Posts Tagged ‘Dickey Pearce’

Making Shortstop

April 14, 2016
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

The Mighty Atlantic

January 14, 2011

1860 game between Atlantic and Excelsior at Excelsior Grounds

Since its beginnings, baseball has been dominated by great teams. Back in the Deadball Era there were the Cubs and Athletics. Since 1920 the Yankees have dominated. In the 1880s, there were the Browns. And before any of these, all the way back in the 1850s and 1860s there were the Atlantic.

The great hotbed of 1850s and 1860s baseball was Brooklyn. At this time Brooklyn was an independent city, not one of the boroughs of New York. It had its own civic pride, its own commercial district, and more great baseball teams than anywhere else. The best of these were the Atlantic. The singular form of the word is  correct, but as it sounds absolutely goofy to the modern ear, I’ll begin calling them the Atlantics. They were occasionally known as the Atlantic of Brooklyn and they were far and away the best of the era.

The Atlantics were founded in 1855 and joined the newly formed National Association of Base Ball Players that same season. BTW Base Ball as two words is correct for this era. The modern Baseball comes later. They were a typical club of the period, all amateurs (at least officially), men who worked a day job and used baseball as a hobby and medium for exercise. I’m not sure of the initial roster, but I was able to find the following list of players for the 21 October 1855 game, so let’s celebrate them:  Caleb Sniffen (P), Willet P. Whitson (C), Thomas Powers (1B), Tice Hamilton (2B), Isaac Loper (3B), William Babcock (SS), William Bliss (LF), John Holder (CF), and Andrew Gildersleeve (RF). The Atlantic defeated the Harmony (of Brooklyn) club 24-22 that day. Can you imagine a “Harmony” team in this day and age?

The Association  was a consortium of teams and players that met to create a uniform set of rules, and ultimately to choose a winner for the league. They did not crown a champion from 1855 through 1858, but the Atlantics did well, producing a 7-1-1 record in 1857 and going 11-1 in 1858. Beginning in 1859, the Association decided to determine a champion and did so through 1869. In those 11 years, the Atlantics won seven titles: 1859, 1860, 1861, 1864, 1865, 1866, and 1869. No other team won more than two (Brooklyn Eckfords).

In their seven titles, the Atlantics never played more than 21 championship caliber games prior to 1868, so they are dominant over a small sample of contests and thus it’s difficult to gauge their true abilities. Another problem is the rapid turnover of players. By the first championship team of 1859, not one player from the 1855 team was still around. It seems that’s true to a great degree for most teams of the era. It’s not exactly “free agency”, after all no one is supposed to be paid, but it does appear that the clubs had very open membership and that good players tended to gravitate toward the better teams. This begins to change in the early 1860s when you begin seeing a lot of the same names on the same clubs. Here’s a picture of the 1865 Atlantcs:

1865 Atlantics

From left to right, the players are Frank Norton, Sid Smith, Dickey Pearce, Joe Start, Charlie Smith, John Chapman, Fred Crane, John Galvin, and Tom Pratt. The man in the middle in the civilian suit is manager Peter O’Brien. The association winning team of 1860 included Pearce, Charlie Smith, and Peter O’Brien as a player. In 1869 Pearce, Start, Chapman, and Charlie Smith were still around for the final championship team. Here’s another view of the 1865 team. If you click on it, it blows up so you can read who’s who:

1865 Atlantics

As the reigning league champions in 1869, the Atlantics drew the attention of the all professional Cincinnati Red Stockings team. They engaged in a match for the ages in 1870. It’s nicely detailed at Kevin’s excellent DMB Historic World Series Replay site (link in the blogroll), so I’m not going to go over it except to say the Atlantic won in 11 innings. It was their high point. In 1871 the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed to play professional games. The Atlantic decided to set it out and most of the great players jumped to other teams in the new league. In 1872 the Atlantic joined the new league, but with all their good players gone, they floundered, never finishing higher than sixth (of eight). When the National League was formed in 1876, the woeful Atlantics were left out. They hung around trying to play good ball with little success. In 1882, the newly formed American Association wanted a team in Brooklyn. They chose the Bridegrooms. It was the end for the Atlantics. They folded, although the name hung around for a while as the Bridegrooms were informally know at the “Atlantics” for a number of years.

It was a sad end to a great team, but the Baseball God’s weren’t quite through with them yet. In looking for info on this team, I ran across a site dedicated to a modern team called the Atlantic that plays 1860s style Base Ball in honor of the old team. In the words of a contemporary of the old Atlantic, Abraham Lincoln, “It is altogether fitting and proper” that they do this.