How Baseball Began: William R. Wheaton Tells His Story

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.”

[UNSIGNED]

6 Comments

How much of what Wheaton reported do you think is true?

For example, was the ball from three-cornered cat really hard enough to be a “terrible missile” used with “fatal results?” Why did the Gothams “remodel three-cornered cat” rather than four-cornered cat? Is there any corroboration for the assertion that the Gotham rules that Wheaton wrote for the Gothams (~1837) were “substantially that in use to-day” (1887)?

Do you know why the “fly rule” of the Gotham Club reverted to the “bound rule” of the Knickerbockers? Or why overhanded pitching (Gothams) reverted to underhanded pitching (Knickerbockers)?

The “terrible missile” with “fatal results” had long been a convention of octogenarian reminiscence, and Wheaton offers it facetiously. There is no record of anyone, ever, being fatally struck by a thrown ball between the bases. Four cornered cat required eight people to play and, seldom played for lack of manpower, was very nearly the same game as baseball. The Gotham club rules that Wheaton drew up survived until at least 1850. The fly rule emulated cricket, and thus was seen as more manly, while the bound rule was the game of childhood and welcomed more newbies to baseball. Even allowing for some doddering and conflation of chronology–e.g., the Gotham games referenced here were played in 1845–I think the 73-year-old Wheaton is truthful and accurate.

By the way, Jeff, I see that you believe that Wheaton’s Gothams played with overhand tossing from the pitcher’s position. Not so. When Wheaton references “underhand throwing,” he means the bent-elbow, wrist-snap throw from below the waist that was the style until the mid-1880s. A “pitch” was always underhand; that we call our moundsmen pitchers today is an interesting anachronism.

Thank you much.

“The “terrible missile” with “fatal results” had long been a convention of octogenarian reminiscence, and Wheaton offers it facetiously. There is no record of anyone, ever, being fatally struck by a thrown ball between the bases….”

Dear Mr. Thorn,

I enjoy your writings very much. I have been doing some early sports research and thought you would be interested in the following in regards to your above statement:
Steve Greene

Source: April 21, 1842 Newark Daily Advertiser
“Death of a boy while playing ball. – We learn by a letter written this morning by our attentive agent at Woonsocket village, that a lad named Samuel Green fell down dead to day, while playing ball with a party of his young friends. An internal rupture, from over exertion, is suppose to be the cause.- Providence Chron”

Source: October 3, 1866 Newark Evening Courier
“A base ball struck and killed a negro boy in Annapolis.”

Source: November 9, 1867 Paterson Daily Guardian & Falls City Register
“The deaths from base ball violence number about one per month. The last fatal casualty of this kind occurred in Ottawa, Illinois. Henry Gondolf, aged fourteen, while making a ‘home run’ was struck by a ball in his groin but under the excitement of the moment, was unconscious of having been hurt. At ten, however, he felt some
pain, and on going to Turner Hall in the evening felt so much pain and depression that he took no part in the exercises. Sunday the pain grew worse and a physician was called who left a prescription. On Monday, he took to his bed, the symptoms indicating an internal rupture. He lingered until Monday evening of the week, when in spite of the utmost exertions of medical skill, he died.”

Thanks for the compliment and your personal interest, Steve. Death from over exertion or being struck with a batted ball are not what I referenced, though; I was talking about the original baseball practice of plugging, or throwing the ball at the runner between bases. The 1867 item MAY point to a plugging fatality, which would be new to me. The difficulty is that by that time, even in Illinois, the New York Game had begun to take hold, and I cannot envision how the poor lad would have been struck by a ball in his groin while making a home run. Anyhow, thanks!

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