Call the roll of Yankee greats, past and present, and one names so many of baseball’s all-time heroes—Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, and more—that it is easy to think that they alone made the Yankees. Likewise, the unparalleled Yankee record and the pride that goes with it might lead one to believe that the club had always been successful, that its tradition truly begins with that first flag in 1921. But the path of history is not that simple, of course, and it stretches back toward a hazy and inglorious beginning—in Baltimore of all places.
Why, in an article about the early history of the New York Yankees, would we write of John McGraw and his boisterous Baltimore Orioles? Because the past matters in baseball as in no other sport, and because a special interest attaches to how the Yankees’ birth and antecedents molded their spirit and shaped their destiny. Before they came to be known as the Yankees, as astute fans know, the New York franchise in the American League was known as the Highlanders, who debuted at Hilltop Park in northern Manhattan in April 1903, twenty years before The House That Ruth Built. Few, however, know that the Yankees’ Book of Genesis begins at an even earlier page, and that the Bronx Bombers were begat from the odd couple of Ban Johnson and John McGraw.
The Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s were celebrated for their ingenuity, their championships, their great stars, and—beyond anything seen in baseball before or since—their toughness. In 1894, the first year of their championship run, they featured Wee Willie Keeler, Hughie Jennings, Joe Kelley, Wilbert Robinson, Dan Brouthers, and John McGraw, who was the poster boy for cheating, umpire baiting, and all-around rowdyism (as loutish on-field behavior was then termed). Their batting averages ranged from a low of .335 to a high of .393, and today all six are in the Hall of Fame. But as great as they were, they could not stem a decade-long decline in fan interest. With the 1891 demise of the American Association, which for a decade had been a formidable rival circuit, the monopolistic National League swelled from eight teams to twelve, and its postseason competitions between first- and second-place finishers drew yawns. Furthermore, in an ownership construct that would not be tolerated today, syndicates controlled the shares of several clubs at once and shuffled the players between them as the need or opportunity arose.
In 1899 the Robison brothers, who owned both the St. Louis and Cleveland clubs, denuded the roster of the latter (including Cy Young) for the benefit of the former, condemning the Cleveland Spiders to an all-time-worst record of 20–134. Brooklyn and Baltimore, too, were commonly owned—Ned Hanlon acted as manager of the Superbas and team president of the Orioles.
John McGraw had been the Orioles’ player–manager in 1899, but when he got wind of the NL’s intent to drop Baltimore in 1900 he threatened to form an American League team with Ban Johnson and assist him in mounting a major league threat. Inability to secure a ballpark in time to open the 1900 season, however (Hanlon was no longer using the Union Grounds but he’d be damned if he’d let McGraw have it), doomed the AL franchise and did nothing for McGraw’s bargaining position. In mid-February he sheepishly re-upped as manager of the NL Orioles. Only two weeks later, however, the other shoe dropped at last, as the rumored contraction of Baltimore—along with Cleveland,Washington, andLouisville—was announced as fact. The syndicate clubs hoped that by consolidating their interests they could cut their losses, and by reducing the league to eight teams they might heighten interest in the pennant race … or at least conclude the season with only seven losing teams rather than eleven.
Louisville owner Barney Dreyfuss, hung out to dry and paid a measly $10,000 for his franchise, outflanked his adversaries, borrowing money to buy a half-interest in Pittsburgh and then moving the best of his Louisville players there (including Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke), thus turning the consolidated Pirates into a dominant team. The radically reformed NL of 1900 would remain immune from further change until 1953. Brooklyn, meanwhile, was given first rights to Baltimore’s players, and Charles Ebbets and Ned Hanlon picked up the contracts of McGraw, Robinson, and rookie sensation Joe McGinnity, as they had done one year earlier with Jennings, Keeler, and Kelley.
McGraw and Robinson refused to report to Brooklyn, citing their business interests in Baltimore, which included a shared interest in the Diamond Café, a billiards parlor where, incidentally, duckpin bowling was first played. As punishment, they were sold to St. Louis. The pair held out until late May, when the Cardinals acceded to their demand that the reserve clause be stricken from their contracts, freeing them to play where they wished in 1901. Chances are that when McGraw signed with St. Louis he had already reached a tacit understanding with Johnson that the two would do their utmost to make the American League a major for 1901. McGraw wished revenge against Hanlon and the Brooklyn club that had raided the Orioles, and Johnson knew that to strengthen the new league, he would have to raid the old, not simply take its leavings.
The great consolidation, which had left many major league players suddenly unemployed, emboldened Johnson. In 1900, he had renamed his Western League—well established as a top-rank minor circuit—to become the American League, with designs on East Coast cities. Foremost among these was New York, where the Giants had fallen on hard times under the enigmatic ownership of Tammany big shot Andrew Freedman, who with John Brush, owner of the Cincinnati Reds, had been the engineer of syndicate baseball, salary caps, and other surefire tickets to dissension. The AL had to bide its time, however, as its designs on a stadium site in Gotham were foiled with even more political muscle than they had been in Baltimore. As soon as Johnson’s emissaries began sniffing around a ballpark-sized lot on Manhattan Island, Freedman’s gang made sure that a road would be cut through it.
The AL operated as a minor circuit in 1900, but then in the fall of that year Johnson made a peace overture to the NL that asked for parity as a major league, with access to certain lucrative territories while foregoing certain others and guaranteeing respect for NL player contracts. As he expected, however, the proffered olive branch was rebuffed. NL president Nick Young wished success to the AL, he said, but considered it an outlaw, not a major league. And so Johnson went to war, abrogating the National Agreement and thus opening the door to raids on NL player contracts. Johnson also placed franchises in current NL cities Philadelphia and Boston as well as former NL cities Washington and Baltimore to complement his strong Midwestern franchises in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee. Three of the league’s 1900 clubs—Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Buffalo—were dropped. Baltimore, as McGraw was secretly assured in 1901, was the stalking horse forNew York, ready to be moved once a ballpark site and politically connected ownership were secured.
Relying upon the adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Johnson and McGraw set aside their evident temperamental differences: Johnson had pledged that one of the main tenets of his new major league would be respect for umpires; McGraw was the game’s premier umpire baiter. As might have been predicted, they were cruisin’ for a bruisin’. As manager of the AL entry in Baltimore, the feisty McGraw and his Orioles quickly reverted to their NL ways—spitting, cussing, kicking, and even punching umpires with whom they had a difference of opinion. On August 7, Johnson felt compelled to suspend Orioles first baseman Burt Hart for belting an umpire. Never lifted, the suspension amounted to a lifetime ban. Two weeks later in Baltimore, Joe McGinnity, who had returned to town after his year in Brooklyn, spat in the face of umpire Tom Connolly. Oriole Mike Donlin, a McGraw favorite, then decked Detroit’s Kid Elberfeld, and an on-field riot ensued, involving players, fans, and police. This was not the decorous league Ban Johnson had envisioned.
The 1901 Orioles finished three games over .500 but drew poorly. Johnson couldn’t wait to get them to New York, but the Big Apple was not yet ripe. McGraw visited New York several times in the off-season to meet with potential investors and scope out possible ballpark sites. Unbeknownst to Johnson, however, McGraw was talking to NL people, too, including the hated Freedman, whose master plan to transform the NL into one huge syndicate of eight clubs, run centrally, had been defeated. Freedman wished to sell his Giants to Brush and buy into an AL franchise in New York but Johnson, once burned in his alliance with McGraw, was twice shy about welcoming an even more combative owner.
(Before we leave 1901, file this under what might have been: In preseason training at Hot Springs, Arkansas, McGraw had tried to pass off Charlie Grant—a fine African American second baseman who had played with Chicago’s Columbia Giants—as a full-blooded Cherokee, on the assumption that a Native American could be brought up to the big club despite the “gentlemen’s agreement” against admitting black ballplayers. However, Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey—also with spring-training facilities in Hot Springs—outed Grant, who had no choice but to return to the Columbia Giants. “If Muggsy really keeps this Indian,” Comiskey is reported to have said, “I will get a Chinaman of my acquaintance and put him on third.”)
McGraw marked the opening of the 1902 season by being booted out of the Orioles’ game in Boston. At the end of April he protested calls by umpire Jack Sheridan by sitting down in the batter’s box until he was expelled. Johnson then handed him a five-day suspension. The AL was still at war with the NL, but McGraw seemed now to be at war with Johnson as well, and in June all hell broke loose. Severely spiked by Dick Harley in a game with Detroit on May 24, Muggsy was forced to perch on the sidelines until June 28, when he marked his return by again tormenting umpire Connolly, getting tossed, and refusing to leave the field. Connolly forfeited the game to Boston.
This time Ban Johnson had had enough. He sent McGraw a wire on June 29: “As of today, you are suspended indefinitely.” John McGraw never wore an Orioles uniform again.
Was his provocation deliberate? Was McGraw looking to justify actions he had already planned to take? McGraw had in fact participated in secret meetings during his convalescence from the spiking—first with Frank Farrell, a racehorse owner with political connections who would become the owner of the Highlanders; then with Fred Knowles, secretary to Freedman, who asked whether McGraw might wish to consider managing the Giants. McGraw, now under the June 29 suspension he had appeared to incite, met with the Orioles board of directors, who owed him $7,000. He offered to forgive the amount in exchange for his unconditional release. Unwilling or unable to cough up the dough, the directors freed him to do as he pleased.
McGraw had somehow gotten wind of Johnson’s intent to move into New York in 1903 without him—that the managerial spot of the New York Americans had been offered to Clark Griffith, who had been Comiskey’s ally on the Chicago AL club since the 1900 season. Let McGraw tell his side of the story, as he did to Fred Lieb some eighty years ago, recounted in the latter’s The Baltimore Orioles (Putnam, 1955):
Do you want to know why I left Baltimore, and the American League, in 1902? Well, I’ll give you the real story. The move to shift the Orioles to New York had been contemplated for some time. In fact, I did much of the ground work, built up the contacts, scouted around for grounds, and was to get a piece of the club. Naturally, I assumed I would be manager. Then I suddenly learned that I no longer figured in Johnson’s New York plans and that he was preparing to ditch me at the end of the 1902 season. So, I acted fast. If he planned to ditch me, I ditched him first, and beat him to New York by nearly a year.
If revenge is a dish best served cold, McGraw’s next steps were absolutely frigid. On July 8 his four-year deal with the Giants was officially revealed. Next he set about to wreck the team and the league he was leaving, combining with Brush, on behalf of Freedman, to buy 201 shares of Orioles stock from team president John J. Mahon for $50,000. McGraw also swapped his half interest in the Diamond Café for Wilbert Robinson’s stock. On July 16, the announcement went to the press that Brush and Freedman—with McGraw’s clandestine assistance—now owned a majority interest in the Orioles and were free to send the club’s players to either the Reds or the Giants. McGraw secured for the Giants pitchers McGinnity and Jack Cronin as well as rising stars Dan McGann and Roger Bresnahan. Brush claimed Cy Seymour, Kelley, and Donlin for the Reds (though Donlin was still in jail after being sentenced to six months time for assaulting an actress and her escort).
On July 17, the day after this spectacular climax to the era of syndicate ball, the Orioles, left with only five players, forfeited a game to the St. Louis Browns and their franchise to the league, which was forced to borrow players from other teams so that Baltimore could complete its schedule. Two days later, McGraw managed his first game in New York, losing to the Phillies. On August 25, Johnson announced what McGraw had already known: the AL’s intention to move the Orioles to New York in 1903, with Griffith as the Americans’ manager. Before the 1902 season was over, Brush sold the Reds and bought the Giants from Freedman, who took the money and ran away from baseball.
In January 1903, representatives of the two leagues got together and came to a peace agreement of sorts that recognized the admission of the New York American League club, soon to be dubbed in the press as the Hilltoppers or Highlanders. Brush continued his private fight against the move, and his animosity toward Johnson and his league extended to the end of the 1904 season, when he and McGraw withheld their Giants from that year’s World Series. Lieb recalled that, for the rest of the decade, “There was a cold war between the two clubs. The Giants’ official family, and writers friendly to them, disdainfuly referred to the Highlanders as the Invaders.”
But Johnson had found two men with the necessary money and influence to push the deal through. The publicly revealed owner was Farrell, the gambler and racing-stable owner; the other, unannounced at the time, was Big Bill Devery, an ex–chief of police and political bagman. They paid $18,000 for the Baltimore franchise, selected coal dealer Joseph Gordon to act as their president, and built a ramshackle ballpark in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, in time for the home opener on April 30, 1903.
The rest is history. This has been the prehistory.
As the response to George Wright’s “lost” interview from 1888 about baseball uniforms was highly complimentary, I give this space over to him once again. The time is again June 1888, the subject is baseball bats—including a number of variants that recall the corked bats of recent times—and the authority is impeccable. In the undefeated 1869 campaign of the Cincinnati Reds, in 57 contests that came against National Association clubs, George Wright’s bat produced an average of five hits and ten total bases per game, collecting 49 home runs among his 304 hits and batting .629. To the argument that the opposition was frequently soft: In the club’s19 games against fellow professionals (the Reds won all, of course), he hit 13 home runs and batted .587. I am indebted to my friend and estimable historian Bob Schaefer for the woodcut illustrations below. Now, to quote the nonpareil player of the age.
There is one curious thing in connection with base ball bats and their use by both professional and amateurs throughout the country which I think has not as yet been noticed, or at least received due attention.
I refer to the very marked changes which have taken place within my own recollection in the size and shape of base ball bats. It is queer whit an effect experience, change in playing rules, and especially the science of curving the ball have had upon them. Formerly long bats were all the rage, and players, both professional and amateur, held up legs of wood, some of them 3-1/2 feet in length, and fanned the air in a way that would seem perfectly ridiculous to the average player to-day.
Henry Chadwick of Brooklyn, the veteran among base ball reporters, was the first to introduce what was known as the square bat. It was forty-two inches in length, and was truly an immense affair. That was about the year 1860, away back in the days of the Knickerbocker, Eagle and Gotham clubs. Chadwick was always present at the games, sitting on the benches, invariably carrying an umbrella under his arm. The square bat, however, proved a fizzle, as the claim that more force was gained in the strike with less labor to the batsman proved untenable when put to the actual test.
At about the same time a hollow ash bat, loaded with a movable ball of lignum vitae, was used as an experiment by some players. A hole was bored some distance into the larger end of the bat, the lignum vitae ball inserted and the hole stopped up, This ball played freely back and forth in the hollow, and whenever the batsman brought forward the bat for the strike the ball rolled toward the end away from the handle, and the ball sent in by the pitcher struck the bat at a point opposite the lignum vitae ball. There was little advantage gained by this, however, as the rolling and snapping of the ball inside the bat often sounded like the tick of a foul ball and occasioned considerable trouble.
About the year 1873-4, in the [Boston] Red Stocking nine, a couple of bats made of willow, with cane handles, like those of cricket bats, were introduced. They had a certain spring end snap to them, but cost about $5 apiece, and as one would last on an average only one game, it was rather expensive. The bail went off with a snap and a spring, but the handles proved weak and were constantly breaking.
One of the most curious bats ever gotten up was one that was put into my hands to test. From the larger end, on the outer surface of the bat, a number of grooves were run up toward the handle for about six inches perhaps. This artful contrivance was to do away, if possible, with any such things as fouls or “ticks,” the claim being that the ball on striking the bat would catch upon the grooves and always be hit “fair.”
This, however, was soon abandoned. A laughable thing happened in connection with another crank “bat” once while I was testing it, which is perhaps worthy of mention. Some person had taken a bat, bored a hole in the larger end for about six inches, inserted several small rubber balls about two inches in diameter, and plugged up the end with cork so as to give to the bat no additional weight. The idea was to have a springy bat that would not crack.
I was striking, and neither the pitcher nor the catcher knew anything at the time about the “crank” bat. A ball was pitched and I struck at it, but unfortunately the stopper in the end of the bat came out and three or four of the rubber balls flew out in all directions, some at the pitcher, some at basemen, and some at the shortstop. There was a pretty lively scrimmage for those balls, I can tell you. I was put out on a “foul,” one “liner,” one “pop fly” and two “sky scrapers” all at once. This was certainly discouraging for a batsman, and I need hardly say that this unfortunate episode brought its career to a timely close.
The real reason for the substitution of the short for the long bat is its lighter weight, and the sharp, quick blow which one can give with it. In an “in-curve,” for instance, the long bat would have to be brought in near the body to hit the ball at all, although the striker generally allows the “in” and “out” curves to pass him, and strikes at the “drops” and “risers.” If any one would invent a base ball bat that would last a season without breaking, a player would willingly give $5 for it. But bats made of the very best stuff are constantly breaking.
“Base ball players are the hardest men in the world to suit in matters relating to their own outfitting when the choice is left to themselves,” said a well known sportinq goods dealer. “Take the matter of bats, for instance, and there are only two men in the Allegheny club who are good judges of the article. These are [Abner] Dalrymple and [Cliff] Carroll, who practically pick out the sticks for the whole team. Carroll brought back with him from Chicago a round dozen good sticks, and probably as many more have been selected since the boys gathered in at the beginning of the season. The Allegheny boys use a good sized bat, weighing: all the way from thirty-eight to forty-five ounces and averaging from thirty-five to thirty-seven inches in length. Another thing that 1 have noticed as peculiar about some of the boys is their superstition regarding a certain stick, which they call their lucky stick and will allow no one else to use. I have seen them stand about open lots watching with deep interest a lot of urchins play until one of them made a good hit. They would then move up, examine the bat, and in all probability buy it for ten times what it cost, though it might be a piece of the commonest kind of ash.”
For a story that would run in the Boston Herald on Monday, June 18, 1888, a reporter engaged George Wright, the sporting-goods magnate (Wright & Ditson) and one-time idol of the baseball world, to offer his thoughts on a subject seldom addressed: the evolution of the baseball uniform. “THE LADIES USED TO BLUSH,” was the headline writer’s master stroke. “When Harry Wright First Wore the Red Stockings,” the heading continued, descending to “Evolution of the Modern Base Ball Costume.”
George Wright had retired as an active player after the 1882 season but was still involved in the game. In 1884 he had been an owner of the Boston franchise in the Union Association, a rival major league that lasted only one season, 1884. And by the end of this year in which he granted the interview, he would join his old teammate and rival Albert G. Spalding on a round the world tour, playing both baseball and cricket, which he had commenced to play with the St. George Club juniors at age nine. At this point I give my column over to George Wright, elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937, four months after his death at age ninety, and one of my all-time favorite figures in baseball history. His words have not appeared in print or on the web in all the nearly 125 years since he uttered them.
Thirty years ago, when I first began to play ball [i.e., 1858], there were no professional clubs in existence, and the regularly organized clubs of the time wore uniforms which would seem exceedingly strange and grotesque at the present day. In those days players wore long pants of various colors, either of grey, white, dark blue, or of a mixed check material. Extending down the side of the leg on the seam was sewed a broad white or red stripe, which gave, as you may imagine, a decidedly military air to the garment, in marked contrast to that worn today. At the ankle the pant leg on the outer side was split up a distance of perhaps six inches, and two buttons sewed on, so that by this means the pants could be securely fastened. At a little later period some players made use of a wide skate strap, binding it tightly about the pant leg, instead of the two-button arrangement before alluded to. Both of these contrivances were to aid the player if possible in stooping to pick up a hot grounder, to prevent catching the fingers in the loose cloth and spoiling the play, and also to guard against dirt and small stones flying at the leg while running the bases. There were no sliding pads used in the pants in those days, and I do not remember ever seeing a player try to slide a base.
The shirts worn by the old-time players wore generally made of white, blue or red flannel. Some clubs also had blue and white or black and white checked shirts, made very much in the style of those of the present day [i.e, 1888], but it was seldom that the club name appeared on the shirt front. The caps worn by players were invariably of bright colors, made of merino or flannel, with eight pieces to the crown, plenty large enough, with old-fashioned “peaks” or visors of leather. Well can I remember the caps worn by the Harvard College nine in, I think, the year 1866, while the team was on a tour to New York. They were of a jockey pattern, and fitted close to the head, with very long peaks or visors. I umpired one of the games they played with the Active club. The nine seemed pretty well used up, especially the catcher, who had a very black eye, which he had received in a game the day before, and he was forced to play in another position. Of course, the mask was not in use in those days. The base ball belts of the olden time were made of webbing of various colors, and on the back of one of them would be inscribed in many cases the word “captain.”
In regard to the matter of base ball shoes, the lapse of time has also caused a very marked change. The very first shoes worn by base ball players were made of white canvas, laced high up on the ankle. Now and then, perhaps, some player would have a calf or black leather shoe made to suit his own peculiar fancy, but the high laced canvas shoe was really the first shoe worn. A little later the French calf shoe was found to be more serviceable, in that it would wear much better and longer than canvas, and formed a more satisfactory protection against wet weather, more surely guarding the feet from the damp ground. The shoe of the present day in use to the majority of players is what is known as the “Kangaroo,” a shoe much lighter and stronger than those formerly in use, laced well down to the toe, similar to a running shoe. Some time ago Wright & Ditson made a pair of these kangaroos for Capt. John Morrill, and to this fact I attribute a large measure Capt. John’s good playing this season. This shoe was first introduced by a Philadelphia shoemaker.
In the matter of spikes for baseball shoes the first ones used were the same as those now placed upon cricket shoes. There were four spikes on each shoe, three at the sole and one at the heel. Later on Peck & Snyder of New York introduced spikes screwed into plates set into the sole and heel of the shoe, which could be removed at the player’s will by the use of a key especially prepared for the purpose. But the principal objection to them was that the hole from which the spike was removed would very quickly fill with dirt, after the manner of the heel plates in the old fashioned club skate, which all boys in times past have spent so much time over in digging out. There was also great danger to a player, while fielding or running bases, of being spiked. For this reason a malleable iron plate was invented by some one, with three wide points placed at the centre of the sole of the foot. After this the iron plate, on account of its malleability, would get dull and would not catch on the ground, hence the final introduction of the steel tempered plate now in use. The spine of today is riveted securely to the sole of the shoe, in place of being screwed on as of old, and a well-tempered plate will last a season.
In former times the pitcher, by the constant rubbing and chaffing of the right foot upon the ground, would very soon wear a hole completely through the toe of his shoe. To obviate this an extra piece of leather was put on at this point; but this in turn proving inadequate, the present cup-shaped piece of brass, extending half-way round the inner edge of the toe, was introduced. This contrivance will last a season, and is used now pretty generally. But there is another matter which I feel sure the public will feel more interest in than anything of which I have yet spoken. I refer to the introduction and adoption of knickerbocker short pants among base bail players.
My brother Harry first brought about this important change, and it was somewhat in this manner: The Young America Cricket Club of Philadelphia used often to come to New York, where my brother then was, to play games, and on one of its trips, in the year 1865, the captain of the cricket club presented my brother with a pair of long red stockings. In the succeeding year, 1866, when my brother went on his western trip, he took these stockings with him, and also had made for him a pair of knickerbocker pants to go with them. An extract taken from a Cincinnati paper in regard to this very matter will, perhaps, be of peculiar interest:
Now, be it known that knickerbockers, today so common—the showing of the manly leg in varied colored hose—was unheard of, and when Harry Wright occasionally appeared with the scarlet stockings, young ladies’ faces blushed as red as its hue, and many high-toned members of the club denounced the innovation as immoral and indecent. There were, however, strenuous supporters of the new idea—strong-headed radicals—and at a meeting on Third street they got possession, ‘by strategy, my boy,’ and adopted the uniform, afterward to be a byword, a nickname, a term of ridicule and finally of glory—that is ‘base ball history.’ Later, in 1868, the Cincinnati club, which had up to that time been composed of gentlemen playing ball simply for pleasure, was convened into a professional organization, and in the fall of the same year took its famous trip through the eastern cities, appearing for the first time in red stockings, thus introducing in a general way knee breeches and long stockings into base ball.
All of these historical facts In regard to base ball occurred, you must remember, in and around New York city, where the game of base bail really had its origin. The game was played, of course, in New England, but it was really the old English game of rounders, where there were no bases used, but the players ran to a stake or post placed in the ground. This was, then, in 1858 the New England style of playing our present national game. In New York, at this time, were the Knickerbocker, Gotham, Eagle and Mutual clubs, having their club ground at Hoboken, N. J., at a place called the Elysian Fields. This ground was surrounded by a long line of oak and maple trees, running alongside the Hudson river, and it often happened that some player hit the ball high over the tops of the trees, whence it would sail into the waters of the river far below. Then the game would be stopped for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes to prevail upon some youth to strip and swim for it. If the swimmer was successful in his search, the players would give him 25 to 50 cents, for it was a costly matter in those days to lose a ball, costing, as they did, $2 each. Consequently, this proffered reward kept the small boys in the neighborhood constantly on the alert for long hits over the tree tops, and much rivalry existed as to who should be the chosen swimmer
As 1 have before said, the rows of trees were the only enclosure to the grounds, and hence no admission fee was charged to the crowds of business men, clerks, etc., who, just as at the present time, daily came from the busy city after a hard day’s toil to enjoy the pleasure of seeing a good game of ball and who had only to walk or pay their fare to the grounds to witness their favorite sport. There was also at the Elysian Fields a large hotel called Perry’s, where the clubs had their headquarters. There were, of course, other base ball dubs in existence in Brooklyn, notably the old Atlantics, Stars, Excelsiors, Enterprise, etc., but the real centre of base ball was at Hoboken. Here there were located three grounds, where from six to eight clubs would play practice games on various afternoons of the week, and it was here, while a member of the Gotham club, that I first learned to play ball.
This interview with an unnamed “old pioneer” appeared on page 14 of the San Francisco Examiner on November 27, 1887. It lay buried in the microfilm archives until 2004, when Randall Brown published extensive excerpts from it in his landmark article, “How Baseball Began,” in SABR’s National Pastime. Brown wrote:
The Giants played their first games in San Francisco on Thanksgiving, 1887. The arrival of the New York club (with added attraction Mike Kelly) was big news, especially in the Examiner. True to his pledge “to keep the public fully acquainted with all the phases and variations of the national game, wherever played,” editor and publisher W. R. Hearst [who in the next year would be first to publish “Casey at the Bat”] provided many columns on baseball that week. There were inning-by-inning accounts, interviews with stars like Tim Keefe and John Ward, a feature on the superstitions of ballplayers, and on Sunday, November 27, an “interesting history” entitled “How Baseball Began–A Member of the Gotham Club of Fifty Years Ago Tells About It.”
Because the entirety of this recollection, undoubtedly that of William Rufus Wheaton, has not yet been presented on the web, I offer it here in precise transcription, with variant spellings and styles intact.
HOW BASEBALL BEGAN
A Member of the Gotham Club of Fifty Years Ago Tells About It.
PLAYED FOR FUN THEN.
The Game Was the Outgrowth of Three-Cornered Cat, Which Had Become Too Tame.
Baseball to-day is not by any means the game from which it sprang. Old men can recollect the time when the only characteristic American ball sport was three-cornered cat, played with a yarn ball and flat paddles.
The game had an humble beginning. An old pioneer, formerly a well-known lawyer and politician, now living in Oakland, related the following interesting history of how it originated to an EXAMINER reporter:
“In the thirties I lived at the corner of Rutgers street and East Broadway in New York. I was admitted to the bar in ’36, and was very fond of physical exercise. In fact we all were in those days, and we sought it wherever it could be found. There were at that time two cricket clubs in New York city, the St. George and the New York, and one in Brooklyn called the ‘Star,’ of which Alexander Campbell, who afterwards became well known as a criminal lawyer in ‘Frisco, was a member. There was a racket club in Allen street with an inclosed court. [A note in the Clipper on October 23, 1880 evokes the period: “In olden times Chatham square used to be an open meadow or common, and was the play-ground of the boys of this city. Baseball was the favorite game played on the square, but it was then a simple pastime, with flat sticks or axe-handles for bats, and yarn balls. Occasionally a boy, more lucky than the rest, would bring on the ground a ball made of a sturgeon’s nose, procured from the racket court in Allen street, where it had been driven over the wall by a rash blow.”]
Myself and intimates, young merchants, lawyers and physicians, found cricket to[o] slow and lazy a game. We couldn’t get enough exercise out of it. Only the bowler and the batter had anything to do, and the rest of the players might stand around all the afternoon without getting a chance to stretch their legs. Racket was lively enough, but it was expensive and not in an open field where we could have full swing and plenty of fresh air with a chance to roll on the grass. Three-cornered cat was a boy’s game, and did well enough for slight youngsters, but it was a dangerous game for powerful men, because the ball was thrown to put out a man between bases, and it had to hit the runner to put him out. The ball was made of a hard rubber center, tightly wrapped with yarn, and in the hands of a strong-armed man it was a terrible missile, and sometimes had fatal results when it came in contact with a delicate part of the player’s anatomy.
THE GOTHAM BASEBALL CLUB.
[“]We had to have a good outdoor game, and as the games then in vogue didn’t suit us we decided to remodel three-cornered cat and make a new game. We first organized what we called the Gotham Baseball Club. This was the first ball organization in the United States, and it was completed in 1837. Among the members were Dr. John Miller, a popular physician of that day; John Murphy, a well-known hotel-keeper; and James Lee, President of the New York Chamber of Commerce. To show the difference between times then and now, it is enough to say that you would as soon expect to find a Bishop or Chief Justice playing ball as the present President of the Chamber of Commerce. Yet in old times everybody was fond of outdoor exercise, and sober merchants and practitioners played ball till their joints got so stiff with age they couldn’t run. It is to the oft-repeated and vigorous open-air exercise of my early manhood that I owe my vigor at the age of 73.
[“]The first step we took in making baseball was to abolish the rule of throwing the ball at the runner and order that it should be thrown to the baseman instead, who had to touch the runner with it before he reached the base. During the regime of three-cornered cat there were no regular bases, but only such permanent objects as a bedded boulder or an old stump, and often the diamond looked strangely like an irregular polygon. We laid out the ground at Madisonsquare in the form of an accurate diamond, with home-plate and sand-bags for bases. You must remember that what is now called Madison square, opposite the Fifth Avenue Hotel, in the thirties was out in the country, far from the city limits. We had no short-stop, and often played with only six or seven men on a side. The scorer kept the game in a book we had made for that purpose, and it was he who decided all disputed points. The modern umpire and his tribulations were unknown to us.
HOW THEY PLAYED THEN.
[“]We played for fun and health, and won every time. The pitcher really pitched the ball and underhand throwing was forbidden. Moreover he pitched the ball so the batsman could strike it and give some work to the fielders. The men outside the diamond always placed themselves where they could do the most good and take part in the game. Nowadays the game seems to be played almost entirely by the pitcher and catcher. The pitcher sends his ball purposely in a baffling way, so that the batsman half the time can’t get a strike [meaning “a hit”] or reach a base. After the Gotham club had been in existence a few months it was found necessary to reduce the rules of the new game to writing. This work fell to my hands, and the code I then formulated is substantially that in use to-day. We abandoned the old rule of putting out on the first bound and confined it to fly catching. The Gothams played a game of ball with the Star Cricket Club of Brooklyn and beat the Englishmen out of sight, of course. That game and the return were the only two matches [i.e., games with other clubs] ever played by the first baseball club. [NOTE: These undoubtedly refer to the contests of October 1845, amply reported in the press and the subject of my previous post at Our Game.]
[“]The new game quickly became very popular with New Yorkers, and the numbers of the club soon swelled beyond the fastidious notions of some of us, and we decided to withdraw and found a new organization, which we called the Knickerbocker. For a playground we chose the Elysian fields of Hoboken, just across the Hudson river. And those fields were truly Elysian to us in those days. There was a broad, firm, greensward, fringed with fine shady trees, where we could recline during intervals, when waiting for a strike [i.e., a turn at bat],and take a refreshing rest.
LOTS OF EXERCISE AND FUN.
[“]We played no exhibition or match games, but often our families would come over and look on with much enjoyment. Then we used to have dinner in the middle of the day, and twice a week we would spend the whole afternoon in ball play. We were all mature men and in business, but we didn’t have too much of it as they do nowadays. There was none of that hurry and worry so characteristic of the present New York. We enjoyed life and didn’t wear out so fast. In the old game when a man struck out[,] those of his side who happened to be on the bases had to come in and lose that chance of making a run. We changed that and made the rule which holds good now. The difference between cricket and baseball illustrates the difference between our lively people and the phlegmatic English. Before the new game was made we all played cricket, and I was so proficient as to win the prize bat and ball with a score of 60 in a match cricket game in New York of 1848, the year before I came to this Coast. But I never liked cricket as well as our game. When I saw the game between the Unions and the Bohemians the other day, I said to myself if some of my old playmates who have been dead forty years could arise and see this game they would declare it was the same old game we used to play in the Elysian Fields, with the exception of the short-stop, the umpire, and such slight variations as the swift underhand throw, the masked catcher and the uniforms of the players. We started out to make a game simply for safe and healthy recreation. Now, it seems, baseball is played for money and has become a regular business, and, doubtless, the hope of beholding a head or limb broken is no small part of the attraction to many onlookers.”
Three games between rival clubs were played in October 1845. Any one of these might suffice to refute the longstanding claim that the contest of June 19, 1846 between the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club and the New York Baseball Club was the “first match game.” The last named may still be considered the first that was certainly played by the Knickerbocker rules that were adopted on September 23, 1845, but even this assertion begs several larger questions: (a) were the Knickerbockers the first club to play by written rules; (b) were they truly the pioneer club; (c) were the Knickerbocker and New York clubs distinct, or were they blended, playing on June 19, 1846 what amounted to an intramural match like the many that the Knickerbockers had played earlier?
This is a big topic, upon which I have written previously and will again. For now, let’s focus on October 1845.
The Knickerbockers, recently organized under that name after several years play at New York’s Madison Square and Murray Hill, played their first recorded game on October 6. Although they commenced formal play in brisk weather, the Knickerbockers managed to squeeze in fourteen games before shutting down to await April 1846 and the opening of a new season. The scoring for these contests survives in their Game Book, held by the New York Public Library and, gloriously, readily available to researchers.
In the first intrasquad game, seven Knickerbockers won by a count of 11–8 over seven of their fellows in three innings. The rules calling for the victor to accumulate 21 runs over as many innings as that might take was, clearly, observed in the breach. Not for a dozen additional years would the rules of baseball require a set number of innings or players to the side, and these were at first settled upon as seven, not nine!
The umpire of this practice game was William Rufus Wheaton, who by his own account had reduced the rules of the Gotham Base Ball Club to writing in 1837. A skilled cricket player, Wheaton came to prefer baseball in the 1830s; his Gothams also went by the name Washingtons, signifying either their primacy among baseball clubs or their possible origin among the butchers and produce vendors of the Washington Market. As the years went by, the Gothams spawned offshoots, including both the New Yorks and the Knickerbockers. In 1887 Wheaton said to a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, in a piece titled “How Baseball Began: A Member of the Gotham Club of Fifty Years Ago Tells About It”:
The new game quickly became very popular with New Yorkers, and the numbers of the club soon swelled beyond the fastidious notions of some of us, and we decided to withdraw and found a new organization, which we called the Knickerbocker. For a playground we chose the Elysian fields of Hoboken, just across the Hudson river…. We played no exhibition or match games [emphasis mine], but often our families would come over and look on with much enjoyment. Then we used to have dinner in the middle of the day, and twice a week we would spend the whole afternoon in ball play.
I will post the entirety of this interview, discovered by Randall Brown in 2004, as my next entry at Our Game. To now it has appeared on the web only in excerpted form.
William H. Tucker, who in some unknown measure assisted Wheaton in laying down the Knickerbocker rules, played in ten of the fourteen contests, including the one on October 6, in which he scored three of the losing squad’s eight runs. Like Wheaton and other Knickerbockers, he had been a player with the New York Ball Club and maintained a tie to them, indeed playing in two formal matches of the New Yorks with the Brooklyn Club on October 21 and 24 of 1845, a month after he had helped to form the Knicks. In his 1998 history of American cricket, Tom Melville pointed to an even earlier contest between these two clubs, on October 11 (actually October 10), reported in the New York Morning News. Research more than a decade later has revealed a somewhat fuller account in the obscure and short-lived newspaper the True Sun:
The Base Ball match between eight Brooklyn players, and eight players of New York, came off on Friday on the grounds of the Union Star Cricket Club. The Yorkers were singularly unfortunate in scoring but one run in their three innings. Brooklyn scored 22 and of course came off winners.
Wheaton also umpired the game of October 24, 1845 between New York and Brooklyn, and played in the game of November 10 to mark the second anniversary of the New York Club, which, like the recently discovered Magnolia Ball Club, had commenced play at Hoboken’s Elysian Fields in 1843—two years before the Knickerbockers.
Many of the early New York baseballists had cut their teeth on cricket, and this was true of the Brooklyn players as well. In the game of October 21, conducted at the Elysian Fields, the Brooklyn Club (possibly not the same men who had played in the game of October 10, as no box score survives) were originally reported to be the victors once again, but this report proved an error. As was reported the next day, the eight players of the New York club won handily, and did so again in the game of October 24, played at the grounds of the Union Star Cricket Club, opposite Sharp’s Hotel, at the corner of Myrtle and Portland Avenues, near Fort Greene. The scores were, respectively, 24–4 and 37–19. On both these occasions the Brooklyn club included established cricketers John Hines, William Gilmore, John Hardy, William H. Sharp, and Theodore Forman. Their lineup appears to have been identical for the two games, as the Ayers of October 21 and the Meyers of October 24 may be the same individual, while the other seven men match up.
There is more work to be done with all this, certainly, but to me the NYBBC anniversary match of November 10, 1845, seems to me to have much in common with the purported “first match game” of June 19, 1846, while the games of October 1845, particularly the latter two, seem to be true match games between wholly differentiated clubs. (It could be argued–I certainly would–that the Knickerbockers played NO match games until they met the Gotham (a.k.a. Washington) club on June 11, 1851, a game the Knicks won by a count of 21-11.)
In the New York Herald of November 11, 1845 appeared the following squib, a trailing part of a larger article on trotting at the Centreville Track on Long Island.
NEW YORK BASE BALL CLUB:–The second Anniversary of this Club came off yesterday, on the ground in the Elysian fields. The game was as follows:
Murphy 4 Winslow 4
Johnson 4 Case 4
Lyon 3 Granger 1
Wheaton 3 Lalor 3
Sweet 3 Cone 1
Seaman 1 Sweet 4
Venn 2 Harold 3
Gilmore 1 Clair 2
Tucker 3 Wilson 1
– – – -
J.M. Marsh, Esq., Umpire and Scorer
After the match, the parties took dinner at Mr. McCarty’s, Hoboken, as a wind up for the season. The Club were honored by the presence of representatives from the Union Star Cricket Club, the Knickerbocker Clubs, senior and junior, and other gentlemen of note.
Several interesting things emerge from this notice of the game played on November 10.
Prominent Knickerbocker names are present—Wheaton, Tucker, Cone, Clair (Clare). So too are Gotham players of earlier prominence—Lalor, Ransom, Murphy, Johnson, Winslow, Case. The Davis who plays here and in the game of June 19, 1846 is not James Whyte Davis, who was elected a member in 1850 and marked his 25th anniversary with the club in 1875. Venn is Harry Venn, proprietor of the Gotham Cottage (a billiard and bowling saloon) at 298 Bowery, longtime clubhouse to the Gotham BBC. Gilmore is one of the cricketers who played baseball with the Brooklyns on October 21 and 24.
The game was played nine to the side, clearly to 21 runs or more in equal innings. The two sides were unnamed, and the game was an intramural one despite the presence of Knickerbockers. While the New Yorks and their invited friends were celebrating their second year as an organized club, on another field in Hoboken that day, the Knickerbockers were playing an intramural match all their own.
Playing with eight to the side, including a first appearance for Charles S. Debost, the squads lined up this way:
Charles A. Peverelly wrote this in 1866, clearly fed his lines by a member of the Knickerbockers:
On June 5, 1846, the first honorary members were elected, viz. James Lee and Abraham Tucker. At the same meeting Curry, Adams and Tucker were appointed a committee to arrange the preliminaries, and conclude a match with the New York Base Ball Club. From all the information the writer has been able to gather, it appears that this was not an organized club, but merely a party of gentlemen who played together frequently, and styled themselves the New York Club. However, the match was played at Hoboken on June 19, 1846, it being the first the Club engaged in, and the particulars are certainly not creditable as far as runs are concerned. But four innings were played, as it will be remembered the game was won by the parties making twenty-one aces, or over, on even innings.
The scoresheet from that game, depicted at the head of this post, was written over in later years, probably by James Whyte Davis, to give the game the appearance of a match between two distinct clubs. But was it viewed that way by the men who had played in it?
On September 25 last year, Major League Baseball marked a contest between the Colorado Rockies and Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park as its 200,000th game. As I noted on this blog, the counting commenced with the first game played in the National League, on April 22, 1876, between the Boston Red Stockings and Philadelphia Athletics. Because of its erratic scheduling and ephemeral franchises, games of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (1871-75) were not included in the computation. All the same, the NAABP, generally abbreviated today simply as NA, presented a fascinating history, and nearly all of the men who played in the NL’s first season had come from its ranks.
On the rainy evening of March 17, 1871, delegates from ten professional baseball clubs met at Collier’s Rooms in New York City, an upstairs saloon run by thirty-two-year-old character actor James W. Collier at the corner of Broadway and 13th Street, just across from Wallack’s Theatre, where he frequently trod the boards. The clubs had come together at the invitation of the Mutuals to establish a new professional National Association, based largely upon the rules and regulations of the amateur National Association of Base Ball Players from which they had just departed.
Of the ten clubs present that evening, eight plunked down the mandatory ten dollars to join: the already established Athletics (Philadelphia), Mutuals (New York), Olympics (Washington), Haymakers (Troy), White Stockings (Chicago), two Forest City clubs (Rockford and Cleveland), plus Harry Wright’s newly founded Red Stockings of Boston. The Eckfords of Brooklyn and Nationals of Washington sent delegates to the meeting, but held tight to their wallets and did not join the new National Association for play in 1871. The Atlantics of Brooklyn, who might have been expected to join, did not send a delegate, deciding to retain so-called amateur status.
In the days that followed, a surprising ninth club came across with the dues: the Kekionga of Fort Wayne, Indiana, named for the Miami Indian settlement around which Fort Wayne grew. In the Miami language, Kekionga meant “blackberry patch.” Woefully uncompetitive against the big clubs in previous seasons, the Kekiongas had lost two games to the unbeaten Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869 by scores of 86–8, and 41–7, then took a 70–1 pasting in the following year. Yet now the Fort Wayne hayseeds declared themselves a fully professional nine, based on their having picked up, in August 1870, several stranded players from the Maryland Club of Baltimore, which had run out of funds while playing in Chicago. The star of the Marylands had been diminutive pitcher Bobby Mathews, who would now pitch for the Kekiongas. Eleven days after the meeting at Collier’s Rooms, the Kekionga directors dispatched George J. E. Mayer—the club’s secretary, catcher, and captain in 1870—to New York to acquire additional professional players, which he did.
The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players launched its inaugural season with a single game on May 4, 1871. The Forest City of Cleveland, a strong club led by Jim “Deacon” White, came to Fort Wayne to play the revamped Kekionga, none of whose players had yet cut much of a figure in the baseball world except Mathews, who was only nineteen. Mayer had given up his position in the nine to Billy Lennon, a stronger catcher he recruited from the Mohawks of New York.
In what the Fort Wayne correspondent to the Chicago Tribune called “the finest game on record in this country,” Mathews shut out the visiting Forest Citys by 2–0 in a game in which there were no errors by Cleveland and only three by Fort Wayne, a marvel in those days of bare hands and rutted fields. Moreover, the low score was unprecedented among top-level clubs, the previous “model game” being the victory of the Cincinnati Red Stockings over the Mutuals by a score of 4–2 on June 15, 1869.
The outcome was also a great upset. The Cleveland Herald had written of their darlings beforehand: “The Forest Citys left yesterday for a brief Western tour. The first club that they are expected to slaughter is the Kekiongas, of Fort Wayne, which little job is to be performed this afternoon. If the Kekiongas play half as bad as their name sounds, they will be awful tired tonight. Kekionga! Ugh! Big Injun!”
The day after the game, the same newspaper felt compelled to report:
There were ten very badly surprised young men at Fort Wayne last evening, not to speak of some others who remained in Cleveland. The ten went out to Indiana to begin the slaughtering for 1871, but what little slaughtering there was happened to be on the other side.
Because of threatening weather, only 200 spectators witnessed this historic game at Fort Wayne’s Grand Dutchess ballpark. Play was finally stopped by rain after the top of the ninth inning had been concluded, depriving the Kekiongas of their completed final at bat, although some box scores indicted that each side had recorded 27 outs. (It was not yet the custom for the home club, leading after eight and a half frames, to dispense with its final turn; this practice was a vestige of baseball’s original purpose, field exercise.)
After a scoreless first inning, the Kekionga broke through for a run in the bottom of the second. Lennon led off with a double. Tom Carey lifted a fly to center, where Cleveland’s Art Allison made a running one-hand grab, “the finest fly catch ever made, he falling and rolling over two or three times.” Ed Mincher also was retired, but Joe McDermott singled to bring Lennon home. The Kekionga added a run in the fifth, needless as it turned out. Each club registered only four hits.
“The Cleveland boys were well satisfied with the result,” reported the Cincinnati Gazette, “and that they are recorded as playing the finest game in the country.” For the citizens of Fort Wayne, however, this glorious victory turned out to be very nearly the club’s high water mark. After winning three of its next four contests, the Kekionga went 1–11; despite winning two games at home in late August, it chose to disband on that relative high note.
One of the game’s greatest trivia questions is this: Can you name the three Hall of Famers who hit a home run in their first major-league at bat? The answer appears at the bottom of this post, the title of which may offer a clue.*
I love baseball, of course, but I am a fan of football too, and write about it now and then. But even on this Saturday before the Super Bowl, when I think about football my mind drifts back to baseball. Who was the greatest of all the many two-sport stars in professional ranks? Bo Jackson? Deion Sanders? Brian Jordan? Or more obscurely, Vic Janowicz, Christy Mathewson, or Rube Waddell? The only athlete to reach Hall of Fame status in more than one major team sport is Cal Hubbard, a charter enshrinee in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963; in 1976, he was inducted into the baseball hall for his work as an umpire.
Many men played, however briefly, in both the NFL and MLB. Several collegiate All America football players chose baseball and reached stardom. Surprisingly many members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame played major-league ball: Ernie Nevers, George Halas, Paddy Driscoll, Red Badgro, Ace Parker, and the aforementioned Neon Deion. Several other Canton worthies played minor league baseball: Sammy Baugh, Don Hutson, Joe Guyon, and Ken Strong.
But when you think about pigskin and horsehide, you start with Jim Thorpe, the greatest athlete in the world, hero of the 1912 Olympics; outfielder with the Giants, Reds, and Braves; and the incomparable football player who, perhaps more than anyone, made the NFL happen. So much has been written about Jim Thorpe that I will not attempt to encapsulate his life here. But in baseball he had one odd moment of immortality, as the man who drove in the winning run in a double no-hit game.
On May 2, 1917, two mediocre teams, playing on the worst field in the big leagues under weather conditions that would keep all but the intrepid at home, combined to present the greatest game ever pitched. The teams were the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs, destined for fourth and fifth place, respectively. Looking at them on the field that day, it was hard to imagine that the Cubs would be NL champs the very next year, and the Reds would win the World Series the year after that.
The place was Chicago’s Weeghman Park, constructed in 1914 for the Chicago Whales of the Federal League. When the outlaw circuit folded after the 1915 campaign, Whales’ owner Charles Weeghman, whose fortune was built on a Chicago lunchroom chain, was permitted to buy the Cubs. He immediately endeared himself to the fans by proclaiming a policy, new to baseball, of permitting them to keep any ball hit into the stands, and by transferring the Cubs from their crumbling West Side Park to his spanking-new edifice.
In later years this smallish park, which at first seated only 14,000, would be expanded to become Wrigley Field. But on this day Weeghman Park had no need for extra seats—only 2,500 curious souls came out to see how baseball could be played in a 38-degree chill, which because of high winds gusting off Lake Michigan felt colder still. What’s more, the arctic conditions caused the topsoil dumped on this cow pasture of a playing field to crack and shift. Seeing the infielders wrestle with ground balls on this grassless, “skin” diamond was guaranteed to amuse; and since there was an uneven slope between the infield and the outfield, even routine pop flies beyond the infield carried an element of risk.
The eight Cubs in the field were not an impressive crew: retreads from other clubs such as former Giants second baseman Larry Doyle, catcher Art Wilson, and first baseman Fred Merkle. Slugger Cy Williams was their only real comer. But on the mound, that was another story. Jim “Hippo” Vaughn was a fireballing left-hander whose nickname derived less from his size—6’4″, 220 pounds—than from his lumbering gait. In the last three years he had won 57 games with little support, and in the next four he would win 85 more. He was particularly tough on the Reds, whom he had defeated in Cincinnati the week before, fanning eleven.
The Reds, on the other hand, featured a few genuine stars. At third base was Heinie Groh, the man whose odd “bottle bat”—an enormous barrel atop a long, skinny handle—made him famous. At first was Hal Chase, the previous year’s batting champ, known as “Prince Hal” for his haughty manner as well as for his peerless play at first, even if it was prone to inept instances at critical moments. The outfield featured three future Hall of Famers: two bound for Canton, one for Cooperstown.
In left field on this day was reserve Manny Cueto, a 5’5″ Havana import. Greasy Neale, the regular left fielder and a future inductee to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, moved over to center to fill in for Edd Roush, a future baseball enshrinee who sat out with a bum leg. Around in right was Thorpe.
On the mound for Cincinnati was Fred Toney. After a spectacular performance in minor-league ball when he threw a seventeen-inning no-hitter, striking out nineteen, Toney came up with the team he faced today. But the big right-hander did not stick with the Cubs. This year, under manager Christy Mathewson’s easygoing directorship, Toney will flourish, going on to record 24 wins. He threw a variety of stuff: spitballs, fastballs, curves, and an overhand sinker that faded away from left-handed batters just as Matty’s “fadeaway,” or screwball, once had.
Both sides went down quietly through six innings, without a base hit. If the game were being played today, everyone in the park would realize that something unusual was going on. But in 1917 a six-inning no-hitter, though it was hardly a common event, did not arouse much notice. The contest proceeded hitlessly though nine innings. Among the more than 200,000 major league games that have been played before and since, it remains an unmatched occurrence.
Vaughn’s first opponent in the tenth was pinch hitter Gus Getz, who sent a pop straight up the chute in front of home, which catcher Wilson grabbed easily. The next batter was light-hitting shortstop Larry Kopf, who in three trips to the plate had hit into two twin killings and grounded out. Vaughn ran the count to three and two, then fired in the fastball that had already produced ten strikeouts. But this time Kopf connected, driving the pitch on a line between Doyle and Merkle, who dove for the ball but missed by a foot or so. With this single, the magic spell was over; perhaps an avalanche of hits would follow. But Neale lifted the ball to center, where Williams settled under it for out number two. Chase followed with an easy liner to center—but Williams muffed it. Kopf reached third as Chase reached on the error.
The batter now was Thorpe, twice a strikeout victim. On Vaughn’s first pitch, Chase dashed for second and stole it without a throw—Wilson held onto the ball for fear that Kopf would score while the play was being made at second. Vaughn now went to the curveball, Thorpe’s weakness. Struggling to hold his weight back on the pitch, Thorpe swung awkwardly and hit it off the hands. The ball bounded in front of the plate, then dribbled up the third-base line.
Kopf (who told me the story himself in 1980, when he was eighty-nine) raced toward the plate with the tie-breaking run. Vaughn hurried over to make the play, knowing his third baseman could never reach it in time. He also knew he had no hope of catching the fleet-footed Thorpe at first and, in a clever bit of improvisation, shoveled the ball home. When Kopf, who was right behind Vaughn—so close that were Hippo to turn around, he could have tagged him—saw this, he stopped dead in his tracks.
But the catcher froze. He just stood at home plate, according to Kopf, arms at his sides, as Vaughn’s toss came to him. The ball struck Wilson’s chest protector and dropped to the ground. He failed even to make the instinctive move to grab the ball once it hit him. Kopf, seeing Wilson standing there like a zombie as the ball rolled a few steps away, dashed home with the run.
Vaughn looked over his shoulder and saw Chase rounding third and heading for home. He turned back to Wilson and shouted, “Are you going to let him score, too?” At this remark, Wilson snapped out of his deep freeze, grabbed the ball, and tagged the sliding Chase to end the Reds’ half of the inning. Toney retired the side in order in the bottom of the inning, though Cueto had to make a catch at the wall and Williams barely missed a double off the wall in right.
In the Cubs’ clubhouse afterwards, owner Weeghman stuck his head in the door and cursed his players. Art Wilson sobbed like a baby, saying to Vaughn, “I just went out on you, Jim—I just went tight.” And Jim would say to a reporter, “It’s just another ballgame, just another loss.” But it wasn’t.
* Answer to trivia question above: Earl Averill, Hoyt Wilhelm, and … Ace Parker, who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Parker also played for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1937-38. Don’t hate me; use this to win a drink.