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Priceless 'Black Sox' scandal book missing from library at Illinois

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


image of a poorly preserved newspaper page with White Sox headline
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Collyer’s Eye, published in Chicago, was the “premier baseball tabloid, and the first one to highlight the White Sox scandal,” says Karen Schmidt, associate university librarian for collections at Illinois. 

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign would like to say it ain’t so, but it is.

Two very rare volumes of U.S. baseball history, one of them dealing with the Chicago White Sox scandal of 1919, are missing from its shelves.

The two folio-sized bound volumes of Collyer’s Eye and the Baseball World were last in Illinois’ possession in 2004.

Collyer’s Eye, published in Chicago, was the “premier baseball tabloid, and the first one to highlight the White Sox scandal,” says Karen Schmidt, associate university librarian for collections at Illinois. The missing volumes are 6-9 and 10-11, published in 1920-1921 and 1924-1926, respectively.

In the scandal, arguably the biggest in baseball history, White Sox players – eight of them, allegedly – bet against their team in the World Series and threw their games with the Cincinnati Reds. After the scandal broke, the White Sox were nicknamed the Black Sox.

The missing volumes are irreplaceable, Schmidt said. “I can’t put a price on them because there don’t appear to be any available copies out there to purchase.

“These volumes are so valuable we decided a news release was the way to get the word out,” Schmidt said. “They have so much historical content.”

Until the two volumes went missing, Illinois had the most complete run of issues of Collyer’s Eye, lacking only one or two volumes. The missing volumes are liberally marked with the University of Illinois Library ownership stamp and display the Dewey classification number Q.796.05CO.

Schmidt said that some private collectors may have volumes identical to those that are missing, and she speculated that the Baseball Hall of Fame would have a nearly complete run, but her search of WorldCat, a comprehensive database, turned up no other publicly accessible copies.

“We’re pretty much ‘it’ as a public resource,” she said.

Schmidt and the Library are seeking the help of the baseball-history community and of the public in locating and retrieving the two volumes, Schmidt said.

The former group is “such a tight community, that we expect it will help us,” Schmidt said. “We are concerned that the books could be put on the market and sold.”

In the event that the books are returned, all contact information will be kept confidential.

“It is our wish to have these volumes safely returned to our collections for the use of current and future scholars.”

The books are large – 14 inches by 20 inches, Schmidt said.

They had been shelved in the main stacks, which are open only to Library and some university staff, graduate students, faculty members and Illinois residents with courtesy cards. Most of the journals in the stacks are circulating – meaning they can be checked out.

Since the discovery of the missing volumes, the remaining copies of Collyer’s Eye have been moved to the non-circulating stacks in the Illinois Historical Survey Library.

The books were discovered missing after the White Sox won the World Series in October. Since that victory, “People have become very interested in everything about the White Sox – including their scandal,” Schmidt said, adding that the Library has received many reference calls, including calls for material from Collyer’s Eye, she said.

Schmidt is not certain why the 1924-26 volumes of Collyer’s Eye might be a target for someone to take – if that is what happened – but the Oct. 2, 1920, issue, which is among those missing, devoted most of its front page to the scandal.

Eighty-five years later, the scandal still fascinates baseball fans.

In an Oct. 28, 2005, issue of The Wall Street Journal, reporter Stefan Fatsis discussed “new” information that he said had come to light concerning the Black Sox scandal, the most remarkable of which, he wrote, “appeared in a Chicago gambling newspaper called Collyer’s Eye, issues of which were discovered last year by Black Sox sleuths in a basement of a library at the University of Illinois.”

This is hardly the first time valuable items have gone missing from the U. of I. Library, which, with more than 10 million items, is the largest public university library in the world.

Like other large research libraries, Illinois’ Library “holds a lot of items that are attractive to people,” Schmidt said. “And while we don’t know what happened to the volumes of Collyer’s Eye, we do have instances where books have been stolen.”

In the late 1980s, for example, the Library was hit by an extremely “successful” rare book thief.

The thief, a native Illinoisan, had scoured libraries all over the country, looking for rare plates. When he found what he wanted, he cut, sliced or tore the individual prints – some from the 1800s and handpainted – out of the books; he also stole entire books – hundreds, if not thousands, of them. He put the plates in plastic covers in three-ring notebooks, catalogued his booty “and shopped the plates around,” Schmidt said.

Soon after his heist at Illinois, the U. of I. police department received a tip: a California dealer had seen the university’s ownership stamps on some plates. The police caught up with the thief in San Francisco, and when they raided his apartment, they discovered that his living room was a good-sized library, Schmidt said.

From Illinois alone, the bibliophile had taken “large numbers of valuable botanical prints and many caricatures from bound volumes of Vanity Fair,” said Susan Hill, a senior library specialist at the U. of I. Library who worked with the police on the case at the time. The Vanity Fair magazines were published in London in the 1870s and 1880s, she said.

According to Hill, the perpetrator hit Illinois’ Library on April 4, 1988 – that’s the date on his charge card, which, along with his backpack and other personal items are still in the university’s possession. The man pleaded guilty to the charge of theft; he was sentenced to four years in prison, and served less than half that time in Illinois correctional centers before being paroled in 1990.

Eventually all of the confiscated plates the police found were turned over to the U. of I. Library whose staff spent hundreds of hours trying to track down the rightful owners.

“But the bulk of the items were unidentifiable,” Hill said.

The Library decided to take an unusual step with the “homeless” plates: It sells them at its annual public book sale.

With each sale, a message, titled, “The Story Behind the Print,” is included, which briefly explains the thief’s methods, the odyssey of most of the prints, and Illinois’ efforts to find their owners. The message ends:

“With permission from the police and our University legal counsel, we are able to sell these to the public. Proceeds from the sales go directly back into the collections of the University of Illinois Library. Thank you for your support, which turns an ugly act into a positive one.”

In the past, it has been extremely rare for a university or museum to announce its losses, Schmidt said.

“But this practice has changed in the last couple of years,” she said. “Museums especially have started using the media to get the word out about their missing items.”

Schmidt and her colleagues feel justified in announcing Illinois’ latest loss.

“This is our baseball history, and now it’s gone.”