Frank Merriwell, the “All-American Boy” of the dime novels, was not modeled on Christy Mathewson, although many believe this is the case (Merriwell was a national sensation in 1896, when Matty was still in high school). On the contrary, the future star twirler of the New York Giants, he of the disdainful glance at the opposing batsman before tossing up his inscrutable fadeaway, might well have modeled himself on Merriwell.
No matter–chicken or egg, Matty was the real-life embodiment of all the dime-novel improbabilities. He had indefatigable verve, nerve, pluck … even, for a while, luck. An early nickname for him was “Big Six,” conferring upon him the combination of power and reliability of New York’s most famous fire engine, the Americus No. 6, a double-deck steamer that was a true New York Giant, tipping the scale at over two tons. (Forget that stuff you often read about Matty being named “Big Six” on account of his six-foot height.) In an era when most ballplayers were rough-and-tumble characters from the wrong side of the tracks who believed that fists were the best way to settle any dispute, Mathewson stood out as “the Christian Gentleman.” Tall, blond, aristocratic in looks and bearing, and college-educated, he earned a reputation for fairness and honesty that made him one of the game’s first role models for boys of whom middle-class parents could approve. This was no King Kelly or Rube Waddell, no flouter of convention and target of the law, no saloon crawler or base-path brawler.
He was “no goody-goody,” his wife Jane hastened to add whenever someone would expound upon his virtues, and that was probably true, but his press clippings declared him a paragon of virtue. He was known to cuss a bit, liked to gamble mostly on checkers, at which he was a whiz, and poker, at which he was not, and there are a few recorded instances of his being involved in a scuffle. Some folks found him standoffish, even aloof, and accused him of having “a swelled head.” But his teammates, his manager, and even those most skeptical of creatures, the writers who traveled with the team, simply adored “the Christian Gentleman.” Like Kelly and Waddell, who had courted death through drink, Matty died not long after his playing days were over, though in his case from the lingering effects of poison gas inhaled during a wartime training exercise.
Mathewson began his professional career with Taunton of the New England League, in the summer after his sophomore year at Bucknell College, where he drew All-America attention as a fullback and drop kicker. During the following season, 1900, he went 20-2 for Norfolk in the Virginia League and in midseason was purchased conditionally by the Giants, who were unimpressed by his pitching and tried to convert him to first base. After the season, they returned him to Norfolk, whence he was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds. (Isn’t it amazing how a talent of this magnitude can escape the gaze of professional baseball people? It gives hope to every struggling rookie at every level of play.)
Fortunately for the Giants, Cincinnati proved to be no smarter than they had been. The Reds allowed themselves to be hoodwinked into an exchange of worn-out superstar Amos Rusie, whose career total of 246 major-league wins were all behind him, for Mathewson, whose 373 wins were all ahead.
These photographs recall Mathewson and his peculiar blend of piety and perspicacity. Action photos of him were bound into a flip book in 1907 by the Winston Film Company (“See Christy Mathewson Pitch!”) and issued commercially. The ingenious Matty used them to augment his own pitches to prospective clients for his off-season insurance business. Now that’s a calling card!
He was never without his Bible and his checkers. When traveling with the team, he would typically go to the local YMCA to play checkers in the evening, sometimes against a gaggle of opponents, whom he would play simultaneously, moving around the room from board to board. He was a Christian in upbringing and demeanor, but unlike Branch Rickey and other devout youths who had made promises to their mothers before embarking upon careers in professional baseball, he was not above playing exhibition baseball games on Sundays (baseball was not permitted on the Sabbath in New York until 1919). He was one of the guys, and he liked his extra money just as the other Giants did.
As a pitcher he was at his best when the going was tough; his three shutouts in the 1905 World Series have never been equaled. His ghosted autobiography, Pitching in a Pinch, explained how he would take it easy unless the situation was tight, i.e., “the pinch.” (Of course, that strategy was fine for the deadball era when weak batters were unlikely to drive the ball for an extra-base hit; today the six-inning “quality start” followed by two or three relievers is the preferred modus operandi.)
Interestingly, the great Mathewson took some of the toughest losses in history. In 1908 he would have been the winning pitcher on September 23, when Fred Merkle failed to touch second and turned a Giant victory into a tie game. When that tie forced a one-game playoff for the pennant, he lost to “Three-Finger” Brown. In the 1912 World Series he lost the final game in the last of the tenth inning when Fred Snodgrass muffed a fly ball and Merkle and the catcher, Chief Meyers, couldn’t agree on who should catch Tris Speaker’s foul pop.
The first of his ghostwritten books was Won in the Ninth. Ring Lardner declared that it ruined the literary tastes of an entire generation, but its readers certainly loved baseball all the more for sharing Mathewson’s thrilling adventures and imagining themselves in his shoes. This 1910 book was the first of a series to be known as the “Matty books”; later exemplars of Matty’s stilted prose are First Base Faulkner, Second Base Sloan, Catcher Craig, and Pitcher Pollock. Subtlety was lost on boys avid for detail and for echoes of the big leagues, so the ballplayers in Won in the Ninth included such barely camouflaged characters as awkward-looking shortstop Hans Hagner, slick-fielding double-play specialist Johnny Everson, and nimble first sacker Hal Case. Newspaperman John Wheeler, who covered the Giants on a daily basis, was Matty’s ghost for the series.
An old friend who happens to be a Dodger fan–US District Judge Andrew Guilford–wrote to me this afternoon about last night’s no-hitter by L.A.’s Clayton Kershaw. “I’ve always been troubled when a pitcher loses a perfect game through an error by his teammate,” he wrote. “Decades ago, I checked it out, and I may be wrong, but I think it happens infrequently. It happened last night to Kershaw, who belongs with Koufax in the rarefied conversation of Dodger perfect games, yet will not be there through no fault of his own. We need a catchy phrase for a ‘no hit, no walk, no HBP, no E-1’ game and I have an idea. In a game now being flooded with all kinds of new sabermetric words we need to introduce this phrase: ‘A PITCHER’S perfect game.’
“I wonder,” Andy continued, “if anyone else has flown the flag I’m now flying (or tilted at this windmill), and whether there is any chance of adding a ‘pitcher’s perfect game’ to WAR, WHIP, OPS, DICE, DIPS, RISP, PECOTA, etc. Heck, I might even settle for ‘PPG’!”
This subject had interested me way back in 1987 when John Holway and I collaborated on a long out of print book called The Pitcher. Not even I possess a copy, but recalling that Dick Bosman lost a perfect game by committing an error HIMSELF (the E-1 which my friend would have exempted from his proposed PPG), I was able to wind my thoughts back to an article in SABR’s Baseball Research Journal of 1991, by William Ruiz, “Near-Perfect Games.” He identified five no-hitters in which the only man to reach base did so on an error.
July 1, 1920: Walter Johnson
Only baserunner came on Bucky Harris’ error leading off the seventh.
September 3, 1947: Bill McCahan
Only baserunner came on Ferris Fain’s error with one out in the second. After fielding a grounder, Fain tossed wildly to McCahan, who was covering first on the play.
July 19, 1974: Dick Bosman
Bosman’s own error in the fourth allowed Oakland’s only baserunner. Attempting a comeback after a sore-armed 3–13 record, Cleveland’s Bosman threw wildly to first after Sal Bando hit a chopper back to the box.
June 27, 1980: Jerry Reuss
Only baserunner came on Bill Russell’s throwing error with two outs in the first frame. Russell’s throw from deep in the hole on another play smothered a possible hit.
August 15, 1990: Terry Mulholland
Only baserunner came on third baseman Charlie Hayes’s error leading off the seventh. Hayes would later make a spectacular catch to end the game. Mulholland faced the minimum 27 batters.
Author Ruiz missed this earlier no-hitter in which the only two baserunners had reached on errors:
June 13, 1905: Christy Mathewson
Only baserunners came on errors by Bill Dahlen and Billy Gilbert. Three Finger Brown allowed only two hits through eight scoreless innings.
No longer counted as a no-hitter, Harvey Haddix’s perfect game of May 26, 1959 was broken up by third baseman Don Hoak’s error in the thirteenth (!) inning. Felix Mantilla advanced to second base on Eddie Mathews’ sacrifice. Then followed an intentional walk to Hank Aaron, and a ball hit over the fence by Joe Adcock that at first seemed a three-run homer. But Aaron slowed after passing second base and seeing the ball fly out into the night; Adcock passed him and was ruled out after being credited with a double. Final score, 1–0.
Pedro Martinez had a perfect game through nine innings on June 3, 1995 but like Haddix lost both his perfect game and his no-hitter in an extra frame, though he did win the game.
Have there been others to lose perfect games on errors before Kershaw? Remember, Ruiz’s article was published in 1991. Yes indeed, and this one was memorable because its mound artist was 2–8 on the season with a 5.30 ERA and had been demoted to the bullpen.
July 10, 2009: Jonathan Sánchez
Only baserunner came on Juan Uribe’s error with one out in the eighth.
And of course, there is last night:
June 18, 2014: Clay Kershaw
The Rockies’ only baserunner came on a Hanley Ramirez throwing error in the seventh. Kershaw became the first to throw a no-hitter with 15 strikeouts and no walks.
Ten men lost perfection by allowing a hit to the 27th batter–a pinch hitter prior to the introduction of the designated hitter in the American League in 1973 (thanks to Stew Thornley for help with the list):
August 5,1932: Tommy Bridges
June 27, 1958: Billy Pierce
April 15, 1983: Milt Wilcox
May 2, 1988: Ron Robinson
August 4, 1989: Dave Stieb
April 20, 1990: Brian Holman
September 2, 2001: Mike Mussina
June 2, 2010: Armando Galarraga
April 2, 2013: Yu Darvish
September 6, 2013: Yusmeiro Petit
One man lost a perfect game when the final batter, the opposing pitcher, was permitted to bat:
July 4, 1908: Hooks Wiltse (hit the Phils’ George McQuillan with a two-strike pitch)
Another man lost a perfect game by walking the final batter, pinch hitter Larry Stahl:
September 2, 1972: Milt Pappas (with a 1–2 count, umpire Bruce Froemming called the next three pitches balls—two of them were on the corners—to deny immortality to Milt)
Perfect games are quirky; ask Armando Gallaraga. As they are figured now they are defensive accomplishments of the entire team—although most importantly the pitcher. Pitcher Perfect Games like Kershaw’s—PPGs, as my friend Andy has labeled them— are certainly rare. Do they merit their own separate category?
When I learned about Tony Gwynn’s death this morning, from Barry Bloom via Facebook, I was strangely shaken. I knew Tony by his accomplishments, as millions of fans did, but I did not know him personally. We may have been in the same hotel lobby on occasion but I can’t say that we ever exchanged a word.
“Hail and farewell, Tony Gwynn,” I tweeted after quickly rejecting “ave atque vale,” which is the same thing but a bit showy. As a flood of comments followed mine, I found myself increasingly morose. Why? Tony Gwynn was not kin, even if it is universally agreed that he was a truly good guy of admirable character.
Slowly the answer came to me. I have been watching baseball long enough that I can recall the whole of Tony’s ball days. He was a part of my extended family, as he and I and my sons grew up in baseball and grew older, all of us apart yet together. We recall Tony not as one of the boys of summer in their ruin, as Dylan Thomas had it, but as a young friend of our summers together. We spent time with him, marked time with him, and today stopped time with him.
More than distant relatives, he and his playmates pulled up a chair at the table when the family gathered for meals. We talked about them when we weren’t watching them. As the best hitter in the National League year after year, Tony often sat at the head of the table.
Now the scrapbook is closed. We will add no new snapshots of him to our family album, but we still have plenty at hand—flip to any page. I have my family and you have yours, but we share a family, all of us who care deeply about the game. We are the family of baseball.
Reflecting upon the complete last line of Catullus’s elegy for his brother, it fits the way I am feeling now, and I’m guessing it fits you too.
“And forever, brother, hail and farewell” (atque in perpetuum frater ave atque vale).
Just to the left of the entrance to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is a scoreboard, a basic list of the scores from the major-league games of the day before. The symbolic point is clear: once the game is over, it is history, and it belongs to Cooperstown.
For a first-time visitor, the walk down Main Street to the Museum is impossible to perform slowly; the undertow of the building is too hard to resist. But Main Street, Cooperstown, provides a complimentary experience of baseball in America, a living museum that provokes thought and wonder of a different sort. Along with the coffee shops and drugstores is a souvenir extravaganza, from trinkets and cards costing less than a dollar to autographed rarities that could be in the Museum itself. The tradition is long: curio sellers lined the path of the Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land; peddlers’ shacks were a blight at Niagara Falls by the 1840s. In Cooperstown, however, the row of shops is pleasing: thanks to the foresight of the village fathers, even stores selling plastic coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, and “authentic replicas” must hawk their dubious wares from reasonably attractive venues. A jewel like the Hall of Fame must have a proper setting.
Step inside the Museum, your heart racing, then pause to catch your breath and find your bearings. Relax—there is no wrong turn. The story of baseball may be approached from the beginning, or from the end, or from any of the thousands of entry points between. If you go straight ahead, you find yourself in the Hall of Fame Gallery, with its silent array of plaques. Do you like to save the best for last? I suggest that you go around the bases, then return here, to baseball’s real-life home plate.
Baseball is at the core of our national life, and the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is the game’s national shrine, the repository of its heritage. Dedicated souls make the pilgrimage to Cooperstown, New York, a picturesque village of 1,852 inhabitants that is served by no airport, no passenger train, no major highway. They don’t get here by finding it on the way to there.
If baseball is played everywhere today, and bat-and-ball games have been played everywhere for centuries, why do visitors come to Cooperstown with such a sense of reverence, even a belief that baseball started here? There are several answers rather than one, and they tell a wonderfully American tale, equal parts history and myth, which begins with Abner Doubleday and ends with him. Along the way his legend was created, enlarged, punctured, and in the end enriched. He is not baseball’s inventor, but has become, oddly, its Father Christmas, offering bounteous gifts with a wink and a nod.
While the precise origins of the game we call baseball can be debated (and David Block I have done so, in our books and articles) we can state with certainty that it did not spring full-blown from the fertile mind of Abner Doubleday, or anyone else, in Cooperstown, or anyplace else. But the selection of the remote hamlet of Cooperstown, New York, was based on just such a notion: that anything as glorious as baseball must have begun in one place, at one particular time, and must have been the brainstorm of some ingenious American lad. Given these premises, a creation myth was inevitable; all that remained was to determine its particulars. To the question, “How did baseball come to be,” evolution seemed an unsatisfactory answer—messy, purposeless, and undramatic. It is at this point that the interests of Albert Goodwill Spalding and the good people of Cooperstown intersect.
Before 1939, Cooperstown was a typical American village, although one blessed by a spectacular setting. At one end of the town the glorious Lake Otsego, the shimmering body of water that James Fenimore Cooper (for whose father the village was named) called “Glimmerglass” in his Leatherstocking Tales. All around the nine-mile lake were softly rolling hills and a democratic mixture of stately homes and sportsmen’s cabins. The Susquehanna River has its origin here, at the south end of Lake Otsego, flowing from its height of 1,200 feet above sea level all the way through Pennsylvania and into the Chesapeake Bay. And here is the spot known as Council Rock, where the Iroquois nations met. And there is the spot known as Phinney’s Pasture, where baseball is said to have begun.
In the late 1880s, when Albert Spalding’s World Tourists—two teams of major-league players—attempted to spread the gospel of baseball to heathen lands, there was a widespread, good-willed debate about the origins of baseball among such prominent figures as John Montgomery Ward, Henry Chadwick, and Spalding. Chadwick, sports journalist, hopeless egotist, inveterate rule tinkerer, and relentless proselytizer, had played rounders in England before coming to these shores. Ever since he commenced to write about baseball in 1856, he had always ascribed the origins of his adopted game to rounders. In the 1904 edition of The Spalding Guide, for which he had long been the editor, Chadwick once again made the case for baseball’s debt to the British game.
Spalding had heard Chadwick’s argument a hundred times before and had always been content to disagree, politely. But this time he either lost his patience, or saw his opening, or—as Chadwick believed—was merely having some fun at his old friend’s expense. Rhetorically, Spalding took the position Ward had previously articulated: that something so typically American in every way could not have been of exotic origin. Those of a skeptical bent might add that Spalding’s motivation for stirring the pot had more to do with commerce than sport, or history, or even patriotism. Through the promotion attendant to the “Great Debate,” Spalding’s company might be counted on to sell additional balls and bats.
Spalding published his rebuttal to Chadwick in the 1905 Guide, but he still wasn’t satisfied. He encouraged the presidents of the two leagues, Harry Pulliam and Ban Johnson, to form a commission to settle the issue for once and for all. In the end the organizing task fell to Abrahm G. Mills, an dold sidekick of Spalding’s from the dawn of the National League in 1876. The appointed members of Mills Commission, also veteran cronies, set out to find an unknown genius because he simply had to exist, like the source of the Nile. It was not surprising that they found their man.
The critical piece of evidence in the eyes of the commission was a letter from Abner Graves, a mining engineer living in Denver, Colorado. In the letter Graves said he remembered with unusual clarity an incident related to the discovery of baseball. One summer day in Cooperstown, in 1839 or so (Graves at first was uncertain as to the year), a group of boys had gathered for a day’s play of town ball, in which the Cooperstown lads typically ran headlong into one another, injuring themselves in their enthusiasm. But on this day young Abner Doubleday drew a diagram of a baseball diamond in the dirt at Elihu Phinney’s cow pasture, and from that point on the boys began to play this new, organized game. To Spalding this was glorious stuff—the game for all America invented by a great general of the Civil War … and as has recently been revealed, an ardent Theosophist, as was Spalding’s second wife. Doubleday was long dead, so no one could ask him whether Graves was telling the truth or not, but Robert Doubleday, Abner’s nephew, claimed his uncle told him at length the story of how he invented baseball.
The commission asked Graves a few more questions, and its members were satisfied. They filed their report on the final day of 1907, fulfilling their three-year mandate. It was official: baseball came from America, and nowhere else; Abner Doubleday made it happen, in a spark of boyhood genius reminiscent of the already legendary though still quite alive Tom Edison. The league presidents accepted the commission’s findings in 1908. Chadwick was denied his chance at rebuttal, for he caught cold on Opening Day in Brooklyn and died before the month was out. The issue was settled … sort of.
The official pronouncement, however, was what America, and Al Spalding, were ready to hear. The next step was the one that sparked the establishment of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. In Ilion, New York, in the winter of 1917, five men sat around a hot stove at Michael Fogerty’s cigar store and agreed that there should be a monument to Doubleday in Cooperstown to honor his “creation.” Besides Fogerty, the men were Hardy Richardson, who had a fourteen-year career in the majors in the nineteenth century, baseball enthusiasts George Oliver and Patrick Fitzpatrick, and former ballplayer and boys’ coach George “Deke” White. (Deke White pitched in three games for the 1895 Phillies and was not Jim “Deacon” White, a Hall of Fame inductee in 2013.) They each pitched in the munificent sum of twenty-five cents and started the Doubleday Memorial Fund. But what they did next was more important. They enlisted the efforts of Sam Crane, former major-league second baseman and then sportswriter for the New York Journal. Crane promoted the idea.
Next the citizens of Cooperstown got into the act. Dr. Ernest L. Pitcher (perfect name) was a local dentist who headed up the fund drive to buy Phinney’s field and make it a baseball park. The folks of Cooperstown chipped in $3,772 and did just that. It took some further legal wrangling over the next few years and some help from outside sources to close the deal. Ground was broken on June 2, 1919, and the first game was played there September 6, 1920, with National League president John Heydler in attendance. Before the decade was done, people who wanted to see where baseball was born began to make trips to the hamlet on the lake.
The people of Cooperstown saw they had a good thing going. They approached Major League Baseball for its support of a celebration in 1939 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Doubleday’s invention. The response from the leagues was encouraging, and the locals set to work. In a merger of national and local interests, federal funds from the Works Progress Administration were combined with Village of Cooperstown funds to expand Doubleday Field, add stands, and make it the gem that it is today. What other village of 1,852 inhabitants has a ball field that seats 10,000?
The concept of a baseball museum to go along with the field was the brainchild of Stephen C. Clark, Sr., whose grandfather, attorney Edward Clark, had represented inventor Isaac M. Singer in a patent-infringement suit. The elder Clark’s association with Singer grew through the years, as they formed a partnership and Clark became the business head of I.M. Singer & Company. With the success of the Singer sewing machine and the thoughtful leadership of Clark, the company prospered, as did the fortunes of both men. Prior to the Civil War, Edward Clark began to spend summers at his wife’s birthplace, Cooperstown. Over the next three generations the Clark family’s wealth grew, and with it grew their love for the Village of Cooperstown. By the 1930s their philanthropy was evident throughout the village. They had funded numerous construction projects, including a hospital and a community gymnasium.
In 1935 Stephen C. Clark, Sr., was the vice president of the Otsego County Historical Society. The story goes that in that year a farmer in nearby Fly Creek discovered an old trunk in his attic that had belonged to the Mills Commission’s star witness, Abner Graves. Graves had left New York in 1848 at the age of fourteen to find his fortune in the Gold Rush. In this trunk were the possessions he had left behind, including a homemade baseball, battered and beaten, the cover torn open. This was indeed a baseball of great antiquity, hand sewn and of a small diameter like the few others that survive from the town-ball era. Mr. Clark purchased the ball for five dollars and displayed it in the historical society’s exhibition room, where it came to be called the Doubleday Ball (although there is no indication that Doubleday ever used it).
In May of the previous year, one of Clark’s New York City employees, Alexander Cleland, a man with a keen promotional sense, had given him the idea of a national baseball museum sited at Doubleday Field. The concept was incorporated as the National Baseball Museum, Inc., a not-for-profit educational institution, in September 1936. The five-member board of directors contained names familiar to all Cooperstown residents: Clark employee Waldo C. Johnston, Mayor Rowan D. Spraker, newspaper editor Walter L. Littell, writer James Fenimore Cooper (grandson of the novelist), and Stephen C. Clark. Cleland was retained as the organization’s executive secretary and point man.
To the Doubleday Ball Clark added his own collection of baseballs and two of the game’s most famous pieces of early art—a lithograph of Union prisoners playing ball at Salisbury, North Carolina, during the Civil War and the 1866 Currier & Ives print of a championship game at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey. National League President Ford Frick donated the 1889 championship trophy of the New York Giants.
The idea for a baseball hall of fame to salute the game’s immortals was Frick’s. It wasn’t brand new: in 1901 New York University had opened a Hall of Fame for Great Americans, though it didn’t include any sports figures. He suggested the concept of a baseball hall, and everyone loved it.
Many donations came in. One man gave a collection of old Spalding Baseball Guides. Clark Griffith, pitcher with the Chicago White Stockings and subsequently owner of the Washington Senators, presented Cooperstown with his collection of photographs, and Christy Mathewson’s wife donated the pitcher’s glove. (The museum’s collection was thus built by the generosity of a nation of fans, players, and executives who wanted to “make it to the Hall of Fame.” This method endures as the sole path to acquisitions; while millions have been spent to display and preserve the collections, the museum has spent not a penny to acquire them.)
But how to select those who deserved enshrinement in the Hall? After trying out the idea of somehow having the fans choose, Cleland decided instead to have the Base Ball Writers Association of America make the determinations. The controversy over who goes in and who stays out began with the first voting procedure. There were two categories of players—those who played in the nineteenth century and those who played from 1900 to 1935. The plan was to elect ten men from the list of thirty-three nominees from the “modern” era, and five were to be selected from twenty-six nominees of the nineteenth century by a special panel. Instantly, the press began to bicker about the choices, so the list of nominees was dumped. All that was required to be elected, the new rules held, was for the player to receive votes on 75 percent of the ballots cast.
When the votes were tabulated, more howls went up. Only five modern players had received enough votes, and none of the old-timers did. Cy Young received votes in both categories, but not enough in either. The first Hall of Fame plaques—for Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner, and Christy Mathewson—were displayed in December 1937. Although not without squabbles, the voters seemed to straighten things out by the formal opening of the Hall on June 12, 1939, when twenty-five greats of the game were inducted.
As the Doubleday myth unraveled over the years, much like the stitching on the Doubleday Ball, Hall of Fame officials felt concerned, as if the Alexander Cartwright advocates had been trying to move the Hall to Hoboken, or the town fathers of Pittsfield, Massachusetts were trying to steal their thunder. But calm and reason prevailed, and after some agonizing about the unseemly implication that the Hall of Fame was tossing old Abner overboard, in the 1980s Hall executives settled upon this elegant official position:
Whatever may or may not be proved in the future concerning Baseball’s true origin is in many respects irrelevant at this time. If baseball was not actually first played here in Cooperstown by Doubleday in 1839, it undoubtedly originated about that time in a similar rural atmosphere. The Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown to stay; and at the very least, the village is certainly an acceptable symbolic site.
But that’s severely understating the case. If baseball was not in fact invented in Cooperstown, it ought to have been. And by now the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum of Cooperstown, New York, is not merely a monument that commemorates a historical event, real or fanciful—it has a seventy-five-year history of its own, in its own time, in its own place.
Even though Cooperstown was not truly the home base of baseball in 1939, it has been ever since. Like Mount Olympus, it is where the legends live.
This essay is adapted from one I wrote for Treasures of the Baseball Hall of Fame some years ago.
This is a guest column by Noah Liberman, author of the fine book Glove Affairs: The Romance, History and Tradition of the Baseball Glove. I am always pleased to share this space with my expert friends, but especially so when they have cornered the market on a subject about which I am largely ignorant. Images courtesy of Rawlings Sporting Goods and Wilson Sporting Goods. Enjoy!
“I had my picture taken with Home Run Baker. He came to the ballpark in the fifties and I saw the glove he used. I don’t know how the hell they caught anything with those gloves, honest to God. The fingers were separated, no lacing there, unbelievable. I said, ‘Mr. Baker, how’d you ever catch it with that glove?’” —Brooks Robinson.
A few days ago, I wondered to John Thorn why the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) has no Equipment Committee. Isn’t this odd considering the important roles of the ball, bat, glove and spikes? For example, the glove, first used in a major league game in 1870, allowed infielders to be defter and more aggressive. It encouraged pitchers to throw overhand (because now catchers wouldn’t squawk). It brought about the infield fly rule (because you could now expect a catch). And it contributed to the introduction of the lively ball, in 1910, because fielding averages were at record highs and, frankly, the batters needed a break.
But as radical as the glove was, it was also stunningly slow to evolve. The reasons are fascinating in themselves and illuminate the essential nature of our game – which is precisely why equipment deserves its own SABR committee.
So let’s look at the charmingly, astonishingly slow evolution of the baseball glove.
In 1919, a Curtiss NC-4 became the first plane to cross the Atlantic, and a year later, Rawlings stood the baseball world on its ear with the introduction of this glove, believe it or not, the Bill Doak model.
When Charles Lindbergh made the first solo Atlantic crossing, in 1927, the Doak was still state-of-the-art. The same was true in 1932, when the tiny, stylish Gee Bee R-1 stunt plane hit 252 miles per hour. Are you getting the feeling that baseball gloves evolved very, very slowly?
The Doak was no longer cutting edge (though it was still in the Rawlings catalog) in 1943, when the Bell XP-59-A, America’s first jet plane, went 409 miles per hour. The glove of gloves that year was the Rawlings Red Rolfe “rolled-lace” model, the same kind Al Gionfriddo used in the 1947 World Series to keep a Joe DiMaggio drive from going over the wall in Game 6.
Take a look at it and note all the features that appear to make it hard to catch the ball. There’s the thick, round, stiff thumb and the thick, round, stubby pinkie. There’s the heavy padding at the heel. There’s no hinge. There’s a small pocket, the result of so much padding and no hinge. There are no laces between the fingers. So in 1943, 40 years after Wilbur Wright’s flight, American pilots were flying jets and American baseball professionals were still catching balls with overstuffed pillows.
You did your best to catch the ball in the palm then. “Two hands, son!” The rolled-lace web would snare the ball too, but it didn’t allow for the quickest return throw. And you didn’t get much help from the free-floating fingers if you misplayed a ball against them. This was not optimal design. And much of this was still very true in 1953, when the Stan Musial Personal Model was the top of the Rawlings line.
But finally, in 1957, almost 90 years after Doug Allison donned a glove for the first time in a professional game, the Wilson Sporting Goods Company introduced a glove with no significant flaws, the A2000.
The march toward the A2000 was so slow, it’s downright stunning. Why did it take so long? American technology had taken quantum leaps in the previous century and, besides, the A2000 didn’t require a lot more manufacturing skill than the Bill Doak model had in 1920.
Analyze the A2000 itself and you begin to get an answer: The A2000 doesn’t look like the human hand. It took almost 90 years for ballplayers and glovemakers to shake off the belief – or was it just unquestioned instinct? – that the glove must look like the hand, like any glove does.
The A2000’s padding is streamlined, and the fingers, thumb and heel are flat and thin. How different from a hand, with its fleshy heel and round fingers! The A2000’s thumb reaches nearly as high as the fingers do, it’s set into the glove at a low point, and it’s set quite forward from the palm and web (which was the Doak’s masterstroke, in a tentative way). Your hand isn’t much like this at all – until you close it around a ball.
The A2000 has a fully expressed hinge. Your hand has no such thing: it doesn’t need it, because the thumb and fingers move effectively on their own. But a baseball glove must have one, to allow the hand itself to do its work. The A2000 has a large web, larger than any before it. And it has laces connecting the fingers, a feature patented in the twenties but – no surprise here – not widespread for 20 more years. And the glove is oriented on an axis that runs diagonally at 40 degrees or so – not due north. Your hand does the same, when you close it around something.
But when you hold your hand wide open, your eye runs straight up through your middle finger; and if you look back through these illustrations, you see that in the early days, gloves were oriented this way, too. In most respects, they were like a hand held wide open. The evolution of the glove is, in large part, the slow realization that a glove must reflect how a hand moves to catch a ball, not how it looks when you stare at it.
Finger laces exemplify this necessity. Today we can’t conceive of a glove without them. The Ken-Wel Company’s fine Dazzy Vance model offered finger laces in the thirties, but most players rejected the idea because they felt they needed individually articulated fingers to grab the ball – as if they were still catching barehanded. And maybe they did need free fingers, considering how small and shallow the pocket was and how little the glove itself flexed.
But as the glove gradually evolved, as the thumb became more agile and helpful, as the padding was streamlined, a player could trust fingers that were laced together and worked as a unit. The fine shortstop Eddie Joost explains why he took a teammate’s advice and rigged up his own finger laces in the late thirties. “The Doak [glove], as small as it was, you’d have a ball hit out on the fingers and you would lose it a little bit. Clyde Beck showed me [his laced glove], and the ball just ran into the glove.”
In the same way, players gradually began to trust the growing webs. A watershed: catching the ball where your hand wasn’t. Joost says the A2000, web and all, was “half again as large as the gloves I had used.” And Al Kaline told a reporter: “The A2000 gave you so much confidence, especially when you had to catch the ball with one hand. The glove seemed to automatically collapse around the ball.”
The A2000 took the major leagues by storm. Rawlings had dominated the league since the late twenties, and its gloves were on the hands of four of every five major leaguers in the fifties. Wilson cut into that significantly but never won over a majority of players, because Rawlings quickly countered with similar features—and piled on many more, such as the Edge-U-Cated Heel (a narrow, streamlined heel with lacing running from thumb to pinkie), the Fastback closed-back concept, and the Flex-O-Matic Palm, with its distinctive radial lacing.
Mention of these trademarks brings smiles of recognition to the faces of millions of sandlot players, from the fifties to today. This is the evolution of fielder’s gloves specifically, but catchers’ mitts and first basemen’s mitts have analogous histories. Lou Gehrig’s right hand was x-rayed late in his career; it showed evidence of 17 fractures. But as mitts evolved like gloves – losing padding, being oriented on the diagonal, gaining hinges and large webs and thumbs that helped produce a deep pocket and a firm grip – players could spare their hands.
The breakthrough date for first basemen’s mitts was 1940, with Rawlings’ introduction of the Trapper. You might scratch your head at why forties fielders’ gloves didn’t pick up on the Trapper’s big web and deep pocket, but that’s the way it was. Catchers’ mitts entered modernity with hinges and the first big, solid webs in the mid-fifties. Scratch your head again at why fielders’ gloves needed a few more years to grow a hinge. So why did it take so long for the perfect fielder’s glove to evolve?
Partly it was baseball’s natural traditionalism – although this is too vague an answer. That traditionalism, where gloves are concerned, was a product of the game’s manly ethos. In 1908, Sporting Life was still suggesting that only catchers be allowed big mitts; pitchers and infielders should wear small gloves and outfielders none at all. And even when gloves were accepted, players were still hesitant to let it appear that the glove, rather than the man wearing it, was earning the kudos and the money. “The glove, not the hands, does the work now,” Hall of Fame third baseman Pie Traynor, who starred in the twenties and thirties, hissed in 1959.
There was also the fear born of superstition, the dark cloud that trails every pro athlete. If a glove without finger laces brought a man to the major leagues, he’d be hesitant to entrust his livelihood to something radically different.
There were business factors as well. Although baseball became a big-money game in the first half of the 20th century, the companies making equipment remained regional and relatively small. As long as players at all levels – but especially major leaguers – were happy with the gloves they had (and the Bill Doak model was in the Rawlings catalog for 33 years), there was little impetus to change.
“There was no marketing advantage in innovation,” says John Golomb, a glove historian and custom glovemaker whose family owned and ran the Everlast sports equipment company for decades and who saw tradition at work in boxing. So it’s no coincidence that the A2000 came at a time when Wilson and its competitor Rawlings were becoming national sporting goods powerhouses.
Or maybe it was all cognitive. From Day 1, gloves and mitts were called “gloves” and “mitts.” If someone had started calling them “catching devices” early on, would manufacturers have been freed to see beyond the static hand to the dynamic tool that was the A2000?
I started this blog post comparing gloves to airplanes. That’s dramatic but not entirely fair. There was much more at stake where planes were concerned. General Billy Mitchell wrote in his 1925 book Winged Defense, “It is probable that future war will be conducted by a special class, the air force, as it was by the armored knights in the Middle Ages.”
But baseball is a game of peace; in fact, baseball gloves have always been what the U.S. government sends to soldiers overseas for recreation in wartime. So why did gloves evolve slowly? Because they could. Good for them and good for us.
Noah Liberman is a writer living in Chicago. His 2003 book, Glove Affairs: The Romance, History and Tradition of the Baseball Glove, was a Spitball award nominee, losing to something called Moneyball. It was recently included in Ron Kaplan’s 501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die. Noah has also written Flat Stick, the History, Romance and Heartbreak of the Putter, an absurdly complete account of that vexed piece of sports equipment.
Who is the Father of Fantasy Baseball? Most today will answer Dan Okrent or Glen Waggoner, but let me propose Francis C. Sebring, the inventor of the table game of Parlor Base-Ball. In the mid-1860s Sebring was the pitcher (clubs only needed one back then) for the Empire Base Ball Club of New York (and bowler for the Manhattan Cricket Club). At some time around the conclusion of the Civil War, this enterprising resident of Hoboken was riding the ferry to visit an ailing teammate in New York. The idea of making an indoor toy version of baseball came to him during this trip, and over the next year he designed his mechanical table game; sporting papers of 1867 carried ads for his “Parlor Base-Ball” and the December 8, 1866, issue of Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly carried a woodcut of young and old alike playing the game. A few weeks earlier, on November 24, Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times had carried the first notice. (In a previous post I discussed other fantasy-baseball forerunners, from Chief Zimmer’s game to Ethan Allen’s: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2011/10/17/fathers-of-fantasy-baseball/)
No examples of Parlor Base-Ball or its packaging survive, but from the patent application and drawing of February 4, 1868, we see that a spring propelled a coin (“one of the thick nickel coins of the denomination of ‘one cent,’ issued by the United States Government in and about the year 1860”) from pitcher to batter, and another spring activated a bat that propelled the coin into one or another of the cavities in the field. A pinball machine is not very much different. David Dyte has suggested that the schematic for Sebring’s game is instructive as to the positioning of the shortstop. He is correct: by the time of the table game’s devise (1865-66), Dickey Pearce of the Brooklyn Atlantics had moved the position into the infield from its original fourth outfielder spot. Then George Wright, blessed with a great arm and range, began to play deep.
There is another game with a prior patent: the “Base-Ball Table” patented by William Buckley of New York on August 20, 1867, which like Sebring’s game operated on the pinball principle. And like Sebring’s game, it too has no remaining example: the earliest surviving baseball table game is a card game from 1869: “Base Ball: The New Parlor Game.” But Sebring’s game went into commercial production while Buckley’s did not. (An enterprising antiquarian might reconstruct both games from their schematic drawings and play them today.)
I concluded an earlier column in this space, about the dedication of Sol White’s grave marker, with: “While no family came to Sol’s aid in his last years, his burial record listed his marital state as “separated” … so further research may yet reveal whether he was survived at death by his wife or any children.” Talking about this state of affairs on that day with baseball historian Jim Overmyer, I was hoping that he would pick up the baton, and he has done so, splendidly, in the article below. This was preceded by his haring some of his genealogical finds with me via email. Jim is the author of two books and a contributor to several others on Negro League baseball. He was a member of the special committee which elected Sol White and 16 other black baseball players and executives to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. He is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and its Negro League and Nineteenth Century committees.
Sol White, the nineteenth century black player who became a manager and front office executive in the Negro Leagues, received a long overdue honor on May 10 when a headstone on his previously unmarked grave was dedicated in an African-American cemetery in New York City. White, the last deceased member of the Baseball Hall of Fame to have a gravestone, was remembered for his exploits on the playing field and the dugout, but also for his writing. He was black baseball’s first historian. Sol White’s History of Colored Baseball, published in 1907, is the starting point for black baseball scholars following his path.
Later a baseball columnist for African-American newspapers, White’s body of work tells much about the black part of professional baseball. Despite all his writing, he left precious little behind when he died in 1955 about his 86-year personal life. The praise he received on May 10 was almost completely about his baseball career. He somehow managed to avoid being enumerated in the U.S. Census between 1900 and 1930, although he may have been counted in 1920, and family information was mostly limited to the scraps in his obituary and what has been discovered about his early years in his hometown of Bellaire, Ohio.
But hardly anyone remains anonymous in the Internet age, even if he has been dead for almost 59 years. King Solomon White (he always seems to have gone by his middle name) left a clue behind: his death certificate states that, although “separated,” he had a wife, Florence Fields. Running that clue through genealogical websites and online historical African-American newspapers has turned up the outlines of White’s domestic life, although in truth it doesn’t seem to have been very domestic, and had its unhappy episodes.
White was 37 and managing the Philadelphia Giants, a premier black team in the era before the Negro Leagues were founded, when he and Florence went the short distance from Philadelphia to Delaware, probably Wilmington, to get married on Thursday, March 15, 1906. Florence was 19 and a Philadelphia native (she lived with her parents, George and Joanna). It’s not clear why Sol and Florence would have gone to Delaware to get married, but she was three months pregnant at the time with their first child, and it’s possible, though speculative, that relations with George and Joanna might not have been completely cordial. The Fields residence at 854 Watt Street was where the family lived in April 1908, however, when the child, Paran Walter White (named after one of Sol’s brothers), died of kidney disease, at the age of a year and a half. His death followed the passing in August 1907 of a baby boy who had only lived two days.
A daughter, Marion, was born in 1909 and survived to adulthood, outliving her father. She and her mother were still living with the Fields family in April 1910 when that census was taken. Sol might well have been residing in New York City at point, having been hired to manage the Brooklyn Royal Giants that season. But Florence and Marion are counted again with Mr. and Mrs. Fields in the 1920 census, and then with Mr. Fields in 1930 (his wife having died). Sol never appears in the household, and in 1930 Florence is identified as a “widow,” although her husband would live for 25 years more. White by then had spent several summers in the baseball business, from the Eastern Seaboard to Ohio, and Florence White was pretty likely a “baseball widow,” a spouse given short shrift by her husband in favor of his occupation. But informing a census taker is like filing an official report. Possibly Florence’s attitude was that her wandering husband was “dead to me.”
There is little information about even White’s professional whereabouts between 1912, when he left his last Eastern team, and 1921, when he successfully lobbied for a Negro National League team in Columbus, Ohio. While the accuracy of census and other information about him is not as definitive as the Philadelphia information about his family, it appears that White was living in Columbus at least a few years earlier than the creation of his Columbus Buckeyes in 1921. As early as February 1918 the black newspaper the Chicago Defender wrote about Sol’s desire to run a team in Columbus. In 1919 he was writing a regular baseball column for the black Cleveland Advocate, openly pushing for a major black team in Columbus and writing about a game there on July 4 between a visiting black team and a local white squad in such detail that it seemed that he must have been there.
He probably was. The 1920 Columbus census has only one White named Sol, or Solomon, for that matter, living in the city. This man was a light-skinned Negro (Mulatto was the census-taking term, and that was a good physical description for Sol) employed as a house servant in a well-off white household. This would seem to be quite a comedown for a leading black baseball figure, but remember that White had been out of that business for awhile and undoubtedly wasn’t making much money writing a sports column for an African-American weekly. The Sol White in the census was 49 when the headcount was taken in January, while the baseball Sol would have been 51, but genealogists who use census reports know that through reporting or recording errors, small discrepancies over facts such as age aren’t unusual. The Columbus Sol White lists his parents as having been born in West Virginia, though, while the 1870 census of the White family taken when Sol was only two says his mother, the head of the family then, was born in Virginia. This seeming discrepancy might not be one, however. The Whites lived on the Ohio side of the Ohio River, across from Wheeling, West Virginia. Wheeling, of course, was in Virginia when Julia White was born in 1838, but changed states, without moving an inch, when the western half of the state split off to remain in the Union at the time of the Civil War.
The William D. Brickell in whose house the Columbus Sol lived was owner of a brick-making company, but this was his second career. He had been a newspaperman, owner of the Columbus daily paper, the Dispatch, until 1910. There he was credited with launching the career of Ralph W. Tyler, an aspiring reporter who became one of the leading black journalists in the Midwest in the years before and after World War I. Tyler was the editor of the Cleveland Advocate, the paper that published White’s baseball columns in 1919. It’s not too much of a stretch to conceive of a relationship among the three men, most likely centering on Tyler’s friendship with both, that could lead to Sol living in the Brickell household.
There is at least a possibility that White and Tyler traveled together to Chicago in June 1920 to attend the Republican national convention at which Ohio favorite son Warren G. Harding was nominated for the Presidency. It’s clear they both attended. Tyler was there to cover the events. And the Defender’s Cleveland correspondent noted in his June 12 report that “Sol White of Columbus passed through the city Friday en route to the convention in Chicago.” The facts supporting the Columbus information on White don’t come as neatly wrapped up as those from Philadelphia that document the life of Florence Fields. But the circumstantial evidence, as it accumulates, is strong.
This is also the case with the later threads of the Philadelphia portion of the story, which continues on at the same time. In the 1940 census Florence White, her father now also apparently passed on, (and still calling herself a widow) is a lodger in someone else’s house in Philadelphia, working as a “tassel maker” in a factory that makes decorative fringe. Another lodger there is a black restaurant worker named Charles Ewell. Ewell, at 32, is 21 years younger than Florence, and presumably of no particular interest to her. But, she’s still got a daughter, now 31. Marion isn’t with her mother in 1940, and doesn’t show up in the Philadelphia census. But, over in Harrisburg resides a Marian White, of the correct race and age, working as a government stenographer. This might not be Sol’s daughter, but it’s certainly possible that she might have adopted the more usual feminine form of her first name. And she is the only female African-American Marian (or Marion) White of approximately the correct age recorded in Pennsylvania in this census who isn’t either a wife of a man named White or the daughter of different parents.
Wherever she was in 1940, by 1955 Sol White’s daughter may well have been married to Florence’s fellow lodger. Sol’s obituary in the New York Amsterdam News listed a daughter, “Mrs. Charles Ewell,” among the survivors. A Charles Ewell served in the military during World War II, making him eligible for a postwar bonus from the State of Pennsylvania. His 1950 application for the money identifies his beneficiary as “Marian V. Ewell” of 1603 Oxford Street in Philadelphia. Subsequent phone and city directories have the couple at the same address into the 1990s. Then, the Social Security Death Index, which records the particulars of recipients who have received their last monthly government check (when they died, in other words), notes the passing of a Marian V. Ewell, born in 1909, in Pittsburgh in September 1992.
Is this the same Marian Ewell? Who knows, at this point. And if it is, what’s she doing in Pittsburgh, rather than Philadelphia? That’s another good question. The resolution of these points are important, because when Sol White was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006, he had no known descendants. Commissioner Selig accepted the plaque on the family’s behalf. If the group of researchers working to uncover White’s genealogical details find that the Pittsburgh Marian Ewell is, in fact, his daughter (or that there was a different Marian Ewell who may have never left Philadelphia), there is a chance that grandchildren or great-grandchildren may be located. Already Ralph Carhart, a Society for American Baseball Research member from New York who spoke about White’s baseball accomplishments at the cemetery, has been on the telephone contacting people named Ewell in the Pittsburgh phonebook, and recruiting a few to do some further digging for him there. Stay tuned.
Sport matters. So do the individuals or teams of high character and winning ways whose exploits may move multitudes to raise them to the level of heroes, and in the process stand a bit taller themselves. But in the cult of celebrity that grips us now, the routine activities of ordinary men are more amply analyzed than the greatest feats in all the world’s history of sport.
The big four American team sports, plus tennis, golf, NASCAR, and other individual pursuits, have not always been the focus of this nation’s ardor, let alone the world’s. (We will set to one side for this column British cigarette cards celebrating stars of cricket, soccer, tennis, etc.) Only a century ago, when trading cards were given away with cigarettes rather than with candy or bubble gum — and never sold by themselves — football, hockey, golf, and tennis were barely represented and basketball not at all. Baseball was dominant, but card sets to then had featured champions of billiards, boxing, sharpshooting, pedestrianism, sculling, bowling, and horseracing.
Before the turn of the century, champion walker Edward Weston or sharpshooter Annie Oakley, jockey Isaac Murphy or oarsman Ned Hanlan were culture heroes of a greater magnitude than any baseball or football player. And boxer John L. Sullivan was the most famous man in North America in any field of endeavor. Collegiate football was becoming a national obsession by the late 1880s, but aside from an 1894 set of 36 players from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, the only football player depicted in a card set was Captain Henry Beecher of Yale in the 1888 Goodwin Champions, a 50-card set containing only eight baseball players.
Forty-five years later the Goudey Gum Company issued a 48-card “Sport Kings” set that spoke to the country’s changed tastes while honoring stars of the past, too. The checklist includes the first basketball cards ever (Nat Holman, Ed Wachter, Joe Lapchick, Eddie Burke); the first pro football cards (Red Grange and Jim Thorpe, although both were honored more for their amateur accomplishments); the first U.S. issued hockey cards (Eddie Shore, Howie Morenz, Ace Bailey, Ching Johnson); swimmers Helene Madison, Johnny Weissmuller, and Duke Kahanamoku; skater Irving Jaffee and hurdler Babe Didrickson. There were tennis players, aviators, jockeys, cyclists, wrestlers, golfers, billiardists, skiers, even a speedboat racer and a dogsled champion.
If the world of bygone sports has a compact model, this card set is it. Today’s arena of sport stars seems impoverished by comparison. Think of how one might compose a 48-card set of today’s North American “sport kings” and queens … and then there are the sports the rest of the world plays! Here’s a quick test of your world-sports acumen. Match the athlete with his or her sport and nation. Answers will be found at the bottom of the page, upside down.
A World Sports Hall of Fame may just be what we need now. There are halls of fame for baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and almost any other sport you can name … but until now none for the world of sport. Why, one might ask, do we need another? This quiz may provide an answer: the guess here is that you will have fallen far short of a perfect score.
On Saturday, May 10, at Frederick Douglass Memorial Park on Staten Island, Sol White’s gravesite, unmarked since his death in 1955, received a new headstone. The effort was funded by SABR’s Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project, led by Dr. Jeremy Krock since 2003, when it place a monument above the final resting place of the great Jimmie Crutchfield. To date, this noble effort has produced thirty markers, including one other member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Frank Grant. Today it can be said that no member of the Baseball Hall of Fame lies in an unmarked grave.
In a ceremony that ran for two hours or so, Sol’s place in baseball history was noted by several speakers and celebrated with song, instrumental accompaniment, and a drum corps from St. Philips Baptist Church. Patricia Willis, CEO of Friends of Frederick Douglass, presided over the ceremony; state and city government officials offered their remarks and support.
I attended on behalf of Major League Baseball and Commissioner Selig, for whom history matters. Below is my brief declamation, followed by a biography prepared by Peter Mancuso and Ralph Carhart of the Society for American Baseball Research, and recited by the latter.
I am pleased to be here in my official role as historian for Major League Baseball, tending the respects of the Commissioner and all those who work and play in this great game. In no other sport does the past matter the way it does in baseball—linked by its players, its teams, its statistics, its unending stories … enriching generation after generation. Baseball provides a family album filled with snapshots of fervently remembered players, an extended family that connects the living with the long bygone.
Sol White had seemed to be on the outside looking in, a faintly recalled figure of such antiquity that his footprints were no longer visible on baseball’s long road. Bud Fowler had been another such figure, but his memory was recently revived in Cooperstown with a special day and a special way named in his honor. Fowler did not enter the Baseball Hall of Fame with the great Class of 2006, but Sol White did, alongside fellow forgotten luminary and teammate Frank Grant, by all accounts the greatest black player of the nineteenth century.
Born in Massachusetts, Grant died in New York City in 1937, but for reasons hard to reconstruct he was buried in a pauper’s grave in Clifton, New Jersey. One of Grant’s pallbearers was Sol White, who would last another eighteen years only to have his remains, like those of Frank Grant, interred in an unmarked grave in a place in which he had never lived.
When Sol White wrote his History of Colored Baseball, it was later said of him, “his object in telling his story is to let some of the younger fellows know something of what is behind them—something of the struggles that have made possible the improved conditions of the present.” White’s invaluable history, like the efforts of those here today to erect a lasting memorial to him, commits us to understand the past on its own terms, and to preserve it as a useful living heritage.
Like Lady Liberty, baseball lifts a lamp to the entire world. It is a meritocracy more nearly perfect than the nation whose pastime it is, and as such can be both inspiration and scold. “Second only to death as a leveler,” wrote Alan Sangree of baseball in 1907, the year of Sol White’s book.
Twenty years ago I wrote: “America, independent and separate, is a lonely nation in which culture, class, ideology, and creed fail to unite us; baseball is the tie that binds. While the imperative for Americans has always been to forge ahead, in search of the new, baseball has always been about the past. In this land of opportunity, a man must venture forth to make his own way. Baseball is about coming home.”
Today Sol White is at last safe at home.
His biography, as offered at the ceremony:
King Solomon White – better known as Sol White – was born in Bellaire, Ohio, very near West Virginia, on June 12, 1868, three years and two months after Lee surrendered to Grant to end the Civil War. His mother, Judith, was born in Virginia, as were four older siblings, all before or during the War. With Emancipation, Judith took the children to Ohio and Sol became the first member of his family to be born on free soil.
According to Jay Hurd, who wrote White’s biographical profile for SABR’s Bioproject: “Bellaire, Ohio, had three white teams, the Lilies, the Browns, and the Globes. As a boy Sol hung around the Globes and then in 1883 when they had an engagement with the Marietta, Ohio team one of the Globe players got his finger smashed, and since they all knew Sol, the captain pushed him into the game.” [quotation from a newspaper piece in the Pittsburgh Courier of March 12, 1927 by Floyd J. Calvin; see: http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/2f9d1227]
Just to enhance the storybook quality of fifteen-year-old Sol’s entrance into baseball, the captain of the Marietta team was Ban Johnson, who would later become founder and president of the American League. As an older man, Sol took pride in telling the tale of having played against Johnson when Ban was an obscure captain of a small town club.
Sol White’s professional career began in 1886 after three years barnstorming with the Globes. After a season with the York Monarchs of Pennsylvania, White joined the Wheeling Green Stockings, an integrated team in West Virginia, the same season that baseball first started to institute the tragic color line. White would manage to play on integrated teams for five years, during which he never hit lower than .324; in 159 minor league games he hit .356, scored 174 runs, and stole 54 bases.
Although primarily an infielder, at 5’9”, 170 pounds, White could play nearly any position. During the twenty-four years he played the game he traveled across this country hundreds of times, playing for more teams than this speech can contain, so we’ve provided you a chronology to help you understand just how many miles on the train Sol traveled for his beloved game. [e.g. see: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/12/28/sol-white-recalls-baseballs-greatest-days/]
But Sol was more than than a player. As Major League Baseball’s Official Historian, John Thorn has noted, “Sol White wasn’t just a sure-handed, line-drive-hitting infielder in black baseball of the nineteenth century; he was one of its founding fathers, and its historian.”
White also stood apart from many of his contemporaries for another reason. As biographer Jay Hurd states, “Sol White was known to be an intelligent and insightful man, using his mental acuity as well as his physical ability.”
From 1896-1900 Sol White split time between classes at Wilberforce College (now Wilberforce University) in Xenia, Ohio, as a theology major while playing for the Cuban X Giants. He received high grades while he was there and it’s this academic side to Sol that perhaps contributes to his greatest legacy.
It was in the early twentieth century, while with the Philadelphia Giants as player/manager and executive, that White published his “Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide.” The Guide was copyrighted in 1907 by Sol and H. Walter Schlichter, White’s Philadelphia Giants business partner. It is the first record of the black game before 1900 and White’s first-person accounts have been invaluable to our understanding of that world. It is this publication which helps to define Sol White, the ball player, the historian, and the man.
In his Guide, Sol states, “Base ball is a legitimate profession. As much so as any other vocation, and should be fostered by owners and players alike. It is immune from attacks from all critics. From a scientific standpoint, it outclasses all other American games. It should be taken seriously by the colored player, as honest efforts with his great ability will open an avenue in the near future wherein he may walk hand-in-hand with the opposite race in the greatest of all American games – base ball.”
In 1927, when no longer directly involved in playing or managing the game, White moved to Manhattan’s Harlem community during its famous Renaissance, and remained there through the Great Depression, World War II, and beyond while maintaining his connection to baseball by writing columns for the local Amsterdam News and the Philadelphia Item. He lived at 145 West 132nd Street until 1952 when his advancing age and illness required him to be hospitalized.
As highly regarded historians and SABR members Frank Ceresi (recently deceased) and Carol McMains note in their May 2006 Baseball Almanac article “Renaissance Man: Sol White”: “What quiet pride Sol must have felt when, as an old man living alone in Harlem, he saw Jackie Robinson break down the blight on the game we now, quite antiseptically, refer to simply as the ‘color barrier.’”
White died at the age of 87 on August 26, 1955 at the New York State Hospital in Central Islip, Long Island, penniless. He was buried here at Frederick Douglass Memorial Park on September 1. He is, to date, the only Baseball Hall of Famer buried on Staten Island.
Sol was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. His plaque in the Hall identifies him as an “outstanding player and manager” of the “Pre-Negro Leagues, 1887-1912” and the “Negro Leagues, 1920-1926”. The plaque also recognizes “Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide of early black baseball teams, players, and playing conditions.”
Prior to his election, the name of Sol White was known to only a few. Even now, he is not one of the more famous names to have played the game. But you here today, you now know a little about the man, if you didn’t before. And I hope that what you’ve learned inspires you to go home and learn even more. Because Sol White, with Rube Foster and others, in the words of writer John Holway, “held black baseball together throughout 60 years of apartheid, making Jackie Robinson’s debut possible.” We honor him today not just for what he represented to the game, but for what he did for his race and for the advancement of mankind. Thank you, Sol.
Now that Sol has been rescued from unmerited obscurity, the public-spirited might turn to the cemetery in which he resides. Frederick Douglass Memorial Park fell on hard times several years ago, overwhelmed by debt, financial scandal, and declining burials. It has been a struggle for its slim staff–one office worker and two groundskeepers–to maintain the grounds and the records. Solvency seems a distant prospect.
In a disquieting note, cemetery ledgers (there is no computer, let alone computerized records) revealed that Sol White was not the only pauper buried in this particular grave. He was the first, but eight other unrelated indigents followed, piling upon him in turn to form a vertical nine in the deep communal plot. Four poor souls were buried within days of White in 1955, and four others followed in December 1988.
While no family came to Sol’s aid in his last years, his burial record listed his marital state as “separated” … so further research may yet reveal whether he was survived at death by his wife or any children.
Having launched this miniseries with Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and then Women in Baseball, I’d like to offer here the first of a decade series on the old ball game. Chronology may be God’s way of telling a story–and thus an unassailable organizing principle–but the seat of my pants tells me to start with the booming 1880s. This is an era of plentiful baseball cards, gorgeous chromolithography, and the dawn of action photography. My self-imposed limit if 15 images truly chafes. Backdrop:
On February 2, 1876, in a meeting at the Grand Central Hotel in New York, William A. Hulbert, Albert G. Spalding, and the Western faction of owners had left the National Association (NA) and created a new National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs (NL). As it would turn out, the new league won the war, sending the NA into instant oblivion, but not the peace. The remaining years of the 1870s were dicey indeed.
Once both were eliminated from the 1876 pennant race, dominated by Hulbert’s new powerhouse White Stockings, their concluding Western swing of the season portended nothing but losses at the gate. Anticipating no consequence to their action, the Mutuals of New York and the Athletics of Philadelphia declined to fulfill their remaining schedule; after all, in the NA such conduct had been tolerated–and the Mutuals and Athletics had been accustomed to determining their own fortunes. Not only were they among the original National Association franchises of 1871, they had been playing ball under their own banners since the 1850s.
The Mutuals, who did not play fourteen of their scheduled seventy games in 1876, and the Athletics, who canceled eleven contests, were by no means the only financially straitened clubs in the NL ’s inaugural campaign; in fact only Chicago was in the black (a state of affairs that would endure all the way up to 1880, as the economic effects of the Panic of 1873 lingered in a long recession rivaling the current one).
At the league meetings in December 1876, despite the financial implications of losing the nation’s two biggest markets and having to limp along with only six entrants in the upcoming season, Hulbert expelled the two franchises. The NL would not return to New York or Philadelphia for six years.
In 1880 Hulbert expelled the Cincinnati franchise for selling “spirituous and malt liquors” on the grounds, which in truth violated neither his sensibilities nor league statute. With this heavy-handed action Hulbert, the former firebrand, sparked an insurrection: a rival league, the American Association (AA) of 1882, centered in the fun-loving, hard-drinking, and now deeply resentful city of Cincinnati. The rival circuit may also have sprung into being because its organizers saw that the NL had at last begun to stop bleeding money.
The AA soon became known as not Alcoholics Anonymous but the Beer and Whisky League, and by charging only twenty-five cents admission while occupying some of the very population centers the NL had abandoned, it gave the league a good run for its money for a decade. This competition, against which the NL had railed, ultimately saved baseball and created a groundswell of enthusiasm that propelled the two major leagues into seemingly permanent status, while giving rise to two one-year rivals as well: the Union Association of 1884 and the Players League of of 1890.
When the NL succeeded, after the 1891 season, in removing all rivals to its supremacy, it found itself once again sliding into disfavor, a condition from which another pretender–Ban Johnson’s American League–rescued it at the dawn of the 20th century. Here are fifteen images from Major League Baseball’s first era of prosperity, what Mark Twain termed the “outward and visible expression of the drive, and push, and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century.”