Keeping baseball document cheats at bay
Indeed, she was born that day in 1928. She moved into her much loved home in The Carlisle, a retirement community in Naples, that day in 2007. And on July 5 this year, Mrs. Mills was credited in The
New York Times with furthering a muchpublicized FBI investigation into the theft and fraudulent auctioning of rare baseball documents.
A few weeks before the Times article
was published, Mrs. Mills had received a phone call from an FBI agent asking her a question that probably no one else could have answered. The agent needed to know if a certain letter had been part of the New York Public Library's Spalding Collection, a repository of early baseball history.
The letter was from a 19th century baseball player who had fallen upon hard times. He was asking baseball pioneer Harry Wright to help him out with some money.
As soon as Mrs. Mills heard about its content, she remembered that she had seen the letter. Then she verified her memory "by consulting the bibliography notes to my late (first) husband's doctoral dissertation." Indeed, that letter had been in the New York Public Library in the early 1950s when, as Dorothy Seymour, she had helped Harold Seymour prepare his dissertation at Cornell University. The notes she consulted in order to answer the FBI agent's query made reference to it.
Now, the FBI investigator told Mrs. Mills, the letter had turned up in an auction of rare baseball documents. There was already suspicion about the provenance of that letter; Mrs. Mills' information provided evidence that it had very likely been stolen from the library's Spalding Collection.
There is growing concern that huge numbers of collectible historical documents are finding their way into auctions without any proof that the sellers are the legitimate owners. Theft from public collections is rampant, and most of it has probably not been discovered.
Based on Mrs. Mills' evidence, the letter and related items were withdrawn from the All-Star Game auction, which was organized by Hunt Auctions on behalf of Major League Baseball.
Mrs. Mills says there are related cases involving Sotheby's and items put up for auction on eBay, although she has not been consulted on those as of yet. The FBI investigation and what it suggests about the vulnerability of historical records, however, remains very much on her mind. Her participation in the matter is gratifying, she says, and she fervently hopes "that the person or persons involved can be brought to justice."
She also says she is deeply disappointed in the New York Public Library for its failure "to protect its holdings, which are part of our national heritage."
In her office in The Carlisle is a painting of the leonine entrance to the library — for many years a kind of second home for Mrs. Mills — which she has considered "turning… to face the wall."
A unique collaboration
So how did the FBI find out about Dorothy Jane Mills, who has lived rather quietly in Naples for 10 years? It goes back to Harold Seymour's dissertation, which grew in time into a three-volume history of baseball, published by Oxford University Press.
Still in print and recognized as a masterwork, "Baseball: The Early Years" (1960), "Baseball: The Golden Years" (1971) and "Baseball: The People's Game" (1990) established Mr. Seymour as the first and primary historian of baseball. Few, however, knew that the 40-year project was one to which his wife made major contributions as a researcher, organizer, correspondent and writer.
The material collected for the three volumes is a large part of The Harold and Dorothy Seymour Papers housed in the Kroch Library at Cornell University. That same FBI agent is now making use of this unique resource to carry forward his investigation. Mrs. Mills says she expects to hear more from the FBI as the investigator explores the Seymour Papers and "begins to look through the original notes taken back in the 1950s from documents that are now missing."
'The queen of baseball history'
If Harold Seymour (who died in 1992, leaving Dorothy a widow — she married Roy Mills, a retired Canadian Royal Air Force officer, in 1993) is acknowledged as the king of the field in baseball history, then she is the queen. Together, they have been honored by the Society for American Baseball Research with an award named after them. At each annual conference, SABR awards the Seymour Medal to the author of the best baseball history or biography published the preceding year.
Before Mrs. Mills became involved with the issue of stolen documents, another baseball historian — and avid collector — Peter Nash, was already exploring what seemed like shady dealings in the auctioning of baseball artifacts and documents.
"While he was doing research at the New York Public Library," says Mrs. Mills, "Nash discovered that a great many things were missing from Harry Wright's papers." It was Mr. Nash who suggested to the FBI agent that Mrs. Mills' expertise might be of use. A call to the Baseball Hall of Fame provided the agent with her phone number, which resulted in bringing him that important clue and awareness of the Seymour Papers at Cornell.
A diverse writing career
Dorothy Jane Mills' career as a writer includes much more than writing about baseball history. She has published three historical novels set in Europe in the 1930s, a vegetarian cookbook and about a dozen classic books for children. Several of her books for youngsters have been reissued, so that children are now enjoying books once enjoyed by their grandparents, including "Ann Likes Red" (published in 1965 and 2001), "Ballerina Bess" (1965 and 2002) and "The Tent" (1965 and 2003).
Mrs. Mills' 22nd book will come out in spring 2010. "Chasing Baseball: Our Obsession with Its History, Numbers, People, and Places" argues that "baseball remains deep in the heart of Americans."
While waiting for its arrival from Mac- Farland & Co., she's working on a novel about a young woman baseball player in Depression-era Cleveland. "The heroine, like a few excellent women players of the past, is signed to an organized baseball contract only to have the contract cancelled by a higher authority because the signee was a woman," she explains. "My heroine, unlike the real rejected women of the past, decides she's not going to accept that. What she does about it may surprise readers.
"This novel is darker than anything I have written before. I hope I can pull it off."