Posts Tagged ‘Jim Creighton’

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).

The All-Star Series

December 18, 2018

The first “All Star” Game

Baseball is odd. Among all the major team sports, it plays its games in a series. Football, soccer, hockey, basketball, play a game, take a break, play another (there are occasional exceptions), but baseball plays a handful of games (sometimes two or four, but usually three) together, then the teams move on to another venue and another set of, usually, three games.

It wasn’t always that way. At its inception, baseball, like the other sports, tended to play single games. One team would play a game against a second team, then move on to play, generally several days later, a game against a third team. But the modern system of “series baseball” took over and you always never see a game in isolation (except for a rainout) anymore. That began to change in 1858.

In 1858 the cities of New York and Brooklyn were separate (and would remain so until 1890). At that point, the best teams tended to cluster in either of the two towns. There were individual teams like the Athletic in Philadelphia or the Niagara in Buffalo, but no one had a group of top level teams except New York and Brooklyn. In New York there were the Mutual, the Gothams, the Knickerbockers. Brooklyn had the Excelsiors, the Eckford, the Atlantic. At some point someone was going to come up with the idea of city teams comprising the best players of each team, joining together to play the best players of another city (sort of an All-Star Game). That finally happened in 1858. But it wasn’t to be a single game, but was to be a series of games to determine which town, New York or Brooklyn had the better players.

Unlike a modern series, the 1858 all-star series was played over three months, one game in July, the second in August, and the final game in September. And unlike the current All Star Game, there were a series of games. So this initial “series” or initial “All Star Game” was a hybrid. To be fair to both sides, the games were held at the Fashion Place Racetrack (a horse racing track) in Queens.

The names today are mostly forgotten. Harry Wright played center field for New York in the initial game. Theodore Van Cott, unknown today, was the Gothams ace. Joe Leggett of the Excelsiors was the catcher for Brooklyn. He later became famous as Jim Creighton’s catcher. Dickie Pearce and Folkert Boerum of the Atlantic also played. Some historians credit Pearce with inventing the modern positioning of the shortstop and Boerum with working toward the invention of catcher’s equipment (neither can be entirely verified.

The games were high scoring affairs in comparison to modern baseball. New York won the first game 22-18 (lots of touchdowns, lots of missed kicks) with Van Cott leading the team with four runs scored and making only two outs (Harry Wright led the team with five outs). Excelsior second baseman, John Holder, had the game’s only home run. In game two the Brooklyn team returned the favor outscoring New York 29-8.

That made the September game the deciding game of the series. Daniel “Doc” Adams, Knickerbockers shortstop, umpired the game (remember, umpires in 1858 didn’t do all the same things they do now so an umpire with a rooting interest wasn’t as big a problem as it would be now). Joe Gelston, Eagles shortstop, led off New York’s part of the game with a home run and the team went on to pile up seven runs in the first. Union outfielder Joseph Pinckney hit another homer for New York later in the game, and the New York team ran up a 29-18 score to take game three and the championship two games to one.

The series would not be repeated. As the 1860s began, the Brooklyn clubs, particularly the Atlantic, began to dominate the baseball scene and not many New York teams wanted to face a Brooklyn all-star team that was composed mostly of players from the Atlantic. But it provides us with a look at a long ago series of games that would become more common and ushered in the idea of an all-star team.

The Road to Professionalism

August 25, 2016
Jim Creighton (center top) from Frank Leslie's Illustrated

Jim Creighton (center top) from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated

Today we think of baseball at the highest level as a game between professionals who get paid to play the game. It wasn’t always that way. Initially baseball was a game of children and of amateur clubs. It morphed into the professional game we know in a rather short period of time; the period between 1845 and 1860. The following is a musing, admittedly incomplete, on how we got from amateur to professional in 15 years. It is certainly not a quest to find the first professional nor is it a definitive look at early professionalism.

Let me set some parameters and definitions first. In 1845 the famous “Knickerbocker Rules” were published by the club. Without reference to whether they were the first written rules or not, they give us a beginning date. There is no evidence that anyone in 1845 was a professional baseball player. Games were between clubs of amateurs or played on sand lots by kids but no one was receiving money to play (at least as far was anyone can tell).

By 1860 both Jim Creighton and George Flanly were receiving a stipend from their team (in 1860 that would be the Excelsior in Brooklyn). Both men moved from the Niagaras (Buffalo) to play in New York and money changed hands. Frequently they, especially Creighton, are known as “The First Professional.” OK, maybe, but at least it gives us an ending date for our quest. In 1845 we can reasonably say “there are no professionals.” By 1860 we can say “there are professionals.”

Now we need to determine what makes a “professional”? The answer is usually “they’re getting paid to play.” And that’s true as far as it goes. But a common practice in the era was the use of government entities to pay players to work for the city while making sure the player had ample time to practice and play baseball. Both Brooklyn and New York City (they were separate towns in 1860) were particularly known for doing this. There’s a scene in the movie Field of Dreams in which a young “Moonlight” Graham (played by Frank Whaley) talks about towns in the Midwest finding you a job so you can play for the town team on the weekends. In 1860 they were doing the same thing. So is this the mark of a professional or are we talking about something that is at most quasi-professional? You can make up your own mind on the issue, but I feel it is indeed professionalism because there is no evidence that men like Flanly, John Galvin, or Sydney Churchill Smith would hold a city job if they weren’t baseball players.

So why do we go from amateur clubs to professionalism? There are a number of reasons, most of which you can probably guess. The game was growing, getting more popular. There were more teams and more competition. The drive to win, to be the best surely was part of what happened. If you were good enough to be sought by multiple teams, certainly one of them was going to offer you an incentive like a job or cash. So they took it, either the job or cash or both. The formation of leagues that competed for dominance made it more important to the clubs that they concentrate the greatest level of talent in order to win. Money is quite an incentive to join a particular team that wants to win. If you add to that the civic pride factor then handing jobs to ball players by local government agencies adds to the mix.

The above should be pretty obvious to most of you, but, and this is the part of this post I want to stress, let me note a couple of post 1860 events also contribute to the wide growth and acceptance of professionalism; a couple of things you may not have considered. First is the institution of the enclosed ballpark. The Union Grounds of 1862 is generally recognized as the first fully enclosed baseball park. It was home of the Eckfords and is now gone, lost under buildings, highways, and an assortment of other things. But by enclosing the park the team could control the attendance and that meant that they could begin charging admission (no more cheapskates standing just outside the field boundaries watching for free). And quite bluntly if the owners of the park were making money, the players had to ask “why aren’t we getting a cut?”

Secondly, in 1866 the Athletic in Philadelphia had one of the greatest players of the era, Lip Pike, playing for them. They were paying him ($20 a week) and he was quite open about it. When a newspaper published this information things blew up. The league (The National Association of Base Ball Players) demanded a meeting at one of the more prominent Philadelphia hotels to decide what to do about Pike and the Athletic. Of course there were two problems with this approach. First Pike was too good to be kept away from the game. Someone was going to pick him up, and probably pay him a little more circumspectly (like maybe a sham job in the City Works Department). Second, if they punished the Athletic, they faced the prospect of losing their primary team in Philadelphia. The upshot was that neither the league nor the Athletic nor Pike showed up at the appointed hotel at the appointed time and the matter was allowed to drop. That opened the door to professionalism en masse. Knowing it wasn’t going to cost neither the team nor the player if a professional entered the game, payments flew from one player to another. At this point, the Cincinnati Red Stockings were close to inevitable.

So that’s a short  musing on professionalism. It was, probably, impossible to stop its development and for those of us who are fans of the game at its highest level, that’s a good thing.

And now I’d like you to take a close look at the picture above. It shows Jim Creighton in the center of the top (he’s shrouded because he had died). But if you blow up the picture (which you can) you can take a look at some of the “Glory of Their Times” players of the 1860s. It gives you a chance to see what the Aarons, Mantles, Ruths, and Gibsons of their day looked like. Enjoy.

 

 

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 Best Team Prior to Professionalism

April 11, 2016
The 1865 Atlantic

The 1865 Atlantic

Professionalism was probably more common in baseball quicker than we’d like to believe. In the 1860s Jim Creighton was being paid under the table. He’s frequently called the “first professional” but there’s no evidence he was actually first. Lip Pike was also being paid under the table, but Pike was more open about taking the money (leading to a famous case that could have destroyed the first league had not common sense intervened). But it was still an era when many of the players were indeed amateurs. It was the period of the National Association of Base Ball Players (to be differentiated from the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players that existed from 1871-75). It’s a sport we would recognize as baseball (sorta) and it was dominated by one team, the Atlantic (of Brooklyn). They won several Association titles (they weren’t pennants yet). For my money the best of the team prior to the 1869 Red Stockings and avowedly professional teams was the 1865 version of the Atlantic, the team in the picture above (you can click on it to see it larger). Although I’ll have to admit I don’t have the statistical evidence (the traditional way baseball arguments are solved) to prove they were better than the 1866 version, they still get my vote.

The 1865 Atlantic went 45-0 with a tie. Now you can argue it’s not a lot of games, but it was a fairly standard amount for the era. They scored a lot of runs. While 30 runs in a game was not uncommon in the age, they did it with disturbing frequency. They hit well up and down the lineup and fielded well, again for the era. There aren’t a lot of stats available, but from the box scores I can find and the articles I read, it is evident that they were just head and shoulders above the competition.

All that leads to the very obvious question, “just who were these guys?” That’s what I’m setting out to discover. If you recall, a few months ago I took the picture of the 1860 Excelsiors and looked up what I could find on the nine players on the team. It took a long time and so will this. So don’t expect the next five or six articles to be about the 1865 Atlantic. Some of them (three in particular) are easy to find because they went on to make a mark in the world (especially the baseball world) while others are, at this point, total unknowns (again, three). Hopefully I’ll be able to find out as much as I did about the Excelsiors, which in a couple of cases was admittedly almost nothing. If you go to an article from 13 December 2010 titled “‘Start’-ing at First” you’ll find my look at first baseman Joe Start (in the above picture he’s the man on the right end of the middle row), the player who had the best post-Atlantic baseball career. So one down.

And so far, and I’ve only begun, they aren’t nearly as colorful a group as the Excelsiors (no one seems to have ended up in prison or manufactured baseballs), although as a rule they went further in baseball (but it’s also five years later). But hopefully, they’ll still be interesting.

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 Ball Maker and the Telegrapher

September 22, 2015
Excelsior of Brooklyn 1860 team photo

Excelsior of Brooklyn 1860 team photo

Continuing on with my brief looks at the men who composed the 1860 Excelsiors, I’ve found the information available is getting sketchier and sketchier. Up to this point I’ve looked at five men as individuals. To do that now would make this post very short. So I’m going to combine two players here in one biographic post (with a short note at the end about another).

The Ball Maker

In the picture above John Campbell Whiting is the second man from the left. He has on a bow tie and stands just to the right of Jim Creighton, the man holding the ball. Whiting was born in either 1841 or 1842 in Erie County, New York. He was one of five brothers who ended up playing baseball in the 1850s and 1860s (with older brother Charles appearing to be the best). By 1858 John Whiting was playing ball with the local team, the Niagaras. He was the third baseman and one of the three best players on the team (Creighton and George Flanly, addressed below, were the others). The Stars, a Brooklyn team grabbed all of them and brought them to the New York metropolitan area, where they all three jumped to the Excelsiors almost immediately. Whiting played third with the Excelsiors and participated in the big “playoff” game with the Atlantic in 1860. He retired in 1861 (when he was roughly 20) and began manufacturing baseballs. He was, seemingly, successful but the American Civil War got in the way. By 1862 he can be found in the 31st New York Infantry and in June of 1863 made Lieutenant. After the war he remained in New York and became an investment broker (I don’t know if he still made baseballs as a side enterprise or not). Apparently he was pretty good at it because he moved (according to the 1880 census) to a pretty expensive neighborhood. He was visiting his daughter in Lanesboro, Massachusetts when he died on 26 September 1929. As far as I can tell, he was the last of the Excelsiors.

The Telegrapher

The man on the far right of the picture above is George H. Flanly. He was the normal center fielder for the Excelsiors in 1860. He was born in either 1833 or 1834 and by age 14 was considered one of the best ball players around. By the late 1850s he’s moved into the lineup of the Niagaras (of Buffalo, NY) and become reasonably famous for his fielding skills. In 1858 he moved to Brooklyn and hooked up with the Excelsiors. There is some evidence that both he and Creighton were being paid to play ball, which, if true, makes him the first man paid for his glove (although there were no gloves in 1859) rather than his bat. He hung on in baseball as late as 1869 when he is found playing for the Mutuals (of New York, not Brooklyn). For at least a while in 1866 he can be found umpiring games. Whether he was paid to play or not, it wasn’t enough to keep him from being required to hold another job. In 1858 he joined the Brooklyn police force as a member of their Telegraph section. He remained with the Brooklyn Police Telegraph Department into 1884. By 1872 he was Superintendent of the Department and when he retired in 1884 he received a yearly pension of $1000, a large sum in the era. I have been unable to find out when he died.

I’m now down to two men on the 1860 Excelsiors that I haven’t told you about. One of them is Thomas Reynolds. He’s the man on the far left of the picture above. He played shortstop for the team and that, other than an 1887 article that states he died “years ago”, is all I can find about him. That leaves one man to explore, which I’ll do later. I also want to make some general observations about the players at that time.

 

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 Urban Gentleman

April 15, 2014
Newspaper drawing of one of the 1858 Brooklyn vs New York all-star games

Newspaper drawing of one of the 1858 Brooklyn vs New York all-star games

Folkert Rapelje Boerum was born in Brooklyn 26 October 1829. He was the eldest son of one of the most prominent old families of Brooklyn. The Rapelje’s went back to when New York was New Netherland. One of his ancestors was a member of the governing counsel of the Dutch colony. The Boerum’s came only slightly later, one family member serving the First Continental Congress of 1775. Their home was a big house set on a big lot. They were originally farmers, but by Folkert Boerum’s time the family was established as a “leading family” of Brooklyn. He is described in A History of Long Island From its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time (the “Present Time” being 1905) as “one of the best and most highly regarded citizens” of the borough. The work also uses words like “public-spirited” and “trusted” to describe him. He helped maintain the Bushwick and East Brooklyn Dispensary, The Good Samaritan Society, and the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, among other charitable work. He died 13 November 1903 and is buried in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery. He is, unquestionably, the very definition of a mid-to late 19th Century American urban gentleman. I guess it’s fair to say he did have one vice. He was also a ballplayer.

When we first run across Boerum in connection with baseball, he’s the catcher and three hitter for the Harmony, one of the older Brooklyn teams. They weren’t all that good, but they did have a handful of quality players. Boerum was one of them. William Babcock, the man who ran the Atlantic, Brooklyn’s premier team, lured Boerum away from the Harmony where he became the team’s starting catcher. He remained there into 1858. He appears as the catcher in one of the 1858 “all-star” games held between Brooklyn’s best and New York City’s best (Brooklyn was an independent city in 1858). By 1859 he’d moved to third base where he was considered one of the finest third sackers of his day. He remained at third until 1861 when he retired from the game. I’m not sure why. I can find no evidence that he joined the Union Army after Fort Sumter. During 1858-1860 he served as club vice president.

Boerum is an extremely good example of an early baseball player. It was a world of amateurism and only men with a certain amount of leisure time could afford to take off time to play ball. Working stiffs simply couldn’t afford to lose the pay. Most of the early players were wealthy farmers or insurance men or doctors or some sort of other professional who received (for the time) a good paycheck and had free time to pursue the game in “gentlemen” clubs. That defines Boerum and most of his teammates and opponents. With the arrival of professionals like Jim Creighton (who played for the Excelsiors against Boerum) the game changed and we lost the Boerum’s of the game.

 

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.