Archive for August, 2013

Gone South

August 28, 2013
Excelsior of Brooklyn 1860 team photo

Excelsior of Brooklyn 1860 team photo

If you study early baseball you’ve seen the picture above. It’s the Excelsior team of 1860. Over the years I’ve done short blogs on three of the men in the picture. On 20 October 2010 there was a post called The Original Ace that dealt with Asa Brainard, the next-to-last man on the right of the picture (the man holding the cap) who went on to star as the primary pitcher for the 1869-70 Cincinnati Red Stockings. I used a part of it in my last blog post to show you Henry Polhemus (he’s the tall man with the mutton chops fourth from the left). There was also, as noted in the previous post, a blog on Jim Creighton (third from the left, holding the ball). Although I promise not to go through the entire group of nine, I want to look at one more member of this team. This time I want to focus on the man in the middle of the picture (the man with the bat beside Polhemus). His name was  Andrew Thurstin Pearsall and he was unique among the men in this picture.

Pearsall was the youngest of five children (one died in infancy). He was born in Bainbridge, New York in 1839 and by 1860 was listed as a merchant in Brooklyn (At his age I presume he worked in mercantile, rather than actually owned the place, but I’m not certain.). He was also attending medical school at the (College of Physicians and Surgeons of the City of New York (now  part of Columbia University) and completed his degree in 1861. Along the way he picked up a wife, Mary Graves of Lowndes County, Alabama. He also enjoyed baseball. During the late 1850s he became the primary first baseman for the Excelsior and was considered, along with Polhemus, as one of their two best hitters. He helped them to victories is both their “national” tours (they went to upstate New York in one and as far as Baltimore in the other). He played through the 1861 season, then sometime in 1862 disappeared.

He surfaced again in 1863, this time in Virginia. He became a regimental surgeon (that’s a status and doesn’t mean necessarily he was attached to a particular regiment) in the Confederate Army. His initial appointment was from 14 December 1862. He seems to have served in both Virginia and Georgia seeing time in both a hospital and on frontline duty with the 9th Kentucky Cavalry (CSA). Legend has it that while on service with the Confederacy he attended members of his former team, asking about the health of other team members. Although there is no actual proof of that he attended members of his team, a story in the New York Clipper does indicate he met a member of the Excelsior (name unknown) who was a prisoner of war and asked that man about the team. A letter from the prisoner to his family is supposed to be how the team found out what Pearsall was doing with his time.

So, if you’re the Excelsior, what do you do when you find out one of your players is in the military of the enemy? Apparently it was an easy call. On the 4th of July 1863 (the day following the end of the battle of Gettysburg, in which Pearsall did not participate) the team met and voted unanimously to expel him from the team. He was never reinstated. As far as I can tell, he had no further attachment to baseball.

Following the Civil War, Pearsall remained in the South (Alabama specifically) as a doctor remaining into the 1870s (he’s in the 1870 census in Alabama), then moving to Oswego, New York (where he shows in the 1880 census). He returned to medical practice serving as surgeon for a railroad and for a while as the Oswego coroner. He died in Oswego in 1905.

Because most of the men involved in early baseball were from the North, the overwhelming majority of those who served in the Civil War did so in the Union Army. A handful with ties to the South went with the Confederacy. One source indicates that 91 members (and former members) of the Excelsior joined the Union Army. Apparently only one, Pearsall,  joined the CSA.

The First Big Man

August 26, 2013
Members of the Excelsior about 1869

Members of the Excelsior about 1860

The above picture shows three early members of the Excelsior, one of the first great teams in baseball history. The man on the left is third baseman John Whiting. In the center (holding the ball) is Jim Creighton, the era’s superstar. Back on 12 January 2011, I did a post on Creighton titled The First Professional.The man on the right is Henry Delmas Polhemus.

Polhemus was an outfielder who, according to who you believe, stood around six feet and weighed around 200 pounds, depending on what he’d eaten for breakfast. He was, for the era, an absolutely huge man. As with most players of the age, he set up shop in most of the fielding positions, but his primary role was as an outfielder. He was fast and noted for an excellent arm. In an age when the ball was much lighter than it is today, the shortstop played a position much like the shortfielder in modern slow-pitch softball. One of his primary jobs was to act as cutoff man because outfielders couldn’t get the ball into the infield because it was so light. Polhemus was noted for not needing a cutoff man. At bat he was the team power hitter. When fields had no fences or they were 500 or more feet from home, Polhemus was noted for driving the ball into the gap for many inside-the-park home runs. Teaming with Creighton on the mound, Polhemus helped propel the Excelsior to the top of Brooklyn’s (and thus baseball’s) sporting pyramid in the period just prior to the Civil War.

Polhemus was the son of one of the more prominent Brooklyn families. An ancestor had formed the first Dutch Reform Church in the town. His father was a wealthy farmer who moved into the mercantile business. They were very wealthy and Henry Polhemus worked in the mercantile business and dabbled in baseball on the side. With the coming of the Civil War, he left baseball (after the 1862 season) and became a managing partner in two businesses: Fox and Polhemus, and Brinkerhoff and Polhemus. The companies received government contracts to make “duck cloth”, a type of canvas used in making military tents. Apparently they did a good job as there were few complaints about their product. Already wealthy, Polhemus became a multi-millionaire and never went back to baseball. He became director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, served on the board of various banks, railroads, and hospitals, and became a confidant of New York Governor (and later President) Grover Cleveland. He died in 1895 and is buried in Brooklyn. On his death, his wife donated a half-million dollars to establish a new wing to a Brooklyn hospital.

The above info is specific to Henry Polhemus, but in general terms is typical for many the baseball players of the pre-Civil War era (professionals like Creighton excepted). They were men of some wealth and baseball was a leisure time activity, not a vocation. Some, like Duncan Curry and Daniel Adams (both of the Knickerbockers) were professional men; Curry in insurance and Adams in medicine. Others like Atlantic stalwarts Folkert Boerum and Jack Remsen (although Remsen was a bit younger than the rest of these) were gentlemen farmers. Still others like Polhemus were entrepreneurs. Many knew each other professionally or were related (Boerum and Remsen were related by marriage). For them baseball was a method of exercise, of companionship, of good fun, and social advancement. It was not a “game” it was serious, but it was fun and it certainly wasn’t a way to make a living. Men like these are typical in the early story of baseball and are the true fathers of the sport.

An Update to Providence, Rhode Island: 21 June 1879

August 22, 2013

In the post of 12 August 2013 titled Providence, Rhode Island: 21 June 1879, I commented that I was still researching the issue of whether “B. White” in the box score was William Edward White, first baseman for the Brown University baseball team. Here’s an update on what I’ve found.

There is a wonderful new book out titled Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the Nineteenth Century Edited by Bill Felber and published by SABR. In it there is an article by John R. Husman that looks at the 21 June 1879 game. The article quotes extensively from both the Providence Journal and the Providence Morning Star. Although neither newspaper addresses White’s race (if you look at my previous article you’ll find they may not have known he was of mixed race), they do give answers to two questions I couldn’t answer previously.

1. Providence first baseman Joe Start was out because of a broken finger. I was unable in the previous post to explain why Start didn’t play (and I just resisted an awful play on word by saying I didn’t know why Start didn’t start).

2. The newspapers make it clear that the sub is indeed the Brown University first baseman. “‘ White, the first baseman for the University nine”‘, appears in the Journal and the Morning Star adds that “the Varsity boys lustily cheered their favorite.”‘. This indicates that the first baseman playing for the Providence Grays (against the Cleveland Blues) was indeed William Edward White.

All this makes a compelling case for declaring that White is the only former slave to play in a Major League game (at least that we can find so far).

BTW  if you’re interested, you can pick up the book from Barnes and Noble.

William R. Wheaton, Obscure Pioneer

August 19, 2013
William R. Wheaton

William R. Wheaton

The origins of baseball are lost in the mists of time and mythology. We don’t really have or know a founder. We do, however, know the names of a number of the pioneers of the sport. One of those is William Rufus Wheaton.

Wheaton was born in 1814 in New York. He read law, which means he studied under an attorney and absorbed enough to be admitted to practice (no law schools in the era). He was successful as an attorney, even practicing before the New York Supreme Court. In his spare time he played cricket and base ball (19th Century spelling).

He was a founding member of the Knickerbocker Club, helping to draft the club rules. He also served on the committee that drafted the so-called Knickerbocker baseball rules (which are available online). His name is one of two (William H. Tucker is the other) that appears at the bottom of the oldest copy in existence. He also played for the Gothams, who predated the Knickerbockers, the Eclipse, and the Star Cricket Club out of Brooklyn. His name does not appear on the roster for the so-called “first baseball game” of June 1846 between the Knickerbockers and the New York Nine.

In 1849 he moved to California, part of the gold rush. He tried his hand at running a general store, then returned to law, becoming one of the first attorney’s in San Francisco. That got him interested in politics and he served two terms as City and County Assessor for San Francisco, then  in the California State Legislature. As a representative, he sponsored legislation to establish the University of California at Berkeley. After leaving the legislature he was appointed Register of the General Land Office, a position he held into 1886. Although a Republican, he maintained his appointment into the Grover Cleveland administration despite Cleveland being a Democrat. He died in San Francisco in 1888.

Wheaton’s primary importance to baseball is a comment he made during an interview with a San Francisco newspaper in 1887. In the article he mentions helping write a series of rules for the Gothams in the late 1830’s (1837), a decade before the Knickerbocker rules. This indicates that there were written rules prior to the Knickerbocker rules. As a member of the Knickerbocker rules committee, he was in a position to help format two of the very earliest sets of rules for the game. For that he deserves to be remembered as a pioneer of the game.

Providence, Rhode Island: 21 June 1879

August 12, 2013

It’s a date and a place that is of great historical significance for baseball, maybe (or maybe not). There’s some dispute about who played first base for the Providence Grays that afternoon. Maybe it was just some guy named Bill White. But maybe it was the first black American to play in the Major Leagues. If it was, he was the only person born a slave to play in the Majors. Normally I would hold this until February when the US celebrates Black History Month and I do posts on the Negro Leagues, but I wanted to get it out so a few more people would know about it. Also I hope that by February the info will be more firm.

On 21 June 1879, the Providence Grays had a home game. For reasons that aren’t exactly certain, first baseman Joe Start couldn’t start that game. He was ill, but I’ve been unable to find out what was wrong. Someone, who shows in the box score a “B. White” stepped in to play first for Start. White went one for four (a single), struck out once and scored a run. He successfully fielded 12 chances without an error. That was the total of his Major League career. Some baseball scholars and SABR researchers believe that “B. White” was William Edward White, who just happened to be of mixed race, which in 1870s America made him black.

William Edward White was born into slavery in Georgia in 1860. His father was the plantation owner and had 70 slaves, including William White’s mother (her name was Hannah). Unlike most slaveholders, White’s father acknowledged his son and provided for both the son and the mother in his will. There was enough money for White to enroll at Brown University where he began playing first base on the University baseball team. After graduation, White moved to Chicago and became a bookkeeper. He was apparently very fair-skinned and most acquaintances thought he was white. A couple of black friends of mine tell me this is called “passing” in the black community. So it’s entirely possible that Providence manager George Wright (Harry’s bother) did not know he’d chosen a mixed race man to hold down first base on 21 June 1879.

All of which brings us to a real problem. There is no actual proof that “B. White” in the box score in William Edward White. The box simply reads “B. White” and the accompanying story (which I haven’t seen, but have read articles by guys who did) does not refer to the first baseman as “that noted collegiate colored player” or words to that effect (and sorry to offend anybody, but “colored” is probably the word that would have gone in that sentence). It’s reasonable to presume that if George Wright knew he was going to have to replace Start for the game he would have used the local college first baseman on a temporary basis and didn’t know (or care) about White’s color. You have to presume that Wright had seen a couple of college games and knew what kind of first baseman the local team had available. The problem is we really can’t prove that’s what happened. It’s not like “Bill White” is that unusual as a name. I’ve known at least two that I can recall (one back in high school, the other in the Army). Between 1883 and 1888 there was a Bill White (William Dighton White) who played for four different Major League teams. He would have been the same age as William Edward White (both born in 1860). William D. White was from Ohio and first shows up in 1883 at Pottsville (he’s primarily a shortstop) and I frankly have no idea where he was in 1879. I doubt he was in Providence in June, but he’s simply a quick reminder that there are other people named “B. White” who play baseball. Having said all that Baseball Reference.com accepts that William Edward White is indeed the “B. White” indicated on 21 June 1879.

My best guess is that we are dealing here with the first black American to play in the Major Leagues. There’s just enough question to make it difficult to assert that the last sentence is true. Whatever the case, Providence ended up winning the National League pennant in 1879 (by 5 games over Boston). Just maybe an ex-slave helped them along the way.

A Medal for Ernie

August 9, 2013

Saw that the President has decided to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 16 worthies. It’s the highest civilian medal the US gives out. One of the recipient’s is former Cubs great Ernie Banks. Stan Musial got one of these a couple of years ago. Good for you, Ernie.

A Review of “42”

August 8, 2013

By now I presume most of the people interested in baseball have seen the new movie “42”, the story of Jackie Robinson’s arrival in the Major Leagues. Normally I don’t spend time here reviewing new movies, but as it’s the only new major movie about baseball, I thought I’d change that. Here’s a quick review of the flick.

There are a lot of good and weak points in the movie. It’s pretty formulaic. Even if you knew nothing about Robinson as a person or about how the 1947 season went, you could probably figure out most of the plot by about 10 minutes in. The acting is uneven. Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey is terrific. As Hollywood has taken to using the “Best Supporting Actor” Oscar to reward older actors who’ve never won an Oscar it’s possible we’re looking at an Academy Award nomination for Ford (and maybe a win).The two actors playing Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) both do good jobs, but the actress playing Rachel Robinson (Nicole Beharie) didn’t impress me. I think part of the problem is that I remember Ruby Dee in the old 1950s “Jackie Robinson Story” and Dee was wonderful. Christopher Meloni’s rendition of Leo Durocher was good but it was a really small part. Alan Tudyk’s Ben Chapman is suitably odious as the lead antagonist from another team. One of the better aspects of the film is Chapman’s utter incomprehension as to why he is being considered a villain. Most of the players, without reference to whether they liked Robinson or not, were pretty wooden, an exception being Hamish Linklater who got the comic relief role as Ralph Branca. And Max Gail’s Burt Shotten was just fun.

There were a number of historical errors in the movie, most done for film purposes, but nonetheless they give a false impression of the events. Early on Robinson and Smith meet in Florida in 1946. The scene is written as if the two men didn’t know each other, but they had been acquaintances since at least 1944. At the end of the flick Robinson hits a home run to clinch the pennant for the Dodgers. The game in question took place 17 September 1947 and did clinch the pennant. Robinson hit a fourth inning homer to put the Dodgers ahead to stay in a 4-2 victory over Pittsburgh. The movie leaves the impression he does it late in the game and it’s the deciding run. The movie essentially tells us that Robinson’s homer won the pennant, but the pennant winning runs were scored an inning later (and Robinson was involved). It’s more dramatic the way the flick does it, but it’s not exactly right. Also the movie shows the famous “if we can’t use the restroom, we’ll fill up our bus somewhere else” scene. But the scene ends with Robinson meeting Clyde Sukeforth for the first time. The two events were unconnected.

Having said all that, it’s nice to see the movie mention the Robinson court-martial (he refused to move on a bus long before Rosa Parks), although it’s only a passing mention. The interplay between Boseman and Ford, which in many ways is the heart of the movie, is very good. And the baseball action is well choreographed, although, as with any movie about Robinson, the baseball aspects of the film are secondary to the main plot line. One of the finest scenes is between Robinson and Smith in which Smith reminds Robinson that he (Smith) can’t sit in the press box, but has to sit in the stands and type his story as he watches. It reminds Robinson of just how important his actions are in changing things.

I suggest you see “42”. It’s worth the effort and the money, if for no other reason than the atmospheric filming. Just remember to take some of the events with a grain of salt.

A Dozen Things You Should Know About Buck Ewing

August 5, 2013
Buck Ewing as captain for the Giants

Buck Ewing as captain for the Giants

1. William Ewing was born in October 1859 in Hoagland, Ohio, which is southwestern Ohio.

2. A catcher, he spent 13 games with minor league Rochester, before joining the Troy Trojans (then a National League team) in 1880.

3. He remained in Troy through the 1882 season, when the franchise folded. He, along with many of his teammates, were transferred to New York to play for the newly formed Gothams (now the Giants).

4. In 1883 he became the first Major League catcher with 10 home runs. It led the NL and was the first time a catcher led the league in home runs. It also set the NL record for homers in a season (Harry Stovey hit 14 the same year in the American Association).

5. In 1884 he led the NL in triples with 20. He never led the league in any other major hitting category.

6. As a fielder he led the league in most catching stats at least once and was considered one of the finest fielding catchers in the NL.

7. As team captain he led the Gothams, now called the Giants, to consecutive pennants in 1888 and 1889. In both years the 19th Century version of the World Series was played. New York won both times with Ewing putting up the following triple slash numbers .290/323/468/791.He had 18 hits in 19 games, scored 10 runs, drove in 13, stole six bases (1880s definition), had two triples and a home run.

8. In 1890 he jumped to the Player’s League where he managed the New York entry to third place. He returned to New York the next season following the demise of the PL.

9. In 1893 he went to Cleveland where he had one final really good season. He was sent to Cincinnati in 1895 and finished his career there in 1897.

10. Between 1895 and 1899 he managed the Cincinnati team. In both 1896 and 1898 he finished third, his highest spot as a National League manager. He also managed New York in 1900. They finished last.

11.He died of diabetes in Cincinnati on 20 October 1906. He was 47.

12. In 1939 he was elected to the Hall of Fame, the first catcher enshrined.

Ewing's grave

Ewing’s grave

How Good Was Fleet Walker?

August 1, 2013
Fleet Walker

Fleet Walker

Most of you know at least a little of the story. Moses Fleetwood Walker, not Jackie Robinson, was the first black man to play Major League baseball (not counting the guy from Providence in the 1870s who got into one game and no one’s sure he was black). Fleet Walker played one season for Toledo in the American Association (1884) then both he and Toledo were dropped from the league after that single season.  He never got back to the big leagues and baseball’s “gentleman’s agreement” meant that no one else who was black was going to get there either until 1947.

This is not a biography of Fleet Walker, although his bio is fascinating. What I wondered was why no one picked him up to play Major League baseball again. Was it simply race, or was he clearly not big league caliber? As Walker was a catcher by trade, the obvious thing to do was compare him against the other Association catchers.

In 1884 there were 12 teams in the American Association. During the season Washington folded and a new team set up in Richmond, Virginia to play out the season, so a cursory look at the standing sometimes shows 13 teams. As Washington and Richmond used different catchers, I included both teams. I looked at the stats of the primary catcher for each team. And a quick caveat here: Walker only played 42 games at Toledo, so I added Toledo’s other catcher, Deacon McGuire (not to be confused with Deacon White who just made the Hall of Fame), in the mix so I’m looking at 14 total men.

I looked at a handful of stats (hits, runs, average, OBP, slugging, and OPS) only. The Association stats for 1884 are very sparse so some stats like RBIs, stolen bases, etc. are missing. Of what existed, I went with the ones listed above. I did not deal with fielding stats because the position of catcher was so different in 1884 that the stats are, to me, meaningless (no glove, no chest protector, standing back several feet from the batter, etc). Walker did lead the Association in passed balls, but much of that can be laid at the feet of Tony Mullane, a pitcher who hated the idea of throwing to a black man. Walker’s triple slash numbers are: 263/325/316/641.

If I had to rank the catchers in order of hitting ability I would place Walker in the fourth, fifth or perhaps sixth position. Someone named Jim Keenan (who I’d never heard of) is clearly the best hitting catcher in the Association. His triple slash numbers are .293/343/418/751.  All are first among catchers (actually the slugging percentage is tied for first and I didn’t work it out to four or five figures to see if it was actually first). He played for Indianapolis which finished last (he was easily their best player). Jocko Milligan (who tied with Keenan on slugging percentage) at Philadelphia, and Pop Snyder at Cincinnati were the second and third best hitting catchers (and Snyder managed the Reds). Next there’s something of a logjam that includes Walker, Sam Trott of Baltimore (and one of few left-handed catchers) and Dan Sullivan of Louisville for the fourth position. There’s not much difference between them in percentages, but because Walker plays so many fewer games, his hit and run totals are less. Because has more hits than games played (as do Keenan, Snyder, and Milligan) I’ll put Trott fourth, but Walker is probably next. You can get these stats at Baseball Reference.com and compare them yourself. You might make different choices. But one thing you will surely agree with me on is that Walker was certainly better than McGuire, who played three more games at Toledo (not all games for either McGuire or Walker were behind the plate, but it was their primary position). Here’s McGuire’s triple slash numbers: 185/217/252/468. Based just on hitting, who you want?

So it seems to me that Walker was legitimately a middle of the pack hitting catcher in 1884. When the Association contracted to eight teams in 1884 a number of the survivors had weaker catchers than Walker, but none chose to pick him up. It’s very hard to see any reason for this other than his skin color. So to answer my title question, he was probably not good enough to be a real star, he was certainly good enough to play at the highest level