Making Shortstop

The 1865 Atlantic

The 1865 Atlantic

It appears that when baseball first began it didn’t use nine players. The position of shortstop didn’t exist until later. There are several stories about its creation. The most common one is that the 1840s and 1850s baseballs were too soft to throw in from the outfield unless you were a giant like Henry Polhemus. So a short fielder (much like the 10th man in a slow pitch softball game) was invented to act as a primitive cutoff man. According to tradition the Knickerbockers invented the position with Daniel “Doc” Adams being the man who took the role. Some sources credit Adams with inventing the job, but I can find no contemporary evidence to collaborate that. Whether he did or didn’t invent the position, Adams played it pretty much as described above. It was Dickey Pearce who receives most of the credit for making the modern position.

Pearce, the man in the middle of the top row in the picture above, was born in Brooklyn in 1836 and took to sports quickly. By age 20 he was recognized as a coming cricket player. The Atlantic, formed in 1855, picked him up and sent him to center field. The move from cricket to baseball was fairly common in the era (Harry Wright being an early example). By 1857 he’d taken over the short fielder (shortstop) position. By 1857 the short fielder was mobile, covering both the second-third gap and the first-second gap, taking short flies, and doing cutoff duties. Pearce began stationing himself primarily in the second-third gap in order to stop the most common path a baseball took to the outfield. As far as I can tell he’s credited with being the first to move from the outfield to the infield when plugging that gap (but don’t bet the farm on that being true). He was quick enough to continue the cutoff duties and to handle most of the short flies between second and third and cover a few just to the first base side of second. Other teams noticed and the short fielder quickly became the shortstop stationed between second and third.

As with most players of the era, Pearce played multiple positions. He took turns in the outfield and also behind the plate, where he was noted as a particularly agile catcher. He is credited with being the first (but probably was merely among the first) to use catcher’s signals for the pitcher. And he was a star. He captained the Atlantic, a much more important position in 1860 than today. The Atlantic ran off championships in the newly formed National Association of Base Ball Players in 1859, 1860, and 1861.

He missed the Civil War, staying with the Atlantic through the conflict. By this time he was getting paid to play. A couple of sources indicate that he, Jim Creighton, and Al Reach were the first professionals, although that’s probably impossible to prove. As the teams were supposed to be composed strictly of amateurs, he got his money under the table so amounts are unknown.

By 1864 the Atlantic were back on top of the Association with Pearce still as captain. They maintained their run through 1865 and 1866. Pearce jumped the team in late ’66 (going to Creighton’s old team, the Excelsiors), but returned by the end of the season. It cost him his captaincy, but the team won another pennant. During this period he’s supposed to have been the first player to utilize the bunt.

He remained with the Atlantic, adding another pennant, through 1870. In that year he participated in the game than ended the Cincinnati Red Stockings undefeated run at 89 games. The next season the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (the first professional league) was formed. The Atlantic decided not to participate and Pearce moved to the New York Mutual. He was 35 and on the downside of his career. He didn’t do particularly well in either ’71 or ’72 with the Mutual and went back to the Atlantic (now a part of the Association) for 1873 and 1874. He had one last decent year in ’74, then moved on to St. Louis. He stayed there through the founding of the National League and finally left the team at age 41 in 1877.

He played a little minor league ball, umpired a bit, did some semi-pro work, and managed. Frankly he wasn’t very successful at any of them. He was roundly criticized for his umpiring skills, frequently by both teams (At least he was fair in his awfulness). He clerked for the Brooklyn water board, worked at the Polo Grounds, and finally became a farmer in Massachusetts. He died of heart disease at his farm in 1908. As he has only two seasons in the National League and the National Association is not recognized as a “major league,” he is not eligible for the Hall of Fame except as some pre-professional league pioneer.

Pearce's grave at Find a Grave

Pearce’s grave at Find a Grave

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5 Responses to “Making Shortstop”

  1. Miller Says:

    Stimulated by “(but don’t bet the farm on that being true)”, “(but probably was merely among the first)”, “although that’s probably impossible to prove”, and other similar lines, you’ve given me inspiration for my post tomorrow. Nice, honest write-up. Thanks!

  2. Gary Trujillo Says:

    Very interesting. Does MLB give any credit to the man? I doubt they have anyone with your talent to dig up these gems.

    • verdun2 Says:

      I have no idea how much MLB deals with Pearce. I went to both the MLB website and to the Hall of Fame website, did a search, and struck out at both places. SABR has a bio of him and some of the books researching the era have info on him. Frankly, that, and a search of various places like ancestry.com and other websites, along with a trip to the university library, is where I found most of my info. Some of the info is contradictory and some things are credited to more than one player. Much of it is not footnoted so I don’t know where they got the original piece of information (hence my large number of caveats).
      v

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