A timeline of key characters and moments from the game’s Golden Age and beyond, illustrated by 12 lots from The Golden Age of Baseball: Selections from the National Pastime Museum, on 19 October in New York
In 1888, at the height of his fame, Mike ‘King’ Kelly’s autobiography, Play Ball: Stories of the Ball Field, hit stores. This was the first baseball biography ever published, and Kelly, the star of the Chicago White Stockings, became the first pro baseball player to become known across America. Just a year earlier, Kelly had been honoured with a testimonial banquet and presentation by the Boston Lodge of Elks and Other Friends (above).
In 1907, Sol White, an African-American ballplayer, manager, organiser, and Negro League promoter, published his History of Colored Base Ball. The first book to chronicle the black game, the 128-page volume told the story of black baseball from 1885 through 1907, with photos of the great players of the era.
John Henry ‘Pop’ Lloyd (1884–1964) is considered the greatest shortstop in Negro league history. He was signed by Sol White to the Philadelphia Giants, which he led to championship victory in 1909. Lloyd (who appears second from the right in the back row in the photograph, above) famously played for a broad range of teams over his four-decade career, although segregation prevented him from ever joining the major leagues.
In 1914, at age 19, Babe Ruth made his major league debut with the Boston Red Sox. Later that year, he was sent to the International League’s Providence Grays (above) to develop his skills. Ruth soon returned to the major leagues, where his powerful swing made him perhaps the greatest baseball player of all time.
Christy Mathewson (1880–1925) is considered the first great pitcher in modern baseball. In his nearly two-decade career, most of which he spent with the New York Giants, he helped to shift the public’s perception of the sport. In his non-fiction and young-adult novels, the college-educated Mathewson characterised baseball as a thinking man’s game.
Lou Gehrig (1903–1941) was signed to the Yankees in 1923. His strength and endurance on the field made him one of the game’s greatest heroes, and earned him the nickname ‘The Iron Horse’. Gehrig’s unprecedented 2,130 consecutive-game streak was not broken until 1995, and his 23 grand slams remain the major league record.
Josh Gibson (1911–1947) was the best power hitter in the Negro leagues — maybe even the majors. A catcher for Pittsburgh’s Homestead Grays, Gibson’s on-field feats were the stuff of myth. His powerful hitting earned him the second-highest salary in black baseball (behind Satchel Paige), and, in 1972, a spot in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In early 1943, shortly after this photograph was taken, Gibson fell into a coma and was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He died of a stroke in 1947, just three months before Jackie Robinson became the first black player to appear in the major leagues.
When, in 1947, Jackie Robinson (1919–1972) became the first African-American to play in the modern major leagues, he changed the course of baseball for ever. In his 10-year career with the Brooklyn (later Los Angeles) Dodgers and beyond, Robinson worked tirelessly to champion the cause of civil rights.
New York Yankees center fielder and first baseman Mickey Mantle (1931–1995) is considered by many to be the best switch-hitter to ever play the game. In his 18-year career he won the Triple Crown, hit 536 home runs, and was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player three times. This bat was used in the 1952 season, the year in which he rose to stardom by replacing Joe DiMaggio at center field and playing in his first complete World Series.
Willie Mays (1931–), ‘The Say Hey Kid’, played center field for the New York Giants (later the San Francisco Giants) for two decades. Mays shares the record for most All-Star Games played, and was twice named the National League’s Most Valuable Player. His career 660 home runs puts him in the all-time top five. This Topps card is from the 1952 season, which Mays largely missed after being drafted by the U.S. Army at the time of the Korean War.
In his relatively short but very sweet career, Sandy Koufax (1935–) became the first major league player to pitch four no-hitters, and the eighth to pitch a perfect game. Koufax entered the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, at just 36 years old — making him the youngest player ever inducted. This Topps card is from Koufax's rookie season, in which he made his major league debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The team went on to win the 1955 World Series, the first time in its history, although Koufax did not appear.
In 20 seasons as shortstop for the New York Yankees, from 1995–2014, Derek Jeter led his team to five World Series wins. In 2011 he became the 28th player in baseball history to reach 3,000 hits. By the end of his career, Jeter had achieved the all-time major league record for hits by a shortshop. He was nicknamed ‘Captain Clutch’, and ‘Mr. November’ for to his consistently outstanding post-season play.