The Unknowable Superstar (Part 2)

John Thorn, in his book Baseball in the Garden of Eden, opens a section on Jim Creighton with the following anecdote:

In a cricket exhibition in 1859, Creighton played for an American 16 against an English 11, and clean bowled five wickets in six successive balls, an impressive performance for any level of competition. When John Lillywhite, one of England’s top players, witnessed Crieghton throwing a baseball, he honed in on the problem that American batters faced on the diamond: “Why, that man is not bowling, he is throwing underhand. It is the best disguised underhand throwing I ever saw, and might readily be taken for a fair delivery.

It’s a great story, at once illustrating the young Creighton’s rise as one of America’s top all-around athletes, and also addressing the controversy that immediately sprang up around his ability to do on the mound what no other pitcher could do.

Unfortunately, none of it tracks with what we can prove.

The fall of 1859 was a significant season in cricket. That was the year that the cream of the English crop made their first tour of North America, a dozen of the very best professionals. It was likely the greatest international sports event since the original Olympic game had last been held. The English team played five full international exhibitions, in each case sending their own picked 11 against 22 of the opposition, thereby giving their opponents twice as many batters in each inning. It didn’t matter; the English were embarrassingly easy victors in each match.

One of those series was held from Oct. 3-5 at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J., against a United States 22. But Creighton didn’t play in that series, much less take five wickets in rapid succession from the best players in the world. Nor was he one of the 10 Americans chosen to fill out two teams when the English stars finished their week in New Jersey by splitting their squad for a more competitive series.

John Lillywhite
John Lillywhite

Lillywhite was indeed on that team of English internationals. His brother, Fred, was also along for the trip in a “traveling secretary” role. So significant was the tour that Fred Lillywhite published a book detailing the day-to-day events of the trip, The English Cricketers’ Trip to Canada and the United States in 1859, upon his return. There is no mention of Jim Creighton.

The problem with each half of the story is the source material. Creighton’s five-wicket performance comes from the 1891 New York Clipper Annual, a sports record book of sorts, in which the event is briefly chronicled in a section on great cricket bowling feats; it identifies the match as having taken place at Hoboken in 1860. The Lillywhite quote was found in a baseball column written by veteran sportswriter William Rankin . . . in an August 5, 1911 edition of the Clipper. In other words, 50 years or so after the fact, since Rankin puts the year at 1861. Considering that Rankin was 11 years old in 1860 and didn’t start his career as a sports writer for another decade, he’s clearly getting Lillywhite’s words second- or third-hand, most likely from the great Henry Chadwick himself.

More than likely, these events did happen in some way close to how they’re described. The best candidate for Creighton’s bowling performance was an 1861 match on October 1-2 between an English 11 and an American 22, in which Creighton registered five wickets on the first seven batters, although certainly not on six successive pitches. These “English” were not professional stars from across the pond, but likely British ex-pats who formed their own club in the New York area.

As for Lillywhite’s observations? Well, it’s easy to speculate. The English all-stars competed for six days in Hoboken that fall of 1859; isn’t it likely that an up-and-coming player like Creighton would attend at least a few of those days of competition? And might he have brought a baseball with him? And perhaps, might he have given a demonstration of his pitching skill on the sidelines, either to keep in shape for the Star Club’s big game the following week against the Atlantics, or maybe just to show off a little? And isn’t it possible that Lillywhite might have walked over to see what the fuss was about, and assessed the young hurler with a cricitcal eye?

Well, it’s possible, even plausible.

What’s the point, then, of putting these stories under this kind of microscope? Certainly not to disparage the scholarship of Thorn, one of our finest historians of baseball and 19th Century sports and culture, whose book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, is must-reading for anyone interested in the origins of the game and the jingoistic motivations of some to cast those origins as being wholly American.

No, this is more a cautionary note about trying to get a clear picture of a man like Jim Creighton, with one foot in fact and the other in legend. There are sources for much of Creighton’s on-field accomplishments, and just as much that eludes solid verification. As for a true sense of his character, that remains tantalizingly out of reach . . .

Photograph by Charles H. Williamson of Brooklyn features the Knickerbockers and Excelsiors at the Elysian Fields the year before Creighton joined the Excelsiors. Appearing in the image are some of Creighton’s future Excelsior teammates, including Henry Polhemus, A.T. Pearsall, John Holder and Ed Russell. Dr. J.B. Jones is the man in the middle, with top hat. Jones was the president of the Excelsiors and served as the umpire for this match.
Brooklyn Excelsiors, 1860. From left to right: Thomas Reynolds, SS; John Whiting, 3B; Jim Creighton, P; Henry D. Polhemus, 2B; Aleck T. Pearsall, 1B; Edwin Russell, LF; Joe Leggett, C; Asa Brainard, LF; and George Flanly, CF.
Brooklyn Excelsiors, 1860. From left to right: Thomas Reynolds, SS; John Whiting, 3B; Jim Creighton, P; Henry D. Polhemus, 2B; Aleck T. Pearsall, 1B; Edwin Russell, LF; Joe Leggett, C; Asa Brainard, LF; and George Flanly, CF.

In the spring of 1860, the Excelsior Club of Brooklyn was poised to ascend to the pinnacle of the baseball world. Already recognized as one of a handful of top teams, it excelled both at bat and in the field, and with Creighton now in the fold it had a weapon that could intimidate most of its foes. It had one of the finest-fielding first basemen in the game in A.T. Pearsall, a massive, slugging outfielder in Henry Pohlhemus, and talented, hard-hitting young infielders in John Holder, John Whiting and Asa Brainard.

Detail from image above featuring Joe Leggett on the left and Asa Brainard on the right.
Detail featuring Joe Leggett (left) and Asa Brainard (right).

But mostly, what it had, was Joe Leggett.

You will often see Jim Creighton referred to as baseball’s first superstar, but not necessarily its best player. That title would likely have been bestowed on Leggett, the team’s 32-year-old catcher and captain. He was one of the Association’s leading hitters and the top catcher of the day. As the club’s de facto manager, he set the tone on and off the field, drilling his players hard in practice, orchestrating the Excelsior defense from behind the plate and requiring discipline and comportment as representatives of one of the game’s most respected clubs.

It was likely his partnership with Creighton that helped the young pitcher become the best in his position at the ripe old age of 19. Catchers of the day, working without any glove, had enough trouble handling the slower offerings of most pitchers, but Leggett embraced the challenge of catching an afternoon’s worth of Creighton’s faster pitches, all the while positioning himself close behind the batter and still being able to snag the foul tips that at that time counted as an out when caught on the fly or one bounce.

Leggett’s first act upon the club’s acquisition of Creighton was to send the pitcher home with a metal sphere the size of a baseball and have him spend the winter training with it, to build his arm strength and help him attain more “pop” in his pitches once using the regulation ball. After joining the Excelsiors, Creighton developed a “dew-drop” pitch, a slow, arcing delivery to throw batters off, as a change of pace to his usual fast, rising delivery. It’s impossible not to see Leggett’s hand in the development of that strategy.

Creighton had the talent and the skill, but Leggett had the savvy and leadership to help his young protege develop into something special, just what the Excelsiors needed to accomplish their ambitious plans for 1860.

Unfortunately, the next stage of Jim Creighton’s career couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start, either for himself or his club.

In 1859, the Excelsiors opened the season against a lesser Brooklyn Club, Charter Oak. The mid-May contest – early for an era in which the baseball season didn’t really get started until the summer months – likely was seen as a training exercise, a chance to get competition better than what could be found in an intrasquad game, yet not tough enough to actually result in a loss. Several of the club’s regulars weren’t even in the lineup.

And the Excelsiors lost, 18-17.

One would think that such an occurrence would have served as a lesson not to take any opposition lightly. And one would have been mistaken.

The Excelsiors again opened their season with a game against Charter Oak a month ahead of the rest of their schedule, on May 17, 1860, with all of its regulars in the lineup and their new pitcher on the mound. For Creighton, there must have been an eerie familiarity about the game. Charter Oak had made some improvements in its lineup with a number of new players from top youth teams. Two of Creighton’s Star Club teammates – the Patchen brothers, Sam and Joe – would be facing him. And the opposing pitcher? It was John Shields, the same pitcher whom Creighton relieved for the Niagaras the previous summer, in his breakout performance against the Star Club.

The Charter Oak lead-off man, a fellow named Vanderoef, opened the game with a triple, then stole home due to a miscommunication between Creighton and Leggett. Still, the Excelsiors led, 6-2, after an inning and appeared on their way to victory.

“The superior pitching of Mr. Crayton [sic] always calls forth the applause of all,” the correspondent for the Brooklyn Evening Star reported, “from the ease and force with which the ball leaves his hand.” Despite the ease and force, however, Mr. Creighton wasn’t necessarily fooling the Charter Oak batters, and didn’t get the expected support in the field. Charter Oak led, 8-6, after five innings, and although the Excelsiors twice tied the score in the later innings, a ninth-inning rally fell a run short in a 12-11 loss. Creighton, batting lead-off, didn’t help himself any by going hitless in five at-bats.

Sadly, the details of what was apparently a dramatic finish have been lost to time, due to the lack of access for the media in that pre-pressbox era. “We are obliged to confine our remarks on the play of the game and our reference to particular details almost entirely to the first innings,” the New York Clipper reported, “for afterwards the crowd encroached so much on the ground occupied by the scorers that we were unable to see the game, except by occasional glances.”

If the Excelsiors had a full month to stew over the loss until their next game, at least they had a chance for instant vengeance, as the opponent was again Charter Oak on June 21. After two innings, the Excelsiors led, 16-0, but the beneficiary of that outburst wasn’t Creighton, but Ed Russell, who had been the Excelsiors’ starting pitcher in 1859. Creighton did enter the game in the eighth and pitched two shutout innings of relief in a 36-9 victory, but this was hardly what had been expected of baseball’s pitching wunderkind.

Fortunately, a week later, Creighton faced a familiar foe that helped right himself, and just in time.

Brooklyn’s Star Club, Creighton’s team in 1859, had for several years carried the reputation of being the “crack” youth club of its day. But the thing about youths is that they grow up and join senior clubs. Many of the youth teams of the era simply folded when their core groups of players moved on. But the Star Club had greater aspirations, and became a full member of the National Association of Base Ball Players in the winter of 1859-60. Unfortunately, there was little talent left on the club that summer after defections to bigger clubs, and the Stars finished 0-5-1 against some fairly formidable competition.

Against his former club, Creighton was masterful, shutting out the Stars through six innings as the Excelsiors built a 14-0 lead through the top of the seventh. The Star Club was able to reach him for two in the seventh and three in the eighth, but there was little doubt that the young pitcher was hitting his stride with six strikeouts in the 16-5 victory, even with the distraction of the Great Eastern coming into view from the Excelsiors’ South Brooklyn field and creating a brief intermission as fans “oohed” and “ahhed” the visiting steam ship.

And his timing was good, as Creighton and the Excelsiors were on the verge of becoming known to a wider audience.

The concept of the road trip is nothing new. What cultivated young European man in the 18th Century would believe his education was complete before taking the Grand Tour of the continent?

But baseball in its early days was an enterprise that generally took place close to home. Travel was difficult and sometimes dangerous, even for short distances. Then there was the matter of getting protracted time off from one’s job; these were amateurs, after all, who had to work for a living.

But the Excelsiors moved to expand baseball’s horizons in 1860 with an unprecedented tour – of the rest of the state. Actually, the original plan was much more ambitious: Seven cities in New York, followed by trips to Boston, Providence and New Haven and then a jaunt down to Baltimore and Washington with a stop in Philadelphia on the way back. At one point, even an excursion to Detroit was considered.

Instead, the Excelsiors embarked on a pared-down-if-still-impressive six-game tour of New York state. On July 2, they defeated Champion of Albany, 24-6, following that up with a 13-7 victory the next day over Victory in nearby Troy. They moved on to Western New York, where they defeated Niagara of Buffalo, 50-19, on July 5, followed by victories over a pair of Rochester teams, 21-1 over Flour City on July 7 and 27-9 over Live Oak two days later. The tour ended with a 59-14 defeat of Hudson River in Newburgh on July 11.

Ten days, six games, all easy victories. The details of the games aren’t particularly important, as none of the opponents had any real expectations of pulling an upset. What was important was that the Excelsiors gave fledgling teams beyond baseball’s central point of the New York metropolitan area an idea of what was possible. The precision, the comportment on and off the field, the teamwork and the skills . . . these attributes were what were remarked upon in the local press when the Excelsiors came to town.

But Creighton was the revelation.

“The fielding of the Victorys was fully equal to that of the Excelsiors,” wrote the correspondent for the Troy Daily Whig of the July 3 game, “but the skillful pitching of the latter club, resulting in the balls flying in the air and being caught, had most telling effect.” The Buffalo Daily Courier singled out Creighton and first baseman Pearsall for the play in the field against the Niagaras.

But the most interesting item that appeared in print during the week may have been the lead to the Daily Whig‘s advance of the game against Victory. “The Excelsior Club of Brooklyn” its correspondent wrote, “who have pretty well reduced base ball to a science, and who pay their pitcher $500 a year, are making a crusade through the provinces . . .”

Whoa! Let’s hold up right there. This is pretty provocative territory. It’s a published item that has been offered by historians as a part of the proof that Creighton was a paid professional. What’s most interesting is that the reporter doesn’t seem to be making an accusation of cheating as much as an assessment that the Excelsiors were taking the sport to the next evolutionary level.

What doesn’t get cited by historians is a portion of the game story that appeared in the next day’s Daily Whig, after the Excelsiors jumped out to a 10-1 lead after three innings and cruised to a deceptively close six-run victory: “Their pitcher does not receive $500 a year, but he is a splendid player.”

That’s a rather stunning non-sequitur, completely assuming that the reader has seen the article of the day before. It suggests one of two things: that the correspondent had reported rumors that the Excelsiors vigorously squelched the next day, or that he had gotten the information from someone in the Excelsior party who had not expected to see his words staring him in the face the next morning from a newspaper page, with the club then needing to enter damage control on the day of the game.

None of this proves conclusively that Creighton was receiving a salary, just that the club had no desire to be seen as blatantly flaunting the rules.

Despite the relative lack of competition, the tour was still taxing on the Excelsiors. They played as many games in a week and a half as the average team played in a month and a half. As has been noted, travel at the time could be precarious. And then there was the aspect of being feted in each new city. Part of the club culture of baseball was to host visiting teams at sumptuous banquets, filled with endless toasts. With the Excelsiors traveling out of the Brooklyn/New York area for the first time, there was also a matter of tourism.

Consider how the club spent the Fourth of July: after arriving in Buffalo at 10 a.m. on the train from Albany, club members were a few hours later taken on an excursion to Niagara Falls, for a boat ride up the Niagara River, a performance by noted French tightrope walker Charles Blondin on a rope strung 160 feet above the gorge at the base of the Falls, some quick views of said Falls and then off to the Clifton House Hotel on the Canadian side for yet another banquet.

Franklin Sidway
Franklin Sidway

Its amazing the visitors from Brooklyn had anything left in their tank for the game the next day against the Niagara Club of Buffalo, unbeaten against Western New York competition. But the Excelsiors built a 44-6 lead through five innings before easing to victory. The box score of the game – courtesy of Mr. H.M. Gaylord, the Niagaras’ official scorer – was detailed enough to give some perspective on the amount of work a pitcher had to do in the days of no balls or called strikes, when a batter could simply wait for the pitch he wanted: Creighton finished with a pitch count of 244. And that was nothing compared to his opposite number, Franklin Sidway of the Niagaras, who clocked in at 354 pitches, including 115 in the 24-run Excelsior fifth inning. Certainly, the underhand delivery of the day didn’t take near as much out of the arm as today’s style, but still . . . Creighton did well at the plate, scoring six runs, but six of his teammates did just as well, including Leggett, who scored eight runs in nine at-bats, including a home run.

The Excelsiors’ game two days later in Rochester gets little attention in the grand scheme of the club’s season – the Flour City Club was hardly one of the Excelsiors’ toughest foes – but it deserves mention for one reason. Sifting through the evidence of the game’s box score, which finally made an appearance in the weekly New York Clipper three weeks after the game was played, Creighton recorded what may have been the most pristine pitching performance that had ever been seen. Flour City not only managed just a single run, but apparently had no more than four base runners and perhaps as few as three in nine innings. The only run allowed by Creighton was scored by a Mr. Avery as the leadoff batter in the second inning, but the box score allows for only one runner left on base, and a couple of putouts made at second base. Again, the level of competition wasn’t particularly high, but when you also factor in six strikeouts, you’d have to rank this as one of Creighton’s gems.

Back home in Brooklyn, there was little mention of the trip during the week in the daily newspapers, aside from the occasional bare scoreline. This wasn’t from a lack of interest as much as a limit on communications. Alexander Graham Bell was 13 years old and 16 years away from patenting the telephone. What little baseball news that got back to the big city was no doubt sent by telegraph.

But when the Excelsiors capped their tour in Newburgh, only 72 miles due north of Brooklyn, the rest of the baseball world caught up with them. Many fellow club members attended the game against Hudson River, as well as representatives of numerous other clubs.

The Clipper also sent a representative, most likely Chadwick, who gave the condition of the grounds a failing grade. This likely contributed to the ragged nature of the game, in which 73 runs were scored. Apparently, it wasn’t the pitcher’s fault. “It was Creighton’s pitching that told with such effect,” the Clipper reported, “the scores that were obtained [by Hudson River] . . . being the result of poor fielding . . .” Creighton also had a career day at the plate, scoring 10 runs without being put out once.

Creighton and his Excelsior teammates returned home on July 12 as conquering heroes, although the real triumph was not in the stature of the beaten foes as it was in expanding the club’s brand and showing other areas of the state, in which love of the sport was quickly growing, the level of sophistication that could be accomplished.

They also returned with sore fingers and hands from their 1,000-mile journey, not a good thing considering that in a week’s time they would take the field for the most important game of the year. Fatigue did not prove to be a problem, however, as Creighton was about to reach the apex of his standing in the baseball world.

Baseball championships, in the early days, were a subjective affair. Whether you were talking about city championships or national championships (which in Brooklyn was pretty much the same thing), there was initially no apparatus in place for determining a champion. There were no standings; teams played schedules that were wildly different in length and level of competition. But one thing was certain: any discussion of who was best, or who a team needed to beat to become the best, started with the Atlantics of Brooklyn.

The Atlantic Club formed in 1855, at a time when three New York clubs, the Knickerbockers, Gotham and Eagle, dominated the fledgling sport. Within two years, it had built itself into the team to beat, and with a 7-1-1 record, it was generally acclaimed the top team. The Atlantics were unbeaten in seven games in 1858, but didn’t play either the Mutuals or the Empires, a pair of one-loss teams.

It wasn’t until 1859 that the Association recognized a method for claiming a championship. That season, the Atlantics split a pair of games with their strongest Brooklyn rival, the Eckfords, then defeated the Eckfords in a rubber match, 22-12, on October 12. Two days later, the Atlantics defeated the Mutuals, 15-5, to cap a two-game sweep of the top New York contender. At 11-1, they had a record no other team could touch and were recognized as national champion. Plus, a precedent was set for determining a title.

Though a national champion would be recognized at the end of each season through 1870, the title was not won through a season-long portfolio of results but rather through head-to-head match play. The holders would accept a challenge to play a home-and-home series with another club; if the two teams split the games, a deciding game would be played on a neutral field, with the winner claiming the championship. The only other rule was that the series had to be completed within a single calendar year.

This was the ultimate aim of the Excelsiors in bringing a talent like Jim Creighton on board, to take the championship away from the Atlantics, and the two clubs had agreed to begin their series on July 19 at the Excelsiors’ Court Street grounds in South Brooklyn. The Excelsiors’ very recent successes in upstate New York had fueled what was already a great interest in the showdown, sparked by both the merits and the contrasts of the two teams.

There was a certain class distinction in baseball of the mid-19th Century, not particularly surprising when one considers that these were gentlemen’s club that engaged in social entertainment beyond just the baseball field. The Knickerbockers and their ilk, while fine-tuning the rules of the game, had been more about fellowship and exercise than heated competition. But in the wake of the forming of the National Association and the growing interest in the game as a spectator sport (and a vehicle for wagering), winning become more important.

The Excelsiors represented the new breed of “gentleman” clubs, their membership still largely from the white-collar world, but also determined to field the best team. The Atlantics were known as a “working man’s” club, with membership more likely to come from blue-collar pursuits. The crowds they drew had on occasion been known to get a bit out of hand.

But there was no question as to the quality of the Atlantics on the field. They featured some of the finest players of the day.

Leading the team were the O’Brien brothers, Peter and Mattie. Peter was a hard-hitting outfielder who was a mainstay of the club for nine seasons. His brother was one of the top pitchers of the day, and started on the mound for the Brooklyn team in the 1858 Fashion Course all-star series against New York. In Charley Smith, they had a clutch hitter and the man that Harry Wright himself proclaimed “the king of third basemen.” At shortstop was 24-year-old Dickey Pearce, an innovator both at bat – he gets credit, whether accurately or not, for developing the bunt as an offensive weapon – and in the field, and would play at the top levels of baseball for another 17 seasons.

The Brooklyn Atlantics, 1865
The Brooklyn Atlantics, 1865

Beyond having talent at every position, the Atlantics were the greatest team of their era in the clutch. Their late-inning rallies were legendary, often crushing a lesser team’s hopes just when that team thought it was going to spring an upset. Just a few weeks earlier, they had fallen behind the Putnam Club of Brooklyn, 10-8, heading into the eighth inning. But a couple of singles and a Putnam error cut the deficit to one run before Pearce slammed a ball down the leftfield line and circled the bases for a three-run home run, leading the way to a 14-11 Atlantics victory.

Of all teams, it was never more true than with the Atlantics that the game wasn’t over until the last man was out.

Is it any wonder that a crowd of more than 10,000, certainly the largest since the Fashion Course games two years earlier, descended on the Excelsior Club’s grounds on July 19?

It’s not easy to pinpoint the high point of an athletic career, even one as brief as that of Jim Creighton, but it’s hard to top this moment, shortly after 3 p.m. on an oppressively hot afternoon in South Brooklyn.

Creighton took the mound with a 2-0 lead – in 1860, it was the practice for the home team to bat first and cede the last-to-bat advantage to its guests – and faced Peter O’Brien, who fouled off a couple of pitches before striking out. Tice Hamilton followed with a high foul tip into the hands of Joe Leggett. Dickey Pearce watched several pitches before finding one he liked, which he popped up in foul territory to A.T. Pearsall at first base. Very quickly, Creighton had mowed down the top of the order of baseball’s reigning champion, setting the tone for the day.

Jim Creighton, pitching for the Excelsiors, from woodcut.
Jim Creighton, pitching for the Excelsiors, from woodcut.

Creighton was nothing short of brilliant in the Excelsiors’ 23-4 victory, the worst loss ever experienced by the Atlantics. We have a clear picture of what happened that day because the New York Times published a full play-by-play, a distinct rarity back in the day, but one certainly warranted, given the importance of the game.

Creighton allowed only nine hits. Two of the four runs he allowed were unearned, owing to a bad day in the field by Excelsior third baseman John Whiting, who had three errors but made up for it by scoring five runs himself without being put out. Only Charlie Smith truly solved Creighton’s swift pitching, with four hits.

Only two Atlantic batters struck out, but nine were put out on foul tips to Leggett behind the plate. Creighton retired the side in order in the first, fourth and ninth innings, each time without a ball leaving the infield. In the seventh inning, after the Atlantics had scored twice and had runners on first and third with none out, Creighton induced Frank Seinsoth and O’Brien to tip out to Leggett, then got Hamilton on a bound out to Ed Russell in left field to end the threat.

And if that wasn’t enough, the young pitcher hit a thundering two-run triple in the fourth to give the Excelsiors a 12-1 lead.

It was about the most complete performance for which one could ask, performed on the biggest stage ever. “Creighton also placed himself at the head of the list as a ball player, especially as a pitcher,” the New York Clipper reported. The Times was more exuberant: “To Creighton, the pitcher, must be awarded the highest praise, his pitching being the theme of universal commendation both for its swiftness and regularity. He has well earned the reputation of the most effective pitcher in this region.” And therefore, the baseball world as a whole . . .

All things considered, the Atlantics took the shellacking fairly well. Oddly, their first-string pitcher, Mattie O’Brien, had started the game at third base, before relieving John Price in the fifth inning. But it made no difference; the Excelsiors hit both pitchers hard.

The newspapers lauded both teams for their sportsmanship, and praised the Excelsior management for keeping the peace with such a large crowd on hand. The Clipper correspondent (almost certainly Chadwick, the dean of 19th Century sportswriters) commented, “Above all we do select the gentlemanly conduct of the respective contestants throughout the match, and the prompt manner in which all outside comments were suppressed, as being worthy of the highest commendation . . . . We were also gratified in noticing that the decisions of the Umpire were promptly and silently acquiesced in, in every instance, and we trust this notable example will be followed on all like occasions.”

Sadly, Henry would soon have to eat those words.

Coming Soon:

Part 3: A bitter aftertaste to a heralded season.



Baseball in the Garden of Eden by John Thorn
Jim Creighton by John Thorn (SABR bio project at
Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Bill Felber of the SABR Nineteenth Century Committee
Baseball’s First Inning by William J. Ryczek
Baseball Founders by Craig B. Waff, William J. Ryczek and Peter Morris
The National Association of Baseball Players, 1857-70 by Marshall D. Wright
The English Cricketers’ Trip to Canada and the United States in 1859 by Fred Lillywhite
Digital editions of the New York Clipper, the New York Times, the Brooklyn Eagle, the Brooklyn Evening Star, the Troy Daily White and the Buffalo Daily Courier

The Unknowable Superstar (Part 1)

What can we make of Jim Creighton?

Among those with an interest in the earliest days of baseball, he is famous both for his exploits on the field, and for the fact that the vast majority of sports fandom is completely unaware of those feats. He was a great hitter, a great fielder and a revolutionary pitcher, and he was the focal point of the 1860 season, the year baseball took the final leap from a diversion for gentlemen’s social clubs to the chief concern of sports fanatics in the East. As a standout in cricket as well, he may have been, for a brief time, the nation’s finest athlete. If he wasn’t the very best baseball player in the nation, he was certainly the first superstar, perhaps the first individual player that could draw a crowd on his own. He may also have been the first professional player.

But for all his accomplishments, there is precious little we can know about Jim Creighton. For most players, a simple recitation of on-the-field performances would suffice, but Creighton made choices in his all-too-brief career that make one yearn to know more. His character remains a blank slate to us, and that’s really no surprise. There was so little time to get to know him. He passed away in a Bunyon-esque manner, at 21 years, six months and three days of age.




To appreciate Creighton’s quick rise from relative anonymity to stardom, one needs to understand the organization of baseball in its earliest days. Games of ball and bat have been around almost as far back as we can document human social history. In the United States, the phrase “base ball” turns up half a century earlier than 1839, when Abner Doubleday didn’t invent baseball at Cooperstown, N.Y. The British game of “rounders” or variations of “cat” had been played for years by children or at rural holiday gatherings.

But it was the 19th Century version of yuppies, the young urban professionals of New York, who developed a game that was something more than a diversion for children. It became the fashion for city workers in the early decades of the century to seek out a healthful form of organized recreation, and if it allowed for socializing with one’s peers, so much the better.

A handful of clubs began to spring up around the idea, with names like Gotham and Eagle. And finally, there were the Knickerbockers, who formed in 1845. The Knickerbockers weren’t necessarily the best players (they lost history’s first recorded game, 23-1, to the New York Ball Club in 1846) but their true genius was in organization. Behind such leaders as William Wheaton, Duncan Curry, Doc Adams and Alexander Cartwright, they took charge of codifying the rules of what was know as the “New York game,” a version of bat-and-ball that eventually won out over other regional variations.

For years, the Knickerbockers’ role as “keepers of the rules” was accepted by other clubs, but as the game grew in the mid-’50s, a larger form of organization was needed. In 1957, sixteen clubs from New York, Brooklyn and Morissania (the present-day Bronx) came together to form the National Association of Base Ball Players. These were social clubs that included many more members than just the nine who represented each club on the field. Some were more erudite, some were more working class, but they had banded together to compete at the highest level.

Of course, the game was bound to be popular with men too young to join a social club, and this led to a growing underclass of youth teams. In that summer of ’57, Jim Creighton was a 16-year-old growing up in Brooklyn, and had shown promise in both baseball and cricket. He and some neighborhood friends started their own team with the grandiose name of Young America. Playing mostly intrasquad games, Young America disbanded by the end of the year, but Creighton’s services were snapped up by the Niagara Club, another local youth team.

Such youth teams competed at a level below those of the senior clubs, but they received a surprising amount of attention from the fledgling sports media. For instance, the July 24, 1858 edition of the New York Clipper had extensive coverage of the first game in the Fashion Course series, an all-star competition pitting the best players from New York clubs against those of Brooklyn clubs, the first major “event” in the sport’s history. In an adjacent column was coverage of the Niagara Club’s 39-31 loss to Sylvan, in which third baseman J. Creighton scored four runs.

But although youth teams were theoretically equal, some were more equal than others. For an aspiring player like Creighton, the Niagara Club trumped Young America. And there was a higher level yet . . .

On July 19, 1859, one of the most significant games in the history of baseball’s development was played. A large crowd was on hand at the grounds of the Olympic Club in South Brooklyn to see the Star Club take on the Niagara Club.

The attraction was the Stars, considered the “crack” junior club of the area. While youth teams had a tendency to come and go, the Star Club had maintained its core group for several seasons, and though still made up of teenagers, it was showing evidence of being able to compete with any club in the area. It had opened the season with victories over Charter Oak, a senior team, and Hamilton of Jersey City. The latter game was played on the same day as a marquee battle between heavyweights Atlantic and Eckford, which kept the Stars’ crowd down, but there was no such competition for the attention of the baseball world when they squared off against the Niagaras. The New York Times reported that “an unusually large audience, numbering representatives from almost every New-York and Brooklyn Club, were gratified spectators of the well-contested game.”

Apparently, everyone wanted to know if the Star Club was for real. What they saw, however, was even more enlightening.

Legend has it that with the Stars well ahead in the fifth inning, Creighton took over on the mound for Niagara’s starter, John Shields. It may not have been Creighton’s first turn as a pitcher in a competitive game, but it was certainly the first time he had been seen by a large audience. One of the players in attendance was Peter O’Brien, a star outfielder for the Atlantics, and he observed that “when Creighton got to work, something new was seen in base ball — a low, swift delivery, the ball rising from the ground past the shoulder to the catcher.”

To understand why this was a revelation, one must consider the rules of the time, and the role of a pitcher. A pitch was to be delivered in an underhand motion with a stiff arm and a stiff wrist. The batter was allowed to call for a low or high pitch, and if it didn’t come within that area, he didn’t have to swing. The pitcher-batter confrontation that defines the modern game had not yet been established. The focus was not on pitching or even hitting, but rather on fielding. In a sense, the pitcher and batter were charged with conspiring to put the ball into play. A pitcher’s role was roughly the same as a plunger on a pinball table.

Creighton was not the first pitcher to throw a speedy pitch, but, given the limitations of the rules, he may have been the first to do so with any degree of control.

According to legend, the Stars were so befuddled by Creighton’s offerings that they countered by putting their wildest pitcher on the mound, counting on the Niagaras inability to catch up. The Star Club left the field with a 14-8 victory, but some of the leading lights in the world of baseball had seen the sport’s future.

Now, why do I say “according to legend?” Unfortunately, none of the details can be verified by contemporary reports. The Clipper‘s story of the game lauds Creighton’s play . . . at second base! It also credits Shields with being “pretty active” as pitcher. But there is no comment in any publication on Creighton’s pitching efforts. The Stars actually led by only 8-4 when Creighton took the mound, and he hardly shut them down from that point.

The main source of what happened that day — and the O’Brien “observation,” which wasn’t strictly a quote — came from a biographical essay that appeared on the back of a carte de visite of Creighton in pitching motion, that was apparently written a decade after the fact. The card, which may have been an early trade card issued by Peck and Snyder Sporting Goods, and was discovered in a photo archive by historians John Thorn and Mark Rucker.

carte de viste front and back

Can it be trusted? Hard to say . . . given the events that followed, the story makes sense, and seems to have been accepted as reasonably accurate. But like many things that pop up in Creighton’s brief moment in the sun, one has to take it with a grain of salt.

Clearly, the Star Club was impressed, and saw the potential that Creighton represented. The Stars’ next game didn’t take place for another six and a half weeks, and during that time Creighton played once more for the Niagaras (a game in which he was listed as the starting pitcher and was summarily thumped, 28-11, by a youth club called Champion). But when the Star Club took the field on Sept. 3 against the vaunted Excelsiors, he was in the lineup, on the mound.

The Star Club came away with a 17-12 victory, a stunning victory over one of baseball’s top clubs. Even more impressive was the Stars’ 7-3 lead after seven innings . . . a team the caliber of the Excelsiors scoring only three runs in seven innings was unheard of. A particularly detailed play-by-play account of the game by the Clipper gave the defense on both sides most of the credit (until the final two innings, when both teams fell apart in the field), but made little mention of Creighton’s pitching. Still, he had clearly made an impression on the Excelsiors, and others were paying attention as well.

The Knickerbockers next challenged the Star Club to a “fly” game. No longer the sole arbiter of the game’s rules, the Knickerbockers still took it upon themselves to champion the elimination of the “bound” out. At the time, a batter could be put out either by having his fly ball caught, or by the fielder catching it on one bounce. In an attempt to create support for eliminating the bound, the Knickerbockers sponsored exhibition games in which an out could only be made on the fly (or by the usual throwing out of a batter before he could get to first base).

Ten days after beating the Excelsiors, the Star Club hosted the Knickerbockers. “The pitching of Creighton . . . rather surprised them,” according to game coverage in Porter’s Spirit of the Times, “his speed and accuracy telling on their batting with considerable effect.” Creighton held the venerable Knicks to three runs in four innings before rain stopped the game. In a replay two weeks later, the Stars won easily, 33-11.

Following two more victories, the Star Club was unbeaten through six games headed for a game with the recognized champions of Brooklyn, and, therefore, the baseball world: the Atlantics. When the teams met at the Star Club’s Penny Bridge grounds on Oct. 8, the New York Sunday Mercury reported that “Creighton’s pitching somewhat worried the Atlantics,” but the game was suspended with the Atlantics leading, 6-5, in the fourth. The Atlantics returned 11 days later and broke open an 11-11 tie after seven innings to hand the Star Club its first defeat, 15-12.

After defeating Charter Oak on Nov. 10, the Stars finished their season 7-1, and with a solid lineup and a pitching prodigy on hand, the opportunity was ripe for the youth club to graduate to the ranks of Brooklyn’s, and therefore baseball’s, finest teams.

But it didn’t come to pass. Soon after the Stars’ final game on Nov. 10, the Excelsiors announced that Creighton and George Flanley were joining their ranks. In just two years, Creighton had risen from a small-time youth team to the pinnacle of baseball in the mid-19th Century.

It was this last step up the ladder that started the rumors. Going from the neighborhood Young America to the better-organized Niagara Club made sense, as did the next jump to the Star Club, the leading youth team of its day. But a move to the Excelsiors led many to the conclusion that Jim Creighton was being paid under the table.

1860 Excelsiors with Creighton third from left
1860 Excelsiors with Creighton third from left

There was, of course, no other way of being paid to play baseball in 1860 than clandestinely; it was an amateur sport. There were other ways of skirting the rules, though: waiver of club dues, the giving of a patronage job, the handing over of a portion of gate receipts. But the rumor about Creighton was always that we was directly paid for playing. The figure of $500 often shows up in biographies of the young pitcher.

There is no evidence to categorically prove that Creighton was a paid professional . . . indeed, the first paid professional. But in hindsight, there’s every reason to believe it was true.

For one thing, if the Excelsiors chose or needed to pay him, they could. No one accused the Star Club of buying Creighton away from the Niagaras, because there was no way for a group of teenagers to come up with that kind of money. But there was plenty of money in the Excelsior Club membership, which in numbers extended well beyond the nine or 10 players on the baseball first team.

There are arguments that can be made for and against Creighton making the move without financial remuneration. In the early days of organized baseball, senior clubs and youth teams often had working arrangements. For the youth team, there might be social benefits as well as the use of a playing field or equipment; for the larger club, a good youth team could be a supplier of new talent. It happened that the Excelciors and Stars had just such an informal arrangement. In fact, one of the reasons that the Star Club had pursued Creighton in the first place was because it had just lost two of its starters to the Excelsiors.

On the other hand, the Star Club wasn’t just any youth team. It had aspirations to officially join the ranks of the senior clubs and did indeed join the NABBP in early 1860. It would have no desire to lose its new star pitcher.

This is likely one of those cases in which the fact that most people believed that Creighton had been paid probably meant that he had. To our 21st Century sensibilities, this is no big deal, and in fact no one went to any pains to try to have Creighton declared ineligible.

But if he did indeed take pay to play, that act was perhaps as significant as those speedballs he’d thrown across the plate that summer afternoon in 1859. It marked the crossing over for baseball, from a social apparatus for the largely well-to-do, to an enterprise that was drawing attention and interest, from fans and those who wanted to wager alike. Competition was sharpening, and the clubs near the top were going to do whatever it took to compete with those who were on top.

One side note to Creighton’s move was his transaction companion, Flanley. They had been teammates on the Niagaras, and moved together to the Star Club, then the Excelsiors. Flanley was a slight fellow — he was 5-foot-6 and weighed less than 150 pounds — with a reputation as a fine fielder and a weak hitter. According to the game account in the Clipper, he did make at least two outstanding plays in the field during the Stars’ victory over the Excelsiors, which might have stirred the latter club’s interest. And he was a regular in the Excelsior lineup through 1867. But it’s hard not to believe that his primary role was as Jim Creighton’s BFF.

Whatever the case, they were both in place as the Excelsiors prepared to set sail on the most heralded baseball season that had ever been seen.

1860 Excelsior and Atlantic Clubs with Creighton on the Mound
1860 Excelsior and Atlantic Clubs with Creighton on the Mound


Coming Soon:

Part 2: The invention of the baseball tour, and a championship series to remember.



Baseball in the Garden of Eden by John Thorn
Jim Creighton by John Thorn (SABR bio project at
Baseball’s First Inning by William J. Ryczek
Baseball Founders by Craig B. Waff, William J. Ryczek and Peter Morris
The National Association of Baseball Players, 1857-70 by Marshall D. Wright
Hidden Treasure Discovered in NYPL’s Spalding Collection: The Mystery of Baseball’s First Star — Jim Creighton by Peter J. Nash, April 5, 2011 blog post at
Digital editions of the New York Clipper and New York Times