Letters' auction halted amid FBI inquiry

NEW YORK -- Authorities are looking into whether a newly discovered trove of letters to one of baseball's founding fathers contains documents that disappeared long ago from the New York Public Library.

The letters are 19th century correspondence to Harry Wright, who built the country's first professional baseball team in Cincinnati and went on to manage in several cities.

Hunt Auctions, a major auctioneer of sports memorabilia, was preparing to sell a batch of Wright's letters on July 14 at the All-Star Game's fan festival in St. Louis, but has suspended bidding, at least temporarily.

The Exton, Pa., company's president, David Hunt, said he hasn't seen any evidence that the letters were among those that vanished, but thought a temporary freeze was prudent while authorities, including the FBI, investigate.

"It is always better to be conservative," he said Friday, adding that he hoped to have the matter cleared up within a few days.

Hunt declined to identify the seller of the letters, other than to say that the person who consigned them said they had belonged to his grandparents.

"There's nothing that gives me reason to believe, at this moment, that this person doesn't have a right to sell them," he said.

Officials at the New York Public Library didn't immediately return a phone message left by The Associated Press on Friday.

The library's collection originally contained four scrapbooks of letters that had been sent to Wright between 1865 and 1894. Only one of those volumes is still at the library.

It is unclear exactly when the rest disappeared, but authorities have been aware since the 1970s of thefts from the library's big collection of baseball memorabilia.

The questions about the origin of the letters in the auction were first reported in The New York Times.

Wright was born in England and played cricket, but gravitated to baseball as a young man in New York. He organized the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1869, managed the team and also played center field. He later managed the Boston Red Stockings, the Providence Grays and the Philadelphia Quakers.

Many modern elements of the game were his innovations, like hand signals, defensive fielding shifts and hitting fungoes to outfielders before the game.