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SPI Origins –
The formative years

by L.M. Yerkes

Sports Philatelists International was originally organized as the Sports Unit of the American Topical Association. Formally organized in April 1951, the Sports Unit published three issues of its journal, Sportcast before suspending operations in December 1951. Early growth was slow and unsteady with Sportcast reappearing in more formal fashion as Volume 1, Number 1 in October 1953. Edward J. Flath was listed as being the Secretary-Treasurer and Miss Catherine D. Caspary the Acting Editor. There were 15 dues-paying members.

The purpose of the Sports Unit was “to build through social activities an international fellowship of collectors primarily concerned with the development of sport stamp collecting.” The officers of the Board of Directors consisted of a president, one or more vice-presidents, and a secretary.

Membership increased dramatically at first, and by February, 1954 the Sports Unit had 50 members. Of these, Atushi Sekimoto, William P. Donan, and P. J. Drossos are still members of Sports Philatelists International.

Some of the early articles of Sportcast included “Mythology on Sports Stamps” by J. Howard Watters, “Collecting Sport Stamps” by A.H. Segnit, and “A Study of the Olympic Issues in My Collection” by William H. Russell. An alphabetical listing of sports stamps beginning with the letter “A” was begun in 1954.

Publication of Sportcast was sporadic, and there was a two-year lapse before Volume 2, Number 1 appeared in December 1957. Nine more months passed before issue number 2 was distributed. The membership dues were set at $1.00 per year.

The Sports Unit was reorganized in September 1960 under the leadership of Robert M. Bruce, President; Edward J. Flath, First Vice-President; Singrey Hughes, Second Vice-President; and Lawrence McMillan, Secretary-Treasurer. Travis Land became editor of the official publication, the name of which was changed to Sportstamps.

Sports stamp collecting was the most popular topical at that time. The first issue of Sportstamps in September 1960 listed nine sports stamp catalogs and three other publications devoted to sports stamp collecting.

The reorganized Sports Unit listed as their purpose “To promote the collection and study of postage stamps and related material dealing with sports and recreation.” There were 90 charter members listed including present-day SPI members Jerome Husak, Sherwin Podolsky, Cliff Jeger, George Kobylka, Charles Nevins, William Donan, Atushi Sekimoto, and James Carlin.

In March 1961, the first auction was held with S. J. Hughes acting as auction manager. Of interest is the fact that participating sellers were to pay a 20% commission on sold lots and 10% commission on unsold lots with a 50-cent minimum charge for any lot sold or unsold. There were a total of 331 lots listed of which 151 consisted of stamps. A total of 67 members placed bids of which 53 were successful. This first endeavor enhanced the organization’s treasury as 88% of the lots were sold.

The year 1961 witnessed considerable growth in membership. The next list of members included their collecting interests. From a total of 178 members, 75% stated their interest as “general sports.” This is greatly different from SPI members’ rather divergent specialty interests of today. One could be a general collector in those days because there were far fewer stamp-issuing entities then and the number of new sports stamp issues on an annual basis were far fewer than today. Even then, however, collectors complained about the “excessive” number of new stamp issues and speculative and unauthorized new issues coming onto the market.

Sportstamps was published on a monthly basis. The April 1961 issue contained the first advertising, including that of S. Serebrakian. This firm still advertises in our Journal of Sports Philately today. For $2.00 you could obtain an 1894 Olympic seal from Otto Mayer of the International Olympic Committee. An article was written about whether or not to hinge your collection. This seems to be a subject of ongoing debate and it is doubtful if it will ever be resolved.

A second auction was held in March 1962. This auction was perhaps the largest ever held, containing 904 lots. There seemed to be great interest and enthusiasm with 47 sellers and 102 bidders participating. The auction proceeds were looked upon those days as the principal source of revenue for the Sports Unit treasury. This auction provided much needed income
as 89.5% of the lots were sold.

At the time, in order to be a member of the Sports Unit you were required to first become a member of the American Topical Association (ATA). It was felt by the early founders that this requirement was inhibiting membership, and in 1962 a proposal was placed before the membership. Members were to vote on whether or not to establish an open membership without the prerequisite of membership in the ATA. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal, 199 to 9.

When the ATA denied the Sports Unit’s request that the prerequisite of ATA membership be removed, President Bob Bruce announced plans to form an independent organization. In the July 1962 issue of Sportstamps, the announcement was made to form this new organization. It was to be called Sports Philatelists International and the programs begun by the Unit were to be continued.

The last issue of Sportstamps was published in August 1962 and a notice was given that the officers and directors of the Sports Unit were resigning effective August 31, 1962. Sports Philatelists International began functioning as an independent organization on September 1, 1962.

From the first volume of the new publication, the Journal of Sports Philately (JSP), we find that there was increased growth in membership (400 by January 1963), and that a great deal of effort was made by the early organizers to establish a first-rate topical group. Six people worked on the membership committee and there was a sales department as well as a translation department for 28 languages. Three affiliates were organized: #1, Sports Collectors of Southern California; #2, Sports Stamp Study Circle of New York; and #3, Sports Philatelists of the Philippines. The only requirement for affiliate status was that five members of the affiliate had to be members of SPI. The benefits of affiliate status were unclear, and today none of these affiliates appear to be active.

In addition to auction income, another important source of income for SPI was from advertisements in JSP. Early advertisers were numerous and included Moe Luff, Diplomat Stamp Shop, Vic Wailly, K-Line Publishing, Henri Trachtenberg, Serebrakian, Fred Howard, and Carl Magerl. A few still support SPI with their advertising today but most no longer deal in
sports or Olympics stamps.

The SPI logo appeared for the first time in the first issue of the Journal of Sports Philately. The design was an original by Robert S. Oesch. This first issue appeared in September 1962 with the editor listed as F. Quentin Farr and the publisher as William Brecht.