Ten Things You Might Not Know About Early Baseball

Disclaimer: If you have read my latest book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, or just happen to be a real smartypants, you know all this already and may as well find something else to amuse. This little entry in Our Game is not meant to be definitive on any point; more may be learned from the book, or just ask for explanation via the comment box.

1.         When was baseball first played in America? 

A game by that name was documented in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1791 but was probably played in that state way earlier. A game called baste or baste ball, which was probably just a regional variant spelling, was played at Princeton College in 1786. 

2.         Who invented baseball?

Neither Abner Doubleday nor Alexander Cartwright … not any one individual, certainly. But three other men had more to do with baseball’s rise than those two: William Rufus Wheaton, Daniel Lucius Adams, and Louis Fenn Wadsworth.

3.         What did Wheaton do?

Wheaton (not Cartwright) wrote the first baseball rules for another club (the Gothams) and copied them, virtually unchanged, eight years later for the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of 1845.

4.         What did Adams do?

Adams (not Cartwright) set the base paths at ninety feet, the pitching distance at 45 feet (its distance from the 1850s well into the era of professional league play, enduring until 1880). He also created the position of shortstop in 1849–50.

5.         What did Wadsworth do?

Wadsworth (not Cartwright) is responsible for setting the number of men to the side at nine and the number of innings required to complete a game likewise at nine. In doing so he bucked the majority of his fellow Knickerbockers, who preferred the number seven. (Wouldn’t need so many closers today if Wadsworth had lost his argument.)

6.         OK, so maybe Cartwright didn’t do as much as he is credited with on his Hall of Fame plaque—but surely Doubleday did something!

Like Cartwright he went to his grave in the early 1890s not knowing he had invented baseball, and no one credited either man with that remarkable feat. Doubleday DID start something—the Civil War, by firing the first shot in response to the Confederate assault upon Fort Sumter. And he was a Sanskrit-reading mystic, an odd fact that is crucial for understanding how he came to be  the (symbolic) Father of Baseball.

7.         When did baseball cards appear on the scene?

If a card is understood to be an item mass produced for sale, then the first would be the illustrated ticket to the inaugural soiree of the Magnolia Ball Club, an event that took place in 1844 to celebrate the club’s founding the year before. This aggregation of ballplaying brothel keepers, billiard hall owners, and bigamist aldermen was unknown to history until just a few years ago, when I discovered evidence that its members had cavorted at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken two years before the Knickerbockers arrived there.

 8.         Who was baseball’s first national hero?

Jim Creighton of the Brooklyn Excelsiors. Perfecting a low, swooping underhand delivery with an imperceptible wrist snap that was technically illegal at the time, he dominated hitters as no pitcher before him had ever done. That his success was due in part to cheating—compounded by his receipt of under-the table payments at a time professionalism was likewise illegal—troubled only a few in baseball’s rowdy formative years. When he died at the age of twenty-one in 1862, shortly after injuring himself with a too vigorous swing of the bat, his legend was immediately burnished by those seeking to elevate baseball, and a huge monument was erected over his remains at Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery.

9.       Who was the first African American to play major-league baseball?

Not Jackie Robinson in 1947, not Moses Fleetwood Walker in 1884 … but William Edward White in 1879. The regular Providence Grays’ first baseman, Joe Start, was injured and unable to play against the visiting Cleveland Blues  on June 21, 1879. White, a student ballplayer at Brown University who was the son of a Georgia slave owner and his house servant, played in his place, with so little fanfare  that his distinction as an African American went unnoted until 2004. The Providence Morning Star raved about White’s major-league debut and the support from his Brown University teammates. “The Varsity boys lustily cheered their favorite at times, and howled with delight when he got a safe hit in the ninth inning, as they also did his magnificent steals of second in that and the fifth inning.” Though he returned to play for Brown University in 1880, White never played another big league game.

10.       Who was the first Hispanic American to play big-league baseball?

Cuban-born Esteban (Steve) Bellán was a naturalized American who played with the Troy Haymakers in 1871, the first year of baseball’s first professional league, the National Association.

1 Comment

Great fun and great information. Getting the better story out there will bring out the baseball historians of our collective future.

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