Randall Brown's Find of the Wheaton Account -- Before the Knickerbockers

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by Randall Brown, April 2013

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Well do I remember the discovery of the interview that brought baseball’s creation myths into question. I was on my way to see a Giants game and, by skipping dinner, could spend an hour at the San Francisco library. Like many Californians, I am a transplanted New Yorker, and, although originally a Mets fan, found it easy to switch allegiance to the first N.Y. National League franchise. As a historian, this offered the benefit of adopting the long and interesting history of Giants, including that afternoon’s pursuit—the 1887 post-season visit of John Ward and Mike Kelly’s “Giant Combination” to California.

My plan was to take a quick look at the Examiner’s coverage of the exhibition games in San Francisco. I knew that “Phin” Thayer, author of “Casey at the Bat,” was handling the paper’s sports reporting that season, and hoped to find some good write-ups of the matches at Haight Street Park. The work proceeded well. There was a friendly interview with Tim Keefe, an intriguing description of a California League pitcher striking out Mike Kelly, and an item about a lopsided victory over the Stockton (Mudville) nine.

Time was running short as I rolled the film to Sunday, November 27. The Giants were featured in the first column and I hit the print button to capture that article. Before moving on, my attention was drawn to an item on the other side of the page entitled “Wizard Edison Talks,” a story about the inventor’s new phonograph. Looking to the left, I also noticed another headline—“How Baseball Began: A Member of the Gotham Club of Fifty Years Ago Talks About It.” I figured both stories were worth a closer look, took copies, and headed out to the ball game, which the Giants won.

Although it was late when I returned home to Santa Cruz, I stayed up to review that day’s finds. “How Baseball Began” turned out to be a jaw-dropper. The source of the story was not named but characterized as “an old pioneer, formerly a well-known lawyer and politician, now living in Oakland.” After a discussion of the slowness of cricket and the dangerous effects of the old three-cornered cat rule of throwing the ball at the runner to put him out, the narrator stated that: “We first organized what we called the Gotham Baseball Club. This was the first ball organization in the United States and it was completed in 1837.” The next sentence, listing several members of the club, included a highly significant name—that of James Lee. I knew of Lee’s connection with the Knickerbocker Ball Club and I had read John Ward’s brief on baseball history, which mentioned that Lee had played “the same game” as a boy. This was a year after George Thompson’s article on the 1823 “N. Y. Base Ball Club,” so I discounted the claim that the Gotham’s were “the first ball organization in the U. S” (I have since come to believe that Lee was also one of the 1823 players).

The following paragraph left little doubt that the base ball played by the Gothams was essentially the modern game. “The first step we took…was to abolish the rule of throwing the ball at the runner….We laid out the ground at Madison square in the form of an accurate diamond, with home-plate and sand-bags for bases.” It was easy to accept the idea of ball-play in that part of the city—several founders of the Knickerbockers had participated in less formal games in a vacant lot on 27th street and the neighborhood was also home to the St. George Cricket Club. The narrator admitted that: “We had no shortstop and often played with only six or seven men on a side,” but that was also true of the early Knickerbocker club games.

Farther down the page it became clear that the “old pioneer” spoke with unusual authority. “After the Gotham club had been in existence a few months it was found necessary to reduce the rules of the new game to writing. This work fell to my hands, and the code I then formulated is substantially that in use today.” The real surprise came several sentences later when the narrator stated that: “The new game quickly became very popular with New Yorkers and the numbers of the club soon swelled beyond the fastidious notions of some of us, and we decided to withdraw and found a new organization, which we called the Knickerbocker.” Was the supposed pioneer club a spin-off?

There was one other striking remark—“The Gothams played a game of ball with the Star Cricket Club of Brooklyn and beat the Englishmen out of sight, of course. That game and the return were the only matches ever played by the first baseball club.” Was this true and, if so, did it pre-date the famous 1846 Knickerbocker/New York encounter at Elysian Fields?

The first chore was identifying the “old pioneer.” Cartwright was easily eliminated, as he was not a lawyer and had left California almost immediately after his arrival here in 1849 to settle in Hawaii.

Spink’s “National Game” listed the original Knickerbocker officers—Duncan Curry, president; William R. Wheaton, vice-president, and William Tucker, secretary and treasurer. Another source cited Ebenezer Dupignac as a founder. Curry’s obituary in the New York Times made it clear that he was a life-long New Yorker and, although several of Dupignac’s relatives came west during the Gold Rush, Ebenezer had not. A check of California passenger lists showed that Wheaton had arrived here in 1849 and further digging revealed that Tucker had left New York for San Francisco a year later. The breakthrough came when I learned that Wheaton had served as president of the Society of California Pioneers. That organization asked its members to provide brief biographies for its files, so I contacted their archivist and, after a short wait, received a copy of Wheaton’s Gold Rush reminiscences and a photograph from his later years. Admittedly, there was no mention of baseball in this account, but the other details checked out—lawyer and politician, residence in Oakland.

Gradually, other pieces of the puzzle came to light. Peverelly’s 1866 history identified Wheaton and Tucker as the Knickerbocker members delegated to write the rules of the game. The Examiner article contained several specific details about the narrator’s activities as a cricket player and microfilm copies of “The Spirit of the Times” linked them to Wheaton. Not only had he played with the Star Cricket Club of Brooklyn, but he had, as mentioned in the interview, won a prize bat and ball in 1848. It was now clear that William R. Wheaton was the “old pioneer.”

There was one important unverified assertion, however. Did the “Gothams” play a home and home series with the Brooklyn cricketers? The answer turned up in Melvin Adelman’s The Development of Modern Athletics: Sport in New York City, 1820-1870, which featured newspaper accounts of a match in October,1845. His comment rang a bell—“I was looking for other things. I never figured there'd be anything in the newspaper. In fact, this is the first newspaper reference of any kind to baseball. All of a sudden I see this and I don't believe what I'm seeing.” To be sure, I pursued his reference to The New York Morning News of Oct. 22, sending away to the Library of Congress for a copy. After a bit of a wait, there it was, complete with an early version of a “box score.” It turned out that Wheaton had, in fact, been present on that occasion, as he was listed as the umpire.

My research resulted in an article that appeared in The National Pastime in May, 2004. For the most part, I believe my arguments were sound. Wheaton implies that the Gotham club was identical with the New York club that played the Brooklyn and Elysian Field matches of 1845 and 1846, a connection supported by the presence of Murphy and Miller from the earlier roster. A minor correction involves Corporal Thompson—according to Charles Comerford, the backyard of “Madison Cottage” did host the New York club in the early 40’s, but Thompson’s connection with the roadhouse apparently came later.

There was, I must confess, one major mistake—the result of wishful thinking and a need for illustrations. I knew that the famous daguerreotype of the Knickerbocker club featured Duncan Curry, “Doc” Adams, and Cartwright. Further research showed that William Tucker was also in the picture, as well as Henry Anthony, a pioneer of photography, associated with Matthew Brady. Given that all except Anthony were officers of the club, I thought it likely that the only unidentified figure was Wheaton. Although a comparison with the Society of Pioneers file photograph was inconclusive, I decided to go with my assumption. Since then, thanks to Monica Nucciarone, an image of Wheaton in his younger days has surfaced and, according to a prominent forensic scientist, it proves that I was wrong. I take some consolation, however, from the fact that the same question has been raised about Cartwright. My best guess is that the daguerreotype dates from 1849, when the Knickerbockers adopted a uniform, including straw hats—some months after Wheaton and Cartwright had departed for California. I suspect that my “Wheaton” is actually Walter Avery.