May 15th, 2013

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

William R. Wheaton

William R. Wheaton

The following text continues and concludes the article commenced yesterday at:

William R. Wheaton

The next New York Knickerbocker to arrive in San Francisco was William Rufus Wheaton, who has the distinction of being one of the founders of the New York Base Ball club and who umpired the first recorded Knickerbocker game. He left New York on February 1, 1849, aboard the Strafford, a vessel that he and about a hundred other men had purchased as a joint venture and filled with merchandise for the California gold fields. He disembarked in San Francisco August 30, 1849.

Of his arrival Wheaton wrote, “I came ashore at Clarke’s Point, and found some friends who gave me the privilege of lying on the floor of their office, which I accepted, and went and bought a mattress and some blankets.”[15]

Wheaton also wrote that when it was learned that he was an attorney, he was immediately waylaid and guaranteed a hundred thousand dollars a year if he would settle in San Francisco and practice his profession. He accepted several cases, trying one, and referred the rest to other attorneys.

Fifteen days after arriving in San Francisco, Wheaton and others in his party continued on to Sacramento, about ninety miles away. By early 1850, after abandoning placer mining, Wheaton started a successful wholesale grocery business in Sacramento with Alonzo Hamilton—Hamilton & Wheaton.

Edward A. Ebbets

Edward A. Ebbetts arrived in San Francisco aboard the Panama on April 22, 1850, too late to be called a ’49er. He was also a latecomer with the New York Knickerbockers, first appearing in a Knickerbocker game on September 25, 1846. He played 10 documented games that season and 24 games the following year.

Edward was preceded to San Francisco by his younger brother, Arthur, who would accumulate vast wealth and fame in his adopted city. Edward’s stay was briefer and less dramatic. (Coincidentally, Arthur Ebbetts voyaged to San Francisco aboard the Pacific, the same vessel that brought Alfred Cartwright, Alexander Cartwright’s brother, to this city.) The Ebbetts brothers, along with Benjamin F. Lowe, established Ebbetts & Co., Commission Merchants at 60 California Street.

Edward Ebbetts was a guest at William Eddy’s home on New Year’s Day 1851, and was one of the “gentlemen” (as reported in the Alta, January 4, 1851) appointed to call a meeting for the organization of the Knickerbocker Association.

At the Knickerbocker meeting of January 6, 1851, he was elected a member of the Association’s Finance Committee.

Walter Avery

Walter T. Avery was the last New York Knickerbocker to arrive in California, reaching San Francisco on June 6, 1850, aboard the steamer Columbus, 114 days out of New York.[16]  The California census of 1852 lists Walter T. Avery of New York as a merchant in San JoaquinCounty. The 1852 Stockton City Directory lists W.T. Avery as a partner in the firm of Avery and Hewlett, Wholesale Dealers in Groceries, Dry Goods and Produce, located at the corner of Main and Hunter Streets in Stockton. H.H. Hewlett and Avery operated the Stockton store, but they also had a branch operation in San Francisco overseen by John C. Hewlett. Stockton, about eighty miles from San Francisco, was an inland shipping center and jumping-off point for the southern mines.

Walter Titus Avery

Walter Titus Avery

Avery’s first appearance with the New York Knickerbockers was on April 14, 1846, when he played on Alexander Cartwright’s team, scoring seven runs in a 55–33 rout. Avery was also one of the New York Knickerbockers who played against the New York nine on June 19, 1846.

Although the journal that Alexander Cartwright kept of his cross-country trek was not useful in determining his activities while in California, it does contain some extremely valuable information. At the back of the journal is a listing of names and addresses. One of the names in Cartwright’s “address book” is: Walter Avery care of DeWitt & Harrison, San Francisco. [17]

William H. Tucker

Yet another New York Knickerbocker to be found in San Francisco is William H. Tucker. In the Knickerbockers’ first recorded game of October 6, 1845, Tucker, playing on Cartwright’s team, scored three of his team’s eight runs in a losing effort.

Of the Knickerbockers’ 14 recorded games in 1845, William Tucker appeared in 10. One game in which he did not participate was on October 24. This may be due to the fact that another baseball game was being contested that day in Brooklyn—the second game of the two-game New York–Brooklyn series. In both games a player identified as “Tucker” played for the New York Team.[18]

In 1846 William Tucker played in 35 of the Knickerbockers’ 50 recorded games. On June 19, 1846, when the Knickerbockers faced the New York team, “Tucker” showed his true allegiance by playing for the Knickerbockers.

When the Knickerbockers’ game book began recording players’ positions in 1847, Tucker is listed as pitcher, “behind” (i.e. catcher), and second base. During 1847 and 1848 Tucker appeared in 42 of the Knickerbockers’ 86 games. From the inception of the club’s game books, Tucker appeared in 87 of 150 games through the end of the 1848 season.

The opening game of the 1849 season was played without Tucker—the first opening game that he missed. He also missed the rest of the 1849 season along with the entire 1850 season as well. Finally, on May 1, 1851, seven games into the 1851 season, and 86 games since his last recorded appearance as a New York Knickerbocker, Tucker is listed as playing “behind” with his New York teammates.

Where did William H. Tucker go for two-plus seasons?

From 1845 through 1853 Tucker is recorded in the New York City Directory as residing at 56 East Broadway. Also residing at that address was Abraham Tucker. Abraham had been listed at the address as far back as 1842. Both Tuckers gave their occupations as tobacconists.

This uninterrupted directory listing might lead one to conclude that Tucker was still living in New York but simply not playing any baseball. However, while William Wheaton and the DeWitts were indisputably in California, they continued to be listed in the New York City directory also. Additionally, on March 9, 1849, the New York Herald published a list of passengers aboard the steamship Falcon bound for California via the Isthmus Route. Among the listed passengers was “Tucker,” no first name.This could be anybody surnamed Tucker; but Alexander Cartwright’s journal/address book lists: Wm. H. Tucker 271 Montgomery st. upstairs, San Francisco, Cal.[19]

Tucker reappeared in New York in the spring of 1851. To arrive in New York on or before May 1, he could have been in San Francisco as late as mid-March 1851.

Charles Case

The preceding six gentlemen—New York Knickerbockers all—were undeniably baseball players from New York. Charles Ludlow Case was not a New York Knickerbocker, but he probably was a baseball player from New York. In the two baseball games between the New York and Brooklyn teams contested on October 21 and 24, 1845, the players were listed by last name only.[20] Playing both games for the New York team was “Case.” On June 19, 1846, “Case” also played for the New York team against the Knickerbockers.[21]

June 19, 1846 Game with Charles Case

June 19, 1846 Game with Charles Case

Charles Case arrived in San Francisco on February 27, 1849, aboard the bark Jesurum from New York. Together with Charles L. Heiser and others, he established Case, Heiser & Co. Commission Merchants at 60 Sansome Street. This was on the same street as DeWitt & Harrison.

According to the 1852 California census, Charles Case was born in 1818, making him four years younger than William Wheaton and Walter Avery; three years younger than Theodore DeWitt; three years older than Edward Ebbetts; two years older than Peter DeWitt and Alex Cartwright; and the same age as Frank Turk and Alfred DeWitt. In other words, neither too young nor too old to play baseball.

At the initial meeting of the San Francisco Knickerbockers, Charles Case was elected to the Finance Committee.

Summing Up

The DeWitt brothers (Alfred, Peter Jr., Theodore, and Henry), Frank Turk, William Wheaton, Edward Ebbetts, Walter Avery, William Tucker, and Charles Case were all in or near San Francisco between 1849 and 1851. But did they know of each other? Did their paths cross?

•  Frank Turk was a high-profile public figure and a participant in a sensational public trial. He was also a politician who successfully ran for public office. Clearly he was the most visible and most reachable of the New York Knickerbockers.

•  Alfred DeWitt was a jury member on the first of the three trials prosecuted by Frank Turk.[22] Therefore the paths of Turk and DeWitt had definitely crossed. Additionally, DeWitt & Harrison was one of the largest businesses in San Francisco at the time.[23] Further, Alfred DeWitt, being a partner of Henry Harrison—who successfully ran for public office twice—would have gained some reflected notoriety from his partner’s campaigning and successes. Alfred’s brothers, Peter Jr., Henry, and Theodore, were also active in its operation, and would also have received some of the reflected notoriety. As was the case with Frank Turk, the DeWitts were well known and easily reachable.

•  According to Alexander Cartwright’s journal/address book, Walter Avery and Alfred DeWitt had a direct channel of communication.

•  Charles Case’s business was on the same street as Alfred DeWitt’s. Both men were commission merchants and definitely would have known of each other. Further, on July 30, 1850, in a letter written to his mother in New York, Peter DeWitt Jr. referred to “Mr. Case.” Since no other “Case” was listed in the San Francisco directory for 1850, presumably this is a reference to Charles Case. Alfred DeWitt wrote in his journal that when he left New York for California he was accompanied to the brig Belfast by, among others, Mr. H.A. Heiser. Might this have been a relative of Charles Heiser, Case’s business partner at Case, Heiser & Co. in San Francisco? On a voyage from New York to San Francisco in 1850, Alfred DeWitt wrote that he was traveling with his wife and “Mrs. Heiser.” Might this have been the wife of Charles Heiser of Case, Heiser & Co.?

•  When William Wheaton arrived in San Francisco in 1849 he wrote, “I came ashore at Clarke’s Point, and found some friends who gave me the privilege of lying on the floor of their office, which I accepted, and went and bought a mattress and some blankets.” DeWitt & Harrison was adjacent to Clarke’s Point. Was Wheaton referring to Alfred DeWitt? Even if Wheaton didn’t sleep on the floor of DeWitt & Harrison, he could not have missed seeing their building at Clarke’s Point. Bear in mind that word of Alfred DeWitt’s arrival in San Francisco had reached New York weeks and even months before other New York Knickerbockers left for the gold fields.

•  Edward Ebbetts’ presence at William Eddy’s New Year’s gathering is a matter of historic record, having been noted in the San Francisco newspapers of the day. Additionally, he was at the first meeting of the Knickerbocker Association and was elected, along with Charles Case, to the Finance Committee. The 1851–52 San Francisco City Directory lists Ebbetts as a member of the Sansome Hook and Ladder Company No. 3, along with Alfred DeWitt and C. L. Case. This volunteer firefighting company was organized on June 14, 1850.

•  The DeWitts, Edward Ebbetts, Charles Case, Walter Avery, and William Wheaton were all engaged in the same type of enterprise—wholesale merchandising. To be successful in this business, one must advertise, advertise, advertise. The DeWitts and Case carried on their business on the same San Francisco street while the Ebbetts brothers were only a couple of blocks away. Wheaton and Avery, although in two different cities, would necessarily have to make periodic business trips to San Francisco. Avery & Hewlett had a branch store in San Francisco, providing Walter Avery an opportunity and a reason to come to the city. It is documented that Wheaton in fact did visit San Francisco.[24] It goes without saying that it would have been almost impossible for these businessmen not to have had some personal knowledge of and commercial dealings with one another.

•  That leaves only William Tucker. His residence at 271 Montgomery Street was easy walking distance to DeWitt & Harrison, Case, Heiser & Company, and Ebbetts & Co. Since his address was known to Cartwright, it seems unlikely that Tucker would journey to the other side of the continent only to hide from his close friends and teammates—both Knickerbocker and New York Team—from back home. If Cartwright knew his address, the others in San Francisco must have known it.

Looking Toward Portsmouth Square (a.k.a. the Plaza), San Francisco 1851

Looking Toward Portsmouth Square (a.k.a. the Plaza), San Francisco 1851

Frank Turk, Edward Ebbetts and Charles Case were elected to office at the initial Knickerbocker Association meeting. On January 3, 1851, Alfred DeWitt was in Panama en route to San Francisco following a visit to New York. He would have missed the first Knickerbocker meeting, but could have easily been in San Francisco for the subsequent meetings and the games of February and March.

Nonetheless, brothers Peter Jr., Theodore, and Henry (now 22 years of age) were in San Francisco at the time. Coming from a prestigious family both in New York and San Francisco, and knowing the social and business value of association, it is highly likely that the other DeWitt brothers would have responded to the opportunity to expand and solidify their social and professional contacts in their adopted hometown by answering the Knickerbocker call.

It is even more likely, given the cachet of the DeWitts, that they were guests of Mr. Eddy on New Year’s Day.

Consider: Six definite baseball players,[25] along with another highly probable baseball player from New York, were in or near San Francisco in early 1851. In various manners and at various times they crossed each other’s paths. Then a special social gathering is called. Perhaps for the first time since their arrival in California, these former ballplayers (or at least most of them) are together at the same time in a relaxed, convivial atmosphere.

After the agenda is concluded, these men—business associates or competitors in San Francisco; friends, teammates, or rivals in New York—socialize and nostalgically recall the “good old days” back in their distant hometown. Somebody wistfully mentions the baseball games played and won and lost at Murray Hill, the Parade Ground, Brooklyn, and the Elysian Fields several years in the past and three thousand miles distant.

One can easily visualize the pipe and cigar smoke drifting hazily around the meeting room, mingling with the fond memories, the boasting, and the colored recollections of these erstwhile ballplayers. These men, still only in their thirties, settle into comfortable chairs and soon the gentlemanly talk flows as smoothly as the brandy and whiskey that evening.

Inevitably somebody makes a fateful suggestion. Or throws down a friendly gauntlet.  A line is drawn. It is too much to resist. It cannot be ignored.

The call goes out: PLAY BALL.

Less than a month after the first San Francisco Knickerbocker Association meeting, baseball is being played in the Plaza.

The intervening time was probably needed to make personal and business arrangements; obtain or manufacture the baseball equipment that, naturally, was not readily available in San Francisco in 1851; and, if necessary, get the word to Sacramento and Stockton for Wheaton and Avery to get themselves to San Francisc0.[26]

In January and February 1851, we have six former New York Knickerbockers and another baseball player from New York in or near San Francisco. Was it just a coincidence that four weeks after that first Knickerbocker Association meeting on January 6, and a mere four days after the January 30 meeting, baseball is being played in the Plaza?

Portsmouth Square ca.1855, East Side

Portsmouth Square ca.1855, East Side

Granted, coincidence is not causation. It is conceivable that a troupe of inebriated Argonauts spontaneously tumbled and stumbled out of the many drinking establishments and gambling parlors surrounding the Plaza and, using shovel- and ax-handles as bats, and god knows what as a ball, played something resembling baseball for wagers of pinches of gold dust or shots of whiskey.

Was the Alta writer being ironic or not in his use of the term “gentlemen”?

If a game book was kept, it is now gone forever. But we have the California Courier’s abbreviated description of that opening day:

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.

The Original 7—DeWitt, Turk, Wheaton, Tucker, Case, Avery, Ebbetts—the Magnificent 7 Knickerbockers, clearly weren’t the only players on February 3. They were, however, the catalyst and nucleus of that game that history forgot.

The games in the Plaza wouldn’t have looked anything like the affair at Center’s Bridge nine years later, or the New York Knickerbocker games of four or five years earlier. These first games in the Plaza would have been strictly for fun with no arguments, disputes, fines, or threats of forfeit. Following the baseball rules of the day—Knickerbocker rules, of course—the game would have resembled slow-pitch softball instead of its modern-day descendant.  By custom the teams would have retired to a gala postgame dinner where both sides, along with family and friends, would grandly and graciously toast each other.

Two days later the Alta reported:

BASE-BALL:  This is becoming quite popular among our sporting gentry, who have an exercise upon the Plaza nearly every day.

Did the Knickerbockers return to the Plaza?

On March 1 the Daily Herald took up the narrative: “Numbers of boys and grown men daily amuse themselves by playing ball upon [the Plaza].”

Certainly not the Knickerbockers any more.

Readers of the March 25 edition of the Alta would find this final chapter of baseball’s first season in San Francisco:

There the boys play at ball, some of them using expressions towards their companions neither flattering, innocent, nor commendable. Men, too, children of a larger growth, do the same things.

Absolutely not men “to the manor born.”

In seven weeks the descriptions of the early baseball players evolved from “sporting gentlemen” to “boys and men using unflattering language. The spread of baseball in San Francisco was a rapid and complete process.

Turk, Wheaton, Ebbetts, DeWitt, Avery, Tucker, Case.

We’ll never be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that these men really did take up bat and ball in that winter of 1851. But—we do know for certain that San Francisco’s baseball Genesis was 1851, not 1860, and our Garden of Eden was not Center’s Bridge, but Portsmouth Square.

SF Committee of Vigilance

SF Committee of Vigilance

Soon serious business would wrench these men away from their cherished pastime. By March, San Francisco’s social fabric was unraveling and civil authority was on the brink of collapse. Robberies, murders, and assaults plagued the city as never before. Arson-set fires threatened sections of the city. In response, citizens would band together to protect lives, order, and property. Members of the San Francisco Knickerbockers would become members of the Vigilance Committee.

Ultimately the Plaza—San Francisco’s first ball field—would be the scene of the first of four public hangings carried out by the Vigilance Committee. It would be September before order was restored in the city and the Vigilance Committee of 1851 disbanded.

If these men were indeed the ones to participate in the first recorded baseball games in San Francisco, within five years all but one of them had left the city, taking their memories and mementos of the contests in the Plaza with them. By May 1851, William Tucker was once again playing baseball in New York. In 1856 Charles Case returned to his native state where he died the following year. Walter Avery also returned to New York where he lived into the next century. Sometime in the 1850s Frank Turk relocated to Washington, DC, where he lived until returning to San Francisco in 1879. He died in poverty at the city’s almshouse in 1887. DeWitt & Harrison did not survive the 1850s. Alfred left San Francisco for New York on April 8, 1853.[27] Edward Ebbetts was back in New York in 1855. He passed away in 1909, the longest-lived of these bicoastal Knickerbockers.

Of all the old New York Knickerbockers, only William Wheaton remained in California for the remainder of his life, passing away in Oakland on September 11, 1888, at the age of 74. The November 27, 1887, edition of the San Francisco Examiner printed an article “How Baseball Began.” Although not named in the article, the narrator—“a well known lawyer and politician, now living in Oakland”—was clearly William Wheaton. Disappointingly, his baseball recollections were limited to New York. 

In May and June two great fires swept through San Francisco, burning first 20 blocks of buildings and then another 15 blocks in the area surrounding the Plaza.

Thus as a result of fire or relocation, if any records were kept of the baseball games in the Plaza, there is no trace of them other than the brief newspaper accounts of February and March 1851. By default, then, the records kept by John Durkee erroneously credit 18 men with playing San Francisco’s first game of baseball nine years after it had been documented that, if only for a brief time, the game was a regular feature of the Plaza.

Why baseball disappeared until 1860 after reappearing in January 1852 is fodder for another historical exploration.

DeWitt, Turk, Wheaton, Ebbetts, Avery, Tucker, Case.

Rather than crediting “a few members of the Eagle Club of New York” with bringing baseball to San Francisco in 1859, as the Pacific Base Ball Guide of 1867 would have us do, shouldn’t we acknowledge other men from New York for bringing baseball to San Francisco in 1851 instead? Although there are no bats or balls bearing their fingerprints, linking them to those prehistoric games of 1851, there are no better candidates than these men from New York who came to California seeking gold, but left behind something much more valuable.


15. Wheaton, W. “Statement of Facts on Early California History,” Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, BANC MSS C-D171.

16. Avery’s obituary in the New York Times (June 11, 1904, p. 9 col. 6) reads in part: “Mr. Avery was one of the original gold seekers who went to California in 1849 [sic], and was the last living member of the original Knickerbocker Baseball Club.”

17. This is a list of 22 names of people in New York and California ranging from ship captains to Knickerbocker teammates who remained in New York. If there is any order to the listing of the names, it is not obvious. Avery’s listing is the 21st of 22 names.

18. Sullivan, D., ed. 1995. Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball 1825–1908. Lincoln, Neb. (pp. 12–13). William Wheaton was one of the umpires at this game.

19. Tucker’s listing is the 16th of the 22 names.

20. Sullivan 1995, 12–13.

21. Peterson 1973, 76.

22. Alta: Aug. 2, 1849, p. 1 col. 3.

23. DeWitt & Harrison was such a prominent and prosperous business that it was a target of an elaborate robbery plot by Sam Whittaker, who was eventually hanged by the 1851 Vigilance Committee: Williams, M., ed. 1910. Papers of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1851. Berkeley (p. 256).

24. Wheaton was in San Francisco on May 31 and October 31, 1850. Kibbey, M. 2000. J. Horace Culver’s SACRAMENTO CITY DIRECTORY FOR THE YEAR 1851, with a History of Sacramento to 1851, Biographical Sketches, and Information Appendices (pp. 161, 163).

25. Which DeWitt played with the New York Knickerbockers is largely a moot point. By 1851 any or all of the four DeWitt brothers are “suspects” as San Francisco baseball players, including the youngest, Henry, who was by then 22 years old.

26. By 1851 a fleet of steamships carrying mail, cargo, and passengers between San Francisco and the inland ports of Sacramento and Stockton made regularly scheduled round trips every other day.

27. The last San Francisco City Directory listing for DeWitt & Harrison appeared in 1854. However, in 1856 the business of DeWitt, Kittle & Company was established, listing 189 and 191 Sansome Street, San Francisco, and 92 Wall, N.Y. The 1856 New York City directory lists Alfred DeWitt “mer. 92 Wall”. The city directory listings for DeWitt, Kittle & Co. continued through 1871, after which time the DeWitt name is no longer associated with San Francisco.