May 14th, 2013

The Knickerbockers: San Francisco’s First Base Ball Team?

The garden spot of baseball in the golden west, Portsmouth Square in San Francisco, January 1851

The garden spot of baseball in the golden west, Portsmouth Square in San Francisco, January 1851

This brilliant essay by Angus Macfarlane–now presented at Our Game in two parts–ran in the first number of the journal Base Ball, back in Spring 2007. It is not too much to say that it thoroughly rewrites the standard story of how baseball came to California, who first played it, and where. As the author notes, “On Washington’s Birthday, 1860, the San Francisco Base Ball Club faced the Red Rovers at a now long-forgotten site then known as Center’s Bridge. Local baseball historians consider this event, reported only in the Spirit of the Times, the beginning of San Francisco baseball history. Yet in 1851 the daily newspapers reported that base ball was being played in the Plaza, San Francisco’s central square. Over a seven-week period, three daily journals made five separate references to baseball activity, though no player names or game accounts were published. Who were these nameless, faceless men who reportedly played baseball nearly a decade before the match at Center’s Bridge?  Is it possible, more than 150 years after the fact, to identify these ‘prehistoric’ baseball players, or are San Francisco’s pioneers of the diamond condemned to spend eternity in anonymity?  The hard evidence is missing, but clues and compelling circumstantial evidence from 1851 point to surprising suspects—men who had the means, the motive, the opportunity and the intent to play baseball in San Francisco in 1851.”

Angus Macfarlane lives in San Francisco, where he worked for almost 30 years as a juvenile probation officer. Recently retired, he has discovered the joys and challenges of researching the general history of his hometown as well as San Francisco’s sports history. He is working on a series of articles on the history of San Francisco horse race tracks. His recently completed article, “Baseball Goes East: The 1876 San Francisco Centennials’ Magical Mystery Tour,” will appear in Base Ball this fall.

On September 23, 1931, prior to a Mission Reds–Hollywood Stars Pacific Coast League baseball game, an Old-Timers Day was celebrated at San Francisco’s brand new Seals Stadium. The 40 honorees were divided into two teams recalling the old California League of the 1880s: the Pioneers and the Haverleys. Appropriately, at least four of the old timers had either been members of those two venerable teams, or of the Greenwood and Morans, another California League team of that bygone era.

Almost half a century before the Seals Stadium nostalgia-fest, a similar baseball reunion was held at Recreation Grounds at 25th and Folsom Streets. The date was Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1882, and the occasion was the commemoration of, as written in the next day’s San Francisco Chronicle, “the twenty-second anniversary of the introduction of baseball on the Pacific Coast.”

As in 1931, the 21 veterans of the Eagle, Pacific, Liberty, and Empire Base Ball Clubs of the 1860s and 1870s were divided into two teams: the Eagles and the Pacifics. These two teams, long and bitter rivals, had very deep roots in San Francisco baseball history. A half dozen of these baseball veterans had had the singular honor of representing their clubs in a series of games against the legendary Cincinnati Red Stockings when they visited San Francisco 13 years earlier.

San Francisco Pacifics, ca.  1869

San Francisco Pacifics, ca. 1869

The arrival of the Red Stockings in San Francisco on September 23, 1869, was an unprecedented event: An “eastern” baseball club came to play the city’s best nines. Not just any eastern club—this was the legendary Cincinnati Red Stockings, the sport’s first openly professional team. While San Francisco’s best base ball clubs were no threat to the Red Stockings’ 45-game winning streak, the city looked forward to the prospect of an entertaining six-game display of baseball expertise at Recreation Grounds, San Francisco’s premier sporting venue.

The local newspapers fawned over the arrival of the team that had created such a furor back east. On September 24, the San Francisco Bulletin printed an article summarizing the city’s history of baseball. It began:

The first appearance of baseball on this coast, according to records in charge of Mr. [John] Durkee, one of the pioneer baseball players on this coast and an enthusiast in the game, was 1859. The Eagle Club was organized in November, 1859, and the first game of baseball according to New York rules occurred at Center’s Bridge February 22, 1860 between the Eagles and Red Rovers.

The article related the well known tale of the contentious game that stood at 33-all after nine innings, and the Red Rovers’ refusal to continue play, complaining that the pitching of Eagle J. C. Willock was illegal. Finding no fault with Willock’s delivery, the umpire declared the game a forfeit and awarded the victory to the Eagles.

Three of the 1882 honorees had participated in that landmark game at Center’s Bridge on Washington’s Birthday in 1860: John Fisher, J. Kerrigan, and John Durkee, the keeper of San Francisco’s baseball records. Durkee played center field, batted eighth in the Eagle lineup, and scored three of his team’s thirty-three runs in that momentous game.

From Seymour Church, Base Ball: George Wright and the Golden Gate

From Seymour Church, Base Ball: George Wright and the Golden Gate

In 1867, two years before the Cincinnati Red Stockings put San Francisco on the baseball map, it was written in the Pacific Base Ball Guide, published by the Pacific Base Ball Convention of California, the state’s governing body for baseball:

Previous to the year 1859, the game of base ball as it was then played in the east, was unknown on this Coast, but in that year a few members of the Eagle Club, of New York, organized a club in this city and styled themselves the San Franciscans.[1]

Since at least 1869 Durkee’s records have been the undisputed foundation and mortar of almost 150 years of San Francisco baseball history. Although they were undoubtedly lost in the fire of 1906, other documents based on those records did survive, supporting and validating to this day the contention that baseball’s Genesis in San Francisco was 1860 and that the Garden of Eden was Center’s Bridge.

However, there is one serious drawback to relying on those records: They do not account for contemporary newspaper reports of baseball being played in San Francisco in 1851 and 1852.

On February 4, 1851, the San Francisco Alta California (Alta) reported on the baseball equivalent of “In the beginning …”:

SPORT—A game of base ball was played upon the Plaza yesterday afternoon by a number of the sporting gentlemen about town.

A clear discrepancy thus emerges between recorded baseball history—the 1851 and 1852 newspaper accounts of baseball in San Francisco—and the accepted baseball history based on John Durkee’s records. Between the Alta’s initial mention on February 4, 1851, and its final item on March 25, three newspapers made five reports of baseball activity in the Plaza, also known as Portsmouth Square.[2] Unfortunately, none of the reports provides any details, such as names of players or outcomes of games, begging the provocative question: Who were those men playing baseball in 1851? The names, positions, and performances of the San Francisco Base Ball Club[3] and Red Rovers who met at Center’s Bridge, on the other hand, are recorded for posterity in the first box score of a baseball game played in California.[4]

Daily Alta, February 4, 1851

Daily Alta, February 4, 1851

A sometimes insurmountable handicap in seriously researching any aspect of early San Francisco history is the absence of primary sources. Not only did the 1906 earthquake and fire destroy so much material relating to nineteenth-century San Francisco, but in the early-to-mid-1850s, periodic “Great Fires” swept through the highly combustible city, destroying many of the wood and canvas structures, along with their contents: the personal letters, diaries, books, albums, family heirlooms, business records and documents, association minutes, mementos, and memorabilia that could answer so many historical questions and solve so many mysteries. Tragically, these sources are lost forever, reduced to ash or rubble, leaving at best secondary sources or, in many instances, only circumstantial evidence upon which to reconstruct history.

Unlike the paper trail that leads to and from John Durkee’s records, including a primitive box score immortalizing the 18 men at Center’s Bridge, there is no paper trail per se that can help us to identify San Francisco’s first baseball players. The hard evidence—the smoking gun as it were—has gone up in smoke or has been reduced to charred debris. Fortunately relevant historical evidence has survived, and, along with compelling circumstantial evidence, the forgotten and overlooked historical dots can be connected. And perhaps the early baseball players, or at least likely “suspects,” can be named.

* * *

On January 1, 1851, Mr. William M. Eddy, the Surveyor of the City of San Francisco, hosted a gathering at his home for his friends to welcome in the New Year. Hailing from New York as Mr. Eddy did, it was not surprising that many of his guests were also from the Empire State. In fact, Eddy’s home was crowded with so many transplanted New Yorkers that it was suggested that an association for New Yorkers in California be formed.[5] 

Accordingly, on January 4, 1851, a notice appeared in the San Francisco newspapers inviting all New Yorkers in San Francisco to attend a meeting on January 6, 1851, for the purpose of forming a Knickerbocker Association. At that gathering a constitution was framed and officers were elected.

Unfortunately, the membership rolls of the Knickerbocker Association are among the items lost forever. Though the names of the association’s rank and file will never be known, the names of the officers elected at the first meeting were printed in the local newspapers.

On January 23 the Knickerbockers met again, deciding that “none but those who were to the ‘manor born’ could be considered as real genuine Knickerbockers.” In other words, riff-raff need not apply.

On January 30 the Knickerbockers met once more. Four days later, and a mere four weeks after the formation of the Knickerbocker Association, baseball was being played in the Plaza.

If we allow ourselves a small step of faith in surmising that the “gentlemen,” as characterized in the Alta’s first report of the games, were indeed gentlemen, and knowing that the San Francisco Knickerbocker Association restricted its membership exclusively to gentlemen, then we have the beginnings of an interesting theory.

Alta Office, Shew's Daguerreian Saloon, 1851

Alta Office, Shew’s Daguerreian Saloon, 1851

After that small step of faith, we can look at hard evidence that suggests that these baseball players may have been more than just members of a newly formed gentleman’s club. It is entirely possible that San Francisco’s first baseball players were men who had more than just the means, the motive, and the opportunity to play baseball in 1851. Additionally, and most importantly, they also had the intent to play baseball in 1851 … because these men had played the game many times before.

It is possible that these baseball pioneers were more than just members of the San Francisco Knickerbockers; they may also have been members of the New York Knickerbockers—the New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club transplanted to California. The Knickerbockers of interest are the DeWitt brothers, Frank Turk, William Wheaton, Charles Case, William Tucker, Edward Ebbetts, and Walter Avery.

Listed below—roughly in the order of their arrival in San Francisco—are brief profiles of New York’s baseball Knickerbockers who can be placed in or around San Francisco in January and February of 1851, and who are worthy of scrutiny as likely “suspects” of being the “sporting gentlemen” playing baseball in the Plaza that first baseball season in California.

Clan DeWitt

Without any substantiation, baseball historian Harold Peterson identifies Peter DeWitt Jr. as the DeWitt family representative on the New York Knickerbockers.[6] A “DeWitt” did play in the club’s first recorded game on October 6, 1845, on the same side as Alexander Cartwright. However, since no first name or initial for “DeWitt” is recorded in the Knickerbocker game book,[7] it is just as likely that “DeWitt” might also have been either Peter’s older brother Alfred or younger brother Theodore.

The DeWitt family of New York City consisted of Peter Sr. (a wealthy attorney), his wife Jenat, and their children. Between 1808 and 1835 ten sons and two daughters were born to the parents. Our focus is on four of the sons: Alfred (born February 15, 1818); Peter Jr. (born February 12, 1820); Theodore (born November 19, 1821); and Henry (born June 25, 1828).

DeWitt and Harrison, Daily Alta, January 15, 1853

DeWitt and Harrison, Daily Alta, January 15, 1853

Alfred DeWitt, according to his journal and letters that he wrote,[8] left New York on April 6, 1848, aboard the Belfast, arriving in San Francisco on September 22 of that year. Alfred and his business partner, Henry A. Harrison, had purchased the Belfast in New York and filled its cargo hold with merchandise with the intention of establishing a business in San Francisco.[9] Upon their arrival, the two men set up DeWitt & Harrison on the west side of Sansome Street between Broadway and Pacific, near the Broadway Pier at what was then known as Clarke’s Point. Their first advertisement appeared in the September 30, 1848, edition of the weekly Californian, announcing

NEW GOODS.  DE WITT & HARRISON will open on Monday next, a large and general assortment of New Goods, just received per brig Belfast, from New York, which they offer to sell at wholesale at the ship wharf, foot of Broadway.

In addition to the paid advertisement, readers of the Californian also found this editorial comment on the arrival of DeWitt’s ship:

Town property is rapidly increasing in value. We have been credibly informed that as soon as the “Belfast” was seen lying at the wharf foot of Broadway, and discharging her cargo, goods fell 25 per cent and real estate rose from 50 to 100 percent. The vacant lot on the corner of Montgomery and Washington streets [four blocks from where the Belfast was docked] was offered the day previous for $5,000 and the next day sold readily at $10,000.

Needless to say, DeWitt & Harrison soon became one of the largest businesses in San Francisco.[10]

In June 1849, Alfred’s 21-year-old brother Henry arrived in San Francisco. The next month Alfred’s wife, Margaret, joined her husband. In 1850 Henry and Alfred were joined by brothers Peter Jr., who arrived in May, and finally Theodore, who came ashore in October.

Frank Turk

Another New York Knickerbocker to arrive in San Francisco was Frank Turk. His club debut was on October 17, 1845, the club’s third recorded game, when he scored three runs for his winning team. He missed the historic match game against the New York team on June 19, 1846, but was part of the subsequent mixed-team free-for-all “fun-game” which followed later that day.

Turk Street, San Francisco

Turk Street, San Francisco

In early 1849, while still a New York City resident, 30-year-old Frank Turk (for whom San Francisco’s Turk Street is named) was appointed Assistant Post Master of San Francisco. Turk’s journey to California involved a crossing of Mexico to Mazatlan, where he secured passage to San Francisco aboard the U.S. Revenue Cutter Edith. He disembarked in San Francisco on May 29, 1849. Traveling with Turk was John W. Geary (memorialized today by Geary Street), who had been appointed San Francisco’s Post Master.

Seeing an opportunity to make money from the influx of Argonauts, Turk resigned his government position shortly after arrival and began a law practice. By July 10, 1849, he was advertising in the Alta “Frank Turk: Attorney At Law, Parker House.” (The Parker House was on Kearny Street facing the Plaza.)

Turk achieved local notoriety a week later when he was appointed to be one of the public prosecutors of a group of men who had been victimizing and terrorizing San Francisco since February. Known as the “Hounds,” or “Regulators,” these men were charged with riot, attempted murder, robbery, and conspiracy stemming from an attack on a Chilean settlement near Clarke’s Point on July 15 and 16. After a weeklong series of highly public and publicized trials that held the city’s undivided attention, nearly all of the accused men were found guilty.

On August 1, 1849, while the trials were still in progress, Turk was elected “Second Alcalde” of San Francisco, a Mexican title equivalent to Vice Mayor. His former Post Office boss, John Geary, was elected Alcalde, or Mayor.

On January, 6, 1851, Turk was elected to the Committee on By Laws for the San Francisco Knickerbockers.

Brothers Cartwright

The next traveling New York Knickerbockers to arrive in San Francisco were the Cartwright brothers, Alexander and Alfred. (Neither one is a “suspect,” but Alexander provides some very valuable clues, to be discussed later.) Alfred was the first to depart, sailing from New York City on January 29, 1849, aboard the Pacific. On March 1, 1849, Alexander left New York for Independence, Missouri, where, on April 9, 1849, the wagons of the Newark Overland Company were camped in a field outside Independence, preparing to set off on the overland route for California. 

Traveling on foot and horseback, Alexander reached California on July 4, while Alfred didn’t arrive until August 5. Although Alexander kept a journal of his cross-country trek, it stops weeks before his arrival in California, and provides no information on his activities in this state.[11]

In an interview given by Alexander decades later, he said that he abandoned the idea of prospecting and proceeded down the Sacramento River to San Francisco to meet his brother. Thus, by late July Alexander was probably on his way to San Francisco to meet Alfred.

Cartwright, Pioneers Life Membership, 1875

Cartwright, Pioneers Life Membership, 1875

Arriving in San Francisco after almost five months without any contact with his family, the first orders of business of any traveler—overland or seafaring—would be to check for mail from home;[12] to send word back to his family that he had arrived safely; to seek out any known friends, relatives, or acquaintances in San Francisco; and finally, if meeting somebody, to check on the status of California-bound ships.

A person that Alexander Cartwright was certain to seek out directly was Alfred DeWitt. By January 1, 1849, DeWitt’s family in New York City had received word of Alfred’s arrival in San Francisco. Thus, by the time that Alfred Cartwright was leaving New York at the end of January, he (as well as Alexander) would know that DeWitt was in San Francisco.

The Cartwright and DeWitt families enjoyed a rather special relationship that transcended the game of baseball. The Cartwright family bible records that the first child born to Alexander and Eliza Ann Cartwright was born on May 3, 1843, at 11 St. Mark’s Place, New York City.[13] “11 St. Mark’s Place” was the home of Peter DeWitt Sr., his wife, Jenat, and their many adult-aged children. The Cartwrights named their newborn DeWitt Robinson Cartwright. Indeed, Cartwright may have spent his days in San Francisco as a guest of Alfred DeWitt and his wife, Margaret.

While in San Francisco in the latter part of July or early August, Cartwright would have learned of Frank Turk’s new profession, his prosecution of the Hounds/Regulators, and his election to public office. On August 5, Alfred’s ship arrived and the Cartwright brothers were reunited. Ten days later, an ailing Alexander Cartwright left San Francisco for Hawaii, where he would permanently settle. He would return to San Francisco two more times on business.[14]

Second and concluding part tomorrow! []


1. Church, S. 1974. Baseball: The History, Statistics and Romance of the American National Game (reprint of 1902 publication) (p. 42).

2. The other newspaper accounts of baseball in the Plaza are: California Courier: Feb. 4, 1851:  “SPORTS ON THE PLAZA—The Plaza has at last been turned to some account by our citizens. Yesterday quite a crowd collected upon it, to take part in and witness a game of ball, many taking a hand. We are much better pleased at it than to witness the crowds in the gambling saloons which surround the square. Such sports are manly and healthful, and if not profitable, are at least innocent, and have not the pernicious tendency which attends the gambling saloon.”

      San Francisco Alta California (Alta): Feb. 6, 1851:  “BASE-BALL—This is becoming quite popular among our sporting gentry, who have an exercise upon the plaza nearly every day. This is certainly better amusement than “bucking” and if no windows or heads are broken will prove much more profitable.

San Francisco Herald: Mar. 1, 1851:  “THE PLAZA—…Numbers of boys and grown men daily amuse themselves by playing ball upon it—this is certainly an innocent recreation, but occasionally the ball strikes a horse passing, to the great annoyance of the driver.”

      Alta: Mar. 25, 1851:  “THE CORRAL—…There the boys play at ball, some of them using expressions towards their companions expressions neither flattering, innocent nor commendable. Men, too, children of a larger growth, do the same things…”

      Alta: Jan. 14, 1852:  “PUBLIC PLAY GROUND—For the last two or three evenings the Plaza has been filled with full grown persons engaged very industrially in the game known as ‘town ball.’ The amusement is very innocent and healthful, and the place peculiarly adapted for that purpose. A number of loafers are regularly perched upon the railings that extend around the Plaza, and whilst discussing the financial prospects of the country and the state of the weather, they employ their leisure moments by whittling off the tops of the posts. The scenes are extremely interesting and amusing.”

3. On March 17, 1860, the California Spirit of the Times and Fireman’s Journal reported: “CHANGE OF NAME: The San Francisco Base Ball Club have changed their name to that of Eagle, and by that will hereafter be known.”

4. California Spirit of the Times and Fireman’s Journal: March 3, 1860.

5. See: Lotchin, R. 1974. San Francisco 1846–1856: From Hamlet to City. Lincoln, Neb. (p. 104): “The largest number of ‘native’ migrants to San Francisco came from the mid-Atlantic States, and New England respectively. New York provided the greatest contribution, followed by Massachusetts.”

6. Peterson, H. 1973. The Man Who Invented Baseball. New York (p. 72).

7. All references to New York Knickerbocker games are based on the contents of the Knickerbocker Baseball Club of New York Gamebooks. October 6, 1845–1856, in the Albert Spalding Baseball Collection at the New York Public Library.

8. Letters and journals referred to are located at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley: DeWitt Family Papers, File Banc Mss 73/163 Box 3. This is a collection of 124 letters written by Alfred DeWitt as well as his brothers, Peter Jr., Henry, and Theodore, and Alfred’s wife, Margaret. The contents of the letters are not very enlightening for the purpose of this paper. However, the dates of the letters do provide timeline information on the whereabouts of the letter writer.

9. The California Society of Pioneers incorrectly lists DeWitt’s and Harrison’s arrivals in California as being overland from Independence, Missouri.

10. According to the Annals of San Francisco (first published in 1855), until the establishment of regular banks in San Francisco, people deposited their money and valuables with the mercantile houses having safes, including DeWitt & Harrison (p. 512).

11. Cartwright Journal, MS  DOC 55, Bishop Museum Archives, BishopMuseum, Honolulu, Hawaii.

12. See: Stillman, J. 1874. “Seeking the Golden Fleece,” Overland Monthly, March 1874, p. 254; and Browne, L. 1969. J. Ross Browne: His Letters, Journals and Writings (pp. 120–121), for first-hand accounts of the excitement and anxiety experienced by recent arrivals in San Francisco in 1849 awaiting mail from home.

13. Daughters of the American Revolution, 1950. California Family Bibles, vol. 8 (pp. 166–167). (Sutro Library, San Francisco, California, call number: E 202.5 C15 V5 v.8 c.1)

14. Alexander Cartwright came to San Francisco aboard the Pacific on May 21, 1850, and returned to Hawaii aboard the Samuel Russell, arriving in Hawaii July 2, 1850. He returned to San Francisco aboard the Zoe on April 22, 1852, departing aboard the Isabella on July 2, 1852, arriving in Honolulu July 22, 1852.