William R. Wheaton, Obscure Pioneer

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.



6 Responses to “William R. Wheaton, Obscure Pioneer”

  1. William Miller Says:

    Another fine example of your excellent research and writing.
    Great job,

  2. wkkortas Says:

    Ditto what Bill says–it’s nice to read things which are a step back from who A-Rod’s lawyer is going to sue today. Its history is part of what makes this game so great, and you do it well.

  3. Eric Hollister Says:

    This is my great, great, great, great grandfather; well written and pretty accurate. The Ca Pioneer Society and the the CA Historical Society has some of his letters, et al. I believe the Bancroft Library is in possession of most of it. Our family appreciates this 🙂

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