Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Will Eno's Unknown Man with a Mustache

In 2011, the New York Public Library published and freely distributed a book titled "Know the Past, Find the Future: The New York Public Library at 100." The NYPL described its centennial celebration book as follows:

From Laurie Anderson to Vampire Weekend, Roy Blount Jr. to RenĂ©e Fleming, Stephen Colbert to Bill T. Jones—more than 100 luminaries reflect on the treasures of America’s favorite public library. Marking the Centennial of The New York Public Library’s Beaux-Arts landmark at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, now called the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Know the Past, Find the Future harnesses the thoughts of an eclectic assortment of icons as they ponder an even more eclectic assortment of objects. From among the Library’s vast collections, these writers, artists, philosophers, scientists, musicians, athletes, architects, choreographers, and journalists—not to mention some of the curators who have preserved these riches—selected an item and describe what it means to them. The result, in words and photographs, is a glimpse of what a great library can be.
Stephen Colbert penned an essay about a selection of J.D. Salinger letters. Yoko Ono chose to write about a book edited by composer John Cage. And acclaimed playwright Will Eno chose to focus on this photograph from the A. G. Spalding Baseball Collection:

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library

Eno wrote, in part:

Back when the backyard was the world and everywhere else was far away, I had, like almost everyone else of my height and weight, a baseball card collection. It was only a few dozen cards, none that special, and in no particular order, but it was something real to have and hold, something to refer to when it was raining or my arm was broken. It's long lost and was lost so well that I couldn't even tell you what decade it got lost in.
Humanity has its troubles and drawbacks, of course, but when you look at the things we cherish and save, we all seem very dear, very clumsy and life-sized. It's in this context, or one very like it, that I would like to highlight, from the A.G. Spalding Baseball Collection, "Unidentified baseball player with mustache, Boston." I do this partly as a Boston fan, and partly as a fan of anonymity. You would think, in the past couple hundred years, someone would've figured out his name. If efforts have been made, he has resisted and remains nameless, or, named, in a way, but named only by an archivist.
So, by all means, be sure to stop by the Declaration of Independence, ... enjoy the Japanese erotica and make sure to see the first letter home from Christopher Columbus. ... Just don't forget that there was also once, and still remains in some way, an unknown man with a mustache, standing in the sun, playing baseball.
As it turns out, this photo was one of four taken by Boston-based photographer James Wallace Black (1825-1896) that the NYPL has listed as "unidentified." The others are:


The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library


The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library


The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library

Each of these men sat patiently as he was photographed in Black's studio at 173 Washington Street. And, now, each of these men whose names have remained elusive can be removed from the veil of anonymity and identified.

Portrait number 1 depicts the English-born Sam Jackson. Jackson played in portions of just two seasons in the National Association (baseball's first professional league). He filled in for Boston's injured star George Wright for 16 games during the 1871 season, and participated in four games for the Brooklyn Atlantics in 1872. A scorecard featuring this same image of Jackson (see red arrow and expanded detail of the card) was recently revealed to the public in a January 5, 2015, episode of PBS's "Antiques Roadshow."

Portrait number 2 is of the great Ross Barnes. Barnes first burst on the scene as an immensely talented teenage shortstop for the Forest City Club of Rockford, Illinois. This was the same team that produced the great pitcher and eventual sporting goods mogul, Albert G. Spalding. Barnes was arguably the greatest player in the five-year history of the National Association. In 1871 he led the league in runs scored (66 in just 31 games played) and batted .401. The next season he paced the circuit with 99 hits, 28 doubles and a .430 batting mark. And in 1873, he dominated completely: leading all NA batters with 60 games played, 125 runs scored, 138 hits, 31 doubles, 11 triples, 43 stolen bases, and a .431 batting average. In 1876, he led the newly formed National League with 126 runs, 138 hits, 21 doubles, 14 triples and an average of .429. The Spalding Collection at the NYPL features this additional image of Barnes:

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library

And the nattily dressed gentleman in portrait number 3 is Dave Birdsall, a veteran catcher who gained fame in the 1860s with the great Union Base Ball Club of Morrisania. (Today, Morrisania is better known as the South Bronx, a neighborhood located half a mile or so east of Yankee Stadium.) When Birdsall sat for this photograph he was in his final full season, generally patrolling the outfield for the 1871 Boston Red Stockings. Here's another image of Birdsall:

Finally, the photo chosen by Will Eno is of a ballplayer named Frank Barrows. Barrows played 18 games for Boston of the National Association, batting just .151 as a part-time outfielder. However, it was as a star second baseman in the late 1860s with Boston's Tri-Mountain Base Ball Club that Barrows made his mark in the game. In fact, it very well may be his likeness that graces the cover of "The Base Ball Quadrille" sheet music, published in 1867 and dedicated to the Tri-Mountains, "Champions of New England":

Lester Levy Sheet Music Collection

Compare the two faces:

So while this "unknown man" is now known, worry not, Mr. Eno. There are hundreds upon hundreds of other old baseball photographs that remain unidentified. Then again, their number is dwindling as a stalwart group of baseball researchers do their best to match names to faces.


  1. Fantastic work, Tom! Enjoyed the post.

  2. No clues as to the methodology of your sleuthing? You normally do such a thorough job at explaining how you figured out whatever it is that you've figured out. Did you just look at these four photos and immediately know their names?

    1. Justin - Good call. As it turns out, the method I used to determine the players wasn't particularly interesting, so I skipped it as part of the narrative. For three of the photos, I found other known images of the players and simply compared facial features. For Barrows, it was mostly a process of elimination, as we have well-known images of all the other Boston Red Stockings from 1871 and 1872 except for Barrows. Additionally, his background as a member of the Tri-Mountains and the similarity to the player seen on the sheet music pointed to the two individuals being one and the same.

    2. Thanks for the response. And I enjoyed the post either way, and remain impressed regardless of how uninteresting the process may have been in this case.

  3. The Jackson portrait is interesting - it looks like he is wearing an apron, or is it just a very long shirt?