Cartwright, Alexander Joy, Jr.

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CARTWRIGHT, Alexander Joy, Jr.

(b. 17 April 1820 in New York City; d. 12 July 1892 in Honolulu, Hawaii), baseball pioneer, civic leader, and businessman who helped codify baseball's playing rules and establish the game's diamond-shaped field geometry.

Cartwright was the oldest of seven children (three sons and four daughters) of Alexander J. Cartwright, a ship's master and marine surveyor, and Ester Burlock Cartwright. His formal schooling ended in 1836 when his father's fortunes temporarily, but severely, reversed (probably during the early stages of the economically devastating Panic of 1837).

Cartwright held various jobs, including a stint as a clerk at a New York City brokerage before achieving the respected position of teller at the Union Bank. In 1845 he and his brother Alfred opened a bookstore/stationer's shop on Wall Street. In June 1842 he married Eliza Ann Gerrits Van Wie, daughter of a prominent Albany, New York, family. By 1848 they had four children.

Like many young men of his day, Cartwright played "town ball," a primitive version of baseball that had evolved from the British game of "rounders." He and his cronies (properly dubbed "apprentice capitalists" by his biographer) had probably been playing together since 1842. Seemingly at Cartwright's behest, they organized formally on 23 September 1845 as the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York, with a set of playing rules that have served as the foundation of the contemporary game.

These rules are generally attributed to Cartwright and account for his appellation as the "Father of Modern Baseball," although serious questions have been raised about his supposed sole authorship and about just what he proposed. It is clear that the rules called for a regular rotation of batters, allowing each side three outs before the inning was completed, laying out the playing field as a diamond rather than a square, providing for foul lines, and eliminating the practice of retiring a runner by hitting him with a thrown ball. The rules sped up and simplified the game. But the sixth edition of Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball (1999) convincingly maintains that Cartwright "assuredly did NOT do … any of the three central things credited to him on his plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame" (that is, set nine innings as a game, limit a team to nine players on the field, and establish bases ninety feet apart).

Actually, Cartwright did not become widely known for his baseball activities until the late 1930s. In the early years of the twentieth century, a commission had been established at the instigation of sporting goods manufacturer A. G. Spalding to delve into the origins of baseball. The members, like its prime mover, wanted to determine that baseball was a purely American game and reported that it had been invented by Civil War general Abner Doubleday in 1839 and was first played in Cooperstown, New York.

This myth, although challenged almost from the first moments of its publication, served as the basis for a promotional centennial celebration planned for 1939. The previous year, while plans for that celebration were being finalized, Cartwright's grandson wrote the organizers, sending along a diary, clippings, and other materials detailing his grandfather's activity. The celebration went forward, and the Doubleday myth was allowed for the moment to stand, but Cartwright was acknowledged and elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame (which was conceived in 1935 as part of the centennial promotion, electing its first inductees in 1936).

On learning of the California gold strikes, Cartwright left New York City for the West Coast in March 1849. For some 150 days he and some friends trekked across the country, arriving in San Francisco at the beginning of August. Legend has it that "the extended travel time was created by frequent stopovers devoted to demonstrations" by Cartwright and party of his brand of baseball to fellow travelers and in settlements, large and small, along the way.

The adventuresome Cartwright stayed only briefly in San Francisco, soon shipping out to the Sandwich Islands (as Hawaii was then known). He arrived in Oahu, the most settled of the islands, on 28 August 1849. He made at least two voyages back to California before settling permanently in Honolulu and sending for his wife and children, who, after an arduous voyage around Cape Horn, arrived in 1851.

Cartwright flourished in Hawaii. As he told a correspondent in 1865, "Though by no means rich, I am independent and occupy an excellent position in society." His various enterprises included a general merchandise business, and, while Honolulu was a whaling center, he successfully served as an agent for American companies involved in that industry. For a time he served as Peruvian consul in Honolulu. Cartwright and Company engaged in banking, insurance, ship chandlering, and real estate. Until his death, Cartwright served as a financial advisor to successive generations of Hawaii's ruling royal family.

Within a year of his arrival in Hawaii, the civic-minded Cartwright, a former New York City volunteer fireman, formed Honolulu's first fire department, which he headed for several years. Cartwright was involved in a variety of capacities with different groups, including the Honolulu Library and Reading Room, the Masons, the Queen's Hospital, and such charitable organizations as the Honolulu American Seaman's Institute.

According to his son Bruce, Cartwright "never forgot Base Ball." He maintained an ardent interest in the game as a promoter, player, and rooter. In 1852, well before baseball became the American national pastime, Cartwright laid out a diamond-shaped field in Honolulu's Makiki Park, introducing baseball as the Knickerbocker rules had restructured the game. Over the years he organized clubs, and the imposing six-foot, two-inch, white-bearded Cartwright would even visit elementary schools, using chalk and blackboard to arouse the children's interest in baseball.

Cartwright died in Honolulu and is buried in Nuuanu (now Oahu) Cemetery in Honolulu. His death went virtually unnoticed in the United States. In 1939, as a result of the rediscovery of Cartwright, baseball immortal Babe Ruth, while on a trip to Hawaii, visited his grave, Makiki Park and a street were renamed in Cartwright's honor, and a plaque describing his activities was placed at City Hall.

Cartwright's contributions to Hawaii are clear and significant. However, his ascribed role in baseball's development has fluctuated dramatically. For a brief moment in time during the 1840s he had some impact. Then he was forgotten. But the game's flawed centennial celebration resulted in his rediscovery. Over the years since 1939 his contribution to baseball has again been somewhat downgraded, but he is accepted and recognized as a seminal figure in the game's early days who helped to codify the rules and field setup that govern the modern sport.

An Alexander Cartwright file containing clippings, documents, and copies of articles by and about Cartwright is in the A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Center of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library. Harold Peterson's interesting biography, The Man Who Invented Baseball (1973), spends more time on the trip across the United States than on Cartwright's other ventures. See also Lowell Reidenbaugh, Baseball's Hall of Fame: Cooperstown, Where Legends Live Forever (1986).

Daniel J. Leab