Results tagged ‘ origins ’
I delivered this keynote speech yesterday morning at the 24th annual Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture. I am honored to address such a passionate and learned gathering. The title of this keynote speech—Baseball’s Unchanging Past: A Necessary Illusion—evokes not only our oddly hallowed location, this lovely place where baseball was not invented, but also America’s enduring fascination with its national game, always changing in ways so minute that it seems to remain, comfortingly, the same.
Kierkegaard has written that life may only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. For the duration of this conference at least, we will do our best to reverse that dictum. Hoping to grasp what happened in baseball and the larger culture—and why—we will plant our feet in the sands of the past and wiggle our toes a bit, just to see what it felt like to be alive then. The overlay of modern analytic constructs will not be worth much until we do that.
Baseball’s popularity is primarily about the present, but its charm, its essential appeal, is about the past. A proud and vibrant anachronism, baseball is determinedly out of fashion—slow to move with the times, yet always in fashion, always our game. A museum of America’s original democratic values and ideals about the player and the team, baseball serves as a monument to who we once were … and might be again. It is our Eden, our Garden, its gates long since closed yet to which we might enter once again.
Baseball’s Eden is located, of course, not here in Cooperstown, or New York City, or Hoboken, or Pittsfield—or England or Egypt. It is no place—the literal meaning of utopia—but between our ears, where it has always has been, from the game’s very beginning.
In preparing this speech it occurred to me, truly for the first time, that thirty years ago, when I commenced the research for my most recent book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, I was also completing the manuscript, with Pete Palmer, of The Hidden Game of Baseball. I wondered back then why so many people had expended so much energy in trying to shape and control the creation myth of baseball; to return to an Edenic past, real or imagined; to create the legend of a fall from grace, instigated by gamblers and drunkards, baseball’s stand-ins for the Serpent. I was also wondering at that time what role baseball metrics played in supporting that vision of Paradise, an age when giants walked the earth, or at least routinely hit .400 and won 30 games. So, to prepare for today’s address, I have had cause to revisit the germinal thoughts that precipitated those two books.
As individuals,we embrace the notion of a historical Baseball Eden because we sense that we catch a glimpse of it during any particular baseball game. Played or watched, our national pastime moves us past time itself, recalling youth and deferring death. It is a fine trick we play upon ourselves, and no other American institution makes for as artful a magician’s assistant.
As we grow older, we bear less and less outward resemblance to the child left behind at adulthood’s door, yet that child lives on within us, remaining an essential part of our identity, if not the essential part. Life’s cares make it more and more difficult to touch base with the child within, which needs a regular dose of attention if it is to sustain us. Thinking about baseball—steady, comfortable, unchanging baseball—brings us into a unifying relationship with the child, the part of us that loves the game, even if it is the adult that comes to understand it. Because the game is so evocative, on the deepest level, of our childhood, it is not surprising that the impressions of the game sharply formed during that period are the ones that stay with us for all time, forming a personal, if not overly factual, Eden.
The game moves along slowly, seamlessly, from inning to inning, game to game, season to season, giving a special poignancy to the passage of time when change becomes all too visible. The heroes of our youth grow old—“the boys of summer in their ruin,” emphasizing the key part of Dylan Thomas’s verse—yet to ourselves we seem the same … forever young. That’s why such occasions as Old Timers’ Day or the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies are so sadly sweet; better, we may think for a moment, to preserve these heroes in our memories as they were, frozen in a baseball-card pose, undiminished.
If historic America survives anywhere as more than a roadside marker, it is in baseball, that strangely pastoral game in no matter what setting—domed stadium, open-air ballpark, or Little League diamond. Even those whose entire lives have been spent in big cities feel the call of the grass, the undertow of the past.
Hindsight improves upon reality—we might call that phenomenon, more simply, illusion—so that the endless monotony and grinding physical labor of agrarian life before the Revolution were soon thought quite romantic and morally superior. This strange longing only accelerated as young bachelors fled the countryside for employment in the burgeoning cities. For all its pull toward the good old days, for all its statistical illusions of an Olympian era when titans strode the base paths, for all its seeming permanence in a world aswirl with change, baseball has in fact moved with America, and improved with it.
Although the contestants of today are very different in their abilities, physiologies, attitudes, and training, in a quick glance the game on the field looks the same as that of 1896 or 1956: the rules are pretty much the same; game scores are about the same; and individual performances are about the same. The seamless web of baseball is an illusion, the seams smoothed over by statistics. In the Olympics of 1896, the winning time in the 1500–meter run was 4:33.2; in 2008 it was 3:33.9, a clear statement that in this event, the top runner of today is capable of performances 20 percent better than his counterpart of 1896.
Baseball in 1896, however, saw four men hit over .390, a level of performance seemingly unattainable today. If Jesse Burkett hit .410 to lead the National League in that year—he was one of four men to hit over .390—why does no one today bat 20 percent higher, approaching .500? Or if Burkett was a superman, look at the league average of .290: Why would today’s league averages be lower rather than higher? Was the average player better a century ago? In unmediated sporting competitions, times improve with each generation. In baseball, we move the finish line ever so slightly, with a predictable stabilizing effect on statistics.
Take a football fan of today to a gridiron contest played by the rules of 1896 and he might fairly say that the game and its equipment were so different from the one he knew that it might not be the same game at all. From the size of the players to the nearly spherical shape of the leather-covered pigskin bladder, from the ban on passing to the restrictions on substitution to the scoring values accorded to field goals and touchdowns, football reinvented itself, from a low-scoring game of mass momentum and dangerous formations to one of quick strikes and long gains. The same might be said of basketball at the turn of the century—that with the center jump, lumpy ball, and brutal play at the rim, the low-scoring fracas seemed like nothing so much as football without the padding.
Yet baseball was always baseball. The early game, however you define or demarcate it, was indeed different from the one we see on the field today. Yet players in big-league parks at the turn of the century, packed with thousands of paying spectators, knew that they were taking part in the very same game that had been staged for free at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken only fifty years before. As Bruce Catton noted in American Heritage in 1959:
“The neat green field looks greener and cleaner under the lights, the moving players are silhouetted more sharply, and the enduring visual fascination of the game—the immobile pattern of nine men, grouped according to ancient formula and then, suddenly, to the sound of a wooden bat whacking a round ball, breaking into swift ritualized movement, movement so standardized that even the tyro in the bleachers can tell when someone goes off in the wrong direction—this is as it was in the old days. A gaffer from the era of William McKinley, abruptly brought back to the second half of the twentieth century, would find very little in modern life that would not seem new, strange, and rather bewildering, but put in a good grandstand seat back of first base he would see nothing that was not completely familiar.”
Baseball permits its revelers to defy not only time but also reason. One of the first lessons a fan learns is that in baseball anything, absolutely anything, can happen. Every year something happens that never happened in baseball before. I could point you to David Freese and the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 6 of last year’s World Series. But I prefer to cite a lesser known, relatively recent singularity: In the deciding game of the 2004 Northern League championship series, the St. Paul Saints, trailing 6–3 with two outs and one on in the bottom of the ninth and twice down to their last strike, proceeded to score seven runs, climaxed by a walk-off grand slam, to defeat the Schaumberg Flyers 10–6. In 160 years of recorded baseball history, no team had ever won a championship this way.
Through baseball we sublimate our martial instincts; we emulate our heroes, whom we appoint as champions or surrogates for our hopes and fears; we experience thrills and agonies vicariously, and, in a magical act of transference, we become more truly ourselves—more primal, less inhibited … more like, say, Adam, or Eve. At the ballpark or even in front of the television, fans are, for the interlude of a few hours, different from whom they are in everyday life—masquerading no less than people do at Mardi Gras or Carnivale to revel in life and taunt death. In the drama that is a baseball game the fan imagines himself not a spectator but a participant, as if the fervor of his rooting will have a bearing on the outcome. Like Walter Mitty, he becomes in his mind a player.
When did this illusion of transference and time travel begin? Certainly before the Knickerbockers, Gothams, and Eagles of New York City relocated their home grounds to Hoboken, New Jersey in the 1840s. It was at this time that newly arrived urbanites first began to imbue rural life with a romanticized nostalgia—a Greek compound that literally means “the ache of not being able, ever, to go home again” [nostos, homecoming + algia, pain].
Idyllic America had not disappeared, for in fact it had never existed. The young men who now streamed into the cities ached for their backwoods Paradise Lost, and regained it, however briefly, through play at the Elysian Fields. In the park within the city, they could go home again.
For two decades before baseball games began to be played there, the Elysian Fields had been New York’s favorite “place of general resort for citizens, as well as strangers, for health and recreation,” wrote its proprietor, John Stevens, in 1824. “So easily accessible, and where in a few minutes the dust, noise, and bad smells of the city may be exchanged for the pure air, delightful shades, and completely rural scenery. . . .”
The urban malaise to which Stevens contrasted his sylvan settings was not mere rhetoric. Thousands of New Yorkers had died in the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1822. Ten summers later, cholera would kill another 3,500, representing one death for every 65 inhabitants at a time when the city’s population was 230,000 (of whom fully a third fled the city that summer). An equivalent mortality in today’s New York of 8 million would be more than 123,000. Because the folk wisdom was that pestilential vapors returned every twelve years, one might well imagine the dread overhanging New York in the mid-1840s.
In these years there were many testaments to baseball’s hygienic properties (“Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms . . . the game of ball is glorious,” Walt Whitman wrote in the Brooklyn Eagle of July 3, 1846). Might the generalized fear of disease, and cholera in particular with its cycle of return—rather than the march of industry upon the former playgrounds of Manhattan—have been the impetus to ballplayers’ flight to the Elysian Fields in the mid–’40s? It is pleasing to think that baseball, as a safe-haven game, would have come to the fore at this perilous time.
Late in life, Henry Chadwick—pioneer writer, consummate moralist, and architect of baseball as a national game—wrote in a letter to the editor of the New York Tribune, “I am thankful to say of the great National field games of England and America, the grand old game of cricket and the comparatively new game of baseball, there is not a brutal feature connected with either of them, and yet both develop the highest qualities of true manhood, courage, endurance, pluck, nerve, honorable competition, and”—here I emphasize his last itemized attribute—“the chivalry of sport.” Yet it had been in some measure the very brutality of early baseball, when brave men donned neither glove nor mask and wore their bruises, shiners, and shinplasters as badges of honor, which attracted devotees and left the lemonade drinkers aghast. And, as I have argued in Baseball in the Garden of Eden, gambling was a necessary prime mover in the progress of baseball toward becoming “America’s cricket.”
As baseball had drawn a newly urban America back to its pseudo-Edenic past, it now helped to carry forward, into a new and increasingly corrupt body politic, the hypothetical democratic values of a bygone age. The newly organized and systematized game, built upon baseball prototypes that had been played in America long before the Revolution, now took on the purity that came with posterity. As more and more baseball clubs organized in the 1850s, the idea of a distant Eden—set not in Revolutionary America but in Medieval England—was in full flower. Courtly rites ripped from the pages of Ivanhoe rendered Walter Scott, even more than Henry Chadwick, the architect of the gentlemanly game favored by the Knickerbockers of New York and the Putnams and Excelsiors of Brooklyn. Early on, the new game of baseball resembled not the raucous old one, of stinging throws and side bets, but the game of England’s stately mansions, cricket.
It was as if, having turned our backs on the Mother Country, we might have been feeling a bit lonely and having second thoughts. In our land of immigrants, united not by class or creed or culture, the ties that bind were those of family, ethnic heritage, faith, and community—all of them local rather than national. Baseball gave promise, early on, of serving as America’s de facto religion, connecting us across all divides of time and space, while rejuvenating the national heritage. “It’s our game,” wrote Whitman, “America’s game . . . it belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our Constitution’s laws; is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.”
In today’s technological, impersonal, and brittle age, baseball is, in Daniel Boorstin’s phrase, “an oasis of the uncontrived.” It is also our national theater, but with unscripted outcomes. New records are added every day, stretching limitlessly to the horizon line, yet it is the game’s past, appearing to extend equally far in reverse, that binds. Early on, records transformed a boyhood game into a sport, thus “modernizing” it. Yet records also link each present achievement to a prior, sometimes unapproachable, standard. (Think, for example, of Cy Young’s 511 wins, or Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.) Indeed, the early years of major league play provide records that, to one not familiar with the prevailing rules and conditions, are unfathomable: pitchers Jim Devlin of Louisville, Bobby Mathews of New York, and George Bradley of St. Louis each accounting for all his team’s victories in 1876; Will White completing all 75 of his starts in 1879 while pitching 680 innings; Hoss Radbourn winning 59 games in 1884; Tip O’Neill batting .485 in 1887. Were these men of iron, compared to the namby-pambies of today? Of course not.
We cannot come to this conclusion by using conventional statistics and simple comparisons, for the rules tinkerers have flattened out the differences that otherwise would have shown in the averages. We may employ relativist approaches, such as the now classic one first offered in The Hidden Game that equates Carl Yastrzemski’s league-leading .301 of 1968 with Bill Terry’s .401 of 1930—both were some 32 percent beyond league average. Even after this illumination, however, we are still left with the conundrum of assessing the meaning of the league averages themselves.
But these gremlins in the baseball engine have done nothing to inhibit fielding, which has enjoyed a steady ascent since 1876, as measured by the ratio of earned runs to total runs. Anyone who has been watching the game for 30 or 40 years and is of an unbiased cast of mind will tell you that the best fielders of all time, at almost any position you can think of, entered the game after World War II. Old-timers will tell you stories about Hal Chase or George Sisler, but were they better than Wes Parker or Keith Hernandez? Did Rabbit Maranville range farther and wider than Ozzie Guillen? Did Tris Speaker cover more ground than Willie Mays?
In 1952 Ty Cobb wrote an article for Life magazine in which he declared that the only ballplayers of the modem era that could be compared with those of his day were Stan Musial and Phil Rizzuto. Where today is a man like Cobb, who won twelve batting titles in thirteen years? Where is a Rogers Hornsby, who averaged over .400 for a five-year period? A Babe Ruth, who in 1920 hit more homers than fourteen of the fifteen other big-league teams? A Jack Taylor, who over five years completed 187 consecutive starts? Why were so many all-time pitching records set between 1900 and 1919 and so many batting records over the next two decades? These heroes of yore were great players, certainly … yet men of the same ability, or greater, are among us today, their feats camouflaged by the heightened expertise of those around them.
In football, no one imagines that Red Grange would star in today’s NFL. In basketball, who thinks that George Mikan, the greatest player of the 1940s, would even start for an NBA team in 2012? Yet nearly everyone believes that Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson, if teleported to the present day, would dominate the game as they did in the days of yore. Why do so many of us continue to buy this notion?
In the hands of nearly all its practitioners today, baseball history, like history in general, is a moated activity, in which “what happened” is what matters. Permit me to make a perhaps old-fashioned distinction between History and The Past, the former being rooted in what happened, the latter best described as “what binds and sustains,” or what is useful.
In The Death of the Past, J. H. Plumb described this earlier model for history as the establishment of “a psychological reality, used for a social purpose: to stress the virtues of courage, endurance, strength, loyalty and indifference to death.” Baseball provides us with such a mythology, replete with unmatchable feats, admirable heroes, and awe-inspiring legends. By presenting us with an age of wonders, an Edenic past, baseball equips us to have dreams, to take risks, and to be good Americans.
As the response to George Wright’s “lost” interview from 1888 about baseball uniforms was highly complimentary, I give this space over to him once again. The time is again June 1888, the subject is baseball bats—including a number of variants that recall the corked bats of recent times—and the authority is impeccable. In the undefeated 1869 campaign of the Cincinnati Reds, in 57 contests that came against National Association clubs, George Wright’s bat produced an average of five hits and ten total bases per game, collecting 49 home runs among his 304 hits and batting .629. To the argument that the opposition was frequently soft: In the club’s19 games against fellow professionals (the Reds won all, of course), he hit 13 home runs and batted .587. I am indebted to my friend and estimable historian Bob Schaefer for the woodcut illustrations below. Now, to quote the nonpareil player of the age.
There is one curious thing in connection with base ball bats and their use by both professional and amateurs throughout the country which I think has not as yet been noticed, or at least received due attention.
I refer to the very marked changes which have taken place within my own recollection in the size and shape of base ball bats. It is queer whit an effect experience, change in playing rules, and especially the science of curving the ball have had upon them. Formerly long bats were all the rage, and players, both professional and amateur, held up legs of wood, some of them 3-1/2 feet in length, and fanned the air in a way that would seem perfectly ridiculous to the average player to-day.
Henry Chadwick of Brooklyn, the veteran among base ball reporters, was the first to introduce what was known as the square bat. It was forty-two inches in length, and was truly an immense affair. That was about the year 1860, away back in the days of the Knickerbocker, Eagle and Gotham clubs. Chadwick was always present at the games, sitting on the benches, invariably carrying an umbrella under his arm. The square bat, however, proved a fizzle, as the claim that more force was gained in the strike with less labor to the batsman proved untenable when put to the actual test.
At about the same time a hollow ash bat, loaded with a movable ball of lignum vitae, was used as an experiment by some players. A hole was bored some distance into the larger end of the bat, the lignum vitae ball inserted and the hole stopped up, This ball played freely back and forth in the hollow, and whenever the batsman brought forward the bat for the strike the ball rolled toward the end away from the handle, and the ball sent in by the pitcher struck the bat at a point opposite the lignum vitae ball. There was little advantage gained by this, however, as the rolling and snapping of the ball inside the bat often sounded like the tick of a foul ball and occasioned considerable trouble.
About the year 1873-4, in the [Boston] Red Stocking nine, a couple of bats made of willow, with cane handles, like those of cricket bats, were introduced. They had a certain spring end snap to them, but cost about $5 apiece, and as one would last on an average only one game, it was rather expensive. The bail went off with a snap and a spring, but the handles proved weak and were constantly breaking.
One of the most curious bats ever gotten up was one that was put into my hands to test. From the larger end, on the outer surface of the bat, a number of grooves were run up toward the handle for about six inches perhaps. This artful contrivance was to do away, if possible, with any such things as fouls or “ticks,” the claim being that the ball on striking the bat would catch upon the grooves and always be hit “fair.”
This, however, was soon abandoned. A laughable thing happened in connection with another crank “bat” once while I was testing it, which is perhaps worthy of mention. Some person had taken a bat, bored a hole in the larger end for about six inches, inserted several small rubber balls about two inches in diameter, and plugged up the end with cork so as to give to the bat no additional weight. The idea was to have a springy bat that would not crack.
I was striking, and neither the pitcher nor the catcher knew anything at the time about the “crank” bat. A ball was pitched and I struck at it, but unfortunately the stopper in the end of the bat came out and three or four of the rubber balls flew out in all directions, some at the pitcher, some at basemen, and some at the shortstop. There was a pretty lively scrimmage for those balls, I can tell you. I was put out on a “foul,” one “liner,” one “pop fly” and two “sky scrapers” all at once. This was certainly discouraging for a batsman, and I need hardly say that this unfortunate episode brought its career to a timely close.
The real reason for the substitution of the short for the long bat is its lighter weight, and the sharp, quick blow which one can give with it. In an “in-curve,” for instance, the long bat would have to be brought in near the body to hit the ball at all, although the striker generally allows the “in” and “out” curves to pass him, and strikes at the “drops” and “risers.” If any one would invent a base ball bat that would last a season without breaking, a player would willingly give $5 for it. But bats made of the very best stuff are constantly breaking.
“Base ball players are the hardest men in the world to suit in matters relating to their own outfitting when the choice is left to themselves,” said a well known sportinq goods dealer. “Take the matter of bats, for instance, and there are only two men in the Allegheny club who are good judges of the article. These are [Abner] Dalrymple and [Cliff] Carroll, who practically pick out the sticks for the whole team. Carroll brought back with him from Chicago a round dozen good sticks, and probably as many more have been selected since the boys gathered in at the beginning of the season. The Allegheny boys use a good sized bat, weighing: all the way from thirty-eight to forty-five ounces and averaging from thirty-five to thirty-seven inches in length. Another thing that 1 have noticed as peculiar about some of the boys is their superstition regarding a certain stick, which they call their lucky stick and will allow no one else to use. I have seen them stand about open lots watching with deep interest a lot of urchins play until one of them made a good hit. They would then move up, examine the bat, and in all probability buy it for ten times what it cost, though it might be a piece of the commonest kind of ash.”
For a story that would run in the Boston Herald on Monday, June 18, 1888, a reporter engaged George Wright, the sporting-goods magnate (Wright & Ditson) and one-time idol of the baseball world, to offer his thoughts on a subject seldom addressed: the evolution of the baseball uniform. “THE LADIES USED TO BLUSH,” was the headline writer’s master stroke. “When Harry Wright First Wore the Red Stockings,” the heading continued, descending to “Evolution of the Modern Base Ball Costume.”
George Wright had retired as an active player after the 1882 season but was still involved in the game. In 1884 he had been an owner of the Boston franchise in the Union Association, a rival major league that lasted only one season, 1884. And by the end of this year in which he granted the interview, he would join his old teammate and rival Albert G. Spalding on a round the world tour, playing both baseball and cricket, which he had commenced to play with the St. George Club juniors at age nine. At this point I give my column over to George Wright, elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937, four months after his death at age ninety, and one of my all-time favorite figures in baseball history. His words have not appeared in print or on the web in all the nearly 125 years since he uttered them.
Thirty years ago, when I first began to play ball [i.e., 1858], there were no professional clubs in existence, and the regularly organized clubs of the time wore uniforms which would seem exceedingly strange and grotesque at the present day. In those days players wore long pants of various colors, either of grey, white, dark blue, or of a mixed check material. Extending down the side of the leg on the seam was sewed a broad white or red stripe, which gave, as you may imagine, a decidedly military air to the garment, in marked contrast to that worn today. At the ankle the pant leg on the outer side was split up a distance of perhaps six inches, and two buttons sewed on, so that by this means the pants could be securely fastened. At a little later period some players made use of a wide skate strap, binding it tightly about the pant leg, instead of the two-button arrangement before alluded to. Both of these contrivances were to aid the player if possible in stooping to pick up a hot grounder, to prevent catching the fingers in the loose cloth and spoiling the play, and also to guard against dirt and small stones flying at the leg while running the bases. There were no sliding pads used in the pants in those days, and I do not remember ever seeing a player try to slide a base.
The shirts worn by the old-time players wore generally made of white, blue or red flannel. Some clubs also had blue and white or black and white checked shirts, made very much in the style of those of the present day [i.e, 1888], but it was seldom that the club name appeared on the shirt front. The caps worn by players were invariably of bright colors, made of merino or flannel, with eight pieces to the crown, plenty large enough, with old-fashioned “peaks” or visors of leather. Well can I remember the caps worn by the Harvard College nine in, I think, the year 1866, while the team was on a tour to New York. They were of a jockey pattern, and fitted close to the head, with very long peaks or visors. I umpired one of the games they played with the Active club. The nine seemed pretty well used up, especially the catcher, who had a very black eye, which he had received in a game the day before, and he was forced to play in another position. Of course, the mask was not in use in those days. The base ball belts of the olden time were made of webbing of various colors, and on the back of one of them would be inscribed in many cases the word “captain.”
In regard to the matter of base ball shoes, the lapse of time has also caused a very marked change. The very first shoes worn by base ball players were made of white canvas, laced high up on the ankle. Now and then, perhaps, some player would have a calf or black leather shoe made to suit his own peculiar fancy, but the high laced canvas shoe was really the first shoe worn. A little later the French calf shoe was found to be more serviceable, in that it would wear much better and longer than canvas, and formed a more satisfactory protection against wet weather, more surely guarding the feet from the damp ground. The shoe of the present day in use to the majority of players is what is known as the “Kangaroo,” a shoe much lighter and stronger than those formerly in use, laced well down to the toe, similar to a running shoe. Some time ago Wright & Ditson made a pair of these kangaroos for Capt. John Morrill, and to this fact I attribute a large measure Capt. John’s good playing this season. This shoe was first introduced by a Philadelphia shoemaker.
In the matter of spikes for baseball shoes the first ones used were the same as those now placed upon cricket shoes. There were four spikes on each shoe, three at the sole and one at the heel. Later on Peck & Snyder of New York introduced spikes screwed into plates set into the sole and heel of the shoe, which could be removed at the player’s will by the use of a key especially prepared for the purpose. But the principal objection to them was that the hole from which the spike was removed would very quickly fill with dirt, after the manner of the heel plates in the old fashioned club skate, which all boys in times past have spent so much time over in digging out. There was also great danger to a player, while fielding or running bases, of being spiked. For this reason a malleable iron plate was invented by some one, with three wide points placed at the centre of the sole of the foot. After this the iron plate, on account of its malleability, would get dull and would not catch on the ground, hence the final introduction of the steel tempered plate now in use. The spine of today is riveted securely to the sole of the shoe, in place of being screwed on as of old, and a well-tempered plate will last a season.
In former times the pitcher, by the constant rubbing and chaffing of the right foot upon the ground, would very soon wear a hole completely through the toe of his shoe. To obviate this an extra piece of leather was put on at this point; but this in turn proving inadequate, the present cup-shaped piece of brass, extending half-way round the inner edge of the toe, was introduced. This contrivance will last a season, and is used now pretty generally. But there is another matter which I feel sure the public will feel more interest in than anything of which I have yet spoken. I refer to the introduction and adoption of knickerbocker short pants among base bail players.
My brother Harry first brought about this important change, and it was somewhat in this manner: The Young America Cricket Club of Philadelphia used often to come to New York, where my brother then was, to play games, and on one of its trips, in the year 1865, the captain of the cricket club presented my brother with a pair of long red stockings. In the succeeding year, 1866, when my brother went on his western trip, he took these stockings with him, and also had made for him a pair of knickerbocker pants to go with them. An extract taken from a Cincinnati paper in regard to this very matter will, perhaps, be of peculiar interest:
Now, be it known that knickerbockers, today so common—the showing of the manly leg in varied colored hose—was unheard of, and when Harry Wright occasionally appeared with the scarlet stockings, young ladies’ faces blushed as red as its hue, and many high-toned members of the club denounced the innovation as immoral and indecent. There were, however, strenuous supporters of the new idea—strong-headed radicals—and at a meeting on Third street they got possession, ‘by strategy, my boy,’ and adopted the uniform, afterward to be a byword, a nickname, a term of ridicule and finally of glory—that is ‘base ball history.’ Later, in 1868, the Cincinnati club, which had up to that time been composed of gentlemen playing ball simply for pleasure, was convened into a professional organization, and in the fall of the same year took its famous trip through the eastern cities, appearing for the first time in red stockings, thus introducing in a general way knee breeches and long stockings into base ball.
All of these historical facts In regard to base ball occurred, you must remember, in and around New York city, where the game of base bail really had its origin. The game was played, of course, in New England, but it was really the old English game of rounders, where there were no bases used, but the players ran to a stake or post placed in the ground. This was, then, in 1858 the New England style of playing our present national game. In New York, at this time, were the Knickerbocker, Gotham, Eagle and Mutual clubs, having their club ground at Hoboken, N. J., at a place called the Elysian Fields. This ground was surrounded by a long line of oak and maple trees, running alongside the Hudson river, and it often happened that some player hit the ball high over the tops of the trees, whence it would sail into the waters of the river far below. Then the game would be stopped for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes to prevail upon some youth to strip and swim for it. If the swimmer was successful in his search, the players would give him 25 to 50 cents, for it was a costly matter in those days to lose a ball, costing, as they did, $2 each. Consequently, this proffered reward kept the small boys in the neighborhood constantly on the alert for long hits over the tree tops, and much rivalry existed as to who should be the chosen swimmer
As I have before said, the rows of trees were the only enclosure to the grounds, and hence no admission fee was charged to the crowds of business men, clerks, etc., who, just as at the present time, daily came from the busy city after a hard day’s toil to enjoy the pleasure of seeing a good game of ball and who had only to walk or pay their fare to the grounds to witness their favorite sport. There was also at the Elysian Fields a large hotel called Perry’s, where the clubs had their headquarters. There were, of course, other base ball dubs in existence in Brooklyn, notably the old Atlantics, Stars, Excelsiors, Enterprise, etc., but the real centre of base ball was at Hoboken. Here there were located three grounds, where from six to eight clubs would play practice games on various afternoons of the week, and it was here, while a member of the Gotham club, that I first learned to play ball.
This interview with an unnamed “old pioneer” appeared on page 14 of the San Francisco Examiner on November 27, 1887. It lay buried in the microfilm archives until 2004, when Randall Brown published extensive excerpts from it in his landmark article, “How Baseball Began,” in SABR’s National Pastime. Brown wrote:
The Giants played their first games in San Francisco on Thanksgiving, 1887. The arrival of the New York club (with added attraction Mike Kelly) was big news, especially in the Examiner. True to his pledge “to keep the public fully acquainted with all the phases and variations of the national game, wherever played,” editor and publisher W. R. Hearst [who in the next year would be first to publish “Casey at the Bat”] provided many columns on baseball that week. There were inning-by-inning accounts, interviews with stars like Tim Keefe and John Ward, a feature on the superstitions of ballplayers, and on Sunday, November 27, an “interesting history” entitled “How Baseball Began–A Member of the Gotham Club of Fifty Years Ago Tells About It.”
Because the entirety of this recollection, undoubtedly that of William Rufus Wheaton, has not yet been presented on the web, I offer it here in precise transcription, with variant spellings and styles intact.
HOW BASEBALL BEGAN
A Member of the Gotham Club of Fifty Years Ago Tells About It.
PLAYED FOR FUN THEN.
The Game Was the Outgrowth of Three-Cornered Cat, Which Had Become Too Tame.
Baseball to-day is not by any means the game from which it sprang. Old men can recollect the time when the only characteristic American ball sport was three-cornered cat, played with a yarn ball and flat paddles.
The game had an humble beginning. An old pioneer, formerly a well-known lawyer and politician, now living in Oakland, related the following interesting history of how it originated to an EXAMINER reporter:
“In the thirties I lived at the corner of Rutgers street and East Broadway in New York. I was admitted to the bar in ’36, and was very fond of physical exercise. In fact we all were in those days, and we sought it wherever it could be found. There were at that time two cricket clubs in New York city, the St. George and the New York, and one in Brooklyn called the ‘Star,’ of which Alexander Campbell, who afterwards became well known as a criminal lawyer in ‘Frisco, was a member. There was a racket club in Allen street with an inclosed court. [A note in the Clipper on October 23, 1880 evokes the period: “In olden times Chatham square used to be an open meadow or common, and was the play-ground of the boys of this city. Baseball was the favorite game played on the square, but it was then a simple pastime, with flat sticks or axe-handles for bats, and yarn balls. Occasionally a boy, more lucky than the rest, would bring on the ground a ball made of a sturgeon’s nose, procured from the racket court in Allen street, where it had been driven over the wall by a rash blow.”]
Myself and intimates, young merchants, lawyers and physicians, found cricket to[o] slow and lazy a game. We couldn’t get enough exercise out of it. Only the bowler and the batter had anything to do, and the rest of the players might stand around all the afternoon without getting a chance to stretch their legs. Racket was lively enough, but it was expensive and not in an open field where we could have full swing and plenty of fresh air with a chance to roll on the grass. Three-cornered cat was a boy’s game, and did well enough for slight youngsters, but it was a dangerous game for powerful men, because the ball was thrown to put out a man between bases, and it had to hit the runner to put him out. The ball was made of a hard rubber center, tightly wrapped with yarn, and in the hands of a strong-armed man it was a terrible missile, and sometimes had fatal results when it came in contact with a delicate part of the player’s anatomy.
THE GOTHAM BASEBALL CLUB.
[“]We had to have a good outdoor game, and as the games then in vogue didn’t suit us we decided to remodel three-cornered cat and make a new game. We first organized what we called the Gotham Baseball Club. This was the first ball organization in the United States, and it was completed in 1837. Among the members were Dr. John Miller, a popular physician of that day; John Murphy, a well-known hotel-keeper; and James Lee, President of the New York Chamber of Commerce. To show the difference between times then and now, it is enough to say that you would as soon expect to find a Bishop or Chief Justice playing ball as the present President of the Chamber of Commerce. Yet in old times everybody was fond of outdoor exercise, and sober merchants and practitioners played ball till their joints got so stiff with age they couldn’t run. It is to the oft-repeated and vigorous open-air exercise of my early manhood that I owe my vigor at the age of 73.
[“]The first step we took in making baseball was to abolish the rule of throwing the ball at the runner and order that it should be thrown to the baseman instead, who had to touch the runner with it before he reached the base. During the regime of three-cornered cat there were no regular bases, but only such permanent objects as a bedded boulder or an old stump, and often the diamond looked strangely like an irregular polygon. We laid out the ground at Madisonsquare in the form of an accurate diamond, with home-plate and sand-bags for bases. You must remember that what is now called Madison square, opposite the Fifth Avenue Hotel, in the thirties was out in the country, far from the city limits. We had no short-stop, and often played with only six or seven men on a side. The scorer kept the game in a book we had made for that purpose, and it was he who decided all disputed points. The modern umpire and his tribulations were unknown to us.
HOW THEY PLAYED THEN.
[“]We played for fun and health, and won every time. The pitcher really pitched the ball and underhand throwing was forbidden. Moreover he pitched the ball so the batsman could strike it and give some work to the fielders. The men outside the diamond always placed themselves where they could do the most good and take part in the game. Nowadays the game seems to be played almost entirely by the pitcher and catcher. The pitcher sends his ball purposely in a baffling way, so that the batsman half the time can’t get a strike [meaning “a hit”] or reach a base. After the Gotham club had been in existence a few months it was found necessary to reduce the rules of the new game to writing. This work fell to my hands, and the code I then formulated is substantially that in use to-day. We abandoned the old rule of putting out on the first bound and confined it to fly catching. The Gothams played a game of ball with the Star Cricket Club of Brooklyn and beat the Englishmen out of sight, of course. That game and the return were the only two matches [i.e., games with other clubs] ever played by the first baseball club. [NOTE: These undoubtedly refer to the contests of October 1845, amply reported in the press and the subject of my previous post at Our Game.]
[“]The new game quickly became very popular with New Yorkers, and the numbers of the club soon swelled beyond the fastidious notions of some of us, and we decided to withdraw and found a new organization, which we called the Knickerbocker. For a playground we chose the Elysian fields of Hoboken, just across the Hudson river. And those fields were truly Elysian to us in those days. There was a broad, firm, greensward, fringed with fine shady trees, where we could recline during intervals, when waiting for a strike [i.e., a turn at bat],and take a refreshing rest.
LOTS OF EXERCISE AND FUN.
[“]We played no exhibition or match games, but often our families would come over and look on with much enjoyment. Then we used to have dinner in the middle of the day, and twice a week we would spend the whole afternoon in ball play. We were all mature men and in business, but we didn’t have too much of it as they do nowadays. There was none of that hurry and worry so characteristic of the present New York. We enjoyed life and didn’t wear out so fast. In the old game when a man struck out[,] those of his side who happened to be on the bases had to come in and lose that chance of making a run. We changed that and made the rule which holds good now. The difference between cricket and baseball illustrates the difference between our lively people and the phlegmatic English. Before the new game was made we all played cricket, and I was so proficient as to win the prize bat and ball with a score of 60 in a match cricket game in New York of 1848, the year before I came to this Coast. But I never liked cricket as well as our game. When I saw the game between the Unions and the Bohemians the other day, I said to myself if some of my old playmates who have been dead forty years could arise and see this game they would declare it was the same old game we used to play in the Elysian Fields, with the exception of the short-stop, the umpire, and such slight variations as the swift underhand throw, the masked catcher and the uniforms of the players. We started out to make a game simply for safe and healthy recreation. Now, it seems, baseball is played for money and has become a regular business, and, doubtless, the hope of beholding a head or limb broken is no small part of the attraction to many onlookers.”
Three games between rival clubs were played in October 1845. Any one of these might suffice to refute the longstanding claim that the contest of June 19, 1846 between the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club and the New York Baseball Club was the “first match game.” The last named may still be considered the first that was certainly played by the Knickerbocker rules that were adopted on September 23, 1845, but even this assertion begs several larger questions: (a) were the Knickerbockers the first club to play by written rules; (b) were they truly the pioneer club; (c) were the Knickerbocker and New York clubs distinct, or were they blended, playing on June 19, 1846 what amounted to an intramural match like the many that the Knickerbockers had played earlier?
This is a big topic, upon which I have written previously and will again. For now, let’s focus on October 1845.
The Knickerbockers, recently organized under that name after several years play at New York’s Madison Square and Murray Hill, played their first recorded game on October 6. Although they commenced formal play in brisk weather, the Knickerbockers managed to squeeze in fourteen games before shutting down to await April 1846 and the opening of a new season. The scoring for these contests survives in their Game Book, held by the New York Public Library and, gloriously, readily available to researchers.
In the first intrasquad game, seven Knickerbockers won by a count of 11–8 over seven of their fellows in three innings. The rules calling for the victor to accumulate 21 runs over as many innings as that might take was, clearly, observed in the breach. Not for a dozen additional years would the rules of baseball require a set number of innings or players to the side, and these were at first settled upon as seven, not nine!
The umpire of this practice game was William Rufus Wheaton, who by his own account had reduced the rules of the Gotham Base Ball Club to writing in 1837. A skilled cricket player, Wheaton came to prefer baseball in the 1830s; his Gothams also went by the name Washingtons, signifying either their primacy among baseball clubs or their possible origin among the butchers and produce vendors of the Washington Market. As the years went by, the Gothams spawned offshoots, including both the New Yorks and the Knickerbockers. In 1887 Wheaton said to a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, in a piece titled “How Baseball Began: A Member of the Gotham Club of Fifty Years Ago Tells About It”:
The new game quickly became very popular with New Yorkers, and the numbers of the club soon swelled beyond the fastidious notions of some of us, and we decided to withdraw and found a new organization, which we called the Knickerbocker. For a playground we chose the Elysian fields of Hoboken, just across the Hudson river…. We played no exhibition or match games [emphasis mine], but often our families would come over and look on with much enjoyment. Then we used to have dinner in the middle of the day, and twice a week we would spend the whole afternoon in ball play.
I will post the entirety of this interview, discovered by Randall Brown in 2004, as my next entry at Our Game. To now it has appeared on the web only in excerpted form.
William H. Tucker, who in some unknown measure assisted Wheaton in laying down the Knickerbocker rules, played in ten of the fourteen contests, including the one on October 6, in which he scored three of the losing squad’s eight runs. Like Wheaton and other Knickerbockers, he had been a player with the New York Ball Club and maintained a tie to them, indeed playing in two formal matches of the New Yorks with the Brooklyn Club on October 21 and 24 of 1845, a month after he had helped to form the Knicks. In his 1998 history of American cricket, Tom Melville pointed to an even earlier contest between these two clubs, on October 11 (actually October 10), reported in the New York Morning News. Research more than a decade later has revealed a somewhat fuller account in the obscure and short-lived newspaper the True Sun:
The Base Ball match between eight Brooklyn players, and eight players of New York, came off on Friday on the grounds of the Union Star Cricket Club. The Yorkers were singularly unfortunate in scoring but one run in their three innings. Brooklyn scored 22 and of course came off winners.
Wheaton also umpired the game of October 24, 1845 between New York and Brooklyn, and played in the game of November 10 to mark the second anniversary of the New York Club, which, like the recently discovered Magnolia Ball Club, had commenced play at Hoboken’s Elysian Fields in 1843—two years before the Knickerbockers.
Many of the early New York baseballists had cut their teeth on cricket, and this was true of the Brooklyn players as well. In the game of October 21, conducted at the Elysian Fields, the Brooklyn Club (possibly not the same men who had played in the game of October 10, as no box score survives) were originally reported to be the victors once again, but this report proved an error. As was reported the next day, the eight players of the New York club won handily, and did so again in the game of October 24, played at the grounds of the Union Star Cricket Club, opposite Sharp’s Hotel, at the corner of Myrtle and Portland Avenues, near Fort Greene. The scores were, respectively, 24–4 and 37–19. On both these occasions the Brooklyn club included established cricketers John Hines, William Gilmore, John Hardy, William H. Sharp, and Theodore Forman. Their lineup appears to have been identical for the two games, as the Ayers of October 21 and the Meyers of October 24 may be the same individual, while the other seven men match up.
There is more work to be done with all this, certainly, but to me the NYBBC anniversary match of November 10, 1845, seems to me to have much in common with the purported “first match game” of June 19, 1846, while the games of October 1845, particularly the latter two, seem to be true match games between wholly differentiated clubs. (It could be argued–I certainly would–that the Knickerbockers played NO match games until they met the Gotham (a.k.a. Washington) club on June 11, 1851, a game the Knicks won by a count of 21-11.)
In the New York Herald of November 11, 1845 appeared the following squib, a trailing part of a larger article on trotting at the Centreville Track on Long Island.
NEW YORK BASE BALL CLUB:–The second Anniversary of this Club came off yesterday, on the ground in the Elysian fields. The game was as follows:
Murphy 4 Winslow 4
Johnson 4 Case 4
Lyon 3 Granger 1
Wheaton 3 Lalor 3
Sweet 3 Cone 1
Seaman 1 Sweet 4
Venn 2 Harold 3
Gilmore 1 Clair 2
Tucker 3 Wilson 1
– – – –
J.M. Marsh, Esq., Umpire and Scorer
After the match, the parties took dinner at Mr. McCarty’s, Hoboken, as a wind up for the season. The Club were honored by the presence of representatives from the Union Star Cricket Club, the Knickerbocker Clubs, senior and junior, and other gentlemen of note.
Several interesting things emerge from this notice of the game played on November 10.
Prominent Knickerbocker names are present—Wheaton, Tucker, Cone, Clair (Clare). So too are Gotham players of earlier prominence—Lalor, Ransom, Murphy, Johnson, Winslow, Case. The Davis who plays here and in the game of June 19, 1846 is not James Whyte Davis, who was elected a member in 1850 and marked his 25th anniversary with the club in 1875. Venn is Harry Venn, proprietor of the Gotham Cottage (a billiard and bowling saloon) at 298 Bowery, longtime clubhouse to the Gotham BBC. Gilmore is one of the cricketers who played baseball with the Brooklyns on October 21 and 24.
The game was played nine to the side, clearly to 21 runs or more in equal innings. The two sides were unnamed, and the game was an intramural one despite the presence of Knickerbockers. While the New Yorks and their invited friends were celebrating their second year as an organized club, on another field in Hoboken that day, the Knickerbockers were playing an intramural match all their own.
Playing with eight to the side, including a first appearance for Charles S. Debost, the squads lined up this way:
Charles A. Peverelly wrote this in 1866, clearly fed his lines by a member of the Knickerbockers:
On June 5, 1846, the first honorary members were elected, viz. James Lee and Abraham Tucker. At the same meeting Curry, Adams and Tucker were appointed a committee to arrange the preliminaries, and conclude a match with the New York Base Ball Club. From all the information the writer has been able to gather, it appears that this was not an organized club, but merely a party of gentlemen who played together frequently, and styled themselves the New York Club. However, the match was played at Hoboken on June 19, 1846, it being the first the Club engaged in, and the particulars are certainly not creditable as far as runs are concerned. But four innings were played, as it will be remembered the game was won by the parties making twenty-one aces, or over, on even innings.
The scoresheet from that game, depicted at the head of this post, was written over in later years, probably by James Whyte Davis, to give the game the appearance of a match between two distinct clubs. But was it viewed that way by the men who had played in it?
On September 25 last year, Major League Baseball marked a contest between the Colorado Rockies and Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park as its 200,000th game. As I noted on this blog, the counting commenced with the first game played in the National League, on April 22, 1876, between the Boston Red Stockings and Philadelphia Athletics. Because of its erratic scheduling and ephemeral franchises, games of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (1871-75) were not included in the computation. All the same, the NAABP, generally abbreviated today simply as NA, presented a fascinating history, and nearly all of the men who played in the NL’s first season had come from its ranks.
On the rainy evening of March 17, 1871, delegates from ten professional baseball clubs met at Collier’s Rooms in New York City, an upstairs saloon run by thirty-two-year-old character actor James W. Collier at the corner of Broadway and 13th Street, just across from Wallack’s Theatre, where he frequently trod the boards. The clubs had come together at the invitation of the Mutuals to establish a new professional National Association, based largely upon the rules and regulations of the amateur National Association of Base Ball Players from which they had just departed.
Of the ten clubs present that evening, eight plunked down the mandatory ten dollars to join: the already established Athletics (Philadelphia), Mutuals (New York), Olympics (Washington), Haymakers (Troy), White Stockings (Chicago), two Forest City clubs (Rockford and Cleveland), plus Harry Wright’s newly founded Red Stockings of Boston. The Eckfords of Brooklyn and Nationals of Washington sent delegates to the meeting, but held tight to their wallets and did not join the new National Association for play in 1871. The Atlantics of Brooklyn, who might have been expected to join, did not send a delegate, deciding to retain so-called amateur status.
In the days that followed, a surprising ninth club came across with the dues: the Kekionga of Fort Wayne, Indiana, named for the Miami Indian settlement around which Fort Wayne grew. In the Miami language, Kekionga meant “blackberry patch.” Woefully uncompetitive against the big clubs in previous seasons, the Kekiongas had lost two games to the unbeaten Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869 by scores of 86–8, and 41–7, then took a 70–1 pasting in the following year. Yet now the Fort Wayne hayseeds declared themselves a fully professional nine, based on their having picked up, in August 1870, several stranded players from the Maryland Club of Baltimore, which had run out of funds while playing in Chicago. The star of the Marylands had been diminutive pitcher Bobby Mathews, who would now pitch for the Kekiongas. Eleven days after the meeting at Collier’s Rooms, the Kekionga directors dispatched George J. E. Mayer—the club’s secretary, catcher, and captain in 1870—to New York to acquire additional professional players, which he did.
The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players launched its inaugural season with a single game on May 4, 1871. The Forest City of Cleveland, a strong club led by Jim “Deacon” White, came to Fort Wayne to play the revamped Kekionga, none of whose players had yet cut much of a figure in the baseball world except Mathews, who was only nineteen. Mayer had given up his position in the nine to Billy Lennon, a stronger catcher he recruited from the Mohawks of New York.
In what the Fort Wayne correspondent to the Chicago Tribune called “the finest game on record in this country,” Mathews shut out the visiting Forest Citys by 2–0 in a game in which there were no errors by Cleveland and only three by Fort Wayne, a marvel in those days of bare hands and rutted fields. Moreover, the low score was unprecedented among top-level clubs, the previous “model game” being the victory of the Cincinnati Red Stockings over the Mutuals by a score of 4–2 on June 15, 1869.
The outcome was also a great upset. The Cleveland Herald had written of their darlings beforehand: “The Forest Citys left yesterday for a brief Western tour. The first club that they are expected to slaughter is the Kekiongas, of Fort Wayne, which little job is to be performed this afternoon. If the Kekiongas play half as bad as their name sounds, they will be awful tired tonight. Kekionga! Ugh! Big Injun!”
The day after the game, the same newspaper felt compelled to report:
There were ten very badly surprised young men at Fort Wayne last evening, not to speak of some others who remained in Cleveland. The ten went out to Indiana to begin the slaughtering for 1871, but what little slaughtering there was happened to be on the other side.
Because of threatening weather, only 200 spectators witnessed this historic game at Fort Wayne’s Grand Dutchess ballpark. Play was finally stopped by rain after the top of the ninth inning had been concluded, depriving the Kekiongas of their completed final at bat, although some box scores indicted that each side had recorded 27 outs. (It was not yet the custom for the home club, leading after eight and a half frames, to dispense with its final turn; this practice was a vestige of baseball’s original purpose, field exercise.)
After a scoreless first inning, the Kekionga broke through for a run in the bottom of the second. Lennon led off with a double. Tom Carey lifted a fly to center, where Cleveland’s Art Allison made a running one-hand grab, “the finest fly catch ever made, he falling and rolling over two or three times.” Ed Mincher also was retired, but Joe McDermott singled to bring Lennon home. The Kekionga added a run in the fifth, needless as it turned out. Each club registered only four hits.
“The Cleveland boys were well satisfied with the result,” reported the Cincinnati Gazette, “and that they are recorded as playing the finest game in the country.” For the citizens of Fort Wayne, however, this glorious victory turned out to be very nearly the club’s high water mark. After winning three of its next four contests, the Kekionga went 1–11; despite winning two games at home in late August, it chose to disband on that relative high note.
Over the course of the past month or so I have located two new game-action images of Jim Creighton, the most famous player of baseball’s early period. (For my brief biography, see http://goo.gl/fvJdi.) Further snooping has revealed some truly startling information about the game’s most celebrated and valuable image: the 1866 Currier & Ives lithograph “American National Game of Base Ball: Grand Match for the Championship at the Elysian Fields, Hoboken, N.J.” Long believed to depict the 1865 match between the Atlantic of Brooklyn and the Mutual of New York, it has turned out be something else entirely: a fantasy game, one that the baseball world desired but that never was played. Note: the reader will profit by clicking on each image for an enlargement opening in a new window.
The path of discovery began with an intriguing post to SABR’s 19th century baseball committee. Bob Tholkes wrote:
An August 1, 1860 ad by a book seller in the Buffalo Daily Courier of August 1, 1860 mentioned that pictures of the recent match between the Atlantic and Excelsior (played on July 19) appeared in the current edition of Demorest’s New-York Illustrated News, which would have been the issue of July 29 [actually it was August 4].
I had seen and admired that picture more than twenty years ago, at the home of collectors Frank and Peggy Steele. A couple of respondents to the above posting offered digital versions of it, and I located the accompanying text. “Right glad are we to find that manly sports and exercises are becoming so popular in America,” opined the unnamed scribe, who rambled on in this rather arch manner, not reporting the outcome—Excelsior 23, Atlantic 4—except through an appended box score.
Examining an enlargement of the panoramic scene, it struck me that the emblem on the pitcher’s bib front looked to be single letter, not the ABBC of the Atlantic Club. He must be an Excelsior and, as the box score would corroborate, he must be Creighton. Compare this cropped enlargement from the Illustrated News woodcut to the carte de visite (cdv). Note the crossed legs prior to delivery; I don’t know that this stance was unique to Creighton but I have seen it depicted nowhere else. Also note the distinctive multi-paneled hat with piping in the crown. In Baseball in the Garden of Eden I wrote the following, based on a contemporary report:
Early pitchers had taken two steps in delivering the ball, and would follow it halfway to home plate until 1858, when the pitcher’s line was established at forty-five feet. Until the pitcher’s [rear line] came in five years later, pitchers would still throw from a running start. Creighton, however, did not move from his original position, taking only a step with his left foot and keeping his right in place.
Only three other depictions of the incomparable athlete survive: a team shot of the 1860 Excelsiors; a cdv produced after his death at age twenty-one, four days after a mortal swing of the bat on October 14, 1862; and a crepe-draped portrait surmounting the notable players of 1865, offered up in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper of November 4 of that year. Later woodcuts were all based upon one or another of these three images.
Then, only yesterday, it occurred to me that the pitcher in the “American National Game” lithograph, who is supposed to be Richard H. Thorn of the Mutuals (formerly of the Empire and Gotham clubs) looked strangely familiar—yet I had never seen an image of him other than this. The championship game of August 3, 1865 had been hotly played, as the New York Herald headlined, and but for a sudden storm that ended the game after five innings, was a thriller:
THE GRAND MATCH FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP; TWENTY THOUSAND SPECTATORS PRESENT; THE FINEST CONTEST EVER WITNESSED; THE ATLANTICS STILL THE CHAMPIONS; THE PLAYERS AND SPECTATORS DISPERSED BY A HEAVY THUNDER SHOWER; EXCITING SCENES AT THE HOBOKEN FERRIES, ETC.
Now the lithograph depicting this famous 1865 championship game positions the Atlantics at the bat, with identifiable likenesses of those on the sideline and in the field. Indeed, the likenesses are drawn from a cdv celebrating their championship and issued by Charles H. Williamson of Brooklyn. The Currier & Ives likenesses, drawn by an unnamed hand, are so faithful to the photograph that Peter O’ Brien, who in the cdv is posed in street clothes, in the lithograph stands on the sideline, in civilian garb, even though he played center field in the championship game and struck its only home run!
It follows that the Currier and Ives pitcher must be Thorn of the Mutuals … yet he certainly looked to me like Creighton, and he was wearing the distinctive Excelsior cap! I recalled that I had once downloaded from the Library of Congress site a high-resolution version of the uncolored lithograph, and zoomed into the pitcher’s spot.
I was struck not only by the resemblance to Creighton, with his distinctively planted rear foot, but also by the two pitcher’s plates. The playing rules for 1858 had called for a “flat circular iron plate, painted or enameled white” to mark the “pitcher’s points.” While the pitching distance had been established at 45 feet from the front foot in mid-delivery, the back distance had not yet been established. However, by 1863 the points were gone, replaced by a “pitcher’s box” absent the side boundaries, three feet deep. Accordingly, these round iron plates were anomalous for a championship game of 1865, and must have been the product of artistic license.
I then looked to the batter, with the hands-apart stance that would endure into the deadball era, and saw that he too was standing at a “flat circular iron plate, painted or enameled white.” It also seemed—was my imagination running away with me?—that the catcher looked like the Excelsior captain, Joe Leggett. Panning into the field, I came upon a detail invisible in the reproduced versions I had at hand of the colored lithograph. The belt of the shortstop was clearly emblazoned with the name “Excelsior.”
Now I consulted the New York Public Library’s singular large-scale salt print of the 1860 Excelsiors. Yes, the pitcher in the 1866 image was the long-dead and lamented Creighton; the catcher was Leggett; and the shortstop was little Tommy Reynolds. A letter from a Mr. A. Jacobi of Montgomery, Alabama, to the New York Clipper, published on September 4, 1875, provided the identities of each man in the 1860 salt print, from which the Clipper executed a woodcut:
Through the courtesy of Mr. A. Jacobi of Montgomery, Ala., we are enabled to lay before our readers a picture of the model baseball nine of the period when the game was entirely in the hands of the amateur class of the fraternity. Mr. Jacobi, in a letter to us, says he is indebted to Dr. A. T. Pearsall of Montgomery for the photograph sent us, that veteran first-baseman being still a “play list” in the South….
The picture contains the portraits of the following players: On the extreme left is the old shortstop of the nine, Tommy Reynolds…. Next to him stands John Whitney…. The third is James Creighton—he has a ball in his hand—the pitcher of the period par excellence, and the first to introduce the wrist throw or low-underhand-throw delivery. His forte was great speed and thorough command of the ball…. This team defeated nearly every nine they encountered in 1859 and 1860, but in the latter year they had to succumb to the Atlantics….
The defending champion Atlantics and the Excelsiors split their first two contests in 1860, each winning upon its home grounds (23–4 for the latter club and then 15–14 for the former). The winner of the third game would wear the laurel. With the Excelsiors leading 8–6 in the top of the sixth inning, “a desperate party of rowdies, who were determined that the Excelsiors should not win,” became so offensive that Captain Leggett withdrew his men from the field and thus forfeited the opportunity his club had to take the “championship” title from the Atlantics. Bitter enemies ever after, the two never played each other again.
The Atlantics and Excelsiors had never played each other at the Elysian Fields, so the grand Currier and Ives lithograph celebrates, perhaps, the game that ought to have settled the championship in 1860. As such it would be history’s first instance of fantasy baseball.
That was how I characterized a pioneering 1866 book by Charles A. Peverelly when I provided an introduction to a modern reprint of its baseball section some years ago. The original title of the book was The Book of American Pastimes, Containing a History of the Principal Base Ball, Cricket, Rowing and Yachting Clubs of the United States. The truncated reissue, titled Peverelly’s National Game, was no page-turner but it was, in my estimation, a vital addition to the bookshelf of anyone who cared about baseball history. That equivocal assessment might apply to any number of recent books about the game’s past, including my own.
For those of you unfamiliar with Peverelly or his odd masterwork, let me tell you why you might wish to check out either the illustrated Aracdia reissue from 2005, edited by John Freyer and Mark Rucker, or the complete work, available as a free download at: http://books.google.com/books/about/The_book_of_American_pastimes.html?id=1o8EAAAAYAAJ.
On September 24 and 25, 1844, at the St. George Cricket Club Grounds along the East River in Manhattan, the first international cricket match took place between the United States and Canada. The American team was drawn from several New York, Philadelphia, Washington City, and Boston clubs, all hotbeds of the game. The match drew over 20,000 spectators, according to contemporary reports, many of them with a gambling interest in the outcome.
A year later, almost to the day—September 22, 1845—a four-oared regatta was held at Hoboken’s Elysian Fields, a pleasure ground for New Yorkers, especially the legions of country lads who had streamed into the city looking for work. Rowing was America’s first modern sport, in that competitions were marked by record keeping and prizes yet also provided spectator interest for those with no pecuniary interest. The first boat club to be organized in the United States was named the Knickerbocker, in 1811. As reported in the New-York Mirror of July 15, 1837.
This club suffered a suspension during the war [that of 1812], and for many years subsequently the boat which bore its name was hung up in the New-York Museum, as a model of the finest race-boat ever launched in this port. Subsequent attempts to revive the association fell through; and though many exertions to form new ones were made, yet the first effort that succeeded in establishing the clubs upon their present footing—viz., building their own boats, wearing a regular uniform, and observing rigid navy discipline, was made in the year 1830, by the owners of the barge Sea-drift, a club consisting of one hundred persons, which could boast of one no less distinguished in aquatick and sporting matters than Robert L. Stevens for its first president, with Ogden Hoffman, Charles L. Livingston, Robert Emmet, John Stevens, and other good men and true for his successors. To this club the rudder of the old Knickerbocker was bequeathed, with the archives thereto pertaining: nor was anything spared by the members, during the first years of their existence as a club, to give spirit to its doings.
Baseball historians, take note. The new organization of 1830 referenced above was named the New York Boat Club.
It may not have been a coincidence when on the day following the regatta of September 22, 1845 some New York City gentlemen who were already playing the new game of baseball at the Elysian Fields organized themselves into a club, which they called the Knickerbockers. The game had been played earlier, of course. Recent finds have substantiated that a game called baseball had been played as early as 1823 in New York and 1791 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. But the Knickerbockers claimed the palm for being the first true club not because they were first to play the game; they knew that the New York Ball Club had played the game before them. Rather, like their upstanding brothers of the scull, sail, and wicket, the Knicks created a constitution, had regular days for play and practice, admitted members upon due consideration, and conducted themselves in accordance with written rules. Also, in what has been a neglected consideration, they were accorded pioneer status because their name left no doubt as to the heritage upon which they were based: the universally applauded Dutch rather than the reviled British.
It is this fluid state of American sport that Charles A. Peverelly sought to document in 1866 with his Book of American Pastimes. The author had witnessed the explosion of interest in baseball over the previous ten years, but he could not have known how soon cricket would forever lose all claim to being an American pastime. Nor could he have anticipated the tertiary role that yachting and rowing would come to have in his own lifetime.
What John Freyer and Mark Rucker did in extracting the baseball content of Peverelly’s bookwas commendable and overdue. Apart from Peverelly’s National Game, as it is now retitled, being the first baseball book (not counting paperbound annual guides and other ephemera), this book has been unavailable for so long that much of its information had become lost to researchers and aficionados of the early game. What did the early team uniforms look like? Where were their playing grounds located? Who were their officers, year by year since their founding? Those features alone, plus the extensive treatment of such pioneer clubs as the Knickerbocker of New York and the Olympic of Philadelphia, made the republication of Peverelly’s baseball section worthwhile.
But there is more, so much more, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Through an act of historical imagination, the reader may place himself in the years immediately following the Civil War, for which he will be richly rewarded with a thousand glittering prizes.
Yes, the prose is arch and, though typical of the period, sometimes even less digestible than that of his peers: “Dodworth’s Band was in attendance to enliven the scene, and all the arrangements were exceedingly creditable to the taste and liberality of the committee who had charge of the festive occasion.” As a sportswriter Peverelly was exceedingly fastidious, more Felix Unger than Oscar Madison. And yes, the book is not a page-turner, driven by a strong narrative; it is a book to peruse, to consult, to take pleasure in the knowledge that it resides on your shelf.
Study the original Knickerbocker Rules. “[Rule] 9th.–The ball must be pitched, and not thrown, for the bat.” So why is that fellow on the mound today called a pitcher and not a thrower? (“Pitcher” is just a vestigial relic of the old game, as is the phrase “McGillicuddy was knocked out of the box.”) “[Rule] 10th.– A ball knocked out the field, or outside the range of the first or third base, is foul.” Does that mean that what we would call a home run was a foul ball? (Yes. The Knicks’ playing ground was along the North [Hudson] River and they couldn’t afford to lose any of their expensively handmade baseballs.) “[Rule] 11th.–Three balls being struck at and missed and the last one caught, is a hand out; if not caught is considered fair, and the striker bound to run.” Is this the same rule that survives today and once made Mickey Owen infamous? (Yes. It’s as old as three strikes and you’re out, and maybe even older, as it echoes the rules of town ball, in which there was no foul territory.)
Note that each detail in Peverelly’s ledger may extend to a story you know or one day will. “On the 13th of August ,” the author writes of the Knickerbockers, “the uniform of the club was again regulated. Blue woolen pants, white flannel shirt, with narrow blue braid, mohair cap, and belt of patent leather. With the exception of a change of cap, the uniform has ever since remained the same. On the 27th of August the first flag staff was raised, and the Knickerbocker banner unfurled.” That banner, a triangular pennant with a “K” in a circle on the background of a red panel and a blue one, went to the grave with James Whyte Davis, a Knick since 1850 who kept it on his dresser after the club disbanded in 1882, and insisted that he be wrapped in it upon burial. In 1899 he was.
Born in the Boston area in 1821 or 1822, Peverelly moved to New York as a young man and worked as a bookkeeper and clerk while scribbling a few sports reports, but he led an active social life. In 1846 he had been a committee member of the Young Bachelors’ Society, and thus may have had something to do with staging the annual Bachelor’s Ball, a Valentine’s Day institution in New York since 1827. In 1848 he became a charter member of the Atalanta Boat Club, which lasted nearly a century, and through his reporting of boat races he soon became recognized as one of the nation’s experts. A New York Herald story of June 25, 1869 states that a race on the Hudson was won by a boat named for the “veteran aquatic authority Charles A. Peverelly.” By this time he had abandoned baseball reporting because his eyes were weakening. When he died in his eighty-fourth year on November 7, 1905, at his son-in-law’s home in Brooklyn, Peverelly was the oldest living member of the Atalanta.
Who likes to read in a welcoming comment that the book he is about to commence may not be good but instead is good for him? Yet that may be said of any book approached incorrectly. One does not curl up in bed with the Encyclopaedia Britannica. And one does not look for helpful information about home repair in Gone with the Wind. Having lain unread for so long, Peverelly’s National Game is like a treasure chest with an obdurate lock. But the key, dear reader, is in your hand.
I think today is a fine day to reprise this story, originally published in the Woodstock Times of June 2, 2005. The epilogue, long desired but distant, may now be written. The grave of James Whyte Davis, unmarked since his death in 1899, now bears a fine stone with his self-authored epitaph. The walkup to the ceremony, held on Saturday, May 14, 2016 at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, is well described here: http://goo.gl/Diif4P. Credit for the event may be shared by many, but first kudos go to SABR’s Ralph Carhart and Green-Wood’s historian, Jeff Richman.
In 2005 on eBay an unusual item came up for sale: a trophy presentation of a silver baseball and miniature bats that had been given to James Whyte Davis in 1875 to commemorate 25 years’ play with the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. The award presentation took place at a banquet following baseball’s first old-timers’ game, between the Knicks of 185 (“Veterans,” including founding father Daniel Lucius Adams, who played catcher) and those of 1860 (“Youngs,” for whom Davis pitched).
The recipient’s name is engraved on each of the bats and the ball reads: “Presented to James Whyte Davis on the Twenty Fifth Anniversary of his election as a member of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club by his fellow members. 1850 Sept. 26 1875. Never ‘Too Late.’” Davis had been such an ardent and energetic player that his vehement protests at being excluded from play when he showed up a few minutes after the appointed time won him the twin nicknames of “The Fiend” and “Too Late.”
After nine days in which no one met the opening ask of $49,999.99, three bidders stepped up to the plate in the last three hours and the trophy was knocked down at $76,118.99. The seller’s representative was Global Garage Sale of Winooski, Vermont, whose other eBay offerings at that moment include a gold Parker pen/pencil set, a Casio electronic cash register, and a John Deere lawn tractor. In the words of the Vermont reps, “The seller discovered the trophy in the attic of her husband’s uncle in New Jersey after the uncle passed away in 1977. He was in his 80s at the time, and had been a huge baseball fan. She doesn’t have any other information other than that he was a big fan and grew up in the area in the early 1900s. She has had it in storage ever since, but wants someone to own it who truly appreciates the history of baseball and the significance of this piece.” The winning bidder was not identified, but I hope he or she reads this story.
Who was James Whyte Davis? Famous in his day but forgotten in ours, he comes into view for those who rummage around in early baseball history, exchanging scraps of data and delighting over a new find — a birth or death date, next of kin, a trail of addresses. One perhaps unlikely comrade of mine in such spelunking is Peter J. Nash, author of Baseball Legends of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery (Arcadia), a book that details how some of the 200 or so baseball pioneers, among them James Whyte Davis, came to this final resting place. To those of you who are hiphop fans, you may know Peter as the onetime Prime Minister Pete Nice of Third Bass. Those in the baseball memorabilia field may know him too.
Davis was born in New York on March 2, 1826 to John and Harriet Davis, both from Connecticut. Drifting away from his father’s trade as shipmaster and sometime liquor merchant, James became a broker successively of fruit, produce, general merchandise, and, finally, stock certificates. Like so many of the early ballplayers, he belonged to a volunteer fire company, in his case the Oceana No. 36. He married Maria Harwood of Maryland, with whom he had two sons and a daughter, though Maria left him a widower at a young age. These are the prosaic details. His life was wrapped up in baseball, as in death he would come to be.
On the 27th of August, 1855, a month shy of its ten-year anniversary, the Knickerbockers unfurled their first banner from the flagstaff over the clubhouse at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, New Jersey. Designed by Davis, the triangular pennant, with a blue “K” in a white circle surmounting one red and one blue horizontal panel, flew over the Knickerbocker clubhouse for the last time at this 1875 celebration, “worn to ribbons by long service,” reported the New York Sun. Afterward, it was draped over Davis’s dresser until his death. His long devotion to baseball and involvement in its defining moments made him a key participant in some monumental disputes.
In an 1856 Knickerbocker meeting Louis F. Wadsworth, along with Adams and others, backed a motion to permit outsiders to join in with Knicks in their intrasquad games at the Elysian Fields if fewer than 18 Knicks were present. Original Knickerbocker president Duncan F. Curry counter-moved that if 14 Knickerbockers were available, the game should admit no outsiders and be played shorthanded. The Curry forces (which included Davis) prevailed, 13–11. This vote came at a time when baseball was played to 21 runs, and the rules as yet specified no number of innings. The Davis/Curry faction next recommended that a seven-inning game become the new standard. In a twisty tale of intrigue at the first convention of the New York area clubs, Wadsworth, defeated within his own Knickerbocker ranks, convinced the other clubs to go with nine men and nine innings. A pariah among his clubmen, Wadsworth resigned and resumed his former affiliation with the Gothams. The Knickerbockers began their long fade from the top ranks of competition.
In another enduring controversy, Davis was, with Walter T. Avery, a delegate to the 1867 convention of the National Association of Amateur Base Ball Players. With two other individuals of the nominating committee, he responded to the petition for membership of the Pythians of Philadelphia, an all-black organization, by rejecting any club “composed of persons of color, or any portion of them … and [the committee] unanimously report against the admission of any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.” In seeking to keep out of the Convention the discussion of any subject having a political bearing, the game’s color line had been drawn. The committee further proclaimed, “If colored clubs were admitted there would be in all probability some division of feeling, whereas, by excluding them no injury could result to anyone.”
So Davis came down on the wrong side of history in two major battles. The Knickerbockers, an anachronism by the time of the Civil War, somehow endured until 1882, two years after Davis finally ceased to play. He entered the following decade as a widower, living in want in a Manhattan apartment building. On March 17, 1894, the New York Sun printed his letter of July 27, 1893 to Edward B. Talcott, a principal owner of the New York Giants:
My good friend,
Referring to our conversation on Baseball I now comply with your request to write you a letter on the subject then proposed by me and which you so readily and kindly offered to take charge of, after my death, namely, to procure subscriptions to place a Headstone on my grave.
My wish is that Baseball players be invited to subscribe Ten Cents each and no matter how small a sum is collected, it will be sufficient to place an oak board with an inscription on my resting place, but whatever it may be, I would like it as durable as possible without any ornamentation—simply something that “he who runs may read.”…
All relations and immediate friends are well informed that I desire to be buried in my baseball suit, and wrapped in the original flag of the old Knickerbockers 1845, now festooned over my bureau and for the past eighteen years and interred with the least possible cost.
I suggest the following inscription in wood or in stone:
Wrapped in the Original Flag
Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of N.Y.,
Here lies the body of
James Whyte Davis,
A member for thirty years.
He was not “Too Late,”
Reaching the “Home Plate.”
Born March 2, 1826.
Died ______ [he would die February 15, 1899]
I should be pleased to show you my Glass case containing the trophies of my Silver Wedding with the Old Knickerbockers in 1875 and which I intend to bequeath to you, should you so desire as a mark of appreciation of the kindly act which you have undertaken to perform. Kindly acknowledge receipt of this.
And I am Yours sincerely and thankfully,
James Whyte Davis.
Perhaps it is through the Talcott family that the Davis trophy came to reside with the Vermont-based eBay seller. (Or, in a thought that has only now occurred to me, perhaps it came by way of the estate of Davis’s only son, Wade B. Davis, who died in Portland, Maine in 1917.) The dismaying thing is that in the end no dimes were collected for Davis’s headstone, and he lies in the sod at Green-Wood in an unmarked grave. Even his cemetery records have his middle name wrong (“White”) because whoever scribbled the burial transit slip didn’t care. Maybe the owner of the Silver Wedding trophies could throw a dime toward a fund to place a marker at Section 135, Lot 30010. Maybe a baseball organization or benefactor might be persuaded to chip in, too.
Peter Nash wrote to me about the Green-Wood Historic Fund and its “Saved in Time” program. “All contributions regarding player memorials go to the Historic Fund with ‘Elysian Fields Monument Trust’ [the organization that Nash founded] noted on the check memo. We have already fully restored the [Henry] Chadwick monument and the [Jim] Creighton monument’s restoration is underway. (The missing ball at its apex is to be replaced)…. Perhaps JWD’s initial wish of ‘a ten cent subscription’ could be fullfilled in true ‘Too Late’ fashion by our present day MLB players.”
I have sent in my check.
Was this game truly more important than that of April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson first set foot on a major league field? No, not when you take into account the resonant social and cultural issues of that event. One might look to other games too–the introduction of night ball, for instance, or the first game played by Knickerbocker rules, or Carlton Fisk’s home run in Game Six of the 1975 World Series. and so on. But this is my choice. If you think it’s a poor one, I’ll count on you to let me know!
After the famous tour of the Brooklyn Excelsiors in 1860, which took them as far north as Canada and as far south as Baltimore, the outbreak of war had quashed any thought of new junkets. Then in baseball’s boom year of 1867 the Washington Nationals, a club that had formed prior to the war, announced that it would take a trip unlike any thus far attempted. Their notice published in the Clipper read:
The famous Washington club will start upon their proposed Western trip on the 10th [of July], visiting and playing friendly games with the leading clubs of Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Chicago, reaching the latter place on the 24th. . . .
The Washington club was in fact not yet famous, but wished to become so. They had played only five match games in 1865, when they had welcomed clubs from Philadelphia and Brooklyn to play on the lot behind newly installed President Andrew Johnson’s White House.
Although the 1866 Nationals won ten games against five defeats, they were by no means a club to rank alongside the Atlantics, Athletics, Mutuals, or the champion Unions of Morrisania. Those Unions were led by handsome young George Wright, the coming hero of the age, whose older brother Harry had played with the Knickerbockers in the 1850s and had lately reverted to the role of a cricket professional, in Cincinnati.
In 1867 the Nationals strengthened themselves with additional recruits, giving each a patronage government job, and somehow persuaded Wright to join them too. Although the players were nominal amateurs, there can be no doubt of their uniformly professional status. The club president listed Wright’s place of employment as 238 Pennsylvania Avenue, at that time an open field and even today a parking lot.
During the three weeks of their Western tour the Nationals made a show of maintaining their amateur status by refusing payments of any kind, even declining reimbursement for travel expenses; these, of course, were covered by their employers, who had graciously permitted them to abandon the desks at which they had seldom been seen anyway. The aim of the National Club directors in going out on tour was not pecuniary gain but social éclat and pride of place: the Western farmers had been getting a bit chesty about their brand of baseball and, it was thought back East, needed a slap of reality at the hands of an experienced ball club.
The Nationals prepared for their trip with easy triumphs over local cupcakes until they journeyed to Cincinnati to play the Red Stockings on July 15, in a battle of two unbeaten nines. George Wright’s older brother Harry had left New York for the Queen City of the West in March 1865 to serve as the professional instructor and bowler of its Union Cricket Club. It may have seemed to him that as there was no real money to be made from baseball, and the distant cricket club was offering him $1200 annual salary, he might as well return to the trade of his father, Sam Wright, the formidable cricket professional of the celebrated St. George club.
By the summer of 1866 the Cincinnati Base Ball Club formed, and Harry Wright was enticed to be its pitcher. To devote his full attention to the new national game for 1867 the baseball club’s directors, many of them holding office in common with the cricket club, offered him the same salary he was already receiving to switch sports. The other players were local amateurs, including some doing double duty as cricketers, and they did not take the field until the end of September.
Leading up to their match with the Nationals, the 1867 edition of the Cincinnati Base Ball Club—already popularly named “Red Stockings” for the innovation of hiking their pants, better to display their manly calves in carmine hose, while all other players still wore long trousers—had drubbed four local clubs. But Harry’s expected pleasure in playing against his brother’s club soon was dashed: after initially holding their own against the Nationals, tied at 6–6 into the fourth inning, the Reds ultimately were humiliated by a count of 53–10. Although this would be their only loss of the year, it came against their only opponent from outside the tri-state area, and so a lesson was there to be drawn. At the end of the season the Red Stocking directors instructed Harry to follow the Nationals’ model and begin recruiting professionals from distant places. The upshot, of course, was the brazenly professional Red Stockings of 1869, undefeated against all comers from coast to coast.
After crushing the Red Stockings and four other patsies, the Nationals headed for Chicago for highly anticipated games against that city’s best, the Excelsiors and Atlantics, named in emulation of Brooklyn’s finest clubs. The Forest Citys of Rockford had already played the Excelsiors twice that year, losing narrowly each time—the scores were 45–41 and 28–25—and thus ceded the state championship. All the same, the Rockford boys were given the consolation prize of an invitation to Chicago to play what amounted to a warmup game against the Nationals on Thursday the 25th at Dexter Park. On the following Saturday the Nationals would defeat Rockford’s nemesis, the Excelsiors, by a score of 49–4 (not a typo); on Monday the Washington nine would trounce the Atlantics by 78–17.
I experienced a severe case of stage fright when I found myself in the pitcher’s box, facing such renowned players as George Wright, [Frank] Norton, [Harry] Berthrong, [George] Fox, and others of the visiting team…. A great lump arose in my throat, and my heart beat so like a trip-hammer that I imagined it could be heard by everyone on the grounds. I knew, also, that every player on the Rockford nine had an idea that their kid pitcher would surely become rattled and go to pieces as soon as the strong batters of the Nationals had opportunity to fall upon his delivery….
There were several interesting plays in the game, as noted in the contemporary press. In the third inning Al Barker of Rockford “went to his base on a ball which dropped from the bat.” Sounds like a bunt, doesn’t it? Yet the “baby hit” is thought today to have been invented by Tom Barlow some years later (Tommy is equally famous as baseball’s first drug addict, hooked on morphine in 1874). In the sixth inning George Wright “took the bat and by a splendid stroke to center field made a home run.” As Spalding recalled,
…the Forest Citys had by this time gotten pretty well settled and their stage-fright had disappeared, yet none of us even then had the remotest idea that we were destined to win the game over such a famous antagonist. The thought or suggestion of such a thing at that stage would probably have thrown us into another mental spasm.
At this psychological moment, Col. Frank Jones, President of the National Club, rushed up to George Wright, who was about to take his position at the bat, and said, in a louder voice possibly than he intended:
“Do you know, George, that this is the seventh innings and we are six runs behind? You must discard your heavy bat and take a lighter one; for to lose this game would be to make our whole trip a failure.” Col. Jones’ excited manner plainly indicated his anxiety.
This incident inspired the Rockfords with confidence and determination, and for the first time we began to realize that victory was not only possible, but probable, and the playing of our whole team from that time forward was brilliant.
The eighth inning produced a double play, still rare in these days before the glove: “Wright struck and went to first base. Fox followed and knocked a ball to Spalding, who threw it to Addy on 2b, and Addy immediately sent it to 1st, thus putting out Wright and Fox. This was very finely done.” Rockford and Spalding held their six-run lead, emerging victorious by a score of 29–23.
There had been upsets before in baseball’s brief history, but never one on this scale. Immediately it was alleged that the Nationals had tanked the game so as to narrow the odds for their coming contest against the Atlantics. When the Nationals won that game handily to close out their tour, the cries of fraud regarding the Rockford contest only grew louder. No one could have known that several of the Forest City lads would one day become nationally prominent players—particularly Spalding and infielder Ross Barnes.
The Nationals broke up after the season, but even in defeat their Steinbrennerian squadron had supplied the model for how baseball might succeed as America’s game. The club had brought together the best talent from distant places, and playing skill rather than local celebrity would be the path to victory ever after. Cincinnati began importing stars in 1868, and one year later took the Washington Nationals model to its logical conclusion—an all-star team.
While it is often written that the Red Stockings of 1869 were the first professional club, we have seen this not to be so. Every member of the 1867 Nationals was paid to play. That they lost to Rockford, a club that had been defeated by the Excelsiors, whom the Nationals went on to drub mercilessly, points to one of the game’s glories, routinely on exhibit every day.
You just don’t know who’s going to win.