Alexander Cartwright Jr, The Origin of the Baseball Diamond, and the Formation of the Knickerbockers

Published by Robert Lifson on Tagged Uncategorized

We will be posting a few interesting items and highlights on the REA blog as time permits and the auction gets closer.

Below is the preliminary catalog description for one of the most interesting items we have ever had the privilege to offer. It is a fascinating piece and one that may have great significance to the origin of the baseball diamond and the formation of the legendary Knickerbockers.

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Extraordinary Alexander Cartwright Signed Book - The Epiphany for the Origin of the Baseball Diamond and for the Formation of the New York Knickerbockers

Offered here is what we consider to be one of the most significant Alexander Cartwright items in existence, and one that might also merit equal status with regard to the very origins of baseball: a 1834 edition of The Club, written by James Puckle and published by Chiswick Press, London. The historical importance of this book is based on a number of factors, the most salient of which are these: 1) To the best of our knowledge it features the only known full-name signature of Cartwright  signed “Alexander J. Cartwright Jr.”, as well as the being earliest. 2) It represents the only item extant that it is a virtual certainty was carried by Cartwright on his journey across the country from New York to California, and then on to Hawaii, where he finally settled and remained for the rest of his life (indicating its importance to Cartwright); 3) Lastly, and most important, the book, both in its content and design, may have been related to his inspiration to form the New York Knickerbockers Base Ball Club and to design the baseball field in the manner that he did.

That the book belonged to Cartwright is evident upon opening it. Affixed to interior cover is Cartwright’s personal illustrated bookplate bearing his name, “A. J. Cartwright.” The fact that the book is his, and not his father’s, is firmly established by the boldly scripted black-ink inscription on the front flyleaf that reads “Alexander J. Cartwright Jr./1939/New York” (grading “10″). To the best of our knowledge this is the only “Alexander J. Cartwright Jr.” full-name Cartwright signature extant and, equally significant, the earliest example as well. With regard to the second point, the Cartwright signature here may also represent not only the earliest known example for Alexander Cartwright, but also the earliest signature example for any member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

From Cartwright’s inscription, we know that this book was in his possession in New York prior to his having formed the Knickerbockers in the early 1840s. That he carried it with him to Hawaii (or had his wife, Eliza, bring this along with other important personal items when she came to Hawaii via ship) is a reasonable assumption based upon a second inscription, scripted in blue ink on the third page of the book, which reads “Robert E. Van Dyke/from/Ruth Joy Cartwright Doyle/1966.” Obviously, this book was handed down by Cartwright to family members, who in turn passed it on to other relatives. Ruth Joy Cartwright Doyle was Alexander Joy Cartwright Jr.’s granddaughter. In turn, we know from genealogy records (which are included with the book) that Robert E. Van Dyke was Ruth Joy Cartwright Doyle’s nephew. Van Dyke was born in 1936, making him thirty years old when he received this family heirloom from his aunt. Alexander Joy Cartwright Jr., left New York in 1849 and headed west to claim his fortune during the California gold rush. Failing to strike it rich, he continued on to Hawaii, where he ultimately settled. Since he experienced terrible sea sickness en route to Hawaii, he never left the island and remained there until the time of his death in 1892. Presently, this book is the only one of Cartwright’s personal possessions at the time of his death that can be conclusively traced back to his residency in New York. That fact is extremely significant. In 1849 a travel across the country from New York to California was a considerable undertaking. The transcontinental railroad had yet to be built, making travel slow and arduous. As such, anyone making the trek would have to travel light, out of necessity. The fact that this small book was one of the items Cartwright felt compelled to bring with him meant that he had a strong emotional attachment to it. The reasons why, as we shall see, may involve the very origins of the game of baseball.

1839 has always been an important year in the history of baseball, but for all the wrong reasons. In 1908, the Mills Commission, which was formed by Albert Spalding to investigate the origins of baseball, arrived at the erroneous conclusion that baseball was “invented” in the year 1839 by Abner Doubleday, who drew the first “diamond” in a field in Cooperstown, New York. Although most  historians have since dispelled the “Doubleday myth”, the year continued to be the basis for celebrating baseball’s 100th and 150th anniversaries, respectively, in 1939 and 1969. However, 1839 might still prove to be a historic year, for it marked the time that a young nineteen-year old boy named Alexander Cartwright Jr., either received or purchased the offered copy of The Club, a book, that may have been the epiphany for the formation of the New York Knickerbockers and the origin of the baseball diamond.

The Club, which was first published in 1733, is a dialogue between a father and son, in which the son describes his visit to a friend’s club, called the Noah’s Ark.  Assembled at  The Noah’s Ark, were twenty-five typical personages, including an antiquary, buffoon, critic, quack, lawyer, news monger, rake, and usurer. The next morning the son offers his father a description of each of the club members. At the close of each personal sketch the father lectures on the habits of each personality-type described.  In its simplest interpretation, this book expounds upon the virtues of forming a club and the benefits of having the club membership made up of individuals from different walks of life and with different personalities.

While the notion of forming a club, as Cartwright would do a few years later when he founded the Knickerbockers, is central to the book’s thesis, even more influential to young Cartwright might have been what he saw every time he went to open the book. The brown leather boards featured on the 1834 edition of this book display elaborate gilt dentelles on both the front and reverse. What is striking is the design they make. The pattern is very similar to that of an elongated baseball diamond. In fact, today, anyone seeing the cover and reading the gilt-lettered title on the spine would almost certainly think this was a book relating to baseball. Is it possible that Cartwright’s idea of forming a club to meet regularly to play baseball, and his implementation of a “diamond” design for the playing field were both related to and inspired by this book? The coincidence is hard to discount. It is also significant to note that this particular edition of The Club is the only edition known with the gilt “diamond” cover. Other known editions include those with green, red, brown, or black covers, some of which have an alternate cover design, or no design at all. Had Cartwright received one of those other editions, would the future of baseball been different?

The New York Knickerbockers, the baseball club which Cartwright formed in the early 1840s, was made up of gentleman of various occupations and backgrounds. Many of the men in the club were also volunteer fireman, and it has been suggested that the Knickerbocker name was taken from the Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 12, to which Cartwright once belonged. In 1845, the Knickerbockers drew up a constitution and a set of formal rules by which the game of baseball would be played. It is generally agreed that it was Cartwright who formulated most of the rules, especially the use of a “diamond-shaped” field. As early as 1864 there was a published account of the history of the Knickerbockers which identified Cartwright as having suggested the idea of organizing a formal club. Both Peverelly’s 1866 Book of American Pastimes, along with Alfred Spink’s The National Game, published in 1910, include passages of a letter written in 1877 by Duncan Curry, the first president of the Knickerbockers. It gives an account of Cartwright suggesting the formal organization of the club, and includes additional information about Cartwright proposing rules. Curry writes in part (from The National Game):

Baseball is purely an American game and owes it’s origin to Mr. Alexander J. Cartwright, who also suggested the organization of a club to play his new game… I do remember the afternoon when Alex Cartwright came up to the ball field with a new scheme for playing ball…with his plans drawn up on paper. He had laid out a diamond shaped field with canvas bags filled with sand at the three points and an iron plate for home base. At the time none of us had any experience in that style of play as there were no rules for playing that game. We had to do the best we could….aided by Cartwright’s judgement…When we saw what a great game Cartwright had given us, and his suggestion of forming a club to play, it met with our approval, we set about to organize a club.

Further credit to Cartwright for the creation of the baseball “diamond” is provided by author Jay Martin in his book Live All You Can: Alexander Joy Cartwright and the Invention of Modern Baseball (Columbia University Press, New York, 2009). First he quotes Hall of Fame shortstop George Wright, who wrote “In the Spring of 1845, Mr. Alex J. Cartwright, who had become an enthusiast in the game, one day upon the field proposed a regular organization” of the Knickerbockers’ game. Cartwright wrote the rules down in a little five-inch by three-and-a-half-inch black book that he took from his stationery shop. On the cover in gold letters, he stamped “Knickerbockers.” Later, Martin discusses the dilemma Cartwright faced with regard to the design of the field when formulating his new rules:

But how was the field to be designed? The rectangular field of play in round­ers  had variable distances between home and first, first and second, second and third, and third and home, initially gave advantage to the runner and then to the fielders as the batter attempted to round third and make home. This was not symmetrical. Cartwright solved these two problems at once by making the field of play square, turning it ninety degrees to make a diamond, and demanding that “fair” balls must be hit forward within the extension of the lines of the diamond into the outfield. Years later, Cartwright reminded Charles Debost that the first diamond-shaped field was on “the pleasant field of Hoboken in New Jersey, the Elysian Fields, . . . where . . . most of the early games were played.

We fully acknowledge that, just as there is eternal debate between the merits of Creationism and that of  Evolution, there is and has always been great controversy regarding the origins of baseball, its rules, and the invention of the baseball diamond.  There are those that believe the foundation of the rules of  baseball (including the invention of the baseball diamond) was created or memorialized by a single individual (depending on whose theory is being promoted, by Alexander Cartwright Jr.,  Abner Doubleday, or others), and there are those who believe that the rules of baseball strictly evolved from other games, such as rounders and “town ball”, and no individual can take credit. We weren’t there, but perhaps there is some truth to both theories. Could all of the unique and extraordinary qualities of this book that once belonged to Alexander Cartwright Jr. just be a coincidence? Possibly. But that is a lot of coincidences to dismiss. It is also possible that this book was the inspiration for Alexander Cartwright’s contributions to the game, and as such is one of the most important items in existence relating to the true origins of baseball as we know it today.

This is certainly one of the most intriguing items we have ever handled on many counts, especially given its very possible link to the origins of the modern game of baseball. Certainly it is the finest Cartwright signed piece extant. While no one will ever know if this little book is to be credited with giving rise of our national pastime, its content, unique cover design, and the fact that it was one of the few items deemed important enough by Cartwright to take with him when he left New York, suggest that it was more than merely reading material. Also significant is that as late as 1966, it was still being handing down among family members, suggesting that its value and significance were much greater than simply that of an old book once owned by Cartwright. The book (4.25 x 6.5 inches) displays moderate wear to the covers and a number of interior pages display light foxing and/or a few areas of light age toning. The binding remains tight and firm. In Excellent condition overall. LOA from James Spence/JSA. Reserve $5,000. Estimate (open).



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