Two Roads Diverged

By Thorn, John | Nine, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Two Roads Diverged


Thorn, John, Nine


When I first pondered what the subject of my keynote speech at the 2006 NINE conference might be, I came up with "Present at the Creation: Baseball's Pioneering Clubs, 1830-50." That's what attendees saw in their programs. I had intended to talk about five clubs that made the game grow along certain lines and about three individuals whose vast contributions remain largely uncredited: William Rufus Wheaton, Daniel Lucius Adams, and Lewis F. Wadsworth. These five clubs were to have been the Olympics of Philadelphia, whose history and whose game are so little understood, and four clubs from New York--the Gotham, also known as the Washington for their primacy among New York ball clubs; the New York Base Ball Club, whose membership was for some time in the 1830s and '40s identical with that of the Gotham; the Eagle, which formed as a ball-playing club in 1840 but like the Gotham did not adopt baseball for several years; and of course the Knickerbocker, who have received too much credit for a hundred years now.

Yes, that's the talk I was going to deliver. In the days prior to the mid-March event, however, I decided on another path.

  Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
  And sorry I could not travel both
  And be one traveler, long I stood
  And looked down one as far as I could
  To where it bent in the undergrowth....

These roads are named in current histories the New York game and the Massachusetts game, but that nomenclature simplifies much and explains little. In the course of research for my forthcoming book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, it occurred to me that baseball's development might well have proceeded differently at a number of critical junctures, and the modern game might not have emulated the Knickerbocker or New York game model. Along the way, I refined my thinking about formerly revered characters such as Abner Doubleday, Alexander Cartwright, and Albert G. Spalding and came to appreciate the only recently noted achievements of Daniel Lucius Adams, William R. Wheaton, and Lewis Fenn Wadsworth. This tale of two roads and four locales provides an opportunity to discuss quoted matter and some seemingly overbold assertions.

An organized American game that we have reason to call baseball starts in several places, more or less, at once. This evening I will not talk about Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with which I have come to be associated for my uncovering of its 1791 bylaw, the unique feature of which is its mention of baseball by that name, set in the context of different ball games such as cricket and wicket. I have come to see four other signposts as better guides to telling the tale of how baseball came to be: Baltimore; Philadelphia; New York; and a cluster of towns in central Massachusetts that includes Grafton, Upton, and Medway.

Historians have credited the Knickerbockers with the invention of baseball for these reasons: first, they were organized as a ball club; second, they created a written constitution and rules for play; third, they devised the important innovation of foul territory; and fourth, they eliminated the practice of retiring a runner by plugging him with the ball between bases. As to ninety feet, nine men, and nine innings--the accomplishments engraved on his Hall of Fame plaque--forget about them; it is clear now that Alexander Cartwright's Knickerbockers of 1845 originated none of these "modern" features. I stripped the brevets from Cartwright's shoulders in a speech at the Smithsonian in July 2005, when I said:

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. … 

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