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Obituary, by Ring Lardner

Ring Lardner

Ring Lardner

Ring Lardner published this jocular “obituary” for Christy Mathewson in the Chicago Tribune on July 22, 1916. Lardner’s standing column head in the Trib was the portentous “In the Wake of the News.” The “obituary” appeared alongside an account of Matty’s first game as manager of the Cincinnati Reds, a 6-4 loss in ten innings to the Phillies. Three years later the Black Sox Scandal would sour Lardner on baseball for life, though he would continue to write on the subject, concluding in 1933 with Lose with a Smile. Matty would require a more conventional obituary before that, succumbing on October 7, 1925 to tuberculosis brought on by gas poisoning in a World War I training exercise.

The baseball world was shocked yesterday by the news that Christy Mathewson, one of the game’s greatest expo­nents, had signed to manage the Cincinnati Reds at the age of thirty-seven years, the very prime of life. Mathewson is the seventh prominent baseballist to succumb to this disease in a space of twelve years.

It is the opinion of prominent physicians that “Matty,” as he was fondly known, hastened his own end by taking up golf, which undermines the intellect and, thereby, the general health. Those who were closest to him say that he has never been the same since he first sliced off the tee.

There is no argument for prohibition in the case of the deceased. He was always abstemious. He took the best possible care of himself. Before being bitten by the golf bacillus, his favorite amusements were chess, checkers, poker, and auction bridge, at all of which athletic sports he excelled. He smoked, but never to excess. He usually retired before midnight and was careful as to his victuals.

Christy Mathewson, 1916 Reds

Christy Mathewson, 1916 Reds

Ciristopher Mathewson was bom in New York State or somewhere, in or about 1879. He received a common school education and then entered Bucknell College, where he took a P.P.D. degree, Doctor of Pitching and Punting. He pitched more or less professional ball down in Virginia for a time and his work attracted the attention of major-league scouts and a scout from Cincinnati. Cincinnati acquired him and, the directors of the club taking a hand, traded him to New York for Amos Rusie, which was a regular Cincinnati trade, as Rusie was through.

One of Matty’s first managers at New York was Horace Fogel, who saw at a glance that he could never be a success­ful pitcher and tried to make a first baseman out of him. Unfortunately for many a National League batsman, Horace’s career as manager was brief, brevity being the soul of wit. The next manager of the Giants got a crazy notion in his head that Matty might be able, with careful handling, to become an average pitcher. This manager’s judgment was proven pretty fair, for Matty, with the aid of great support, pitched his team to victory in quite a few games for a matter of six­teen years. Perhaps his greatest achievement was his three shutout victories over the Athletics in the World Series of 1905. If he had been pitching against this year’s Athletics he could have done it left-handed, but it was some trick in those days.

Mathewson had been spending recent winters in California and the climate may have gone to his head.

He leaves a wife and one son, Christopher, Jr.

My eyes are very misty

As I pen these lines to Christy;

O, my heart is full of heaviness today.

May the flowers ne’er wither, Matty,

On your grave at Cincinnati,

Which you’ve chosen for your final fade-away.

215 Montague Street

Plaque at 215 Montague Street

Plaque at 215 Montague Street

I was delighted to speak yesterday at the site of the Brooklyn Dodger offices at 215 Montague Street. Chevrolet sponsored a four-stop baseball tour for media types who would be driven (or themselves drive) an electric-powered Chevy Volt to each site after the starting point of the MLB Fan Cave. Not knowing that I would be speaking outdoors in full sun for the second stop on the trail, I had prepared a 15-minute talk that stayed in my pocket. Sunstroke made for poor public relations, I figured. I winged it, but this is the talk I would have offered. Portions of it are based on an article that Jules Tygiel and I published in SPORT Magazine in June 1988.

It happened right here, on Montague Street. This is where the national pastime at last began to live up to its name.

The team is gone, the building is gone—even the address is gone, as is the bank that presented the plaque—but the echoes linger, and the spirit remains. Here, on August 28, 1945, Jackie Robinson, shortstop of the Kansas City Monarchs, first met Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. After a dramatic, challenging interview that has become the stuff of legend, the two signed an agreement that would begin to remove from baseball its historic stain. Each year Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day on April 15 to mark the anniversary of his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, but here we stand on no less hallowed ground.

Lobby card from "Jackie Robinson Story" depicts the scene on August 28, 1945.

Lobby card from “Jackie Robinson Story” depicts the scene on August 28, 1945.

Today little is left of the city that was, let alone its favorite game. In New York the only constant through four centuries has been relentless, roaring change—hills flattened, ponds filled, streams diverted, buildings demolished, neighborhoods dismantled, all in the name of progress. Shea Stadium and the House That Ruth Built are gone, as are Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, and several other sites of big-league games. A baseball-history tourist in New York must walk in four dimensions rather than three, the fourth being that of memory–aided by stories and statistics and nostalgic collectibles. Because it is harder to collect buildings than baseball cards, however, few edifices remain that might bear mute testimony to the game that was.

Baseball is a game of ghostly presences, always just one step away from revival. MLB’s Fan Cave, the hippest of baseball landmarks (which marked the first stop on today’s tour), sits one block away from the old Grand Central Hotel site, where on February 2, 1876 the National League was founded. Walking distance from where we stand, at the corner of Clinton and Livingston Streets—No. 133—is an improbable survivor of baseball’s earliest days, the clubhouse of the Brooklyn Excelsiors, the most famous team in the land in 1860.

But let’s focus on 215 Montague Street. A ten-story structure, tall for the 19th century, stood here until the 1960s, when it was replaced by a four-story building, since anchored by a succession of banks. The Dodgers’ office was located on the fourth floor. It housed all the executives, major league and minor league, and their staffs. Fans who wanted to purchase advance tickets could buy them here. The Dodgers started using this location in 1938, and when Branch Rickey came along four years later this building would begin to take on national significance, if at first secretly.

Rickey, who had long wished to integrate baseball, knew that St. Louis, where he had been the general manager for decades, was an impossible venue for his great experiment. “St. Louis never permitted Negro patrons in the grandstand,” Rickey once wrote.

Robinson’s appearance here on August 28 was by no means the first step Rickey had taken toward fulfilling his vision of an integrated national pastime. And Rickey knew that Sam Jethroe or Monte Irvin, not Robinson, was the most talented player in the Negro Leagues at that time. So why did Rickey choose him? Strength of character and a collegiate background have been the conventional explanations, but behind the scenes there was more at work.

Jackie Robinson comic book

Jackie Robinson comic book

From the moment he had arrived in Brooklyn in 1942, determined to end baseball’s Jim Crow traditions, Rickey had feared that premature disclosure of his intentions might doom his bold design. No blacks had appeared in the major leagues since 1884. During the ensuing half-century all-black teams and leagues featuring legendary figures like pitcher Satchel Paige and catcher Josh Gibson had performed on the periphery of Organized Baseball. Baseball executives, led by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, had strictly policed the color line, barring blacks from both major and minor leagues. Rickey therefore moved slowly and secretly to explore the issue and cover up his attempts to scout black players during his first three years in Brooklyn. He informed the Dodger owners of his plans but took few others into his confidence.

In the spring of 1945, as Rickey prepared to accelerate his scouting efforts, advocates of integration, emboldened by the recent death of Commissioner Landis, escalated their campaign to desegregate baseball. On April 6, black sportswriter Joe Bostic appeared at the Dodgers’ training camp with Negro League stars Terris McDuffie and Dave “Showboat” Thomas and forced Rickey to hold tryouts for the two players. Ten days later black journalist Wendell Smith engineered an unsuccessful audition with the Red Sox for Robinson and two other black athletes.

In the face of this heightened activity, Rickey created an elaborate smokescreen to obscure his scouting of black players. In May 1945 he announced the formation of a new franchise, the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, and a new Negro League, the United States League. He named fabled Negro Leagues star Oscar Charleston as the club’s manager and undercover scout. Rickey then dispatched his best talent hunters to observe black ballplayers, ostensibly for the Brown Dodgers, but in reality for the Brooklyn National League club.

The popular “frontier” image of Jackie Robinson as a lone gunman facing down a hostile mob has always dominated the story of the integration of baseball. But while Robinson was the linchpin in Branch Rickey’s strategy, in October 1945 Rickey intended to announce the signing of not just Jackie Robinson, but of several other Negro League stars. Political pressure, however, forced Rickey’s hand, thrusting Robinson into the spotlight all alone.

The agreement that Jackie Robinson signed right here on August 28, 1945 was a tightly guarded secret. It bound him to the Brooklyn organization but stipulated that he was to be signed to a player’s contract with the top farm club at Montreal before November 1. Rickey impressed upon Robinson the need to maintain silence. He could tell the momentous news to his family and fiancee, but no one else.

Jackie Robinson as a Kansas City Royal, batting.

Jackie Robinson as a Kansas City Royal, batting.

After his meeting with Rickey, Robinson returned briefly to the Kansas City Monarchs. With the Dodger offer securing his future and the relentless bus trips of the Negro League schedule wearing him down, he left the Monarchs before season’s end and returned home to Pasadena, California. In late September he hooked up with Chet Brewer’s Kansas City Royals, a postseason barnstorming team which toured the Pacific Coast, competing against other Negro League teams and major- and minor-league all-star squads.

Rickey worked with publicist Arthur Mann to pen an article for Look Magazine, timed to release at the time of Robinson’s signing with Montreal. It never ran, but I located it in the Rickey papers at the Library of Congress. “The Negro and Baseball,” as it was titled, departs radically from the common picture of the Robinson legend. “Determined not to be charged with merely nibbling at the problem,” wrote Mann, “Rickey went all out and brought in two more Negro players,” and “consigned them, with Robinson, to the Dodgers’ top farm club, the Montreal Royals.” Mann named pitcher Don Newcombe and, surprisingly, outfielder Sam Jethroe as Robinson’s future teammates. Whether the recruitment of additional blacks had always been Rickey’s intention or whether he had reached his decision after meeting with Robinson in August is unclear. But by late September, when he provided information to Mann for his article, Rickey had clearly decided to bring in other Negro League stars.

At the same time, Rickey decided to postpone publication of the Look article. In a remarkable letter sent from the World Series in Chicago on October 7, Rickey informed Mann:

Robinson with Montreal Royals, 1946

Robinson with Montreal Royals, 1946

We just can’t go now with the article. The thing isn’t dead,-not at all. It is more alive than ever and that is the reason we can’t go with any publicity at this time. There is more involved in the situation than I had contemplated. Other players are in it and it may be that I can’t clear these players until after the December meetings, possibly not until after the first of the year. You must simply sit in the boat….

There is a November 1 deadline on Robinson,-you know that. I am undertaking to extend that date until January 1st so as to give me time to sign plenty of players and make one break on the complete story. Also, quite obviously it might not be good to sign Robinson with other and possibly better players unsigned.

In a mad scramble to sign Robinson before the November 1 deadline and before he departed to the Caribbean for a barnstorming trip, the Montreal Royals secured his signature on a contract on October 23. Newcombe, Campanella, John Wright, and Roy Partlow all joined the Dodger organization the following spring. Jethroe became a victim of the “deliberate speed” of baseball integration and did not reach the majors until 1950.

For Robinson, who had always occupied center stage in Rickey’s thinking, the early announcement intensified the pressures and enhanced the legend. The success or failure of integration rested disproportionately on his capable shoulders. He became the lightning rod for supporter and opponent alike, attracting the responsibility, the scorn and ultimately the acclaim for his historic achievement.

For Rickey the signing was the culmination of a decades-old dream. For Robinson, there would be triumph and tragedy ahead, but his breaking of the color bar started right here.

A New Baseball Discovery

Beloit's Middle College, built 1847

Beloit’s Middle College, built 1847

Baseball fever, catch it. When I am not thinking about the game, it can pop up insistently, reasserting its central position in my life. Let me tell you what happened to me just the other day.

I spent this past weekend in Wisconsin, at a reunion of the Beloit College class of 1968 (as well as many others ranging, in five-year intervals, from 1948 to 2003). I had been invited to give a talk, in the building where I had taken all of the courses that would run through my later life.

I had drafted most of the speech at home but left the finishing touches for my arrival on campus late Thursday afternoon. I checked into the Beloit Inn, tired from my flight to O’Hare and the drive from there to Beloit, just across the Illinois line. I unpacked and within an hour or so had added a few bits, mostly biographical. I figured my fellow Beloiters might wish to know how the mouthy kid they may have remembered came to devote four decades to documenting a children’s game. I wrote this: 

And after my Beloit years—as an English Lit major influenced by such titans of yore as Bink Noll, Bernie Morrissey, and Bob Ray—and a doctoral stint at Washington University in St. Louis, I came back to baseball. Or maybe I had never left it. As the chronically awful New York Mets marched toward an improbable championship in 1969, I found myself increasingly distracted from my dissertation on 17th century poet George Herbert, from which I turned away with more delight than guilt. 

George Herbert, The Temple, 1633

George Herbert, The Temple, 1633

The path was a twisty one, from flipping baseball cards against the stoop in the Bronx in 1953 to serving as MLB’s official historian 60 years later … and yet with the benefit of hindsight I can make it out as practically linear. It is good to be an old boy, continuing to care about so many of the same things that animated one’s youth.

Completing the speech, I thought to have an early dinner, minus the search for exotic cuisine. The hotel shared space with a steak joint (Merrill and Houston’s, named for an iron works founded in 1858) so I walked in—only to have my jaw drop. Perhaps four feet from my face was a gorgeous, seven-foot long, wood-type broadside printed in colors, promoting an upcoming event: the First Wisconsin Base Ball Tournament, commencing at Beloit on September 3, 1867. I knew nothing about this tournament (although I do now, from some rapid newspaper research in neighboring Janesville’s Gazette) and I certainly had not seen this ghostly vestige.

The entry to the restaurant was dim and I could not back away enough to get a clear image with my cellphone camera, but I managed a shot for reference value, at least. I figured I would follow up.

The waitress told me that she thought the poster was an original, on loan from the Beloit Historical Society (BHS), which had provided the nostalgically decorated steakhouse with a few three-dimensional objects as well as scores of photographic facsimiles. I raced through a very good dinner so that I could get back to my room and check the web; I needed to know if the BHS had a physical location and contact information. I located a BHS newsletter—“Confluence,” from Fall 2004—that noted the broadside’s acquisition but provided no particulars.

Beloit Historical Society, Lincoln Center

Beloit Historical Society, Lincoln Center

At noon the following day, as the BHS opened its doors, I called. Dwight Alton—the Facilities Manager and a professional photographer to boot—told me that he was certain the restaurant’s version was a copy and that the Society possessed the only original. It was on display at one of the Society’s buildings—the Lincoln Center, an archive and exhibition space so named because it formerly housed the Lincoln Junior High School. If I wished, I could see the original broadside that afternoon.

Beloit College alumni activities had just begun to percolate, but this choice was easy. The archives were in West Beloit, only a mile and a half from the hotel. Dwight even offered to shoot  a high-resolution image that he would transfer to a thumb drive.

At the door I was greeted not only by Dwight but also by Paul Kerr, the Executive Director. He told me that the broadside had resided undisturbed for a century in the attic of an elderly woman from South Beloit and that it had been there since long before her time. It arrived at the BHS in crumpled and bent form, folded over several times—yet it remained intact. Conservation efforts had restored it to a nearly pristine state, and because the broadside had slumbered in the dark all those years, the colors had seemed to lose none of their vibrancy. Dwight Alton’s photograph appears here courtesy of the Beloit Historical Society, its size and resolution somewhat reduced for the web.

First Annual State Base Ball Tournament, Beloit, Wisconsin 1867. Courtesy Beloit Historical Society.

First Annual State Base Ball Tournament, Beloit, Wisconsin 1867. Courtesy Beloit Historical Society.

Paul asked me if I believed the broadside was important or had monetary value. I assured him of both, and that the artistic value alone would incite appeal. We both recognized, however, that such thoughts were academic, because as a nonprofit organization dating to 1910, the BHS would never test the auction waters with an item of such strong Beloit relevance.

In a way, that’s too bad; I think I have an idea of what price this might fetch and I’ll never have that notion validated. The Society’s acquisition, casually displayed in facsimile for restaurant patrons who rush by it on their way to dinner, is the oldest surviving baseball broadside in existence.

Double Exposure

The Peskin Shot, from The Miracle at Merion

The Peskin Shot, from The Miracle at Merion

Today, as we near the fifth U. S. Open to be held at the Merion Golf Course in Ardmore, PA,  my friend Joe Posnanski published a fine story about the glory that was golfer Ben Hogan and the odd grandeur that was photographer Hy Peskin. (See: The world may know much about Hogan and little about Peskin, but each has been described, by people who ought to know, as the best that ever was in his line of work. I spent some time with Peskin 13 years ago and wrote about those days in 2005, not long after his death. That story appeared in the Woodstock (NY) Times and, thanks to Joe’s interest, reappears here verbatim at Our Game. Trust me, dear reader, there is enough baseball to hold your interest. When I posted this yesterday I had not yet found this treasure: on Facebook for more than two years with a mere 77 views. For hundreds of Peskin baseball images, almost all from the 1950s and in color, go to:

In the evening of January 11, 2000, I drove my rental car into the parking lot of the Holiday Inn in North Miramar, a bedroom community for San Diego. I had flown across the country to spend a week interviewing 84-year-old Hy Peskin for a book about his amazing career in sports photography, mysteriously cut short at its apex 35 years earlier when he abandoned not only his profession but also his name, changing it legally to Brian Blaine Reynolds. He was a legendarily difficult personality, with many admirers but few friends in the sports business. In truth, few people knew what had become of him and most presumed him long since dead.

Upon reaching my room I called the Reynolds household in nearby Murrieta, as I had been requested to do, advising him of my arrival.

“So, you want to get started?” Hy asked in his memorably raspy voice. Not really, I admitted, as I had been in transit for fifteen hours and was exhausted. I assured him I had driving instructions to his home in nearby Murrieta and would be glad see him at 8:00 a.m. sharp. He seemed disappointed but acknowledged that he too might be sharper in the morning.

Half an hour later there was an insistent knock at the door of my hotel room. I opened it to find a round old man in pajamas and bedroom slippers, with an overflowing scrapbook under his arm, who announced in the flamboyant style that would soon become familiar, “I couldn’t wait until morning. I’ve been waiting for you my whole life.” He was accompanied by two young boys wearing yarmulkes and payes, the curling sideburns of the Orthodox Jew. He introduced them as his adopted sons, Preston Blaine Reynolds and Brian Jeremy Reynolds, then turned to me with a stage whisper, “They never heard of Hy Peskin.”

Hy Peskin at Yankee Stadium

Hy Peskin at Yankee Stadium

So began the most memorable week of my professional life. Each morning I would interview Hy from the foot of his bed, where he lay with eyes hooded as he conjured up his past, in the pajamas that were never exchanged for conventional clothing. “You didn’t eat breakfast?” he said to me one day. “Want me to throw something on and we’ll go for an early lunch? In this restaurant that I like. We’ll go informal but we’ll go.” For this occasion he changed into a fresh pair of pajamas but kept the slippers. In the afternoons while Hy napped I would speak with his remarkable former wife Adriana McMinn (Godoy), now reconciled after an intervening marriage that had produced the children. Sometimes Hy and I would extend the interview to a second session, but generally not: he typically went to sleep at 6:00 p.m., right after his dinner.

Who was Hy Peskin? I had known him by the hundreds of photographs I had seen over the years, always distinctive in composition and density of color, always recognizably “a Peskin.” I knew that his challenging angles, unprecedented aerial shots, and unequaled athleticism had redefined his profession. I knew he had worked for Sports Illustrated (where he was the magazine’s first staff photographer), Life, Look, Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and more. What I didn’t know, however, could fill a book.

Hyman Peskin was born in Brooklyn on November 5, 1915 to Russian-born parents Sarah Sokolowsky and Elias Peskowitz (original name Pesachowitz), a tailor who lost his job in the early 1930s. “When I began to sell newspapers,” he told me, “we had been living in an apartment, $27 a month, and my family could hardly pay the rent. When I got them all selling papers, including my father, we moved to a better part of town, the magical Eastern Parkway area. I saved my family with the newspaper selling.”

A Life in the Shadows, the book that never was

A Life in the Shadows, the book that never was

He went to Brooklyn Evening High School for several years and appears not to have graduated. “I hardly ever went to class; I got off into another direction by having met a newspaper photographer, Izzy Kaplan [of the New York Mirror], and helping him at the ball games. First in Brooklyn and then later at the Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium, other events, hoping through him to get a job at his newspaper which in those days paid $12 a week for an office boy. My goal was to be a writer and I thought through him maybe I could get that job. Incredibly I helped him every day, all kinds of events, without pay for three long years … it was 1933, 1934 and 1935. Finally I got the job and after a few months they approved me to transfer to be the office boy in the sports department. Later I left the sports department in great, great frustration because of a run-in with the editor, Dan Parker, and reluctantly asked to be transferred to the picture department, which I knew well but never had real, real interest in. I became the hypo-boy in the photo department, developing the pictures, writing the captions, things like that.”

In 1935 he married his sweetheart Blanche from Erasmus High, “the first girl I ever spoke to,” and became a full-time professional photographer, often shooting the Brooklyn Dodgers. But after enlisting in the Marines in 1943-44, he returned with an itch to experiment in stop-action color photography. Applying to the leading 30 magazines in the country, Peskin found that only Look had any interest and only the Daily Mirror had a job for him, his old one.

“With my great desire to move to higher levels, I scraped together about $10 and bought one box of Kodachrome and arranged with Saint Nicholas Arena that I could shoot a fight there [on May 11, 1945]. The fight happened to be a match between Lou Nova and a guy named Gunnar Barlund. Virtually every newspaper photographer had one camera, the Speed Graphic. Occasionally they would have the big, big long range cameras but day in, day out, they had a Speed Graphic…. You could shoot it from the back curtain or the front shutter, but you had one camera. When you went to a sporting event the limitations were tremendous. But in boxing you were okay, the action was 12 feet away, you could shoot a lot. I mounted on my Graphic not one flash bulb but a unique setup with three flashbulbs so when I pushed the button all three would go. I knew I would have to shoot wide open to capture every bit of light on the film. Although I thought maybe it would work, I never had made any test in that direction.

LOOK, June 25, 1946, Hy Peskin Photograph

LOOK, June 25, 1946, Hy Peskin Photograph

“The speed of the film in those days was 10. I was trying to be so careful with my film that in the entire fight I made only three pictures. But trying to shoot at the right time when the fighters were turned right to me, one guy was bleeding, that side of his face was showing and I tried to shoot at the punch, three times in the entire fight. I sent off the pictures to Eastman Kodak in Rochester, which would take several days for developing, and went back to my work at the Daily Mirror. A few days later, I went to Railway Express, which was only about three blocks down the street from the newspaper, got the box, ran to the window, tore open the box near the window to look at what I had. And my heart jumped out of my mouth: the three pictures each were fantastically clear, sharp, the blood, three of the greatest pictures of my life. All perfect, perfect, perfect. I didn’t go back up the street to the newspaper, I went down about a mile to Look magazine, to the editor that had been interested in me, brought him to the window when I got to his office and said, look here. When he saw reality, action in color, I was hired on the spot for roughly twice the money I ever made. I was no longer a newspaper photographer.”

Peskin went on to shoot hundreds of covers for This Week, Life, Collier’s, and more. Among his personal favorites was the Life cover and photo spread with Jack Kennedy and bride-to-be Jacqueline Bouvier. He shot a beautiful serene portrait of Joe DiMaggio, with “a soft smile that wasn’t Joe DiMaggio at all.” And he shot beautifully composed shots like Ben Hogan’s dramatic 1-iron shot on the 72nd hole of the 1950 U.S. Open in Merion, Pennsylvania, universally acclaimed as the greatest shot in the history of the sport. But what truly set Peskin apart from his peers was his combination of inventiveness and athleticism. Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times testified to his athletic style by writing in 1961:

LIFE, August 1, 1949, DiMaggio by Peskin

LIFE, August 1, 1949, DiMaggio by Peskin

You’ve seen Hy at these things before. He runs more laps than Vladimir Kuts and this is remarkable because Hy only stands about 5’7” and weighs about 195, most of it evenly distributed below the waist. Moreover, he ran his laps under full pack of two Leicas, one Rollei, sacks full of film, a telegraph from the editor, and a note from his wife telling him not to forget to pick up the roast. And Hy was doing all this on only three hot-dogs, a Pepsi and a (double) bag of peanuts. I think Hy’s 72-yard dash across the infield under full equipment was the finest I have ever seen….

What made Hy Peskin run? “Anticipation,” he told me. “Anticipation is the key word in the coverage of all sports. For example, one day I was shooting for Life magazine a game, maybe at Detroit, and I shot as usual when nobody was on base from the first-base side of the batter as he hit, close by. Often times I really endangered my life by edging closer to the baseline to shoot him when it is very possible for a batter to lash one out right at your nose. But I did it often. There was a particular batter, he hit, I shot, as he ran past me towards first I ran past him the opposite way, around home plate towards third base because there had been a runner on first base. As I ran to third, here comes the base runner from first, sliding into third. I got the picture but the fielder dropped the ball and it was rolling away. Now the base runner picked himself up and was running hard past me toward home plate. I wheeled around and ran as hard as I could behind him and got just in time, close enough to home plate, to shoot him sliding into home. I thought it was one of the greatest stunts I had ever pulled. Those pictures appeared in Life.”

Success followed success until the first Ali-Liston championship bout, in Miami in 1964. “I set up everything the previous day like photographers normally would with the lights overhead, camera down below. I tested everything, everything was great.… I came the next morning, the day of the fight and I went to the arena, like an idiot I didn’t recheck my camera–is it hooked right into the lights to be synchronized with my light? I simply took the camera which I had already checked the previous day, put the film in and proceeded to shoot the fight. I was shocked to learn later that I had virtually no pictures because the lens was not tied in any longer to my strobe lamps overhead. Somebody did something deliberately to put me out of business. So I was a strikeout at a very, very important event and I virtually disappeared from Sports Illustrated thereafter.”

Banquet of the Golden Plate, American Academy of Achievement, Dallas, 1965

Banquet of the Golden Plate, American Academy of Achievement, Dallas, 1965

By 1960 or so Hy had turned to entrepreneurial ventures such as the World Series of Sport Fishing with Ted Williams and his BIG idea, the American Academy of Achievement (AAA), formally launched in 1961. As Hy described the basic idea in later years, it was grandiloquently this: “To erect a Mount Olympian Gathering of the Gods of Achievement once a year to meet the greatest young achievers of the country.’” With the aid of his sons Evan, Ron, and Wayne and wife Blanche, the AAA attracted a motley crew of notables, celebrities, ambulatory wallets, strokable egos, and flashes in the pan. High-achieving high-school students would hobnob with the likes of Edward Teller, Brooke Shields, Wayne Newton, Roger Staubach, Jimmy Stewart, Helen Hayes, Stevie Wonder, Ben Feldman (“America’s No. 1 Salesman of 1965”), Col. Harland Sanders (Kentucky Fried Chicken), Helen Keller, Albert A. Morey (“Largest Insurance Brokerage”), Debby Boone, and Jack LaLanne.

Banquet of the Golden Plate, American Academy of Achievement, Dallas, 1965

Banquet of the Golden Plate, American Academy of Achievement, Dallas, 1965

After three publicly successful — but for Peskin’s finances disastrous — Golden Plate banquets in Monterey (“Negro haters and Jew haters”), San Diego, and Oceanside, by 1965 Hy Peskin had reached tether’s end. “A guy came and took away my car for not paying, and I was left on the streets of Oceanside, 20 miles from our home in Escondido, nearly 50 years old. No money, no more photo career because I had lost my assignments from Sports Illustrated. No money from the three Banquets of the Golden Plates that we had, standing ovations for me, but nobody realizing that I’m getting virtually nothing.” He moved the operation to Dallas, where he was able to stay afloat, but he was told there would be no further support from civic leaders.

“I decided to stay and to change my name to eliminate the image of the Jewish photographer from Brooklyn as the leader of the Academy. So I became the only man in the history of the world, the only father named after his children, I took my three sons’ middle names, made a new professional name, Brian Blaine Reynolds, and soon enough the program became successful. But I did leave Dallas, when I felt after a number of years they too wanted to get rid of me so they could steal the program. I packed up my family and went to Philadelphia and the support for the Academy grew and today it’s on a very solid foundation.”

By 1985 Reynolds’s youngest son Wayne took over managing the organization but before the decade was out the senior Reynolds filed lawsuits against his sons, charging they had colluded to take control of the AAA from him. A countersuit exposed Brian Reynolds to up to $3 million in liability. What to do? They were making him out to be crazy, “just because of this pajama thing.” Adriana Reynolds advised her husband to call Ray Charles, a recent AAA honoree. “Ray Charles came as a witness to the five-week-long trial,” Hy told me. “He came in the very last days or so, and in his own words told how he thought so much of me, how I was the Academy and so forth. The jury was very much taken with him and he saved my life. It was a $3 million lawsuit against me. Those people never collected a penny.” The jury instead awarded him damages of $800,000 (later reduced to $200,000), and another jury granted him a monthly pension of $10,000 from the Academy.

Hank Aaron, on deck at Yankee Stadium during 1957 World Series; Peskin

Hank Aaron, on deck at Yankee Stadium during 1957 World Series; Peskin

Wayne Reynolds moved the AAA offices to Washington a few years ago, adding world leaders to the roster of prominent Americans; today the organization is known as simply The Academy of Achievement and its annual event is the International Achievement Summit. In 1999 Wayne and his wife Catherine B. Reynolds were able to make her sizable foundation the principal sponsor of the Academy, which now matches international bigwigs with select graduate students rather than high schoolers.

On June 3, 2005 the Academy held its annual International Achievement Summit in New York at the American Airlines Theater on West 42nd Street. Filing in past gawkers were such high-powered figures as Sally Field, Denzel Washington, Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan, playwright Edward Albee, NBC’s Katie Couric, U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, novelist Tom Wolfe, and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Also on June 3, Catherine Reynolds announced a $10 million gift to NYU for a program in social entrepreneurship. In recent years her foundation had granted $100 million to the Kennedy Center but had seen its offer of $38 million to the Smithsonian refused because the attached string seemed to the curators too binding: the construction of an exhibit honoring Americans who had made great individual achievements, from Abraham Lincoln to Oprah Winfrey. Wayne Reynolds commented to Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes: “I’ve never met people like this [the Smithsonian curators] who said individuals never mattered in history. My whole career, my whole life, Cathy’s whole life is based on: one person can make a difference in America.”

On that same June 3, 2005, Hy Peskin a.k.a. Brian Blaine Reynolds died in Herzliya, Israel. On the homepage of the Academy of Achievement’s website ( one may see the date of founding (1961) but nowhere is there a mention of the man who founded it, the individual who mattered.

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

William R. Wheaton

William R. Wheaton

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

William R. Wheaton

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

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

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

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

Edward A. Ebbets

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

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

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

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

Walter Avery

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

Walter Titus Avery

Walter Titus Avery

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

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

William H. Tucker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Case

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

June 19, 1846 Game with Charles Case

June 19, 1846 Game with Charles Case

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

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

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

Summing Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The call goes out: PLAY BALL.

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

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

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

Portsmouth Square ca.1855, East Side

Portsmouth Square ca.1855, East Side

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

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

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

SPORTS ON THE PLAZA:  The Plaza has at last been turned to some account by our citizens. Yesterday quite a crowd collected upon it, to take part in and witness a game of ball, many taking a hand.

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

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

Two days later the Alta reported:

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

Did the Knickerbockers return to the Plaza?

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

Certainly not the Knickerbockers any more.

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

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

Absolutely not men “to the manor born.”

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

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

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

SF Committee of Vigilance

SF Committee of Vigilance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

20. Sullivan 1995, 12–13.

21. Peterson 1973, 76.

22. Alta: Aug. 2, 1849, p. 1 col. 3.

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

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

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

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

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


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

The garden spot of baseball in the golden west, Portsmouth Square in San Francisco, January 1851

The garden spot of baseball in the golden west, Portsmouth Square in San Francisco, January 1851

This brilliant essay by Angus Macfarlane–now presented at Our Game in two parts–ran in the first number of the journal Base Ball, back in Spring 2007. It is not too much to say that it thoroughly rewrites the standard story of how baseball came to California, who first played it, and where. As the author notes, “On Washington’s Birthday, 1860, the San Francisco Base Ball Club faced the Red Rovers at a now long-forgotten site then known as Center’s Bridge. Local baseball historians consider this event, reported only in the Spirit of the Times, the beginning of San Francisco baseball history. Yet in 1851 the daily newspapers reported that base ball was being played in the Plaza, San Francisco’s central square. Over a seven-week period, three daily journals made five separate references to baseball activity, though no player names or game accounts were published. Who were these nameless, faceless men who reportedly played baseball nearly a decade before the match at Center’s Bridge?  Is it possible, more than 150 years after the fact, to identify these ‘prehistoric’ baseball players, or are San Francisco’s pioneers of the diamond condemned to spend eternity in anonymity?  The hard evidence is missing, but clues and compelling circumstantial evidence from 1851 point to surprising suspects—men who had the means, the motive, the opportunity and the intent to play baseball in San Francisco in 1851.”

Angus Macfarlane lives in San Francisco, where he worked for almost 30 years as a juvenile probation officer. Recently retired, he has discovered the joys and challenges of researching the general history of his hometown as well as San Francisco’s sports history. He is working on a series of articles on the history of San Francisco horse race tracks. His recently completed article, “Baseball Goes East: The 1876 San Francisco Centennials’ Magical Mystery Tour,” will appear in Base Ball this fall.

On September 23, 1931, prior to a Mission Reds–Hollywood Stars Pacific Coast League baseball game, an Old-Timers Day was celebrated at San Francisco’s brand new Seals Stadium. The 40 honorees were divided into two teams recalling the old California League of the 1880s: the Pioneers and the Haverleys. Appropriately, at least four of the old timers had either been members of those two venerable teams, or of the Greenwood and Morans, another California League team of that bygone era.

Almost half a century before the Seals Stadium nostalgia-fest, a similar baseball reunion was held at Recreation Grounds at 25th and Folsom Streets. The date was Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1882, and the occasion was the commemoration of, as written in the next day’s San Francisco Chronicle, “the twenty-second anniversary of the introduction of baseball on the Pacific Coast.”

As in 1931, the 21 veterans of the Eagle, Pacific, Liberty, and Empire Base Ball Clubs of the 1860s and 1870s were divided into two teams: the Eagles and the Pacifics. These two teams, long and bitter rivals, had very deep roots in San Francisco baseball history. A half dozen of these baseball veterans had had the singular honor of representing their clubs in a series of games against the legendary Cincinnati Red Stockings when they visited San Francisco 13 years earlier.

San Francisco Pacifics, ca.  1869

San Francisco Pacifics, ca. 1869

The arrival of the Red Stockings in San Francisco on September 23, 1869, was an unprecedented event: An “eastern” baseball club came to play the city’s best nines. Not just any eastern club—this was the legendary Cincinnati Red Stockings, the sport’s first openly professional team. While San Francisco’s best base ball clubs were no threat to the Red Stockings’ 45-game winning streak, the city looked forward to the prospect of an entertaining six-game display of baseball expertise at Recreation Grounds, San Francisco’s premier sporting venue.

The local newspapers fawned over the arrival of the team that had created such a furor back east. On September 24, the San Francisco Bulletin printed an article summarizing the city’s history of baseball. It began:

The first appearance of baseball on this coast, according to records in charge of Mr. [John] Durkee, one of the pioneer baseball players on this coast and an enthusiast in the game, was 1859. The Eagle Club was organized in November, 1859, and the first game of baseball according to New York rules occurred at Center’s Bridge February 22, 1860 between the Eagles and Red Rovers.

The article related the well known tale of the contentious game that stood at 33-all after nine innings, and the Red Rovers’ refusal to continue play, complaining that the pitching of Eagle J. C. Willock was illegal. Finding no fault with Willock’s delivery, the umpire declared the game a forfeit and awarded the victory to the Eagles.

Three of the 1882 honorees had participated in that landmark game at Center’s Bridge on Washington’s Birthday in 1860: John Fisher, J. Kerrigan, and John Durkee, the keeper of San Francisco’s baseball records. Durkee played center field, batted eighth in the Eagle lineup, and scored three of his team’s thirty-three runs in that momentous game.

From Seymour Church, Base Ball: George Wright and the Golden Gate

From Seymour Church, Base Ball: George Wright and the Golden Gate

In 1867, two years before the Cincinnati Red Stockings put San Francisco on the baseball map, it was written in the Pacific Base Ball Guide, published by the Pacific Base Ball Convention of California, the state’s governing body for baseball:

Previous to the year 1859, the game of base ball as it was then played in the east, was unknown on this Coast, but in that year a few members of the Eagle Club, of New York, organized a club in this city and styled themselves the San Franciscans.[1]

Since at least 1869 Durkee’s records have been the undisputed foundation and mortar of almost 150 years of San Francisco baseball history. Although they were undoubtedly lost in the fire of 1906, other documents based on those records did survive, supporting and validating to this day the contention that baseball’s Genesis in San Francisco was 1860 and that the Garden of Eden was Center’s Bridge.

However, there is one serious drawback to relying on those records: They do not account for contemporary newspaper reports of baseball being played in San Francisco in 1851 and 1852.

On February 4, 1851, the San Francisco Alta California (Alta) reported on the baseball equivalent of “In the beginning …”:

SPORT—A game of base ball was played upon the Plaza yesterday afternoon by a number of the sporting gentlemen about town.

A clear discrepancy thus emerges between recorded baseball history—the 1851 and 1852 newspaper accounts of baseball in San Francisco—and the accepted baseball history based on John Durkee’s records. Between the Alta’s initial mention on February 4, 1851, and its final item on March 25, three newspapers made five reports of baseball activity in the Plaza, also known as Portsmouth Square.[2] Unfortunately, none of the reports provides any details, such as names of players or outcomes of games, begging the provocative question: Who were those men playing baseball in 1851? The names, positions, and performances of the San Francisco Base Ball Club[3] and Red Rovers who met at Center’s Bridge, on the other hand, are recorded for posterity in the first box score of a baseball game played in California.[4]

Daily Alta, February 4, 1851

Daily Alta, February 4, 1851

A sometimes insurmountable handicap in seriously researching any aspect of early San Francisco history is the absence of primary sources. Not only did the 1906 earthquake and fire destroy so much material relating to nineteenth-century San Francisco, but in the early-to-mid-1850s, periodic “Great Fires” swept through the highly combustible city, destroying many of the wood and canvas structures, along with their contents: the personal letters, diaries, books, albums, family heirlooms, business records and documents, association minutes, mementos, and memorabilia that could answer so many historical questions and solve so many mysteries. Tragically, these sources are lost forever, reduced to ash or rubble, leaving at best secondary sources or, in many instances, only circumstantial evidence upon which to reconstruct history.

Unlike the paper trail that leads to and from John Durkee’s records, including a primitive box score immortalizing the 18 men at Center’s Bridge, there is no paper trail per se that can help us to identify San Francisco’s first baseball players. The hard evidence—the smoking gun as it were—has gone up in smoke or has been reduced to charred debris. Fortunately relevant historical evidence has survived, and, along with compelling circumstantial evidence, the forgotten and overlooked historical dots can be connected. And perhaps the early baseball players, or at least likely “suspects,” can be named.

* * *

On January 1, 1851, Mr. William M. Eddy, the Surveyor of the City of San Francisco, hosted a gathering at his home for his friends to welcome in the New Year. Hailing from New York as Mr. Eddy did, it was not surprising that many of his guests were also from the Empire State. In fact, Eddy’s home was crowded with so many transplanted New Yorkers that it was suggested that an association for New Yorkers in California be formed.[5] 

Accordingly, on January 4, 1851, a notice appeared in the San Francisco newspapers inviting all New Yorkers in San Francisco to attend a meeting on January 6, 1851, for the purpose of forming a Knickerbocker Association. At that gathering a constitution was framed and officers were elected.

Unfortunately, the membership rolls of the Knickerbocker Association are among the items lost forever. Though the names of the association’s rank and file will never be known, the names of the officers elected at the first meeting were printed in the local newspapers.

On January 23 the Knickerbockers met again, deciding that “none but those who were to the ‘manor born’ could be considered as real genuine Knickerbockers.” In other words, riff-raff need not apply.

On January 30 the Knickerbockers met once more. Four days later, and a mere four weeks after the formation of the Knickerbocker Association, baseball was being played in the Plaza.

If we allow ourselves a small step of faith in surmising that the “gentlemen,” as characterized in the Alta’s first report of the games, were indeed gentlemen, and knowing that the San Francisco Knickerbocker Association restricted its membership exclusively to gentlemen, then we have the beginnings of an interesting theory.

Alta Office, Shew's Daguerreian Saloon, 1851

Alta Office, Shew’s Daguerreian Saloon, 1851

After that small step of faith, we can look at hard evidence that suggests that these baseball players may have been more than just members of a newly formed gentleman’s club. It is entirely possible that San Francisco’s first baseball players were men who had more than just the means, the motive, and the opportunity to play baseball in 1851. Additionally, and most importantly, they also had the intent to play baseball in 1851 … because these men had played the game many times before.

It is possible that these baseball pioneers were more than just members of the San Francisco Knickerbockers; they may also have been members of the New York Knickerbockers—the New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club transplanted to California. The Knickerbockers of interest are the DeWitt brothers, Frank Turk, William Wheaton, Charles Case, William Tucker, Edward Ebbetts, and Walter Avery.

Listed below—roughly in the order of their arrival in San Francisco—are brief profiles of New York’s baseball Knickerbockers who can be placed in or around San Francisco in January and February of 1851, and who are worthy of scrutiny as likely “suspects” of being the “sporting gentlemen” playing baseball in the Plaza that first baseball season in California.

Clan DeWitt

Without any substantiation, baseball historian Harold Peterson identifies Peter DeWitt Jr. as the DeWitt family representative on the New York Knickerbockers.[6] A “DeWitt” did play in the club’s first recorded game on October 6, 1845, on the same side as Alexander Cartwright. However, since no first name or initial for “DeWitt” is recorded in the Knickerbocker game book,[7] it is just as likely that “DeWitt” might also have been either Peter’s older brother Alfred or younger brother Theodore.

The DeWitt family of New York City consisted of Peter Sr. (a wealthy attorney), his wife Jenat, and their children. Between 1808 and 1835 ten sons and two daughters were born to the parents. Our focus is on four of the sons: Alfred (born February 15, 1818); Peter Jr. (born February 12, 1820); Theodore (born November 19, 1821); and Henry (born June 25, 1828).

DeWitt and Harrison, Daily Alta, January 15, 1853

DeWitt and Harrison, Daily Alta, January 15, 1853

Alfred DeWitt, according to his journal and letters that he wrote,[8] left New York on April 6, 1848, aboard the Belfast, arriving in San Francisco on September 22 of that year. Alfred and his business partner, Henry A. Harrison, had purchased the Belfast in New York and filled its cargo hold with merchandise with the intention of establishing a business in San Francisco.[9] Upon their arrival, the two men set up DeWitt & Harrison on the west side of Sansome Street between Broadway and Pacific, near the Broadway Pier at what was then known as Clarke’s Point. Their first advertisement appeared in the September 30, 1848, edition of the weekly Californian, announcing

NEW GOODS.  DE WITT & HARRISON will open on Monday next, a large and general assortment of New Goods, just received per brig Belfast, from New York, which they offer to sell at wholesale at the ship wharf, foot of Broadway.

In addition to the paid advertisement, readers of the Californian also found this editorial comment on the arrival of DeWitt’s ship:

Town property is rapidly increasing in value. We have been credibly informed that as soon as the “Belfast” was seen lying at the wharf foot of Broadway, and discharging her cargo, goods fell 25 per cent and real estate rose from 50 to 100 percent. The vacant lot on the corner of Montgomery and Washington streets [four blocks from where the Belfast was docked] was offered the day previous for $5,000 and the next day sold readily at $10,000.

Needless to say, DeWitt & Harrison soon became one of the largest businesses in San Francisco.[10]

In June 1849, Alfred’s 21-year-old brother Henry arrived in San Francisco. The next month Alfred’s wife, Margaret, joined her husband. In 1850 Henry and Alfred were joined by brothers Peter Jr., who arrived in May, and finally Theodore, who came ashore in October.

Frank Turk

Another New York Knickerbocker to arrive in San Francisco was Frank Turk. His club debut was on October 17, 1845, the club’s third recorded game, when he scored three runs for his winning team. He missed the historic match game against the New York team on June 19, 1846, but was part of the subsequent mixed-team free-for-all “fun-game” which followed later that day.

Turk Street, San Francisco

Turk Street, San Francisco

In early 1849, while still a New York City resident, 30-year-old Frank Turk (for whom San Francisco’s Turk Street is named) was appointed Assistant Post Master of San Francisco. Turk’s journey to California involved a crossing of Mexico to Mazatlan, where he secured passage to San Francisco aboard the U.S. Revenue Cutter Edith. He disembarked in San Francisco on May 29, 1849. Traveling with Turk was John W. Geary (memorialized today by Geary Street), who had been appointed San Francisco’s Post Master.

Seeing an opportunity to make money from the influx of Argonauts, Turk resigned his government position shortly after arrival and began a law practice. By July 10, 1849, he was advertising in the Alta “Frank Turk: Attorney At Law, Parker House.” (The Parker House was on Kearny Street facing the Plaza.)

Turk achieved local notoriety a week later when he was appointed to be one of the public prosecutors of a group of men who had been victimizing and terrorizing San Francisco since February. Known as the “Hounds,” or “Regulators,” these men were charged with riot, attempted murder, robbery, and conspiracy stemming from an attack on a Chilean settlement near Clarke’s Point on July 15 and 16. After a weeklong series of highly public and publicized trials that held the city’s undivided attention, nearly all of the accused men were found guilty.

On August 1, 1849, while the trials were still in progress, Turk was elected “Second Alcalde” of San Francisco, a Mexican title equivalent to Vice Mayor. His former Post Office boss, John Geary, was elected Alcalde, or Mayor.

On January, 6, 1851, Turk was elected to the Committee on By Laws for the San Francisco Knickerbockers.

Brothers Cartwright

The next traveling New York Knickerbockers to arrive in San Francisco were the Cartwright brothers, Alexander and Alfred. (Neither one is a “suspect,” but Alexander provides some very valuable clues, to be discussed later.) Alfred was the first to depart, sailing from New York City on January 29, 1849, aboard the Pacific. On March 1, 1849, Alexander left New York for Independence, Missouri, where, on April 9, 1849, the wagons of the Newark Overland Company were camped in a field outside Independence, preparing to set off on the overland route for California. 

Traveling on foot and horseback, Alexander reached California on July 4, while Alfred didn’t arrive until August 5. Although Alexander kept a journal of his cross-country trek, it stops weeks before his arrival in California, and provides no information on his activities in this state.[11]

In an interview given by Alexander decades later, he said that he abandoned the idea of prospecting and proceeded down the Sacramento River to San Francisco to meet his brother. Thus, by late July Alexander was probably on his way to San Francisco to meet Alfred.

Cartwright, Pioneers Life Membership, 1875

Cartwright, Pioneers Life Membership, 1875

Arriving in San Francisco after almost five months without any contact with his family, the first orders of business of any traveler—overland or seafaring—would be to check for mail from home;[12] to send word back to his family that he had arrived safely; to seek out any known friends, relatives, or acquaintances in San Francisco; and finally, if meeting somebody, to check on the status of California-bound ships.

A person that Alexander Cartwright was certain to seek out directly was Alfred DeWitt. By January 1, 1849, DeWitt’s family in New York City had received word of Alfred’s arrival in San Francisco. Thus, by the time that Alfred Cartwright was leaving New York at the end of January, he (as well as Alexander) would know that DeWitt was in San Francisco.

The Cartwright and DeWitt families enjoyed a rather special relationship that transcended the game of baseball. The Cartwright family bible records that the first child born to Alexander and Eliza Ann Cartwright was born on May 3, 1843, at 11 St. Mark’s Place, New York City.[13] “11 St. Mark’s Place” was the home of Peter DeWitt Sr., his wife, Jenat, and their many adult-aged children. The Cartwrights named their newborn DeWitt Robinson Cartwright. Indeed, Cartwright may have spent his days in San Francisco as a guest of Alfred DeWitt and his wife, Margaret.

While in San Francisco in the latter part of July or early August, Cartwright would have learned of Frank Turk’s new profession, his prosecution of the Hounds/Regulators, and his election to public office. On August 5, Alfred’s ship arrived and the Cartwright brothers were reunited. Ten days later, an ailing Alexander Cartwright left San Francisco for Hawaii, where he would permanently settle. He would return to San Francisco two more times on business.[14]

Second and concluding part tomorrow!


1. Church, S. 1974. Baseball: The History, Statistics and Romance of the American National Game (reprint of 1902 publication) (p. 42).

2. The other newspaper accounts of baseball in the Plaza are: California Courier: Feb. 4, 1851:  “SPORTS ON THE PLAZA—The Plaza has at last been turned to some account by our citizens. Yesterday quite a crowd collected upon it, to take part in and witness a game of ball, many taking a hand. We are much better pleased at it than to witness the crowds in the gambling saloons which surround the square. Such sports are manly and healthful, and if not profitable, are at least innocent, and have not the pernicious tendency which attends the gambling saloon.”

      San Francisco Alta California (Alta): Feb. 6, 1851:  “BASE-BALL—This is becoming quite popular among our sporting gentry, who have an exercise upon the plaza nearly every day. This is certainly better amusement than “bucking” and if no windows or heads are broken will prove much more profitable.

San Francisco Herald: Mar. 1, 1851:  “THE PLAZA—…Numbers of boys and grown men daily amuse themselves by playing ball upon it—this is certainly an innocent recreation, but occasionally the ball strikes a horse passing, to the great annoyance of the driver.”

      Alta: Mar. 25, 1851:  “THE CORRAL—…There the boys play at ball, some of them using expressions towards their companions expressions neither flattering, innocent nor commendable. Men, too, children of a larger growth, do the same things…”

      Alta: Jan. 14, 1852:  “PUBLIC PLAY GROUND—For the last two or three evenings the Plaza has been filled with full grown persons engaged very industrially in the game known as ‘town ball.’ The amusement is very innocent and healthful, and the place peculiarly adapted for that purpose. A number of loafers are regularly perched upon the railings that extend around the Plaza, and whilst discussing the financial prospects of the country and the state of the weather, they employ their leisure moments by whittling off the tops of the posts. The scenes are extremely interesting and amusing.”

3. On March 17, 1860, the California Spirit of the Times and Fireman’s Journal reported: “CHANGE OF NAME: The San Francisco Base Ball Club have changed their name to that of Eagle, and by that will hereafter be known.”

4. California Spirit of the Times and Fireman’s Journal: March 3, 1860.

5. See: Lotchin, R. 1974. San Francisco 1846–1856: From Hamlet to City. Lincoln, Neb. (p. 104): “The largest number of ‘native’ migrants to San Francisco came from the mid-Atlantic States, and New England respectively. New York provided the greatest contribution, followed by Massachusetts.”

6. Peterson, H. 1973. The Man Who Invented Baseball. New York (p. 72).

7. All references to New York Knickerbocker games are based on the contents of the Knickerbocker Baseball Club of New York Gamebooks. October 6, 1845–1856, in the Albert Spalding Baseball Collection at the New York Public Library.

8. Letters and journals referred to are located at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley: DeWitt Family Papers, File Banc Mss 73/163 Box 3. This is a collection of 124 letters written by Alfred DeWitt as well as his brothers, Peter Jr., Henry, and Theodore, and Alfred’s wife, Margaret. The contents of the letters are not very enlightening for the purpose of this paper. However, the dates of the letters do provide timeline information on the whereabouts of the letter writer.

9. The California Society of Pioneers incorrectly lists DeWitt’s and Harrison’s arrivals in California as being overland from Independence, Missouri.

10. According to the Annals of San Francisco (first published in 1855), until the establishment of regular banks in San Francisco, people deposited their money and valuables with the mercantile houses having safes, including DeWitt & Harrison (p. 512).

11. Cartwright Journal, MS  DOC 55, Bishop Museum Archives, BishopMuseum, Honolulu, Hawaii.

12. See: Stillman, J. 1874. “Seeking the Golden Fleece,” Overland Monthly, March 1874, p. 254; and Browne, L. 1969. J. Ross Browne: His Letters, Journals and Writings (pp. 120–121), for first-hand accounts of the excitement and anxiety experienced by recent arrivals in San Francisco in 1849 awaiting mail from home.

13. Daughters of the American Revolution, 1950. California Family Bibles, vol. 8 (pp. 166–167). (Sutro Library, San Francisco, California, call number: E 202.5 C15 V5 v.8 c.1)

14. Alexander Cartwright came to San Francisco aboard the Pacific on May 21, 1850, and returned to Hawaii aboard the Samuel Russell, arriving in Hawaii July 2, 1850. He returned to San Francisco aboard the Zoe on April 22, 1852, departing aboard the Isabella on July 2, 1852, arriving in Honolulu July 22, 1852.

Tim Murnane: Heart of the Game

Tim Murnane

Tim Murnane

Two images accompanying this article neatly frame Tim Murnane’s story, even though they were photographed only nine years apart in his six-decade life in baseball. In the first photograph — a rollicking “Old Timers’ Day” at Peddock’s Island in Boston Harbor on August 12, 1908 — Murnane was at the pinnacle of his career. Striking a dapper pose in waistcoat, cravat, and boutonniere, the longtime baseball columnist of the Boston Globe reunited with some of the men with whom he had played ball in the 1870s. In the other photograph, taken on September 27, 1917, he is present in name only at the “Murnane Benefit Game,” with the proceeds designated for his widow; the defending champion Boston Red Sox, behind star lefthander Babe Ruth, shut out an all-star team led by Connie Mack.

But chronology is God’s way of telling a story, so why don’t we begin this portrait at the beginning, on June 4, 1851, when Timothy Hayes Murnan was born in Naugatuck, New Haven County, Connecticut. An obituary notice in the Naugatuck Daily News placed his birth in Tipperary County, Ireland, but when Murnan applied for a passport in 1874, he had sworn that he was born in Naugatuck. At some point after that he commenced to spell his name as Murnane, and he will be thus referenced below.

1871 Osceola of Stratford with O'Rourke; Murnane had played with the club in 1869-70.

1871 Osceola of Stratford with O’Rourke; Murnane had played with the club in 1869-70.

He began his baseball career as catcher for the Osceola of Stratford Club, in 1869, a formidable nine that two years later would feature “Orator” Jim O’Rourke, future Hall of Famer, on its state champion squad. By that time, however, Murnane was off in Georgia, having been recruited by the Savannahs, a barnstorming professional team. When he returned to the state of his birth with his Southern teammates in the summer of 1871, he played so well that he was engaged by the Mansfield Club of Middletown, which would play the following season in what was then the big league, the National Association (NA). The club’s backers also signed Orator Jim, almost a year older than Handsome Tim.

The major-league Mansfields enjoyed only a brief run of 23 games before disbanding, but both Stratford alumni landed on their feet. O’Rourke, who had batted .307, was signed by the Boston Red Stockings, who would top the NA for the three remaining years of its existence. Murnane, who had played first base for Middletown and batted .359, was snapped up by the Athletics. The two Nutmeggers reunited not only when Boston played Philadelphia but also in England, when in 1874 the two clubs conducted baseball’s first overseas tour. A speedy and nimble baserunner, Murnane perpetrated a legendary stunt in a game at Boston on June 14, 1873, when he escaped an otherwise unavoidable out by jumping clean over second baseman Andy Leonard, who was stooping to tag him.

Murnane with 1874 AthleticsIn 1875 Murnane transferred his allegiance to the Philadelphia White Stockings, also known as the Pearls, and when that team vanished along with the entire NA structure, he joined O’Rourke on Harry Wright’s Boston club in the new National League (NL) for the centennial year of 1876. There he remained for two seasons before seeing an opportunity in Providence, where a new NL franchise was launched for the 1878 campaign. But Murnane’s hitting dropped off badly; while O’Rourke was to remain a big-league star for another dozen years, for Murnane the end was suddenly in sight. In 1879 he began the season with the Capital City Club, of Albany, New York, which was thereafter transferred to Rochester, in a crumbling league.

In 1880 Murnane called it quits and went into business, including, over the ensuing years, opening a saloon and billiard hall in Boston and serving a stint as publisher of The Boston Referee, a sporting paper devoted to baseball, polo and other sports. It was short lived, but it testified to the printer’s ink in Murnane’s blood. He contributed baseball items to the New York Clipper and other papers and began to develop a following, for he wrote the way he spoke — like a ballplayer. In an age of Victorian reserve, restraint, and moralizing (exemplified in the writing of Henry Chadwick), this was an innovation. Murnane was the first former ballplayer to become a professional writer.

The rare Boston Referee, 1887

The rare Boston Referee, 1887

All the same, stitching together a living with a variety of entrepreneurial ventures held no special charm for a young man with baseball still on his mind. When Henry V. Lucas organized the Union Association (UA) as a major league in 1884 and George Wright capitalized the Boston entry, Murnane took a minority position and agreed not only to be the club’s on-field manager but also to play first base. He performed the former task better than he did the latter, but it didn’t matter, as the UA did not return for a second season. Murnane drifted off to play a few more games for a club in Jersey City, then called it quits again, this time for good.

In 1886 Murnane was engaged, together with John J. Drohan, to do baseball work as a staffer for the Globe. When Drohan soon left, Murnane was given full charge, rising to head the entire sports department for a generation. And he died in harness, filing a story just one hour before suffering a massive heart attack in the lobby of the Shubert Theater on February 7, 1917. When he died at age 65 he was not only the voice of baseball in Boston; his opinionated style had become a national institution. Along the way Murnane had also served as president, secretary, and treasurer of the New England League and Eastern League. He had acted, too, as an “ivory hunter,” directing to the big leagues such talented youngsters as Tommy McCarthy, Hugh Duffy, Cannonball Crane, Mike Slattery, Dupee Shaw, John Irwin, and many others who, as it turned out, would join him for the Peddock’s Island fest.

Peddocks Island 1908

Peddock’s Island 1908

Back then you could only get to the island by boat; today you can board a water taxi or even land a helicopter, but unlike a hundred years ago, no one goes there to have a good time anymore. The Conservation Department rangers operate a visitors’ center in the summer and lovers of unspoiled beauty put up with the absence of such amenities as power and water to experience wilderness in sight of the metropolis. But this is not fun; it is a trial. Bordering Hingham Bay, the 134 acres of Peddock’s Island encompass four forested hills which include the moldering Fort Andrews Reservation and scores of turn-of-the-century summer cottages in varying states of decay. But read below how glowingly Baseball Magazine described the Old Timers’ Day in this now forlorn spot in its November 1908 issue; Old Tim, by then known as the Silver King for his flowing white hair, must have been in his glory, surrounded by former teammates and adversaries like Tommy Bond, Jack Manning, and Paul Hornung; once-young colts he had brought to the bigs like McCarthy and Shaw; brothers of the inkwell like Jacob C. Morse and Sam Crane, and Royal Rooter fixtures Mike Regan and “Nuf Ced” McGreevey.

They were privileged, indeed, who attended the Old Timers’ Day at Peddock’s Island in Boston Harbor this year. It occurred on Wednesday, August 12, an open day in the local major league schedule. Peddock’s Island was selected because it is the home of “Honest” John Irwin, a former professional ball player, of the famous Irwin family, fathered, as it were, by the veteran Arthur Irwin, who has been in touch with baseball this season as the scout of the New York club of the American League. Mine host Irwin always has on hand that which cheers the inner man, and he was kept busier than ever in his life before.

The photograph that was taken to memorize the occasion shows full well the character of the assemblage. Never before was such an array seen. The veterans of veterans were Arthur Cummings, the first man to develop the curve ball; “Dicky” Pearce, the greatest shortstop of his day, in his seventy-third year, and alas! it proved to be the last Old Timers’ Day that he will attend, for he caught a severe cold as the result of the outing, and soon afterwards passed away. [Chadwick had left this earth the same way earlier that year, catching cold on Opening Day in Brooklyn and dying soon after.]

Sam Crane, a crack second baseman in his day, and now one of the cleverest of writers on the game, came on especially to attend the gathering, and said he had the time of his life.

Murnane's pamphlet for Spalding Series

Murnane’s pamphlet for Spalding Series

Some of the greatest lights of baseball were there — Tom Bond, without a superior in the seventies; Tom McCarthy, never beaten in his palmy days as fielder, run getter, base-runner and batsman; John Morrill, one of the cleverest all-round players that ever lived, and a splendid athlete today, although golf is his dearest love; Joe Hornung, a great outfielder with a record of eleven putouts and one assist, while a member of the Boston club; George Wood, long connected with the game as an outfielder, a fine player and hard hitter; Miah Murray, who played with Toronto, Providence and Washington, and for years umpired the games at dear old Harvard; Charley Farrell, one of the cleverest catchers that ever donned a protector or wore a mask; “Dupee” Shaw, a crack lefthander and widely sought years ago; “Connie” Murphy, of the old Brooklyn Players’ League team, and a team in himself; “Jack” Manning, prominent in the earliest days of professional baseball; “Tim” Murnane, brought up with the veteran “Jim” O’Rourke in good old Connecticut, always in and for the game; “Billy” Hawes, one of the most gentlemanly exponents of the good old game; Charley Ganzel, of Detroit, Boston and Philadelphia….

The weather was perfect, the game lasted nine full innings and was heartily enjoyed by all present, Old Boston winning from the opposing team 5 to 3.

That same two-run margin obtained on September 27, 1917, when Nuf Ced’s beloved Boston Americans squared off against a team whose outfield included Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Joe Jackson. Actress Fanny Brice helped sell programs. Former heavyweight champ John L. Sullivan coached third base for the Red Sox. In pregame field events, Ruth won the fungo-hitting contest with a drive of 402 feet‚ while Joe Jackson had the longest throw at an impressive 396’ 8”. Ray Chapman, whose own date with death was not far off, circled the bases in 14 seconds flat to win a loving cup.

Murnane Benefit Game 1917

Murnane Benefit Game 1917

The All-Star infield consisted of Stuffy McInnis at first, Ray Chapman at second, Buck Weaver at third, and Rabbit Maranville, borrowed from the Boston Nationals, at shortstop. The All-Star pitchers were Urban Shocker, Howard Ehmke, and Walter Johnson. The thrilling contest was scoreless after seven, but with two out in the top of the eighth, Jack Barry and Dick Hoblitzel singled off Johnson, and then Duffy Lewis drove both men home with a triple to right-center. That proved to be all the scoring, as the Sox held on to win, 2–0. The real winners, however, were the widowed Mrs. Murnane and her four children, as well as two daughters from the writer’s first marriage. They collected $14,000. Boston’s owners donated the use of Fenway Park as well as all the proceeds.

As to Tim Murnane, whose name does not come up often these days, his standing remained high even in death. In the offseason following the 1939 campaign, a rookie named Ted Williams was named the team’s MVP — he received the Tim Murnane Award. In 1946 the Baseball Hall of Fame established a Roll of Honor and named Murnane one of 12 writers to be memorialized. And in 1978 he was selected as recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for excellence in baseball journalism, along with Dick Young … another sportswriter who was said to be the most influential of his time.

Baseball Magazine

Baseball Magazine, August 1908

Baseball Magazine, August 1908

In the golden age of magazines, the period 1880-1920, the newsstands were bedecked with general-interest and literary publications: the weeklies included such fare as The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Frank Leslie’s Popular Magazine, and Harper’s; the monthlies boasted, among others, Atlantic, Munsey’s, McClure’s Magazine, and Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. Competition for rack space was fierce, as was the competition for the eye (and pocketbook) of the browser; the fees that top writers routinely received in 1920 exceed those available today, when the dollar buys so much less; and artists whose work graced magazine covers, like James Montgomery Flagg, Edward Penfield, Maxfield Parrish, and J. C. Leyendecker, became truly wealthy.

Baseball Magazine, May 1908

Baseball Magazine, May 1908

But first-class cover art had never been viewed as a necessary competitive edge for an all-sports publication until the advent of Baseball Magazine. In December 1907 veteran Boston sportswriter Jacob Morse issued a prospectus on behalf of The Baseball Magazine Company for the creation of a new, deluxe, all-baseball monthly the likes of which had never before been contemplated. Its articles would run as long as interest held, sometimes to 10,000 words; its writers would be the best the sport had to offer; and the eye appeal of the covers would compete on the newsstand with the best general-interest publications, not to mention the specialty monthlies. Morse had written Sphere and Ash, a history of the game, back in 1888 and had even managed the Boston Union Association club in 1884.

Baseball Magazine, October 1913

Baseball Magazine, October 1913

Through its first decade or so, Baseball Magazine proved an artistic and commercial success, reaching six-figure circulations that would make a modern magazine publisher envious. Here are some particularly grand examples of the painterly elegance that was the publication’s trademark at the time. By the 1920s the covers had turned rather dull in aesthetic terms–red borders around a player photograph. This heralded not only the cost cutting that characterized the magazine industry as a whole, at the dawn of the new age of radio, but also a growing perception that on the newsstand and throughout the sports/entertainment industry, it was stars, not sensibility, that sold. More’s the pity for the culture, perhaps, but in sports as in theater, the play’s the thing, and so are the players.

Arlie Latham

Arlie Latham, 1888

Arlie Latham, 1886

In yesterday’s post I spoke about King Kelly as a rough and ready player of the old school. Here’s another in that vein. Imagine a combination of the pugnacity and tenacity of Pete Rose, the speed and acrobatic ability of Ozzie Smith, and the audacity and loquacity of Deion Sanders. Now put a handlebar mustache on the player, transport him back to the four-time league champion St. Louis Browns of the 1880s, and call him Arlie Latham.

Although other players sported better stats and better dispositions, Latham came to the ballpark to beat you. He was a speedster (in 1888 he totaled 129 steals), but he stole most of his bases through daring and disregard for his body, belly-flopping for the bag and reaching out a hand, or barreling into the base, kicking up a dust storm and kicking over the baseman. He was also something of a clown and thus a fan favorite. In a game in 1882 he scored the winning run by turning a somersault over the catcher and landing on the plate. He was famous for profanely badgering the opposition and hectoring his own players, thus earning him the enmity of both and the nickname “The Freshest Man on Earth.” His private life was as tumultuous as that on the field: his first wife attempted suicide, and his second wife divorced him, charging “perversion, assault, desertion, and infidelity.” Perhaps there was more in the complaint.

Arlie Latham, 1911

Arlie Latham, 1911

In 1909 John McGraw, who had played against Latham in the 1890s and knew how he could disrupt the opposing pitcher’s concentration, hired him as baseball’s first full-time coach (Arlie had coached part-time with Cincinnati in 1900). From his box at first base, Latham would dance around, enrage the pitcher, steal signs from the catcher, and lead the fans in cheers and jeers. More constructively, perhaps, he also instructed the Giants in the art of base stealing. In 1909, incredibly, one of the Giants’ 234 stolen bases belonged to Latham himself, who at age forty-nine was activated for four games in September. When Arlie grew too old to play or coach, he stayed on with the Giants as a press-box attendant, and he remained with the Giants in an official capacity until his dying day. His baseball career spanned an incredible seventy-six years.

Buck Ewing and King Kelly

Buck Ewing

Buck Ewing

Buck Ewing and King Kelly were quite a pair, though they never played on the same club. Ewing was Cincinnati’s hometown hero who made his mark in the big leagues with Troy; Michael Joseph Kelly left his birthplace of Troy to become the toast (alas, too frequently, for he drank his way out of the league) of Cincinnati and several other venues, notably Chicago and Boston. Ewing was a catcher who in later years played increasingly at other positions; Kelly began as an outfielder but wound up catching nearly as many games as he played in the garden. Ewing was a model citizen and the model for all right-thinking individuals; Kelly was a reprobate and perhaps an idol for the rest of us.

They were different in all these regards, Kelly and Ewing, but they had this in common: ordinary speed on the basepaths but cleverness and breathtaking daring. “Ewing’s Famous Slide” was the title of a popular litho of the day, memorializing an apocryphal tale of his announced intent (and ultimate success) in stealing home after he had already stolen second base and third.

Ewing was born in rural Ohio in 1859, played his first professional ball with the aptly named Buckeyes, and returned to Ohio to play with and manage the Reds in the 1890s. In fact, in a story little noted today, he’d returned there in 1883, when the Troy franchise collapsed. Suddenly finding himself without a home, Ewing signed with the Cincinnati Reds of the American Association. However, the great Harmony Conference (also known as the Tripartite Agreement) of the National League, the Northwestern League, and the American Association yielded a settlement by which Ewing (and fellow Trojans Mickey Welch and Pete Gillespie) were turned over to the newly formed New York Gothams. (New York’s National League team was known as the Gothams until manager Jim Mutrie, some years hence, exclaimed that his brawny lads were “Giants.”) Ewing scored more than a run per game and played at second, short, third, and the outfield when the catching grind wore him down.

Ewing's Famous Slide, as depicted in Harper's Weekly

Ewing’s Famous Slide, as depicted in Harper’s Weekly

He became a legend for his audacity, pluck, and field generalship. Intangibles went a long way with fans and sportswriters back then, more so than today when stats seem to be the sole measure of the man. But Ewing could hit: once he led in homers, another time in triples, and he hit as high as .344. He could throw: the snap throw to second from a crouch position started with Buck Ewing, not Pudge Rodriguez. And he could run, too, stealing 53 bases in the Giants’ championship year of 1888.

So how great was he, really? Twenty years after his last game, veteran sportswriters compared him to Cobb and Wagner and pronounced him their peer. And when the Hall of Fame was opened in 1939, Buck Ewing, long gone but still revered in all his hometowns, became its first catcher.

Slide, Kelly, Slide

Slide, Kelly, Slide

Kelly’s sliding wizardry was more scientific. He developed the hook slide, whereby he encouraged his opponent to try to tag the front leg that was away from the base while his back leg landed him safe. His exploits were celebrated not only in a Harper’s Weekly print from his Chicago White Stocking days but also in a Tin Pan Alley tune, “Slide, Kelly, Slide,” that gently mocked his vanity: “Slide, Kelly, slide! Your running’s a disgrace! Slide, Kelly, slide! Stay there, hold your base!”

Kelly was the first baseball star to milk his fame for all it was worth. Product endorsements, personality licensing, theatrical appearances, Kelly pioneered them all. With Play Ball: Stories of the Diamond Ball Field, he launched what has become a staple of baseball literature, the celebrity biography. Published by Emery & Hughes of Boston, this forty-six-page booklet (ghosted by Jack Drohan of the Boston Globe) is highly entertaining if not demonstrably factual. The stories about Kelly are legion, and like the ones attaching to Rube Waddell, that other great mythic figure of early baseball, if they’re not true, well, they ought to have been. History is more than the mere recitation of fact. Scrupulous fact checkers may successfully repudiate this story or that one, but they can’t attach feet of clay to Kelly’s idol because he did such a good job of that himself, drinking himself to death before he reached the age of 37.

Play Ball, King Kelly

Play Ball, King Kelly

There are a hundred great stories about the King, but let me share with you this almost certainly fictitious classic, a story that’s so often told and so illustrative of his genius that it’s better than merely true. Once, in the days when a substitution took effect upon a captain’s announcing it, an opposing batsman lifted a low foul ball toward the Boston dugout, where Kelly was taking a day off to recover from a bruise of the day before or the booze of the night before. Kelly saw his catcher would never get there in time, so he leapt from the bench, shouted, “Kelly now catching for Boston!” and snagged the fly. Not surprisingly, the rules makers changed things not long after that. No matter–rules were not made to constrain a King.

Sober or not, he was the best player in baseball in the mid-1880s. But Kelly’s high-living, fun-loving lifestyle had him in constant hot water with his Chicago manager, Cap Anson. When Kelly was sold to Boston in 1887, at the height of his career, it was for $10,000, the largest amount of money ever paid for a ballplayer. The medal given him by his Boston fans in that year was for his 84 stolen bases, the most on the club and the third best total in the league.

Out of baseball after a few games with New York in 1893, he sought a new career on the boards. He was on his way to Boston to perform Casey at the Bat at the Palace Theater in November 1894 when he was stricken with pneumonia. As they carried his stretcher into the hospital, it is said, the attendants tripped and dumped Kelly on the floor. “That’s me last slide,” he said. A few days later the “$10,000 Beauty” died.


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