As I stood there staring at the two photographs on the top of the glass case, I felt a bit disappointed. I had seen them listed as Negro League photographs on the auction-house website, and was eager to find out who had signed them.
I was expecting to see old photos with old signatures, scribbled during the time when the men were young ball players on teams that made history. I had actually acquired a vintage photo at another auction – of Terris McDuffie who had inscribed it to his sister Rosa. It was a more personal photo that showed him in his New York Black Yankees uniform.
Something nagged at me about the two photos in front of me. They were black and whites of Max Manning and Wilmer Harris (his photo was blurred and out of focus) – names unfamiliar to me. Both had been signed in blue marker, indicating something that I couldn't put my finger on.
A Max Manning photo signed in blue sharpie was for sale at the auction.
Tucked inside the sleeve with each photo was a card authenticating the signature. My eyes brushed over the card's mention of a sports memorabilia show in Virginia in 1998, and my mind didn't settle on the words long enough to grasp the meaning.
The auction house staffer must have noticed my perplexity because he mentioned that another man had looked over the photos, checked the authenticity of the signatures in a book he had brought with him and given them the OK. That's him in the cap with the blue shirt, he said, urging me to ask to see the book.
I didn't, though, because I didn't want to alert him that he might have competition – even though I wasn't sure if I'd bid on the photos.
The Wilmer Harris signed photo offered at auction.
As I waited for the auction to begin, I decided to find out the story of the lives of Manning and Harris, and how much the photos were selling for on the web. So I Googled on my Droid.
Manning was a right-handed side-arm pitcher for the Newark Eagles, signing with the team in 1938. He was a standout and the only black player on his high school team in Pleasantville, NJ. In 1937, he was recruited by the Detroit Tigers, who offered him a tryout that they rescinded after learning that he was black.
He signed instead with Newark, and the man who was known as Dr. Cyclops because of his thick Coke-bottle glasses stayed with the team until 1949. His baseball careerwas interrupted in 1942 when he entered the Air Force, assigned to the Quartermaster Corps, and shipped out to England and then France. For two year, he drove trucks carrying gasoline and supplies in the "Red Ball Express," a convoy that was a lifeline for Allied troops, and whose trucks and routes were marked with red balls. Most were African Americans who were prohibited from combat duty.
Max Manning (left) and Wilmer Harris in their ball-playing days.
After being discharged, Manning went back to the Eagles, helping them win the 1946 Negro Leagues championship against the Kansas City Monarchs.
Manning also played for the Houston Eagles in 1949, and in the Mexican and Canadian Leagues in the early 1950s. He barnstormed with the Satchel Paige All-Stars in the 1940s. After baseball, he went back to school on the GI Bill and was a teacher in Pleasantville for 28 years. Manning died in 2003 at age 84.
Harris was a pitcher known for his curve ball, which he executed for the Philadelphia Stars from 1945 to 1952. In his first game, he pitched against Paige and the Kansas City Monarchsbefore 40,000 fans at Yankee Stadium and some months later, struck out Jackie Robinson, also in a Monarchs game. He would also be known for striking out some other of the leagues' best, including Larry Doby and Monte Pearson.
In the off season during the 1940s, he played in Panama and Venezuela, and with the Jackie Robinson All-Stars, which included Robinson and other Negro Leagues players. After baseball, Harris took a job as a laborer in a steel company, moving up as a supervisor. He died in 2004 at age 80.
A card authenticating the signature of Max Manning. The photo was apparently signed during a sports card and memorabilia show in Virginia in 1998.
I found more photos and other memorabilia of Manning than Harris on the web, most signed with a blue sharpie. A group of photos on one retail site included signatures of Manning and 24 other Negro Leagues players that sold for $310. The website noted that the "photos are all modern day copies and have been signed in blue sharpie." The Manning photo from the lot – similar to the one at auction – sold on eBay for about $5. The highest asking price on eBay for a similar photo was $41 but there were no takers.
A Harris photo signed in blue sharpie was being offered on a retail site for $6. A new baseball signed by Harris and six of the "last surviving members" of the Philadelphia All Stars was selling for $1,299, while a circa 1930s bat signed by him and 24 Negro Leaguers sold for $225.
A card authenticating the signatures of Wilmer Harris. It was apparently signed during a sports card and memorabilia show in 1998.
After reading about the sharpie, I realized that was the thing that was bothering me. These were new photos signed by the players at sports memorabilia shows. I even have a photo of the opening game of the 1924 First Colored World Seriesthat several players (none of them in the photo) graciously signed at a black history show some years ago.
At the auction, the two photos got the attention of only two bidders, and I wasn't one of them. I decided that I'd wait for the vintage photos of black ball players. The pair of Manning and Harris photos sold for $20.