Archive for January, 2011

Magazine Man

January 31, 2011

J.G. Taylor Spink

There is no question that for much of the 20th Century The Sporting News was the premier baseball magazine. It did other sports too, but it’s forte was baseball. It promoted the sport, did its own awards, including a once prestigious MVP award. Its editor sat on the Veteran’s Committee for the Hall of Fame. Ultimately, he had the Hall of Fame’s award for baseball writing named for him, the J.G. Taylor Spink Award.

John George Taylor Spink was born in 1888 in St. Louis, His uncle, a sports writer and one of the directors of the St. Louis Browns founded The Sporting News in 1886. The original magazine featured mostly baseball information. In 1899, J.G.’s dad took over the magazine and ran it until his death in 1914. At that point Taylor Spink became the editor, a job he held until 1962. The younger Spink was a huge baseball fan, but also understood the value of covering other sports. While not de-emphasizing baseball, he made certain that other sports, notably boxing, were given space in the magazine. He also gave a major boost to college football by beginning to follow it in his magazine.

But the centerpiece of the publication remained baseball, with box scores and stats featured along with stories about the teams and players. And by 1947 that included Jackie Robinson. It’s tough to determine Spink’s attitude toward Robinson. On the one hand, his comments about Robinson as a player are glowing, culminating with the awarding of the first Rookie of the Year Award, which was sponsored by Spink’s magazine. On the other hand, Spink’s seems to be less impressed with the “social experimentation” aspect of Robinson’s career. I don’t mean to imply Spinks opposed the “social experimentation”, but that he found it secondary to Robinson’s abilities as a ballplayer.

By 1953, it was generally acknowledged that the existing “Old Timer’s Committee” of the Hall of Fame was in need or reform. Spink had a reputation as a knowledgeable baseball man that he was chosen as chairman for the newly formed Hall of Fame Veteran’s Committee. He would hold the position into 1959.  Although there are differing opinions on how well Spink’s committee did, he is acknowledged as instrumental in getting Bobby Wallace (a St. Louis man) elected and as influential in getting a number of other players picked for the Hall. You can take a look at the players selected by the Veteran’s Committee in the mid to late 1950s and make your own decision as to how good they were.

He continued to run his magazine until his death in 1962. With his passing, the Hall of Fame, which had for some time, been looking for a way to honor sportswriters established the J.G. Taylor Spink award for those writers. Spink won the initial award in ’62. The award winner’s names are displayed in the Hall library, so the winners, although honored, are not technically members of the Hall of Fame. Additionally, the Topps company, maker of baseball cards, sponsors a minor league player of the year award named for Spink. That’s quite a set of honors for a man who never played the game.

The First Stats Guru

January 28, 2011

For the next three posts, I’m going to step away from the men who play baseball and concentrate on those who do the same thing I do, write about it. Three of them have been hugely important in the history of the sport. One is honored in Cooperstown with a plaque, one is honored with an award named for him, and the other should be in Cooperstown too.

Henry Chadwick

To be a baseball fan is to be at least slightly enamoured of statistics. They permeate baseball from the sublime to the ridiculous. Want to know the fielding percentage of a left-handed, red-headed shortstop in 1892? I’ll bet someone has that stat. For both the good and bad of that, we owe Henry Chadwick.

Chadwick was, like his contemporary Harry Wright,  British. Chadwick was born in 1824 and moved to New York, along with his family, in 1836. He loved cricket and by 1850 he was working for the Long Island Star newspaper as their cricket reporter. Somewhere around this time he discovered baseball, fell in love with it, and began writing about it for his newspaper. By 1857 he was providing sports reporting for several New York newspapers. He covered the baseball scene in New York and Brooklyn and became known as an authoritative voice of the sport. By the civil War he was editing The Beadle Dime Baseball Player, published by Beadle and Company, the first baseball guide published for public sale. And before anybody asks, I don’t know if Beadle was related to Michelle Beadle of ESPN. Chadwick would, at various points edit both the Spaulding Guide and Reach Guide, the other two major baseball publications of the 19th Century. He died in 1908, is buried in Greenwood Cemetery under a headstone noting him as “Father of Base Ball” (which, considering his impact in spreading it may not be far from the truth), and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1938.

If what’s mentioned above is all Chadwick had done, he’d be important enough, but he became the great-grandfather of SABR. He began to fiddle with the info available and more or less invented modern baseball stats. He invented the box score, which he adopted from cricket. It was very different from the modern sheet. Here’s an 1876 example from Chadwick’s Wikipedia page:

Box Score, 1876

 Note it doesn’t show any pitching info and has more fielding info than is usual on modern box scores.

He’s also credited with inventing the batting average statistic, the earned run average statistic, being the first to use K to denote a strikeout (K being the last letter of “struck”). He also apparently began using a D for walks (D being the last letter of “walked”), but it didn’t catch on.

So far, Chadwick is the only writer actually in the Hall of Fame (the other writers are put in differently). I wish that wasn’t true (and will post my candidate later), but if you’re only going to have one, Chadwick certainly works. So do me a favor. The next time you get into a heated stat fight with someone, or use a stat to prove that one player is better than another, make sure you give a nod toward Brooklyn and Henry Chadwick. He deserves it.

The Iron Man

January 26, 2011

Joe McGinnity

Baseball has, over the years, produced some strange stats. Few are more strange than those of Joe McGinnity. He plays exactly ten years, averages 25 wins a season as a pitcher, then disappears from Major League rosters forever. I decided to find out what happened.

Joseph McGinty (the name change occurred after he reached adulthood) was born in 1871 in Rock Island, Illinois (home of the rail line made famous by the “Leadbelly” song). He tried minor league ball with little success, but did find a wife. His offseason job in 1893 and 1894 was in the Union Iron Foundry in McAlester, Oklahoma Territory (now state). He hit it off with the owners daughter and they married in 1893 (Is that a fringe benefit?). The work in the foundry earned him his nickname “Iron Man” McGinnity.

His baseball career floundering, he ran a saloon (also serving as the bouncer) and continued to pitch in semi-pro ball. During the sojourn in the semi-pros he discovered a new pitch. The pitch was a curve delivered with a submarine motion. It was difficult to hit and relatively easy on the arm. In 1898 he was back in professional ball, doing well enough to make the National League with the Baltimore Orioles (not the current team). He was an instant hit leading the league in wins and coming in second in ERA. He was also 29.

The owner of the Orioles also owned the Brooklyn team. Syndicate baseball was common in the era and the owner moved McGinnity to the stronger team, the Superbas (they didn’t become the Dodgers until much later). McGinnity again led the National League in wins and this time added innings pitched to his black ink stats. The Superbas won the pennant, but were challenged by second place Pittsburgh to a post season set of games called the “Chronicle-Telegraph Games” (named for a Pittsburgh newspaper which put up a fancy cup). Brooklyn won three games to one with McGinnity pitching two complete games and giving up no earned runs.

In 1901, the American League arrived. McGinnity joined the new AL team in Baltimore, also called the Orioles, but, again, not the same team as exists today. He won 26 games for the fledgling team, despite a 12 day suspension for spitting on an umpire (Joe McGinnity, meet Roberto Alomar). In 1902 he began the year with Baltimore but joined the exodus of players to New York and the NL, when his manager, John McGraw, jumped to the Giants as a result on a dispute with AL president Ban Johnson.

He spent the remaining years of his Major League career with the Giants, picking up 31 wins and pitching 434 innings in ’03. The latter is the NL record for the 20th Century. In August of 1903 he became famous for pitching both ends of a double-header three different times. He won all six games. He was already known as “Iron Man”, but now the nickname became synonymous with the double-header feat. In 1904 he was 35-8, winning 14 consecutive games, leading the league in wins, innings, shutouts, ERA, and saves. In 1905, he was down to 21 wins, but the Giants won the World Series. He took a loss in game two and won game four (of five) giving up no earned runs in either game (the loss came on errors). In 1906 he won 27 games, but was suspended for ten days, this time for fighting on the diamond.

By 1907, he was on the downslide. He pitched much less than before and began spending a lot of time in the coach’s box. By 1908 he was through, although he was famously involved in the “Merkle Game” (He’s supposed to have thrown the ball into the stands to keep the Cubs from making Fred Merkle out at second.). The Giants released him in February 1909. He was 39. He may have been through at the Major League level, but he wasn’t through with baseball. He went back to the minors, which were in his day not tied to the big league clubs in a farm system. He pitched until 1925 racking up 400 more wins, including a 30 win season, five 20 win seasons, and twice more winning both ends of a double-header. In the modern world of farm teams whose only job is to get minor leaguers to the big leagues, McGinnity’s post-1908 minor league career is unthinkable.

After retiring he coached a little with the Brooklyn team and assisted Williams College with its baseball program. He died in 1929 and was buried in McAlester, Oklahoma. He made the Hall of Fame in 1946.

For his Major League career McGinnity went 246-142 (or 25-14 per year) for his ten year career with an ERA of 2.66. In five of the ten years he led the NL in wins. He also led the league in ERA, shutouts, and winning percentage once each and led in innings pitched four times. His ERA+ is 1.21 and his WHIP is 1.188. What you get with McGinnity is an innings eater with a lot of wins. It’s fashionable to downplay “wins” as a major pitching statistic today, and that’s certainly fair in the modern era. After all, a starter goes six innings, turns the game over to any number of seventh inning stoppers, who turn it over to the set up man in the eighth, who finally gives the ball to the closer in the ninth. It’s hard to really consider the six inning starter much of a winning pitcher. Additionally, fielders have massive gloves and the field is manicured. That’s very different from McGinnity’s day. He started 381 games and finished 314 (82%) and had fielders with little gloves and terrible playing surfaces behind him. To me a win in 1905 is pretty meaningful, particularly versus the modern version. So, I’m more impressed with the 25 wins a year than I would be if McGinnity put them up today.

I began my search for McGinnity by wondering why he had such a short career. I think there are two reasons. First, he was 29 when he got to the Majors and 39 was usually the end of the baseball line in the first decade of the 20th Century. Second, with all those innings, I imagine that even a submarine delivery had to put a lot of strain on that arm of his. Although his subsequent minor league stats might belie that assertion.

While researching this post I ran across information that McGinnity’s home in McAlester, Oklahoma is still standing. Here’s a picture of it:

McGinnity home, McAlister, OK

 It’s in poor repair, but the article indicates that they are trying to restore it (as evidenced by the equipment to the left in the picture) to its original splendor. There’s some question as to whether McGinnity bought it or if it belonged to his wife’s family and she inherited it on the death of her parents. Considering the size and evident expense of the home and considering baseball salaries in 1905, I lean toward the latter theory. Either way, McGinnity actually lived in it. There is no information I could find about what memorabilia, if any, they have.

The Knickerbockers

January 24, 2011

The 1859 Knickerbockers

For my final look at pre 1870s baseball I turn to the Knickerbockers. I really hesitate to do a blog on the Knickerbockers, because it’s probably the place where I’m most likely to make a terrible error. The information about them is widely available, but even so is very sketchy, and thus prone to error. But as you’ve probably figured out by now, good sense has never stopped me before. So why should it now?

The Knickerbockers, named after a character in a Washington Irving tale, were a gentlemen’s baseball club formed in the mid-1840s to promote healthy exercise among various office workers and professionals in Manhattan. There were bank clerks (Alexander Cartwright) and doctors (Daniel “Doc” Adams), insurance men (Duncan Curry) and lawyers (James Moncrief). Their primary way of getting some healthy exercise was to go to a local open area and play a game with a ball and a stick (bat). They weren’t the first baseball club in New York. A number of the members, like Adams, came to the Knickerbockers from defunct teams like the New York Club.

What follows now is full of much speculation. There are a lot of theories on what happened next for the club, and this is strictly my take and should be noted as such. It seems that by September 1845 the club was having some disputes about how their game should be played. A set of 20 rules, the famous “Knickerbocker Rules” were written down for the club’s use. In the beginning (which seems like an appropriate phrase to use in this case) they were not meant for general dispersal to the entire New York baseball community. This leads to a couple of obvious questions: 1.what exactly are they? and 2. who wrote them?

If you take a look at the rules, which are easily available on-line, you find them to be a hodgepodge of  comments on both play and also on conduct and organization. Although there are comments on the distances between the bases that are specific (done in paces, not feet) and scoring is detailed,  you also get the following gem, “If there should not be a sufficient number of Club members present at the time agreed upon to commence exercise, gentlemen not members may be chosen in to make up the match.”  A couple of things are interesting about this statement (besides the requirement for “gentlemen”;  which probably excludes me). First, is the reference to the match as an “exercise.” It’s not yet so formal as to be a game. That may be instructive for how important these rules were. After all, “exercise” is generally much less formal than a “game”, which has specific rules. Second, there is no number indicated to show what makes up a “sufficient number of Club members” to start the game. That leads me to believe they had already established a generally agreed upon number and that it wasn’t necessary to indicate the number of players involved in the “exercise” (According to information I’ll get to below, that number seems to be eight.). I’ll admit that I may be making too much of this absence, but this interpretation makes sense to me. Also I should note that it was already three outs (hands) to an inning, but no definition of what constitutes an out. That again leads me to believe that certain things, such as how an out was recorded, were so taken for granted that it wasn’t deemed necessary to write them down. But that also leads to the idea that some things, like the number of outs, may have been in dispute. A game ended at 21 runs, not nine innings. So what you have seems to be a short list of rules for an “exercise”, but nothing comprehensive enough for a “game.”. You can see here a beginning of the rules that led ultimately to baseball, but nothing allowing you to declare, as some have, “Here is where baseball begins.”

The obvious second question is “Who wrote these rules?” The traditional answer is Alexander Cartwright, and the Hall of Fame has recognized him as such. However, there is actually no proof he wrote them. The oldest copy of the rules bears two names: William Wheaton and William Tucker.  Tucker was President of the club and Wheaton a member of the by-laws committee (and I’ve not been able to determine if he was the chairman). Those two things alone make it difficult to make an assertion the rules were written by one man. It is possible that Cartwright first proposed the writing down of rules, but maybe not. If you look at Knickerbocker box scores (and there are only a very few), Cartwright never appears as a player, but does show up as an umpire a few times. Remember, that he umpired the so-called “first baseball game” and it wouldn’t surprise me that someone who was going to umpire would want a set of written rules to refer to in case of a conflict.  It is possible that Cartwright devolved into the team umpire and, if that’s correct (and it’s mere speculation on my part), then again it’s easy to see how his name might be quickly attached to the written rules. Although the role of umpire was somewhat different in those days in that you were not required to make a ruling on every play, but merely to be available if a player or team asked for a “judgement” on a particular play, having a copy handy could be of use. If you read the “Knickerbocker Rules” over carefully they sound, at least to me, like they’re written by committee. Maybe Cartwright was a member of the committee. Maybe he even wrote the bulk of the rules in much the way that Thomas Jefferson wrote the bulk of the Declaration of Independence, but had the other four members of the Declaration Committee edit things in, things out, and word changes. Frankly I don’t know who came up with them. Fifty years after the fact, Daniel Adams claimed much of the credit, but I’d like a more contemporary  and less biased source.

A brief aside about Doc Adams (not to be confused with the character on the TV series “Gunsmoke”) is in order. He claimed in the same interview where he took credit for the rules (and a lot of other stuff), that he invented the position of  shortstop. His story goes like this. The ball used at the time was so soft that it was difficult for the outfielders to throw it back into the infield. Remember this is back when an out could be recorded by plunking the baserunner when he was off base, so you didn’t want the ball to be too hard, lest you sideline the player for a couple of weeks, if not months.  So he decided to create a short fielder (kind of like the 10th man in a slow-pitch softball game) to relay the ball back to the infield. Noting that more balls were hit between second and third, he began stationing himself there.  The position quickly became the modern shortstop. OK, maybe. But there are several possibilities here. What we can infer for certain, is that the positional change was recognized as necessary and that it was proposed. We also know it was accepted and ultimately became an established position. None of that indicates Adams “invented” the position, or otherwise had anything at all to do with the entire matter. It’s possible he did. It’s equally possible he suggested it and the club said, “Fine, you do it.” Or maybe someone else came up with the idea and Adams was picked,  or volunteered, to take the job. There’s no contemporary evidence to indicate which, if any of these possibilities, is correct. I’m not calling Adams a liar (after all, my stories have gotten better with age) but in his interview no one else seems to have ever had a good idea, and he sure takes credit for a lot of stuff. Maybe he really did it, or maybe he’s a blowhard, but I’d be happier with more contemporary information on his role in the early game. Having said all that, there is enough contemporary evidence to acknowledge his major role in founding the National Association of Base Ball Players, the first thing approximating a “league.”

The Knickerbockers remained an amateur team throughout their existence, always remaining more club than team. They never became professional, and. hence, disappeared as a major power in the New York scene after the early 1850s. They were heavily influential in that their writing down of a set of rules led to a later codification of the rules of baseball, but they were never a dominant team after about 1855. They lasted until 1882, when they were disbanded. They left baseball a legacy, but it wasn’t so much on the field as it was in the establishment of the game itself. For that, we owe them.

The following picture shows six men, five of which were Knickerbocker members of the 1840s:

1840s Knickerbockers

The people are (from left to right) Alfred Cartwright (younger brother of Alexander), Alexander Cartwright (who is supposed to have written the Knickerbocker Rules), and William Wheaton (whose name actually appears on the Rules) on the back row. The front row consists of (again from left to right) Duncan Curry (first President of the Knickerbockers), Daniel (Doc) Adams (who’s supposed to have invented the shortstop position), and Henry T. Anthony (an early member of the club). Alfred Cartwright never played for the Knickerbockers, so the occasion for this picture may have nothing to do with the baseball aspects of the Knickerbocker club.

Please note the identifications in the paragraph above are the traditional identifications. Note there are comments below that indicate concerns about the traditional identity of persons in the picture immediately above. Two very interesting pdf articles are referenced. I suggest you read both articles.

Put Down that Bat and Join the Cavalry

January 20, 2011

Amazing the number of people who’ve wandered into a baseball uniform, isn’t it? I have. Most of my friends have. Some very famous, or infamous, people have also done it. There have been a handful of peripheral historical figures who’ve played a little baseball in their spare time. You never know where you’re going to find one of those. Take, for instance, Fred Benteen.

Frederick Benteen was born in Petersburg, Virginia in 1834. In 1849 the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri where Benteen became a painter (house variety, not portrait variety). He also developed an interest in baseball. By 1860 he was a member of the Cyclones of St. Louis, an amateur team that was considered both one of the finest teams in St. Louis, and also one of the finest in the entire area west of the Mississippi River. Benteen was a hitter with some power (for the day) and considered one of the best players on the team. Marrying a local woman in 1860, he seemed content to spend his life in St. Louis painting and playing ball.

Of course the next year the American Civil War broke out. Benteen, despite his Southern heritage, joined the Union cause (at some expense to his relations with his birth family), enlisting in the 10th Missouri Cavalry. He also brought his love of the game to the army. During the Civil War, Benteen fought in several major engagements in the West, notably Pea Ridge, Vicksburg, and Pleasant Hill. He won promotion to Captain in 1861, Major in 1862, and Colonel in 1864 (the latter two Brevets). He also ran the unit baseball team which was known to be the best in whichever command it was stationed.

After the war, Benteen, deciding he liked military life, remained in the army, being sent to Dakota Territory as a Captain (the Brevet made the ranks of Major and Colonel temporary). Assigned to Company H of the 7th Cavalry, he brought his game with him. He organized a company baseball team that won game after game against other teams at various posts in the American West. By the end of 1875, he was having trouble finding games against other service teams. It seemed by early 1876 that he was going to be known more for his baseball team than for his military service.

Then the Great Sioux Uprising of 1876 made him a national figure, if only for a short time. Commander of one of the three columns of the 7th Cavalry on the Little Bighorn, his unit suffered major casualties while his commander, George Custer, had his column massacred in what’s become known as “Custer’s Last Stand”. Unlike the commander of the third column, Major Marcus Reno, who was court martialed, Benteen managed to escape blame for the massacre and continued his army career. But after 1876, his career seemed to run aground at various times. I’m not a qualified shrink, but it seems he never quite got over his role in the Custer fiasco. He had a few run-ins with the authorities, including a drunk and disorderly complaint that cost him rank, but he managed to survive the incident and  stay under the radar until his retirement in 1888, never again appearing in the national spotlight. After his retirement he was Breveted Brigadier General (another temporary rank) and died in 1898 in Atlanta. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

I was looking for information on something totally unrelated to baseball when I found a reference to the Cyclones of St. Louis. There was the name Benteen and I knew it from somewhere. A quick search told me where I’d heard it, and of course it had nothing to do with baseball. One of the joys of this blog is being able to pass along strange bits of info like this to readers. Who’d have thought that one of the major players in Custer’s Last Stand would be a ball player?

Benteen in 1865

Over the Outhouse, By the Pagoda, Around the Tree, and Watch for the Cow Chip

January 18, 2011
 Take a look at a modern baseball stadium. It’s almost awe-inspiring in its size and grandeur. Now take a look at 1860s ball parks. They’re called “parks” for a reason. They look much more like a large green open, or at least semi-open, space where someone stuck down a diamond and yelled “Play Ball.” They have, like many modern stadia, a lot of quirks. Here’s some of my favorite 1850-1870 oddities.
Capitoline Grounds

Capitoline Grounds 1866

 
 Apparently when the field (home of the Atlantic) was first laid out by Reuben Decker and Hamilton Weed in 1864, there was a round brick outhouse in deep right field (it does not appear in the picture above and I was unable to find a picture of it either on-line or in a book). A player hitting the ball over the outhouse on the fly received a bottle of champagne of his efforts. Now this leads to several questions, and, yes, you know I’m going to ask them. I am going to refrain, however, from any gags involving the phrase “stacked like a brick…”. I wonder if it was cheap or expensive champagne. How big was the bottle? Did the player have to share it with the rest of the team (and even the opponents) or could he take it home? Who paid for it, the player’s team, the opposing team, or the opposing pitcher?  Did you get something extra for doing your Babe Ruth impression and calling your shot? What happened if you hit the roof on the fly, did you get a bottle of wine?  If you hit the front on a bounce, did you get a bottle  of beer? How about he front door? Was that a bottle of scotch? And of  course the most important questions are how many holes in the outhouse and was it co-ed? Don’t you want to know the answer to all these questions? And before anyone asks, the only player I find reference to hitting two over the outhouse on the same day is Lip Pike. I don’t know if he got two bottles or not.

Union Grounds

The Union Grounds, built by William Cammeyer in 1862, held a number of teams, the most famous being the Eckfords, named for shipbuilder Henry Eckford. Having a lot of money, Eckford built the oddity at the Union Grounds. If you look at the far left of the picture above you’ll see a round multi-story building (no it isn’t the Capitoline outhouse moved across town). This building was known in its own era as the “pagoda.” It was built by Eckford as a sort of early “Skybox” luxury suite. It seems Eckford would watch games from the pagoda with some of his friends and colleagues. He was known to conduct business from it, and was not averse to the company of young women in the pagoda during games. Refreshments were available in the pagoda, including alcoholic beverages (type unspecified). Also the grounds were fenced. This allowed the Eckfords to control the crowd, and, of course, charge fans for watching the game. It seems to be the first at least partially enclosed field and thus very significant in paving the road toward professionalism. With more money available to clubs, it wasn’t unreasonable for players to start asking for a cut.

Elysian FieldsElysian Fields 1866

 The Elysian Fields are primarily famous as the home of the “”first baseball game.” But they were used for most of the 1850-1870 period by the Knickerbockers and other teams. The picture above is from 1866, so it doesn’t show one of the great quirks of the park. About ten feet to the left of a right-handed batter there was a big tree. I’ve seen a picture of it in a book, but can’t find a copy on-line. It looks huge and I wouldn’t be surprised if the limbs didn’t hang down over home on occasion. It was instrumental in the Knickerbockers’ view of the foul ball. It got them to change the rule so that a foul didn’t count against the batter if it hit the tree and the fielder had no chance to catch the ball in flight. It seems to have been a very early version of the current rule on foul balls. By 1860 the tree was gone, but the rule hung on.

 Excelsior Grounds

The Excelsior Grounds were set up in the late 1850s. By the 1860s they were being overshadowed by the Captioline and the Union Grounds. But for a few years they were the home of some of the best baseball in the area. Being so early, they were a multi-purpose facility. The hosted baseball games, but in the off-season and during the weeks when the Excelsiors weren’t playing the land was  leased for cattle grazing. There’s even a story about one woman stabbing another over grazing rights (and you thought that only happened in old John Wayne Westerns, didn’t you?) At least it had the advantage of keeping the grass short, but I’m not sure what happened if the ball landed on a cow chip.

There were a lot of other parks in the era, some more famous than others. Even Lowry’s Green Cathedrals doesn’t list them all. These four get my vote for some of the quirkiest things in or about early ballparks.

 

Excelsior Grounds 1860

The Mighty Atlantic

January 14, 2011

1860 game between Atlantic and Excelsior at Excelsior Grounds

Since its beginnings, baseball has been dominated by great teams. Back in the Deadball Era there were the Cubs and Athletics. Since 1920 the Yankees have dominated. In the 1880s, there were the Browns. And before any of these, all the way back in the 1850s and 1860s there were the Atlantic.

The great hotbed of 1850s and 1860s baseball was Brooklyn. At this time Brooklyn was an independent city, not one of the boroughs of New York. It had its own civic pride, its own commercial district, and more great baseball teams than anywhere else. The best of these were the Atlantic. The singular form of the word is  correct, but as it sounds absolutely goofy to the modern ear, I’ll begin calling them the Atlantics. They were occasionally known as the Atlantic of Brooklyn and they were far and away the best of the era.

The Atlantics were founded in 1855 and joined the newly formed National Association of Base Ball Players that same season. BTW Base Ball as two words is correct for this era. The modern Baseball comes later. They were a typical club of the period, all amateurs (at least officially), men who worked a day job and used baseball as a hobby and medium for exercise. I’m not sure of the initial roster, but I was able to find the following list of players for the 21 October 1855 game, so let’s celebrate them:  Caleb Sniffen (P), Willet P. Whitson (C), Thomas Powers (1B), Tice Hamilton (2B), Isaac Loper (3B), William Babcock (SS), William Bliss (LF), John Holder (CF), and A. Gildersleeve (RF). The Atlantic defeated the Harmony (of Brooklyn) club 24-22 that day. Can you imagine a “Harmony” team in this day and age?

The Association  was a consortium of teams and players that met to create a uniform set of rules, and ultimately to choose a winner for the league. They did not crown a champion from 1855 through 1858, but the Atlantics did well, producing a 7-1-1 record in 1857 and going 11-1 in 1858. Beginning in 1859, the Association decided to determine a champion and did so through 1869. In those 11 years, the Atlantics won seven titles: 1859, 1860, 1861, 1864, 1865, 1866, and 1869. No other team won more than two (Brooklyn Eckfords).

In their seven titles, the Atlantics never played more than 21 championship caliber games prior to 1868, so they are dominant over a small sample of contests and thus it’s difficult to gauge their true abilities. Another problem is the rapid turnover of players. By the first championship team of 1859, not one player from the 1855 team was still around. It seems that’s true to a great degree for most teams of the era. It’s not exactly “free agency”, after all no one is supposed to be paid, but it does appear that the clubs had very open membership and that good players tended to gravitate toward the better teams. This begins to change in the early 1860s when you begin seeing a lot of the same names on the same clubs. Here’s a picture of the 1865 Atlantcs:

1865 Atlantics

From left to right, the players are Frank Norton, Sid Smith, Dickey Pearce, Joe Start, Charlie Smith, John Chapman, Fred Crane, John Galvin, and Tom Pratt. The man in the middle in the civilian suit is manager Peter O’Brien. The association winning team of 1860 included Pearce, Charlie Smith, and Peter O’Brien as a player. In 1869 Pearce, Start, Chapman, and Charlie Smith were still around for the final championship team. Here’s another view of the 1865 team. If you click on it, it blows up so you can read who’s who:

1865 Atlantics

As the reigning league champions in 1869, the Atlantics drew the attention of the all professional Cincinnati Red Stockings team. They engaged in a match for the ages in 1870. It’s nicely detailed at Kevin’s excellent DMB Historic World Series Replay site (link in the blogroll), so I’m not going to go over it except to say the Atlantic won in 11 innings. It was their high point. In 1871 the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed to play professional games. The Atlantic decided to set it out and most of the great players jumped to other teams in the new league. In 1872 the Atlantic joined the new league, but with all their good players gone, they floundered, never finishing higher than sixth (of eight). When the National League was formed in 1876, the woeful Atlantics were left out. They hung around trying to play good ball with little success. In 1882, the newly formed American Association wanted a team in Brooklyn. They chose the Bridegrooms. It was the end for the Atlantics. They folded, although the name hung around for a while as the Bridegrooms were informally know at the “Atlantics” for a number of years.

It was a sad end to a great team, but the Baseball God’s weren’t quite through with them yet. In looking for info on this team, I ran across a site dedicated to a modern team called the Atlantic that plays 1860s style Base Ball in honor of the old team. In the words of a contemporary of the old Atlantic, Abraham Lincoln, “It is altogether fitting and proper” that they do this.

The First Professional

January 12, 2011

Jim CreightonFor his day he was Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson rolled into one. He was Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson come to earth as one player. He was Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson from 45 feet away. He was Jim Creighton and baseball had never seen his like. At 19 he was the biggest star in the game, maybe in its history to that time. He’s been called the first professional player (but probably wasn’t) and the first great pitcher. By 22 he was dead.

Creighton was from Brooklyn, born in 1841. He played street ball, joined a neighborhood team, and by 1858 was an infielder for the Niagaras. He pitched a little, including a game against the Brooklyn Stars. They were impressed and in 1859 brought him onboard as their star pitcher. He was an immediate success and in 1860 jumped teams once again; this time going to the more respected Excelsiors. With the Excelsiors he became the biggest star in fledgling baseball. The team won a lot of games, made a lot of money, and rumors abounded that much of it went into Creighton’s pockets. No one could prove it, so he continued to pitch in the strictly amateur league.

Creighton in Excelsior uniform

The Excelsiors participated in a “national” tour (they went to upstate New York, then down the East Coast) in 1860, during which Creighton is credited, in November 1860, with throwing the first ever shutout in baseball history. In an era where 35-25 wasn’t an unreasonable score, the feat was astounding. He wasn’t a bad hitter either. In 1861 he is reputed to have made an out only four  times all season, all on the base paths. There are no available box scores to either prove or disprove this.

In 1862 he was having another great year when, on 14 October, he took an exceptionally fierce swing with his bat that apparently caused some sort of internal injury. In great pain he completed the game, then went home. He died four days later. There seems to be no official doctor’s account of what happened, so speculation centers around rupturing an appendix, bladder, or spleen, or lacerating something in such a way as to create great internal bleeding. Whatever happened he was not yet 22. His funeral was a major event in Brooklyn, and in dying young Creighton became an almost mythic figure in early baseball.

It’s possible that Creighton invented something akin to a fastball. In the era, pitchers were required to throw underhanded with a stiff elbow and wrist. Creighton apparently began practicing with a lead ball the size of a baseball to increase arm strength, then developed a motion that sent his arm far backward, then bending at the waist, he brought the ball in low (one source says only about two to three inches off the ground) and slung it forward with such speed and an upward trajectory that it was virtually unhittable. It sounds like a combination of the submarine style of a Jeff Nelson combined with the softball “rise ball” of a Cat Osterman, and it must have been especially difficult to hit in an era when there was almost no arm motion in pitching.

As usual with players of this era, it’s impossible to say how truly good he was. There were few games, the rules were different, and in Creighton’s case the pitching rules make it impossible to compare him with a modern player. Back several months ago on this site someone commented (and I looked and couldn’t find it, so I don’t know who it was, but I thank you) that the Hall of Fame should take a number of current members and move them into a special wing for “Pioneers”. I kind of like that idea. It lets us look at guys like Candy Cummings, Al Spaulding, and Henry Chadwick in the context of the founding of the game rather than looking at them the same way we look at Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio. Not sure how you’d determine who goes where, but it’s worth a thought. I can’t imagine they’d ever really do it, but if  they did, I’d like to nominate Creighton for one of the first slots.

Creighton's grave in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn

A Baker’s Dozen Things You Should Know About Early Baseball

January 10, 2011

Capitoline Grounds, Brooklyn (about 1870)

So far I’ve stayed away from questions of baseball’s origins or of its formative, non-professional years. The main reason for that is simply I don’t have the level of expertise to weigh in authoritatively. But with that caveat, I want to look at Paleolithic baseball in a few posts. Here’s a baker’s dozen of early thoughts on what I’ve found. Be aware that many of these comments are overly broad and are meant as general, rather than specific, in nature.

1. There seems to be general agreement that the Knickerbockers created a set of rules that became the basis for modern baseball, thus setting New York baseball apart from games with more informal rules. There is great disagreement as to who actually did them (Alexander Cartwright or someone else), how much impact they initially had, and when other teams began to use them as the basis for the way they played the game. The idea that the Knickerbockers invented the game is universally ridiculed as nonsense.

2. The best early teams were mostly centered around New York, with Brooklyn especially being a hotbed. And despite most being in the North, they were almost uniformly segregated by race.

3. Having said that, there were teams a lot of places from Boston to DC and further away from the coast.  Many had their own set of rules that differed greatly from what we might consider baseball.

4. By the mid-1850s the New York teams and rules were dominant and other teams were beginning to use the New York set of rules (founded in some degree on the Knickerbocker rules).

5. It was a hitters game. Even losing teams were scoring 25-30 runs.

6. Uniforms were already present and evolving, but neither ball parks nor equipment were particularly evolving.  Ball parks were in many ways simply large open spaces where someone stuck down some bases (That’s a bit overstated, but not by much.). There were no gloves and the primary difference between a bat and a table leg is that the latter came with a table top attached.

7. There were some genuinely excellent players and I plan to do a couple of posts on some of them.

8. There was already one great team, the Atlantic, and they also get a post.

9. The impulse to organize a league led to a loose confederation of teams and players that tried to set up a standard schedule and championship play without much success.

10. Professionalism was rearing its head as early as 1860 (and perhaps earlier) and would end up tearing apart the fabric of the earliest league and many of its teams. This would culminate with the Red Stockings, the Pike Case, and the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players.

11. Rosters were extremely tiny and apparently flexible. In following one team through one year, I’ve discovered great shifts in players and it’s almost impossible to tell that a team one year is the same team the next by simply looking at the rosters; turn-over is that great. By about 1860 this begins to cease and rosters become more stable, but not significantly larger.

12. The Civil War did a job on a number of teams and players.

13. And no where in all this does the name Abner Doubleday appear (but you already knew that, right?).

Random Comments on the Latest Hall of Fame Voting

January 6, 2011

So it’s over and the most important vote of the year is done (Who cares about those idiot votes in DC?). Congratulations to Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven. Here’s some thoughts on the election:

1. On a personal level I did pretty well. Several posts back I weighed in on the 10 people I’d vote for. Nine of them made the top ten. I missed Lee Smith and added Don Mattingly. I was sorry to leave off Smith, but I’m not backing down on Mattingly as someone whose career is short, but powerful and, thus, deserves to be in Cooperstown. I also think that Trevor Hoffman’s 600 saves and Mariano Rivera’s pending move into the same sphere are going to hurt Smith’s chances. I am most surprised (and gratified) by the amount of support Larry Walker received. It wasn’t all that great, but honestly I didn’t expect it to be that good.

2. I think the election of Blyleven is more important than the election of Alomar. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t say that Alomar didn’t belong. What I mean is that it has been forever since the writers elected a starting pitcher with less than 300 wins (Fergie Jenkins). If you’re not going to let in a guy with 280 plus wins, how are you going to justify letting in someone with only 220 or so wins? That means it would be difficult to let in Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, David Wells, Mike Mussina, Jaime Moyer, and Kenny Rogers when the time comes. I’m not saying they all (or any) should be enshrined, but that the failure to elect someone with 280 wins and 3700 strikeouts can doom any of them. With Blyleven now in, the “Well, Blyleven isn’t in, why should Martinez be in?” argument goes out the door. And the “You can’t vote for anyone without 300 wins,” theory is also gone. I think it will now be easier for some of the people listed above to make it through the front door without a ticket. And yes I know Jim Kaat and Tommy John both have Blyleven-like win totals, but both have already dropped off the ballot.

3. Apparently the spitting incident really hurt Alomar. I can think of no other reason for him going from just over 70% all the way to 90% in one shot.

4. The steroid guys got clobbered. Mark McGwire, Juan Gonzalez, Raffy Palmeiro did terribly. I think that bodes poorly for Bonds, Sosa, Clemens and company. I also think it hurt Bagwell and that’s a shame.

5. Two of my favorites, Tino Martinez and John Olerud fell of the list entirely, as did Harold Baines. Too bad. I think both Martinez and Olerud should have stayed around for a least another couple of chances. I never expected either to make the Hall.  As for Baines, I’m a little surprised it took this long for him to fall off.

6. ESPN published a list of the guys eligible for the first time in 2012, 2013, and 2014. It’s an interesting list. The 2012 group isn’t particularly strong with guys like Brian Jordan, Bernie Williams, Brad Radke, and Ruben Sierra being among the highlights. That bodes well for holdovers like Larkin, Bagwell, and company to get a good shot in 2012. Of the new group in 2012, I’ll be most interested to see how Bernie Williams does. He has four rings, won a batting title, played a good center field, and hit clean up for the Yankees. Having said that, I never saw him as an elite player, so it will be very interesting to see how he does.

7. The 2013 group includes Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Curt Schilling, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, David Wells, Kenny Lofton, Julio Franco, Jeff Conine, and Mike Stanton. Interesting here will be to see how Bonds, Clemens, and Sosa do, particularly in light of how Palmeiro, McGwire, and Gonzalez have done. I’ll find it almost funny if Craig Biggio gets in before Barry Bonds. And I wonder if Bagwell will be held so that he and Biggio can go in together.  Then there’s Julio Franco. I will be very interested to see how he does. Remember he went to Japan for a few years, then returned and played until he was 108. The failure to get 3000 hits can be attributed to the interlude in Japan. I wonder what the writers will do with that. My guess is he doesn’t do all that well. The guy I most want to see how he does is Mike Stanton. He may be the finest set-up man ever. I want to see how much respect a set-up man will command from the voters. My guess is that he won’t get much support, but I’ll still be interested to see how it goes.

8. Finally, the 2014 group has Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Jim Edmonds, Mark Grudzielanek, Jeff Kent, Luis Gonzalez, Mike Mussina, Kenny Rogers, and Hideo Nomo among others. Although I presume Maddux, Glavine, and Thomas are in, I’m going to be interested in how Edmonds, Gonzalez, Kent, and Mussina do. But I’m going to be most interested in Nomo. I don’t think his numbers are Hall quality, but his significance to the game is absolutely critical in getting Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese players involved at the Major League level. In that way he compares with players like Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente as pioneers and I want to see how that translates. Additionally, we may get to see and hear a debate about how much a  Japanese League career will add to or detract from players who enter the Major Leagues after years in a significant foreign league.

So there ya go. Again, congratulations to Alomar and Blyleven. I hope they give great speeches at Cooperstown. Your own thoughts on the matter?


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