December 31st, 2011
In 2005 on eBay an unusual item came up for sale: a trophy presentation of a silver baseball and miniature bats that had been given to James Whyte Davis in 1875 to commemorate 25 years’ play with the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. The award presentation took place at a banquet following baseball’s first old-timers’ game, between the Knicks of 1850 (“Veterans,” including founding father Daniel Lucius Adams, who played catcher) and those of 1860 (“Youngs,” for whom Davis pitched).
The recipient’s name is engraved on each of the bats and the ball reads: “Presented to James Whyte Davis on the Twenty Fifth Anniversary of his election as a member of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club by his fellow members. 1850 Sept. 26 1875. Never ‘Too Late.’” Davis had been such an ardent and energetic player that his vehement protests at being excluded from play when he showed up a few minutes after the appointed time won him the twin nicknames of “The Fiend” and “Too Late.”
After nine days in which no one met the opening ask of $49,999.99, three bidders stepped up to the plate in the last three hours and the trophy was knocked down at $76,118.99. The seller’s representative was Global Garage Sale of Winooski, Vermont, whose other eBay offerings at that moment include a gold Parker pen/pencil set, a Casio electronic cash register, and a John Deere lawn tractor. In the words of the Vermont reps, “The seller discovered the trophy in the attic of her husband’s uncle in New Jersey after the uncle passed away in 1977. He was in his 80s at the time, and had been a huge baseball fan. She doesn’t have any other information other than that he was a big fan and grew up in the area in the early 1900s. She has had it in storage ever since, but wants someone to own it who truly appreciates the history of baseball and the significance of this piece.” The winning bidder was not identified, but I hope he or she reads this story.
Who was James Whyte Davis? Famous in his day but forgotten in ours, he comes into view for those who rummage around in early baseball history, exchanging scraps of data and delighting over a new find — a birth or death date, next of kin, a trail of addresses. One perhaps unlikely comrade of mine in such spelunking is Peter J. Nash, author of Baseball Legends of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery (Arcadia), a book that details how some of the 200 or so baseball pioneers, among them James Whyte Davis, came to this final resting place. To those of you who are hiphop fans, you may know Peter as the onetime Prime Minister Pete Nice of Third Bass. Those in the baseball memorabilia field may know him too.
Davis was born in New York on March 2, 1826 to John and Harriet Davis, both from Connecticut. Drifting away from his father’s trade as shipmaster and sometime liquor merchant, James became a broker successively of fruit, produce, general merchandise, and, finally, stock certificates. Like so many of the early ballplayers, he belonged to a volunteer fire company, in his case the Oceana No. 36. He married Maria Harwood of Maryland, with whom he had two sons and a daughter, though Maria left him a widower at a young age. These are the prosaic details. His life was wrapped up in baseball, as in death he would come to be.
On the 27th of August, 1855, a month shy of its ten-year anniversary, the Knickerbockers unfurled their first banner from the flagstaff over the clubhouse at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, New Jersey. Designed by Davis, the triangular pennant, with a blue “K” in a white circle surmounting one red and one blue horizontal panel, flew over the Knickerbocker clubhouse for the last time at this 1875 celebration, “worn to ribbons by long service,” reported the New York Sun. Afterward, it was draped over Davis’s dresser until his death. His long devotion to baseball and involvement in its defining moments made him a key participant in some monumental disputes.
In an 1856 Knickerbocker meeting Louis F. Wadsworth, along with Adams and others, backed a motion to permit outsiders to join in with Knicks in their intrasquad games at the Elysian Fields if fewer than 18 Knicks were present. Original Knickerbocker president Duncan F. Curry counter-moved that if 14 Knickerbockers were available, the game should admit no outsiders and be played shorthanded. The Curry forces (which included Davis) prevailed, 13–11. This vote came at a time when baseball was played to 21 runs, and the rules as yet specified no number of innings. The Davis/Curry faction next recommended that a seven-inning game become the new standard. In a twisty tale of intrigue at the first convention of the New York area clubs, Wadsworth, defeated within his own Knickerbocker ranks, convinced the other clubs to go with nine men and nine innings. A pariah among his clubmen, Wadsworth resigned and resumed his former affiliation with the Gothams. The Knickerbockers began their long fade from the top ranks of competition.
In another enduring controversy, Davis was, with Walter T. Avery, a delegate to the 1867 convention of the National Association of Amateur Base Ball Players. With two other individuals of the nominating committee, he responded to the petition for membership of the Pythians of Philadelphia, an all-black organization, by rejecting any club “composed of persons of color, or any portion of them … and [the committee] unanimously report against the admission of any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.” In seeking to keep out of the Convention the discussion of any subject having a political bearing, the game’s color line had been drawn. The committee further proclaimed, “If colored clubs were admitted there would be in all probability some division of feeling, whereas, by excluding them no injury could result to anyone.”
So Davis came down on the wrong side of history in two major battles. The Knickerbockers, an anachronism by the time of the Civil War, somehow endured until 1882, two years after Davis finally ceased to play. He entered the following decade as a widower, living in want in a Manhattan apartment building. On July 27, 1893, the New York Sun printed his letter to Edward B. Talcott, a principal owner of the New York Giants:
My good friend,
Referring to our lately conversation on Baseball I now comply with your request to write you a letter on the subject then proposed by me and which you so readily and kindly offered to take charge of, after my death, namely, to procure subscriptions to place a Headstone on my grave.
My wish is that Baseball players be invited to subscribe Ten Cents each and no matter how small a sum is collected, it will be sufficient to place an oak board with an inscription on my resting place, but whatever it may be, I would like it as durable as possible without any ornamentation—simply something that “he who runs may read.”…
All relations and immediate friends are well informed that I desire to be buried in my baseball suit, and wrapped in the original flag of the old Knickerbockers 1845, now festooned over my bureau and for the past eighteen years and interred with the least possible cost.
I suggest the following inscription in wood or in stone:
Wrapped in the Original Flag
Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of N.Y.,
Here lies the body of
James Whyte Davis,
A member for thirty years.
He was not “Too Late,”
Reaching the “Home Plate.”
Born March 2, 1826.
Died ______ [he would die February 15, 1899]
I should be pleased to show you my Glass case containing the trophies of my Silver Wedding with the Old Knickerbockers in 1875 and which I intend to bequeath to you, should you so desire as a mark of appreciation of the kindly act which you have undertaken to perform. Kindly acknowledge receipt of this.
And I am Yours sincerely and thankfully,
James Whyte Davis.
Perhaps it is through the Talcott family that the Davis trophy came to reside with the Vermont-based eBay seller. (Or, in a thought that has only now occurred to me, perhaps it came by way of the estate of Davis’s only son, Wade B. Davis, who died in Portland, Maine in 1917.) The dismaying thing is that in the end no dimes were collected for Davis’s headstone, and he lies in the sod at Green-Wood in an unmarked grave. Even his cemetery records have his middle name wrong (“White”) because whoever scribbled the burial transit slip didn’t care. Maybe the owner of the Silver Wedding trophies could throw a dime toward a fund to place a marker at Section 135, Lot 30010. Maybe a baseball organization or benefactor might be persuaded to chip in, too.
Peter Nash wrote to me about the Green-Wood Historic Fund and its “Saved in Time” program. “All contributions regarding player memorials go to the Historic Fund with ‘Elysian Fields Monument Trust’ [the organization that Nash founded] noted on the check memo. We have already fully restored the [Henry] Chadwick monument and the [Jim] Creighton monument’s restoration is underway. (The missing ball at its apex is to be replaced)…. Perhaps JWD’s initial wish of ‘a ten cent subscription’ could be fullfilled in true ‘Too Late’ fashion by our present day MLB players.”
I have sent in my check.