Posts Tagged ‘Alexander Cartwright’

The Cartwright Story

March 26, 2019

Alexander J. Cartwright

From its very beginning, the Hall of Fame has endeavored to enshrine the most significant baseball people. They’ve done, by and large, a pretty fair job of it based on the information available to them when a particular person was inducted. They’ve made some mistakes, but many of those were done in good faith.

Candy Cummings was elected early on the theory that he invented the curve ball. Maybe so, but there is evidence that others, including Jim Creighton also invented it. In fact, Creighton is given credit for half the innovations in pitching history, credit much beyond what is probably true. Whether Cummings actually invented the curve or not, it seems the voters in 1939 (the year he was elected to Cooperstown) believed he did.

That brings me to one of those origin stories that baseball seems to love, the story of Alexander Cartwright. The story goes something like this (and I’m going to greatly curtail it and leave out much detail). Cartwright was a founding member of the Knickerbockers, the first baseball team. He sat down one day in 1845 and wrote out the first rules for baseball (the so-called Knickerbocker Rules) and thus established the basic principles of the game. It’s a great story and it got him into the Hall of Fame in 1938 (a year before Cummings). But let’s take a look at the story and see what we get.

1. The Knickerbockers were not the first baseball team. As far as I can tell, they never claimed to be the first. We know that by 1837 the Gothams were already playing a version of baseball in New York.

2. William Rufus Wheaton, in an 1887 interview with a San Francisco newspaper (the Daily Examiner) indicated that the Gothams had a set of written rules as early as 1837. I’ve been unable to find the article on-line to actually read the entire thing, but excerpts at various places are available. There seems to be some question of whether Wheaton claimed to have actually written the 1837 Gothams rules or if he was merely part of a committee that came up with them. A direct quote from Wheaton in the article says “it was found necessary to reduce the new rule to writing. The task fell to me.” Having been unable to find an actual copy of the article, I’ll take them at their word that he said that in the article. Whether that means he wrote them or merely wrote them down is for you to decide. As far as I can tell there is no copy available.

3. In 1845, the Knickerbockers, realizing that game rules needed to be codified in some form, set up a five man committee to write a set of rules for team use. The committee consisted of both Cartwright and Wheaton along with Duncan Curry (club president), William H. Tucker (club secretary) and Daniel “Doc” Adams (who is credited, along with others, with creating the shortstop position). There is some question as to the actual composition of the committee. The oldest copy of the rules available has only the names of Wheaton and Tucker at the bottom. It is possible the other three were members or maybe they weren’t. Curry as club president may have been a ex officio member of the committee or maybe he just sat in on the meetings. The other two may have been members or maybe they just sat in also. Or maybe they didn’t do anything involving the committee. I know there are a lot of “maybes” in there but that’s the closest we seem to be able to get to the truth.

4. The rules were first used in a game played in New Jersey (which the Knickerbockers lost). Some sources indicate that Cartwright served as umpire others give the umpiring job to Wheaton; neither appears on the game day roster (of the five committee “members” only Adams and Tucker played in the so-called first ball game).

So where are we? Well, pretty much no where, at least when it comes to Cartwright. There is ample agreement that he was a member in good standing with the Knickerbockers, but then things get murky. It is certain that the Knickerbockers wrote a set of rules for game use and the signatures of Wheaton and Tucker indicate they were involved. It is less certain that Cartwright was involved.

Which leads to the question “How’d he get into the Hall of Fame?” It seems that in 1938 the Hall of Fame was looking for the inventor of the game and given up on the somewhat silly idea that Abner Doubleday was the man. Some of Cartwright’s relatives pushed hard for him and the voters went along with it.

Cartwright’s Hall of Fame plaque (from the Hall of Fame)

Does Cartwright belong in the Hall of Fame. Strangely enough, to me he does. He belongs not because he invented the game, but as a stand-in for all the people who sat down in the 1830s and 1840s and came up with the game we all love. The Hall isn’t in the habit of inducting entire teams or entire committees, so one man was chosen as the creator of the game. Frankly Wheaton or Adams or Tucker would be better choices, but for right now, Cartwright will do, so long as we understand that he didn’t, singlehandedly, do all the things he’s credited with (it’s entirely possible he did none of them, except maybe the Hawaii bit).


Baseball’s VIPs

January 16, 2014
Ban Johnson

Ban Johnson

A couple of posts back, the one on Judge Landis, I made the comment that he was one of the most important people ever in MLB. Well, that led some of my friends to send me emails asking who I considered the 10 most important people ever in the sport. As you know, I’m sort of a glutton for sticking my foot squarely into my mouth, so I decided to publicly respond to them.

First, let me be clear that “most important” has nothing to do with “best player”. Almost all of these people listed below and little or no actual playing time in the big leagues. So don’t be asking, “Where’s Gehrig?” or “Where’s Wagner?” or about other players. They may be terrific players but they aren’t as important in the grand scheme of things as the people I’m about to mention. As you read through the list, you’ll realize I’m big into origins.

Here are my 10 most important listed in alphabetical order:

1. Mel Allen–I suppose any announcer could have gone in here except for a couple of  points. Most of us get our games through the filter of someone in a booth at the stadium keeping us up on what’s going on, so a play-by-play man is not an unreasonable choice for a position on this list. I pick Allen for two specific reasons. First, he announced for the Yankees for years and thus became the primary voice many people heard. Second, when TV decided to add a second camera to games, Allen is supposed to be the guy who suggested adding the second camera in center field, thus showing the pitcher throwing to the batter in something like close up (the previous camera angle was high up behind home plate). It’s become the single most common angle from which most people see a game on television.

2. Alexander Cartwright–Cartwright is here to represent an entire group of people, the pioneers who invented the game as we know it. Somebody had to start putting the rules of the game into a form that became acceptable. It is possible that people like Duncan Curry or Daniel Adams, or William Wheaton should be here in his place. Cartwright certainly did not invent baseball, but was apparently prominent in one of the many attempts to codify the game. As the Hall of Fame has placed him in its midst, he’ll do for this spot, but I’m not certain he’s the best candidate.

3. Henry Chadwick–You a stat guy? Care about the statistics of the game? Well, Chadwick invented the box score and a number of the statistics we still use to determine the quality of play on the diamond. As the first prominent sports reporter his articles helped to popularize the game. Put those two things together and you have someone who belongs on this list.

4. William Hulbert–I don’t like Hulbert. As a human being he is crass, bigoted, vain, parsimonious. But he founded the National League and thus came up with a way to make baseball profitable enough for people to want to become owners and thus establish a stable (sort of) league that flourishes today.

5. Ban Johnson–Founder and first President of the American League. Was de facto lord of baseball until the arrival of the man below.

6. Kennesaw M. Landis–First and most powerful Baseball Commissioner. Ran baseball with an iron fist. Cleaned up the game after the Black Sox nearly wrecked it. He opposed integration, but supported the more lively ball and the farm system (and besides isn’t he what a Commissioner ought to look like?)

7. Marvin Miller–the Lincoln of MLB. When he took over the Player’s Association it was a joke. When he left the union it was a co-partner with the clubs. Whether you like free agency or not, Miller figured out how to free the players from baseball slavery and change the economics and the dynamics of the game. Of all the people on this list, he’s the only one not in the Hall of Fame (Allen is on the writers plaque).

8. Branch Rickey–changed the game twice. He invented both the farm system and brought integration to MLB. He is  arguably the most influential baseball man of the 20th Century.

9. Jackie Robinson–In 1884 Toledo had a black ballplayer. That lasted one year. John McGraw and others had tried to integrate the game and had failed. With Robinson baseball truly does become a game for all Americans.

10. Babe Ruth–in a game in trouble, Ruth takes over and changes forever the way it is played. With the emphasis on the home run over bunting and base stealing we get the game as it’s been played (plus or minus a rule or two) since 1920.

And Honorable Mention to people like John Montgomery Ward (first union), Fleet Walker (who was the first black player), Jim Creighton (apparently the first professional), Lip Pike (who made professionalism acceptable), Harry Wright (who made the modern manager’s job what it is today), Bill Veeck (who made the ballpark experience so much fun), and a host of others, some of which you may decide should be in the list of 10.

“Where Were You When I Laid the Foundations…”

July 2, 2012

“…of the Earth?”–Job 39:4

Baseball is one of those sports that seems not to have a defining creation moment. A lot of places, a lot of people, and lot of organizations take credit for the invention of the game. One of the better candidates for the role of founder is Duncan F. Curry.

Duncan Fraser Curry was born in 1812 in New York. He was an insurance man by trade, working for the City Fire Insurance Company and later becoming one of the founders of the Republic Fire Insurance Company (their certificate is shown below).

Republic Fire Insurance Co. certificate (note Curry listed as the Secretary)

For fun and exercise Curry joined a number of other businessmen at the corner of 27th Street and 4th Avenue where they played a game with a stick and ball that resembled baseball. As far as I know there is no plaque at the site commemorating the gatherings. By 1845 a number of members of the group decided they wished to create a more formal organization that would promote both good fellowship and exercise. Curry was one of the men chosen to draft a set of organization rules for the “club”.  On 23 September 1845 the group met at McCarty’s Hotel at Hudson and 12th Street in New York and formed the Knickerbockers Base Ball Club. Curry was elected the first President of the club, serving a one year term (Daniel “Doc” Adams replaced him).

As President of the club, Curry recognized the need to formalize the rules of the game they were playing. He served, along with Alexander Cartwright, William Wheaton, and William Tucker, on a committee that drafted a set of rules for “base ball” that have since become known as the “Knickerbocker Rules”. Some consider them the foundation of modern baseball while others see them as merely another step toward creating the current game. Whichever you prefer, Curry was instrumental in forming those rules (although only Wheaton’s and Tucker’s names appear at the foot of the oldest copy of the rules) . After giving up the Knickerbocker Presidency he remained a member of the rules committee into the 1850s. In 1854 the Knickerbockers and another New York team (the Eagles) formed a joint committee to refine rules for play among city teams. This differed from the Knickerbocker Rules in that it was meant for a more general audience and included input from other teams. Curry was a member of the committee.

By the 1860s the Knickerbockers were in decline, Curry was no longer a prominent member of the local baseball community. He moved to Brooklyn in 1884 and died there in 1894. He is buried in Brooklyn under a headstone that calls him “The Father of Baseball.”

Curry’s grave

So what do we make of the claim of Duncan Curry as the “father of baseball”? He certainly was there when the foundations of the sport were laid. He is unquestionably one of the people who deserve credit for advancing the game by creating a formalized club and a formal, written set of rules. I’m inclined to give him his due as one of the “fathers” of baseball but not as the “father” of baseball.

The Knickerbockers

January 24, 2011

The 1859 Knickerbockers

For my final look at pre 1870s baseball I turn to the Knickerbockers. I really hesitate to do a blog on the Knickerbockers, because it’s probably the place where I’m most likely to make a terrible error. The information about them is widely available, but even so is very sketchy, and thus prone to error. But as you’ve probably figured out by now, good sense has never stopped me before. So why should it now?

The Knickerbockers, named after a character in a Washington Irving tale, were a gentlemen’s baseball club formed in the mid-1840s to promote healthy exercise among various office workers and professionals in Manhattan. There were bank clerks (Alexander Cartwright) and doctors (Daniel “Doc” Adams), insurance men (Duncan Curry) and lawyers (James Moncrief). Their primary way of getting some healthy exercise was to go to a local open area and play a game with a ball and a stick (bat). They weren’t the first baseball club in New York. A number of the members, like Adams, came to the Knickerbockers from defunct teams like the New York Club.

What follows now is full of much speculation. There are a lot of theories on what happened next for the club, and this is strictly my take and should be noted as such. It seems that by September 1845 the club was having some disputes about how their game should be played. A set of 20 rules, the famous “Knickerbocker Rules” were written down for the club’s use. In the beginning (which seems like an appropriate phrase to use in this case) they were not meant for general dispersal to the entire New York baseball community. This leads to a couple of obvious questions: 1.what exactly are they? and 2. who wrote them?

If you take a look at the rules, which are easily available on-line, you find them to be a hodgepodge of  comments on both play and also on conduct and organization. Although there are comments on the distances between the bases that are specific (done in paces, not feet) and scoring is detailed,  you also get the following gem, “If there should not be a sufficient number of Club members present at the time agreed upon to commence exercise, gentlemen not members may be chosen in to make up the match.”  A couple of things are interesting about this statement (besides the requirement for “gentlemen”;  which probably excludes me). First, is the reference to the match as an “exercise.” It’s not yet so formal as to be a game. That may be instructive for how important these rules were. After all, “exercise” is generally much less formal than a “game”, which has specific rules. Second, there is no number indicated to show what makes up a “sufficient number of Club members” to start the game. That leads me to believe they had already established a generally agreed upon number and that it wasn’t necessary to indicate the number of players involved in the “exercise” (According to information I’ll get to below, that number seems to be eight.). I’ll admit that I may be making too much of this absence, but this interpretation makes sense to me. Also I should note that it was already three outs (hands) to an inning, but no definition of what constitutes an out. That again leads me to believe that certain things, such as how an out was recorded, were so taken for granted that it wasn’t deemed necessary to write them down. But that also leads to the idea that some things, like the number of outs, may have been in dispute. A game ended at 21 runs, not nine innings. So what you have seems to be a short list of rules for an “exercise”, but nothing comprehensive enough for a “game.”. You can see here a beginning of the rules that led ultimately to baseball, but nothing allowing you to declare, as some have, “Here is where baseball begins.”

The obvious second question is “Who wrote these rules?” The traditional answer is Alexander Cartwright, and the Hall of Fame has recognized him as such. However, there is actually no proof he wrote them. The oldest copy of the rules bears two names: William Wheaton and William Tucker.  Tucker was President of the club and Wheaton a member of the by-laws committee (and I’ve not been able to determine if he was the chairman). Those two things alone make it difficult to make an assertion the rules were written by one man. It is possible that Cartwright first proposed the writing down of rules, but maybe not. If you look at Knickerbocker box scores (and there are only a very few), Cartwright never appears as a player, but does show up as an umpire a few times. Remember, that he umpired the so-called “first baseball game” and it wouldn’t surprise me that someone who was going to umpire would want a set of written rules to refer to in case of a conflict.  It is possible that Cartwright devolved into the team umpire and, if that’s correct (and it’s mere speculation on my part), then again it’s easy to see how his name might be quickly attached to the written rules. Although the role of umpire was somewhat different in those days in that you were not required to make a ruling on every play, but merely to be available if a player or team asked for a “judgement” on a particular play, having a copy handy could be of use. If you read the “Knickerbocker Rules” over carefully they sound, at least to me, like they’re written by committee. Maybe Cartwright was a member of the committee. Maybe he even wrote the bulk of the rules in much the way that Thomas Jefferson wrote the bulk of the Declaration of Independence, but had the other four members of the Declaration Committee edit things in, things out, and word changes. Frankly I don’t know who came up with them. Fifty years after the fact, Daniel Adams claimed much of the credit, but I’d like a more contemporary  and less biased source.

A brief aside about Doc Adams (not to be confused with the character on the TV series “Gunsmoke”) is in order. He claimed in the same interview where he took credit for the rules (and a lot of other stuff), that he invented the position of  shortstop. His story goes like this. The ball used at the time was so soft that it was difficult for the outfielders to throw it back into the infield. Remember this is back when an out could be recorded by plunking the baserunner when he was off base, so you didn’t want the ball to be too hard, lest you sideline the player for a couple of weeks, if not months.  So he decided to create a short fielder (kind of like the 10th man in a slow-pitch softball game) to relay the ball back to the infield. Noting that more balls were hit between second and third, he began stationing himself there.  The position quickly became the modern shortstop. OK, maybe. But there are several possibilities here. What we can infer for certain, is that the positional change was recognized as necessary and that it was proposed. We also know it was accepted and ultimately became an established position. None of that indicates Adams “invented” the position, or otherwise had anything at all to do with the entire matter. It’s possible he did. It’s equally possible he suggested it and the club said, “Fine, you do it.” Or maybe someone else came up with the idea and Adams was picked,  or volunteered, to take the job. There’s no contemporary evidence to indicate which, if any of these possibilities, is correct. I’m not calling Adams a liar (after all, my stories have gotten better with age) but in his interview no one else seems to have ever had a good idea, and he sure takes credit for a lot of stuff. Maybe he really did it, or maybe he’s a blowhard, but I’d be happier with more contemporary information on his role in the early game. Having said all that, there is enough contemporary evidence to acknowledge his major role in founding the National Association of Base Ball Players, the first thing approximating a “league.”

The Knickerbockers remained an amateur team throughout their existence, always remaining more club than team. They never became professional, and. hence, disappeared as a major power in the New York scene after the early 1850s. They were heavily influential in that their writing down of a set of rules led to a later codification of the rules of baseball, but they were never a dominant team after about 1855. They lasted until 1882, when they were disbanded. They left baseball a legacy, but it wasn’t so much on the field as it was in the establishment of the game itself. For that, we owe them.

The following picture shows six men, five of which were Knickerbocker members of the 1840s:

1840s Knickerbockers

The people are (from left to right) Alfred Cartwright (younger brother of Alexander), Alexander Cartwright (who is supposed to have written the Knickerbocker Rules), and William Wheaton (whose name actually appears on the Rules) on the back row. The front row consists of (again from left to right) Duncan Curry (first President of the Knickerbockers), Daniel (Doc) Adams (who’s supposed to have invented the shortstop position), and Henry T. Anthony (an early member of the club). Alfred Cartwright never played for the Knickerbockers, so the occasion for this picture may have nothing to do with the baseball aspects of the Knickerbocker club.

Please note the identifications in the paragraph above are the traditional identifications. Note there are comments below that indicate concerns about the traditional identity of persons in the picture immediately above. Two very interesting pdf articles are referenced. I suggest you read both articles.

A Baker’s Dozen Things You Should Know About Early Baseball

January 10, 2011

Capitoline Grounds, Brooklyn (about 1870)

So far I’ve stayed away from questions of baseball’s origins or of its formative, non-professional years. The main reason for that is simply I don’t have the level of expertise to weigh in authoritatively. But with that caveat, I want to look at Paleolithic baseball in a few posts. Here’s a baker’s dozen of early thoughts on what I’ve found. Be aware that many of these comments are overly broad and are meant as general, rather than specific, in nature.

1. There seems to be general agreement that the Knickerbockers created a set of rules that became the basis for modern baseball, thus setting New York baseball apart from games with more informal rules. There is great disagreement as to who actually did them (Alexander Cartwright or someone else), how much impact they initially had, and when other teams began to use them as the basis for the way they played the game. The idea that the Knickerbockers invented the game is universally ridiculed as nonsense.

2. The best early teams were mostly centered around New York, with Brooklyn especially being a hotbed. And despite most being in the North, they were almost uniformly segregated by race.

3. Having said that, there were teams a lot of places from Boston to DC and further away from the coast.  Many had their own set of rules that differed greatly from what we might consider baseball.

4. By the mid-1850s the New York teams and rules were dominant and other teams were beginning to use the New York set of rules (founded in some degree on the Knickerbocker rules).

5. It was a hitters game. Even losing teams were scoring 25-30 runs.

6. Uniforms were already present and evolving, but neither ball parks nor equipment were particularly evolving.  Ball parks were in many ways simply large open spaces where someone stuck down some bases (That’s a bit overstated, but not by much.). There were no gloves and the primary difference between a bat and a table leg is that the latter came with a table top attached.

7. There were some genuinely excellent players and I plan to do a couple of posts on some of them.

8. There was already one great team, the Atlantic, and they also get a post.

9. The impulse to organize a league led to a loose confederation of teams and players that tried to set up a standard schedule and championship play without much success.

10. Professionalism was rearing its head as early as 1860 (and perhaps earlier) and would end up tearing apart the fabric of the earliest league and many of its teams. This would culminate with the Red Stockings, the Pike Case, and the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players.

11. Rosters were extremely tiny and apparently flexible. In following one team through one year, I’ve discovered great shifts in players and it’s almost impossible to tell that a team one year is the same team the next by simply looking at the rosters; turn-over is that great. By about 1860 this begins to cease and rosters become more stable, but not significantly larger.

12. The Civil War did a job on a number of teams and players.

13. And no where in all this does the name Abner Doubleday appear (but you already knew that, right?).

The Father of the National League

March 12, 2010

There’s a lot of dispute about who invented baseball. There’s the old Abner Doubleday story which is mostly debunked as a myth today. There are those who pick Alexander Cartwright and those that say all he did was write down what was already being done. Whoever you pick, and there are other choices, it gets simpler when you move forward in time. The National League was formed 2 February 1876 and the man who put it tgether was William A. Hulbert.

Hulbert was born in New York in 1832 and the family moved to Chicago in 1834. He married into money, or at least into a successful grocery business, then used the profits to make considerable cash in coal. He was also a huge baseball fan, backing the local club, the White Stockings, when it entered the fledgling National Association in 1871. The club lost its park in the Great Chicago Fire (Hulbert’s holdings in town seem to have been spared) and Hulbert provided a lot of the funding to restore the team to its status in the Association after it had to regroup following the fire. That got him a job wth the club and in 1875 he took over as team President.

The National Association floundered in 1875. There were problems with gambling, scheduling, salaries, competitiveness, rules. Well, there were a lot of problems and the league simply was in the process of collapsing.  By the end of 1875 Hulbert was convinced that the Association was failing, although some of the fault lay with him and his own contract practices. He decided to abandon the Association and establish a new league. Prior to the end of 1875 he had gotten agreements with the major western teams to form a new league. In the baseball language of the day “western” meant west of about Harrisburg, Pennsylvania not west of Albuquerque, so we’re talking teams in Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis.

In February 1876, Hulbert met with teams from Boston, Hartford, New York, and Philadelphia in a hotel in New York City (I’m informed that the hotel no longer exists-pity) to pitch the idea of a new league. According to legend, Hulbert locked the door to the room, pocketed the key, and wouldn’t let the other team presidents out of the room until they had an agreement. He got the agreement and the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs was formed. It still exists.

It’s important to look at the title of the first two professional leagues for a second. There is the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players and the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs. I’ve highlighted the last word in each name for a reason. It marked the real difference between the leagues. The players ran the Association but the owners ran the League. In a comment on the Pike case  post, Bill Miller noted that there was a baseball cabal that organized together for their mutual benefit. He’s right. That’s the most fundamental change that occured in February 1876. Now the clubs would run the show, not the players.

The National League worked and did so for a number of reasons. It was run on solid business principles, which meant it could turn a profit. It cut down on gambling. The money belonged to the owners and they could, and did, parcel it out as they wanted. Ultimately this became a huge problem that led to the Black Sox when owners became more parsimonious with their cash (Having just written that I can’t believe that there were owners more parsimonious than Hulbert, but there were.). Finally, the League made baseball respectable. Beer and whiskey were banned from games, there were no games on Sundays, cursing on the field was fined, as was public drunkenness. That put wealthier patrons in the stands and put more money in the pockets of the owners, some of which trickled down to the players.

Frankly, nobody liked Hulbert (well, maybe Mrs. Hulbert) so the owners drew straws (literally) to determine the first President of the National League. Morgan Bulkeley of Hartford won, but Hulbert remained the power that ran the league. In 1877 Hulbert followed Bulkeley as President (Bulkeley didn’t like the job and wasn’t all that good at it, so he didn’t even bother to attend the meeting to elect a President for 1877.) and remained the man in charge until 1882.

Hulbert ran the National League the same way Judge Landis ran the Commissioner’s office later on. Things were done his way and woe to the villain who crossed him. He tossed both New York and Philadelphia out of the league for refusing to make a western swing after they were eliminated from a possible pennant. The western teams lost gate revenue because of this and lost revenue was something akin to sin in Hulbert’s eyes. He established the idea that the National League office would set up schedules, not the teams. He handled the Louisville scandal quickly (another post for another time). He set up the first reserve rule for players to prevent contract jumping, and in 1881 expelled Cincinnati from the league for playing games on Sunday and selling beer in the stands. In 1882 he had a heart attack, dying the same day. In 1995, 58 years after Bulkeley, Hulbert was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame.

To be honest, I don’t think I would have liked Hulbert. I admire his desire to establish a league that would last, but he’s just not my cup of tea. It seems to me he spent most of his life looking for a fight and generally found one. But we baseball fans owe him.