Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Baseball's Legacy of Deceit

From the Woodstock Times of April 14, 2005:
On September 27, 1865, gambler Kane McLoughlin paid $100 collectively to William Wansley, Tom Devyr, and Ed Duffy of the New York Mutuals to dump a baseball game the following day to the Brooklyn Eckfords. “The Mutuals, fresh from two well-earned victories at Kingston — for a silver ball — and Poughkeepsie,” according to the New York Times, “presented an excellent nine in good trim for action, yesterday” in a game played at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken. However, in the fifth inning the wheels came off the wagon, as the Mutuals allowed 11 runs through “over-pitched balls, wild throws, passed balls, and failures to stop them in the field….” Attempting to compliment the Eckfords, beneficiaries of a 23–11 cakewalk, the Times reporter noted that their “pitching came nearer to the Creighton mark in accuracy of delivery than any we have seen since his death [Jim Creighton was the star pitcher of the Brooklyn Excelsiors].”

Wansley, the catcher, made so little attempt to hide his skullduggery (six passed balls, no hits in five at bats) that rumblings about something being rotten in Hoboken were aired in the press immediately. Confronted by the Mutuals president, Wansley confessed and implicated his partners in slime; all three were banned from play, but only briefly (upon his return Duffy hung on long enough to earn an entry in the baseball encyclopedias by playing in the first professional league, with Chicago in 1871).

Thus baseball had its first scandal though hardly its last, as one may deduce from having read the sports pages any day this year. Oddly the Times reporter invoked as a counterfoil to the plotters the late lamented Creighton, struck down in his youth only three years before. Yet this seeming paragon of virtue was not only the game’s first great pitcher, he was also its first great cheater, as will be detailed below.

In truth, the worm was in the apple when the game was still in its Eden. Both ladies and gentlemen were openly betting during the amateur ball matches of the early 1850s; established teams like the Knickerbockers and Gothams would raid others of their best players; and when admission was first charged — on July 20, 1858, for a Brooklyn-New York All-Star match — the snake asserted its control of the garden: winning and dollars were what counted now. Over the next seven years all the elements that characterize the modern game entered baseball: enclosed stadiums, “revolving” (free agency), illicit payments, open professionalism, on-field cheating, spectator rowdyism, and “hippodroming” (game-fixing); by the time another decade had passed, alcoholism, speculative capitalism, and even drugs infested the game as well.

By the turn of the century, America’s fascination with rogue heroes — in baseball, in business, in politics — was firmly entrenched, the clucking of moralists notwithstanding. Joined at the lip forevermore are King Kelly and Jose Canseco, Jay Gould and Bernie Ebbers, Boss Tweed and Tom DeLay.

Jim Creighton keeps company with all those worthies. Although he is known to few fans today, he was the greatest pitcher of his day. Famous principally for his exploits on behalf of the champion Excelsiors of Brooklyn in the years 1860 to 1862, he possessed an unprecedented combination of speed, spin, command — and an illegal but imperceptible wrist snap — that virtually defined the position for all those who followed. Prior to Creighton, pitchers had been constrained by the rule that “the ball must be pitched, not thrown, for the bat.” This meant that (a) the ball had to be delivered underhand, in the stiff-armed, stiff-wristed manner borrowed from cricket’s early days and (b), in the absence of called strikes, an innovation of 1858, or called balls, which came into the game six years later, the ball had to be placed at the batter’s pleasure: the infant game of baseball was designed to display and reward its most difficult skill, which was neither pitching nor batting, but fielding.

Creighton was born in Mahnattan on April 15, 1841, but he grew up in Brooklyn. At the age of sixteen he and some neighborhood youths started a junior baseball club which they called Young America. It played a handful of games in 1857, and then disbanded. Jim then joined the fledgling Niagaras of Brooklyn, for whom he claimed second base. Playing shortstop was George Flanley, another accomplished young player.

In 1859 the Niagaras challenged the Star Club, then the crack junior team. In the fifth inning of the game, with the Niagaras trailing badly, their regular pitcher, John A. Shields, was replaced by Creighton. Peter O’Brien, captain of the Atlantics, witnessed this game, and “when Creighton got to work,” he observed, “something new was seen in base ball — a low, swift delivery, the ball rising from the ground past the shoulder to the catcher. The Stars soon saw that they would not be able to cope with such pitching. Their captain, after consulting other base ball players present, sent in his wildest pitcher. They, by these tactics, were enabled to win the game, which resulted in the breaking up of the Niagara Club, and Creighton and Flanley at once joined the Stars. The next year he with Flanley joined the Excelsior Club.”

How to explain all this movement? According to the sporting press, Creighton was a high-principled, unassuming youth whose gentlemanly manner and temperate habits were ideal attributes for the amateur age of baseball; all the same, he became (at the same time as Flanley) baseball’s first professional, through under-the-table “emoluments” from the Excelsiors, who were hungry to surpass their Brooklyn rival, the Atlantics. Just as he changed the game forevermore by breaking the rule against the wrist snap, so did he assure that skilled baseball players could never again be content with field exercise followed by a bounteous table.

At the same time that Creighton was extending the frontier in baseball he was also a prominent member of the cricketing fraternity. The national sport of England and its boyish variants like wicket had been played in America since the Colonial period, and when the all-England team crossed the Atlantic to play against (and drub) selected American clubs at the Elysian Fields and elsewhere, Creighton took part in the contests. English cricketer John Lillywhite, on seeing Creighton pitch a baseball, instantly saw the dilemma that overmatched American batsmen faced: “Why, that man is not bowling, he is throwing [i.e., employing a wrist snap] underhand. It is the best disguised underhand throwing I ever saw, and might readily be taken for a fair delivery.”

On October 14, 1862, in a baseball match against the tough Unions of Morrisania, In four trips to the plate through the first six innings he hit four doubles. In the next inning something happened. John Chapman of the Atlantics later wrote: “I was present at the game between the Excelsiors and the Unions of Morrisania at which Jim Creighton injured himself. He did it in hitting out a home run. When he had crossed the [plate] he turned to George Flanley and said, ‘I must have snapped my belt,’ and George said, ‘I guess not.’ It turned out that he had suffered a fatal injury.”

Creighton had swung so mighty a blow — in the manner of the day, with hands separated on the bat, little or no turn of the wrists, and incredible torque applied by the twisting motion of the upper body — that it was reported he ruptured his bladder. (Later review of the circumstances, aided by modern medical understanding, pointed to a ruptured inguinal hernia.) After four days of hemorrhaging and agony at his home at 307 Henry Street, he passed away on October 18, at the age of 21 years and 6 months, having given his all to baseball in a final epic blast that the cinematic Roy Hobbs might have envied.

But is that the way it really happened? Creighton’s last run home instantly ascended to the realm of myth, giving baseball its martyred saint. Obsequies included such syrupy statements as: “His death was a loss not only to his club but to the whole base ball community, which needed such as he as a standard of honorable play and ability.” Rule-breaking, revolving, sub rosa professionalism, all were now to be dismissed. Icon making was in full production.

Creighton’s Excelsior teammates mourned his loss at their black-draped clubhouse at 133 Clinton Street and subscribed toward a fine monument over his remains, still visible in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery. But the Excelsiors were not at all sure that it was a good thing for baseball to take the blame for Creighton’s death; this might not promote the healthful properties of their new game. What if his injury had been sustained a day or two earlier, say, at a cricket match? The Excelsior president, moved to propagandize for baseball’s spotlessness as well as Creighton’s, offered cricket as the villain of the piece.

Baseball, today universally recognized as a vibrant anachronism, was not always a backward-looking game in which the plays and players of yore set unsurpassable standards of excellence. Creighton’s death implanted the game with nostalgia, which along with cheating remains its lifeblood.

--John Thorn


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