We all know how to define an ace in baseball terms. It’s the top pitcher on the team. Ever wonder where the term originated?
Asel Brainard was born in Albany, New York in 1839. His name was shortened to Asa, pronounced Ace-a (You already see where this is going, right?) as a child. He joined the Brooklyn Excelsiors in 1860 as their second baseman. In 1862 he moved to the pitcher’s box (no mound yet, team) and became the top pitcher for one of the best barnstorming teams of the era. With the coming of the Civil War, baseball suffered with players joining the army (one member of the Excelsiors even went South). Brainard wasn’t one of them. He continued to pitch for a much weakened team, and by 1867 had moved to Washington to play for the Nationals, another of the great barnstorming teams of the era and obviously not the modern team currently playing in DC.
In 1868, Harry Wright convinced him to move to Cincinnati where he became the pitcher for the Red Stockings. The next season the Red Stockings became the first openly acknowledged all professional team in baseball. They were also very good. The team went 57-0 for the season, Brainard doing the bulk of the pitching. He appeared in 55 games, but didn’t pitch in every one of them, so his record is a little hard to pin down. Whatever it was, he was obviously undefeated. The next year the team went 66-7-1 and disbanded following the season. The success of the team helped lead to the formation of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. Brainard was in demand for the new league.
He signed with the Washington Olympics, but his great years were behind him. He was 32 and a heavy drinker. He was also something of a “ladies man” having a series of “flings” that made the papers. He had married in 1869, but abandoned the family shortly afterwards (the exact date seems to be unknown), so on top of the drinking, he was gaining something of an unsavory reputation among both players and fans. He could get away with it as long as he pitched well, but by 1871 he was slipping badly. He was 12-15 with more walks than strikeouts in 1871, 2-9 in 1872, 5-7 in 1873, and 5-22 in 1874. Each year he walked more than he struck out and had more hits than innings pitched. (All stats from ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia, 2006). With those numbers there was no 1875 season for Brainard. He did a little umpiring that season, but didn’t catch on as a fulltime umpire (apparently he couldn’t be trusted to be sober on game day).
Out of baseball, Brainard ran a cigar store for a while, then a pool hall. He also got married for a second time. This time it was a banker’s daughter. He moved to Denver to run the Markham Hotel billiard room. Next next year he caught pneumonia and died 29 December 1888. He is buried in Brooklyn.
All sources agree that the abbreviation of Asa to Ace is the origin of our use of the word to describe a baseball team’s first line pitcher. I listened to the announcers call game one of the World Series. They used the term “Ace” to describe both pitchers a number of times. In doing so, they made a, probably unknowing, tip of the cap to Asa Brainard.