August 27th, 2014
Now for the third installment of Jimmy Wood’s memoirs, unpublished since their serialization by a newspaper syndicate in August 1916. The opening segment may be read at http://goo.gl/SHvXtL.
Related by James Wood, Captain and Manager of the Famous Chicago White Stockings of 1870-71, to Frank G. Menke.
And now my story shifts to a baseball club—the Eckfords—which swept through two seasons achieving 144 victories without suffering a single defeat [this claim is without merit—jt]; to a man— Joe Sprague—who pitched and won every one of those games for the Eckfords.
The records of both are without parallel in baseball history; accomplishments so remarkable that they never can be surpassed nor closely approached.
The Eckfords, as I stated in a previous article, represented Williamsburg, then a separate town, but now a part of Brooklyn. It was the first team I played on and I held down second base in every one of those games that we won while establishing our record mark.
Our winning streak began with the opening of the 1862 season and continued right through to the end of 1863. During that time we played —with one exception—every team of strength and importance in New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Troy, Syracuse, Albany, Washington and the smaller cities. And we beat them all, not once, but as often as they cared to try conclusions with us.
The single exception was the Excelsior team of Brooklyn. We wanted to play them, issuing repeated challenges. But their Captain, Joe Leggett, refused for the sole reason that he had become angered during the summer of 1862 when our Captain, who was captain of a picked nine on which Leggett played, was presented with a souvenir ball. Leggett thought he was entitled to it and vowed afterward that so long as he was leader of the Excelsiors he never would permit them to play the Eckfords. He kept his word.
Joe Sprague, in my opinion, was the greatest pitcher of all time. When one calls to mind the fact that he pitched—and won—144 games in two seasons, pitching three times a week, it doesn’t leave much room for argument, does it?
Sprague, throwing an underhand ball, had terrific speed and wonderful control. But, most important of all, Sprague threw a curve ball—that was back in 1862—which means that Sprague, not Arthur Cummings of the Brooklyn Stars of 1863-64, or Bobby Mathews, of the Baltimores of 1866-67, was the original curve-ball pitcher.
In those days when Sprague pitched for our Eckford team a curve ball, as such, was unknown. But we always noticed that some of Sprague’s deliveries took a sharp twist, sometimes turning in and sometimes turning away from the batter. All of us used to remark about the peculiar gyrations of the ball that he threw. I was not until some years later, however, when curved balls became an established fact, that we recognized the delivery then called a curve, as the very same kind of ball that Sprague had thrown in 1862 and 1863 while pitching himself—and the Eckfords —to fame.
And yet the amazing accomplishments of both the Eckfords and Sprague never have found their way in the record books. No mention is made of them anywhere. There is one way that I can account for this failure to chronicle properly the greatest feat in the entire history of the game. And that is that the record was made in the days before any records were kept—in the era before tabulation began. It was not until along in 1864 and 1865 that Henry Chadwick put into operation his tabulating system and began preserving records.
The Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869 have gained undying fame for having won 56 games, tying one and losing none in that season, but their record is insignificant in comparison with the 144 straight victories of the Eckfords of 1862-63. The Red Stockings’ record for two years, 1869-70, totals 79 victories, one tie and three defeats, and not one defeat, as some records show.
The Red Stockings were defeated two straight games in the Fall of 1870 by the Chicago White Stockings. a team which I organized, captained and managed. That team was recruited for the sole purpose of beating the arrogant Red Stockings —and it accomplished its object in the most sensational baseball series ever played. In a later article I shall deal with those two games, one which was witnessed by the greatest crowd—50,000—that ever saw a professional ball game in America.
Historians differ as to when and where the first game was played at which admission was charged. The real fact is that the first game of that kind was played on June 7, 1864, between two picked nines, one from Williamsburg and the other from New York. It was staged in the enclosed Union Ball Park in Brooklyn. The admission price was 10 cents.
It was W. H. Cammeyer, the owner of the Union Ball Grounds, who conceived the idea of charging admission. What a howl of protest went up from the populace. They termed it an outrage to charge to see the “national sport.” But Cammeyer was deaf to the clamor—and no one got into the grounds unless he first produced the dime.
In our free games the crowds ranged between 5,000 and 20,000. In that first game when admission was charged, the attendance was only a trifle above 1,000.
The fans gradually became used to the idea of paying admission before that season ended and when the season of 1865 began, the park owners determined upon a bolder stroke. They decided to charge 25 cents, whereupon a cry of “robbers” went up! But the price remained at 25 cents—until it was boosted in later years.
In the early summer of that year—1863—the club owners experienced a decided shock. A delegation of players went to them and issued the ultimatum:
“Give us part of the gate receipts , or we won’t play!”
“Why, that will throw you boys on the professional class.”
“Well, we’re willing,” was the answer.
The demands of the players who were exhibiting in parks where admission was charged, were reluctantly granted. Up to that time none of the players had received money. It had been considered an honor to participate in the big games and all the boys belonging to the various clubs had paid dues to purchase equipment and to provide traveling and incidental expenses.
The players then appointed one of their number—the extra man—to count tickets, the original agreement being that the players were to get 25 per cent of the gross income. This agreement continued for a short time only. Then the players demanded 35 per cent, again threatening a strike. When this demand was granted they later asked for—and got-—50 per cent. Before the demands during the following two years ended, the players, by use of threats of quitting the diamond, had forced the club owners to pay them 75 per cent of the gross receipts of each game, that sum being divided equally among the players.
Each winter the heads or the various clubs held their annual get-together meeting in New York with John Wil[d]ey, president of the Mutuals, a great fan of that era, acting as president. When the meeting of 1865 got under way the room was filled with parents of the youths from all over the United States who had been shaking down the club owners for a split of the receipts. They were furious.
Wiley [Wildey], the storm center of it all because of his position as partner with “Boss Bill Tweed,” was flayed unmercifully by those parents. They declared the practice of paying the ball players was a crime; that it would break the morals of the boys, that it killed the sport in the game arnd, all-in-all, it was very, very disgraceful.
“Enact laws at once barring players from accepting money or we shall refuse to permit our sons to play next year,” was the demand of the parents.
“We are perfectly willing to adopt such, a rule,” answered Wil[d]ey with a quaint smile, “but I fear, ladies and gentlemen, if we did, the players wouldn’t observe it. It seems to me that the days are over when baseball is purely a game for amateurs.”
And Wil[d]ey was right.
(End Chapter Three).
(Note—The next installment of “Baseball of the Bygone Days” appearing tomorrow will deal with the organization in the winter of 1869 and the spring of 1870 of the famous Chicago White Stockings, the team hired by Chicago business men at a cost of $50,000, the salaries alone being $18,000, for the purpose—which it accomplished— of beating the Cincinnati Red Stockings. Editor).
Chapter 4 tomorrow.