Posts Tagged ‘Henry Polhemus’

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 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.

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.