year-old “Laws of Base Ball” that is headed to auction next month may not have the religious significance of the scrolls found in the Qumran Caves in the Middle East, but it does contain significant baseball literature.

Drafted in 1857 by Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams, the “Laws of Base Ball,” a fascinating 23-page document that is the blueprint for the rules of the game, is a highlight of SCP Auctions’ Spring Premier online auction that begins April 6.

The document established rules like 90 feet between base paths, nine players on the diamond and nine innings for the length of a game. Adams, the president of the New York Knickerbockers Base Ball Club (founded by Alexander Cartwright more than a decade earlier), were drafted for a convention in New York that was attended by representatives from 14 different clubs.

“It’s like finding a Holy Grail of handwritten pages,” said Terry Melia, SCP’s public relations director. “These are the rules that set baseball on its path to become our national pastime.”

Melia has seen and held the pages, as he was helping SCP’s videographer and photographer for a publicity video and photo shoot. If it was me holding those pages, I’d be shaking in my boots — it would be similar to handling a T-206 Honus Wagner, a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle or a 1966 Topps Don Mossi. Oh, wait, I have the ’66 Mossi. I still tremble when I hold it.

“Was I trembling? No,” Melia said of the “Laws of Baseball document. “But I was in awe of these pages. So much of the game’s history started with these pages.”

SCP believes this document could fetch more than $1 million at the auction, which ends on April 23. In a release, SCP said that through the company’s research efforts and that of Thorn, Adams should be the one credited with those rules; those milestones have been credited to Cartwright and are even engraved on his Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown.

“When Doc Adams set to work in late 1856, none of these aspects of the game were settled,” Thorn said in the same release. “This was some seven years after Cartwright had left New York for Hawaii, never to return. For his role in making baseball the success it is, Doc Adams may now be counted as first among the Founding Fathers of Baseball.”

The papers came to light in a 1999 auction for non-sports manuscripts. At the time, the author of the documents was unknown. They were purchased by a bidder from Texas — sight unseen — for $12,650. They languished in a desk drawer for 17 years until the owner decided to enlist SCP to research its origin.

“When we started to peel back the layers of information held within these documents – and their origin and purpose was revealed – we were overwhelmed by the gravity of their historical significance,” said Dan Imler, vice president of SCP Auctions.

It’s rare to find documents that detail the beginning rules of the game. Dr. James Naismith’s 1891 Original Rules of Basketball were sold to wealthy University of Kansas graduates David and Suzanne Booth through Sotheby’s for $4.3 million in December 2010, which at the time was the most money ever paid for a piece of sports memorabilia. Josh Swade’s 2013 book, “The Holy Grail of Hoops: One Fan’s Quest to Buy the Original Rules of Basketball” tells that story in great (and entertaining) detail.

The 1859 Original Rules of Soccer sold for $1.4 million to an anonymous bidder in 2011 by the Sheffield Football Club. How much Adams’ document will fetch is hard to determine right now.

“It’s difficult to put a value on an object of such singular importance but we feel it is worthy of a substantial seven-figure price,” Imler said. “We have previously sold a 1920 New York Yankees jersey worn by Babe Ruth for $4.4 million dollars, but if not for this document we may have never known Babe Ruth.”

“No earlier baseball manuscript of this significance has ever come onto the open market,” Thorn wrote in his blog, “Our Game.

“1857 was the year that baseball made its great leap forward, and these are the documents that reveal what it was like to be present at the creation,” Thorn wrote in his “Our Game” blog.

Bidding is open to registered bidders only. For more information, call SCP Auctions at (949) 831-3700 or go to the company website. SCP has a video that advertises the auction.

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