January 30th, 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:


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 the opportunity his club had to take the “championship” title from the Atlantics. Bitter enemies ever after, the two 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