Posts Tagged ‘Brooklyn Excelsiors’

The Thief

September 15, 2015
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.

Gone South

August 28, 2013
Excelsior of Brooklyn 1860 team photo

Excelsior of Brooklyn 1860 team photo

If you study early baseball you’ve seen the picture above. It’s the Excelsior team of 1860. Over the years I’ve done short blogs on three of the men in the picture. On 20 October 2010 there was a post called The Original Ace that dealt with Asa Brainard, the next-to-last man on the right of the picture (the man holding the cap) who went on to star as the primary pitcher for the 1869-70 Cincinnati Red Stockings. I used a part of it in my last blog post to show you Henry Polhemus (he’s the tall man with the mutton chops fourth from the left). There was also, as noted in the previous post, a blog on Jim Creighton (third from the left, holding the ball). Although I promise not to go through the entire group of nine, I want to look at one more member of this team. This time I want to focus on the man in the middle of the picture (the man with the bat beside Polhemus). His name was  Andrew Thurstin Pearsall and he was unique among the men in this picture.

Pearsall was the youngest of five children (one died in infancy). He was born in Bainbridge, New York in 1839 and by 1860 was listed as a merchant in Brooklyn (At his age I presume he worked in mercantile, rather than actually owned the place, but I’m not certain.). He was also attending medical school at the (College of Physicians and Surgeons of the City of New York (now  part of Columbia University) and completed his degree in 1861. Along the way he picked up a wife, Mary Graves of Lowndes County, Alabama. He also enjoyed baseball. During the late 1850s he became the primary first baseman for the Excelsior and was considered, along with Polhemus, as one of their two best hitters. He helped them to victories is both their “national” tours (they went to upstate New York in one and as far as Baltimore in the other). He played through the 1861 season, then sometime in 1862 disappeared.

He surfaced again in 1863, this time in Virginia. He became a regimental surgeon (that’s a status and doesn’t mean necessarily he was attached to a particular regiment) in the Confederate Army. His initial appointment was from 14 December 1862. He seems to have served in both Virginia and Georgia seeing time in both a hospital and on frontline duty with the 9th Kentucky Cavalry (CSA). Legend has it that while on service with the Confederacy he attended members of his former team, asking about the health of other team members. Although there is no actual proof of that he attended members of his team, a story in the New York Clipper does indicate he met a member of the Excelsior (name unknown) who was a prisoner of war and asked that man about the team. A letter from the prisoner to his family is supposed to be how the team found out what Pearsall was doing with his time.

So, if you’re the Excelsior, what do you do when you find out one of your players is in the military of the enemy? Apparently it was an easy call. On the 4th of July 1863 (the day following the end of the battle of Gettysburg, in which Pearsall did not participate) the team met and voted unanimously to expel him from the team. He was never reinstated. As far as I can tell, he had no further attachment to baseball.

Following the Civil War, Pearsall remained in the South (Alabama specifically) as a doctor remaining into the 1870s (he’s in the 1870 census in Alabama), then moving to Oswego, New York (where he shows in the 1880 census). He returned to medical practice serving as surgeon for a railroad and for a while as the Oswego coroner. He died in Oswego in 1905.

Because most of the men involved in early baseball were from the North, the overwhelming majority of those who served in the Civil War did so in the Union Army. A handful with ties to the South went with the Confederacy. One source indicates that 91 members (and former members) of the Excelsior joined the Union Army. Apparently only one, Pearsall,  joined the CSA.

The First Professional

January 12, 2011

Jim CreightonFor his day he was Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson rolled into one. He was Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson come to earth as one player. He was Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson from 45 feet away. He was Jim Creighton and baseball had never seen his like. At 19 he was the biggest star in the game, maybe in its history to that time. He’s been called the first professional player (but probably wasn’t) and the first great pitcher. By 22 he was dead.

Creighton was from Brooklyn, born in 1841. He played street ball, joined a neighborhood team, and by 1858 was an infielder for the Niagaras. He pitched a little, including a game against the Brooklyn Stars. They were impressed and in 1859 brought him onboard as their star pitcher. He was an immediate success and in 1860 jumped teams once again; this time going to the more respected Excelsiors. With the Excelsiors he became the biggest star in fledgling baseball. The team won a lot of games, made a lot of money, and rumors abounded that much of it went into Creighton’s pockets. No one could prove it, so he continued to pitch in the strictly amateur league.

Creighton in Excelsior uniform

The Excelsiors participated in a “national” tour (they went to upstate New York, then down the East Coast) in 1860, during which Creighton is credited, in November 1860, with throwing the first ever shutout in baseball history. In an era where 35-25 wasn’t an unreasonable score, the feat was astounding. He wasn’t a bad hitter either. In 1861 he is reputed to have made an out only four  times all season, all on the base paths. There are no available box scores to either prove or disprove this.

In 1862 he was having another great year when, on 14 October, he took an exceptionally fierce swing with his bat that apparently caused some sort of internal injury. In great pain he completed the game, then went home. He died four days later. There seems to be no official doctor’s account of what happened, so speculation centers around rupturing an appendix, bladder, or spleen, or lacerating something in such a way as to create great internal bleeding. Whatever happened he was not yet 22. His funeral was a major event in Brooklyn, and in dying young Creighton became an almost mythic figure in early baseball.

It’s possible that Creighton invented something akin to a fastball. In the era, pitchers were required to throw underhanded with a stiff elbow and wrist. Creighton apparently began practicing with a lead ball the size of a baseball to increase arm strength, then developed a motion that sent his arm far backward, then bending at the waist, he brought the ball in low (one source says only about two to three inches off the ground) and slung it forward with such speed and an upward trajectory that it was virtually unhittable. It sounds like a combination of the submarine style of a Jeff Nelson combined with the softball “rise ball” of a Cat Osterman, and it must have been especially difficult to hit in an era when there was almost no arm motion in pitching.

As usual with players of this era, it’s impossible to say how truly good he was. There were few games, the rules were different, and in Creighton’s case the pitching rules make it impossible to compare him with a modern player. Back several months ago on this site someone commented (and I looked and couldn’t find it, so I don’t know who it was, but I thank you) that the Hall of Fame should take a number of current members and move them into a special wing for “Pioneers”. I kind of like that idea. It lets us look at guys like Candy Cummings, Al Spaulding, and Henry Chadwick in the context of the founding of the game rather than looking at them the same way we look at Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio. Not sure how you’d determine who goes where, but it’s worth a thought. I can’t imagine they’d ever really do it, but if  they did, I’d like to nominate Creighton for one of the first slots.

Creighton's grave in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn

The Original Ace

October 30, 2010

Asa Brainard

We all know how to define an ace in baseball terms. It’s the top pitcher on the team. Ever wonder where the term originated?

Asel Brainard was born in Albany, New York in 1839. His name was shortened to Asa, pronounced Ace-a (You already see where this is going, right?) as a child. He joined the Brooklyn Excelsiors in 1860 as their second baseman. In 1862 he moved to the pitcher’s box (no mound yet, team) and became the top pitcher for one of the best barnstorming teams of the era. With the coming of the Civil War, baseball suffered  with players joining the army (one member of the Excelsiors even went South). Brainard wasn’t one of them. He continued to pitch for a much weakened team, and by 1867 had moved to Washington to play for the Nationals, another of the great barnstorming teams of the era and obviously not the modern team currently playing in DC.

In 1868, Harry Wright convinced him to move to Cincinnati where he became the pitcher for the Red Stockings.  The next season the Red Stockings became the first openly acknowledged all professional team in baseball. They were also very good. The team went 57-0 for the season, Brainard doing the bulk of the pitching. He appeared in 55 games, but didn’t pitch in every one of them, so his record is a little hard to pin down. Whatever it was, he was obviously undefeated. The next year the team went 66-7-1 and disbanded following the season. The success of the team helped lead to the formation of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. Brainard was in demand for the new league.

He signed with the Washington Olympics, but his great years were behind him. He was 32 and a heavy drinker. He was also something of a “ladies man” having a series of “flings” that made the papers. He had married in 1869, but abandoned the family shortly afterwards (the exact date seems to be unknown), so on top of the drinking, he was gaining something of an unsavory reputation among both players and fans. He could get away with it as long as he pitched well, but by 1871 he was slipping badly. He was 12-15 with more walks than strikeouts in 1871, 2-9 in 1872, 5-7 in 1873, and 5-22 in 1874. Each year he walked more than he struck out and had more hits than innings pitched. (All stats from ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia, 2006). With those numbers there was no 1875 season for Brainard. He did a little umpiring that season, but didn’t catch on as a fulltime umpire (apparently he couldn’t be trusted to be sober on game day).

Out of baseball, Brainard ran a cigar store for a while, then a pool hall. He also got married for a second time. This time it was a banker’s daughter. He moved to Denver to run the Markham Hotel billiard room. Next next year he caught pneumonia and died 29 December 1888. He is buried in Brooklyn.

All sources agree that the abbreviation of Asa to Ace is the origin of our use of the word to describe a baseball team’s first line pitcher. I listened to the announcers call game one of the World Series. They used the term “Ace” to describe both pitchers a number of times. In doing so, they made a, probably unknowing, tip of the cap to Asa Brainard.