Louis Fenn Wadsworth: Baseball’s Man of Mystery and History
I gave this talk at the Litchfield Historical Society on April 24, 2016. While Louis Fenn Wadsworth came in for some discussion in my 2011 book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, I felt I could try the patience of general readers with a great deal of biographical detail unrelated to his baseball exploits. However, now that the trio of documents relating to baseball’s 1857 convention (see: http://goo.gl/VndQXx) sold on Sunday for a prodigious sum, the timing could not be more right for some talk about Wadsworth, the man who reversed the convention’s original ruling that baseball should be a game of seven innings, and made it, instead, nine.
Only yesterday, some documents from 1857 that constitute the first draft of baseball’s rules as we know them today were auctioned off for 3.26 million dollars. With the rediscovery of these “Laws of Baseball,” crafted for presentation by the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club to the first convention of baseball clubs, we have tangible evidence of the genius of Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams, a rediscovered hero who was the top vote-getter among old-timers on last year’s ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, baseball’s origins were already too old to be remembered, so stories were devised to rationalize what was otherwise baffling. Baseball history then was in the hands of folklorists, not historians. Members of the Mills Commission—also referred to as Albert Spalding’s Commission, for he formed it in 1905 to determine the true origin of the national pastime—lacked the mundane primary documents that typically aid historians of everyday life in the reconstruction of events. Accordingly, they looked to octogenarian reminiscences of events witnessed long ago if at all; thus we were handed a pretty story of Abner Doubleday as baseball’s inventor, supposedly in Cooperstown one bright day in 1839.
Almost immediately upon the Commission’s naming the Civil War hero as baseball’s dad, others came forward to declare the story a fable … insisting that instead it had begun in 1845 with another father figure: Alexander Cartwright, a teammate of Doc Adams on the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club (KBBC). Both men had gone to their graves not knowing they had invented baseball.
While Doubleday gave Cooperstown an excuse to establish a fine museum in an economically challenged upstate village, Cartwright (unlike Doubleday) was awarded a plaque in the Hall of Fame that credits him as having “set bases 90 feet apart” and “established 9 innings as a game and 9 players as [a] team.” This is demonstrably false, as none of these aspects of the game were settled until 1857, some eight years after Cartwright had left New York for Hawaii, never to return east.
In 1868, Henry Chadwick, the only writer inducted into the Hall of Fame, wrote, “our present National game [is] a great step in advance of the game of base ball as played in 1840 and up to 1857.” Yes, 1857 was the year that baseball made its great leap forward, and these are the documents that reveal what it was like to be present at the creation of a national institution. Adams was the guiding force; William Henry Grenelle rendered his teammate’s draft into the presentation, in fine Spencerian script, that was placed before the convention. They were two of the three Knickerbocker Club delegates to the convention, which convened for its opening session on January 22, 1857.
The third Knick member was Louis Fenn Wadsworth, about whom so little was known for so long, but whose compelling story is the one that principally concerns us today. It was Wadsworth who stood up at the convention, which had just ratified the Knickerbocker club’s preference for a game of seven innings—an outcome that was reported in the press!—and turned the delegates around to his proposal of nine innings. That Wadsworth may have been responsible for a great deal more in baseball’s evolution—including the provision of a new diagram of the game, and becoming the game’s first professional player—will come in for discussion today, too. But it is his life story—with mysterious details that did not yield themselves to me until after more than twenty years of digging—that may be most interesting in the end. Only when I was able to place his missing pieces into the jigsaw puzzle of baseball’s origins story did I write the book that was published five years ago as Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game.
In the late eighteenth century, Berkshire County in Massachusetts, eastern Dutchess County in New York, and northern Litchfield County in Connecticut basically formed one community, with travel up and down the Housatonic valley, so these areas could be considered cohesively one. The border between New York and Massachusetts had long been a matter of contention, and was settled only in 1787, while the New York–Connecticut border dispute wore on until … 1857.
Ball play was rampant in this “Housatonic Triangle.” Pittsfield, in 1791, enacted a bylaw that barred “any game of wicket, cricket, baseball, batball, football, cats, fives, or any other game played with ball,” within 80 yards of a newly constructed meeting house. Of these, baseball appears to have been the dominant game in Massachusetts, and wicket the preferred game in Connecticut, though certainly both games were played in each state.
Enter Louis Fenn Wadsworth, born in either Amenia, New York—where an elder brother had died in infancy in 1823—or Litchfield, or Hartford, by various accounts, on or about May 6, 1825. His father was Amos Cowles Wadsworth, born in 1787 and buried in Litchfield in 1850, where he had descended into boarding-house poverty. Louis’s mother, Amanda Mann Wadsworth, had gone west to Michigan with Amos around 1845 and remained there, in Allegan County’s township of Owosso, with her other surviving son—Charles Waldstein Wadsworth, a year older than Louis—until her death in 1885.
The family resided in Litchfield when Louis left it in the fall of 1841 to begin his freshman year at Washington College in Hartford, long since renamed as Trinity. Louis’ early years proved a bit simpler to reconstruct than his later ones, but I get ahead of myself.
While Philadelphia, New York, and New England played their distinctive regional variants of baseball, in Connecticut an odd game called wicket or wicket ball reigned. It resembled what Britons thought of as “country cricket,” a game that by the 1750s had been utterly supplanted in England by the standardized modern game. Wicket had gone wherever Connecticut emigrants settled: to the Western Reserve of Ohio and Michigan, or with the Congregational missionaries to Hawaii.
Wicket was played along a seventy-five-foot alley of hard ground, rolled, skinned of grass, with the wicket bowler having to skip the ball along the ground, touching down at least once in his own thirty-seven-and-a-half-foot portion; it bears mentioning that this figure represented baseball’s 1857 pitching distance of forty-five feet reduced by one-sixth, which was its probable original distance and the one long after recommended for inexperienced players.
The bowler would skim the ball toward a low wicket some five feet in length but only inches off the ground. The batsman held a long curved club with an enormous gnarled bulb at its curved end. The bare wicket alley, unlike the manicured grassy pitch of cricket, survives in baseball as the mysterious strip of dirt between the pitcher’s mound and home plate that is sometimes evident today … in unwitting reference to a game perhaps older than baseball.
Little recalled or understood today, wicket was the diversion of choice for young Nutmeggers until nearly 1860. One of wicket’s hot spots was Hartford, on the campus of Washington College, where it may well have been played by Louis Fenn Wadsworth, Class of 1844.
No one credited Wadsworth as an innovator, let alone a possible Father of Baseball, until the winter of 1907, when the Mills Commission neared the end of its three-year mandate. Abraham G. Mills had received the Commission’s findings so late that he could not finish his review; he dictated a letter to his stenographer in the afternoon of December 30, 1907 in which he hurriedly stated his conclusions and anointed Doubleday as per his friend Spalding’s wishes. Still, he commented on an unsettled question:
“I am also much interested in the statement made by Mr. Curry, of the pioneer Knickerbocker club, and confirmed by Mr. Tassie, of the famous old Atlantic club of Brooklyn, that a diagram, showing the ball field laid out substantially as it is today, was brought to the field one day by a Mr. Wadsworth. Mr. Curry says ‘the plan caused a great deal of talk, but, finally, we agreed to try it.’” Duncan F. Curry had made the statement to reporter Will Rankin in 1877, and Rankin had written about it to Mills in 1905.
With that report the Commission’s work was done, and its conclusions were published in Spalding’s Official Guide for the 1908 season. No more was heard about Wadsworth until 1973, when Harold Peterson wrote a book about Alex Cartwright called The Man Who Invented Baseball. In it he observed: “Mr. Wadsworth, whose Christian name, occupation, residence, and pedigree remained secreted in Mills’s bosom, was never heard of before or until long after that fateful afternoon [meaning, in 1877, when Curry spoke with Rankin].”
Rankin wrote in The Sporting News in April 1908 that in 1886 he “had forgotten the name of the person mentioned by Mr. Curry, so I went to see Mr. Thomas Tassie, and when I related to him that which Mr. Curry had told me, he said, ‘That is true, and the name of the man was Mr. Wadsworth, a very brilliant after-dinner talker, the Chauncey M. Depew of that day. He held a very important position in the Custom House….’”
But Rankin told Mills that he had erred in recording Curry’s man as Wadsworth — upon reflection nearly thirty years later, he was sure that Curry had said Cartwright. Furthermore, he bullied the elderly Tassie into allowing that perhaps he too recalled Cartwright … though Cartwright had left New York in 1849, years before Tassie became involved in baseball.
In his final official function Mills concluded his commission’s report by writing:
“It is possible that a connection more or less direct can be traced between the diagram drawn by Doubleday in 1839 and that presented to the Knickerbocker club by Wadsworth in 1845, or thereabouts, and I wrote several days ago for certain data bearing on this point, but as it has not yet come to hand I have decided to delay no longer sending in the kind of paper your letter calls for, promising to furnish you the indicated data when I obtain it, whatever it may be. [He never was to learn anything further, of course, despite his documented attempts.]
Here are the last words of the Mills Commission report:
“My deductions from the testimony submitted are:
“First: That ‘Base Ball’ had its origin in the United States.
“Second: That the first scheme for playing it, according to the best evidence obtainable to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, N. Y., in 1839.
“Yours very truly,
“A. G. Mills [signed]”
The commission report thus anointing a single inventor was published on March 20, 1908. A. G. Mills’ imagined double-play tandem of Doubleday to Wadsworth did not pan out, but it was not long before writers would speculate about a similar handoff from Doubleday to Cartwright, with Wadsworth disappearing from the discussion. Wadsworth had left so cold a trail for the Mills Commission that his time on earth could not be recalled accurately nor could his current whereabouts, above ground or under it, be confirmed. Sixty-five years later, not even Cartwright’s biographer could pick up a clue, and conveyed that “Mr. Wadsworth” was a fanciful concoction.
By the 1980s, before the advent of digitized newspapers, this mysterious fellow had eluded me, too, as well as the several genealogical experts I had enlisted to find him. Even Wadsworth family histories and historians offered no clue. I knew Lou Wadsworth had played first base with the Gothams and the Knickerbockers from the early 1850s to 1862, had parlayed his Whig Party sentiments into patronage posts, and was generally recorded in the press as L. F. Wadsworth, but where did he live after that, when he disappeared from the New York City directories?
Slowly the details came into view. What cracked the ice was stumbling upon an obituary in the New York Times not findable with a search for “Wadsworth”; instead OCR (optical character recognition) had “filed” it under “Wacsvorth,” thus assuring that no one could find it by direct means. From the Times of March 28, 1908—eight days after the issuance of the Mills Commission report—under the heading “Once Rich, Dies a Pauper,” here is the obituary that no one in baseball ever saw:
“Plainfield, N.J., March 27.—Louis F. Wadsworth, once worth $300,000 [$8 million in today’s dollars] and a graduate of Trinity College, Hartford, Conn., died a pauper at the Plainfield Industrial Home to-day, a victim of drink. His father was a wealthy New England merchant. Wadsworth became identified with Tammany Hall and obtained a lucrative position in the New York Custom House. In 1873 he moved to Plainfield. He took to drink, and though he maintained his political position for many years his fortune dwindled away. In 1898 he was admitted to the Industrial Home after swearing that he was unable to support himself.”
This was the crowbar that rapidly opened onto all the rest, although details continue to emerge that round out his life. Just days before handing in my manuscript of Baseball in the Garden of Eden, for example, did I learn that he had applied unsuccessfully to West Point in 1845. And only in preparing this talk did I hit upon a document showing that he also registered for the Civil War draft in 1863, though he was not called to duty.
The story of his later years has continued to fill in, with additional if not crucial detail that had been unavailable to me for Eden. Let’s proceed to do a racehorse run through the life of Louis Fenn Wadsworth, baseball’s man of mystery.
After graduating with honors from Washington College in 1844 and applying to West Point, he lived in Michigan, where his father had obtained a land grant from President Martin Van Buren in 1838. By 1848 he had returned east to embark on a legal career on Wall Street (in those days—and perhaps ours!—a law degree was not a necessary predicate; one had only to pass the bar examination). In 1853 he was nominated by the Eighth Ward Democratic Whigs, for whom he was the recording secretary, to the patronage position of School Inspector. His daytime job was as, Thomas Tassie had declared, a naval office attorney in the Custom House.
A tempestuous character, Wadsworth commenced his ball playing days with the Gothams, a venerable club that actually predated the Knickerbockers, with whom he quickly achieved prominence as the top first baseman of his time. Then, on April 1, 1854, he switched his allegiance to the Knickerbockers … perhaps for “emoluments,” as recompense was euphemistically known then; his skilled play would increase the Knickerbockers’ chances of victory. It is these circumstances that incline me to believe that Wadsworth may thus be termed baseball’s first professional player. Within a few years the practice of switching clubs in season, or “revolving,” became sufficiently pervasive for it be banned in Doc Adams’s new rules ratified at the 1857 convention.
One of the veteran Knicks, in recalling some of the old players for the New York Sun in 1887, said: “I had almost forgotten the most important man on the team and that is Lew Wadsworth. He was the life of the club. Part of his club suit consisted of a white shirt on the back of which was stamped a black devil. It makes me laugh still when I recall how he used to go after a ball. His hands were very large and when he went for a ball they looked like the tongs of an oyster rake. He got there all the same and but few balls passed him.”
In his time with the Knicks, Wadsworth found his notions thwarted on at least two occasions, resigning each time before reconsidering and permitting the restoration of his name to the membership rolls. But things came to a head in 1856.
Along with Doc Adams and other progressives, Wadsworth backed a motion in a Knickerbocker meeting to permit non-Knickerbockers to join in with Knicks in their intrasquad games at the Elysian Fields if fewer than 18 Knicks were present. Nine men to the side had been the standard for match play to this point, and Wadsworth and his allies thought it more important to preserve the quality of play than to exclude those who were not club members. Duncan Curry counter-moved that if 14 Knickerbockers were available, the game should admit no outsiders and be played shorthanded (at least by match standards).
The Curry forces, referenced in the Knickerbocker minutes as the “Old Fogies,” prevailed, 13-11. Just as Chadwick would later match the innings in his proposed ten-man model to the number of men on the field, the Knicks were now resolved to recommend a seven-inning game to replace the old custom of playing to 21 runs, which had recently produced a highly unsatisfactory 12-12 tie game, called on account of darkness.
This proved to be one of the most heated and divisive votes in club history, so at this point member William Ladd suggested that a committee be formed to cooperate with other clubs to decide upon the proper number of players for a match, with its concomitant effect on the number of innings if the 21-run rule were to be scrapped. This motion carried unanimously, and the committee appointed was Curry and Ladd; Ladd declined, and Adams took his place, thus placing one seven-inning advocate alongside a nine-inning advocate, as the Knicks pointed toward their next meeting, at Smith’s Hotel on 462 Broome Street, December 6, 1856, for the purpose of considering a convention of all the clubs.
The hotheaded Wadsworth had offered his resignation to the Knicks on July 31, 1856, then withdrew his resignation on August 26. Curry resigned on December 6, the very day of the meeting at Smith’s, testifying to how heated the discussions had become. The Knicks proceeded to establish a three-man commission to enlist the attendance of other clubs at a convention for the purpose of standardizing the rules. The three were Wadsworth, Adams, and Grenelle … which brings us back to the documents auctioned yesterday.
In the aftermath of the convention’s adoption of seven innings, on motion of Mr. Wadsworth, the aggregation reconsidered Section 26 and modified the Knicks’ proposal of seven innings to nine. Clearly, in enlisting the support of other teams, Wadsworth was following his own lead—and the expressed preference of the Adams contingent against the Curry forces—rather than that of the Knickerbocker majority.
Wadsworth’s victory was Pyrrhic as far as his own future as in the club. Made to feel uncomfortable, the Knicks’ “ringer” failed to appear for a game on June 8, 1857 against the Eagles, though he had been named to play. Six days later he resigned for the final time, and by the following month he was again manning first base with his accustomed panache for his former club, the Gothams.
In 1859 Louis F. Wadsworth married Maria Isabel Meschutt Fisher, a wealthy widow nine years his elder with two children from her first marriage. As a Meschutt, she had been born into a family of restaurateurs and café proprietors in New York and New Jersey that dated back to 1777, with Meschutt’s Metropolitan Coffee House in operation at 433 Broadway. (James Meschutt invented the doughnut.) After a brief residence in Michigan and a return to New York, the Wadsworth family (stepson Charles kept his Fisher name; stepdaughter Marianne, who had been adopted, became a Wadsworth) settled in Rockaway, New Jersey in 1863. By 1872 or so, the family had resettled in Plainfield, New Jersey, where Louis became a justice of the peace and then a judge. After his wife’s death in 1883, drink and poor management of his assets left him a pauper—only recently have I learned that his wife’s will left most of her fortune to her sister, Susan Meschutt Sparks. After some years of selling Sunday newspapers on the streets of Plainfield as his sole source of income, in 1898 he committed himself to the poorhouse.
There, according to his obituary in the Hartford Daily Times, belatedly published on April 4, 1908, though he had died on March 27:
“He became sadly dissipated, and it was not long before he was reduced to absolute want. In 1898, the [Plainfield Industrial Home] was the only haven, and for ten years he has spent most of his time reading. A veritable book worm, day after day, he would sit reading. The bent old man, on his trips between the home and public library, was a familiar sight. Always carrying books, and with few words for those he met, he went back and forth. In the summer he was particularly interested in following the scores of the ball games of the big leagues, and of late years the game was the one great object of interest to him.
“His associates came to forget him. Politicians who had sat in state conventions where he presided and where his exercise of parliamentary rules was able and astute lost him out of sight. Society, that had insisted on calling him Judge Wadsworth, passed by on the other side. For the last eight months he had slowly failed, through infirmities of old age. Until his mental capacity was obscured he rarely if ever mentioned his birthplace or Alma Mater, but in his decay he would speak of Hartford, and of old times “’Neath the Elms.” He had no family of his own, and it is hardly likely that any of his brothers and sisters can be located. He rarely mentioned them and as no letters ever came to him, the attendants at the home surmised that he preferred not to let them know where he was.”
But someone knew where he was, for only three days after his death his body was interred at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, in a family plot along with James Meschutt; Susan Meschutt; Phillip Meschutt; William Sparks and his wife Susan Meschutt Sparks; Maria Isabel Meschutt Jackson Wadsworth; and Sophia Lines.
While Abraham G. Mills was searching for the baffling “Mr. Wadsworth,” his possible trump card to Doubleday, no one connected Louis F. Wadsworth, long-term inmate of the Plainfield Industrial Home, with baseball’s invention. With the death of all the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club members from their first decade of play—unbeknownst to the baseball world, Wadsworth was the last to go—no one was left to gainsay the declaration by Bruce Cartwright in 1909 that his father had been the one to invent baseball. Journalists who should have known better rallied around this alternative theory in reaction to what they saw as the absurdity of the claim on behalf of Doubleday.
In three weeks I will be at Green-Wood Cemetery for the dedication of a grave marker for James Whyte Davis—a member of Curry’s “Old Fogy” contingent that backed the seven-man and seven-inning plan—who was buried there in pauperdom in 1899 (see: http://goo.gl/j4k6qp). I will also visit the gravesite of Louis Fenn Wadsworth. As I did twenty years ago when I made the pilgrimage to Green-Wood to visit the graves of Henry Chadwick and 1860s star pitcher James Creighton, I will leave a baseball for him, with a message.