Woodrow Wilson: The First Fantasy Baseball Player

Woodrow Wilson, ca. 1875

Thomas Woodrow Wilson, ca. 1875

Yes, it’s a provocative title but a startling new find has me believing it’s true. Like the protagonist in Robert Coover’s 1968 novel The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop., the 14-year-old Thomas Woodrow Wilson—known as Tommy—created a whole universe of players, statistics, and a pennant race, with or without the aid of dice. But unlike Waugh—who invented a table game using three dice, a “Stress Chart,” and an “Extraordinary Occurrences Chart”—the young Wilson did not create players or teams. He used only the cast of characters in the real-life National Association of 1871, which he surely read about in the sporting weeklies. And now, from deep in the archives of the Library of Congress, we have come upon Tommy Wilson’s complete handwritten record of that fantasy season. George Wright, Al Spalding, and Cap Anson cavort on an imaginary field, along with all the other worthies of that first year of professional league play.

How do we think of Woodrow Wilson today? Professorial, idealistic, sickly—the President of Princeton University, he became the nation’s  28th President in 1913. He promised us peace but took us into war “to make the world safe for democracy.” We recall his Fourteen Points and his belief in the League of Nations; some will reflect on his Espionage Act of 1917 and Sedition Act of 1918.  We think of his stroke in October 1919 that largely incapacitated him for the last year of his Presidency, when his second wife, Edith, whom he had married in 1915, sort of ran the White House; this scenario gave rise to the 25th Amendment, regarding the disability of a President.

Light Foot BBC, 1870

Light Foot Base Ball Club, 1870

But Tommy Wilson was not a sickly or especially bookish lad. Born December 28, 1856 in Staunton, Virginia, he and his family moved to Augusta, Georgia one year later. In 1870, Wilson organized the Light Foot Club for “various secret, mysterious and adventurous purposes,” including a baseball team for which he played second base. (In 1873 he went on to Davidson College, where he played on the varsity baseball team.)

Wilson recorded the starting lineup of the Light Foot Base Ball Club in his copy of Elements of Physical Geography. These ninth-grade textbook doodlings have been preserved, along with a list of racehorses “arranged by age and speed.” One year later, before moving from Augusta to Columbia, South Carolina, he went from listmaker to perhaps the inventor of fantasy baseball. Here’s the previously untold story.

On October 29, 2013 Amber Paranick wrote to the Baseball Hall of Fame:

I’m a reference librarian at the Library of Congress and have, along with a colleague, discovered a rare item in the Woodrow Wilson Collection. It appears to be a hand-written newspaper, entitled “Professional Record” for 1871. As far as I can tell, a serial publication with this title was not in existence in 1871. Can I ask for your advice? Do you know of a publication with this title that related to baseball?…  

Ms. Paranick supplied a scan of the first page of the “newspaper.” Jim Gates was unable to locate anything that matched it but suggested that she contact early-baseball experts Tom Shieber, Peter Mancuso, and myself. With their concurrence, I followed up.

Proffessional Base Ball Record for 1871, Woodrow Wilson Collection, Library of Congress

Proffessional Base Ball Record for 1871, Woodrow Wilson Collection, Library of Congress

Some quick internet sleuthing turned up evidence of the sale of a manuscript, much like the one described at Parke-Bernet Galleries (today’s Sotheby’s), on May 14, 1946. In its description of Lot 58, the auction house attributed the manuscript to Henry Chadwick, but while he did provide year-end summaries to the New York Clipper and other outlets, he is clearly not the author of this work. Not only is the name of the purported publisher, sporting goods merchant E.I. Horsman, misspelled–Horsman went on to win greater fame as a manufacturer of dolls and toys, and coined the term “Teddy Bear”–but so is the first word of the title (“Proffessional”). Tommy Wilson copied the Chadwick format and puffed up his own commercial prospects, including a 200,000 print run. From the catalog:

58. BASEBALL. HENRY CHADWICK. AUTOGRAPH MANUSCRIPT of “Professional Baseball Record for 1871. Price 25cts. Published by E. I. Horse­man.” Closely written on 17 small 4to pages.

A MOST INTERESTING AND UNIQUE ITEM BY “THE FATHER OF BASEBALL,” written while Chadwick was Chairman of the National Association of Base Ball Players. The manuscript is a record of a tour made by the teams in the season of 1871, and gives the names of the teams, where played, names of the players, and the results of the games, in all about 139 games, with the box score of each game, and with the batting and fielding records of the players. The teams  included the Bostons of Boston; the Eckfords of Brooklyn; the Athletics of Philadelphia; Forest City of Cleveland, Olympics of Washington, etc. 

The introduction to the manuscript reads: “All are familiar with New Championship Rules, and perusing these few Games all of which were for the Professional Championship of the Country it will be seen readily who are or ought to be Champions of the United States…” [Emphasis mine—JT.] The manuscript is written in a microscopic hand, and shows a number of corrections by the author.

Parke-Bernet Galleries 2a

Parke-Bernet Galleries, May 14, 1946

Who purchased this manuscript back in 1946? I have no clue, but somehow it made its way to the Woodrow Wilson Collection at the Library of Congress.

Claire Dekle from the Library’s Preservation Department was able to procure images of the entire “Proffessional Record” for me, and then the real fun began. Wilson’s recording of detail was thorough in the extreme—not only in the presentation of box scores but also in the clubs’ year-end summaries, which split out earned runs scored and allowed and detail individual batting and fielding totals and averages in the manner of the day. (I offer low-resolution images here to permit reasonable download times.) This was the record of a magical mystery tour, played between the young Wilson’s ears.

Rockford FC vs. Olympic of DC, June 30, 1871.

Rockford FC vs. Olympic of DC, June 30.

What first alerted me to the utter fantasy of the statistics was chancing upon a game Wilson created for June 30, 1871 between the Forest City of Rockford, Illinois and the Olympics of Washington, DC. Not only does Anson hit a home run for Rockford (in the real 1871 season he hit none) but pitcher Cherokee Fisher tosses a no-hitter, in which the only opponents to reach first base do so through errors. This would be professional baseball’s first no-hitter, and nearly a perfect game … except that it never happened.

I believe Wilson commenced his work here in March-April of 1871. The National Association (NA) was formed on March 17 in a meeting at Collier’s Saloon in New York at Broadway and 13th Street. Of the ten clubs represented at that meeting, eight plunked down their $10 entrance fee. The Eckfords and Atlantics, however, who were thought certain to be original members, demurred, preferring to play independent of the new circuit. In the days that followed a surprising ninth club entered the NA: the Kekionga of Fort Wayne. In his proprietary league, Wilson includes all eleven clubs, and even some players who, as holdovers from their 1870 clubs, were thought to have renewed for 1871, but were released or quit.

Some nerdy highlights (abandon hope, all ye casual fans who enter here):

The actual 1871 NA champion Athletics of Philadelphia (21-7) finished in Wilsonia with a ho-hum record of 11-16, scoring 178 runs while allowing 176. Their top batter was Al Reach, with an AVG of 1 .00 runs per game while registering 3.6153 outs per game.

The Chicago White Stockings, who lost the NA flag in a final-game contest with the Athletics, fared well in Wilsonia, at 16-11. Their leading batsman was the otherwise obscure Ed Pinkham, at 1.1166 runs per game (the extra decimal places are Wilson’s not mine).

The Boston Red Stockings, third-place finishers in the real NA with a mark of 20-10, disappointed in Wilson’s World, at 10-15 while being outscored 209-176. George Wright, limited by injury to playing in only 16 real-life games, was healthy enough to play in all but three of Wilson’s imagined Boston games.

The Brooklyn Atlantics, who did not compete in the NA of 1871, won 16 and lost 6, outscoring their opponents 183-111. Among Wilson’s players were the perhaps mysterious Coffey, Munn, Bunting, and Carney. None of these men played on the Atlantic Club in the NA of 1872, although Horatio Munn (whose first name had gone undiscovered for more than a century) did appear in a single game in 1875.  The other three did in fact open the 1871 season with the Atlantic nine of 1871, reconstituted as an independent. Left fielder Jack McDonald was their leading batsman, with a Runs Per Game Average of 1.1428. (Computing the Batting Average as we do today, using hits as th enumerator and at bats as the denominator rather than runs/games, did not come into practice until a few years later.)

Carney, Coffey, Bunting, 1871 Atlantics

Carney, Coffey, Bunting, 1871 Atlantics

The non-NA Eckfords went 12-15, being outscored 263-253. When they actually entered the circuit the following year, they registered a won-lost mark of 3-26. Among the obscure players Wilson included were Josh (Jim) Snyder, later of the 1872 Eckford, and Eddie Shelly, a former Union of Morrisania player who in fact joined the Eckfords in 1871 but never played for an NA club and thus is not in the encyclopedic record.

Wilson’s Forest City of Rockford went 15-12, scoring more runs than they allowed. In fact the club finished last in the NA at 4-21 and folded before season’s end. Anson, in his freshman year as a professional, went on to play four years with the Athletics before landing for good in Chicago.

Wilson’s Cleveland Forest City went 11-13, better than its actual mark of 10-19. Non-NA players who sent me scurrying to establish identities were substitutes Smith, Clark, and Hanna. Peter Morris wrote of the man who I suspect to be the last named: “The umpire of this noteworthy game was a man who was making his only appearance on a major league diamond. Identified in game accounts only as ‘Doc’ Hanna,’ his name still appears in some listings of major league umpires as ‘Dr. Hanna.’ In fact, the now-forgotten Leonard C. ‘Doc’ Hanna….” [http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/bc8cc834] Smith is presumably A.J. “Pikey” Smith, former captain of the amateur Cleveland Forest City of the 1860s. Clark is presumably the president of the 1867 club.

As to the Kekionga Club of Fort Wayne, which I covered in depth in Baseball in the Garden of Eden, they were terrors in Tommy Wilson’s Eden, going 16-9 while shortstop Wally Goldsmith terrorized pitchers to the tune of 1.2608 runs per game. The unknown name (to me at least) on the fantasy roster was Chenowith, but he turned out to be Bill Chenoweth, who had played with the Pastimes of Baltimore in 1870, which provided later NA players George Popplein and Frank Williams (who played as Sellman with the Kekiongas in their only NA season).

Wilson’s Olympics of Washington (in the true NA, 15-15) went 11-16, being outscored 239-179. Their leading batsman was right fielder John Glenn, at 0.9565 R/G. He would become notorious in the game’s annals for allegedly attacking a twelve-year-old girl and then being shot by a policeman trying to protect him from a lynch mob.

Haymakers vs. Red Stockings.

Haymakers vs. Red Stockings.

The Unions of Lansingburgh (a.k.a. Troy Haymakers) went 11-14 for Woodrow Wilson, outscoring opponents 197-196. Esteban Bellan, baseball’s first player of Hispanic birth, had the top batting mark with 1.0400. In Wilson’s “newspaper” a Penfield plays for Troy, though he was not on the 1871 roster. He had played with the Haymakers in previous years. George Ewell appears as a sub though he too did not play with Troy in 1871, instead playing one game with Cleveland in 1871.

Wilson’s New York Mutuals went 11-13 and were outscored 167-152. Their leading hitter was third baseman Charley Smith, who had been a star with the great Atlantics clubs of the 1860s but left the Mutuals midway in 1871 after suffering a mental breakdown. Wilson’s “unknown” Mutual substitute is “McMahone.” Surely this is Billy McMahon, who played for the Mutes from 1859-70 and then opened a notorious Tenderloin saloon called at first “The Argyle Rooms” and later “The Haymarket” at Sixth Avenue and 30th Street.

33 Comments

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What an amazing find …. and story! Thanks for sharing that John!

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This is an extraordinary find. I wonder how many other literate, imaginative youngsters like Tommy Wilson created similar baseball universes in this era–I doubt Wilson was alone. Time to dive deeper into local archives for more!

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How do we know for certain that Wilson wrote this? I read this entertaining article a few times but don’t see the definitive evidence. Thanks.

For detailed evidence you will have to consult the Library of Congress Woodrow Wilson Papers, where this “newspaper” is housed.

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I did virtually the same thing in the early to mid-80’s as a youth …

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I, too, missed why this paper is attributed to Wilson. I understand it is among Wilson’s papers, but I am certain his papers contain a large number of things authored by others.

What am I missing?

You are missing a librarian at the LOC sending the papers to me as Wilson authored. This is stated in the article.

I’ve read the article a couple times and have the same comment as Mark above. This is the one part of the article that isn’t clear. It doesn’t say LOC sent the papers as Wilson-authored. All you say is that it clearly wasn’t by Chadwick. I’m inclined to believe it is by Wilson but I don’t see any explanation in the article that states this. If LOC confirmed it was in Wilson’s hand that should’ve been specifically stated.

The LOC does not perform handwriting analysis, which in any event would have yielded little if anything. You are entitled to retain your skepticism, of course.

John, it’s not a matter of skepticism. It’s a matter of a disconnect in your article.

The story reads just fine until you say “Tommy Wilson copied the Chadwick format…” At what point did you determine that Wilson created it? That’s the question that is not clearly answered here. Seems like a sentence or even a whole paragraph is missing.

Either A) the LOC told you it was created by Wilson [which you said in the comment above but did not state in the article] or B) you arrived at that conclusion independently. Either answer is fine, but unless I’m missing it the article doesn’t say. To me, that’s an important part of the story.

It’s not often, if ever, that one thinks of Woodrow Wilson and Jack Kerouac in the same thought, but I suppose it’s just more proof, if more is needed, of the universality of baseball. . . . do we now amend the history books to say “Fantasy League of Nations”?

I notice that in the writeup of the Chicago-Kekionga game, Wilson refers to the Kekiongas at the “Ku Klux.”

Any suggestions as to why?

Reflecting that this “newspaper” was prepared by a 14-year-old in Augusta, Georgia it would be easy to connect young Wilson with some softheadedly romanticized feelings about the the Ku Klux Klan. My guess, however, is that in referring to the Kekionga of Fort WAyne, Indiana as the Ku Klux he was merely playing off the alliterative “K”s. In short, I am inclined not to make much of this,

Thanks for sharing this John. I find it easy to believe there were boys of that era doing SABR-like data collecting before the rest of us. It is how we are wired.

Thank you, John. I have always thought of Wilson as a somewhat tortured genius; this seems consistent with that. He was a remarkable intellect.

Thank you John. It’s a fascinating find and an interesting read. A celebration of the creativity of youth. However, it is probably the earliest version of Strat-O-Matic rather than Fantasy Baseball.

Great article Mr. Thorn!

AMAZING. Once again, it proves that the information about the early baseball players was available to people in the 19th century, if anyone then had cared to compile it in detail. Including, perhaps, even first names. (Now we have David Nemec, and Peter Morris, and David Block, etc., etc., etc., not to mention the lovely and talented John Thorn!)

A truly fascinating man was Woodrow Wilson (See: “Wilson,” movie), whose polished manner could not disguise his love for life (baseball) and people. And when he left office in March of 1921, a shell of the man (stroke) that was in 1913, tried to keep us out of the Great War, led America bravely when our entrance was necessary and saw the future in League of Nations (UN), who did his nation put in the White House: GOP’er Warren Harding of Tea-pot Dome shenanigans, laissez-faire Cal Coolidge and Herb Hoover (best of 3), all leading up to the Great Depression.

Interesting topic, John, but your summation of this great man’s life (“Professorial, idealistic, sickly”) was patheticly uninformed. History and baseball go together like beer & pretzels. Delve deeper next time and have one on Woodrow (Volstead was passed over his veto).

NewspaperArchive includes 158 articles about the Ku Klux Klan in & around Fort Wayne in 1871 — quite a lot of ink for the Klan anywhere at that time. I suspect young Thomas Woodrow Wilson was aware of the association of the Klan with Fort Wayne.

You could well be correct, Merritt. The KKK did have an undeserved air of respectability in its initial feigned purpose,of going after “carpetbaggers.” And the 14-year-old Wilson may have romanticized the Klan in the Walter Scott way that D.W. Griffith later did, in “Birth of a Nation.”

As part of my research for my article on early baseball in the South (“‘The Inauguration of this Noble and Manly Game Among Us.’ The Spread of Baseball in the South Prior to 1870,” Base Ball, Fall, 2012), I looked into the players on “Tommy” Wilson’s “Lightfoot” junior team of Augusta. The Wilson Museum in Augusta has photos and a listing. They were members of Augusta’s “First Families” such as the Lamars and the Stovalls.
Wilson appears to have been the first US president to have played NY-rules baseball.

Interesting. I am the Director of the President Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, D.C. We have over 8,000 artifacts from President Wilson’s life (art, state gifts, awards, mementos, clothing). Most of his books and papers were donated to the Library of Congress.

We are aware of the Light Foot Base Ball Club and the roster and rules that you display in your first document image. Isn’t it amazing to consider that the statesman who gave the world the League of Nations thought, as a 13-year old boy, that his baseball club needed by-laws … and wrote them!

As an adult, Woodrow Wilson was a devoted baseball fan. He threw out the first pitch in several games as President. After he and Edith Bolling announced their engagement in 1915, their first public appearance together was at a World Series game (held in September in those years).

We have in our collection several baseball-related mementos, including a baseball signed by King George V of Great Britain (given to President Wilson after the United States entered World War I) and a 1917 American League season pass (No. 1-A) given to the President. We are lending these to the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library for their upcoming exhibition on Presidents and baseball.

Thanks for the enlightening comment. I love this story.

Mr. Thorn— I am looking for a very unique gift for a friend that is on our State Supreme Court. He loves baseball, has coached in the past, has a passion for Woodrow Wilson and just visited the Woodrow Wilson Library in Virginia. Your story about President Wilson is wonderful and was wondering if you are aware of anyone or place that could or would sell any Woodrow Wilson Baseball memorabilia?? Your help would be greatly appreciated. Also, I just purchased your book for him and look forward to his read. Thank you and Very Best…………

Woodrow Wilson baseball memorabilia are very scarce and pricey, except for photos of him throwing out the first pitch on Opening Day (those are plentiful). Ebay and Etsy may yield what you wish. Higher end things–signed balls or photos, e.g.–may require auction hunting. See:

http://goo.gl/A3hZ3P

and

http://www.robertedwardauctions.com/

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