January 2012

Unraveling a Baseball Mystery

Over the course of the past month or so I have located two new game-action images of Jim Creighton, the most famous player of baseball’s early period. (For my brief biography, see http://goo.gl/fvJdi.) Further snooping has revealed some truly startling information about the game’s most celebrated and valuable image: the 1866 Currier & Ives lithograph “American National Game of Base Ball: Grand Match for the Championship at the Elysian Fields, Hoboken, N.J.” Long believed to depict the 1865 match between the Atlantic of Brooklyn and the Mutual of New York, it has turned out be something else entirely: a fantasy game, one that the baseball world desired but that never was played. Note: the reader will profit by clicking on each image for an enlargement opening in a new window.

The path of discovery began with an intriguing post to SABR’s 19th century baseball committee. Bob Tholkes wrote:

An August 1, 1860 ad by a book seller in the Buffalo Daily Courier of August 1, 1860 mentioned that pictures of the recent match between the Atlantic and Excelsior (played on July 19) appeared in the current edition of Demorest’s New-York Illustrated News, which would have been the issue of July 29 [actually it was August 4]. 

I had seen and admired that picture more than twenty years ago, at the home of collectors Frank and Peggy Steele. A couple of respondents to the above posting offered digital versions of it, and I located the accompanying text. “Right glad are we to find that manly sports and exercises are becoming so popular in America,” opined the unnamed scribe, who rambled on in this rather arch manner, not reporting the outcome—Excelsior 23, Atlantic 4—except through an appended box score.

Examining an enlargement of the panoramic scene, it struck me that the emblem on the pitcher’s bib front looked to be single letter, not the ABBC of the Atlantic Club. He must be an Excelsior and, as the box score would corroborate, he must be Creighton. Compare this cropped enlargement from the Illustrated News woodcut to the carte de visite (cdv). Note the crossed legs prior to delivery; I don’t know that this stance was unique to Creighton but I have seen it depicted nowhere else. Also note the distinctive multi-paneled hat with piping in the crown. In Baseball in the Garden of Eden I wrote the following, based on a contemporary report:

Early pitchers had taken two steps in delivering the ball, and would follow it halfway to home plate until 1858, when the pitcher’s line was established at forty-five feet. Until the pitcher’s [rear line] came in five years later, pitchers would still throw from a running start. Creighton, however, did not move from his original position, taking only a step with his left foot and keeping his right in place.

Only three other depictions of the incomparable athlete survive: a team shot of the 1860 Excelsiors; a  cdv produced after his death at age twenty-one, four days after a mortal swing of the bat on October 14, 1862; and a crepe-draped portrait surmounting the notable players of 1865, offered up in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper of November 4 of that year. Later woodcuts were all based upon one or another of these three images.

Then, only yesterday, it occurred to me that the pitcher in the “American National Game” lithograph, who is supposed to be Richard H. Thorn of the Mutuals (formerly of the Empire and Gotham clubs) looked strangely familiar—yet I had never seen an image of him other than this. The championship game of August 3, 1865 had been hotly played, as the New York Herald headlined, and but for a sudden storm that ended the game after five innings, was a thriller:

THE GRAND MATCH FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP; TWENTY THOUSAND SPECTATORS PRESENT; THE FINEST CONTEST EVER WITNESSED; THE ATLANTICS STILL THE CHAMPIONS; THE PLAYERS AND SPECTATORS DISPERSED BY A HEAVY THUNDER SHOWER; EXCITING SCENES AT THE HOBOKEN FERRIES, ETC.

Now the lithograph depicting this famous 1865 championship game positions the Atlantics at the bat, with identifiable likenesses of those on the sideline and in the field. Indeed, the likenesses are drawn from a cdv celebrating their championship and issued by Charles H. Williamson of Brooklyn. The Currier & Ives likenesses, drawn by an unnamed hand, are so faithful to the photograph that Peter O’ Brien, who in the cdv is posed in street clothes, in the lithograph stands on the sideline, in civilian garb, even though he played center field in the championship game and struck its only home run!

It follows that the Currier and Ives pitcher must be Thorn of the Mutuals … yet he certainly looked to me like Creighton, and he was wearing the distinctive Excelsior cap! I recalled that I had once downloaded from the Library of Congress site a high-resolution version of the uncolored lithograph, and zoomed into the pitcher’s spot.

I was struck not only by the resemblance to Creighton, with his distinctively planted rear foot, but also by the two pitcher’s plates. The playing rules for 1858 had called for a “flat circular iron plate, painted or enameled white” to mark the “pitcher’s points.” While the pitching distance had been established at 45 feet from the front foot in mid-delivery, the back distance had not yet been established. However, by 1863 the points were gone, replaced by a “pitcher’s box” absent the side boundaries, three feet deep. Accordingly, these round iron plates were anomalous for a championship game of 1865, and must have been the product of artistic license.

I then looked to the batter, with the hands-apart stance that would endure into the deadball era, and saw that he too was standing at a “flat circular iron plate, painted or enameled white.” It also seemed—was my imagination running away with me?—that the catcher looked like the Excelsior captain, Joe Leggett. Panning into the field, I came upon a detail invisible in the reproduced versions I had at hand of the colored lithograph. The belt of the shortstop was clearly emblazoned with the name “Excelsior.”

Now I consulted the New York Public Library’s singular large-scale salt print of the 1860 Excelsiors. Yes, the pitcher in the 1866 image was the long-dead and lamented Creighton; the catcher was Leggett; and the shortstop was little Tommy Reynolds. A letter from a Mr. A. Jacobi of Montgomery, Alabama, to the New York Clipper, published on September 4, 1875, provided the identities of each man in the 1860 salt print, from which the Clipper executed a woodcut:

Through the courtesy of Mr. A. Jacobi of Montgomery, Ala., we are enabled to lay before our readers a picture of the model baseball nine of the period when the game was entirely in the hands of the amateur class of the fraternity. Mr. Jacobi, in a letter to us, says he is indebted to Dr. A. T. Pearsall of Montgomery for the photograph sent us, that veteran first-baseman being still a “play list” in the South….

The picture contains the portraits of the following players: On the extreme left is the old shortstop of the nine, Tommy Reynolds…. Next to him stands John Whitney…. The third is James Creighton—he has a ball in his hand—the pitcher of the period par excellence, and the first to introduce the wrist throw or low-underhand-throw delivery. His forte was great speed and thorough command of the ball…. This team defeated nearly every nine they encountered in 1859 and 1860, but in the latter year they had to succumb to the Atlantics….


The defending champion Atlantics and the Excelsiors split their first two contests in 1860, each winning upon its home grounds (23–4 for the latter club and then 15–14 for the former). The winner of the third game would wear the laurel. With the Excelsiors leading 8–6 in the top of the sixth inning, “a desperate party of rowdies, who were determined that the Excelsiors should not win,” became so offensive that Captain Leggett withdrew his men from the field and thus forfeited their chance to opportunity it had to take the “championship” title from the Atlantics. Bitter enemies ever after, the clubs never played each other again.

The Atlantics and Excelsiors had never played each other at the Elysian Fields, so the grand Currier and Ives lithograph celebrates, perhaps, the game that ought to have settled the championship in 1860. As such it would be history’s first instance of fantasy baseball.

POSTSCRIPT: This image from Leslie’s, drawn on the day of the 1865 championship game, will show what a Mutual player’s uniform looked like:August 3, 1865 Championship, Leslies

SABR Day

January 28 has been established as SABR Day, with events in thirty-four cities: http://sabr.org/sabrday. What is SABR, you might ask?The Society for American Baseball Research, founded in 1971, is a group of over 6,000 people of diverse backgrounds, united by their love of baseball and their desire to know more about it. Some are active researchers who pursue their areas of interest through one or more of SABR’s committees, like minor leagues, or statistical analysis, or records, or biographical. Others simply like the SABR publications or the camaraderie of the regional and national meetings.

Who is a typical SABR member? Writers, former ballplayers, club and league officials, doctors and lawyers and butchers and bakers. And you could be too. Membership is, in my humble opinion, baseball’s best bargain since the bleacher seat.

For SABR Day, I thought I’d share — especially with readers who are not yet members — a squib I wrote a few months back, about why I’ve been a member for thirty-two years.

I joined SABR in part to cover its 1981 convention in Toronto, on assignment for The Sporting News. Cliff Kachline — at that time the historian of the Baseball Hall of Fame, later SABR’s first executive director, and posthumously, not long ago, a recipient of the society’s Henry Chadwick Award — urged me to join. With my interests in baseball’s history and statistics, he assured me, I would feel instantly at home and would wonder why I had waited so long to join.

He was spectacularly right.

At the convention’s opening reception, the first two individuals I met were Pete Palmer and Bob Carroll. I went on to create many books with each, and in some cases both of them, and they became lifelong friends.

I had a fantastic time at the convention, despite being a little star-struck at meeting so many individuals whose work I had read. Immediately upon returning to Albany, New York, I filed my story with TSN. (I vividly remember transmitting it via 300-baud cupped-phone modem from the Western Union office on State Street.)

I have been a member ever since. I continue to be amazed at how many accomplished men and women I have met in the ranks of this merry band of baseball sleuths. I have continued to describe SABR as baseball’s best-kept secret — puzzlingly so, because its benefits are many for the advanced fan, the aspiring professional, or simply those who cannot get enough good baseball talk and text.

The perception among baseball fans has been, I suspect, that SABR membership is for those who are conducting ground-breaking historical research or game-changing statistical analysis, but that is not so. At your first convention or regional meeting, you will be seized with newbie jitters, as I was, but you will instantly be made to feel at home. Look me up; I will be one of many longtime members who will be glad you joined us.

My Favorite Place

Living in the Hudson Valley, I am equidistant between the two places in America I love most: New York City and Cooperstown. My first visit to the latter was in 1974, following the publication of my first book.  In the years since, I think I must have made another 150 trips there—sometimes for research, sometimes to see old friends, sometimes to attend to some piece of business with Hall of Fame officials. Sometimes I made a weekend visit to Cooperstown with my family. Once we spent a whole week there, living on a farm as an experimental summer holiday; another week was spent in a cabin on Lake Otsego. I took my two older sons to their first nighttime at the movies, Ghostbusters at Smalley’s Theater on Main Street. There was the fabulous Farmer’s Museum and the serene museum of the New York State Historical Association. But always the focal point of any trip to the village that James Fenimore Cooper’s father founded was, as you may imagine, the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Until the 1970s, the museum was a much less organized, more down-home sort of place—like a local historical society. Strange items long since consigned to the archives were then on display—an antique pitching machine, a display of baseball board games, a capitol building constructed from miniature wooden bats and balls, an 1870s cigar-store baseball figure known as “Joe Wood.” Horizontal display cases were filled with disparate items united by an indiscernible logic. It was a quirky and charming place then, even if navigating it was a challenge, like solving a puzzle, or taking up a scavenger hunt.

But make no mistake—the new museum is vastly better, and the proof of that is on display every day. Just watch the watchers. A child enraptured by an image of Albert Pujols will be gently pulled away by his father to see a statue and hear a story of Roberto Clemente. A grandfather will proudly regale his family with tales of seeing DiMaggio and Williams, in the years before anyone thought there could be a Jackie. You can see people’s eyes light up as they come across an artifact that holds special magic for them: a game ball (“I was there!”) or a battered glove (“That’s the kind of glove I used to wear—imagine Derek Jeter trying to make a play with that!”).

Long ago now, though the memory remains vivid—sometime in the 1980s, I figure, and it must have been for an Induction Weekend—I was walking through the museum for the umpteenth time, revisiting my favorite exhibits and being surprised by what I had previously overlooked. Walking through the timeline section a few yards ahead was a little old man accompanied by a couple of gents not much younger than he. The fellow paused at a photographic blowup of the unassisted triple play that Cleveland’s Bill Wambsganss had pulled off in Game 5 of the 1920 World Series. And as he started telling a story about the men portrayed in the panorama, I realized who he was: Joe Sewell, the Indians’ shortstop who had the best seat in the house to see that singular play, and who himself was portrayed in the photo, to the right of Wambsganss.

I kept a respectful distance behind Sewell and his party, but I hung on his every word, shaken to think that here I was, listening to the man who had been called up from the minors to replace Ray Chapman at shortstop a month after his fatal beaning in August. Here was Joe Sewell, born in the previous century, standing in front of that grainy blowup, saying that Wamby could have tossed him the ball, it would have been so easy, but then it wouldn’t have made history, would it?

For a delicious moment, I was a part of that extended history (“I was there!”) with Joe Sewell on October 10, 1920, and some sixty years later. And I realized that the enormous pleasure of that moment—the reliving of history in a highly personal way—is what defines the Baseball Hall of Fame experience and keeps me coming back for more.

The First Relief Pitchers, Part Two

[For Part One, see: http://goo.gl/W3Zwx.%5D From 1876 through 1904, starters com­pleted over 90 percent of their games and saves were registered in only 1.3 percent of all games played. Relief pitchers were used so seldom that in 1902 the Reach Guide, in a statistical review of the past season, offered a category Pitching Knock-Outs of 1901, and identified three Milwaukee Brewers who set the pace with six dis­missals from the box.

But the figures for the years preceding 1891 are even more astounding by the standards of today, when starters finish not one game in twenty. From 1885 to 1888, big-league starters completed 97.8 percent of all games, and the number of saves totaled by the two major leagues in that period is 48, or 14 less than the record set by Francisco Rodriguez in 2008. In eight different years, the league leader(s) in saves had a total of one; three times an entire league produced one save.

In the days before free substitution, two names besides Man­ning’s stick out: John Montgomery Ward and Tony Mullane. Ward was a superb athlete who, in his 17-year career, played numerous games at every position except catcher and first base. In separate seasons, he batted .369, stole 111 bases, won 47 games, and pitched a perfect game. Added to those accomplishments, which earned him a plaque in Cooperstown, he twice led the NL in saves and three times in relief wins, and in 1879–80 he allowed only four earned runs in 65 innings of relief duty.

Tony Mullane was a formidable hurler indeed, and the most prolific reliever of his day. In 13 years in the big leagues, he won 285 games, copping 30 or more in five straight seasons. He topped his circuit in relief wins three times and in saves five, in the process becoming the first man to appear in 50 relief games over his career. His five saves in 1889 equaled Jack Manning’s mark. Like Ward, Mullane was an excellent athlete, playing every position except catcher.

Mullane was nicknamed “Count” and “The Apollo of the Box” because of his dandified appearance and legion of female admirers. Management noticed that an extraordinary number of women were in attendance on the days Mullane was scheduled to pitch, and in response created the venerable institution of Ladies’ Day.

Born in Cork, Ireland, the Count was long thought to be the only ambidextrous pitcher in baseball history (research revealed that Icebox Chamberlain also pitched with both hands in the same game, as Greg A. Harris did in 1986). In 1881, as a rookie with the Detroit Wolverines in the National League, the Count entered a pregame field meet. Although he won the throwing contest with a heave of 416 feet, 7 inches, he was left with a limp, useless right arm. Not wanting to miss a turn in the box, Mullane switched to the port side for the remainder of the season. He hurled without particular distinction, but he did complete every game he started as a lefty. His right arm recovered for the 1882 campaign, but he continued to offer left-handed serves to some lefty batters in succeeding years. No manager had to play the percentages with Tony. Also, his ambidexterity gave him a devastating pick-off move (most of his career took place before pitchers used a fielder’s glove).

The change pitcher was legislated into limbo in 1891, when rulesmakers formalized the practice of free substitution that had been creeping into the game by gentlemen’s agreement for at least two years. It was not until 1892, however, that someone realized that the new policy permitted the use of pinch hitters, whose employment meant work for relief pitchers.

The year 1891 was highlighted by the relief performances of three outstanding pitchers: Bill Hutchison, Kid Nichols, and Clark Griffith. “Wild Bill” Hutchison (sometimes spelled “Hutchinson”) was not a rip-snortin’ hell raiser out of the West but a graduate of the Norwich Free Academy and Yale University, Class of 1880. Pitching for Cap Anson’s Chicagoans, the 5-feet-9 right-hander appeared in relief eight times, and eight times he got the job done. He won seven, a new high, and saved one to go with a 36–19 log as a starter.

Wild Bill led the White Stockings to a second-place finish be­hind Boston, which was paced by the sensational 21-year-old Kid Nichols. Besides winning 30 games for the first of what proved to be seven straight years, the 145-pound Nichols had the most saves in the NL, a feat he repeated three more times. The Hall of Famer used one pitch, the fastball, and one motion, straight overhand, to win 360 games. (In 1884, the rulesmakers had finally abandoned the stricture against over-the-waist throwing, which had not been enforced for some time.) The keys to Nichols’s success were two: He was the first to throw a fastball that jumped, and he changed speeds constantly, without altering his delivery.

Making his big-league debut in 1891, Clark Griffith also notched seven wins in relief. He led in relief wins two more times, the last in 1905, when he was manager of the American League entry in New York, the Highlanders. As managers, Griffith and his crosstown nemesis, John McGraw, were the two men who would lift relief pitching to a prominence in baseball strategy.

Griffith was called “The Old Fox” before his thirtieth birthday; the sobriquet was a tribute to his cunning on the mound. As Cy Young said of him in later years, Griffith “was what I call a dinky-dinky pitcher. He didn’t have anything, but he had a lot of nothing, if you know what I mean.” That “nothing” produced a record of 242–131. Griffith relied on a fast-revolving sinker or “slip pitch,” as it would be called today, learned from Hoss Radbourn; a screw­ball, which Griffith said he invented; the “quick pitch,” another of his innovations; “shadowing” the ball, or hiding it in the plane of his body until the last instant, as Luis Tiant did in the 1970s; and cutting the ball with his spikes to provide greater friction and thus a more explosive drop to his sinker. (Oddly, when trick deliveries such as the spitball, emery ball, shine ball, and so forth were banned in 1920, Griffith was at the head of the legislative crusade.)

At the turn of the century, two all-time great hurlers reowned for their endurance as starters put their talents to relief work as well. Iron Man Joe McGinnity led both leagues in games pitched seven times in eight years (1900–07, excluding 1902). He came by his nickname because he had been a foundry worker, though it came to express perfectly his indomitability on the mound. Stocky Joe led his league in relief wins four times and saves three times. His most outstanding year was 1904, when in seven relief appearances he saved five and won two, while amassing an overall record of 35–8.

McGinnity was an underhand pitcher, or submariner, whose knuckles would almost scrape the ground as he delivered his spe­cialty, the raise curve. As he once said, the raise curve or upshoot “is the heritage of the old days of pitching—when no curves were known—combined with the outcurve of the present day.” He cred­ited invention of the pitch to Billy Rhines of Cincinnati, but others have cited Bobby Mathews, who starred in the National Association. McGinnity’s raise ball created an optical illusion, he ex­plained; the batter “finds it almost out of the question to estimate its speed, and generally hits under it, lifting the ball into the air for an easy out.” Most firemen have been sinkerballers whose aim was to get a ground ball, but there have been several other submariners who pitched well in relief, most notably Dan Quisenberry.

Denton True “Cy” Young earned his nickname as a youngster for his cyclonic speed. As Honus Wagner said of him, “Johnson and Rusie were one as fast as the other, but Young was faster than both of them.” He also had two great curveballs, Wagner added, one of the wide-breaking sort and the other the late-breaking “nickel curve,” today known as the slider. But Young’s greatest asset over the long haul—22 years, 511 victories—may have been his control, for he allowed less than 1.5 walks per nine innings.

Like McGinnity, Young never suffered from a sore arm and needed only a dozen pitches to get warm, for a start or for a turn out of the pen. He won seven games in relief in 1895, leading the NL and falling one short of the record set by his teammate Nig Cuppy two years earlier. He also led in saves in 1896, and in 1905 repeated as the relief-win champ. But it was a relief win in 1904 that stood at the center of one of the greatest pitching feats of all time.

On April 25 of that year, in Philadelphia, the 37-year-old Young and his Red Sox lost to Rube Waddell of the A’s, 2–0; he permitted no hits in the last three innings after a leadoff double in the sixth. On April 30, Young relieved starter George Winter in the third, with none out and two on; he hurled seven hitless re­lief innings for the 4–1 win. On May 5, in a rematch with Waddell, the Cyclone threw a perfect game, bringing his hitless streak to 18 innings. Finally, on May 11, he breezed through the first six inn­ings against Detroit before allowing a hit after one man had gone down in the seventh. He had pitched 25-1/3 consecutive innings without allowing a hit, a record that still stands, more than a century later.

The First Relief Pitchers

When I wrote The Relief Pitcher, published in 1979 with the now quaint subtitle “Baseball’s New Hero,” the save had been an official statistic for ten years, and no reliever had yet been inducted into the Hall of Fame. In that year’s balloting Hoyt Wilhelm received 38.9 percent of the required 75; by 1985 he was in. But proximity is not causality; it is unlikely my book influenced that happy outcome, as my royalty statements will attest. However, when I noticed this forlorn work on my shelf this week, the thought struck me that, 33 years later, some of it might still be worth your attention. So, as I wrote in 1979 (with a handful of updates to fact or repairs of prose infelicity):

While the future of the relief pitcher is assuredly “ahead of him,” in that immortal baseball tautology, his past lies farther behind him than one might imagine. It goes back beyond Page and Konstanty, beyond Murphy and Marberry, beyond even Otis Crandall, often identified as the game’s first reliever. In fact, the story of relief pitching begins with the man to whom so much of Major League Baseball traces its roots, Harry Wright.

“The Father of the Game,” as Wright was called during his lifetime, was personally involved in the early development of our national pastime, from cricket’s “poor relation” to the amateur game of gentlemen, to the early professionals, to the big leagues. Harry’s father was a professional cricket player in England, where Harry was born in 1835. He came to New York in infancy, and as a young athlete he followed in his father’s path, becoming the star cricketer of the St. George club. In 1858 he joined the fabled New York Knickerbockers, baseball’s pioneer team, but cricket continued to be his favored game. Harry’s brother George, twelve years his junior and native-born, also played cricket—as early as 1859—and started his illustrious baseball career with the New York Gothams in 1864.

In the summer of 1865, the Union Cricket Club of Cincinnati hired Harry Wright as a player-coach. Following his experience in New York, Wright affiliated himself next with the new local baseball club, which guaranteed his salary at the same level as the cricket club had provided. In 1867, the touring Washington Nationals, ostensibly an amateur nine comprised of government employees, defeated Cincinnati’s Red Stockings by the score of 53–10 (Washington’s shortstop was Harry’s brother George). This massacre so wounded the Queen City’s civic pride that the baseball club’s directors instructed Harry to put together the best team money could buy (George Steinbrenner didn’t invent the practice). Harry Wright disbursed $9,300 in salaries in 1869 and formed baseball’s first avowedly professional team.

The 1869 Red Stockings immediately demonstrated the worth of that investment. Touring the country from Maine to California, the Reds played 66 games without defeat, 59 of them against first-class opposition. The team’s shortstop and star (.629 batting average!) was Harry’s brother George. Harry himself was the manager, center fielder, reporter—and relief pitcher, or “change pitcher,” as the fireman was called back then.

The rules of the day stated that a player could not be replaced “unless for reason of illness or injury,” or if the opposing team consented. If the starting pitcher was taking a pasting, he could not look to the bullpen for relief; there was no bullpen. He had to exchange positions with a fielder, who had warmed up before the game in preparation for just such an eventuality. A change pitcher was customarily a strong-armed outfielder who could whip the ball in as fast or faster than the starter, but this was not always the case—Harry Wright, for example, was not possessed of an outstanding arm.

Yet “change pitcher” was a particularly apt term for him because, in his amateur days in New York, he was the first to throw the change of pace, or “dew drop,” as it was known then. Wright noticed that even the fastest pitchers, like Jim Creighton of the Brooklyn Excelsiors, would sometimes get shelled in the later innings as the batsmen were able to time the uninterrupted suc­cession of fastballs. (Although the pitching rules of the day required a straight-armed, underhand delivery—like that of a cricket bowler, which Wright on occasion had been—men like Creighton were able to generate considerable speed by adding an illegal, though scarcely perceptible, wrist snap to the release.)

On June 14, 1870, in the most publicized game to that time, the Reds finally met defeat as the Brooklyn Atlantics scored three runs in the bottom of the eleventh inning to win 8–7. Their invincibility punctured, the Reds went on to lose a few more games after that; as their 1870 tour progressed, they played to more and more empty seats. In the off-season the club directors publicly decried the “enormous” payroll and announced that an 1871 tour would be impossible. This stance was only intended to drive down the players’ salary demands, but instead it drove the players out of Cincinnati to other cities where the fever for professional base­ball had taken hold. Five Reds starters went to Washington, while the Wright brothers, first baseman Charlie Gould, and right fielder Cal McVey went to Boston.

In their first year with Harry Wright at the helm, the Boston Red Stockings finished third in the pennant race of the newly formed National Association. Al Spalding, whom Wright spirited from the Forest Citys of Rockford, Illinois, was the team’s starter in each game that year, and only twice was he dispatched to center field to trade places with Harry Wright. In 1872, the first of four straight Boston championships, Wright again relieved Spalding twice. In 1873, Wright, now thirty-eight years old, tried his hand at pitching for the last time, making three appearances.

In three years, seven relief performances—that’s two weeks’ work for the fireman of today, but more appearances than any other rescue man of his day. The substitution rule that prevailed in Wright’s day inhibited the use of relievers and shaped attitudes toward the relief pitcher to such an extent that even after free sub­stitution was permitted in 1891, managers were still loath to pull a starter.

The year of Wright’s final turn in the box also marked the debut of an individual who, under Wright’s guidance, would later become major-league baseball’s first bona fide relief pitcher. His name was Jack Manning.

A native of Braintree, Massachusetts, Manning had attracted Wright’s attention while playing with the Boston Juniors, an ama­teur nine that served as an informal farm club for the Red Stock­ings. Boston first-baseman Gould, who had come over from Cin­cinnati in 1871, retired to go into the sporting goods business. The nineteen-year-old Manning was elevated from the Juniors to re­place him (salary: $800 a year). However, he hit only .260 and was compelled to share the position with another first-year Red Stocking, Orator Jim O’Rourke. At the end of the season, Manning called it quits.

Wright convinced him to return by promising him playing time with the Lord Baltimores, to whom he “lent” Manning for one season only, as he had lent Cal McVey to them the previous sea­son. This seeming generosity was negated as Wright then raided Baltimore of its best hitter, George Hall—Harry Wright exacted stiff payment for his loans. Thus weakened on balance, Baltimore won only nine of its 47 games and dropped out of the National Association before the end of the year. Manning, however, got plenty of action at three infield positions—though not first base, which was now reoccupied by Charlie Gould—and as a pitcher.

Wright could not have asked for a finer finishing school for his raw recruit. He knew his own pitching days were over, and that he needed a change pitcher he could rely on. In 1874, while Manning was learning his trade with Baltimore, Al Spalding pitched every inning of every game Boston played, going 52–18. Wright felt Spalding would need some help in 1875, and he was counting on the strong-armed Manning.

On Boston’s opening day of 1875, Manning was the right fielder, as he was through most of the season; he also took to the box 17 times, most of these as a starter. With Boston roaring to the flag with a 71–8 record, 15 games in front, Wright saw little need for relief.

Eighteen seventy-six was another matter. The National Asso­ciation disbanded in a shambles, with only seven of its 13 teams able to complete the 1875 schedule. From its ashes emerged the eight-team National League. Harry Wright’s Boston team lost its battery of Al Spalding and Deacon White, plus its league-leading hitter, Ross Barnes, and Cal McVey to Chicago, which swept to the pennant while Boston fell to fourth. While Spalding was toying with the league’s batsmen, Wright scrambled to assem­ble a pitching staff from an unlikely bunch of candidates. Joe Borden, alias Joe Josephs, threw the first two no-hitters on record, yet before the season was over he was made the stadium groundskeeper. Foghorn Bradley lasted through season’s end, but was not invited back for 1877. Brief trials were allotted to former N.A. star Dick McBride (0–4 in four starts) and the inappropriately named Tricky Nichols, who in 1875 had logged a record of 4–28. Clearly, this was a crew in need of relief.

And Manning supplied it. Fourteen times he trudged in from the outfield as the “saver,” as the press dubbed him; on one occa­sion he alternated every two innings with starter Joe Borden. (On June 17, 1876, Boston’s Borden and Cincinnati’s Cherokee Fisher became the National League’s first relief pitchers. Borden replaced starter Jack Manning after two frames of a 12–8 loss to St. Louis. Borden moved from right field to the box, trading positions with Manning. Fisher replaced Reds’ starter Amos Booth, also in the third inning and also in a losing cause, against Philadelphia. Booth replaced Fisher at shortstop.) If this total sounds puny, note that Boston played only 70 games; relieving in one fifth of a team’s games in the post-1900 era would mean 31 or 32 games, a total not attained by any reliever until 1913. Man­ning posted four relief wins and five saves (applying today’s standards to yesterday’s box scores). In 40 innings of relief, Man­ning compiled an earned-run average of 0.68 and did not suffer a loss. His five saves were not surpassed for 29 years, and his relief-point total held as the unofficial record until 1908.

Manning’s accomplishments are remarkable because, achieved in the pre-relief era, they stood for more than a  decade after the restrictive substitution rule was abolished. As another measure of Manning’s accomplishment, consider that the saves total for the entire National League in 1878 was one.

Manning also started 20 games in 1876, compiling an over­all record of 18–5 with an ERA of 2.14. It was a magnificent year, yet by August a Beantown newspaper, commenting on Wright’s continuing search for pitching help, observed that Manning “was still around with Boston but no longer considered a potential pitcher.” In 1877, he wasn’t even around with Boston. Despite being in the second year of a three-year contract, Manning was once again lent out to a franchise in trouble—the Cincinnati Reds, who under the leadership of (yes, again) Charlie Gould had fin­ished dead last in 1876 with a record of 9–56.

Manning was the opening-day shortstop of the Porkopolitans, as they were named by the press and their few admirers. By season’s end, he had played five positions, including ten games in the box. He notched only one save for the last-place Reds, and was smacked around resoundingly, allowing 83 hits in only 44 innings of work. Whatever magic Harry Wright had worked on Manning in 1876 was lost forever. As Lindy McDaniel was to say a century later, a fireman cannot be successful without “a man­ager who understands relief pitching.”

As his contract stipulated, Manning returned to Boston in 1878 and opened the season in right field. He later was given a start and won it, and he relieved twice. His ERA of 14.29 told Manning his pitching days were over, but he did continue in the big leagues as an outfielder through 1886, with three minor-league sabbaticals along the way. He reunited with Harry Wright at Phila­delphia in 1884.

Wright and Manning combined to give relief pitchers a place in baseball strategy long before they had their own place in the ball park. The bullpen is a development of the early 1900s. (Prior to 1891, as noted, a reliever came in from a position on the field.) The term bull­pen is persistently and mistakenly said to derive from the Bull Durham tobacco signs (“Hit this sign and win $50”) that adorned outfield fences in the days before World War I. Relief pitchers would warm up beneath these signs and behind the section of the outfield roped off for standing-room-only overflow patrons—thus, goes the argument, the name bullpen. If the sign had promoted Camel cigarettes or Murads or Lady Fatimas, would the term bull­pen still have been used?

Yes. As baseball historian Lee Allen pointed out, the Bull Durham sign was not in evidence at major-league parks until 1909, while the term bullpen, signifying the foul areas in back of first and third bases, was in use as early as 1877. On May 4 of that year, the Cincinnati Enquirer frowned on the practice some clubs fol­lowed of admitting latecomers to the park for less than the league’s standard admission of fifty cents—“for ten cents or three for a quar­ter, herding them in like bulls within a rope area in foul territory, adjoining the outfield.” This simile no doubt has its basis in two earlier usages of the word bullpen—as a prison enclosure, primarily an open-air improvised demarcation; and as a “schoolboys’ ball game, played by two groups, one group outlining the sides of a square enclosure, called the bullpen, within which are the opposing players” (The Oxford English Dictionary). The ball game, popular on the Ohio–Indiana–Kentucky frontier of the 1850s, is first men­tioned in print in Edward Eggleston’s homespun classic The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1871): “He could not throw well enough to make his mark in that famous Western game of bull-pen.” Both senses of the word—the prison enclosure and the ball game—imply enforced occupancy in the bullpen, which reflects the status of the substitute pitcher in the pre-relief era.

[Part Two tomorrow.]

Yankees Toss Game Away in Thirteenth

Yesterday I read a wonderful interview with old friend Bob Creamer over at Graham Womack’s site. If you haven’t read it yet, you owe it to yourself [http://goo.gl/Y9XVN]. Here’s a snip from that interview, about Jimmy Cannon.

Jimmy once bearded Frank Graham, a kind and gentle man. I always felt that Frank’s best work—usually plain, simple, low-key writing— as about as good as sportswriting could get. Always controlled, maybe too controlled. It was very different from Jimmy’s, yet Jimmy had high regard for Frank, so much so that he went to him and asked what he, Graham, thought of his, Cannon’s, work. Graham tried to tap-dance his way through an answer because he knew Cannon wanted praise, unfettered praise, even though Cannon’s style was at the other end of the spectrum from Graham’s. Frank kept dancing around the subject, knowing how sensitive Cannon was. Jimmy was insistent and finally Frank gave in. He said, ‘Jimmy, you’re like a young pitcher. Great fastball, no control.’ 

This got me to thinking about sportswriting: the old style and the new, the good and the bad. Unlike the new, the old fashioned sportwritese can be bad yet good—overwrought but evocative of bygone days and ways. Here’s one that came to mind for me, as I had included it in The Armchair Book of Baseball back in 1985.

Old Anon, that most prolific and versatile of authors, was a staffer for The New York Times, wherein this grand description of a rather ordinary game appeared on April 26, 1912. They don’t write ’em like this anymore—mixing the rhythms of Broadway and ancient Greece—and more’s the pity. “Here’s one that will bring the weeps,” indeed: not for a ballgame lost but for a style of baseball writing that, because of its excesses, was not mourned upon its passing. Today’s reporter views his efforts as secondary to the game and its players, an attitude that is commendably modest but tends to produce bland, “just-the-facts-ma’am” coverage of the incidents of the game, embellished perhaps by banal quotes about hanging curveballs and “seeing the ball good.” The nameless scribe who gladdened the hearts of Times readers back in 1912 reminds one of Rice and Runyon and, in spots, of another nameless scribe to whom history has given the name, with no thought to our game, Homer.

Yankees Toss Game Away in Thirteenth

Here’s one that will bring the weeps.

The Yankees and the Athletics were tied in the thirteenth inning at 4–4. Rube Oldring jarred Ford’s damp hurl to the center lawn for a single. Ford’s next moist fling slipped and went wild, Oldring racing to second, and then to third. Gabby Street recovered the unruly ball, made a desperate heave to Cole­man at third base, and the ball traveled on to left field, Oldring coming home with the run which won the game. Score, 5–4.

Play on, professor—a little more of that funeral march.

Some 3,500 persons, mostly men, sat through to the bitter end, and everyone got cold smoked beef when he walked into the Missus for dinner at 7:30 last evening. That wasn’t all they got.

This is the conversation, husband speaking: “Say, Mrs. Wife, you ought to have seen that pitching duel between Bender and Ford. The Yanks tied it up in the sixth, and after that both flingers were airtight.”

Mrs. Wife now talking: “Say, you, what do you think this is—an all-night lunch? Why don’t you board up at the ballpark? You’ll find something to eat at the ‘Ham-And’ place around the corner.”

It was a ball game worth missing your dinner for. The Yankees showed more fight and vim than in any game this season. For a long time they refused to be whipped, and their chances were just as good as the world’s champions until they cracked in the thirteenth inning and began to toss the ball all over the lot. Wolverton’s men had several excellent chances to win the game, but they lacked the final punch.

The Yankees are in pretty bad shape, and had to rely on green recruits to fill the gaps made by the hospital patients. The whole outfield is now disabled, Hartzell being yesterday’s victim, while Cree and Walter are still recuperating.

In the second inning, Daniels in center and Hartzell in right both chased after Bender’s high fly. The players came together with an awful bump, and Hartzell stretched out on the grass, unconscious. A gash was cut in his chin, and he was carried to the clubhouse. Benny Kauff took his place, and was all hot sand and ginger in the game. Kauff made two fine hits and ran the bases fast, scoring two of the Yankee runs.

It was a toss-up between Bender and Ford. Both pitched great after the sixth inning, getting stronger as they went along. It was the first big game the big Chippewa Indian has pitched since the World Series last fall, and he looks as if he were good for a couple more World Series. Ford was back to his best form and, with men on the bases, was very effective. Ragged support behind him aided the Athletics in their run harvest.

Philadelphia activity started in the second. Murphy was safe when Martin threw wild to Chase at first. Mclnnis beat out a bunt to Ford, and Barry sacrificed the pair up a notch. Then, who comes along but Ira Thomas, who wallops a “pippin” to deep center for a zwei hassocks, scoring Murphy and Mclnnis. The Yanks got one in that stanza, when Kauff ripped a single to center, went down to second on Zinn’s out, and scored on Gardner’s hit to the middle patch.

In the fourth, Barry did a brazen piece of business. Murphy singled, went to second on Mclnnis’s out and to third on a passed ball. Barry’s roller went to Coleman, and Murphy was nailed while skipping up and down the third-base line, Barry racing around to third, while half a dozen Yankees riveted their attention on Murphy. As Ford was pitching to Thomas, Barry started down the third-base line like a runaway colt.

The mammoth nerve of him! The grand larceny was committed with all the Yankees looking on with their baby-blue eyes wide open. Barry slid in safe, while the Yankees continued the nap. Get out the alarm clock.

In the fifth, Oldring was safe on a rap which skinned Gardner’s shins, and he scored on Collins’s double to right. In the same inning, the Yankees began to rush up from behind. Gardner singled and Street strolled. Ford sacrificed them along a base, and they both tore home on Daniels’s safe smash to center.

Sixth inning—Yanks at bat, two out. Benny Kauff banged out a safety to right and went to second when Murphy juggled the ball. Kauff scored on Zinn”s single to center. The score is tied. Nifty, what?

Ford and Bender both closed up like morning glories in the sun. At nine innings, not a run in sight. Tenth inning, the same thing. In the eleventh inning, Collins walked on Ford’s only pass of the day, and got to third on two outs. He stuck there as if planted in glue.

The Yankees should have won in the twelfth inning. Young Martin, the new shortstopper whom Wolverton has just recalled from Rochester, poled a high-powered three-bagger to the darkest corner of right field. He had plenty of time to make the circuit, but was held at third base because of poor coaching. It was a burning shame that such a healthy smash could go to seed, but Martin was tagged coming in on Zinn’s grounder.

Then followed the fitful thirteenth, when the strong-armed pegs of Ford and Street permitted Oldring to breeze home with the hurrah tally.

Not Good, but Good for You

That was how I characterized a pioneering 1866 book by Charles A. Peverelly when I provided an introduction to a modern reprint of its baseball section some years ago. The original title of the book was The Book of American Pastimes, Containing a History of the Principal Base Ball, Cricket, Rowing and Yachting Clubs of the United States. The truncated reissue, titled Peverelly’s National Game, was no page-turner but it was, in my estimation, a vital addition to the bookshelf of anyone who cared about baseball history. That equivocal assessment might apply to any number of recent books about the game’s past, including my own.

For those of you unfamiliar with Peverelly or his odd masterwork, let me tell you why you might wish to check out either the illustrated Aracdia reissue from 2005, edited by John Freyer and Mark Rucker, or the complete work, available as a free download at: http://books.google.com/books/about/The_book_of_American_pastimes.html?id=1o8EAAAAYAAJ.

On September 24 and 25, 1844, at the St. George Cricket Club Grounds along the East River in Manhattan, the first international cricket match took place between the United States and Canada. The American team was drawn from several New York, Philadelphia, Washington City, and Boston clubs, all hotbeds of the game. The match drew over 20,000 spectators, according to contemporary reports, many of them with a gambling interest in the outcome.

A year later, almost to the day—September 22, 1845—a four-oared regatta was held at Hoboken’s Elysian Fields, a pleasure ground for New Yorkers, especially the legions of country lads who had streamed into the city looking for work. Rowing was America’s first modern sport, in that competitions were marked by record keeping and prizes yet also provided spectator interest for those with no pecuniary interest. The first boat club to be organized in the United States was named the Knickerbocker, in 1811. As reported in the New-York Mirror of July 15, 1837.

My Bark is My Courser, 1831, honoring New York Boat Club

This club suffered a suspension during the war [that of 1812], and for many years subsequently the boat which bore its name was hung up in the New-York Museum, as a model of the finest race-boat ever launched in this port. Subsequent attempts to revive the association fell through; and though many exertions to form new ones were made, yet the first effort that succeeded in establishing the clubs upon their present footing—viz., building their own boats, wearing a regular uniform, and observing rigid navy discipline, was made in the year 1830, by the owners of the barge Sea-drift, a club consisting of one hundred persons, which could boast of one no less distinguished in aquatick and sporting matters than Robert L. Stevens for its first president, with Ogden Hoffman, Charles L. Livingston, Robert Emmet, John Stevens, and other good men and true for his successors. To this club the rudder of the old Knickerbocker was bequeathed, with the archives thereto pertaining: nor was anything spared by the members, during the first years of their existence as a club, to give spirit to its doings.

Baseball historians, take note. The new organization of 1830 referenced above was named the New York Boat Club.

It may not have been a coincidence when on the day following the regatta of September 22, 1845 some New York City gentlemen who were already playing the new game of baseball at the Elysian Fields organized themselves into a club, which they called the Knickerbockers. The game had been played earlier, of course. Recent finds have substantiated that a game called baseball had been played as early as 1823 in New York and 1791 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. But the Knickerbockers claimed the palm for being the first true club not because they were first to play the game; they knew that the New York Ball Club had played the game before them. Rather, like their upstanding brothers of the scull, sail, and wicket, the Knicks created a constitution, had regular days for play and practice, admitted members upon due consideration, and conducted themselves in accordance with written rules. Also, in what has been a neglected consideration, they were accorded pioneer status because their name left no doubt as to the heritage upon which they were based: the universally applauded Dutch rather than the reviled British.

It is this fluid state of American sport that Charles A. Peverelly sought to document in 1866 with his Book of American Pastimes. The author had witnessed the explosion of interest in baseball over the previous ten years, but he could not have known how soon cricket would forever lose all claim to being an American pastime. Nor could he have anticipated the tertiary role that yachting and rowing would come to have in his own lifetime.

What John Freyer and Mark Rucker did in extracting the baseball content of Peverelly’s bookwas commendable and overdue. Apart from Peverelly’s National Game, as it is now retitled, being the first baseball book (not counting paperbound annual guides and other ephemera), this book has been unavailable for so long that much of its information had become lost to researchers and aficionados of the early game. What did the early team uniforms look like? Where were their playing grounds located? Who were their officers, year by year since their founding? Those features alone, plus the extensive treatment of such pioneer clubs as the Knickerbocker of New York and the Olympic of Philadelphia, made the republication of Peverelly’s baseball section worthwhile.

But there is more, so much more, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Through an act of historical imagination, the reader may place himself in the years immediately following the Civil War, for which he will be richly rewarded with a thousand glittering prizes.

Yes, the prose is arch and, though typical of the period, sometimes even less digestible than that of his peers: “Dodworth’s Band was in attendance to enliven the scene, and all the arrangements were exceedingly creditable to the taste and liberality of the committee who had charge of the festive occasion.” As a sportswriter Peverelly was exceedingly fastidious, more Felix Unger than Oscar Madison. And yes, the book is not a page-turner, driven by a strong narrative; it is a book to peruse, to consult, to take pleasure in the knowledge that it resides on your shelf.

Study the original Knickerbocker Rules. “[Rule] 9th.–The ball must be pitched, and not thrown, for the bat.” So why is that fellow on the mound today called a pitcher and not a thrower? (“Pitcher” is just a vestigial relic of the old game, as is the phrase “McGillicuddy was knocked out of the box.”) “[Rule] 10th.– A ball knocked out the field, or outside the range of the first or third base, is foul.” Does that mean that what we would call a home run was a  foul ball? (Yes. The Knicks’ playing ground was along the North [Hudson] River and they couldn’t afford to lose any of their expensively handmade baseballs.) “[Rule] 11th.–Three balls being struck at and missed and the last one caught, is a hand out; if not caught is considered fair, and the striker bound to run.” Is this the same rule that survives today and once made Mickey Owen infamous? (Yes. It’s as old as three strikes and you’re out, and maybe even older, as it echoes the rules of town ball, in which there was no foul territory.)

Note that each detail in Peverelly’s ledger may extend to a story you know or one day will. “On the 13th of August [1855],” the author writes of the Knickerbockers, “the uniform of the club was again regulated.  Blue woolen pants, white flannel shirt, with narrow blue braid, mohair cap, and belt of patent leather. With the exception of a change of cap, the uniform has ever since remained the same.  On the 27th of August the first flag staff was raised, and the Knickerbocker banner unfurled.” That banner, a triangular pennant with a “K” in a circle on the background of a red panel and a blue one, went to the grave with James Whyte Davis, a Knick since 1850 who kept it on his dresser after the club disbanded in 1882, and insisted that he be wrapped in it upon burial. In 1899 he was.

Born in the Boston area in 1821 or 1822, Peverelly moved to New York as a young man and worked as a bookkeeper and clerk while scribbling a few sports reports, but he led an active social life. In 1846 he had been a committee member of the Young Bachelors’ Society, and thus may have had something to do with staging the annual Bachelor’s Ball, a Valentine’s Day institution in New York since 1827. In 1848 he became a charter member of the Atalanta Boat Club, which lasted nearly a century, and through his reporting of boat races he soon became recognized as one of the nation’s experts. A New York Herald story of June 25, 1869 states that a race on the Hudson was won by a boat named for the “veteran aquatic authority Charles A. Peverelly.” By this time he had abandoned baseball reporting because his eyes were weakening. When he died in his eighty-fourth year on November 7, 1905, at his son-in-law’s home in Brooklyn, Peverelly was the oldest living member of the Atalanta.

Who likes to read in a welcoming comment that the book he is about to commence may not be good but instead is good for him? Yet that may be said of any book approached incorrectly. One does not curl up in bed with the Encyclopaedia Britannica. And one does not look for helpful information about home repair in Gone with the Wind. Having lain unread for so long, Peverelly’s National Game is like a treasure chest with an obdurate lock. But the key, dear reader, is in your hand.

Casey Doubleheader, Game Two

Let’s play two! Having just posted Mikhail Horowitz’s Kessler at the Bat, I thought I’d set some thoughts down about the wellspring of its inspiration. In art we exalt the heroic, sometimes the ordinary, but never—well, hardly ever—do we find a ballad or portrait or bust that celebrates, well, a bust. The glorious exception is Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s Casey at the Bat.

Thayer was born into a well-to-do family in Lawrence, Massachusetts; his father owned a woolens mill. He studied philosophy at Harvard, graduated magna cum laude, and served as editor of the Lampoon, whose business manager for a time was William Randolph Hearst. After expulsion from Harvard, Hearst was given the editorship of the newspaper his father had just purchased, The San Francisco Examiner. Hearst invited Thayer to contribute a humor column, which he did, under the name “Phin,” for the better part of two years. On June 3, 1888, The Examinerpublished Phin’s final effort, the rollicking ballad soon to be known across the land.

Chicago Inter Ocean, August 15, 1888

Yet Casey at the Bat might have vanished without a trace, like Phin’s other five-dollar ditties,  except that novelist Archibald Clavering Gunter clipped it from the paper and kept it with him on his next trip east. On the night of August 14, 1888, at Wallack’s Theatre in New York, he was backstage before a performance of Prince Methusalem, given as a “complimentary testimonial” to the New York Giants and visiting Chicago White Stockings. (The visitors had triumphed over the hometown heroes that afternoon by the score of 4–2, the same as that in the opening stanza of the poem.) One of the stars of the comic opera was DeWolf Hopper, a regular attendee at the Polo Grounds who wanted some diversion with a baseball theme to spice up the evening’s entertainment. Gunter gave Hopper the poem that afternoon, Hopper proved a quick study, and between acts of the comic opera he recited Casey at the Bat. 

The audience loved it, particularly the ballplayers. “Casey” proved an instant sensation as Hopper commenced his recitation with:

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;

The score stood four to two with but one inning more to play;

And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,

A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

You know the rest, don’t you? In his autobiography, Once a Clown, Always a Clown, Hopper wrote of that evening’s debut:

I interpolated Casey in a scene in the second act. . . . It was, I presume, the first time the poem was recited in public. . . . On his debut Casey lifted this audience, composed largely of baseball players and fans, out of their seats. When I dropped my voice to B flat, below low C, at ‘the multitude was awed’ [the poem in fact reads: “the audience was awed”], I remember seeing Buck Ewing’s gallant mustachios give a single nervous twitch. And as the house, after a moment of startled silence, grasped the anticlimactic denouement, it shouted its glee. . . . They had expected, as any one does upon hearing Casey for the first time, that the mighty batsman would slam the ball out of the lot, and a lesser bard would have had him do so, and thereby written merely a good sporting-page filler.

Hopper would continue to recite Casey, by his estimate, some 10,000 times over the next four decades. The mock-epic stentorian style of Hopper’s five-minute-and-forty-second recitation was a delicious match for the classical march of the story. A talking film of him in action survives and is quite a hoot: http://www.fandor.com/films/casey_at_the_bat_1922.

By 1889, King Kelly was taking to the boards to recite the poem (naturally renamed Kelly at the Bat), and many thought the poem had been written not only for him but also about him. No poet came forth to dismiss such notions. Thayer was so shy and retiring that he kept quiet while everyone but your Uncle Henry claimed to be the author of the poem or, like one-time Phillies pitcher Dan Casey, its inspiration.

Defenders of Thayer stepped up only as he neared death in 1940. Defenders of Casey’s honor, however, sprang up much earlier, with happy-ending sequels and further adventures ranging from Casey’s Revenge to Casey—Twenty Years After (also known as The Volunteer) and The Man Who Fanned Casey. None is as pleasing as the original.

There have been parodies (Ray Bradbury wrote “Ahab at the Helm”), recitations accompanied by music (the sonorous Lionel Barrymore, the enthusiastic Tug McGraw), a movie with Wallace Beery, a cartoon epic from Disney, a ballet, and, in 1953, an opera (William Schuman’s The Mighty Casey. Casey will continue to strike out and render Mudville joyless, but we live in a favored land indeed to take pride in so flawed a hero.

Kessler at the Bat

This previously unpublished riff on the immortal “Casey at the Bat” is by Mikhail Horowitz, bon vivant, raconteur, performance artist and, you should be so lucky, friend.

“Vot? It’s not for you good enough? Strike two!”

It looked, well, all farcockteh for the Putzville nine that day;
The score—don’t ask—was 4 to 2. You heppy now? Hokeh.
And so when Plotkin plotzed at first, and Schwartz popped up to third,
Already y’hay sh’may rab-boh was in the ballpark heard.

A couple shlumps got up to go, the others shrugged, and stayed
(For box seats on the field, hoo boy! their tuchuses they paid);
They thought, If only Kessler maybe gives the ball a zetz,
We’d shimmy through the shtetl and forget about the Mets!

But Stein preceded Kessler, as did his nephew, Moe,
And Stein a real shmegegee was, and Moe was just a shmo;
So maybe now for Kessler they should bother not to wait—
Moshiach had a better chance of schlepping to the plate.

But Stein, he blooped a bingle, and his mother cried, Mein Gott!
And Moshe clubbed a double, I should drop dead on the spot;
And when they finished running and bent wheezing at the waist,
There was Moe verklempt on second and Stein on third, vershtast?

So now from all those Putzville fans was such a big to-do,
They rose and davened in a wave, a hundred shofars blew;
A host of angels wept to hear a thousand chazzans sing,
For Kessler, Rebbe Kessler, he was coming up to swing.

There was schmaltz on Kessler’s tallis as he stepped into the box,
In his beard were crumbs of matzoh, small piece cheese, a bissel lox,
And when he shook his shtreimel, drenching half the fans with sweat,
No goyim in the crowd could doubt—’twas Kessler at the bet.

And now the mystic, Kabbalistic pitch comes floating in,
And Kessler’s brow is furrowed, and he slowly strokes his chin;
He comprehends that long before Creation had begun,
This pitch existed somewhere . . . but then he hears, “Strike vun!”

From the stands (donated by the Steins) the whole mishpocheh moaned,
A yenta started kvetching and a balabusta groaned;
“Hey, ump!” an angry moyel cried, “I’ll cut you like a fish!”
So, nu? They would have cut him, but Kessler muttered, “Pish!”

With a smile of pure rachmanis, great Kessler’s punim shone,
He stilled the boiling moyel, he bade the game go on;
He yubba-dubba-dubba’ed as the pious pitcher threw,
But he yubba-dubba’ed once too much—the umpire shrugged,
“Vot? It’s not for you good enough? Strike two!”

“Feh!” cried the maddened Hasids, and Elijah echoed, “Feh!”
But a puzzled look from Kessler made the audience go, “Heh?”
They saw his payus rise and fall, they saw his tzitzits twitch,
They knew that Rebbe Kessler vouldn’t miss another pitch.

The smile on Kessler’s punim now is more profound, and keener;
He glows with all the preternatural light of the Shekinah;
And now the pishka-pishka pitch so big and fat it gets;
And now the air is shattered by the force of Kessler’s zetz!

Oy. Somewhere in Jerusalem a grandson plants a tree;
A klezmer band is playing—so, the clarinet’s off-key;
And somewhere else a shmoyger with the rebbetzin has flirted;
But there is no joy in Putzville—mighty Kessler has converted.

(“The name is Kelly, if you don’t mind!”)

If Who’s on First, Who’s in Write?

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, who had been a comic duo since 1931, visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956. They presented the institution with a gold record and plaque, as well as a transcription of their routine. When I published this classic in The Armchair Book of Baseball in 1985, I prefaced it by writing:

This classic assault on sense and syntax is generally associated with Abbott and Costello, who, having performed it in the 1945 film Naughty Nineties, are presumed to have written it. They didn’t. Who did? Naturally.

I went on to say that the skit was of anonymous authorship, as were some 2,000 other stock burlesque bits in Abbott and Costello’s repertoire. Afterwards, however, I learned that they aired “Who’s on First?” as far back as 1938, when they performed it on Kate Smith’s radio show, and that the skit had an author: Irving Gordon (1915-96), a versatile fellow who also wrote Nat King Cole’s 1951 hit song, “Unforgettable,” as well as “Prelude to a Kiss” for Duke Ellington, “What Can I Tell My Heart?” for Bing Crosby, “Throw Mama from the Train” for Patti Page and—in a song title for Billie Holiday that puts one in mind of  “Who’s on First?”—the strangely populated “Me, Myself and I.”

Here’s Gordon’s unforgettable lineup:

First Base: Who

Second Base: What

Third Base: I Don’t Know

Shortstop: I Don’t Care

Left Field: Why

Center Field: Because

Pitcher: Tomorrow

Catcher: Today

Note that this team had always taken the field without anyone in right, or as writer. Now you can put Irving Gordon in. Naturally.

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