Alexander Cartwright, The Life Behind the Baseball Legend, by Monica Nucciarone
The Spring 2014 edition of the Baseball Research Journal came in the mail just as I was finishing Monica Nucciarone’s fine book, Alexander Cartwright, The Life Behind the Baseball Legacy. The Journal includes an article by Richard Hershberger about Alexander Cartwright, which examines the proposition whether Cartwright “invented baseball.” Having just read Nucciarone’s book, it seemed to me that Mr. Hershberger draws his question more narrowly and dispenses the answer more quickly than might be preferred, so I would like to address some subtle differences between the jumping off point for the two writers.
“Who Invented Baseball?” seems a different question than Ms. Nucciarone’s book addresses and I am not certain it properly frames the debate. Mr. Hershberger states unequivocally on the first page of his article that “Cartwright did not invent baseball.” Having just read Nucciarone’s book, originally published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2009, I was not certain how many continue to give credence to such a large claim.
However, drawing on Ms. Nucciarone’s book and the Cooperstown plaque for Alexander Cartwright, my belief is not that Cartwright is given credit for inventing the game, but that early 20th century baseball officials gave him singular credit to have “set the bases ninety feet apart. Established nine innings to a game and nine players to a team.”1 These are the some of the specifics on his plaque in Cooperstown and the very finite nature of these claims have been largely set aside by recent research that establishes later dates for some of these features. However, while the modern myth-buster has an important role to play, it is crucial not to lose the child when the bath water departs from an open window.
Ms. Nucciarone’s discussion of Alexander Cartwright’s role as the “father” of baseball delineates his credit as having brought order to the early versions of the game being played in the latter stages of the first half of the eighteenth century, and in particular those circulating upon New York City’s fields of leisure. He is credited with forming from these early versions of baseball something more akin to what we know today, which was accomplished by providing the standard diamond shape and uniform dimensions similar to those in use to the modern era–however you wish to mark that.
Nucciarone’s book is a lengthy examination of the contention that Cartwright alone can be credited with laying out the rules by which the Knickerbocker Club played its games. Cartwright began to play baseball, as it was called even at that early stage, along with other young Manhattan professionals looking for leisure amusement and physical exercise in their off hours. They found a fitting outlet in large green spaces scattered around New York City and Cartwright became part of a recurring group that formed itself into the Knickerbocker Club of which he was an early officer, if not one of the ones who founded the club from its earliest origins in 1845. Ms. Nucciarone asserts that it is beyond dispute that this club should be given credit with providing uniform rules to the earliest forms of baseball and thereby laying the foundations for modern baseball, even if others may have used similar concepts some few years earlier.
Monica Nucciarone’s book is not freshly minted, having come out in 2009, but as the Hershberger article suggests, the underlying bone of contention continues to spark considerable interest. The topic was set upon its most recent mythical pedestal by Harold Peterson of Sports Illustrated in an article, “Baseball’s Johnny Appleseed,” published in April 1969, followed shortly thereafter by the writer’s book on the same topic. The claims Peterson made are broad in nature and both Hershberger and Ms. Nucciarone dispel them as having no basis in fact.
Peterson portrays Cartwright as taking his creation of an ordered form of baseball with him when he departed New York City seeking his fortunes in the golden hills of California in 1849. The claim is that at every stop along the way Cartwright organized games and initiated the players into his own version of baseball which then took off from those locales and spread like prairie fire. Nucciarone finds nothing credible to support this idea. Rather she believes that Cartwright carried in his belongings the ball from his playing days in Manhattan and when he stopped on his way west occasionally took it out for a game of catch or when enough other men were available, perhaps even an informal game. But the concept that he then explained his formal version of how baseball should be played and that others spread this idea has no foundation in fact.
The other parts of the story are not so easily deconstructed. There have been many respected proponents of Cartwright’s role. Albert G. Spalding was as important a figure in 19th century baseball as any other and he made the claim in 1911 that Cartwright was the sole founder of the Knickerbocker Club and creator of the game as they played it. Ms. Nucciarone removes each stanchion of the solid foundation that seemed at the time to underlie Spalding’s claim, but at no point does she diminish Cartwright’s role as a pioneer within the Knickerbocker Club, nor does she disavow that he was one of its earliest members, nor does she say that it is without merit that he was instrumental in their playing a standardized game with nine players taking a field anchored by a diamond of four bases set approximately 90 feet apart. She does not believe however, that Alfred Spalding or anyone else had sufficient grounds for giving Cartwright singular credit with bringing to the Murray Hill field where the Knickerbockers played, “plans drawn up on paper” that set forth the “diamond shaped field.2 Nucciarone sets forth the entire set of rules that governed the Knickerbocker’s games in her thorough examination of the club and their role described in Chapter 12, “Baseball on Murray Hill.” It is well worth the reading. But she concludes that any singular author is unlikely and that the rules evolved over time, some of it after Cartwright’s departure from the scene.
Nuciarone’s work is meticulous and she efforts at every turn to be clear and precise about the claims that others make and the degree to which documentation exists to support them. She further looks behind the sources to determine their credibility upon closer examination. She traces the Cartwright legend from its earliest sources: Charles Peverelly who wrote of the Knickerbocker Club in 1866; Duncan Curry, the president of the Knickerbocker Club as interviewed by William Rankin; and then down through Spalding and more recent writers such as Peterson. She looks behind each source and their documentation and finds little that survives to this day to support any of the claims. She rightly decries the inclination of writers to make broad statements without documentation unless they are novelists. I found her arguments convincing because she took great lengths to never step beyond the bounds of what her research supported. She drew conclusions only when nothing stood in their way.
She does not state as Hershberger does that Cartwright did not lay out the rules of the Knickerbocker Club, but says there is no documentation to support such a claim. She does say that it is likely that Cartwright played a role in establishing these rules and that his temperament for precision and order in all things make it likely that he was a primary actor in drafting the rules for the game during those critical years. She does assert that there were motivations for early baseball historians to fabricate a simplistic narrative of the game’s origins, but she does not say that their narrative is necessarily inaccurate, only that more needs to be done to support the full claim or qualify it.
It is Cartwright’s lifelong predilections and passions–those which may have led him to create such a founding charter for the Knickerbockers–that are the subject of much of the book. After reaching California in 1849, he departed two months after arriving there for Honolulu and his ship reached what were then the Sandwich Islands at the end of August of that year. From that day forward–forty-two years of dense historical adventure–Alexander Cartwright lived in Hawaii where he became a prominent citizen integrally involved in its commercial life from which he derived considerable wealth, and in its governmental affairs where he was an intimate of the royal family. There is much documentation for that part of Cartwright’s life and Nucciarone laments that if such evidence abounded for his formalizing the rules of baseball, then his claim to being its “father” would be a simple matter.
Readers of her book may also lament the lengths she goes to document the rise and fall of Hawaii’s royal family. If the purpose is to assert that Cartwright was a formidable human being whose life touched many persons, then she is successful. But the tale could have been told with less detail about Hawaii and its early history prior to annexation. Which is not to say that the history of those islands is not of interest. As a lover of history well told, I greatly appreciated the telling. However, I was not convinced that much of that history had direct bearing on the story of Alexander Cartwright, whose name went unmentioned for many pages.
There are approximately one hundred pages spent on the history of Hawaii and only the arrival of Alfred Spalding for a weekend of baseball provides any evidence of the sport and its place in that history. The second part of the book is less lengthy, but well-conceived. In it Nucciarone sets forth her assessment of the basic facts surrounding the claims made that Cartwright was the genius behind the Knickerbockers. She examines Charles Peverelly’s book, American Pastimes from 1866 and its likely legitimacy. Duncan Curry, an early president of the Knickerbocker was interviewed by William Rankin in the 1877 and this interview provides conflicting indications as to Cartwright’s role, though the author later tries to set the record straight and in Cartwright’s favor. But Nucciarone asserts that his motivations at that point are muddied by those of others who are seeking to give ownership over the game’s origins to a single figure.
What she does not do is pronounce Cartwright’s role a fabrication. She does not run him out of the town in which baseball was founded, but states that the rules for the game as they first began to emerge in the 1840’s were likely authored by committee. There is every reason to believe that Alexander Cartwright was a significant member of that group and may have been the impetus for its existence, but if so, no documentation exists for such a claim. In the final paragraph of the book, she concludes that Cartwright “was not just one of baseball’s founders, but a gold rush pioneer and one who was associated with Hawaii’s annexation movement.”3 He needs to be remembered not as something he was not–the sole founder of baseball–but as someone who was a man of great influence in the affairs of his time. He should be remembered as a man who weighed heavily on the history of his place and time, and during his early years that included the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, New Jersey where the earliest forms of America’s game began. Charles Cartwright was there without a doubt and the pity is that we cannot know for certain the role he played in the game’s creation.
1 Nucciarone, Monica. Alexander Cartwright, The Life Behind the Baseball Legend. Lincoln, Nebraska, University of Nebraska Press, 2009, p. xv.
2 Ibid. p. 177.
3 Ibid. p. 231.