August 14th, 2012

The Men Who Invented Shortstop

Let’s leave to one side for now Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams, the man who invented the position in 1849 or 1850 and whose story I have frequently told, including in Baseball in the Garden of Eden. For Adams, who began his play with the Knickerbockers in 1845, let his own words suffice for now, from an interview published in The Sporting News on February 29, 1896: “I used to play shortstop,” he reminisced, “and I believe I was the first one to occupy that place, as it had formerly been left uncovered.” But when Adams first went out to short, it was not to bolster the infield but to assist in relays from the outfield. The early Knickerbocker ball was so light that it could not be thrown even two hundred feet, thus the need for a short fielder to send the ball in to the pitcher’s point.

For more about Adams, see my biographical profile of him at: But the men who made the position modern, by bringing it into the infield and then widening its responsibilities, were Dickey Pearce and George Wright, the two great shortstops of base­ball’s early professional era.

The portraits offered below were part of a fascinating series on “The Fifty Greatest Ball Players in History” that ran in the New York Evening Journal in 1911-12. What makes these portraits so interesting today is that the author, veteran sportswriter Sam Crane, was himself a major-league second baseman who formed a keystone tandem with Pearce back in 1877 and frequently opposed Wright. The latter was one of the first men installed in the Hall of Fame, while Pearce has an outstanding claim to induction, inasmuch as he was the first to play shortstop as an infielder—not restricting his scope to short fly balls and relaying throws from the outfield, as was the practice in Adams’ day. Now, without further ado, Sam Crane:

In the days of the old games between the Mutuals of New York and the Atlantics of Brooklyn in the late sixties and early seventies, when the fans of those days were even more partisan than now when the Giants and Superbas cross bats [Crane wrote this piece before the Brooklyn team re-adopted its old name of Dodgers], there was one player who was more feared by the New Yorkers than any other on the Atlantic team, and that was Dickey Pearce.

The little fellow was not bigger than a good-sized cruller, the only food product at the time that seemed to be available by fair means or foul in those days, but little, fat, pudgy Dickey Pearce was about the whole show in the Atlantic team and did more, possibly, in his own way to win games for the famous old Atlantic club than any other player on the old team.

At any rate, every lover of baseball in Brooklyn thought so at the time, and it is a matter of baseball history over in the neighborhood of the Union Grounds and Capitoline Grounds that Dickey Pearce’s short, pudgy legs brought in more tallies for the Atlantics than all the slugging sprinters there were on the team.

And why? Simply because Dickey knew how to get on first base.

He was not a slugger like many of his fellow players, but he had so studied the science of batting as it was in vogue at the time that his “fair foul” hits often counted much more than the home-run wallop of his bigger and stronger teammates.

Dickey Pearce was the originator of the present bunt. And that was the hit that transformed batting in his day. It was not known as the bunt at that time, and Dickey himself had no idea that he was making baseball history. But he had the baseball instinct, and that was that a player had to get on first base before he became a factor in the run getting. He appreciated the fact that unless he could reach first there was no possibility of his spikes denting the plate.

When Dickey first began to play baseball, the score was kept by cutting notches on a pine stick and every notch meant a tally. A fence rail instead of a pine stick did just as well, and the fence rail in Dickey’s day was the official press box. Anyhow, what those notches figured up meant the road to victory for his side, and no player was more frequent than little Dickey in crossing over the plate and shouting gleefully, “Tally Pearce one.”

Dickey played on the many open lots around Brooklyn for many years before he got his first chance on a real team. He was considered too small.

But like all little men, Dickey was cocky. He saw the big fellows play, and as he peeked through the knotholes in the fences of the Union and Capitoline grounds for two innings and then “flashed” his ten pennies to get into the enclosure when the gates were opened to the kids after the second inning, as was the custom at the time, Dickey came to the conclusion that he could play as well as any of the stars. But how to “mingle” was the great question.

The first start he got was to carry water to the players, and when he got that job, he was the envy of all of his fellows.

Finally he was allowed to carry the bat of one of his idols, and from that advancement he was allowed to chase balls in the outfield while the “big fellows” were at practice. Then on one long-to-be-remembered day he wasasked to bat against one of the pitchers, who was out alone for practice, and he made a base hit. The pitcher took notice of him and told his captain these was a promising youngster that would bear watching.

The regular nine was shy of one player one day in a “match,” and Dickey was selected to take his place. The ambitious youngster was put in at right field, a position at the time that was considered only fit for the “scrubs.” Any old player could play right field. But my bold Dickey was there with both feet—not in fielding, possibly, for nothing came his way—but at bat the youngster was in his element. He was a hard man to pitch to, as all midgets have been, since, from Davy Force to Billy Keeler, and Dickey showed up some of the regular members in getting to first and getting around the bases.

That accidental chance to play made Dickey Pearce. He was put on the regular team and placed at shortstop, for the reason that he was considered to be too short-legged to cover ground in the outfield. It was a fortunate selection, for Dickey took to shortstop like a duck to water, and in the first game he played in that position, he showed such ability that none of the old-timers on the team had a chance to beat him out of the job. And none did that that for years and years. Dickey Pearce’s name at shortstop for the Atlantics was stereotyped, and the scorecards always had his name in that position as long as he played baseball with that club, and that was for many years.

In fact, Pearce was a close rival of the great and only George Wright for the supremacy in the position.

Against the Mutuals in the games the Atlantics played with their New York opponents, and when partisanship was at the highest pitch, Dickey Pearce was always a star. When he went to bat, it was more than two to one that the little bit of a “sawed-off” would get his first.

Dickey Pearce’s first chance to shine as a star of national reputation was when he played with the Atlantics against the Red Stockings of Cincinnati when the latter famous team lost its first game after an uninterrupted string of victories for a season and a half. In that great and historical game, Pearce’s work, both as shortstop and at the bat, was the feature of the victor’s game. In the eleventh inning it was Dickey Pearce who started the rally that enabled the Atlantics to win out 8-7.

Pearce was the first player to work the “fair foul,” a ball that was hit by chopping down at the ball, making it hit on fair ground and then bounding off into foul ground. It is a hit that is foul now under the present rules, but in those days there was no rule that prevented it from being perfectly fair. I have seen both Dickey Pearce and Ross Barnes get three bases by working this foxy bit of batting.

I have heard of home runs being made on the same hit, but I never saw it done, and I doubt if Dickey ever did, simply because I do not imagine that his short legs could ever carry him the distance, but many is the game little Dickey sewed up by the shrewd stab.

There were lots of objections and protests made in those days on that hit, but no rules could be found to prevent it, and until the rules were altered, Dickey always was high up in the existing batting records.

Pearce, by reason of that “fair foul,” has been credited with originating the now famous bunt, but as Dickey worked it the hit was never intended to be worked as we understand it now.

I am inclined to give John M. Ward the credit of discovering the bunt as now played. But that is a story for a future article.

Dickey Pearce made such a big reputation with the Atlantics that he was in demand by the best clubs in the country, and finally he cast his fortunes with the old Mutuals, of New York, his old rivals. Over in Brooklyn he was somewhat of a renegade at the time, but that was the dawn of professionalism that had been more or less under disguise at the time, but Dickey’s fine work with the crack New York team enabled him to retain his reputation and popularity, and he was a star until he was obliged to quit on account of age bedimming his former grand abilities.

Dickey kept in touch with the game for a long time after he got out of active participation in it as a player. He still continued to retain his popularity with players young and old, by whom he was considered an oracle.

When the Players’ League was formed, in 1890, Dickey was given the position of grounds keeper of the Brotherhood Grounds (the present Polo Grounds) and helped Buck Ewing to lay out the field. And as Dickey laid it out then, it stands today. Of  course grounds keeper Murphy has made improvements since, with all the money that since has come into the local club’s coffers, but Pearce has to be given the credit for putting the field in the condition that allowed of the present model field of the country.

Dickey did not die overburdened with wealth, but he was well cared for until he passed away, a little over a year ago. He had a daughter who became prominent on the stage, and she saw that he wanted for nothing in his declining years.

The last time I saw Dickey Pearce was at one of the “old-timers’ ” reunions at Paddock’s Island in Boston Harbor, three years ago, and the veteran was there, the recipient of all the love and respect that was his due. It was ven­eration, because we all appreciated what he had done for baseball.

As honest as the day.

Baseball was bettered by Dickey Pearce’s connection with it.

* * *

There have been many great shortstops, but for all-round ability there has been none who ever played the position who has been able to force George Wright from the top-notch rung of the ladder of fame. [Note that Crane wrote this at a time when Honus Wagner was at the height of his powers.]

The game has gone along for over forty years, too, since George first blos­somed out as a star, and I have in mind when I give him this lofty record all of those grand players who have shone so brilliantly in the past and present. There have been shortstops and shortstops. The Dickey Pearces, Davy Forces, Bob Fergusons, Jack Glasscocks, Ed Williamsons, Herman Longs, Jack Nelsons, Johnny Wards, and other old-time luminants, who have come and gone, leaving reputations and records a mile long.

The Tinkers, Doolans, Elberfelds, McBrides, Brashes [Brains?], Bridwells, Barrys, and Turners of the present are also all in my mind, who are thought by the fans of today to be preeminent. I have known them all and have seen them all play, but to George Wright I give the credit of being the best ever.

It is difficult to make the admirers of the “speed boys” of today think that any of the old-time ball players could approach the players of the present for stops, ground covering, and throwing, but while I acknowledge that there are more fast players today, still there were individuals in the earlier days of the sport who excelled the best who are now exploiting the game.

The game is faster now and has progressed simply because there are more speedy players now than in the past.

George Wright is a brother of Harry Wright, that noble old veteran around whom my first article on famous ballplayers was written. The fame of the Wright brothers was countrywide forty years ago, and George was the real player of the two. George’s reputation as the greatest player of his time has not been dimmed in the least.

He was born in upper New York City, Yorkville, in the fifties [actually 1847], and with his elder brother, Henry, naturally took to baseball after learning the rudiments of cricket, taught him by his father, Sam Wright, the old professional cricketer. Baseball was born in George Wright. He was consequently a natural ballplayer. He first came into prominence in the national game with the Unions, of Morrisania, with which club he played shortstop, the position he always occupied afterward in his long and brilliant baseball career. I do not remember that he ever played any other position. It therefore became second nature to him, and the many, many plays he was called on to perform that brought victory after victory to his teams year after year at critical stages were from intuition, although at times they often took on the look of being uncanny.

George Wright was probably as quick thinking a player as ever wore a uni­form. His wits were always about him. He was invariably upon his mental tiptoes, and whenever he would pull off one of those grand, unexpected plays that were so dazzlingly surprising as to dumfound his opponents, his prominent teeth would gleam and glisten in an array of white molars that would put our own Teddy Roosevelt and his famed dentistry establishment far in the shadow.

In a game between the Boston Red Stockings and Philadelphia Athletics in 1873, when the Quakers had three men on base and none out, George caught a fly ball in his cap, tossed the ball to the pitcher, thereby putting the ball in play again, according to the rules of that time, and a triple play resulted, but it was not allowed.

But it was in such critical times that George showed his great nerve and quick thinking abilities. He was always ready to grasp a point of play and never hesitated, no matter how many chances there were to take by missing the anticipated point.

From New York George went to Cincinnati in 1868 [actually 1869] and joined the Cincinnati Red Stockings, of which his brother Harry was manager. George was the all-around star of that famous bunch of champions. He led the club in batting and run getting, and these departments of play at that time were of the most importance.

In the fifty-seven games the Red Stockings played George took part in fifty-two. He made 339 runs, 59 of which were homers. His batting average was .518, showing that he made a fraction over a base hit every two times he was at bat.

Wonder if Ty Cobb could have done any better with the underhand pitching in vogue in those days?

George went to Boston in 1871 with his brother, Harry, as manager, and in the Hub George more than lived up to the reputation he had made in Cincin­nati. He was the star of the Boston Red Stockings until 1879, when he went to Providence to manage the Providence Grays, the team that won the cham­pionship that year, although by a very close call. That wound up his active career on the diamond.

In 1874 George was a member of the Boston club that accompanied the Athletics to England, and while the introduction of baseball to our English cousins was not a pronounced success, still the ballplayers taught the Britishers some few points about their own game—cricket. It was always eighteen ball-players against eleven cricketers, but the Americans were never defeated at the English game, and George Wright was the crack batter of the American eighteen.

George was the first shortstop to play a deep field. He played forty years ago just as far back of the line as the players in the same position do today. It was George’s strong throwing arm and deadly accuracy that allowed of his playing so deep, and he of course saw the advantage there was to be gained in covering ground by playing deep. He was the first to grasp that idea.

George Wright was about 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed about 160 in his prime. I remember him; he had a thick crop of dark curly hair, a small mustache and a dab on either cheek for a bluff at “siders” [Burnsides, today known as sideburns]. He was slightly bowlegged, and I never knew a bowlegged ballplayer who was not a crackerjack—a la Hans Wagner.

George Wright is a millionaire, having gained wealth and prominence in the sporting-goods business in Boston. He started in a small way in 1872, the year after he went to Boston to play ball.

George is one of the Hub’s most respected citizens and still keeps in touch with the national game that he has done so much to build up. He is the proud father of Beals Wright, the champion tennis player.