Cartwright, Alexander

views updated May 18 2018

Alexander Cartwright


American baseball pioneer

Ask baseball fans the name of their sport's founder, and most will answer "Abner Doubleday." Yet it was not the Civil War general who laid down the groundwork for America's most popular game. The man who did perhaps the most to formalize and codify modern baseball was one Alexander Cartwright, a New York City banker. Neither Cartwright nor Doubleday can truly be credited with inventing baseballwhich traces its roots back to a centuries-old English children's game known as "rounders"yet it was Cartwright who founded the first official baseball club, the Knickerbockers, in 1845, and who published the first set of formal rules for the game in September of that year.

Formed First Recognized Baseball Team

Alexander Joy Cartwright, Jr., was born on April 17, 1820, in New York City. The son of a marine surveyor

and former sea captain, Cartwright grew up in lower Manhattan, where as a boy he played the common children's game known alternately as rounders, base ball, or town ball. He attended school until age 16, when he left to become a bank clerk, and later, a volunteer firefighter. In 1842 he married Eliza Ann Gerrits Van Wie, who hailed from an old Dutch family near Albany.

A strapping, unusually tall man for his day, at 6 feet 2 inches, Cartwright was popular among a crowd of young New York bankers, lawyers, and businessmen, who on fair days after work gathered to play rounders at Parade Ground meadow or at Madison Square. In 1845, 25-year-old Cartwrightknown to his friends as Alickproposed that the group create an organized club. Thus was born the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, named after a disbanded firefighter company where Cartwright had once volunteered. Cartwright was named secretary and vice-president when the club formed in September of that year.

Perhaps more important than Cartwright's creation of the club was the Knickerbockers' official organization of the game with a constitution and bylaws. The bylawssome 14 written rules created by Cartwright and his club matestransformed baseball from a folk sport, with rules passed down orally over the centuries, to a formal, structured sport. The rules also made the game less rough-and-tumble and more genteel, since they abolished the common practice of soaking or pluggingthat is, hitting the runner with the ball to make an out. This change made it safer for players to use a harder ball, which led to a faster, more exciting game. Other bylaws Cartwright instituted included the diamond-shaped field, the rules of fair and foul territories, and the 90-foot distance between each of the four bases.

Cartwright is often credited with establishing the rule that nine players compose a baseball team; however, the Knickerbockers were not consistent with their number of players, which, in a given game, ranged from 8 to 12. The position of shortstopa player between the second and third bases, whose job was mainly to relay throws from the outfield to the infieldwas not instituted until 1849. Nor was it Cartwright who established the nine-inning game length, which was created by a convention of players in 1857. In the early days of the sport, the game would end when the first team scored a winning 21 runs.

The first organized baseball team needed an opponent, so the Knickerbockers advertised for games. Stepping up to the challenge was a team called the New York Nine. Since lower Manhattan had become increasingly more urban and there was little space for a baseball diamond, the players had sought out new territory across the Hudson River in then-rural Hoboken, New Jersey. To get there, both clubs crossed the river by ferry, then walked to Elysian Fields, a picturesque park and a popular holiday destination. It is Elysian Fields that takes credit for hosting the first recognized modern baseball game, between the Knickerbockers and the New York Nine, on June 19, 1846.

Spread the Rules of the Game

Cartwright did not remain with the Knickerbockers very long. In March of 1849, the 29-year-old bank clerk, like so many other Americans, followed the California Gold Rush in hopes of making his fortune out west. Yet he did not abandon baseball; rather, he took it with him. A kind of Johnny Appleseed of the sport, Cartwright helped spread the game as he traveled across the country by train, covered wagon, and foot. From Pittsburgh to Cincinnati to the Midwest to San Francisco, he taught the sport to locals and encouraged the creation of formal clubs.

Though the game spread first through the northeastern United States, within 15 years baseball had taken root across the country. While Cartwright played a role in its burgeoning popularity, it was the American Civil War (1861-1865) that prompted the game's growth as a national pastime. Union soldiers formed teams and Confederate prisoners picked up the rules of the game; when the soldiers returned home, they took the sport with them.

When Cartwright arrived in San Francisco, the Gold Rush was over; he stayed only six weeks, but in that short time he did much to spread the word about baseball in that city. Deciding to return to New York, he boarded a ship set to sail across the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans. Yet water travel did not suit Cartwright, who fell ill and disembarked at the Sandwich Islands-known today as Hawaii. Regaining his health and falling in love with the lush islands, he decided to stay. Cartwright's wife and children joined him in 1851.

Naturally, Cartwright taught baseball to the islanders and formed Hawaiian baseball clubswhich explains why the sport took hold in Honolulu even before it became established in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago. Cartwright is also credited with giving Honolulu its first volunteer fire department, of which he served as chief for ten years. The enterprising man quickly grew prosperous, becoming one of the Honolulu's leading bankers and merchants, and managing the finances of Hawaii's royal family. Cartwright was also active in local government. Among his contributions as a civic leader were the founding of the Hawaiian city's first library and first major hospital.


1820Born on April 17 in New York
1842Marries Eliza Ann Gerrits Van Wie
1845Organizes first formal baseball club, the Knickerbockers; draws up first set of baseball rules on September 23
1846Plays in first recognized modern baseball game, between the Knickerbockers and the New York Nine, on June 19
1849Leaves New York in March to seek gold in California
1849Leaves California by boat; arrives in Hawaii in late August
1851Wife and children join him in Hawaii
1852Introduces baseball in Honolulu
1892Dies in Honolulu on July 12

Awards and Accomplishments

1938Inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame for originating the sport's basic concepts
1953Acknowledged by the U.S. Congress to be the founder of modern baseball
1956City of Hoboken, New Jersey, dedicates a plaque to Cartwright for his organization of the first official baseball games at Hoboken's Elysian Fields

Recognized for Contribution to Sport

When he died on July 12, 1892, Cartwright was one of Honolulu's most respected citizens. He never returned to the mainland United States to see just how popular his beloved sport had becomeand in the world of baseball, his contribution was largely forgotten. It was not until 1938, when a special committee of baseball veterans reviewed his journals, that Cartwright gained proper recognition. That year, he was elected to Baseball's Hall of Fame for originating the sport's basic concepts. Even today, only the most well-versed sports historians and enthusiasts recognize Cartwright as the true father of modern American baseball.



Peterson, Harold. The Man Who Invented Baseball. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973.


"Honolulu's Link to Baseball History." Travel Weekly (June 19, 1997): 29.

"Time Trip." Current Events (December 7, 2001): 2.


"Alexander Cartwright." (October 4, 2002).

"Alexander Cartwright." Baseball Hall of Fame. (October 3, 2002).

Biography Resource Center. Detroit: The Gale Group, 2002.

"Cartwright, Alexander J." Hickok (October 4, 2002).

Sketch by Wendy Kagan

Alexander Cartwright

views updated May 11 2018

Alexander Cartwright

Contrary to the official myth about the origin of the sport, Alexander Cartwright (1820-1898) is the man who should be credited with doing the most to invent the modern game of baseball. In 1845, Cartwright laid out the key rules of the game, including the dimensions of the field. He was enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame even as baseball's establishment propagated a myth that Civil War General Abner Doubleday invented baseball.

In 1846, Cartwright and other members of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club played the first recognized baseball game in Hoboken, New Jersey, at a park called the Elysian Fields. Cartwright later traveled west across the United States, spreading the game as far as California and Hawaii. But during his lifetime he was never properly credited by organized baseball for his pioneering efforts.

From Rounders to Base Ball

Baseball, commonly called America's national pastime, was adapted from a British game known as "rounders." Rounders was a simplified offshoot of cricket, and it was played primarily by children in Britain and in the British colonies of North America in the 1700s (and later in the United States in the 1800s). It was also sometimes called "base ball." Adults in some colonies, such as Massachusetts, played a version known as "town ball." In all these pick-up games, a pitcher threw a ball, an opponent used a stick or bat to strike it, and then the hitter attempted to run to one or more bases. Runners were "put out" when fielders threw the ball and hit them; this was called "soaking." There were few if any standard rules to the game, and the number of players on a team, the number of bases, and the distances between the bases were largely a matter of local custom or pre-game negotiations.

Alexander Cartwright was born in New York City on April 17, 1820. After leaving school at the age of 16, he became a clerk at a bank. Later on, he also became a volunteer fireman. In the evenings, Cartwright joined other young New York businessmen, lawyers and doctors who got together to play a version of rounders. Their sport came to be known as the "New York game" to distinguish it from the "Massachusetts game" of "town ball."

For several years, Cartwright belonged to a group called the New York Base Ball Club. In 1845, some members of that group joined with others and organized a new group, the Knickerbocker Club. Cartwright was appointed secretary and vice-president of the club when it wrote down a formal constitution in September of that year.

Codified Rules of the Game

Cartwright took a leadership role in suggesting to other members of the Knickerbocker Club that they write down a set of rules for the game they played. Up until then the traditions of the game had been passed down orally but never codified. Cartwright was one of four members who decided upon 14 written rules. The dimensions of Madison Square, where the Knickerbocker Club most often played, necessitated the most important rules. One rule eliminated the circular field common to cricket and established fair and foul territory. The club members limited the number of bases to four (including home plate), fixed them in the shape of a diamond, and set them 90 feet apart. Cartwright and the other Knickerbocker rule makers also outlawed the practice of soaking, because they considered it rude and ungentle-manly. The more genteel activities of tagging a runner with the ball, or getting the ball to a base before a runner reached that base, became the accepted ways to retire a runner.

Cartwright later was credited with instituting two other key rule changes: setting the number of players at nine for each side, and fixing the length of a game at nine innings. But baseball historians dispute whether Cartwright and the other Knickerbocker rule makers really should be credited with these innovations. For the first several years of their existence, the Knickerbockers usually played with eight men-three infielders (one standing near each base), three outfielders, a pitcher and a catcher. In other games they used 9, 10 or even 12 players. The position of shortstop apparently was not solidified until 1849, when it was established as a means of relaying throws from the outfield to the infield. (The ball used at the time was so light that players could not throw it all the way in from the outfield with one throw.) As far as the length of the game, it was not until 1857 that a convention of ball players decided upon nine innings; up until then, the first team to score 21 runs was generally the winner.

Elysian Fields to Hawaii

Once the Knickerbockers had agreed upon their rules, they began advertising for games. Their first opponent was a team called the New York Nine. On June 19, 1846, the teams traveled from Manhattan across the Hudson River to Hoboken, New Jersey, and played the first recognized baseball game at a park known as the Elysian Fields. Cartwright, who wrote in his diary that he was one of the best Knickerbocker players, did not play in the first game. Instead, he served as umpire and collected a six-cent fine from any player who used profanity. Ironically, the Knickerbockers lost the game, under the rules they had invented, by the decisive score of 23 to 1.

Cartwright remained with the Knickerbockers for four more years, during which the team played many other games with the New York Nine and other local clubs. Records of the games and of Cartwright's play are unavailable. Under the leadership of Cartwright and the other Knickerbockers, baseball soon became a favorite pastime for many young New York men. In those years it was not played by factory workers (who had no time or energy after their 12-hour or longer days) but mainly by clerks, attorneys, physicians and businessmen who had time after work to play in the late afternoons.

By early 1949, Cartwright, like thousands of other Americans, came down with a bad case of gold fever after hearing of the discoveries of gold in California. On March 1, he headed west, never to return to New York. As he journeyed across the country by train, by wagon and by foot, he took the game of baseball with him. Like the legendary Johnny Appleseed, Cartwright spread seeds for the sport that had become so popular in a few eastern cities. Among his stops was Cincinnati, which would be a cornerstone of the National League when it was formed in 1876. He made his way across the Great Plains and taught the sport of baseball to locals in many places. In August he arrived in San Francisco, but by then the great gold rush was over.

Cartwright remained in San Francisco for six weeks, hoping that he still might strike gold somewhere. During that time he helped to establish the game of baseball in that city. He finally decided to return to New York, this time on a ship sailing across the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans. But he fell ill and was put ashore in Hawaii, then known as the Sandwich Islands.

Cartwright recovered from his illness and fell in love with the islands. He began teaching the islanders how to play baseball and forming local leagues. As a result of his activity, baseball became firmly established in Honolulu well before it was introduced to cities such as Detroit and Chicago. Back in New York City, the Knickerbockers and other clubs continued to play, and the game soon became popular all around the country. During the Civil War, troops played baseball during breaks in combat.

Cartwright's wife and children joined him in 1851. He founded the Honolulu Fire Department and served as the city's fire chief for ten years. Cartwright set up a number of businesses and became a wealthy man as well as a civic leader. He served in several government positions, and helped to establish the islands' library system and one of its foremost hospitals.

Cartwright never returned to the mainland to witness the spread of the game that he was so instrumental in popularizing. He died in Honolulu on July 12, 1898— largely unknown to the outside world. The first diamond he laid out is now called Cartwright Field. His grave has been visited by many famous baseball players, including Babe Ruth.

The Doubleday Myth

Cartwright's place in baseball history was ignored for many decades. In the mid-1930s, the National Baseball Hall of Fame was opened in Cooperstown, New York. A commission of high-ranking baseball officials was set up to determine who should be credited with inventing the game. The real history of the sport was largely lost, but the commission was eager to discredit any link to the British sport of cricket. The commission fixated on an apocryphal story involving a Civil War hero, General Abner Doubleday. According to a myth that the leaders of baseball sanctioned, Doubleday invented baseball in a cow pasture in Cooperstown in 1838. Since the Hall of Fame was set to open in 1938, the story was a convenient fabrication—it posited that the museum was located in the birthplace of baseball, and that its opening would be a centennial. The commission ignored facts about baseball's true origins because it was determined that a genuine American hero be credited with inventing the national pastime.

When Cartwright's descendants heard about the Doubleday story, they registered a protest. Cartwright's grandson gave the Hall of Fame his grandfather's diaries as well as news clippings and other items that substantiated the role of Cartwright and the Knickerbockers in codifying many of the game's most important rules. However, the newspapers of the era carefully toed the official line because so much publicity had already been disseminated about Doubleday. So the public came to believe that Doubleday invented baseball. In fact, the general's connection to baseball was so tenuous that most historians believe he never even attended a game.

With little fanfare, Cartwright was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1939. His plaque characterizes him as the "Father of Modern Base Ball." Doubleday, however, was never enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Yet baseball's officials never took any other action to recant the Doubleday myth. The fabrication took on the status of received truth. The field at Cooperstown is still called Doubleday Field. And more than 60 years later, most Americans continued to believe that Doubleday was baseball's inventor.

The truth is more complicated. No single person invented baseball. It was adapted from rounders and gradually shaped into a distinctive American sport. But as a leader of the Knickerbockers, the man who first set down rules in writing, and the game's first traveling ambassador, Alexander Cartwright fully deserves credit as baseball's founding father.


Peterson, Harold, The Man Who Invented Baseball, Scribner, 1973.


"Alexander J. Cartwright," Hickok Sports,

"Alexander Cartwright," Mr. Baseball,

"Alexander Cartwright," Total Baseball,

"The Doubleday Myth," The Bench Warmer,

"The Father of Baseball," Hawai'i History Moments, □

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