The Thief

Excelsior of Brooklyn 1860 team photo

Excelsior of Brooklyn 1860 team photo

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you recognize the picture above. It’s of the 1860 Excelsiors. They were the toast of Brooklyn, winning the “World’s Championship” in an era when winning 20 games, all in and around Brooklyn and New York (separate towns in the era), made you the champ.

Over the years I’ve done my short biography of four of the men in the picture. Jim Creighton (the man holding the ball) was the first great baseball god. He’s supposed to have invented something like the fastball and died at 21 after injuring himself on the ball field. My look at him is on 12 January 2011. The tall man to Creighton’s left is Henry Polhemus. Polhemus was the first great power hitter and ended up a millionaire by selling tents to the Union Army during the American Civil War. My look at him is on 26 August 2013. Two days later (28 August 2013) I looked at the man in the middle of the picture (the man to Polhemus’ left) Andrew Pearsall. He joined the Confederate Army and served as a regimental surgeon during the Civil War. The other man I looked at is Asa Brainard (30 October 2010), the man holding the cap second from the right. He became the primary pitcher for the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the so-called first professional team. It’s time now to look at a fifth player on this extraordinary team. He’s the man with the big side-whiskers to Brainard’s right (making him third from the right). His name is Joseph Bowne Leggett and he was apparently one heck of at catcher. He was also, apparently, a pretty fair thief.

Leggett was born in either Albany or Saratoga Springs, New York. The sources vary, but they agree he was born 14 January 1828. He first began playing at the highest level in 1857 and was almost immediately wooed by the Excelsiors to become their catcher. He was good. He was so good he was chosen as the Brooklyn catcher for a three game series of All Star games played between Brooklyn and New York in 1858 (New York won two of the three games). With the Excelsiors he was chosen team captain, which meant much more than the more or less honorary position it means today, and served at various times as club President and Vice President. He was known primarily as Creighton’s catcher and was behind the plate for Creighton’s greatest feats. Creighton is supposed to have thrown both the first no-hitter and the first shutout in baseball with Leggett as his catcher and mentor. Apparently we are talking about two separate games (so the shutout would have to be first) and by the mid-1860s the Creighton legend was so great that it’s difficult to determine if he was really first. Whether he was or not, Leggett was his catcher.

Joe Leggett was also a very good hitter. Although Polhemus was the main power hitter, Leggett was generally considered the team’s best average hitter (depending on what you believe about Creighton’s hitting) and was supposed to be at his very peak in the 1860 season. Then came the Civil War. Leggett joined the 13th New York Infantry, a 90 day unit, and served his term. He managed to play some ball in both 1862 and 1863 despite returning briefly to the army and rising to the rank of major. Between the 1863 and 1864 seasons he broke his leg (I’ve been unable to find out either how or which leg) and his career suffered greatly. He hung on into 1867 before permanently retiring.

But Leggett was a ball player and had no particular off-season skills. In financial trouble, he was hired by the city of Brooklyn to work in the Excise Clerk’s office (the city office that collected taxes). By 1876 he’d become chief clerk of the office. But there was a problem. The books didn’t balance. In 1877 he was charged with embezzling money from the city. Unfortunately for Brooklyn, Joe Leggett got wind of the investigation and the charges and simply disappeared.

There are a couple of references to him over the next few years, but nothing concrete enough to determine his movements and what he did with the money. Modern evidence indicates he died in Dickinson, Texas (now part of Houston) 25 July 1894. It’s difficult to tell if he was in prison at the time. I’ve been unable to track down where he’s buried.

So what do we do with a guy like Leggett? He’s a great ballplayer for his era, he’s also a thief and embezzler. You decide for yourselves, team.

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6 Responses to “The Thief”

  1. William Miller Says:

    It’s sometime still astonishes me how old this game really is. This is a very well-researched post, V. Personally, unless a man is convicted of a crime, I say let him in. I’m not one to get too worked up about what a guy does off the field, as far as that goes.
    Great post,
    Bill

  2. Allan G. Smorra Says:

    But could he steal a base?

  3. wkkortas Says:

    geez, I thought the games was a gentlemen’s affair back in the mid-19th Century. Mr. Leggett is making us look bad.

  4. Precious Sanders Says:

    A part of me sometimes wishes we could return to the old days where ballplayers had to work in the off-season. I feel like it adds character — makes their stories that much more interesting, rather than just hitting the gym and playing baseball all the time.

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