Nestor of Ball Players

Buffalo, New York
August 1939
Written by: Roger Cook Adams

During the present year when the centennial of the first out-break of base ball is being celebrated at Cooperstown, it may be of interest to record the important part played in the development of the game by an early member of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York.

Mr. Daniel L. Adams was born in Mont Vernon, New Hampshire, in 1814, graduated from Yale in 1835 and from the Harvard Medical School in 1838. In 1839 he started practicing his profession in New York, and soon after, together with a number of young doctors, began playing base ball for exercise.

At about this time there was a group known as the New York Base Ball Club, but it had no very definite organization and didn’t last long. Some of the younger members of this group organized The Knickerbocker Base Ball Club on September 23, 1845, and about a month later Dr. Adams and several of his young medical friends joined the club.

The Knickerbockers were unquestionably the first organized base ball club, followed by the Gothams in 1850, and the Eagles of Brooklyn in 1852. Their membership was comprised of young lawyers, doctors, merchants, bank and insurance clerks and others who could get away twice a week at three o’c1ock to play ball. Their playground was at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, fine level ground overlooking the Hudson at the foot of the cliff on which Dr. Stevens’ “castle” stood.

The first five years of the existence of the Club were evidently the hardest. Enthusiasm waned and attendance lagged. There was no inter-club rivalry, and often Dr. Adams would go to Elysian Fields and find only two or three others present, compelling them to play “old cat, one or two as the case might be.”

The continued existence of the Club was evidently largely due to the persistent efforts of Dr. Adams. He loved the game and nothing was too much trouble if it would promote the interests of the Club. He was elected [Vice] president of the Knickerbockers the year after he became a member and served as long as he would retain the office. He took upon himself the job of making all the necessary balls and personally supervised the turning of the bats, for neither could be bought at that time. The ball center was wound of rubber clippings. Then came yarn till it reached the required size, and the cover was leather cut into four sections like quarters of an orange skin. For six or seven years he made all the balls himself, not only for the Knickerbockers but for other clubs when they were organized. During this period he combed the city of New York to find someone willing to make balls, but it was not till after 1850 that a shoemaker was finally induced to undertake this activity. The difficulties with bats was almost as great.

Mr. Spaulding, who wrote at length on the subject of base ball, always gave the Knickerbockers credit as the earliest club to play and develop the game, but also was inclined to poke fun at them on the ground that they emphasized the social side of club life almost as much as the athletic. This criticism certainly could not have applied to Dr. Adams. Fortunately he was a convincing speaker, and the many dinners that were held gave him his chance to keep up the enthusiasm in the early and most difficult days. The term “pep talk” would have meant nothing to him, but that undoubtedly was what the boys got.

Among the papers relating to base ball left by Dr. Adams are three early editions of the by-laws and rules of the Knickerbockers, which give a very interesting picture of the early development of the game. In the edition of 1846, adopted September 23rd, 1845; revised April 1848, Article V of the by-laws —“Of Penalties” — suggests some of the difficulties of administration. There was no coddling, the offender being frankly punished, to the advantage of the club treasury.

To discourage emotional stress Section 1 provides “Members, when assembled for field exercise, who shall use profane or improper language, shall be fined 6 ¼ cents for each offense.” The so-called New York shilling was 12 ½ cents, and that is what it cost to dispute the decision of the umpire, or audibly to express one’s opinion of a doubtful play before the decision of the umpire had been given. Fifty cents was the charge for refusing obedience to the captain, and all fines in these classifications were C.O. D. to the umpire on penalty of suspension from field exercise.

The initiation fee was two dollars, and dues were fifty cents “monthly and in advance during the season for playing.”

The playing rules in 1848 were comparatively few in number, but the theory of the game which they prescribe was remarkably like the game today. They call for the four bases, spaced “from ’home’ to second base 42 paces, from first to third base 42 paces equi-distant.” This provides a diamond with sides approximately 89 feet. The present standard distance of 90 feet was specified by the rules of 1857. Runs were known as “aces,” and a player’s turn at bat was a “hand” “Three hand out all out.” The foul ball was described, and the subject of three strikes covered. The put out at first base, and between the other bases was exactly as at present, also the provision that the runner could not run on a foul ball, nor if the batter hits a fly and is caught out, but could make his base if the pitcher balked.

The greatest difference was in fixing the length of the game by the score rather than by the number of innings. The old rules state “the game to consist of 21 counts or aces (runs), but at the conclusion an equal number of hands must be played.”

The by-laws of 1854 were almost exactly in the same form as those of 1848. There are the following additions to the rules: The position of the pitcher is fixed at not less than 15 paces from home base. The forcing of men on bases by a hit is covered, also the put out by touching the base to which the runner is forced, “in the same manner as when running to first base.” The size and weight limits of the ball were first stated as follows: “The ball shall weigh from 5 ¼ to 6 ounces, and be from 2 ¾ to 3 ¼ inches in diameter.”

When the Gothams 1850 were organized, they became the special rivals of the Knickerbockers, and the Eagles of Brooklyn (1852) added competition from another city. These three clubs played many matches, which began to attract considerable local interest. No admission was charged and the game began to be popular with the crowd. They also held joint dinners at which enthusiasm seems to have reached a high pitch.

One of the most remembered contests of the period was a game between the Knickerbockers and the Gothams played at the old Red House grounds in Harlem, on October 26th, 1854. At this time the rules were still in effect that the game should consist of twenty-one “aces.” Henry Chadwick gives us the score by innings together with a list of the players and officials, but can only locate the positions of four of the eighteen players. Among these we note Dr. Adams, short stop for the Knickerbockers. The game went twelve innings to a tie at twelve to twelve. It is interesting to note that on a nine inning basis as at present the game would have ended in the ninth inning with a score Knickerbockers 11, Gothams 9.

Base ball now was really on its way, and more clubs were formed until by the close of 1858 there were twelve in all. In the interest of uniformity it seemed wise to call a convention of representatives of all the club to establish a permanent code of rules by which all should be governed, and a call for such a convention was issued by the officers of the Knickerbockers as the senior organization, and the first convention of base ball players was assembled in May 1857. Dr. Adams was elected presiding officer. In March 1858 a second convention was held, and at this meeting the convention was declared a permanent organization, and with the requisite constitution and bylaws became the “National Association of Base Ball Players.”

Dr. Adams was chairman of the committee on rules and regulations from the start, and held this office until he resigned from the Knickerbockers in 1862. After careful study he presented the first draft of rules, and it was in the main adopted.

Although the Doctor held a dominant position with the Knickerbockers, particularly as to playing rules, there was one change dear to his heart which was repeatedly defeated. The rules of 1848 and 1854 both read “a ball being struck or tipped, and caught either flying or on first bound, is a hand out.” The Doctor, year after year, proposed that a fly should be out only if caught before touching the ground, and finally succeeded in bringing this change about. It appears in the Knickerbocker rules of 1857.

Other new provisions in the rules of this date include the following: “The ball must weigh not less than six nor more than six and one quarter ounces avoirdupois; it must measure not less than ten, nor more than ten and one quarter inches in circumference; it must be composed of india rubber and yarn, and covered with leather.” “The bat” (first mentioned in these rules) “must be round, and must not exceed two and one half inches in diameter, in the thickest part; it must be made of wood, and may be of any length to suit the striker.”

The distance between bases is fixed at thirty yards; first, second and third bases to be canvas bags painted white and securely fastened, home and pitcher’s point to be marked with a flat circular iron plate, painted or enameled white. The distance of the pitcher from home base remains fifteen yards. Players running bases who run more than three feet out of line to avoid the ball is the hands of an adversary shall be declared out.

The terms “run” and “innings” are first used in the 1857 rules, and “the game shall consist of nine innings to each side,” instead of twenty-one “aces” by the winner as formerly.

The number of players on a side is first mentioned in the rules of 1857 and is fixed at nine, although the by-laws provide that “ten members shall constitute a quorum for field exercise, and if the weather is favorable the roll shall be called.” This indicates that the club still had to face the problem of playing short handed when too few members turned out to make up two nines. However, in such cases members of other clubs if present, could be chosen in to make up eighteen players in all.

In the earliest days experiments were made with various numbers of players on a side. At the outset eleven players were tried, probably because the cricket team had adopted that number. It became evident at once that there was too much strength in the field, especially with flies out on first bound, and the team was cut to eight — pitcher, catcher, three basemen and three outfielders. Dr. Adams, then thought that the infield should be strengthened, and started playing as the ninth man between second and third base. This seemed to improve the general balance, and the position was called “short stop.” The Doctor continued to play it throughout his active career.

He was often asked in later years how the game originated, but was unable to fix any definite starting point. He believed it developed from the English game of rounders, which was played with bat, ball and bases, although the manner was put out by being hit by a thrown ball, instead of being tagged as in base ball. Henry Chadwick, who wrote voluminously about base ball for a period of about fifty years, agreed as to this, and certainly neither had ever heard of any creative part in the game by Abner Doubleday.

According to the citation in the pamphlet of the national base ball museum of Cooperstown, N.Y., Chadwick was the author of the first rule book in 1858, also chairman of the rules committee in the first nation-wide base ball organization. These claims are obviously not well founded. In a newspaper interview in Buffalo in September 1904, Chadwick stated “The first time I ever played base ball was late in the fall, October I think it must have been, 1848. That was at Hoboken. Before that I had played rounders, from which base ball sprung over in England.” In a letter from Mr. Chadwick to Dr. Adams dated August 16th, 1898, he says: “That title of ’Father of Base Ball’ is out of place. Base ball, like Topsy ’never had no fader’; it growed up.”

Dr. Adams resigned from the Knickerbockers March 26th, 1862. The members of the club really seem to have seriously appreciated his services to the cause, for they not only elected him an honorary member but passed special resolutions, of which they presented him a most gorgeously engrossed copy.

The quaint wording of the resolutions is perhaps sufficiently interesting to bear quotation. Here it is.

“The Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of the City of New York desirous of placing on record their high appreciation of their late associate and fellow member, Dr. D. L. Adams; and their sincere regret at his retirement from the club, did at the annual meeting held March 26th, 1862, appoint a committee to draft resolutions expressive of their feelings, and upon the report of said committee the following were unanimously adopted:

“Resolved, that by the resignation of Dr. D. L. Adams, the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club has lost one of its most honored members: one who for a period of sixteen years in the performance of every duty whether at the bat or in the field, as our presiding officer, or represented in the National Association of Ball Players, or in the daily walks of life, has ever been faithful and uniformly proved himself the courteous high-minded gentleman, and the zealous advocate of our noble game.

“Resolved, that to him as much if not more than any other individual member are the Knickerbockers indebted for the high rank their club has maintained since its organization, and we claim for him the honored title of “Nestor of Ball Players.”

“Resolved, that with unfeigned regret we yield to the imperative necessity that compels his withdrawal from the roll of our active members, and beg to assure him that in leaving us he carries with him our heartfelt wishes for his welfare, happiness and prosperity, and We cherish the hope often to be the recipients of the benefit of his good counsel and long experience.”

James Whyte Davis, Secretary                       W. P. Bensel, President

Henry A. Thomas

Louis F. Belloni, Jr.

W. H. Tucker

Committee

(Ben F. Brady – Scrip. 169       Elm St., N. Y.)

The last time that Dr. Adams played with the Knickerbockers was on September 27th, 1875, at the age of sixty-one, in a match arranged by Mr. James Whyte Davis, apparently known to his associates as “the Fiend” on account of his unbounded enthusiasm for the game, to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of his membership. According to a newspaper account the old boys were pretty spry in the field, but their batting was not all it might have been, and after five innings Mr. Whyte called the game, hustled them into carriages and took them down to the “Dukes.” No doubt rest and refreshment followed.

Mr. Adams’ interest in baseball continued to the end of his life. Even after he was seventy-five he would occasionally join his sons in a neighborhood scrub game, and astonish all the boys with his batting. He remained completely active in body and mind until his death at the age of eighty-four, January 3rd, 1899.

Buffalo, N. Y., August 1939.