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Four Fathers of Baseball
by John Thorn
July 13, 2005 01:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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 founding. 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 am have been pursuing for more than twenty years, may now provide the most compelling story of all.

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 back past George Thompson's wonderful 2001 find of baseball being played in New York City in 1823. 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 bookseller, 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.

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 and who fixed the pitching distance at 45 feet. 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 runner's advance.

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:

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.... 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, looking to adjust his story.

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, 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, had continued to search for Wadsworth. On January 6, 1908, he wrote to Rankin:

... you quote Mr. Curry as stating that 'some one had presented a plan showing a ball field,' etc., and ... 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 years '40 to '45.... 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.

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, 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. Had Wadsworth brought a diagram to the Knick field in 1854-55, before 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 that I and several genealogical experts had been unable to pick up. Even Wadsworth family historians, including United States Senator James Symington, were stumped. The 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 aupstater, one of the Livingston County Wadsworths centered in Geneseo? Or was he Wadsworth from the large clans in Connecticut or Ohio?

I was as stuck as Mills had been when his 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: George Ewing, a Revolutionary War soldier at Valley Forge, wrote in a letter: "This day [May 4, 1778] 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 Wadsworth went to Michigan, where his well-to-do parents 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.

Truncating a twisted story long enough to run to several more pages, I can report that he later became a judge in New Jersey, was widowed, lost a fortune estimated at $300,000 through drink, and in 1898 committed himself to a poorhouse. No one connected the inmate Louis F. Wadsworth with baseball at all. 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."++

This essay forms the basis for remarks the author delivered at the Smithsonian Institution on July 14, in a forum titled "The Greatest Baseball Stories Never Told: Origins of a National Pastime."

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