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Priceless baseball volumes returned to U. of I. Library

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


Erik Kraft in the library with a copy of Collyer's Eye
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Reference librarian Erik Kraft discovered the missing volumes had been returned.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The University of Illinois Library got the scholarly equivalent of a grand slam late Tuesday night.

The priceless volumes of Collyer’s Eye that were reported missing earlier this week were returned – anonymously and in relatively good condition.

“This is really unbelievable good luck,” said Karen Schmidt, associate university librarian for collections, who announced earlier this week that the volumes were missing.

Collyer’s Eye was a popular baseball tabloid, published in Chicago from about 1913 to 1944. The U. of I. Library has one of the world’s most complete run of issues.

One of the missing volumes of Collyer’s Eye included issues that deal with the Chicago White Sox gaming scandal of 1919. Collyer’s first broke the story that involved eight members of the team indicted for throwing the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.

The volumes were last known to be on Illinois’ shelves in 2004 and were discovered missing after the White Sox won the World Series in October.

“Getting the news out about the missing volumes was extremely important,” Schmidt said. “We don’t know what happened to the books – who had them, where they had been – but we are very very happy about their return.”

Schmidt said that at about 9 p.m. Tuesday, the same day that the Chicago Tribune ran a front-page story about the missing volumes and news of their disappearance spread, the volumes appeared on a table in the Reference Room on the second floor of the main library.

Erik Kraft, a reference librarian who was on duty, discovered the books during a regular sweep of the Reference Room. They were “just sitting out in the open, one atop the other,” said Kraft, a visiting assistant reference librarian for digital resources.

Kraft said he left his post at the Information Desk in the circulation room “to see if anyone needed help and to straighten things up,” and entered the large Reference Room. While there are desks for reference librarians just inside the massive room, the main area of the room isn’t staffed, although the entrance to the room has security gates, and information desk staff “have a clear line of sight into the room.”

“We conduct all of our central reference services from the information desk, which is about 30 feet from the entrance to the Reference Room,” Kraft said.

As he passed the first set of index tables, he “happened to glance over to my left and saw two large bound volumes with yellowing boards lying flat on one of the tables, one atop the other.”

Knowing that the books were “out of place,” he opened the cover of the first one and “immediately noticed that they were bound volumes of Collyer’s.”

Kraft said he had heard the story about the missing volumes on the radio Tuesday afternoon, and that when he looked at the “date-due” slips and saw that the stamped dates were well in the past, his “heart immediately started racing. I had walked through the Reference Room a couple of hours earlier and hadn’t noticed the volumes lying there then.”

Kraft said the table on which the books were placed “is conspicuous in that it is the third table from the entrance, but it also is slightly hidden since there are chest-high rows of books on either side, providing some privacy. It is as if whoever left them there wanted them to be found, but didn’t want to be seen leaving them.”

Kraft took the books back to the Information Desk and “opened one at random and paged through it a bit. The second story I noticed was one on the White Sox scandal, at which point my heart began racing double-time.”

Kraft said he found the news item on the U. of I. homepage that had announced the missing volumes and “confirmed that the volumes in front of me were the missing ones. I called Karen at home to share the good news: The missing Collyer’s had turned up.”

Schmidt said that Illinois Historical Survey librarians have since examined the books – “done a visual-physical scan of their condition,” she said.

“They are a bit worse for wear, but in general, in reasonable condition,” she said. The volumes seem brittle, which is to be expected given their age, and pages are breaking and crumbling.

A corner from the May 1, 1920, issue was “hand-torn,” she said, but there is no way to know when that happened or if it was accidental or not.

Krystal Fitzpatrick, assistant U. of I. chief of police, said that because of the value of the volumes, “We will not subject them to any type of processing for latent fingerprints, as this process would certainly cause permanent damage to the material.

“The case is closed.”