"Inventing" Baseball: Alexander Cartwright

The inventor of baseball? Will this question ever be answered?

After debunking the Doubleday Myth, it leads one to wonder how baseball came and spread to become what it is today. The simple answer is Alexander Cartwright.

Alexander Joy Cartwright II was born on April 17, 1820 in New York City, New York as one of six children. A bookseller and volunteer fireman in Manhattan, Cartwright founded the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in 1842. He named the club after the Knickerbocker Fire Engine Company. Originally, they played a version of “townball”, believed to be a descendent of the English game of “rounders”, but Cartwright and the other members thought the game too childish. In 1845, Cartwright sat down and created a more elaborate game for adults as well as writing down the rules to be used for the game. These rules would be the basis for baseball going forward.

There were twenty in the original plan. Several of them remain intact, such as three outs, not being able to throw at runners, and foul balls (among a few others), but some of them have been changed, such as being able to “throw” when one pitches and a strikeout still counting as an out if the ball bounces once into the catcher on the third strike. Townball was already popular in the Northeast, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to see this sport spread as well.

As for how the rules changed from townball, the bases were extended to around 90 feet (“42 paces”), foul areas were added which narrowed the hitting area and alleviated the need for so many players (9 players wasn’t official at first, but the first game used 9 a side and stuck), and runners could not be thrown at (called “soaking” — I have no idea why) which allowed for harder balls to be used.

The first game would be played on June 19, 1846 at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey between the Knickerbockers and the New York Nine, with the Nine winning 23-1 (how do you lose a game you created, especially so badly?). Cartwright didn’t stick around to see how the game spread in the area as he set out for California in 1849 in the Gold Rush. Cartwright, however, brought the game with him and spread it to every city he encountered, using the same rules he set up in New York.

While in California, he came down with dysentery and feared the coming cholera epidemic due to the unsanitary conditions in California. To avoid becoming sicker, he left for Hawaii. He organized some teams on the Hawaiian islands. In 1857, a convention of teams came together to form the National Association of Base Ball Players and became the first organized league. Baseball was thriving.

Unfortunately, history rarely gives us simple answers. Robert Henderson’s 1947 book Bat, Ball, and Bishop gives a lot of credit to Cartwright, and journalists supported that when they looked at Cartwright’s journals in the 1930’s. Others, however, are more skeptical. Some think that giving Cartwright credit just makes him Doubleday’s replacement, still keeping baseball created by one American. Others question the beginning of baseball, saying games were played earlier with essentially the same rules except for minor details such as playing with 7 on a side. Some now believe Daniel Lucius Adams will discredit Cartwright as Cartwright discredited Abner Doubleday.

Still, Cartwright did come up with a set of rules remarkably similar to those of today. He died in Hawaii on July 12, 1892, but it wasn’t until the 1930’s that he received any major credit for setting up and spreading the game. He would be elected to the Hall of Fame in 1938 as a pioneer of the game.

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