Four Fathers of Baseball

John Thorn

The following essay formed the basis of historian John Thorn’s remarks to Smithsonian Institution on July 14, 2005:

“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.”

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