Baseball’s Early Days Trace Back to New York
No state can claim a bigger share of baseball history than New York, starting with the belief that the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York was the first organized baseball team. Fittingly, a player named Austin Knickerbocker (born in Bangall, N.Y.) made it to the majors, although he played just 21 games.
Alexander Cartwright, considered the “Father of Modern Baseball,” was born in New York City. However, if Major League Baseball’s official historian, John Thorn, is to be believed, Cartwright did very little of what he is credited with doing, and most assuredly is not the man most responsible for developing organized baseball in New York City, Hawaii or anywhere else.
The first organized Negro teams squared off in Bedford, N.Y., in 1862, according to John Holway’s The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues. New York is also the native state of Bud Fowler, who is believed to be the first African-American professional baseball player. Fowler, whose given name was John Jackson Jr., appeared in a game with the Lynn Live Oaks of the International Association on May 17, 1878. Fowler, who ironically grew up in Cooperstown, was also the first player to use shin guards, developing a wooden set to protect himself against rough sliders at second base in the late 1880s.
By that time more history had made in New York as the first team of salaried African-American players was organized out of the Argyle Hotel in Babylon in 1885. The original purpose was to entertain the hotel guests, but the team soon took to the road as the Cuban Giants, reports James Riley in The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues.
Then you have the various Yankees dynasties adding up to 27 championships, 86 historic years at the old Yankee Stadium, the great Subway Series between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Yankees in the 1950s, the Miracle Mets of 1969, not to mention that the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is located in upstate New York, even if everyone admits the game was not really invented by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown.
The Empire State has unleashed some pretty impressive players through the years, as the All-Time New York team is loaded with Hall of Famers at nearly every position. To date 21 players, three managers and five executives from New York have been enshrined in Cooperstown, with Jacob Ruppert, Deacon White, Joe Torre and Craig Biggio joining the exclusive party over the past three years.
Since the game first became popular in the greater New York City area, it’s not surprising to discover that many of the 19th century players hailed from the region. A total of 329 native New Yorkers at least started their major league career in the 19th century.
Some of the best players from that era did not compile stats that hold up against players from the modern era, yet quite a few found their way onto the All-Time New York team as honorable mentions. Separating those players, we find the makings of a pretty good team, including six Hall of Famers (in bold).
C-Doggie Miller; John Clapp; Pop Schriver
1b-Joe Start; Dave Orr; Harry Taylor
2b-Bid McPhee; Danny Richardson; Ross Barnes; Jack Burdock
3b-Deacon White; Ezra Sutton; Jerry Denny; Bob Ferguson
SS-George Wright (in Hall as an executive); Dickey Pearce; Davy Force
OF-King Kelly; Mike Griffin; Lip Pike; Pete Hotaling; Joe Hornung
RHP-Charley Radbourn; Mickey Welch; Will White; Larry Corcoran; Jim Whitney; Ice Box Chamberlin; Jack Lynch; George Zettlein; Terry Larkin
New York has had more than its fair share of players with wild and wacky names, including such first names as Bock, Rivington, Waddy, Phonney, Wickey, Rinty, Bots, Kewpie, Fraley, Overton and Favel.
You could even put together an all-time team of New Yorkers with girlish names. That team would feature Val Picinich, Honey Barnes and Chick Starr at catcher, Babe Herman at first (he played 236 games there), Gracie Pierce at second, Pat Callaghan at third and She Donahue at short. In the outfield you would find Patsy Dougherty, Alta Cohen and Sandy Piez. Southpaw hurlers Sandy Koufax and Lady Baldwin are joined by righties Chick Robitaille and Babe Birrer. The bullpen is manned by Bunny Hearn while Sandy Griffin is the manager.
Baldwin picked up the nickname “Lady” because he did not smoke, drink, curse or carouse, behavior that stood out in the crowd of ruffians he played with in the 1880s. On the subject of great feminine nicknames, Charles Pabor takes the prize with “The Old Woman in the Red Cap.” The story behind Pabor’s nickname remains elusive—perhaps he was a charter member of the Red Hat Society.
The New York roster is littered with great first-name monikers including Scrappy, Shorty, Sibby, Snuffy, Snake, Spider and Sun. Boileryard Clarke picked up his nickname from having a loud voice that could be heard all around the ballyard. Elton Chamberlin was nicknamed “Ice Box” because he was cool under pressure, a trait that was undoubtedly tested on May 30, 1894, when he became the first pitcher to surrender four home runs to the same batter (Bobby Lowe) in a game.
Lip Pike is not only considered to be the first Jewish major leaguer but is often credited as the first professionally paid player. Pike led the National Association in home runs the first three years of the league’s brief existence and held the career home run record from 1872-79 and the single-season record from 1872-75.
Dude Esterbrook was not a surfer from Southern California but rather a talented and troubled 19th century player from Staten Island. A .261 hitter as a third baseman over 11 seasons, Dude was on his way to a mental hospital when he leaped off a train to his death in 1901.
In a perfect world, Pi Schwert would be a pitcher with a 3.14 ERA, but instead he was a catcher whose closest stat to Pi is a .316 OBP he posted one year. Mose Solomon was known as “The Rabbi of Swat,” after hitting 49 homers one year in the minors. He did little swatting in the majors as his big-league career consisted of three hits and zero home runs.
At least Solomon got a cup of coffee in the majors—Nick Testa had the cup yanked away from him before he could take a sip. The Bronx native made his debut with the San Francisco Giants at the age of 29 on April 23, 1958, entering the game as a pinch runner in the eighth inning and then staying in the game to catch. He dropped a foul ball in the ninth and then was standing on deck in the bottom of the ninth when Daryl Spencer hit a walk-off two-run homer. Shortly after that Testa became the Giants’ bullpen coach and ended his career with a .000 fielding average and no batting record. Testa played 1,358 games over 16 minor league seasons.
Going down the roster of the 1,182 players from New York who have made it to the majors through the 2015 season, we find a Monk and a Cardinal, a Sherry and a Wine, not to mention Rip Vowinkel, who pitched six games in 1905 and then evidently took a 20-year nap and awoke to find the game had passed him by. There are two New York players named Bill Kelly—both ended up with 15 career hits. Bill Goodenough made his debut in 1893, lasting 10 games until the St. Louis Browns decided his .161 average was not good enough.
Chuck Connors ground into a double play in his only at-bat for his hometown Brooklyn Dodgers but did go on to collect 48 career hits for the Cubs. He also played 53 games for the Boston Celtics, becoming the first player to shatter a backboard with a shot, and was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the NFL. However, his real claim to fame was as an actor, with the lead role in “The Rifleman” TV series as well as dozens of other roles through the years. Looking back on his baseball career, Connors said, “I was a bum of a hitter just not cut out for the majors.” He got that right.
Moe Berg achieved more notoriety for his post-baseball career, which happened to be as a spy for the United States’ Office of Strategic Service during World War II. Berg collected 441 hits with a .243 average over 15 seasons as a part-time player, making the unusual switch from shortstop to catcher and confounding teammates with his brilliant and odd intellect. Since he was a graduate of Princeton University and Columbia Law School who spoke multiple languages, Berg always had a mysterious air about him, which proved handy in his work as a spy.
Of course we should not overlook New York’s most colorful character—Bo Belinsky, who put the vivant in bon vivant. Belinsky never met a good time he couldn’t prolong. Long before Derek Jeter came on the scene, the fun-loving Bo set the standard for dating Hollywood starlets including Mamie Van Doren, Connie Stevens, Tina Louise and Ann-Margret. Not only did he marry a Playboy bunny, Jo Collins, he briefly left the Astros and was suspended because he wanted to spend more time with Collins. Another time he was two weeks late arriving at Angels camp because he was in a pool tournament in New Jersey.
Belinsky was born in New York City but grew up as a pool hustler in gritty Trenton, N.J. Pitching for the expansion Los Angeles Angels in their second year, Belinsky used an overpowering fastball and effective screwball to pitch a no-hitter in his fourth start as a rookie in 1962, boasting afterward that he’d been up until 4 a.m. the night before entertaining a lady friend. It was the first no-hitter in the major leagues pitched on the West Coast, the first in the Angels’ brief history and the first in Dodger Stadium history. Bo would win his first five decisions that year, but soon had more lady friends than wins. “Girls tend to make me forget everything,” said Belinsky, who soon had lots of reasons to be forgetful.
The no-hitter would be his one and only career highlight, as he went 28-51 pitching for four teams over eight seasons while only making headlines for his social life. Bo roomed with Bob Uecker after getting traded to the Phillies in 1965, but Uecker was usually left to tell one-liners to an empty room. Later in life, after he had given up drinking and become a born-again Christian, Belinsky disputed the notion that he squandered his talent with hard partying, remarking, “I figure I used all I had. I just didn’t have as much as people thought.”
You can find more tales from other states in Baseball State by State.
Chris Jensen, who grew up outside Cooperstown, N.Y., is the author of “Baseball State by State: Major League and Negro League Players, Ballparks, Museums and Historical Sites.”