Baseball has it 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' occupations and salaries:
Asa Brainard (P), insurance, $1,100 ... Doug Allison (1B), marblecutter, $800 ... Charles Gould (2B), bookkeeper, $800 ... George Wright (SS), engraver, $1,400 ... Fred Waterman (3B), insurance, $1,000 ... Andrew Leonard (LF), hatter, $800 ... Harry Wright (CF), jeweler, $1,200 ... Cal McVey (RF), 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, 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 Adner 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.
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 at 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 switch-hitter. 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 91-game 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.
-- Daniel Okrent & Steve Wulf
Baseball Anecdotes, Daniel Okrent & Steve Wulf
Copyright 1989 by Daniel Okrent
Published by Oxford University Press (New York), 1989
available at ABEBOOKS