Guys Who Didn’t Invent Baseball Part III: Alexander Cartwright
This is the third in my Guys Who Didn’t Invent Baseball series. In Part I I discussed how baseball originated as an English folk game, brought to America by the colonists as part of their shared cultural heritage; but how in the late 19th century this narrative became politically unacceptable. Baseball had to have an American origin, preferably invented by some American Boy Genius. In Part II I discussed how in 1905 the Mills Commission was formed to find this Boy Genius. They proved up to the task, coming up with Civil War general Abner Doubleday, undeterred by knowing perfectly well that the story was utterly bogus.
The bogosity of the Doubleday story was apparent from the start to anyone who cared to look. Few did, which is why the story persists even today, but some pushed back against the tale. In this installment I will show how Alexander Cartwright came out of the wringer as the alternative to Abner Doubleday, despite the Cartwright version being every bit as bogus.
I open with what Cartwright actually did. Unlike Doubleday, he actually played baseball. He even played a noticeable role in its early history. For a surprising number of people, eager to justify his plaque in Cooperstown, this is good enough. Alas, he did not invent the game, nor even have anything to do with its rules.
Cartwright was a founding member of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in September of 1845. The following spring he was elected the club’s secretary, and the year after that he served as vice president. He left New York soon after to go to California as part of the gold rush. There he, like so many urban easterners, soon discovered that wading through ice melt streams isn’t nearly as much fun as it sounds. He made his way to Honolulu, which has considerably less ice melt, where he went into business. He was a prominent member of the American expatriate community and befriended the royal family, until he participated in the coup that overthrew them and led to Hawaii’s annexation.
The key to his baseball fame lies in an account from Charles Peverelly’s The Book of American Pastimes of 1866 (introduced in the earlier parts of this series). The Knickerbockers were the senior baseball club, and Peverelly gave them their due with an extensive narrative account of their history, presumably taken from reminiscences by the clubs’ members. Here is what he has about the founding of the club:
During the years of 1842 and ’43, a number of gentlemen, fond of the game, casually assembled on a plot of ground in Twenty-seventh street–the one now occupied by the Harlem Railroad Depot, bringing with them their bats, balls, etc. It was customary for two or three players, occasionally during the season, to go around in the forenoon of a pleasant day and muster up players enough to make a match. The march of improvement made a “change of base” necessary, and the following year they met at the next most convenient place, the north slope of Murray Hill, between the railroad cut and Third avenue. Among the prominent players were Col. James Lee, Dr. Ransom, Abraham Tucker, James Fisher, and W. Vail, the latter better known in later years of the Gotham Club as “Stay-where-you-am-Wail.” In the spring of 1845, Mr. Alex J. Cartwright, who had become an enthusiast in the game, one day upon the field proposed a regular organization, promising to obtain several recruits. His proposal was acceded to, and Messrs. W. R. Wheaton, Cartwright, D. F. Curry, E.R. Dupignac, Jr., and W. H. Tucker, formed themselves into a board of recruiting officers, and soon obtained names enough to make a respectable show.
Let’s look at what we have here. A group of guys get together informally to play ball. After a few years of this, one of them, young Alec Cartwright, says “Guys! Let’s form a club!” The others agree that this is a splendid idea, and the rest is history. It is not clear from this account whether this was a flash of transgressive genius, or if everyone had been thinking the same thing and Cartwright was the first one to say it, or somewhere in between. The Knickerbockers have traditionally assumed to have been the first baseball club, which suggests the “transgressive genius” interpretation, and people have run with it. It turns out that there already was a community of baseball clubs in New York at the time, which rather suggests the other end of the range of possibilities. (This will be a topic for a future series, on how modern baseball actually arose.)
Note in particular that Peverelly gives no hint that Cartwright had anything to do with the rules. Indeed, his absence from that list of prominent members hints that he was not even a part of the original group, but joined at some later point. The real twist of the knife, though, is that Peverelly describes how the new club appointed a committee to draft its constitution and rules: William Wheaton and William Tucker. They had a rules committee, and Cartwright wasn’t on it.
This would be the state of 19th century baseball historiography. Writers would occasionally mention Cartwright, essentially repeating Peverelly and assigning him a fairly minor role. To explain his leap to fame I have to introduce another baseball journalist: William Rankin.
Rankin was born in Pennsylvania in 1849, about the same time Cartwright was making his way to California. Rankin went the other direction, making his way to New York. By the 1870s he was employed as a baseball reporter. He worked at some of the same papers as Henry Chadwick, the elder statesman of sport journalists, who was 25 years Rankin’s senior. By the turn of the century, Rankin was himself senior reporter with The Sporting News. At the same time Chadwick was still plugging away. (He needed the money.)
Baseball at the turn of the century was huge. It is hard to grasp its place in American culture at the time. There was a lot less competition for head space, either from other sports or from other forms of entertainment. Horse racing and boxing were the only serious competing sports, and vaudeville and other theater in other entertainment. None of these provided the day-to-day fascination of the baseball season. But this presented a problem. If your publication depends on baseball writing, what do you publish during the off-season? To a considerable extent, you talk about baseball. November and December can be filled with analysis of the preceding season and player signings. Once you hit March you can start talking about the upcoming season. January and February, however, are tough. One solution is to rehash the old days of baseball. It wasn’t hard to find old-timers eager to talk.
This is where Rankin enters in. The thing to understand from the start is that he was kind of a dick. He didn’t just want to rehash the old days. He wanted to point out whenever anyone else made a mistake. (In fairness, I was the same way up through my twenties or so. Rankin by this time did not have the excuse of youthful insufferability.) He also had a special weapon: scrapbooks of extensive clippings from the New York Clipper, the preeminent early baseball paper. (These scrapbooks survive in the Mears Collection of the Cleveland Public Library.) His modus operandi was to catch an error, quote the Clipper, and condemn the person making the error, hinting at some darker motive than the vagaries of memory.
Chadwick was Rankin’s particular target. Again in fairness, Chadwick provided a target-rich environment. He was particularly prolific with reminiscences. Indeed, by the 20th century this was his stock in trade. He was not particularly painstaking about accuracy, and had a pronounced tendency to exaggerate his early role. The result is that Chadwick’s plaque in the Hall of Fame is the second most wildly fantastic one in the room, after only Cartwright’s.
Rankin accepted the jingoistic assumptions of the time, so it is no surprise then that what really got Rankin going was Chadwick talking about baseball coming from rounders (often via an intermediate stage called “town ball”). Rankin produced a series of columns over the years rebutting this narrative. The centerpiece was his Come-to-Jesus story: As a young reporter he initially took the rounders origin story at face value. Then one day in 1877 he was chatting with veteran player Robert Ferguson (who, sadly, was not in fact known as “Death to Flying Things”) about old-time baseball. They happened to meet one Duncan Curry, and Ferguson introduced them, telling Rankin that here was a real father of baseball. Who was Curry? You have already read about him, if you were paying attention earlier. He was the “D. F. Curry” who was one of the founders of the Knickerbockers, and in fact was its first president. Rankin turned the encounter into an impromptu interview. When the discussion turned to the rounders/town ball origin of baseball, Curry dismissed this out of hand. This surprised Rankin, so he later interviewed other old-timers, who all agreed that nothing called rounders or town ball had ever been played in New York City (which, as it happens, is true).
In later years Rankin dredged this story up whenever he wanted to debunk Chadwick on rounders. The key point is that this story was not about who actually invented baseball: merely that it did not come from rounders. At one point Rankin even claimed that the Dutch had invented baseball, explaining its connection to New York City. This isn’t as good as an American origin, but at least it cuts out the English!
Now we come to the Mills Commission. As discussed in Part II, Mills solicited information from old-timers. Rankin was included in this. He wasn’t really that old, but his interest in the topic was well established. He responded with an expanded account of the Curry interview, including this about the rules:
“ …William R. Wheaton, William H. Tucker and I drew up the first set of rules and the game was developed by the people who played it and were connected with it.”
This is followed by the usual assurances that rounders had nothing to do with it, and then:
“One afternoon,” continued Mr. Curry, “when we had gathered on the lot for a game, someone, but I do not remember now who it was, had presented a plan, drawn up on paper, showing a ball field, with a diamond to play on–eighteen men could play at one time…”
This account is a bit confusing. It has Wheaton, Tucker and Curry drawing up the first set of rules, but only after this mystery man presented a written plan for the game. In any case, there is a division of labor between the planner and the later codification of the rules. Rankin followed this up a month later with a second letter, with the revelation that the mysterious man-with-a-plan was a Mr. Wadsworth. (How he arrived at this conclusion is interesting, but ultimately a digression, and I have omitted it as this post is already amply long.)
There matters remained for three years. The Commission was preparing to finally issue its report crediting Abner Doubleday. This left a loose end that Mills wanted to tie up. If Doubleday invented the game in Cooperstown in 1839, how did it get to New York City by 1845 for the Knickerbockers to play? He saw in the mysterious Mr. Wadsworth a possible vector. Mills wrote to Rankin seeking more information about who was this Mr. Wadsworth.
This was completely unacceptable to Rankin. The generous interpretation is that he correctly recognized the Doubleday account as ridiculous. The less generous interpretation is that he rejected having his Wadsworth story relegated to the secondary role of merely being the messenger. In the meantime, Rankin had had an epiphany. He wrote a column telling how he had been going through his old files, and came across an unrelated letter from 1876, on the back of which he had written “Mr. Alex. J. Cartwright, father of base ball.” This stimulated (or created) the memory that Curry had not said “I do not remember how who it was” but rather had identified this man as Cartwright.
Let us take as a working hypothesis that Rankin didn’t simply make up the note on the back of the letter. Why would he have written that Cartwright was the “father of base ball”? This is actually pretty easy to explain. The phrase was bandied about surprisingly widely. Several people had that title bestowed upon them. By far the most frequent beneficiary of the title was none other than Chadwick. This situation was ready made to piss off Rankin, and set him off looking for someone else. Cartwright’s role in the founding of the Knickerbockers as described by Peverelly would be amply sufficient to the purpose.
Here we have it. The Cartwright story comes from one guy with some garbled memories, a chip on his shoulder, and a prominent publishing platform. That’s the mass media for you. Even that might have slipped down the memory hole. Columns come and go, after all. But the Cartwright story was fixed into baseball’s collective memory when in 1910 Alfred Spink, the publisher of The Sporting News, published a history of baseball. He included an expanded, gloriously detailed version of Rankin’s interview of Duncan Curry. This is just a taste:
Well do I remember the afternoon when Alex Cartwright came up to the ball field with a new scheme for playing ball. The sun shone beautifully, never do I remember noting its beams fall with a more sweet and mellow radiance than on that particular Spring day. For several years it had been our habit to casually assemble on the plot of ground that is now known as Twenty-seven street and Fourth avenue, where the Harlem Railroad Depot afterward stood. We would take our bats and balls with us and play any sort of a game. We had no name in particular for it. Sometimes we batted the ball to one another or sometimes played one o’cat.
On this afternoon I have already mentioned, Cartwright came to the field–the march of improvement had driven us further north and we located on a piece of property on the slope of Murray Hill, between the railroad cut and Third avenue–with his plans drawn up on a paper. He had arranged for two nines, the ins and outs. This is, while one set of players were taking their turn at bat the other side was placed in their respective position on the field. He had laid out a diamond-shaped field, with canvas bags filled with sand or sawdust for bases at three of the points and an iron plate for the home base. He had arranged for a catcher, a pitcher, three basemen, a short fielder, and three outfielders. His plan met with much good natured derision, but he was so persistent in having us try his new game that we finally consented more to humor him than with any thought of it becoming a reality.
At that time none of us had any experience in that style of play and as there were no rules for playing the game, we had to do the best we could under the circumstances, aided by Cartwright’s judgment. The man who could pitch the speediest ball with the most accuracy was the one selected to do the pitching. But I am getting ahead of my story. When we saw what a great game Cartwright had given us, and as his suggestion for forming a club to play it met with our approval, we set about to organize a club.
The traditional understanding of 19th century baseball comes from a handful of books written about the same time. Books have a more permanent existence than do periodicals, sitting on library shelves for decades to come. My experience of working the 19th century baseball history field is that much of it consists of working through this traditional history and mostly debunking it. The inclusion of Cartwright in the traditional history of baseball is a perfect example of this.
The Doubleday and the Cartwright myths would evolve together over the course of the 20th century, sometimes in tandem and sometimes in opposition to one another. The Cartwright version would emerge as the thinking man’s alternative to Doubleday. This will be the topic of Part IV of this series.