A Look at the Nearly Impossible 1885-1886 Memorial Game Ticket Cards

Only a handful of these rare 19th century baseball ticket cards are known to exist

I always love learning about new cards and in some instances, that happens when I make a purchase. That was the case recently when I had the opportunity to buy a rare card from the 19th century that was entirely new to me.

A few weeks back, I stumbled upon a card almost entirely by chance. And the minute I looked more into the card’s history, I knew I had to have it.

In 1885 and 1886, at least two benefit games were held for baseball players that died tragically. It isn’t known entirely how many of these games were played but, to date, we know of only two.

One game was held for a player named William Smith. Smith, who played for a Toronto baseball team, died on August 9 in what was called a ‘bathing’ incident. Other sources online, such as this one, cite that he actually died while diving. While he played with the team in Toronto at the time of the accident, he’s on record for also appearing in a major league game with the National League’s Cleveland Blues in 1884. But in any event, a game in 1886 was played in Smith’s honor with money raised going to his mother.

A second game was held the year before for Lewis Henke, who died during an actual game in the Southern League when he was involved in a collision. While I haven’t seen any record of Henke reaching the majors like Smith did, his death was the more widely known. It is sometimes said to be the first death in a professional baseball game, though I haven’t personally verified that.

Little is known about the games played in general. Supposedly, games for Henke were to be played by other teams in the Southern League but it isn’t clear if that ever happened. And in fact, there was a bit of a scandal surrounding even the lone known game that was played:

The Southern League owners pledged to play benefit games to raise money for Henke’s wife and child.

Tickets for the Atlanta benefit went on sale the final week of August. The Constitution said:

“Henke’s wife and child are destitute. There is not one of the thousands who have seen him play and applauded him his pluck and skill who could not afford to buy tickets to the benefit…every dollar taken in will go to his family.”

The benefit became a bit of a scandal in Atlanta; and it’s unclear whether games were played throughout the league as promised.

The Atlanta game raised $159.85 for the widow, but it took more than six months for the money to get to her. Ownership of the Atlanta franchise changed hands after the 1885 season and the former management of the club never gave the money raised from the game to Henke’s family.

In February of 1886 The Macon Telegraph said the new chairman of the Atlanta Baseball Association, Steve Ryan had advanced the money to the widow and “received a guarantee that he will be reimbursed” by the former owners.

Sheesh. Back to the cards.

About Those Cards

Tickets from these games were not even widely known until around 2003. While they are tickets, they actually have the appearance of a true baseball card. That, perhaps, is the reason PSA (the only grading company that has graded these cards, to my knowledge) calls them both a Souvenir Ticket and a Memorial Card.

Measuring approximately 2 3/8″ x 3 7/8″, the cards are a similar size to today’s cards. They’ve got black borders with the fronts including the player’s image. Similar to cabinet style cards that were popular at that time, the picture is a real photographic sepia image affixed to the cardboard backing. Fronts include a description of the player and his untimely death. The back indicates it is a souvenir ticket and include a watermark-type of marking indicating the price. At least two different prices of tickets are known — one for fifty cents and a second for $2.00. Given how few of these tickets exist, it’s possible that some were sold for different amounts, too.

Another reason that these are considered to be more than tickets is how they are identified on the back. While they did provide admittance to the game, the back clearly states that the bearer was not to give it to the ticket holder at the gate. Instead they were to keep it in memory of the player. These ‘tickets’ were very much collectible cards to be kept as souvenirs.

How Many Exist and Known Sales

How many were kept or even distributed, of course, is not known. But given that Henke’s game raised only about $160 according to that newspaper account, it is clear that a relatively small number of these would have been distributed.

At fifty cents a ticket, that represents a crowd of 320 people. Some Smith tickets were sold at $2.00 each and if more expensive tickets were sold at Henke’s game, that would mean there was an even smaller crowd, of course. Then again, ownership could have also taken in more money but deducted their expenses from the total.

In short, we don’t know exactly how many were issued for each game. But given the small amount found today, we almost certainly know that it was not many. A few hundred per game?

In 2004, REA had the pleasure of auctioning off both — at the time, the only known examples. The pair sold for $1,725. A year later, the same pair surfaced in a Heritage auction, selling for $2,151. A decade later, in 2015, the cards again showed up but in a somewhat obscure auction and, clearly going under the radar, selling for only $615 with a pair of other tickets.

Both of those cards were graded as only Authentic by PSA. The only other graded example (and the only other one I have seen at all) is also graded by PSA — the PSA 1.5 Smith card shown here that I now own. How many others, if any, exist is unclear.

I love finding rare items like these. Sure, collecting more common issues like T205 and T206 is fun. I love those sets. But when you can stumble upon the really rare stuff like this — that’s a large part of the reason I collect.

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