November 14th, 2012

Doc Adams Remembers

Twenty years ago I rediscovered Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams with the publication of my article “The True Father of Baseball” in the debut issue of the Elysian Fields Quarterly. I expanded upon this offering several times over the ensuing years, notably in Total Baseball; it appears in its latest incarnation at the SABR Biproject site: http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/14ec7492. I also wrote about Adams and his key innovations–setting the basepaths at ninety feet and inventing the position of shortstop–in my most recent book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game. I have spoken about Adams at the Smithsonian. 

What I have not done, however, is to present to my readers the complete article that started my enduring fascination with this character. I stumbled upon it in the late 1980s in a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown and retyped it on site with the aid of a lightweight electronic typewriter (I had not brought my “portable,” or rather luggable, Kaypro computer with me). This fundamentally important story appeared in The Sporting News, February 29, 1896.

DR. D.L. ADAMS.

MEMOIRS OF THE FATHER OF BASE BALL.

He Resides in New Haven, and Retains an Interest in the Game.

NEW HAVEN, Conn., February 24–SPECIAL CORRESPONDENCE–In a pleasant home on quiet Edwards street, lives Dr. Daniel L. Adams, who indoubtedly, more than any other man in the country, is entitled to be called the Father of Base Ball.  His brother-in-law, William S. Briggs of Keene, N.H., makes this claim for him, and the facts bear it out.

Dr. Adams was born in Mt. Vernon, N.H., Nov. 11, 1814.  He was, therefore, 81 years old last November, but one would not think so to look at him. He is exceedingly well preserved, and his active step and unimpaired eyesight and hearing go far to prove the value of an active interest in athletics in early life. The doctor was one of the first men to belong to an organized base ball club, and quickly took the lead in all matters connected with the growth and character of the National game.

A representative of THE SPORTING NEWS learning that Dr. Adams could tell some interesting reminiscences of the old-time games, called upon him recently and found him very willing to talk about his favorite subject.

“I graduated from Yale College in 1835,” said he, “and from the Harvard Medical School in 1838, after which I became a practicing physician in New York city. I was always interested in athletics while in college and afterward, and soon after going to New York I began to play base ball just for exercise, with a number of other young medical men.

“Before that there had been a club called the New York Base Ball Club, but it had no very definite organization and did not last long. Some of the younger members of that club got together and formed the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, September 24, 1845[actually September 23]. The players included merchants, lawyers, Union Bank clerks, insurance clerks and others who were at liberty after 3 o’clock in the afternoon. They went into it just for exercise and enjoyment, and I think they used to get a good deal more solid fun out of it than the players in the big games do nowadays.

“About a month after the organization of this club, several of us medical fellows joined it, myself among the number. The following year I was made President and served as long as I was willing to retain the office.  Our playground was the ‘Elysian Fields’ in Hoboken, a beautiful spot at that time, overlooking the Hudson, and reached by a pleasant path along the cliff. It was a famous place in those days, but is now cut up railroad tracks. Mr. Stevens’ ‘castle’ stands far from the site.

PRACTICED ON ‘ELYSIAN FIELDS’

“Twice a week we went over to the ‘Elysian Fields’ for practice. Once there we were free from all restraint, and throwing off our coats we played until it was too dark to see any longer. I was a left-handed batter, and sometimes used to get the ball into the river.  People began to take an interest in the game presently, and sometimes we had as many as a hundred spectators watching the practice. The rules at that time were very crude. The pitching was all underhand, and the catcher usually stood back and caught the ball on the bound.

“Our players were not very enthusiastic at first, and did not always turn out well on practice days. There was then no rivalry, as no other club was formed until 1850, and during these five years base ball had a desperate struggle for existence. I frequently went to Hoboken to find only two or three members present, and we were often obliged to take our exercise in the form of ‘old cat,’ ‘one’ or ‘two’ as the case might be. As captain, I had to employ all my rhetoric to induce attendance, and often thought it useless to continue the effort, but my love for the game, and the happy hours spent at the ‘Elysian Fields’ led me to persevere. During the summer months many of our members were out of town, thus leaving a very short playing season.

“I used to play shortstop, and I believe I was the first to occupy that place, as it had formerly been left uncovered. At different times I have, however, played in every position except that of pitcher. We had a splendid catcher in the person of Charles S. Debost, who would be a credit to the position even to-day, I am sure. He was a good batter also, and a famous player in his day.

“We had a great deal of trouble in getting balls made, and for six or seven years I made all the balls myself, not only for our club but also for other clubs when they were organized. I went all over New York to find someone who would undertake this work, but no one could be induced to try it for love or money. Finally I found a Scotch saddler who was able to show me a good way to cover the balls with horsehide, such as was used for whip lashes. I used to make the stuffing out of three or four ounces of rubber cuttings, wound with yarn and then covered with the leather. Those balls were, of course, a great deal softer than the balls now in use. It was not until some time after 1850 that a shoemaker was found who was willing to make them for us. This was the beginning of base ball manufacturing. There is now, I believe, a factory in Philadelphia where 1,000 people are employed in this one industry.

HARD GETTING BATS

“It was equally difficult to get good bats made, for no one knew any more about making bats than balls. The bats had to be turned under my personal supervision, the workman stopping occasionally for me to ascertain when the right diameter and taper was secured. I was often obliged to try three or four turners to find one with suitable wood, or one willing to do the work. In fact, base ball playing for the first six or seven years of its existence was the pursuit of pleasures under difficulties.

“The first professional English cricket team that came to this country used to practice near us, and they used to come over and watch our game occasionally. They rather turned up their noses at it, and thought it tame sport, until we invited them to try it. Then they found it was not so easy as it looked to hit the ball. Upon this discovery, they began to find fault with the ball, and so our crack pitcher took their own hard cricket ball, and gave them every opportunity but they had no better success.

“The first club to be organized after the Knickerbockers was the Gotham Club, and its members became our special rivals. I remember one game of 12 innings which finally ended in a tie, with a score of 12 to 12. Soon other clubs began to form in rapid succession, until there were quite a number in various places.  It was then possible to have matches of no mean size. There was one series of three matches between members from all the New York clubs and all the Brooklyn clubs. Out Knickerbocker catcher, Debost, played in them all, and New York won two out of the three. At one of these matches I acted as umpire. There were thousands of people present, but no admission was charged.

“The Gotham Club was organized in 1850 and the Eagle in 1852. The playing rules remained very crude up to this time, but in 1853 the three clubs united in a revision of the rules and regulations. At the close of 1856 there were 12 clubs in existence, and it was decided to hold a convention of delegates from all of these for the purpose of establishing a permanent code of rules by which all should be governed. A call was therefore issued, signed by the officers of the Knickerbocker Club as the senior organization, and the result was the assembling of the first convention of base ball players in May, 1857. I was elected presiding officer. In March of the next year the second convention was held, and at this meeting the annual convention was declared a permanent organization, and with the requisite constitution and by-laws became the National Association of Base Ball Players.

HE WAS CHAIRMAN

“I was chairman of the Committee on Rules and Regulations from the start and so long as I retained membership. I presented the first draft of rules, prepared after much careful study of the matter, and it was in the main adopted. The distance between bases I fixed at 30 yards–the only previous determination of distance being ‘the bases shall be from home to second base 42 paces; from first to third base 42 paces equi-distant’–which was rather vague. In every meeting of the National Association while a member, I advocated the ‘fly-game’–that is, not to allow first-bound catches–but I was always defeated on the vote. The change was made, however, soon after I left, as I predicted in my last speech on the subject before the convention.” The distance from home to pitcher’s base I made 45 feet. Many of the old rules, such as those defining a foul, remain substantially the same to-day, while others are changed and, of course, many new ones added.  I resigned in 1862, but not before thousands were present to witness matches, and any number of outside players standing ready to take a hand on regular playing days.  But we pioneers never expected the game to be universal as it had now become.

“I have no idea of the number of clubs at present nor the number of players at present, nor the number of persons employed in making base ball material, but it is an important industry. Newspapers are now obliged to report games and could not afford to neglect it.

“William F. Caldwell [Cauldwell], still living, I think, was a newspaper man who took great interest in ball playing at that time.  His paper was the New York Sunday Mercury, and it used to be all he could do to help the game in its columns.  He was one of the first to report the matches and was generally a member of the base ball committees, though he did not belong to our club.

“The Knickerbocker Club had an exixtence of about 30 years, and my connection with it lasted about half that time.  An old book of rules issued by the club in 1854, gives the officers and members at the same time as follows:

“President, Fraley C. Niebuhr; Vice President, Alex. H. Drummond; Secretary, James W. Davis; Treasurer, George A. Brown.  Directors, Daniel L. Adams, W.F. Ladd, Charles S. Debost:  Honorary Members, James Lee, Esq., Abraham Tucker, Esq., Edward W. Tallman, Esq. Active Members, Duncan F. Curry, Charles B. Birney, Ebeneezer E. Dupignac, Jr., Fraley C. Niebuhr, James Moncrief, Daniel L. Adams, William L. Tallmann, Charles S. Debost, Henry S. Anthony, Alex. H. Drummond, George Ireland Jr., Benjamin C. Lee, Benjamin K. Brotherson, George A. Brown, William F. Ladd, John Murray, Jr., Richard F. Stevens, Thos. W. Dick, Jr., John Boyle, William H. Grenelle, John Clancy, James W. Davis, George W. Devoe, G. Colden Tracy, William B. Eager Jr., Otto W. Parisen, Edgar F. Lasak, Frank W. Tyron, Edwin F. Frong, Albert H. Winslow, Louis F. Wadsworth, William F. McCutchen, Samuel E. Kissam, Gershom Lockwood, Henry C. Ellis.”

SEVERAL OTHERS

“Many others were members at one time or another. Besides those named in the list I remember two brothers named O’Brien, who were brokers and afterward became very wealthy. There was also a man named Morgan, who was very successful in business. Henry T. Anthony is the photographic supply dealer, who is well-known all over the country, through his large New York establishment. Duncan F. Curry was an insurance man, and James Moncrief became, I think, a judge of the Superior Court.

“The best pitcher then developed was not a member of the Knickerbocker Club, but of the Excelsior Club of Brooklyn. His name was Creighton, and he won considerable note in his day.

“James W. Davis, a broker, and secretary of our club, is still living. He ought to go down to history as the first base ball fiend. Indeed, we used to call him a fiend in the old days because of his enthusiasm.  He was an outfielder. We had a flag on which were the words ‘Knickerbocker Base Ball Club,’ and I understand that he has been given orders that when he dies he is to be wrapped in that flag. But most of the old players of the Knickerbocker Club have already ‘come home.'”                    –Old Timer

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