Delores Knox walked into the Louisville Slugger museum holding a cloth bag full of her father's old photographs. By the time she left, she knew she was holding some of the rarest Negro League memorabilia on earth.
"As I was getting ready to leave, one of the appraisers said 'Can I have someone escort you to your car?'" she says. "I knew that I had something of value."
Knox heard that Hunt Auctions was holding an appraisal fair at the famous bat factory while watching the local news one morning in November. She thought about the things she had inherited from her father—photos, programs and broadsheet posters collected during his days as an outfielder in the Negro National League in the 1920s. Determined to find out what she had, she talked her husband into driving her to the fair.
"My husband, being an impatient male, was hurrying me along. He was sitting in the car waiting for me," says Knox. "When I came back out and told him the value of these old things of daddy's, that changed his tune."
The J. Leonard Mitchell Collection will be made available to collectors on March 7th, as part of Hunt Auctions' live event in King of Prussia, PA. Company president David Hunt says that he rarely comes across anything he hasn't seen before when he's out on the appraisal trail, so it's a special day when such rare items turn up.
"With this group, about 60 to 75 percent of it was unique to me," he says. "Establishing prices was difficult. Bidding gets pretty aggressive because nobody has a set idea of what these things are worth. The market is established right in front of your eyes."
Any time a collection is turned over to Hunt for consignment, the first step is to catalog and research the items. The items brought in by Knox were easily authenticated as having belonged to her father, but establishing a baseline value for each item took hours of combing through archives.
"You can have a photo of Oscar Charleston in front of you," says Hunt, "but if you don't know who he was, just identifying it doesn't help."
In the end, the Mitchell Collection comprises 80-plus items, valued anywhere from $250 for a pair of ticket stubs from the "ABC Baseball Club" of Indianapolis, up to thousands for items featuring Satchel Paige or the 1947 Cleveland Buckeyes championship team.
Other items reveal the breadth of experience a young man could gather while riding on creaky buses to play on rocky baseball diamonds. Leonard Mitchell beams next to multiple Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens in one photograph, while others reminded Mitchell of the famous entertainers he had encountered, like Lena Horne and Duke Ellington. A set of promotional posters from the All American Girls' Baseball League bears witness to the fact that Mitchell enjoyed baseball in all of its various forms.
A hint of the pre-Jackie Robinson racial climate comes out in some of the photos. Imagine a multimillionaire ballplayer of today consenting to play as one of the makeup-covered Ethiopian Clowns, or suiting up as a Zulu Cannibal Giant. Playing to stereotypes was a no doubt unwelcome part of life in the Negro Leagues. Did it bother J. Leonard Mitchell?
"I don't think he was bitter," says his daughter. "If he was, he didn't express it. He just enjoyed what he did, enjoyed his time, and the adventure of meeting all the people he did."
"In his own quiet way, I think he knew he was part of opening doors that led to other people getting a chance to play."
The J. Leonard Mitchell Collection and other rare memorabilia will be auctioned off as part of Hunt Auctions' next live event, set for March 6th and 7th at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in King of Prussia, PA. Telephone and absentee bids are accepted.
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