Posts Tagged ‘Duncan Curry’

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).

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The First Big Man

August 26, 2013
Members of the Excelsior about 1869

Members of the Excelsior about 1860

The above picture shows three early members of the Excelsior, one of the first great teams in baseball history. The man on the left is third baseman John Whiting. In the center (holding the ball) is Jim Creighton, the era’s superstar. Back on 12 January 2011, I did a post on Creighton titled The First Professional.The man on the right is Henry Delmas Polhemus.

Polhemus was an outfielder who, according to who you believe, stood around six feet and weighed around 200 pounds, depending on what he’d eaten for breakfast. He was, for the era, an absolutely huge man. As with most players of the age, he set up shop in most of the fielding positions, but his primary role was as an outfielder. He was fast and noted for an excellent arm. In an age when the ball was much lighter than it is today, the shortstop played a position much like the shortfielder in modern slow-pitch softball. One of his primary jobs was to act as cutoff man because outfielders couldn’t get the ball into the infield because it was so light. Polhemus was noted for not needing a cutoff man. At bat he was the team power hitter. When fields had no fences or they were 500 or more feet from home, Polhemus was noted for driving the ball into the gap for many inside-the-park home runs. Teaming with Creighton on the mound, Polhemus helped propel the Excelsior to the top of Brooklyn’s (and thus baseball’s) sporting pyramid in the period just prior to the Civil War.

Polhemus was the son of one of the more prominent Brooklyn families. An ancestor had formed the first Dutch Reform Church in the town. His father was a wealthy farmer who moved into the mercantile business. They were very wealthy and Henry Polhemus worked in the mercantile business and dabbled in baseball on the side. With the coming of the Civil War, he left baseball (after the 1862 season) and became a managing partner in two businesses: Fox and Polhemus, and Brinkerhoff and Polhemus. The companies received government contracts to make “duck cloth”, a type of canvas used in making military tents. Apparently they did a good job as there were few complaints about their product. Already wealthy, Polhemus became a multi-millionaire and never went back to baseball. He became director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, served on the board of various banks, railroads, and hospitals, and became a confidant of New York Governor (and later President) Grover Cleveland. He died in 1895 and is buried in Brooklyn. On his death, his wife donated a half-million dollars to establish a new wing to a Brooklyn hospital.

The above info is specific to Henry Polhemus, but in general terms is typical for many the baseball players of the pre-Civil War era (professionals like Creighton excepted). They were men of some wealth and baseball was a leisure time activity, not a vocation. Some, like Duncan Curry and Daniel Adams (both of the Knickerbockers) were professional men; Curry in insurance and Adams in medicine. Others like Atlantic stalwarts Folkert Boerum and Jack Remsen (although Remsen was a bit younger than the rest of these) were gentlemen farmers. Still others like Polhemus were entrepreneurs. Many knew each other professionally or were related (Boerum and Remsen were related by marriage). For them baseball was a method of exercise, of companionship, of good fun, and social advancement. It was not a “game” it was serious, but it was fun and it certainly wasn’t a way to make a living. Men like these are typical in the early story of baseball and are the true fathers of the sport.

“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.