October 2011

Selling My First Story

Here’s a quickie–beware, long historical pieces are in the offing–that may hold interest for writers struggling to crack the marketplace. Maybe the circumstances of how I sold my first article some thirty years ago are sufficiently antique to be, well, historical.

I had already written a few baseball books, which confirmed that I was a published writer if not yet a very good one. Writer’s block had plagued me from the outset: I could not write two sentences in succession without reversing course to edit the previous one. I knew myself, I thought—a tortoise who required a distant finish line to stand a chance of success. The idea of writing for a newspaper or a magazine seemed preposterous. I would prefer to torture myself and my readers with another book.

Upon which Cliff Kachline, historian at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, put my name forward to The Sporting News (TSN) to write an account of the annual convention of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), soon to be held on a suburban campus of the University of  Toronto. TSN had never covered a SABR convention before, but this was the summer of 1981, when a strike by baseball’s players left all sports publications in desperate need of sidebar copy.

TSN offered $125, but I was to pay my own way to Toronto and had to file the story Sunday night upon landing back at Albany Airport. That gave me a single afternoon to write the whole story, a fearsome prospect, but I was too thrilled to say no. I had read the magazine more or less religiously since I was a boy; here was a sign, maybe, that I had “made it.” Despite not being a SABR member I could wangle my way into the confab (that’s old-fashioned TSN lingo) as “press” or I could simply pay the $15 dues. I did the latter, to permit unobtrusive mingling; oh, I was so clever.

By the time I reached the convention Cliff had let everyone know that I was covering it for The Sporting News. The shy types who might provide the best stories shied away from me, while the authors looking to promote their new books tagged along hungrily, hoping to be quoted. Stuffing my notebook in my back pocket I met some truly interesting individuals along the way; these included Pete Palmer and Bob Carroll, with whom I would go on to co-create many books over the next twenty-five years, including Total Baseball and Total Football. 

I wrote the story on a four-pound Brother electronic typewriter, a quirkily useful device at a time when portable computers were more aptly termed luggable. Touching down at Albany Airport I raced to the Western Union office downtown, on State Street. There they had a teletype/fax equivalent that would miraculously zip my dot-matrix copy to St. Louis in two jiffies. It was 10:00 at night, and the story HAD to be there by midnight if it was to run.

It did, in the issue of August 8, 1981, under the dismaying headline “Trivia Hits New Heights at  Baseball Research Parley.” All the same, I framed the story and can see it on the wall above my desk as I write this, one of the 40-50 deadline pieces I now write each year.

Professional Baseball’s First Championship

This story originally appeared in the 2011 Official Major League Baseball World Series Program, which is available at mlb.com. Now that the 2011 World Series is over—and it was one of the best in recent memory—permit me to share with you the story of a season finale like no other in baseball’s history. Today we date the modern World Series, between the pennant winners of the American and National Leagues, to 1903. However, students of the game will know that an earlier version of the World Series existed from 1884 to 1890, and that in all other years of professional league play, a champion was declared at the end of the regular season and that was that. (The Temple Cup Series of 1894–1897, held between the league’s top two finishers, did not convey a championship to the winner.)

Major League Baseball dates its inception to 1876, but nearly all of the men who played in the newly formed National League (NL) of that year had played in its predecessor circuit: the National Association of Professional Base Ball Clubs (NA), which operated from 1871 through 1875. In its final four years, the NA’s pennant winner was the Boston Red Stockings, who easily outdistanced the field. But in 1871, baseball’s first pennant race went down to the final day amid improbable and poignant circumstances that will never be equaled.

When the NA was founded in a meeting held at Collier’s Saloon in New York on March 17, 1871, it was ruled that each club would play five games with the other eight and the winner of three games will have won that “championship series.” This was a term designed to separate league contests from the many exhibition games that each club played along the way. The NA “whip pennant” would be awarded to the team winning the most series against the other league teams, not the most games (the rule until 1883) or the top winning percentage (ever since).

Of the nine clubs that paid a ten-dollar fee to enter the new league, three battled for the pennant from the outset: Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Harry Wright’s Boston Red Stockings took their name as well as several key players—including his brother George, the game’s greatest star—from his famous Cincinnati nine, undefeated in 1869 yet disbanded only a year later. Chicago had built its White Stocking club on the Cincinnati model, luring talented players from other clubs with rich offers. For 1871 the club officers would build a new ballpark at Randolph and Michigan on the lakefront‚ of which the New York Clipper opined, “They will have accommodations on their grounds to seat 6‚500 people. With the single exception of being somewhat narrow‚ they will have one of the finest ballparks in the country.” Philadelphia’s venerable Athletic Base Ball Club, founded in 1860 as an amateur organization, had paid their players since the Civil War in a more or less open secret. Despite the loss of third baseman Harry Schafer to the new Boston club, the Athletics reclaimed native son Levi Meyerle, a powerful hitter, from Chicago to take his place.

In this first year of league play, even teams that fell out of the pennant race (or out of the league itself, as with Fort Wayne’s Kekiongas) could point to enduring accomplishments. Troy’s Haymakers finished in the middle of the pack at 13–15 but provided professional baseball’s first Hispanic player in third baseman Esteban Bellán, as well as a Jewish slugger in Lipman Pike, who batted .377 and tied for the league lead in home runs.

Chicago broke from the gate with a rush, winning its first 19 games, including 7 league contests, before losing to the Mutuals in early June before 10,000 spectators at Brooklyn’s Union Grounds. The Athletics’ impressive array of hitters kept pace, taking a game from Troy on June 28 by a score of 49–33; each team scored in all 9 innings. However, on August 30, the Athletics succumbed to the visiting White Stockings by a score of 6–3‚ the club’s lowest run total since it started professional play. Chicago pitcher George “The Charmer” Zettlein held the Athletics to four hits.

On September 11, the White Stockings topped the standings with a record of 17–8, trailed closely by the Athletics at 17–9 and Boston at 15–9. (If these game totals seem low, reflect on the transportation difficulties of the era and each club’s copious scheduling of profitable exhibition contests.) Yet because games won and lost, and the resulting percentage, did not decide the champion, the important fact at this point of the season was that Boston and Chicago had each won three series from other clubs and lost none, while Philadelphia had won three but lost one, to Boston.

As the season wore on, the Athletics were increasingly hobbled by injury. Center fielder John “Count” Sensenderfer—any player who was a favorite of the ladies was invariably nicknamed thus—went out for the year with a knee injury. Second baseman Al Reach—who like Boston’s Al Spalding would go on to create a sporting goods empire—would sit out crucial contests in the final days. Pitcher Dick McBride missed three straight games in September.

Heading into the home stretch, Boston had only six games to play to complete all of its series and by sweeping them would take the championship. But they lost a critical game at Chicago on September 29 that gave the interclub series to the White Stockings. On October 7, Boston rebounded to defeat Troy to claim that series.

On the next day, Sunday, October 8 at about 9:00 p.m., the great Chicago Fire commenced, legendarily when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a kerosene lantern. As it continued to rage on October 9, ultimately killing hundreds and destroying four square miles of the city, the Athletics defeated Troy, 15–3. The White Stockings were still very much in the race, but the conflagration had cost them their ballpark, their equipment and uniforms and, it appeared, their very livelihoods. Certainly they had an awfully rough time, most were broke, and they may have been actually hungry as they made their way from one ballpark to another in search of a payday.

While benefit games were hastily arranged for the citizens of Chicago, and towns all across the nation organized relief committees, no one came forward to aid the White Stockings. Desperate, the Chicago players decided not only to play their scheduled National Association games in the east, but all of the exhibition games that could be hastily arranged. Wearing borrowed uniforms of varying hues and styles, they won often enough; however, they were clobbered in a penultimate game at Troy on October 23, one that might have secured the championship; at one point they had trailed by 15–0.

The weather was bad for the White Stockings’ eastern swing; most of their exhibitions had to be canceled, and the deciding game with the Athletics—scheduled for Brooklyn’s Union Grounds, a neutral site—was postponed several times before finally taking place on October 30. An Athletics win would give them the pennant outright; a Chicago win would throw the race into a disputed tie, with Boston reentering the computation.

Play was called at 3:10 p.m., with Marty Swandell of the Brooklyn Eckfords as the umpire. Because of the wind and damp, only 600 fans occupied the grounds that had welcomed 10,000 in June when the White Stockings had played the Mutuals. Chicago appeared in suits of various origins, ragtag in the extreme. Mike Brannock, a player picked up for this eastern trip to fill in at third base, wore a complete Mutual uniform, except for the belt which was that of the Eckfords. Center fielder Tom Foley was attired in a complete Eckford suit. Zettlein wore a huge shirt with a mammoth “A” on the bib, no doubt from the Brooklyn Atlantics. Shortstop Ed Duffy appeared in a uniform borrowed from the junior Fly Aways. Some Chicago players wore black hats, others were bareheaded.

The Athletics were not without problems of their own. Without the services of Reach, Sensenderfer, and reserve Tom Pratt, they fielded only eight men at first as first baseman Fisler took Reach’s spot at second base and outfielder George Heubel came in to play first base. Hurriedly the veteran Nate Berkenstock, who had not played in a game since 1867, was drafted into service from the audience. Positioned in right field, the 40-year-old former Athletic would make a fine running catch to save a run, and made two other catches without miscue to gain his entry in the baseball encyclopedias as its oldest “rookie” until Satchel Paige.

The Athletics’ batting star was, not surprisingly, Long Levi Meyerle, whose three hits gave him a season-ending batting average of .492, the high-water mark in professional baseball history. But the hero of the game was pitcher Dick McBride. Pitted against Chicago’s ace Zettlein, who allowed only two earned runs himself, McBride took a shutout into the final frame.

Battling to avert a “Chicago”—a blanking synonymous with their city through a famous 9–0 blanking by the Mutuals in 1870—Zettlein sent a hot grounder to Meyerle which he kicked over to shortstop John Radcliff. He picked up the ball and made a try for the putout at first but threw wild, Zettlein making second. Zettlein scored on an out, but that was all the offense Chicago could muster. When Fred Treacey flew out to Berkenstock to end the game, the applause was as much for the plucky fight of Chicago as the championship secured by the Athletics. The impoverished White Stockings played exhibition games into November, losing to the Mutuals in Brooklyn and the Haymakers in Troy, amid poor weather and slim attendance, just so they could earn their train fare home.

Baseball in Chicago, which had been built up with such great expectations and expenditures, would now be mothballed for the next two seasons; when the club returned in 1874 it would do so with a chip on its shoulder. Today we know this White Stocking franchise as the Chicago Cubs.

Boston regrouped to capture the flag in each of the National Association’s following four years, eventually becoming so proficient that fan interest in other cities began to wane. In 1875 the Red Stockings’ astounding proficiency—a season record of 71–8, including a 37–0 mark at home; a 26–game win streak to open the season—may have destroyed the competitive balance required to hold fan interest. But the club continued in the new National League of 1876; they are the lineal forebear of today’s Atlanta Braves.

And what of the champion Athletics of 1871, who began play before the Civil War? They too joined the NL of 1876 but were expelled at season’s end, along with the Mutuals of New York. They bear no relation to later clubs calling themselves the Athletics, either in Philadelphia or Kansas City or Oakland.

***

Born to DH

In the game that settled the 1871 championship, Levi Samuel Meyerle led his team at bat, going 3-for-5. With one more hit he would have hit .500for the season! He dominated his league as no one would—major or minor—for half a century, driving in 40 runs in 26 games while scoring 45. His .700 slugging percentage would stand until Babe Ruth’s 1920 campaign.

A local lad, Meyerle came to the Athletics in 1869 at age 19, following three years with Philadelphia amateur clubs. A gangly kid at 6’1”—at a time when the average height of an American male was 5’6”—Long Levi was tried at every position on the field, disappointing at each. For the 1871 champions he manned third base with jaw-droppingly awful results: more errors (45) than assists (39), and a fielding percentage of .646.

That may explain why, after one more year with the A’s, he went on to play for a new club each year from 1873 through 1877, despite a lifetime batting average of .356 across the National Association, National League, and a three game swan song in the Union Association of 1884. After many years in the construction trades, Levi Meyerle died in 1921, his passing unnoted in the sports pages.

 

The Baseball Press Emerges

With this thirteenth of sixteen articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by yours truly, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball.

These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1853.5, reflects that it is the fifth Protoball entry for the year 1853.

1853.5 The Baseball Press Emerges

John Thorn

“BASE BALL AT HOBOKEN: The first friendly game of the season, between the Gotham and Knickerbocker Base Ball Clubs was played on the grounds of the latter on the 5th inst. The game was commenced on Friday the 1st, but owing to the storm had to be postponed, the Knickerbockers making nine aces to two of the Gothams, the following is the score for both days.”

The Knicks won, 21–12, according to an abbreviated box score, which uses “No. of Outs” and not “Hands Lost” in the left-hand column, and “Runs,” not “Aces,” in the right-hand column. Paul Wendt estimates that this is the first certain Knick-rules box score known, and the first since the October 1845 games.1 Henry Chadwick may have been baseball’s most important writer in its early days, but he was not its first. That honor would go to William Cauldwell, who, like Chadwick, was born in 1824. “I can speak as a New York boy from away back,” Cauldwell told the Mills Commission in 1905, “and in an all my experiences I had no knowledge of the prominence of a ball game called ‘rounders.’ I played ball in my native city from the time I was (to use an old time phrase) ‘knee high to a mosquito’ dating back to a period when Fourteenth Street was considered out of town.”2

Cauldwell would have played ball in lower Manhattan, near Crosby Street, for he went to primary school at the “High School for Males,” at No. 36 Crosby near Broome Street. As editor of the weekly Sunday Mercury, Cauldwell made mention of baseball on May 1, 1853, and later that year devoted space to the Knickerbocker–Gotham match of July 5. These were the first press accounts of baseball games since various newspapers covered the three October 1845 contests between clubs from Brooklyn and New York.

As Chadwick was not the first to cover baseball, neither was the New York Clipper. For decades after its debut number of April 30, 1853, the Clipper was never all about baseball, or even primarily so.3 Yet more than any other publication, it may be said to have transformed a boys’ game into the national pastime. To place in context how the Clipper advanced the status of baseball, let’s look at the sporting papers that paved its way.

I suggest that three essential ingredients facilitate the growth of any localized game to national sport. First, gambling. Adults must care about the outcome, and their willingness to place a wager is a reasonable measure of their interest. As a game matures, investors and civic boosters may pool their interests in order to absorb a greater risk, placing their bets on the protracted success of a club or a ball grounds. Second, statistics. Whether merely game scores or primitive box scores, these numerical attachments to prose accounts accord a mantle of importance to the matches—an importance like that of trade or transport or government; in addition, quantifying the game’s constituent parts further fuels the first mover of sport, gambling. Third, publicity. Regular press coverage is a necessary development to waft the enthusiasm exhibited at a single contest, however it may have been fueled, to those only reading about it afterward, often at great distance from the event.

Before baseball came to dominate the sporting scene in the last quarter of the 19th century, these three elements had previously advanced the popularity of other sports: the turf, the ring, sculling, cricket, and the pit (blood sports such as ratting, baiting, cockfighting, and dog-fighting). Whether the crowd drawn by the activity was low or genteel, the ingredients and the progression were similar. American sporting papers, beginning in the 1820s, paved the way for each sport to mature by providing records and prognostications related to events of interest to the sporting set and—underlying it all—the basis of a potential wager.

Despite the nationwide surge of interest during the Jacksonian era in newspapers and magazines touching upon all topics—from politics to religion, from literature to commerce—sporting coverage lagged. Devotees of turf, ring, field, and stream had to await the arrival by packet ship of the weekly Bell’s Life in London, founded in 1822. Three years earlier, Baltimorean John Stuart Skinner had established The American Farmer, the first agricultural journal in this country; in 1823 he replaced it with the  monthly American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, which became America’s first enduring sporting paper.

Skinner sought for his new publication an encyclopedic status, but while industrious in collecting material for his magazine, unfortunately he published whatever was sent to him relating to the horse, and just as it was sent. His indifference to fact and straying attentions would continue to plague sporting papers, as the standards of self-promotion and humbuggery were more readily met than those of journalism.

A competitor to Skinner’s magazine arose in 1831.4 Founded by the aptly named William Trotter Porter, the Spirit of the Times was a high-toned weekly of horse literature and southwestern wit. Under his aegis it became a landmark in its approach to sport and, with nationally distributed subscription, a significant part of American periodical history. Porter pitched his paper to “gentlemen of standing, wealth and intelligence, the very Corinthian columns of the community,” rather than the crowd attracted by sensationalistic sheets of the day like The Whip or the Police Gazette (of which outlaw Jesse James was a noteworthy subscriber).5

An early–1830s competitor to Skinner and Porter was the sumptuous (and thus not surprisingly short-lived) New York Sporting Magazine and Annals of the American and English Turf, published by Cadwallader R. Colden with colored aquatints. Colden had written for Skinner’s publication under the pseudonym “An Old Turfman.” His own venture, launched in March 1833, ceased publication a year later, but it presaged the illustrated sporting papers to come.

Spirit of the Times began to cover cricket in 1837 (a match between elevens from Schenectady and Albany). Not until July 9, 1853, however, did it give notice to a baseball match, the one played between the Knickerbocker and Gotham clubs on July 5—the same noted in the fledgling Clipper one week later. Over the next few years, however, the Spirit would cover baseball much more assiduously than the Clipper. For a long time after it launched, the Clipper was seen as a cheap cousin of the flash or racy weeklies rather than as a competitor to Spirit of the Times. In 1853 the Clipper sold for two cents per copy at the city’s newsstands; the Spirit, if available there (it sold primarily via annual subscription), went for six cents per copy.

Although Spirit of the Times attracted a widely dispersed circulation that peaked at 40,000, it struggled to break even, it was said, because of the profligate habits of its proprietor. Porter lost his publication to his former pressman, John Richards, and looked for employment to George Wilkes, who had sold the Police Gazette, which he had co-founded. Wilkes took him under his wing, and started a new sporting paper called Porter’s Spirit of the Times. Porter died in 1858 (his death was reported on the day of the first Fashion Race Course game, July 20), litigation arose, and Wilkes finally withdrew from Porter’s Spirit of the Times and in September 1859 started Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times. For a while there were three sporting papers all claiming to be the original and only legitimate Spirit.6

Frank Queen (1823–1882), who created the Clipper, was born of working-class parents in Philadelphia. Self-educated, he was influenced by Frank Adriance, a cheap-book dealer, to think that a man could make a living by giving the public what it wanted. After arriving in New York in 1850, with Adriance’s help he set up as an operator of newsstands in the Bowery. This experience aided Queen in determining “the material most in popular demand,” which “suggested an opportunity for venturing upon his long cherished project of starting a newspaper of his own.”7

Connecting with well heeled Harrison Trent, who took the position of publisher, Queen launched the Clipper from 150 Fulton Street as a four-page weekly with six columns to the page. After three months the sheet was enlarged and its price was raised to three cents, “to enable us to meet the extra expense attendant upon the enlargement, and to employ additional reporters in the news department. The Clipper will now be enabled to keep the public advised of all movements transpiring in the Sporting and Theatrical world….”7

For some time, boxing and aquatics continued to form the core of the Clipper’s sporting coverage, supplemented by cricket, shooting, rat-baiting, and pedestrianism. In 1854 the paper did assign a reporter to cover yachting, billiards, cricket, and baseball—the expatriate Briton William H. Bray. In 1855 Queen bought Trent out. In 1857 he hired Chadwick to replace Bray. A few other sporting papers appeared in the years before 1865, including the California Spirit of the Times (1854), the Horse Journal (1855), the Philadelphia Police Gazette and Sporting Chronicle (1856), Billiard Cue (1856), Sportsman (1863), and San Francisco’s Our Mazeppa (1864). The Ball Players’ Chronicle and the New England Base Ballist were baseball-only publications in the years after the Civil War. But with only Wilkes’ Spirit offering real competition, the Clipper was beginning to exert dominance.

On April 5, 1868, the paper began its baseball coverage for the season by crowing:

The Clipper, as the leading organ of all legitimate sports, was the first to recognize the game of base ball as a recreation that was destined to be the National Game of America. We fostered the incipient pastime, gave advice to clubs and players, and exerted our widespread influence to perpetuate it as a healthy and harmless amusement.

Notes

1. Letter, July 6, 1853, to The Spirit of the Times: July 9, 1853, p. 246, col. 1. Posted to 19CBB by David Block, Sept. 6, 2006. SOT facsimile provided by Craig Waff, Sept. 2008.

2. Jack M. Doyle, Albert Spalding Scrapbooks, BA SCR 42, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, N.Y.

3. This debut number does not survive, but an issue for May 7 bears the number “2.” Perplexingly, the Clipper for May 14 is listed in the page-one masthead as “Vol. I, No. 1.” Yet on page two of this issue the editor writes: “THE CLIPPER./ITS COURSE ONWARD./ITS PROSPECTS BRIGHT./We have now entered upon the third voyage of our Clipper, and bright skies shine upon us, and favoring gales still waft us onward to that point, we desire to reach, the approbation of an indulgent public, and the cheering smiles of kind friends, and well wishers.” Confirming this reconstruction, the Clipper of May 21 is numbered as “Vol. I, No. 4.”

4. Two short-lived predecessors were Annals of the Turf (1826), published by George W. Jeffreys in North Carolina, and the Farmer’s, Mechanic’s, Manufacturer’s and Sportsman’s Magazine, published briefly (March 1826–February 1827) in New York. Betts, J. 1953. “Sporting Journalism in Nineteenth-Century America,” American Quarterly 5.1, 39–56. See also the “Stuntz List”: Stuntz, S. 1941. List of the Agricultural periodicals of the United States and Canada Published during the Century July 1810–July 1910. 

5. Porter, Spirit of the Times: May 11, 1835.

6. Wallace, J. 1897. The Horse of America in His Derivation, History and Development (pp. 97 ff.).

7. “Frank Queen and His Contemporaries,” Clipper: Nov. 4, 1882.

The Fathers of Fantasy Baseball

I do not play fantasy baseball, never have. Sometimes I think it is a menace to the game, breaking down civic and regional loyalties to real teams and replacing them with a loyalty to a private team that exists nowhere except on your computer. Such fans have seemed to me straight out of the dice-baseball heaven-hell of Robert Coover’s Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Proprietor.

But other times I reflect on the millions of fans who play the game with an intensity they might never have brought to root, root, rooting for the home team. And this must be a good thing even for the practice of baseball history, as this new breed of baseball fan demands precision, exactitude, and getting the story straight. An analytical bent, dating from Bill James to Billy Beane and beyond, makes today’s fan a mythbuster, and that is a good thing.

Baseball is indeed best played outdoors, in the sunshine. Next best is under the lights, but still outdoors. Baseball in a domed stadium is a very different experience of the game, still weirdly cool. But sometimes it rains, and that’s when fantasy baseball may indeed be the best of all. And its history begins in a distant place, in the realm of board games.

The title “Father of Baseball” has been bestowed variously upon Abner Doubleday, Alexander Cartwright, Doc Adams, Louis F. Wadsworth, and William R. Wheaton; all but the first have a reasonable claim to the honor. But who is the Father of Fantasy Baseball? If you answer Dan Okrent or Glen Waggoner—even if you are crafty enough to offer up Ethan Allen’s landmark game of 1941, “All-Star Baseball”—you’re in for a surprise.

One of two possible answers from long ago is Francis C. Sebring, pitcher for the Empire Base Ball Club of New York (and bowler for the Manhattan Cricket Club) in the mid-1860s. At some time around the conclusion of the Civil War, this enterprising resident of Hoboken designed a mechanical table game; sporting papers of 1867 carried ads for his “Parlour Base-Ball” and the December 8, 1866, issue of Leslie’s carried a woodcut of parents and young’uns playing the game.

No examples of “Parlour Base-Ball” survive, but from the patent application and drawing of February 4, 1868, we see that a spring propelled a coin (“one of the thick nickel coins of the denomination of ‘one cent,’ issued by the United States Government in and about the year 1860”) from pitcher to batter, and another spring activated a bat that propelled the coin into one or another of the cavities in the field. A pinball machine is not very much different.

According to the article in Leslie’s, the idea of making a toy version of the nascent national pastime occurred to Sebring while riding a ferry from Hoboken to New York to visit an ailing teammate. But was his brainchild the first baseball game? There is another game with a prior patent: the “Base-Ball Table” patented by William Buckley of New York on August 20, 1867, which like Sebring’s game operated on the pinball principle. And like Sebring’s game, it too has no remaining example: the earliest surviving baseball table game is a card game from 1869: “Base Ball: The New Parlor Game.” (An enterprising antiquarian might reconstruct both games from their schematic drawings and play them today.) And there are hints—requiring further research—that the McLoughlin Brothers Game Company of New York City may have issued a chromo-lithographic game as early as 1856.

Sebring’s name was not attached to his game. He was not a famous player, and baseball was still an amateur game, only beginning to produce national heroes. But in the remaining years of the nineteenth century, game manufacturers learned that invoking a star’s name—on either the game’s packaging or its components—made for greater sales. Board games of the 1990s, endorsed by Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey, Jr. et al., descended in a straight line from “Zimmer’s Base Ball Game by Zimmer the Catcher, Cleveland” (1893) and the Tom Barker and Fan Craze card games of the 1910s.

Did Sebring understand that the real game of baseball is similar in concept to the ancient Indian game of Pacheesi, in which a player (or marker) leaves home and makes his way back—stopping at each of three bases—to tally success? No; that’s just art imitating life, the essence of creation for painters, poets, and gamemakers alike.

But today’s fantasy baseball players—those involved in leagues, swapping players, competing for prizes—might look to another father. I believe the seeds of Rotisserie Baseball, the Okrent-Waggoner creation—were planted in 1884 by Thomas W. Lawson’s game, “Base Ball with Cards.” This 1884 card game has lovely if disquieting graphics, but you can’t blame Lawson for the menace that future generations would find in that bodiless, four-ball, four-armed swastika.

Lawson sold candy on trains in the Boston area as a boy, saved his money, and invented a card game that he sold himself, on the trains and at the ballparks. Played by four players, two on each side, its object was “to secure as many tricks, or runs, as possible and by skilful [sic] combinations to destroy the value of opponent’s cards.” A paradigm of Monopoly expressed in miniature, it was an apt metaphorical statement for the course its inventor would ultimately pursue with phenomenal success on Wall Street. But that is a story for another day.

The game was successful, and in 1885 Lawson arranged a tournament of the National League clubs, with prizes he posted himself (“$1,600 in gold and handsome trophies”). Unlike fantasy baseball, however, in which a player contents himself with statistical stand-ins for the players on his team, the “Base Ball with Cards” tournament was played by real members of each of the National League teams, deploying fantasy elements. The St. Louis Maroons defeated the Boston Red Stockings on their first eastern swing, but in September they lost to the Chicago White Stockings, who had such scientific card players as Ned Williamson, a crack whist player, and Fred Pfeffer, an expert at faro. Chicago thus won the right to play the Philadelphia Phillies for the championship, but the results of that match are lost to history.

The success of Lawson’s invention inspired a rival game known as “Parlor Baseball,” played with 125 cards “representing all the features of baseball.” What was interesting about this rival game was that its inventor was Jake Aydelott, a big-league pitcher with Indianapolis and Philadelphia. Fantasy and reality were one in baseball’s Garden of Eden.

The Knickerbocker Rules—and the Long History of the One-Bounce Fielding Rule

With this twelfth of sixteen articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by Randall Brown, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball.  The article below, by Larry McCray, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball for which Larry served as guest editorHe is the founder of the invaluable Protoball Project, a website where many of the early game’s top scholars have shared their finds. He is also a panelist on Major League Baseball’s Origins Committee, which I chair.

These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1845.1, reflects that it is the first Protoball entry for the year 1845.

1845.1 The Knickerbocker Rules—and the Long History of the One-Bounce Fielding Rule 

Larry McCray1

If a ball be struck, or tipped, and caught, either flying or on the first bound, it is a hand out.2

The famous Knickerbocker rules of 1845 may not be comprehensive enough to fully define a playable game, and may not even be baseball’s first written rules,3 but they did indeed survive, and they give us the first coherent picture of the roots of the New York game.

At first taken as evidence of the Knickerbocker Club’s knack for inventive genius, the 13 playing rules have recently been freshly reconsidered in an evolutionary context, and their reputation for originality has taken several hits.4 At this point, it appears that only three rules that endure today lack clear precedent in prior safe-haven ballgames.5 These are (1) the tag-out rule, which supplanted the “plugging” of base-runners to put them out6; (2) the characteristic “90-degree” territory defining fair hits; and (3) the three-out inning. The three-strike rule, for example, was already in use in predecessor games—as was the dropped-third strike rule that freed the batter who whiffed to run the bases. (Such familiar modern icons as the nine-inning game, the nine-player team and the ninety-foot basepath came along more than a decade later.)

It seems ironic, when discussing rule innovations, that what may have been early game’s most contentious rule (the issue remained unsettled for four decades) was perhaps actually the most ancient aspect of ballplay. The basic fly rule for putting batters out seems to have been a part of ballplaying since, at least, the earliest accounts of English stoolball and cricket, centuries ago.

What We Know About the Prehistory of the Bound Rule

The Knickerbocker Club’s rule 12, cited above, includes a provision that to baseball fans seems quaint, if not alien, today; a batter could be retired if a fair or foul hit is caught after it bounces once.

There has been, until recently, reasonable speculation that this provision was another Knickerbocker innovation, and why it appeared. Over time, the weight and dimension of the ball had been evolving toward that of the cricket ball, making it heavier—and, reportedly, harder. One might surmise, then, that a fielder’s hands might be better protected from pain and injury if he were afforded the option of letting the ball bounce once, and then to field it once it was “spent.” A closer look, however, reveals some evidence that the one-bounce rule was known even before the New York game took shape.

The bound rule actually has a solid place in ball sports—and not just in the children’s game of jacks and in assorted playground fungo games. It is seen today mostly in tennis and related sports like handball and squash and table tennis, where the objective is to return a ball before it bounces twice, an event that would abruptly add one to the opponent’s score. For many centuries the bound rule has been an essential part of the old form of tennis, played long before modern lawn tennis was invented (keeping the bound rule) in 1873. Very early forms of collegiate football in the United States, and rugby-rules football in England, also included rules that specified what a player could and could not do when catching a ball on the bound.7

But was the bound rule also part of earlier safe-haven ballgames? One baseball pioneer certainly thought so. Describing the rules set for the new Gotham Base Ball Club in 1837, William Wheaton wrote, a half-century later: “We abandoned the old rule of putting out on the first bound and confined it to fly catching.”8 (If true, of course, this means that the Knickerbocker Club had actually decided to reverse the Gotham Club’s decision, and had reverted to the bound rule.) A second pioneer agrees: Knickerbocker mainstay Doc Adams seems to have suggested that one reason that players still liked the bound rule in 1860 was that it was a familiar feature of their boyhood ballgames.9

The direct evidence on broad prior use of a bound rule is suggestive, but it is not overwhelming. We have, as yet, only two contemporary references to its use before 1845. The earliest, found by David Block in a poem on stool-ball published in 1733, seems to imply the fielder’s objective was “To seize the ball before it grounds / Or take it when it first rebounds.”10 The other reference is in a public challenge in June 1841 to play a wicket match near Hartford, Connecticut; it specifies, as the second of four playing rules, “the ball to be fairly caught flying or at the first bound.”11 The standard early surveys of games—including Willughby, Gutsmuths, Strutt, Clarke—do refer to batters being put out by means of caught balls, but none actually defines a “catch” as being made on the fly.

Several other references to pre–1845 use of the bound rule appear in retrospective accounts. Historian Harold Seymour associates the practice with the old-cat games (but does not give a source),12 and a recollection of such games around 1840 in Illinois recalls a one-bounce rule.13 The rule is remembered for ballgames played in the 1820s in New York State, and in 1840 in accounts from Georgia and North Carolina.14 In New England, one account attributes the bound rule to the traditional ballgame called base.15

After the New York game had emerged, the bound rule was employed for wicket in Rochester, town ball in Ohio, and in Philadelphia Town Ball.16 It seems quite plausible that these practices were retained from earlier years, although the post–1845 adoption of the Knickerbocker rule 12 is another possibility. And as late as 1857, the rules of the Olympic Club of Boston listed the feature as a short-handed “scrub” variant of its own (non–New York) game.17 One Indianapolis writer, musing on ancient varieties of ballplaying, wrote that “[b]ecause the fielders were so helpless, it appears that even catches on two bounds were considered outs in games between younger players.”18

So the bound rule certainly was known before 1845. Whether it was the dominant form for “caught out” rules in early safe-haven games is not yet clear. We might speculate about the purposes for specifying bound outs in predecessor games—both to protect the hands of young or inexperienced players, and to extend the effective range of fielders when too few players were available. But in those early days, balls were apparently lighter and softer, and thus hits were shorter and damage to hands was a lesser risk.

The Slow Demise of the Bound Rule19

While it was their own club’s original rule, by the mid–1850s some prominent members of the Knickerbocker Club wanted to eliminate the bound rule. In this cause they were to be joined by the energetic reformer Henry Chadwick, who would call this campaign “one of the toughest I had.”20

In preparation for the 1857 convention that would revamp baseball’s rules, each of 16 New York area clubs were asked to send representatives to meetings to consider draft rules prepared by the Knickerbocker Club, and this draft eliminated bound catches. It was reported that the delegates were “pretty evenly divided” on this provision,21 but a compromise was reached, and unanimity thereby was achieved. The bound rule stayed, but a provision was fashioned as a new inducement for fielders to make fly catches whenever they could22: Although baserunners could still, as before, scamper ahead on all hit balls put in flight, for bound catches, runners could keep the bases they had gained on the play. If those balls were caught on the fly, however, the runners now were returned, with safe passage, to their original bases (the modern tag-up rule was to come later).

Thus began a reform campaign that gained press support but that failed, time after time, at Association rules conventions. Despite derision by Chadwick and others that the bound rule was merely a “boy’s rule,” delegates repeatedly voted to retain it, their majority buoyed by the growing numbers of new and distant clubs that were obviously more comfortable with it.

Meanwhile, more and more of the elite urban clubs—following the lead of the Knickerbockers—adopted the fly rule on their own. The manly game of cricket, using a ball as heavy and hard as a baseball, had no bound rule, a fact not unnoticed by proud cricketers, and this may have been a factor in the conversion. (Even today, cricketers make long fly catches without benefit of fielding gloves, while in baseball and softball, barehanded catches are largely reserved for spectators.)

Eventually, in December 1864, a fly rule for fair hits was voted in, as a one-year experiment for 1865 that stuck. But for foul balls, the bound rule lived on, and for two more decades, fielders outside the lines had the convenient option of grabbing the ball on one bounce.23

Notes

1. This essay benefited from several email exchanges with Richard Hershberger in early 2011.

2. Knickerbocker Rule 12.

3. Writing in 1887, William Wheaton recalls writing a set of rules for the Gotham Base Ball Club in 1837. See Protoball entry 1837.1, which carries the Wheaton article.

4. Rule-by-rule reviews of the Knickerbocker playing standards have been presented in: Block, D. 2005. Baseball before We Knew It (pp. 80–93); Thorn, J. 2011. Baseball in the Garden of  Eden (pp. 71–77).

5. Whether the balk rule was originated by New York’s pioneer clubs has not been evaluated carefully at this time.

6. Actually, Wheaton wrote that this was “the first step we took” in laying out Gotham Club rules in 1837, eight years earlier. However, a tag rule that replaced plugging is not found in accounts of predecessor games, and may have been a New York modification.

7. See, e.g.: Gems, G., et al. 2008. Sports in American History (p. 138).

8. See Protoball entry 1837.1, which includes the full text of the Wheaton article.

9. Sunday Mercury, 1860. The cited observation was quoted from the report of the NABBP rules committee. Adams is not specifically named as author, but he chaired the committee.

10. Block 2005, 86, 111–118. The poem, “Stool Ball, Or the Easter Diversion,” is a detailed account of a holiday game that involved hitting but no pitching or baserunning.

11. See Protoball entry 1841.10; the original source is the Hartford Daily Courant of June 23, 1841.

12. Seymour, H. 1989. Baseball: The Early Years (p. 7).

13. Jones, A. 1970. Representative Recreation Activities (pp. 100–101).

14. See Protoball entries 1823c.12, 1840.24, and 1840c.33, respectively.

15. See Protoball entry 1750s.3.

16. See, respectively, Protoball entries 1850s.16 and 1850s.20, and Hershberger, R. 2007. “A Reconstruction of Philadelphia Town Ball,” Base Ball 1.2 (pp. 36–37).

17. See Protoball entry 1857.20. Massachusetts Base Ball, formally codified in the following year, specified the fly rule for match play.

18. “Old Baseball,” Indianapolis Sentinel: Apr. 3, 1887; cited in Morris, P. 2010. A Game of Inches (revised ed.) (p. 120).

19. A nuanced and recent overview of the controversy appears in Ryczek, W. 2009. Baseball’s First Inning (pp. 174–178).

20. Chadwick, H. 1868. The Game of Base Ball (p. 11).

21. “Out-door Sports. Base Ball Convention,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Mar. 7, 1857. Section 16 of the 1857 rules contains this provision.

22. There were already two competitive reasons for teams to prefer to try for fly catches. First, a fly catch reduces the time to return the ball to the infield, deterring advancing runners. Second, where playing surfaces were not well manicured, irregular bounces could prove uncatchable on the bound.

23. The shift in the vote may have been affected by the fact that membership in the NABBP had fallen off sharply. The number of member clubs fell from 62 in 1860 to 30 in 1864, according to Charles Peverelly in 1866. See Freyer and Rucker. 2005. Peverelly’s National Game (p. 117).

Finding Frank Pidgeon

Apart from family, what seems important to me is play, a more serious activity than work and one that reveals more about who we are or wish to be. Work is performed under duress; play, never. And the work that seems most like play to me is rummaging around in history’s attic, often emerging into the light empty-handed only to discover what was in plain sight all along.

The subject of this post is a man famous long ago and vanished since … only to turn up virtually in my backyard, when I lived in Saugerties, New York, as I long did until a year ago. His name is Frank Pidgeon. He was baseball’s greatest pitcher in the 1850s and the founder of one of its fabled clubs. He was a pioneer shipbuilder whose colleague in the Brooklyn shipyards and lifelong friend was George Steers, the man who built the racing yacht America, for which the America’s Cup is named. Frank Pidgeon went round Cape Horn to California in 1849 to make his mark in the Gold Rush, and came back overland across the Isthmus of Panama. He was an engineer, a painter, a musician, an entrepreneur, an inventor. For the last twenty years of his life he lived in Saugerties, where today no one knows his name.

Frank Pidgeon’s descent from fame to oblivion has been complete, except among a handful of baseball savants. The man who followed him as the greatest pitcher of the age, Jim Creighton, was remembered upon his death with a mighty obelisk in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery. Where was Pidgeon’s monument? A decade ago I received a good-hearted tip that Pidgeon had not only owned a splendid home in the hamlet of Malden, but that he was also buried there, on the Asa Bigelow property that he had purchased in 1860. My three sons and I clambered up and down an ivy-covered hill that contained a vegetation-encrusted above-ground tomb, but it was not Pidgeon’s.

Readying a new book on early baseball rekindled my interest in finding Frank Pidgeon. I realized that I had a better chance of understanding how and where he came to reside in death if I better understood his life. So let me tell you who he was, to the extent I have learned that, and where he is.

Francis Pidgeon was born in the Eleventh Ward of New York on February 11, 1825 to Irish-American parents. As a young man he entered the ship- and yacht-building trades. After his return from California, he married Mary Elizabeth Orr, with whom he was to have six children: Francis Jr, Mary, Annie, Jeannette, John, and Isabelle. (Isabelle died at age seven; Mary Eliza Pidgeon Searing (“A.E.P. Searing”) went on to become an author of children’s books, including the truly delightful When Granny Was a Little Girl (1926).

At about the same time, Frank Pidgeon also secured a patent for “a useful improvement in machinery for making Thimbles,” as reported in The Scientific American of December 13, 1851. (“The improvement consists in the employment of two rollers, of which one is divided transversely to its axis, and in combination with a stationary bar….”) In later years he also invented the only successful steam traction plow ever made.

In 1855 Pidgeon, along with fellow shipbuilders, founded the Eckford Base Ball Club of Brooklyn, one of the legendary early clubs and a national champion. Despite his advanced years (he had passed his thirtieth birthday), he was a great all-around player who captained the nine and played several positions. In the three all-star games of 1858, pitting the best of Brooklyn against the best of Manhattan, he was selected each time and, when he pitched, won the lone game Brooklyn was able to capture. He was a competent second baseman, shortstop, and left fielder, but he won his fame as a pitcher not of the speedy or wild variety that emerged in the 1860s, but as the paragon of “headwork,” changing speeds and arcs while pitching “fairly to the bat,” as was the mandate back then.

Frank Pidgeon was a pure amateur who played baseball for the love of the game. When “revolving”—inexplicable player movements from team to team, no doubt spurred by under-the-table inducements—became a problem, he authored the National Association of Base Ball Players bill against professionalism. He even spoke out against some clubs’ practice of recruiting young players with no visible means of support and then paying them expense money so that they could travel to play ball. “I suppose that you will admit,” Pidgeon wrote to the editor of The Spirit of the Times in 1858, “that a man who does not pay his obligations, and has in his power to do so, is a knave and not fit to be trusted in a game of ball or anything else; and if he has not the money, his time would better [be] spent in earning the same than playing ball—business first, pleasure afterwards.”

In 1860 the aformentioned Jim Creighton became the most prominent player to receive pay for his services, and other sub rosa professionals followed. Pidgeon walked away from the playing field after 1863 and within a year or so took his growing family up the Hudson to make a new home in the Saugerties area. He maintained business offices in Long Island City, where as a contractor he continued to do extensive dock-building and landfill work for the cities of New York and Brooklyn. Pidgeon had accumulated significant wealth through his contracting activities, frequently accepting,  in lieu of cash, parcels of land that he had filled. In the 1870 Federal Census the value of his real estate owned is $91,250 (multiply by thirty to get a comparable figure today); his personal property was worth an additional $18,000.

The family had three domestic servants and one farm laborer, and they built a spacious $30,000 home in Malden, depicted in an Edward Jernegan photo in the 1875 photo-monthly, The Pearl. “Paintings by his own hand adorned his parlors,” reported The New York Clipper.

Pidgeon’s eldest son, Frank Jr., joined him in the contracting business by 1870 and married Mary Kiersted, whose fine home on Main Street is today the Saugerties Historical Society. When Frank Jr. poured new concete floors for the old house, he inlaid his signature pigeons in four locations, still visible today. Frank Jr.’s success continued, and he was one of three baseball-buff petitioners whose efforts culminated in the creation of a fine ball diamond at what is now known as Cantine Field.

But Frank Sr.’s unbroken string of successes finally snapped. A Brooklyn commission investigated cost overruns and halting progress on a bridge project to which his crews and leased equipment had been heavily committed. The municipality held up his invoices as creditors pursued him for payment. A five-year pattern of underbidding municipal jobs so as to leave no profit in them, only parcels of land, had dried up his cash on hand and left him vulnerable. In 1881 he was forced to assign his assets for the benefit of creditors and to declare bankruptcy. His business was gone, and so was his fine home. By 1883 he was working for his son’s still thriving contracting business, overseeing construction; in April 1884 he was compelled to leave Saugerties altogether and relocate to a rented home in Harlem.

Let the contemporary accounts tell the rest. The Kingston Daily Leader, whose editor was Pidgeon’s son-in-law John W. Searing, wrote: “SAUGERTIES, June 14. On Friday afternoon the sad intelligence reached here by way of telegram that Francis Pidgeon, formerly of this place, late of Harlem was dead. His son-in-law Howard Gillespy had left him only the evening before in good health and spirit and as the telegram failed to state the cause of death, it was surmised that he had died suddenly of heart disease. This morning however that idea was soon dispelled, when it was learned that while he was walking along the track near High Bridge, a north bound train of the New York Central Railroad struck him and he was instantly killed. He was in that locality superintending a contract made by his son Frank with the Astors to lay out and sewer certain grounds on the Harlem River. [Why a man looking to place sewers would be walking along the tracks is a question that did not require an answer in the subtly polite newspapers of the day, let alone one managed by the family of the deceased.]

“Mr. Pigeon [sic] had resided in this village for about fifteen years, he erected an elegant and costly residence upon the bank of the Hudson river, which was recently sold to John G. Myer of Albany for $15,000, about half its cost…. Of late years his business contracts proved quite disastrous, and although at one time it was supposed that he was quite affluent, yet he died a poor man. His untimely death is generally regretted in this village and vicinity. He was sixty years of age.”

The Kingston Daily Freeman later reported: “The funeral of Mr. Francis Pidgeon took place from the Reformed Church, on Saturday afternoon at 5 o’clock. It was largely attended. The remains were interred in the new village cemetery at the head of Main street. Rev. Dr. Wortman officiated. The remains were not exposed to the view of the assemblage, being so badly disfigured.”

Here was new information. Not buried in Malden after all, but in the village of Saugerties. But where, precisely? A tip took me out to the tiny, picturesque Lutheran Cemetery on Ulster Avenue, with my photographer son Mark ready to click the great discovery. This proved a bum steer. Corrected information received that evening took me to the Mountain View Cemetery next day … but where was Pidgeon to be found? The custodian’s listing appeared to have Frank Jr. but not his illustrious father. And then there it was, right along the path, behind a boulder with a bronze plate emblazoned, “PIDGEON.” Couldn’t miss it, although the previous day we had.

Mark and I wrote a message for Frank Pidgeon on a baseball that we signed and left at his headstone. Safe at home.

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