Posts Tagged ‘1860 Excelsiors’

The Road to Professionalism

August 25, 2016
Jim Creighton (center top) from Frank Leslie's Illustrated

Jim Creighton (center top) from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated

Today we think of baseball at the highest level as a game between professionals who get paid to play the game. It wasn’t always that way. Initially baseball was a game of children and of amateur clubs. It morphed into the professional game we know in a rather short period of time; the period between 1845 and 1860. The following is a musing, admittedly incomplete, on how we got from amateur to professional in 15 years. It is certainly not a quest to find the first professional nor is it a definitive look at early professionalism.

Let me set some parameters and definitions first. In 1845 the famous “Knickerbocker Rules” were published by the club. Without reference to whether they were the first written rules or not, they give us a beginning date. There is no evidence that anyone in 1845 was a professional baseball player. Games were between clubs of amateurs or played on sand lots by kids but no one was receiving money to play (at least as far was anyone can tell).

By 1860 both Jim Creighton and George Flanly were receiving a stipend from their team (in 1860 that would be the Excelsior in Brooklyn). Both men moved from the Niagaras (Buffalo) to play in New York and money changed hands. Frequently they, especially Creighton, are known as “The First Professional.” OK, maybe, but at least it gives us an ending date for our quest. In 1845 we can reasonably say “there are no professionals.” By 1860 we can say “there are professionals.”

Now we need to determine what makes a “professional”? The answer is usually “they’re getting paid to play.” And that’s true as far as it goes. But a common practice in the era was the use of government entities to pay players to work for the city while making sure the player had ample time to practice and play baseball. Both Brooklyn and New York City (they were separate towns in 1860) were particularly known for doing this. There’s a scene in the movie Field of Dreams in which a young “Moonlight” Graham (played by Frank Whaley) talks about towns in the Midwest finding you a job so you can play for the town team on the weekends. In 1860 they were doing the same thing. So is this the mark of a professional or are we talking about something that is at most quasi-professional? You can make up your own mind on the issue, but I feel it is indeed professionalism because there is no evidence that men like Flanly, John Galvin, or Sydney Churchill Smith would hold a city job if they weren’t baseball players.

So why do we go from amateur clubs to professionalism? There are a number of reasons, most of which you can probably guess. The game was growing, getting more popular. There were more teams and more competition. The drive to win, to be the best surely was part of what happened. If you were good enough to be sought by multiple teams, certainly one of them was going to offer you an incentive like a job or cash. So they took it, either the job or cash or both. The formation of leagues that competed for dominance made it more important to the clubs that they concentrate the greatest level of talent in order to win. Money is quite an incentive to join a particular team that wants to win. If you add to that the civic pride factor then handing jobs to ball players by local government agencies adds to the mix.

The above should be pretty obvious to most of you, but, and this is the part of this post I want to stress, let me note a couple of post 1860 events also contribute to the wide growth and acceptance of professionalism; a couple of things you may not have considered. First is the institution of the enclosed ballpark. The Union Grounds of 1862 is generally recognized as the first fully enclosed baseball park. It was home of the Eckfords and is now gone, lost under buildings, highways, and an assortment of other things. But by enclosing the park the team could control the attendance and that meant that they could begin charging admission (no more cheapskates standing just outside the field boundaries watching for free). And quite bluntly if the owners of the park were making money, the players had to ask “why aren’t we getting a cut?”

Secondly, in 1866 the Athletic in Philadelphia had one of the greatest players of the era, Lip Pike, playing for them. They were paying him ($20 a week) and he was quite open about it. When a newspaper published this information things blew up. The league (The National Association of Base Ball Players) demanded a meeting at one of the more prominent Philadelphia hotels to decide what to do about Pike and the Athletic. Of course there were two problems with this approach. First Pike was too good to be kept away from the game. Someone was going to pick him up, and probably pay him a little more circumspectly (like maybe a sham job in the City Works Department). Second, if they punished the Athletic, they faced the prospect of losing their primary team in Philadelphia. The upshot was that neither the league nor the Athletic nor Pike showed up at the appointed hotel at the appointed time and the matter was allowed to drop. That opened the door to professionalism en masse. Knowing it wasn’t going to cost neither the team nor the player if a professional entered the game, payments flew from one player to another. At this point, the Cincinnati Red Stockings were close to inevitable.

So that’s a short  musing on professionalism. It was, probably, impossible to stop its development and for those of us who are fans of the game at its highest level, that’s a good thing.

And now I’d like you to take a close look at the picture above. It shows Jim Creighton in the center of the top (he’s shrouded because he had died). But if you blow up the picture (which you can) you can take a look at some of the “Glory of Their Times” players of the 1860s. It gives you a chance to see what the Aarons, Mantles, Ruths, and Gibsons of their day looked like. Enjoy.




Wrapping up the Excelsiors

September 29, 2015
Excelsior of Brooklyn 1860 team photo

Excelsior of Brooklyn 1860 team photo

“Hold it. Haven’t we seen this picture before? Recently? A lot?” you ask. Well, honestly, yes you have. Over the years I’ve tried to give readers a short look at each of the men in the picture of the 1860 Excelsiors. I have one to go and then I want to make a few general comments about the players on one of the more famous of the pre-Civil War era teams.

The final player I want to tell you about is Edwin Russell. He’s the man fourth from the right. He’s one of the two men holding a bat. Of the two men holding bats, he’s the one to the right. There’s not much available on him. He was born in Britain (location undetermined) in 1829 and at some point emigrated to the US with his family. In 1855 he shows up in the New York state census still living with his parents (so the kid still living at home in his mid-20s isn’t new). He became interested in baseball at some point, probably through an earlier interest in cricket, a common thread among a lot of early pioneers from the British Isles (guys like Harry Wright and Henry Chadwick). By 1858 he’d caught on with the Excelsiors as a pitcher and left fielder. With the arrival of Jim Creighton he spent most of his time in left, with only an occasional foray to the middle of the diamond. He left the Excelsiors after the 1862 season and I lose track of him at that point. I don’t know whether he joined the Union Army or not. A later reference to him indicates he became a hardware merchant and died 21 February 1881 at age 52.

So that’s all nine of the 1860 Excelsiors. If you take time and look at their lives (at least of all but shortstop Thomas Reynolds who simply seems to have disappeared), they represent a fairly common cross-section of American male lives in the late 19th Century. Here’s a few things we can say about the eight men we know enough about to draw conclusions.

1 One of them (Creighton) died very young (21). Early death by young men was not uncommon among 19th Century Americans, although the nature of Creighton’s injury (rupturing something while batting) was unusual. I say this discounting the effects of the Mexican War and the American Civil War (two days at Shiloh can really skew death statistics among young men–especially if you’re both sides of the fight). It seems, from the only evidence we have (a note in 1887 saying he “died years ago”) that Reynolds may have also died young.

2. Two of them were civil servants. Joseph Leggett worked for the city of Brooklyn, and George Flanly worked for the Brooklyn Police Department’s Telegraph Department. Andrew Pearsall in late life spent time as a county coroner, making him also a civil servant; but it was not his normal career.

3. One of them, Leggett, turned out to be a criminal and may have died in prison.

4. Three were businessmen. Henry Polhemus ran a cloth making business, John Campbell Whiting was an investment broker, and Russell was in hardware. Asa Brainard, also late in life, ran a hotel pool room (his wife’s family owned the hotel). Like Pearsall it was not his primary profession for most of his productive years.

5. Of those, Polhemus became a multi-millionaire.

6. One player, Pearsall, became a medical doctor and as mentioned above,  late in life, a county coroner.

7. Brainard, became a celebrated baseball player (with the Cincinnati Red Stockings) and played in the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (1871-75). He also became an alcoholic.

8. Several served in the Union Army during the Civil War and Pearsall was in the Confederate Army.

9. Both Leggett and Brainard had multiple marriages, an oddity for the era. I didn’t spend much time telling you about the player’s home life, but they seem to be the only ones with more than one wife (and Creighton never married). For a couple I found no information about marriage one way or the other.

So there they are, the 1860 Execelsior of Brooklyn. I’m sure that there is more information available on the players, but this should give anyone interested a place to start if they want to learn about the men. They were champions once, formidable for a few years, and one of the great teams of the era. They also were, all in all, a group of fairly typical men.

The Ball Maker and the Telegrapher

September 22, 2015
Excelsior of Brooklyn 1860 team photo

Excelsior of Brooklyn 1860 team photo

Continuing on with my brief looks at the men who composed the 1860 Excelsiors, I’ve found the information available is getting sketchier and sketchier. Up to this point I’ve looked at five men as individuals. To do that now would make this post very short. So I’m going to combine two players here in one biographic post (with a short note at the end about another).

The Ball Maker

In the picture above John Campbell Whiting is the second man from the left. He has on a bow tie and stands just to the right of Jim Creighton, the man holding the ball. Whiting was born in either 1841 or 1842 in Erie County, New York. He was one of five brothers who ended up playing baseball in the 1850s and 1860s (with older brother Charles appearing to be the best). By 1858 John Whiting was playing ball with the local team, the Niagaras. He was the third baseman and one of the three best players on the team (Creighton and George Flanly, addressed below, were the others). The Stars, a Brooklyn team grabbed all of them and brought them to the New York metropolitan area, where they all three jumped to the Excelsiors almost immediately. Whiting played third with the Excelsiors and participated in the big “playoff” game with the Atlantic in 1860. He retired in 1861 (when he was roughly 20) and began manufacturing baseballs. He was, seemingly, successful but the American Civil War got in the way. By 1862 he can be found in the 31st New York Infantry and in June of 1863 made Lieutenant. After the war he remained in New York and became an investment broker (I don’t know if he still made baseballs as a side enterprise or not). Apparently he was pretty good at it because he moved (according to the 1880 census) to a pretty expensive neighborhood. He was visiting his daughter in Lanesboro, Massachusetts when he died on 26 September 1929. As far as I can tell, he was the last of the Excelsiors.

The Telegrapher

The man on the far right of the picture above is George H. Flanly. He was the normal center fielder for the Excelsiors in 1860. He was born in either 1833 or 1834 and by age 14 was considered one of the best ball players around. By the late 1850s he’s moved into the lineup of the Niagaras (of Buffalo, NY) and become reasonably famous for his fielding skills. In 1858 he moved to Brooklyn and hooked up with the Excelsiors. There is some evidence that both he and Creighton were being paid to play ball, which, if true, makes him the first man paid for his glove (although there were no gloves in 1859) rather than his bat. He hung on in baseball as late as 1869 when he is found playing for the Mutuals (of New York, not Brooklyn). For at least a while in 1866 he can be found umpiring games. Whether he was paid to play or not, it wasn’t enough to keep him from being required to hold another job. In 1858 he joined the Brooklyn police force as a member of their Telegraph section. He remained with the Brooklyn Police Telegraph Department into 1884. By 1872 he was Superintendent of the Department and when he retired in 1884 he received a yearly pension of $1000, a large sum in the era. I have been unable to find out when he died.

I’m now down to two men on the 1860 Excelsiors that I haven’t told you about. One of them is Thomas Reynolds. He’s the man on the far left of the picture above. He played shortstop for the team and that, other than an 1887 article that states he died “years ago”, is all I can find about him. That leaves one man to explore, which I’ll do later. I also want to make some general observations about the players at that time.