The First Professional

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

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One Response to “The First Professional”

  1. William Miller Says:

    This is why I love baseball. It’s like an archaeological site; you dig down far enough, you always find something new. Never heard of Creighton, so thanks for bringing him to our attention.
    Also, I like the idea of a separate wing for the game’s pioneers.
    Nice post, Bill

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