Friday, July 29, 2005

Baseball at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, 1865, by Currier & Ives.

Baseball’s Garden of Eden

From "Play's the Thing" in the Woodstock Times, July 28, 2005:
Remember your first time in a big-league ballpark? How dark and cool and secret it felt to prowl the caverns under the grandstand, and how dazzling was that first view of the great green field when you emerged from the tunneled aisle? I can recall my first visit, to the Polo Grounds on May 12, 1957, not as if it were yesterday, which at my age I can only hazily recall, but sharply. My beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, behind lefthander Johnny Podres, shut out the New York Giants 5-0, and my idol, Duke Snider, hit a home run. My father, who knew nothing about baseball except that I was crazy about it, did not let on that I was imposing upon his bounteous good will, and — just like an American, which he had only recently become — even hollered vigorously for the peanut vendor to throw a bag our way. Yet for all the pleasures of that sun-splashed Sunday, the feeling that I can summon up most vividly today is transcendent awe before the great green field.

In the 1960s and 1970s the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field — like so many concrete-and-steel palaces of the 1910s — were replaced by a wave of cookie-cutter stadiums (“concrete ashtrays,” in the dead-on designation of ballpark historian Phil Lowry). Shea Stadium, inaugurated in 1964, the year of the memorably tacky Flushing World’s Fair, became less ugly once those orange and blue panels of corrugated metal were stripped from its exterior. Yankee Stadium, built in 1923, was eviscerated in 1974-75 and is today impersonated by a bowl with wedding-cake tracery. Then Baltimore’s Camden Yards and Cleveland’s Jacobs Field — opened in 1992 and 1994, respectively — ushered in the retro era of ballpark design, restoring intimacy and human scale to the old ball game while threatening to make home runs ho-hum and pitchers extinct.

The old ballparks, by which I mean those constructed before 1962, have dwindled to two: Fenway Park in Boston (1912) and Chicago’s Wrigley Field (1914). These parks demonstrate that a venerable building, even if it is not an architectural masterpiece, comes to define its neighborhood, even its city, and becomes, like many landmark buildings, community property. Beyond that, a ballpark becomes a “people's museum,” in that it is a repository of memory for the entire city: Wrigley or Fenway was the park to which your father took you to see the great green field, where you took your son and (if preservationists prevail) he will take his to have very much the same visual, communal, even religious experience. Where rural communities once were bound together by town meetings, husking bees, and town-ball games, heterogeneous urban communities can replicate that feeling of “belonging” nowhere better than at the ballpark.

This was a central point on March 12, 2003 in the City of Chicago’s hearings on landmark designation for Wrigley Field, in which architectural critic John Pastier and I testified as the expert witnesses for the city and were vigorously cross-examined by attorneys for the Chicago Tribune Company, owners of the Cubs and their ballpark. The city wished to ensure that the ballpark would look much the same for future generations; the Trib wished to modify or dispose of Wrigley Field as it saw fit. Both sides had right on their side, in some measure; unstated but on everyone’s mind was that the ballpark represented a greater asset than a ballclub that hadn’t won a World Series since 1908. (Our side won, so Pastier and I escaped being known as The Morons Who Lost Wrigley Field.)

The Tribune Company further indicated that if the City were to tie its hands it would have to consider abandoning Wrigley for a new site in the suburbs. This sort of blackmail — whether overt or covert —has hijacked the whole process by which owners and municipalities conceive, promote, and build a new stadium. Though major-league baseball has produced only one franchise shift in 35 years, that from Montreal to Washington this season, cities fear that they will lose stature and income if a ballclub moves out, while magnates feel confident that the grass is bound to be greener elsewhere. Both feelings persist despite the absence of evidence. Of course, shaking down the city for private gain is a time-honored practice, so we mustn’t be too hard on today’s sports barons. In 1824 John C. Stevens, proprietor of the Elysian Fields, lobbied New York City for capital to improve his Hoboken site. His request was denied, forcing him to finance his park on his own.

The Supreme Court said in its 1922 ruling (I’m simplifying here) that because baseball is essentially a localized sport and not a national enterprise, it should be exempted from compliance with Federal antitrust legislation. And this ruling, though seen as anomalous today because no other sport receives similar exemption, had precedent as early as 1869, when a W.C. Croesbuck of Lansingburgh, New York, who likely was connected with the famous Troy Haymakers, requested guidance from the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, D.C. His question was whether baseball games for which admission was charged were subject to the same tax as other exhibitions staged for profit. Thomas Hartland, Deputy Commissioner of the IRS, replied that baseball games were not to be taxed “as shows or exhibitions contemplated by section 108 of the Internal revenue laws, nor does [the IRS] regard such clubs as liable to special tax under paragraph 39 or section 79.”

This ruling came seven years before the founding of the National League, and only seven years after Brooklyn’s William Cammeyer launched the first ballpark at which admission was regularly charged, the Union Base Ball and Cricket Grounds. His brainstorm was to enclose the park within a fence so that paying fans might be admitted and freeloaders kept out. Previously, at such venues as the Elysian Fields of Hoboken and the Red House in Harlem, clubs would pay a license for use of the field but anyone who wished to watch was welcome to do so. Cammeyer’s innovation assured that the most powerful man in the game was the one who owned the field.

It’s interesting that until 1923, when the Yankees opened “the house that Ruth built” in the wilds of the Bronx, baseball had no stadium Before that, the places where professionals assembled to play went by the plain old names that today are applied to amateur lots in America’s hamlets and towns: park, grounds, and field. Actually, recent research has revealed that baseball was played in New York City in the period after the war of 1812, and probably earlier, at places evocatively named “retreats” or “gardens.” In 2001 the New York Times trumpeted George Thompson’s find of baseball in 1823 at Jones’ Retreat (now Broadway and 8th Street); the Times also reported my find of last year that baseball was rampant in Pittsfield, Massachusets in 1791. My current digging is into the possibility of baseball at Brannon’s Garden, a favorite recreation spot (under varying names) for Columbia University students as early as the 1780s.

The pleasure gardens of New York anticipated the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, the development of Central Park, the rise of the enclosed ballpark, and even today’s theme parks, video games, and reality television. This is a rich subject for another day, but the one thing all the parks, fields, gardens, and retreats had in common was the quest for Rus in Urbe—a park within the city or very near it so as to stir nostalgia for an irretrievable, prelapsarian past.

Stadiums are paradoxical structures, playing fields for athletes and ideas and, for the 21st century, icons of our culture as much as railway stations were to the 19th century and cathedrals to the 14th. Although many ballparks are funded privately, the public has an arguable interest in both the physical structure and the home team; others are funded publicly, or in public-private partnership, yet the teams’ owners regard the parks and their auxiliary income as private property.

Baseball seems to be everyone’s business, yet no one’s business. What to do? Should it (and sport in general) be regarded as a public utility, like the airwaves, the highways, and the waterways, and thus be subject to regulation? Or is sport, like religion, too important to be managed by politically sensitive bureaucrats like those at the FCC?

A modest proposal: if a municipality is hornswoggled into funding a stadium, let the cost to the taxpayers buy an equity position in the club. For example, if a team’s private investors put up a total of $200 million to buy the club and possibly further underwrite its negative cash-flow operations, and the citizenry backs a bond for $800 million, then the city will own 80 percent of the team. This will make investors’ threats to move the franchise look pretty silly.

--John Thorn

Sunday, July 17, 2005

"Respectfully dedicated to the Tri-Mount Base Ball Club of Boston" in 1867, The Base Ball Quadrille celebrated the "Champions of New England" ... at New York's Game.

The Game That Got Away

This essay appeared in the Ideas section of The Boston Globe on Sunday, July 10, 2005:

Rainey Tisdale, collections manager of the Bostonian Society, was perplexed. In the days before the reigning champion Red Sox were to open their 2005 season, her riffle through the archives had revealed an ancient baseball painted gold and mysteriously inscribed, ''Won, Oct. 29, 1858. / H.L. 1, Runs 13." The ball had been preserved in an 1855-patent-model cylindrical presentation box topped with a handwritten label bearing the scrawled initials ''B.F.G." and ''Prize Ball 1858." The Society's records indicated that a Miss Helen Guild had donated the ball in 1953, and that it had been connected somehow with Boston's Tri-Mountain Base Ball Club.

These were the facts, too loosely strung to form a story, let alone to understand why this relic had been saved. Seeking more information about the Tri-Mountains, the cryptic ''B.F.G.", and the meaning of the golden globe, Tisdale contacted a research librarian at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, who referred her to me. As a baseball historian, a trade nearly as prestigious as being the best whittler in Punkinville, I had won fleeting fame last year for the discovery of a bylaw residing in the city records of Pittsfield that gave unequivocal proof that baseball had been played there in 1791, long before Abner Doubleday's supposed invention of the game in Cooperstown in 1839.

Not many study baseball as if it held the secret to the universe, and nearly all of us who do belong to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR, 7,000 members worldwide) and, as a subset of SABR, the nineteenth-century research committee (about 250 members). We take pleasure and occasionally pride in knowing things that all baseball fans knew more than a century ago but few know today.

For instance, I knew the Tri-Mountain was important historically because in 1857 it became the first club in New England to abandon ''round ball," also known as the Massachusetts Game--the region's traditional version of baseball played since 1800 or so--in favor of the New York variant pioneered by the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. By this act of perspicacity (or treachery), the Tri-Mounts helped to ensure that by the end of the Civil War teams everywhere played the New York Game which, despite constant tinkering with the rules into the first decade of the next century, is essentially the game we play today.

Some of the details on the ball were obvious to one who elects to live among ghosts, while others required a bit of digging.

''H.L." was a term for ''hands lost," what we today call outs. As for ''B.F.G," in a fat folder in my file cabinet labeled ''Massachusetts Game," I quickly came upon an account of a Sept. 9, 1858 Tri-Mount game, the first ever played by two distinct clubs employing the New York rules, that gave the name of the catcher as B.F. Guild. Further research revealed this to be one Benjamin Franklin Guild, who would go on to become a successful editor and columnist. (Guild's brother Curtis became the Bostonian Society's first president while his nephew--also named Curtis--was governor of the Commonwealth from 1906 to 1909.) Helen Guild, the ball's donor, was B.F. Guild's daughter.

And as for the game commemorated on the trophy, Joanne Hulbert, a baseball expert from Holliston, provided me with a Boston Herald account from Oct. 30, 1858 relating that the contest of the previous day had been an intramural one, between the first and second nines, played under New York rules but requiring that balls be caught on the fly rather than on one bound, as the overly cautious New Yorkers allowed. With no need to list teams on the ball, all that need be mentioned was Guild's game-best performance of 13 runs scored.

Those answers satisfied Tisdale well enough. All the same, the improbable survival of this golden ball, marking the incursion of the New York Game into New England, gaudily summoned up other, larger mysteries, unsolved to this day. Why had Guild and his Tri-Mountains rebelled against the Massachusetts Game? Why had the pride of New England been vanquished so swiftly and utterly by its New York rival? What further secrets might lie along this road not taken as to how baseball developed?
. . .

Until a very recent flurry of debate on SABR's nineteenth-century listserv, baseball experts had been content to accept traditional notions that the Massachusetts Game had vanished owing to its curious rules (especially ''soaking," the practice of retiring a runner by throwing the ball at him when he was between bases) or simply its echoes of boyish fun.

Yet just two weeks ago, Larry McCray of Lexington wrote: ''One fact that impresses me is that the Boston crowd seemed to defer to the new game without that much of a fight. Still, it is ironic that [New York's] palpably less manly' game took over. No plugging, no fly rule, no overhand pitching."

Meanwhile, David Ball of Cincinnati suggested the game disappeared as a result of ''some combination of the cultural dominance of New York; local differences in attitudes toward leisure activities in general and the playing of ball games by grown men; and what I think is probably a relatively small but quite possibly crucial head start in formal organization of the New York game."

I held that there is no overestimating Americans' love and fear of organization, then as now. And finally--had the obvious eluded us all this time?--New York may have won out because of a skillful publicity campaign in which its game of baseball, held up as a paragon of manliness, was in fact easier for unathletic clerks to play. For men who would be gentlemen, it was more important to comport themselves well than to play well. In sport as in war, perhaps, the first casualty is truth.

So, just what was the Massachusetts Game of baseball at its evolutionary pinnacle of 1858? In this version of baseball, played on a square with 60-foot basepaths, the striker stood at a point equidistant between the first and fourth bases. He would attempt to hit a ball thrown overhand from the midpoint of the square, a distance of 30 feet. However, because there was no foul territory, he might deliberately tick the ball behind him or employ backhanded or slide batting techniques.

A side might number 10 to 14, though 11 was the most common contingent, and several fielders would be stationed in what modern eyes would view as ''foul ground," including at least two ''scouts" behind the striker. Three misses and the batsman was out, but if he struck the ball he would fly around the bases (four-foot stakes, actually) until he himself was struck by a fielder's throw or stopped his homeward course by holding to his base. The ball was small and light and there is no record of anyone suffering injury (except to pride) from being ''soaked." A catch for an out had to be made on the fly, not on the first bound, as those New York sissies continued to permit until 1864. One man out, side out.

Victory required the scoring of 100 runs, or sometimes by agreement a lesser number, and this--not the circular field of play (thus the old name of ''round ball"), not the indignity of soaking--has most often been identified as the asteroid that extinguished the dinosaur. In October 1858, the same month as our golden-globe game, the Bay State club of Boston met the Bunker Hill club of Charlestown and after some hours of play adjourned with the score 77-56. A report of the game, writes Joanne Hulbert, stated that the teams ''did not think the game would be finished until 1859 ... which kinda gives a different perspective to 'wait until next year.' A similar problem [would arise] at the 1860 championship game at Worcester. The teams never reached a score of 100 tallies and the game went on for days, until their lease ran out on the Agricultural Grounds."

In truth, when 10 baseball clubs convened at Dedham on May 13, 1858 to standardize the Massachusetts Game playing rules, they were daubing rouge on a corpse. The New York rules had been standardized at a convention the previous year, and a hopefully titled ''National Association of Base Ball Players" had been formed to play what was still a provincial game, scarcely played outside the metropolitan area. At the Dedham conclave, B.F. Guild stood up and declared that the Tri-Mountain ''would be obliged to withdraw from the Association," as reported in the Boston Journal, "as the Rules and Regulations submitted by the Committee, and favorable to a majority of the Association, could not be accepted by their club, as they preferred to play the New York Game."

It was not long before the rest of the country did too. By 1865 Wilkes' Spirit of the Times, the nation's leading sporting journal, declared: ''The National Association or New-York game' is now almost universally adopted by the Clubs all over the country; and the Massachusetts, and still more ancient style of playing familiar to any school-boy, called town ball,' will soon become obsolete. No lover of the pastime can regret this, as the New-York mode is superior and more attractive in every way; and better calculated to perpetuate and render our national game' an institution' with both young and old America."'

. . .

The game that was left behind, however, was in many ways the superior version, for both players and spectators. Because first base was so easy to reach (one had only to hit the ball and then run 30 feet without being ''soaked"), the real action came between the other bases. Smart fielding and relays of long hits turned seeming extra-base hits into astonishingly easy outs. Because the rules contained no provision that a runner must stay within the baselines, he might run into the outfield to elude a fielder attempting to plunk the ball between his ribs. A striker might turn 180 degrees as the pitch was coming to him and whack the ball as far behind him as he might have hit it ahead. There were so many tips and tricks that skilled players might employ that I soon came to believe, through personal experience as a frock-coated, stovepipe-hatted arbiter at vintage-Massachusetts-style contests in the 1980s and '90s, that New England's Game had suffered a cruel fate indeed.

Sadly, even today's Vintage Base Ball Association has gone over entirely to the New York Game, with most games played by late 1860s rules and a goodly number played by the rules and equipment of the 1880s. Deja vu all over again, and I think it has disappeared this time for the very same reasons as in the 1860s: the New York game is easier to play and does not so readily expose spindly or puffy young men to ridicule. Why did the Massachusetts adherents give up without a whimper? We know more about how the dinosaurs became extinct than we know about this.

In the end it was almost certainly no single rule of the Massachusetts Game that did it in, for impractical provisions may always be changed. Its failure to retain market share may be chalked up to the game's unabashedly rural quality at a time of increasing urbanization, and in some measure may reflect the increasing dominance of New York among American cities.
All that the Massachusetts Game had going for it was joy. The New York Game, on the other hand, gave promise of utility, of somehow becoming ''our cricket," affording Young Americans suffering from England Envy a national game all their own. The New York propagandists artfully blurred the line between the playful and the useful, convincing the credulous in New England that their venerable game was less gentlemanly and seemly--less manly, a richly layered word in its day that had more to do with decorum and bearing than with plebeian notions of bravery, such as being soaked and not whimpering.

With victory in the 2004 World Series Boston at last gave New York a good soaking. Maybe the years spent in the wilderness had been not so much the Curse of the Bambino as the Curse of the Bamboozled. New England gave up on a damned fine game.

--John Thorn

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Every word is a lie, including "and" and "the."

Four Fathers of Baseball

This essay formed the basis for remarks presented at the Smithsonian Institution on July 14 of this year.

Speaking of history in Jane Austen's novel Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland comments, "I think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be an invention." Indeed.

Every good idea has a multitude of fathers and a bad idea none; baseball has been unusually blessed with claimants to paternity. Because I have beaten up Abner Doubleday for decades as baseball’s version of the Easter Bunny, I will ease up on him now. However, much indeed remains to be said about how this real General was transformed after his death, largely by sporting-goods magnate and former player Albert Spalding, into a phony Inventor.

Moving beyond the silly but persistent Doubleday legend and such later “Fathers of Baseball” as Henry Chadwick (the game’s great publicist) and Harry Wright (a true innovator on the field and off), I would like to review the intriguing credentials of four other individuals, all of them members of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York (KBBC) between 1845 and 1857: Alexander Cartwright; Daniel Lucius Adams; William Rufus Wheaton; and Louis Fenn Wadsworth. The name Cartwright is known to many baseball fans, as he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in the year of its dedication. Adams and Wheaton are known only to specialists, and have been subjects of investigative scholarship over the past decade or so. Finally the mysterious Wadsworth, whom I have been pursuing for more than twenty years, may now provide the most compelling story of all.

Before we proceed to locate DNA evidence of the game’s true father, let’s set one thing straight at the outset: the 80-year-old Chadwick had it right when he said in 1904, only one year before the formation of the Mills Commission to study the origins of baseball, “Like Topsy, baseball never had no ‘fadder’; it jest growed.”

Little more than a year ago, the mayor of Pittsfield, Massachusetts held a press conference to reveal my discovery of a 1791 “broken window” ordinance mentioning baseball — by that name — among other sports that were prohibited within 80 yards of a newly built meeting house. This beat Abner Doubleday’s purported invention of 1839 by nearly half a century, while also rocketing past George Thompson’s wonderful 2001 find of baseball being played in New York City in 1823. Last year Randall Brown discovered a remarkable interview with Wheaton and wrote about it in the 2004 edition of SABR's The National Pastime. And this year David Block published his groundbreaking book Baseball Before We Knew It, which greatly expands our knowledge of early baseball and protoball games.

In short, recent scholarship has revealed the history of baseball’s origin to be merely a lie agreed upon. According to the Hall of Fame plaque for Alexander Joy Cartwright, Jr., he is the “Father of Modern Base Ball. Set bases 90 feet apart. Established 9 innings as a game and 9 players as a team. Organized the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of N.Y. in 1845. Carried baseball to Pacific Coast and Hawaii in pioneer days.” I can tell you that each and every one of these statements is either demonstrably false or lacks evidence of truth.

The Knickerbocker game during Cartwright’s tenure (he departed for the Gold Rush early in 1849) was almost never played with nine men, but instead as few as seven or as many as eleven; the number of innings was unspecified; the length of the baselines was imprecise. Sometimes referred to as an engineer even though he was a bank teller and then a book seller, Cartwright’s “scientific” mind was further credited for laying out the game on a diamond rather than a square; introducing the concept of foul territory; and eliminating the time-honored practice of retiring a runner by throwing the ball at him.

False, false, false.

Cartwright was indeed a Knickerbocker, an officer of the club, and an enthusiastic player, but he won his plaque through the propagandizing efforts of his son Bruce — which extended to crafting his father’s Hawaii “recollections” of baseball’s invention and even inserting fabricated baseball exploits into a “typescript” of his father’s Gold Rush journal, which survives as a handwritten book containing no baseball remarks. (Especially bogus among the son’s emendations: “It is comical to see the mountain men and Indians playing the new game” and “During our week’s stay here I unpacked the ball we used in forming the Knickerbockers back home and we have had several satisfactory contests. My original copy of the rule book has come in handy and saves arguments.”)

Cartwright did not play in the “first match game” by Knickerbocker rules, June 19, 1846, which the Knicks lost to the fuzzy aggregation known as the New York Base Ball Club (NYBBC) by a score of 23-1. As early as 1889, a writer for the New York Mercury had observed the irony that baseball’s “first team” had no trouble in finding a rival nine that was experienced enough to give it a thrashing.

Daniel Lucius Adams, a physician known to his friends as “Dock,” was the man who in 1857 actually set the bases at 90 feet apart, who fixed the pitching distance at 45 feet, and who advocated tirelessly for the fly game, seeking to eliminate the sissy rule of permitting outs to be registered with catches on the first bounce. (I first wrote about Adams' signal role in shaping the modern game in 1992 for Elysian Fields Quarterly.) He also added the position of shortstop to the Knicks’ scheme in 1848 — not as an extra infielder, but to assist in relays from the outfield. The early Knick ball was so light that it could not be thrown even 200 feet; thus the need for a short fielder to relay the ball in to the pitcher’s point and stop the runners’ advance.

When the ball was wound tighter, gaining more hardness and resilience, it could be hit farther and, crucially, thrown farther. This permitted the shortstop to come into the infield, which Adams did. Even more important, the introduction of the hard ball permitted a change in the dimensions of the playing field. The Knickerbocker rules of 1845 had specified no pitching distance and no baseline length; all that was indicated was “from ‘home’ to second base, forty-two paces; from first to third base, forty-two paces, equidistant.” It had been presumed that when a three-foot pace was plugged in, the resulting baselines of eighty-nine feet were close enough to the present ninety so that we could proclaim Cartwright’s genius. In fact, the pace in 1845 was either an imprecise and variable measure, gauged by “stepping off” … or precisely two and a half feet, as in Noah Webster’s Dictionary of that time, in which case the distance from home to second would have been 105 feet and the Cartwright basepaths would have been inches shy of 75 feet.

Adams had joined the Knicks one month after their founding, but like Cartwright and his friends William Tucker, William Wheaton, and Duncan Curry, he had been playing ball at the park in Madison Square since 1840, commingling with the men who would become (or already were) members of other clubs. The New York Base Ball Club, also known as the Gothams, had been playing since the mid-1830s, and the Eagle Ball Club was organized in 1840. According to William Wood, writing in 1867, both of these clubs originally played in the “old-fashioned way” of throwing the ball to the batter and at the runner in order to put him out.

William Rufus Wheaton was a lawyer who, like Cartwright and several other Knicks, left New York as a Miner ’49er and made his home out West. Wheaton had been a solid cricketer and baseball player, an early member of both the NYBBC and the KBBC. Less than a year before his death in Oakland in 1888 at age 74, Wheaton spoke with a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner for a story titled “How Baseball Began / A Member of the Gotham Club of Fifty Years Ago [not the Knicks!] Tells About It.” Wheaton recalled:

In the thirties I lived at the corner of Rutgers street and East Broadway in New York. I was admitted to the bar in ‘36, and was very fond of physical exercise.... There was a racket club in Allen street with an inclosed court. Myself and intimates, young merchants, lawyers and physicians, found cricket to[o] slow and lazy a game. We couldn’t get enough exercise out of it. Only the bowler and the batter had anything to do, and the rest of the players might stand around all the afternoon without getting a chance to stretch their legs. Racket was lively enough, but it was expensive and not in an open field where we could have full swing and plenty of fresh air with a chance to roll on the grass. Three-cornered cat was a boy’s game, and did well enough for slight youngsters, but it was a dangerous game for powerful men, because the ball was thrown to put out a man between bases, and it had to hit the runner to put him out....

We had to have a good outdoor game, and as the games then in vogue didn’t suit us we decided to remodel three-cornered cat and make a new game. We first organized what we called the Gotham Baseball Club. This was the first ball organization in the United States, and it was completed in 1837.... The first step we took in making baseball was to abolish the rule of throwing the ball at the runner and order that it should be thrown to the baseman instead, who had to touch the runner with it before he reached the base.... After the Gotham club had been in existence a few months it was found necessary to reduce the rules of the new game to writing. This work fell to my hands, and the code I then formulated is substantially that in use to-day.

The new game quickly became very popular with New Yorkers, and the numbers of the club soon swelled beyond the fastidious notions of some of us, and we decided to withdraw and found a new organization, which we called the Knickerbocker....

So what exactly did Cartwright do?

This brings us to Louis F. Wadsworth, a famous first baseman for the Gothams and the Knickerbockers from about 1850 to 1862. No one credited him as an innovator, let alone a possible Father of Baseball, until the winter of 1907, when the Mills Commission neared the end of its three-year mandate. Abraham Mills had received the Commission’s findings so late that he could not finish his review; he dictated a letter to his stenographer in the afternoon of December 30, 1907 in which he hurriedly stated his conclusions and anointed Doubleday as per Spalding’s wishes.

Still, he commented on an unsettled question: “I am also much interested in the statement made by Mr. Curry, of the pioneer Knickerbocker club, and confirmed by Mr. Tassie, of the famous old Atlantic club of Brooklyn, that a diagram, showing the ball field laid out substantially as it is today, was brought to the field one day by a Mr. Wadsworth. Mr. Curry says ‘the plan caused a great deal of talk, but, finally, we agreed to try it.’” Curry had made the statement to reporter Will Rankin in 1877, and Rankin had written about it to Mills 28 years later.

With that report the Commission’s work was done, and its conclusions were published in Spalding’s Official Guide for the 1908 season. No more was heard about Wadsworth until 1973, when Harold Peterson wrote a book about Alex Cartwright called The Man Who Invented Baseball. In it he observed: “Mr. Wadsworth, whose Christian name, occupation, residence, and pedigree remained secreted in Mills’s bosom, was never heard of before or until long after that fateful afternoon [in 1877, when Curry spoke with Rankin].”

Rummaging through carbon copies of Mills’ letters in 1982, I came upon a few notes from 1908 indicating that Mills, despite the conclusion of the Commission’s work, continued to search for Wadsworth. On January 6, 1908 he wrote to Rankin:

In the mass of correspondence in regard to the origin of Base Ball, that was submitted to me, as a member of the Commission, by its Secretary, Mr. J. E. Sullivan, are copies of two very interesting letters written by you, under date of Jan. 15th and Feb. 15th, ’05. In the first of the three letters you quote Mr. Curry as stating that ‘some one had presented a plan showing a ball field,’ etc., and, in the second letter, Mr. Tassie told you that he remembered the incident, and that he ‘thought it was a Mr. Wadsworth who held an important position in the Custom House,” etc. Taking this as a clue I wrote sometime ago to the Collector of Customs, asking him to have the records searched for the yeas40 to ’45, for the purpose of ascertaining from what part of the State the Mr. Wadsworth, in question, came. [Mills suspected that an upstate Wadsworth had somehow brought the Doubleday diagram to New York.] I am today advised that a thorough search has been made without disclosing the name of any Mr. Wadsworth as having been connected with the Custom House during the decade of the ’40s.

If you have the opportunity to do so, I wish you would see or communicate with Mr. Tassie, to try to clear this point up, as I would very much like to get on the track of the party who actually presented the plan of the ball field at the time and place indicated. The fact that Mr. Tassie remembered Mr. Wadsworth as the man who presented the plan inclines me to believe that his memory in this respect is likely to be correct, whereas it might well happen that he was a Custom House broker or had some relation other than that of being an employee of the Government in the Custom House. However that might be, if you can get me any further information upon the point indicated I would be very glad to have it. / Yours very truly, / (Signed) A.G. Mills.”

Herein lay a crucial misunderstanding. Tassie’s Atlantics did not organize until the mid-1850s and his contact with Wadsworth could not have been much before that time. In fact he served on a rules committee with Wadsworth in 1857, a crucial one in which Wadsworth moved that the length of the game be set at nine innings rather than the seven that his fellow Knickerbockers had proposed.

Wadsworth had been a Gotham until April 1, 1854, when he inexplicably switched allegiances (perhaps in exchange for considerations that would have made him the game’s first professional). Did he bring a diagram to the Knick field in 1854-55, when Adams lengthened the baselines from 75 feet to 90 and the pitcher’s distance from 37.5 feet to 45?

Rankin wrote in The Sporting News in April 1908 that in 1886 he had “received a letter from an ex-professional player [surely Phonnie Martin], asking me to give him all the data I had on the subject [of baseball’s origin] and he would give me credit for it. At that time I had forgotten the name of the person mentioned by Mr. Curry, so I went to see Mr. Thomas Tassie, and when I related to him that which Mr. Curry had told me, he said, ‘That is true, and the name of the man was Mr. Wadsworth, a very brilliant after-dinner talker, the Chauncey M. Depew of that day. He held a very important position in the Custom House....’” But Rankin told Mills that he had erred in recording Curry’s man as Wadsworth — upon reflection nearly thirty years later, he was sure that Curry had said Cartwright. Furthermore, he bullied Tassie into allowing that perhaps he too recalled Cartwright ... though Cartwright had left New York before Tassie became involved in baseball.

Louis F. Wadsworth had indeed left a cold trail … one that I and several genealogical experts had been unable to pick up. Even Wadsworth family histories offered no clue. Where did he live after 1862, when he disappeared from the New York City directories? Did he marry? Did he produce children? When did he die? Was he indeed an upstater, one of the Livingston County Wadsworths centered in Geneseo, as Mills had suspected?

I was as stuck as Mills had been when his 1908 search of the Custom House records turned up nothing, and 10 years ago I had given up. Then the search tools of the internet opened up a new world and, little by little, the story began to unfold.

Wadsworth had indeed been attached to the Custom House: as an attorney and as a Tammany-backed wheeler-dealer, though he was not a Federal employee. I learned that he had been born in Connecticut in 1825 and graduated from Washington College in Hartford (today known as Trinity College) in 1844; at school he had played no baseball — wicket, a game little recalled or understood today, was the game of choice for young Nutmeggers until nearly 1860. (Indeed, the first mention of wicket in America came in 1704, even before cricket, and George Washington was documented as playing the game on May 4, 1778: George Ewing, a Revolutionary War soldier at Valley Forge, wrote in a letter: “This day His Excellency [i.e., George Washington] dined with G[eneral] Nox [Knox] and after dinner did us the honor to play at Wicket with us.”)

After graduation in 1844, Wadsworth went to Michigan, where his well-to-do father had bought land, and commenced his legal career in Manhattan in 1848. A tempestuous character who made enemies easily, three times Wadsworth resigned from the Knickerbockers over personal disagreements. Ultimately he returned to the Gothams and finished his ballplaying days there. But though the newspapers sang his praises when he was a player, he was little recalled thereafter.

Truncating a twisted story that is long enough to run to several more pages, I can report that he later became a judge in New Jersey, was widowed, through drink lost a fortune estimated at $300,000, and in 1898 committed himself to a poorhouse. No one connected Louis F. Wadsworth, inmate of the Plainfield Industrial Home, with baseball's invention. Oddly, in his obituary in the Hartford Daily Times on Saturday April 4, 1908, it was written that: “A veritable book worm, day after day, he would sit reading.... In the summer he was particularly interested in following the scores of the ball games of the big leagues, and of late years the game was the one great object of interest to him.”

--John Thorn

Friday, July 01, 2005

Baseball hath charms for the nerd.

I, Nerd, II

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, March 3, 2005. Part I, immediately below on this blog, should be read first.

Last week I examined (in considerable measure by looking in the mirror) the habits and markings of nerds, describing their pained behavior in general society and their ease, even giddy pleasure, in a habitat where they feel safe. Far more than social disability, it is the delight of knowing things and gathering tales that defines nerddom. Despite their public show of unrelieved sadness – nerds are anger-phobics, frightened by feelings of rage directed at them or bubbling within them – there is a secret joy that pervades their lives, blurring the distinction between work and play, between adult and child. This may serve either to perpetuate childhood or to make up for a childhood missed.

I was born in Stuttgart, then in British-occupied West Germany, in 1947, conceived by my parents as their revenge against Hitler. My father, in dental school in Geneva after a couple of wandering years in England and France, had been the one Polish Jew in safety who, upon learning of the Nazi invasion of September 1939, returned home. The story as it came down to me was that he wished to stand by his beloved. During the war this woman who would become my mother, whose features were passably Aryan, dyed her hair blonde and worked for a variety of employers, moving from town to town using false papers, picking up and leaving whenever she suspected she was about to be informed on. There are many tales of her heroism, told mostly by herself but seconded by my father and fellow survivors with whom she had conspired to evade the authorities.

After the Russians had reconfiscated, in 1944-45, the family properties expropriated by the Nazis in 1939 (my father’s family, particularly, had been well-to-do), my parents traveled west with diamonds sewn into their clothing. These they translated into cash to ransom my cousin Adam from a (Gentile) Ukrainian farmer with whom his parents had hidden him before meeting their own demise. This farmer now professed a great attachment to the child and an unwillingness to relinquish him without suitable balm for his tears. Adam was to become recast as my brother Allan in Stuttgart where my father, who spoke excellent English, pidgin French, and a bit of Russian too, found work as a translator for HIAS (Hebrew Immigration Aid Society).

In the Potemkin village of recreated prewar ease they were thus able to fashion among their displaced peers, my parents hired a nanny to care for me. From the tales they told over the years that in recall still make me wince, this skinny German dry-nurse was the wire-and-wool monkey to whom I attached maternal devotion. She was likewise devoted to me, but when our visas to the U.S. came through in 1949 she was denied the chance to come along, despite her wish to do so. As a result, I came to Ellis Island on a boat in the custody of two strangers for whom I have always felt the thin, affectless emotion of gratitude ... along with an obligatory admiration for my mother’s fierceness and a sad bond with my frequently droll father, ineffectual in his own defense as well as mine.

My parents and the Polish immigrants in their New York City social circle, unlike so many Holocaust survivors, told their grisly tales with an unnerving gusto: Max Linden, the jeweler, never tired of telling how he lay overnight on a pile of corpses, waiting for the propitious moment to act upon the disconcerting intelligence that he, unlike everyone else who had been shot, was not dead. My father, whose looks were unquestionably Hebraic, was less forthcoming about his wartime experience. During the day he had stayed under the bed in whatever room my mother rented, coming outside only at night and traveling by train in a trunk, with one very near miss: Nazi officer opens trunk, hatpin miraculously materializes, my father pricks the inquisitive hand, Nazi slams trunk lid in pain and disgust. Thrilling as the story was to me as a very young boy, I soon could not bear to hear it, for all its undertones of dread, helplessness, and dumb luck.

This age of horrors and heroes, ended before I was born, shaped my parents so indelibly that it inevitably shaped me too, fostering fear, shame, self-loathing and, most damaging to a creative soul, overriding caution. In bed at night I was filled with so much unrelieved tension that I would flap my head from one side to the other, rapidly smacking against the pillow. This felt good, I remember. I bit my nails and picked and chewed at my cuticles and fingertips till they bled and were a ghastly mess. It took decades before I was comfortable in my own skin, freed from frantic responses to tension. While these troubling signs form barely a wisp of full-blown autism, schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder, they are in the same ballpark.

Baseball had been my real visa to America and becoming (almost) one of the guys, although this had been my patent intent and wish since the day I hit these shores. Moreover, baseball had no links to my ancestral history or my parents’ wish to insure my material success as their totem against a return of evil. Like the American West with its cowboys and Indians, baseball provided an institution with legends that could stand up to Nazis and Jews; and unlike the frontier, closed since 1890, in baseball heroism still seemed possible. Even as I grew older and was no longer able to play the game, I did not strike out … there was to be lasting Joy in Nerdville, a tranquil greensward where I have taken my best licks.

But I run ahead of myself. I was a smart but solemn lad, entering first grade at 5 and skipping another grade later on so that I graduated high school just past my16th birthday. My parents, given to second-guessing my every move when we were in the same room, went off to work daily and so were blessedly absent much of the time, permitting me to spend a significant part of my youth watching movies, playing ball, and pursuing vice (with only middling success in the latter two areas). When I did as my parents wished, I was a good son, a sensible boy; when I went my own way I was stubborn, and if I persisted in a stubborn course of action I was branded with the worst epithet they knew: I was selfish. I, for whom everything had been done.

This is how and when I was made a nerd. Finding a place of retreat, a world my parents could neither appreciate nor penetrate, was as I saw it a matter of survival. For many Future Nerds of America that world would be off in the future, a science-fiction playground. For me that proprietary, selfish place was in the past. Old books, old music, old film, old folks long dead but not to me. Here the age of adventure was still alive – one could decipher the pentimenti and revivify past eras, discovering facts and forming interpretations that would fulfill my need to be special. I read books on the history of New York City and silent film, subjects which intrigued few others and thus might be “mine.” Both have been enduring passions, especially anything related to Chaplin (there are those who prefer Keaton to Chaplin, but I cannot understand such people). I felt a psychic connection with the past, an ability to walk streets of the present and sense ghostly emanations. This was a private world, a world that was perfect if perhaps not perfectly sane. A selfish world.

I know perfectly well my own egotism;
I know my omnivorous lines, and will not write any less;
And would fetch you, whoever you are, flush with myself.
Long was I hugg’d close – long and long.
Immense have been the preparations for me,
Faithful and friendly the arms that have help’d me.
Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing like cheerful boatmen;
For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings;
They sent influences to look after what was to hold me.
Before I was born out of my mother, generations guided me;
My embryo has never been torpid—nothing could overlay it.
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

I used to hate The Good Gray Poet, thinking him o’erblown and o’erfilled with self … as my parents regarded me. Now he is the literary figure I most admire and whose work I love best. He embraced his self and would have you do so, too, and his subject he “turned over to his Emotionality, even Personality, to be shaped thence; and emerges strictly therefrom, with all its merits and demerits on its head.” To his last, Whitman averred that his self was both a gift to him and a gift from him.

I bequeathe myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.

I have been writing this column, a paean to self-absorption, a song of myself, to explain myself to myself as much as to you. Because a self is not owned but merely borrowed, it is the only gift that both giver and recipient may truly share.

--John Thorn