The First Big Man

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.

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One Response to “The First Big Man”

  1. William Miller Says:

    As always, I learned something new here today, as usual. Nicely researched. You should compile all of these posts into a book someday about the history of early baseball.
    -Bill

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