The Knickerbockers

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.

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7 Responses to “The Knickerbockers”

  1. William Miller Says:

    They look more like Mennonite farmers than ballplayers. Anyway, this blog-post should be required reading for anyone who cares about the historical foundation of baseball. Your speculations are reasonable and well-balanced.
    Very nice post, Bill

  2. verdun2 Says:

    Thank you for the kind words, Bill.
    v

  3. Kevin Graham Says:

    V,

    Love these posts. It’s my recollection that the Knickerbockers played nothing but “intra-squad” games, and for years never played another team. Then when they finally played against another team at the Elysian Fields, they got beat badly, and then didn’t play another team for years after.

    Kevin

  4. bmarlowe Says:

    The Duncan Curry photo is not Curry and it is the subject of a pending lawsuit. The 6 man “Knickerbocker” photo has also been seriously questioned. See:
    https://sabr.box.com/shared/static/tysgx0z66j8u64tq5rtd.pdf , and
    https://sabr.box.com/shared/static/106f79f134092a683653.pdf

  5. bmarlowe Says:

    It is of course your blog and you can do as you wish, but please note that the source of the “Curry” photo (not the auction house that sold it) has multiple judgements against him for many tens of thousands of dollars for this kind of thing. There is probably no one knowledgeable in this subject who believes that image depicts Curry.

    The prevailing view on the 6-man daguerreotype is as expressed in the SABR newsletters I referenced. Note that the Hall of Fame no longer uses “Cartwright” from that image in its online Alexander Cartwright gallery. As far as “waiting for a resolution,” I am not sure what you expect to happen. It’s basically over.

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