Elysian Fields, Alexander Cartwright, and the Knickerbockers of New York

With civic pride running as deep as the Hudson River abutting it, Hoboken boasts a singer who defined the standard for American popular music, an Italian festival dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, and a Beaux-Arts train terminal built by the once iconic Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad.  Respectively, these cornerstones are better known as Frank Sinatra, St. Ann’s Feast, and Hoboken Terminal.

For baseball fans, Hoboken occupies vital territory in the National Pastime’s genesis.  This jewel of New Jersey was the location of the first official baseball game, according to lore—it happened on June 19, 1846, when the New York Nine defeated the Knickerbocker Baseball Club of New York at Hoboken’s Elysian Fields; the score was 23-1.

Alexander Cartwright spearheaded the creation of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club during the previous September.  It was a turning point that established rules, including the setting of a diamond shape with 90 feet separating the bases, the recording of an out when a fielder possesses the ball on a base rather than the runner being struck by the ball, and the equaling of three strikes to an out.

In his 1969 book Baseball: An Informal History, Douglas Wallop described the barometer of 90 feet as optimal.  “Had the distance been, say, ninety-two feet, stealing second would have been so difficult as to be seldom achieved,” wrote Wallop.  “Had it been eighty-eight, stealing second might have been too easy.  Few baseball players in history—Ty Cobb and Maury Wills chief among them—have had the speed and base-stealing technique to give the runner the upper hand, and even they made no mockery of it.”

These were not, however, measures easily created.  “Even the steps the Knickerbockers did take toward organization and uniformity were made reluctantly,” stated baseball historian Peter Morris in his 2008 book But Didn’t We Have Fun? An Informal History of Baseball’s Pioneer Era, 1843-1870.  “According to [Knickerbocker Duncan] Curry, when Alexander Cartwright proposed standard rules: ‘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.'”

Cartwright’s place in baseball history may not rest on bedrock, however, in light of recent scrutiny.  In her 2009 book Alexander Cartwright: The Life Behind the Legend, Monica Nucciarone peels away the layers of Cartwright’s involvement in baseball’s embryonic phase, resulting in a chronicle with a different conclusion than the one learned by every generation of baseball fans since the Polk administration.  It is an example of the continuing examination of myths, legends, and facts comprising history.

In his review of Nucciarone’s book for the Summer 2011 issue of Journal of Sport History, Thomas Altherr wrote, “Several baseball historians, including John Thorn and Randall Brown, have already undercut the Cartwright theories and attributed more influence to other Knickerbockers, such as Daniel Adams, William Wheaton, and Daniel Brown.  Nucciarone’s work should now inspire the complete toppling of the Cartwright mystique.”

Thorn, the Official Historian of Major League Baseball, has excavated 19th century baseball history for countless books, articles, and lectures.  “The length of the baselines was imprecise, although latter-day pundits have credited Cartwright with divine-inspired prescience in determining a distance that would yield so many close plays at first,” wrote Thorn in his 2011 book Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game.  “Sometimes referred to in histories of the game as an engineer even though he was a bank teller, and then a book seller, Cartwright was further credited with laying out the game on a diamond rather than a square.  Yet even this was no innovation in 1845.”

Wheaton, Adams, William H. Tucker, and Louis Fenn Wadsworth form a quartet with “legitimate claims to baseball’s paternity.  They were all present at the creation, although no lightning bolt attaches to any given date, and all played with the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York,” added Thorn.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 17, 2016.

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