In June 2004, when ANTIQUES ROADSHOW slid into Omaha, Nebraska, a man showed up with a collection of memorabilia that he inherited from his great-great-uncle, Leslie Nunamaker, a former major league baseball catcher in the early 1900s. His collection included a baseball bat, a ticket stub from the first game of the 1915 World Series, and cufflinks celebrating two championship teams Nunamaker played with, the 1912 Red Sox and the 1920 Cleveland Indians.
But the collection also included a more mysterious object: another lone cufflink, shaped like a baseball, engraved with the date August 23, 1920. What happened on that day?
Appraiser Simeon Lipman speculated on-air that the piece might have been related to one of the most tragic incidents in baseball history. On August 16, 1920, just a week before the date engraved on the cufflink, one of Nunamaker's teammates on the Indians, Ray Chapman, a shortstop known for his leadership, was beaned by a pitch.
"Sadly, Chapman was killed," Simeon explained. "He was the player who got hit in the head by pitcher Carl Mays. He died a day after." The popular Chapman, his brilliant career cut short, remains the only professional baseball player ever killed during a game (surely thanks to the advent of protective batting helmets, which finally became mandatory in the major leagues in the late 1950s). Mays, a feared pitcher in his day, had frozen Chapman with a spitball, a pitch that moves about wildly and can be difficult for the batter to follow — because it is smeared with some sort of horrible goo, usually anything from spit to ear wax, snot or even peanut butter. After Chapman's death, major league baseball outlawed the pitch.
"What's interesting here," Simeon told the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW audience, "is that on August 23rd, 1920, the Cleveland Indians were in Boston. They played a doubleheader. Now, why that's engraved with that date, I'm not quite sure. Perhaps they played a charity game, a benefit game for the Chapman family. That we're going to have to research a little more."
Simeon first checked out old New York City newspapers — he works in New York City — but found nothing related to the day. Next, he visited the New York Public Library and dug up an old Boston Herald, a newspaper that's still around, and read that on August 23, 1920, the Shriners (the international fraternity known for its hospitals and red fezes) honored Nunamaker, also a Shriner, presenting him with a set of embossed cufflinks. So Simeon's initial hunch was not quite right: the day had nothing to do with Chapman's death. Still, he was satisfied with his search.
"It's always interesting to find out what you have," Simeon said. "You gotta keep digging. If I had found out that Boston had a memorial game for Chapman or something for his wife, the piece would have been worth more. But now at least we know what it is."
In a strange footnote to the Chapman tragedy, the Indians rallied after his death to win 24 of their 31 final games and nipped the White Sox for the pennant at season's end. Some of the fuel for the pennant drive was provided by Joe Sewell, Chapman's replacement at shortstop. He batted .329 and had 12 RBIs in 22 games down the stretch, eventually going on to become a Hall of Famer. The Indians defeated the Brooklyn Robins (later the Dodgers) in the World Series, dedicating their victory to the teammate they were still mourning.
Update 8.22.2005: Medal, or Watch Fob?
How baseball-playing men of the era put their championship medals to good use (when they weren't wearing spikes and knickerbockers)
While looking over a collection of early Major League baseball objects related to former Red Sox player Les Nunamaker, sports memorabilia expert Simeon Lipman was awestruck by one item in particular: Nunamaker's 1912 World Series gold medal. "I've never seen one outside of the Hall of Fame or outside of the historical society," Lipman said to the owner, who had inherited the collection. "These medals were like the World Series rings are today."
Simeon explained that championship baseball teams of a century ago had such medals made to celebrate the accomplishments of players and staff; wealthy championship teams sometimes even decorated them with gems.
Back in 1912, according to the fashion of the era, medals such as these were often worn by their owners as impressive watch fobs — chains or ribbons from which a man would suspend his pocket watch and store in his vest or trouser pocket. After wristwatches became the fashion in the years following World War I, though, watch fobs began to go the way of pocket watches themselves.
None the less, the value of this Red Sox "watch fob," has hardly faded. Simeon estimates its value today at about $20,000.