At the National: Lelands displays NY Renaissance warm-up – ‘the greatest team nobody knows’
By Dan Good | Contributing Editor
Above an iconic baseball card and million-dollar trophy rests an item Josh Evans has spent three decades searching for – a jersey representing the early 1900s New York Renaissance.
“The Rens are the great basketball team of all-time that nobody knows,” said Evans, chairman for Lelands Auctions.
Lelands is offering a Rens warm-up worn by Inman Jackson.
“It’s the only Rens piece we’ve ever seen,” Evans said.
The Rens were an all-black team that won the inaugural World Professional Basketball Tournament in 1939, earning the title over such squads as the Harlem Globetrotters and Original Celtics.
The team began play in the 1920s, wowing audiences at Harlem’s Renaissance Casino. As the country’s economy worsened, the Rens and other top pro teams took to the road, playing in barnstorming match-ups across the country.
The Renaissance consistently endured racial struggle. Fans threatened and taunted players. Restaurants and hotels denied them service. Decades before Jackie Robinson played Major League Baseball, the Rens and their opponents showcased sports multiculturalism.
But despite the successes – including an 88-game win streak in 1932-33 and team induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1963 – the Rens have been generally forgotten with time. Few remember the contributions of standout players William “Pop” Gates and Charles “Tarzan” Cooper.
The Rens’ faded legacy makes the jersey find even more meaningful for Evans.
“We were stunned,” he said. “It came out of the Cincinnati area, and there it was.”
Jackson, who wore the warm-up, was a longtime Globetrotters player who later coached the revamped Rens.
The item is currently for sale by Lelands, but if it doesn’t sell, the company plans to add the item to to its November auction, a sale that Evans hopes will draw added attention to the team.
“Hopefully people will know,” he said. “It’s a limited group of people who collect that really important basketball stuff, but they’re out there, and they’ll see it.”
One Lelands item that lots of people are seeing at this week’s National Sports Collectors Convention is a 1909-11 T206 Honus Wagner, graded PSA 2.
Cost? $1.2 million.
Evans has been tracking Wagner’s T206 card ever since it captured America’s collecting fancy.
“I bought one at the National from Al Rosen’s table in the 1980s for $7,000 and owned it,” Evans said. “It’s nice to own them on consignment, but to own a Wagner, that’s the thing.”
He was also in attendance when Southeby’s sold the “Holy Grail” card – which was later exposed as being trimmed.
Does Evans regret selling his piece of Americana?
“I’m never upset about selling a Wagner, because I’ll always get another one,” he said.
An item Evans didn’t think he’d own again was Jackie Robinson’s 1947 Rookie of the Year plaque. The award – now named for the pioneer – hit the auction block in 1999. Lelands recently bought the item back from the buyer, hoping to sell it again for one million dollars.
“To me, that’s the most historic award there is, Jackie Robinson for breaking the color line,” Evans said.