In December, Hall of Fame electors will decide whether Daniel Lucius (Doc) Adams will be enshrined in baseball’s hallowed corridor, and if his plaque will join those of 333 others whose accomplishments and contributions to baseball earned them the sport’s highest honor.
Most Hall of Famers were selected because of their feats on the playing field. They hit more home runs than their peers, won more games than other pitchers, or managed their teams to multiple World Series triumphs. Their accomplishments are quantifiable, for baseball, more than any other sport, is a game of statistics. The contributions of non-players are more difficult to measure, especially when more than a century and a half has passed.
But the contributions of those men are often more meaningful than home runs or championships, and baseball has long recognized that fact. Since its inception, the Hall has tried to honor baseball’s pioneers, men without whom the game would not be what it is today. In its most quixotic form, they wanted to enshrine the “inventor” of baseball.
They haven’t gotten it right yet. Albert Spalding’s search for the inventor of baseball veered so dramatically off course that his candidate, General Abner Doubleday, was never seriously considered, although he did get a baseball museum built in Cooperstown. In 1938, the Hall thought they filled the void when they elected Alexander Cartwright of the pioneer Knickerbocker Club, but that wasn’t quite right either. They came closer when Harry Wright was inducted in 1953, but the game was fairly well established before Wright became seriously involved.
The task of finding baseball’s inventor is complicated by the fact that there was no one “inventor” of the game—not Cartwright—not Harry Wright–and certainly not Doubleday. There was no magic moment when one man sat at a desk or crouched in an open field and conceived the game of baseball. It evolved gradually from other bat and ball games in a lurching, uncoordinated, and uneven manner.
Were there, however, one or more men who played such a significant role(s) in this transition that they can be considered nearly indispensable to the development of the sport we know today as baseball? If so, the search must begin in New York City among those who were involved in the early clubs, men like William Wheaton, William Grenelle, and Doc Adams.
During the 1840s and 1850s, the game of baseball evolved from one played under various rules by different groups to a version called the “New York Game” governed by a single code of rules. With varied sets of rules, it had been difficult to have inter-club match games and without standard rules, no sport can truly become a national pastime. A uniform code of rules opened the path to inter-club competition, championship contests and, eventually, professionalism. Therefore, the men who were instrumental in the formulation of those rules were those who launched baseball on its upward trajectory.
The rules revolution began in earnest in January 1857, when delegates from 14 New York clubs met with the goal of agreeing on the way baseball would be played. The Knickerbockers, the most venerable of the 14 and probably the most influential, were represented by Doc Adams, William Grenelle, and Louis Wadsworth. Wheaton had gone to California a decade earlier and Cartwright, who was with the club only briefly, was in the Sandwich Islands.
The 42-year-old Adams was elected president of the convention and in that meeting and a second held a month later guided the committee through the production of the rules that would govern the game for many years to come.
In July 1967, a woman named Constance Wilcox Pignatelli sent a letter to the Hall of Fame, along with a document she thought might be of interest. Ms. Pignatelli was the granddaughter of William Grenelle, and the document she enclosed consisted of thirteen hand-written pages (including inserts and deletions) held together by a ribbon and titled “Laws of Baseball.”
Grenelle’s document did not remain at the Hall and in December 2015 I received a call from a gentleman who said he had purchased it at auction several years earlier and had a sense it might be very important. He asked if he could send me a copy and get my opinion. I know nothing about the value of collectibles, but as a student of baseball history, I immediately realized it was a document of tremendous importance. Apparently, other people agreed and it was eventually sold at auction for over $3 million.
The fact that the document came from Grenelle’s descendant did not result in the anointment of Grenelle as yet another “inventor” of baseball. Instead, the re-discovery of the Laws of Baseball focused attention on the drafting of the rules and the more one learned, the more one came to believe that Doc Adams, president of the rules convention, was a very important man in the history of baseball.
Adams was not just the leader of the rules committee. He was for several years president of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, the most prominent organization during baseball’s formative period. He made baseballs, without which one cannot play baseball. And he played baseball.
In baseball’s early days, there was no division between players, managers, and executives. Club members played the game and governed themselves, and one of Adams’ great contributions to baseball was his creation of the shortstop position. He began playing between second and third base in order to better relay throws from the outfield and stop balls hit to the left side of the infield, things every modern shortstop does with much greater skill than Adams could have imagined. The 26 shortstops in the Hall of Fame owe a debt of gratitude to the man who invented the position.
Doc Adams wasn’t a Hall of Fame baseball player. He didn’t hit 500 home runs or win 300 games. He is a Hall of Fame baseball pioneer—the leader of the group that produced the first set of rules, the leader of the most important club of baseball’s first years, and the man who created the position of shortstop. No existing member of the Hall of Fame equaled Doc Adams’ contributions to the growth and establishment of baseball. His induction would fill a gap in the Hall roster larger than the gap Adams filled between second and third base. I hope to see him elected this December.
William J. Ryczek is the author of a trilogy on 19th century baseball. His books, Baseball’s First Inning, When Johnny Came Sliding Home, and Blackguards and Red Stockings, cover the period from baseball’s beginnings through 1875. He was also co-editor of Baseball Founders and Baseball Pioneers, which provide comprehensive histories of baseball’s earliest teams and players.