Baseball Anecdotes

Baseball Anecdotes

by Daniel Okrent, Steve Wulf

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From its winners to its sinners, two bestselling sportswriters chronicle a dizzying trip through more than a century of baseball lore and legend.
Some of the stories are celebrated—from Ruth’s called shot to DiMaggio’s streak to Mays’s catch. Some of the men are titans of the game—Mantle, Williams, Koufax. But alongside those stories passed from generation to generation, Daniel Okrent and Steve Wulf have assembled tales both hard-to-believe and a pleasure to read. From the Black Sox scandal to Bill Veeck’s bizarre promotions, from its icons and iconoclasts, from the humble origins of the game to the landmark moments that made it the national pastime, Baseball Anecdotes reveals the enthralling (and often amusing) game that goes on both on the field and behind the scenes of baseball.
“A dandy introduction to the game.” —Newsweek
“A must . . . Its greatest value might be to those of us who want to pass along baseball lore to our children.” —San Jose Mercury News
“Beguiling . . . A history of the game in stories . . . Comic, tragic, controversial.” —The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626813601
Publisher: Diversion Books
Publication date: 07/20/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 120,663
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Daniel Okrent is the managing editor of Life, the author of Nine Innings, and the coauthor of The Ultimate Baseball Book.

Read an Excerpt


Part One

The Book of Genesis

From Cartwright's Code to Delahanty's Death

Abner Doubleday

This first story was passed down as the gospel truth by sportscaster Bill Stern, and though it has absolutely no basis in fact, it is irresistible:

Abraham Lincoln is lying near death following the shooting at Ford's Theatre. With his closest advisers gathered around him, he calls over Major General Abner Doubleday. "Abner," whispers Lincoln, "don't ... let ... baseball ... die." And with those final words, Lincoln goes down swinging.

As writer Art Hill had it, if that story is true, Doubleday probably would have replied, "What's baseball?" For Doubleday is not the man who invented baseball, but rather the man whom baseball invented. He was a remarkable man, to be sure, a West Point graduate who sighted the first gun fired at Fort Sumter. He died in 1893 before anyone got around to asking him if he was, indeed, the inventor of baseball. He certainly made no such claim.

The myth about his youthful inventiveness in Cooperstown, New York, wasn't actually concocted until 1907, when Albert Goodwill Spalding formed a commission to discover the game's true origins. The basis for the group's finding was, in the words of the official report, a circumstantial statement by a "reputable gentleman." The reputable gentleman, an octogenarian mining engineer from Denver named Abner Graves, said that when he was a lad in Cooperstown in 1939, Abner Doubleday once drew a diagram of a diamond for a game of "Town-Ball" in farmer Elihu Phinney's pasture. Commission Chairman Mills, an Otis Elevator executive and Civil War veteran who happened to have served under Doubleday, wrote: "I can well understand how the orderly mind of the embryo West Pointer would devise a scheme for limiting the contestants on each side and allotting them to field positions, each with a certain amount of territory."

Not exactly an iron-clad case, especially given the fact that Doubleday was actually attending West Point at the time he was supposed to be inventing baseball.

As for the true origins of baseball, there are two schools of thought, as there are for the origins of life itself: creation vs. evolution. Many scholars maintain that a bank clerk and volunteer fireman named Alexander Joy Cartwright invented baseball. Spalding himself referred to Henry Chadwick, the game's first great sportswriter, as "the father of baseball." But Chadwick knew the game was derived from cricket and rounders. As early as 1796, Jane Austen mentioned a game of "base ball" in Northanger Abbey, and this anonymous poem appeared inA Little Pretty PocketBook in 1744:

B is for Base-ball The ball once struck off Away flies the boy To the next destined post And then home with joy.

Alexander Joy Cartwright

Cartwright does get an assist. He and his friends used to play a version of Town Ball in a Manhattan field located near what is now 34th Street and Lexington Avenue. The story goes that one day Cartwright showed up with a diagram of a diamond, plotting the bases 42 paces (90 feet) apart. He was also credited with making the game nine innings and limiting the number of players to nine a side, but those claims are a little more dubious. Cartwright was certainly the prime mover in organizing his friends into the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, which officially came into being on September 23, 1845. Their first official game, not played until the following summer — June 19, 1846, to be exact — took place across the Hudson River in New Jersey at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken. Against a team called the New York Nine, the Knickerbockers went down to a resounding 23-1 defeat, but there is some cause to believe that the Knickerbockers lost on purpose to encourage the other team to actively pursue this new sport. For one thing, Cartwright, one of their best players, only served as the umpire.

But even in that capacity, Cartwright, was a pioneer. During the game, he fined a player named James Whyte Davis half a york shilling for swearing.

In 1849 Cartwright, who looked like Father Christmas, headed west in search of gold. He was a sort of Johnny Appleseed, teaching baseball along the way to settlers and Indians alike. He didn't find gold, though, and decided to seek his fortune in China. This son of a sea captain got seasick on the first leg of his voyage and so settled in Hawaii, where he became a respected merchant and eventually a friend of the Royal Family. In 1892, Cartwright died a rich man, revered by Hawaiians but forgotten by baseball. The oversight was partially atoned for in 1939, one hundred years after Doubleday supposedly invented baseball, when Babe Ruth placed flower leis on Cartwright's grave in Nuannu Cemetery.

Henry Chadwick

If not exactly the birthplace of baseball, the Elysian Fields in Hoboken may be thought of as the nursery. While covering a cricket match there for the Long Island Star in 1856, Henry Chadwick became enthralled with a baseball game he saw on the outskirts of a cricket field. He soon became the game's foremost authority, writing the first rule book. In 1859, for a game between the Stars and Excelsiors in South Brooklyn, he introduced the first box score. For the next forty-five years, he wrote for the Brooklyn Eagle, championing and safeguarding his sport. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in its first year.

Chadwick was a bit of a stiff, though. He woke up every morning at five, took a cold dip, ate a light breakfast, and began to write. Active into his eighties, Chadwick was a great advocate of Turkish baths. Typical of his lectures was this excerpt from his column in an 1887 issue of Sporting Life: "If this season teaches anything ... it is the utter folly of expecting good play and thorough teamwork out of a party of players, the majority of whom take no care of themselves in keeping their bodies in a healthy condition for the exacting work of the diamond field. To suppose that a man can play ball properly who guzzles beer daily, or indulges in spiritous liquors, or who sets up nightly gambling or does worse by still more enervating habits at brothels is nonsense."

The Wright Brothers

Baseball has its own version of the Wright brothers. By the end of the Civil War, baseball's Wrights, Harry and George, sons of a famous British cricketer, could often be found on the Elysian Fields. In 1865, Harry left New York to take a $1,200-a-year job as an instructor at the Union Cricket Club in Cincinnati. The next year he formed the first professional baseball club, the Red Stockings, recruiting for his lineup some of the best players in the land, including his brother George, a shortstop. Here is the roster of the first professional team, together with the players's occupations and salaries:

P Asa Brainard, insurance $1,100
C Doug Allison, marblecutter 800
1B Charles Gould, bookkeeper 800
2B Charles Sweasy, hatter 800
SS George Wright, engraver 1,400
3B Fred Waterman, insurance 1,000
LF Andrew Leonard, hatter 800
CF Harry Wright, jeweler 1,200
RF Cal McVey, piano maker 800

Harry Wright was a pretty good player: He once hit seven home runs in a game, and as a pitcher he supposedly threw the first changeup. But his true genius was as an organizer and a manager of men. In 1869 he put the Red Stockings on the road, traveling 11,877 miles and drawing some 200,000 spectators. The team would go on to win 91 consecutive games, a string that was frayed only by a tie with a team from Troy, N.Y., and broken in Brooklyn in June of 1870.

Harry also had a flair for promotion. His players would ride out to the field in decorated carriages, singing:

We are a band of baseball players From Cincinnati city.
We come to toss the ball around And sing to you our ditty.
And if you listen to the song We are about to sing,
We'll tell you all about base ball And make the welkin ring.

Harry, borrowing an idea from the theatre, kept a "property bouquet" around, which he would present to any of his players who had performed especially well. The ceremony became so common, however, that his players started turning down his flowers.

Still and all, Harry Wright was much beloved, and as early as 1874, he was being called "the father of the game." He managed every year until 1893, when he retired to become the chief of umpires. He died at the age of sixty in 1895 and was given a huge funeral in Philadelphia. One of the floral arrangements spelled out "Safe At Home."

George Wright was the game's first great shortstop. In 1869 with the Red Stockings, he scored 339 runs in 57 games, with 49 homers and a .629 batting average. He was one of the dominant hitters in the National Association, the first professional league, but his skills began to diminish after the National League came into being in 1876. He managed only one season, in Providence in 1879, and beat his brother Harry's Boston club by five games to win the pennant. He remains the lone major league manager to have won a pennant in his only season.

In the 1890s, George Wright came away from a baseball game sneering, "Imagine, players wearing gloves. We didn't need them in our day." George, however, made a nice living by selling baseball gloves through his early sporting goods conglomerate, Wright & Ditson, until he was ninety. His last contribution to baseball was of a dubious nature, however. He was a member of the Mills Commission which credited Abner Doubleday with the invention of baseball. He should have known better, having trod the same turf as Cartwright. Unfortunately George never attended any of the commission meetings.

Red Stockings Vs. Brooklyn

The game in which the Red Stockings' 91-game undefeated streak ended took place at the Capitoline grounds in Brooklyn against the Atlantics on June 14, 1870. As it turned out, it was baseball's first truly great game. While 12,000 fans tried to squeeze into a park built for 5,000, the Cincinnati club took a 2-0 lead in the first inning, justifying the pre-game odds of 5 to 1. But then a pitchers' duel between Brainard of the Red Stockings and George (The Charmer) Zettlein of the Atlantics developed, and at the end of nine innings the score was tied at 5-5 (a very low total for the era). Brooklyn considered this a moral victory. But, as the crowd spilled out onto the field and the Atlantics hugged each other, Harry Wright and the Brooklyn captain, Bob Ferguson, called upon Henry Chadwick. "The game should be resumed and continued until one team scores sufficient runs to win the game," the great man intoned.

So the field was cleared of spectators, and the game resumed. The Red Stockings failed to score in the top of the tenth, and the Atlantics might have scored in their half of the inning but for some gamesmanship by George Wright. With runners on first and second and one out, the Atlantics batter hit a soft popup to the shortstop. Wright cupped his hands as if to catch the ball, but let it trickle through his hands to the ground. He then tossed to Waterman at third for the force, and Waterman threw to Sweasy at second for a double play. This trick later gave birth to the infield fly rule; but for the time being, the fans were furious with rage. According to one account, "George was the victim of every name on the rooter's calendar ... but through the atmospheric blue streaks, his white teeth gleamed and glistened in provoking amiability." Cincinnati scored two runs in the top of the twelfth, and as the sun began to set, so did the hopes of Brooklyn. Fans began to leave to beat the rush.

Then Charlie Smith led off for the Atlantics with a single and went to third on a wild pitch. The next batter, Joe Start, hit a long ball to right field that landed on the fringes of the crowd. When McVey attempted to pick it up, a Brooklyn fan climbed on his back. By the time he threw the fan off his back and returned the ball to the infield, Smith had scored and Start was standing on third.

The next batter was out, and then Ferguson, a right-handed hitter, surprised the Red Stockings by taking a left-handed stance. The captain wanted to avoid hitting the ball toward George Wright, and thus became the first recorded switchhitter. He ripped the ball through the right side of the infield to tie the score, and the crowd went wild. Bothered by either the crowd or the gathering dusk, first baseman Gould bobbled a grounder, threw wide of second in an attempt to get Ferguson, and watched in despair as the Atlantics captain came all the way around to score. Brooklyn won 8-7, and Cincinnati's 91game unbeaten streak was over.

The Atlantics had a number of players of note in their lineup against Cincinnati. "Charmer" Zettlein, an ex-sailor who had served under Admiral Farragut, was the hardest thrower of his day. Despite his nickname, Zettlein was not able to talk his way out of a case of mistaken identity during the Chicago Fire of 1871, when a mob took him for a looter and beat him severely. He still went on to win 125 games in the five years of the National Association.

Brooklyn's shortstop was the diminutive, five-foot-three Dickey Pearce. Pearce, for one thing, invented the bunt. For another, he was the first shortstop actually to position himself between second and third; until Pearce came along, shortstops inhabited the shallow outfield.

The second baseman for the Atlantics was Lipman Pike, the first great Jewish ballplayer. Pike, in fact, appeared in his first boxscore in 1858, one week after his Bar Mitzvah. He and his brother Boaz played for the Atlantics after the Civil War, but in 1866 the Philadelphia Athletics offered him $20 a week to play third base. By 1870 he was back with Brooklyn, and he played and managed another seventeen years until he retired from baseball at forty-two to go into the haberdashery business. Pike once ran a race against a standardbred horse named Charlie for $200 — and won. The 100-yard race went off on August 27, 1873: The horse was allowed to start 25 yards behind the line, and Pike took off when the horse reached him. They were neck-and-neck for most of the race, and when Pike began to pull away, the horse broke stride and began to gallop. Pike still won by four yards.

Bob Ferguson, the captain of the Atlantics, was known as "Death to Flying Things." He was also death to eardrums. Ferguson was a forceful man who talked incessantly and was given to rages. Sam Crane, a ballplayer in the nineteenth century and a sportswriter in the twentieth, once wrote of Ferguson, "Turmoil was his middle name, and if he wasn't mixed up prominently in a scrap of some kind nearly every day, he would imagine he had not been of any use to the baseball fraternity and the community in general." Various stories have Ferguson fighting off an angry crowd with a bat and, when he was an umpire, using that same implement to break an impudent player's arm.

The National Association

The first professional league was formed on St. Patrick's Day in 1871 in a meeting at Collier's Cafe at 13th Street and Broadway in New York. The official name of the new body was the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players; the teams included the Philadelphia Athletics, the Chicago White Stockings, the Boston Red Stockings, the Washington Olympics, the Troy Haymakers, the New York Mutuals, the Cleveland Forest Citys (who introduced the concept of season tickets), the Rockford (111.) Forest Citys, and the unforgettable Fort Wayne Kekiongas. The franchise fee was all of $10, and the money was used to purchase a pennant for the championship club. The NA teams played an irregular schedule of about thirty games, but they produced a pretty good race for the $90 pennant, as the Athletics beat the Red Stockings by a game and a half and the White Stockings by two games.

Among the players that first year were two future stars of the game, Rockford third baseman Adrian (Cap) Anson and Cleveland catcher James (Deacon) White; three future sporting-goods magnates, second baseman Alfred Reach of the Athletics, pitcher Albert Spalding of the Red Stockings, and George Wright; the splendidly named center-fielder of the Athletics, John Phillips Jenkins (Count) Sensendorfer; the first Latin ballplayer, Troy third baseman Esteban (The Cuban Sylph) Bellan; and Chicago second baseman Jimmy Wood, the man who invented spring training when he took the White Stockings down to New Orleans prior to the 1870 season.

The National Association years were the prime of William Arthur Cummings, the 120-pounder pitcher who's in the Hall of Fame on the dubious claim that he was the inventor of the curveball. "Candy" Cummings, who once won 35 games in a season, is said to have gotten the idea for the curve while throwing a clamshell as a youngster in Ware, Mass., then trying to duplicate its arc with a baseball. What Cummings really did invent was a coupling device for railroad cars that paid him a small royalty in his later years.


Excerpted from "Baseball Anecdotes"
by .
Copyright © 1989 Daniel Okrent.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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