Book Review: Alexander Cartwright

Real historians will tell you that much of "history" is a mixture of fact, fiction, legend, supposition, misunderstanding and mistakes.

Real historians will tell you that much of "history" is a mixture of fact, fiction, legend, supposition, misunderstanding and mistakes. For example, it is a fact that Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804, not far from what would later be called the Elysian Fields. However, it is supposition as to exactly what happened that day. Did Hamilton deliberately miss? Who fired first? Did Burr mean to kill his opponent?

Or, take Andrew Jackson. It is a fact that he was president of the United States , that there was an assassination attempt on him on the steps of the Capitol, and that he killed a man in a duel. But… was he legally eligible to be president (legend has it he was born on a ship at sea), what happened to the would-be-assassin's gun (did it misfire, if so, how many times, was it defective, did he just miss), and why did Jackson (who dueled so much it was said he rattled when he walked) fight Charles Dickinson? Did he insult Jackson 's wife? Jackson 's war record? Both?

Perhaps you prefer labor relations. Jimmy Hoffa was most certainly the head of the Teamsters Union, and he most certainly hasn't been heard from for something like 20 years. But, is he really residing underneath one of the end zones of a football stadium in the Meadowlands? (Also not far from the former site of the Elysian Fields.

The point is that, while history may not change, our understanding of history does change, and hopefully for the better. Now, "the better" can mean a lot of things, but for historians, who, like archaeologist Indiana Jones are seekers of fact, does not "the better" mean a better, more correct understanding of history? Even if the facts (or some of the facts) may remain elusive, just the knowledge that what may have been considered facts are, actually, supposition, is a revelation that moves forward our understanding of history.

In this case, the subject is early baseball. And the historian in question is Marcia Nucciarone, who has tackled the daunting task of trying to sort out myth from reality in the case of Alexander Cartwright… bank clerk, bookseller, early baseball player, Knickerbocker, 49er (sounds like he went in for baseball, basketball and football), "Johnny Appleseed" for the National Pastime, Hawaiian civic leader, confidant to royalty, businessman, importer, fireman, leader of the Hawaii annexation movement that eventually led to the Sandwich Islands becoming the 50th state, and legend. And his legend… you know his legend… he's in the Hall of Fame as, essentially, the true inventor of the game of baseball, or at least the codifier (if not creator) of the game's seminal rules as first played by the Knickerbocker club in the mid 1840s (at the Elysian Fields.) But, just because Cartwright; not Abner Doubleday, not William Wheaton, not Duncan Curry, not Daniel "Doc" Adams , is in the Hall of Fame, does that make him the Father of Baseball? And, if not, how did he get in the Hall in the first place?

Nucciarone, a faculty counselor advisor at the Pierce College Fort Steilacoom campus in Lakewood , Washington , has written the first true scholarly biography of the elusive (at least in an historical fact sense) Mr. Cartwright. The result of her countless hours (over a period of eight years) pouring over everything from 1849 gold rush journal entries (hence, the 49er reference), to letters, to old clippings of various sorts, "Alexander Cartwright" (2009, University of Nebraska Press , ISBN 978-0-8032-3353-9) is an essential work for anyone interested in the origins of baseball. And, it is much more. A snapshot of life in the United States in the 1840s. A quick look in at the California gold rush. Possibly the best popular book that deals with the kingdom of Hawaii in the latter half of the 19th Century since James Michener wrote " Hawaii ."

Nucciarone brings a momentous task under control. Think about it… she undertook to write a bio of someone who died more than 100 years ago and who lived the last 42 years of his life in a land far removed from the mainstream of the U.S. , to say nothing of the mainstream media of the day. (Why do you think the early years of baseball are so relatively well-documented… they took place in what was already the media capital of the land, New York .) To do so, Nucciarone splits her story into two parts. The first part tells the story of Cartwright's life, from Manhattan to Honolulu , 1820 to 1892. Part Two specifically looks at Cartwright and baseball's founding, if indeed baseball can be said to have been founded, let alone founded by one man, or even a group of men in a single club.

What does Nucciarone accomplish? Nothing less than the furtherance of the study of history, the search for facts ("If it's truth you're interested in, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall."), in regards to both Cartwright and the origins of baseball. Some may say this has been done already, back in 1973 when Sports Illustrated's Harold Peterson followed up his 1969 SI article on Cartwright with a full-length bio, "The Man Who Invented Baseball." This is the kind of thing that writers do on occasion – they write an article that draws enough attention, and has enough promise for both further investigation and book sales, that they expand the article into a full-length book. (I'm doing the same thing with my essay on "The Mount Rushmores of Baseball.") However, expanding an SI article into a true and accurate bio of Alexander Cartwright was a function that ultimately eluded Peterson. Indeed, it is hard to fairly judge the accuracy of Peterson's work on the surface – he did not footnote his sources and he died shortly after the book was published. Although I have not read his book, it is clear, notably from reading Nucciarone, that Peterson made a lot of suppositions on Cartwright and his baseball background, suppositions that he did not, and could not, back up with more than what have turned out to be (as indicated by Nucciarone's research) third-hand or third person oral histories. However, as she notes in her Introduction, Peterson's book became THE source for information on Cartwright. Regarding baseball, that means such tales as Cartwright's role in the founding of the Knickerbocker club, the primacy of the Knickerbocker club, his authorship of the Knickerbocker rules, his spreading the game across the Great Plains as he journeyed to California in 1849, and his introduction of baseball to the Kingdom of Hawaii . As it turns out, and as Nucciarone makes perfectly clear, much of this is, if not legend, certainly supposition, and is best described in Arlen Specter's terms in his vote in the Clinton impeachment trial… not proven.

As Nucciarone also explains in the Introduction (and this is a real strong point of the book… in effect, she tells us what she's going to do, and then does it) although Cartwright's involvement in baseball in described in Part One, it is a surprisingly brief description, as far as factual evidence is concerned. In Part Two, she goes in depth inside the various Cartwright baseball legends – were the Knickerbocker the first organized baseball club, were they founded by Cartwright, did the Knicks play the first true match game, did Cartwright create or establish any of the "Knickerbocker Rules," was he the "Johnny Appleseed" of baseball as he went west, and, did he introduce baseball to Hawaii (eventually giving us the 2008 Little League World Series champions and Shane Victorino)?  

How does it all play out? Just how important a figure in baseball history is Alexander Cartwright? According to his biographer and the most careful researcher we have on the subject, it's hard to say. As she notes at the start of Part Two ("The Mythography of a Man"), "we know very little from primary sources, or from Cartwright himself." Most of the Cartwright story that Peterson told, and has been considered "history" for some 35 years, is at best taken from second- and third-hand accounts (that often conflict with one another) and, at worst, from what sounds an awful lot like a good PR job after the fact by the Cartwright family, notably his grandson Bruce Cartwright, Jr., whose intervention with the Hall of Fame basically got granddad so-inducted some 70 years ago. Nucciarone's research has, in point of fact, turned up exactly one original document pertaining to baseball that was written in Cartwright's hand, one document that wasn't copied by someone else, or in some other fashion has a murky provenance. That one document is a letter from Cartwright to fellow Knickerbocker Charles DeBost, written from Hawaii on April 6, 1865, in response to a letter that DeBost had sent him. A letter written some 16 years after Cartwright left New York to seek his fortune in the (far) west.

As for the answers to the questions Nucciarone poses at the start of Part Two, it's probably better not to spoil the secret (and you owe it to yourself to read the book in any case), except to say that hard evidence remains scanty and the truth of Cartwright's, and the other Knicks' (to say nothing of the club itself), involvement in the evolution (a better word than creation) of the National Pastime are still matters of debate.

"Alexander Cartwright" makes it clear to the reader that Alexander Cartwright's seminal involvement in the formation of baseball is, at this time, not proven. Note that Nuccciarone does NOT say flatly that Peterson's assumptions, and the myth and legend that has been built up around Cartwright, is a lot of hogwash. No, it is to her credit as an historian that she checked her ego in either the state of Washington , or Lincoln , Nebraska . It's simply a matter, she says, that we don't really know, because there are so few reliable original documents on the subject, and they don't say very much. Might we learn more some day? Sure, but in 2009, this is the here and now, the latest word on Alexander Cartwright and baseball. More than once in her book Nucciarone states the honest fact along the lines that she is giving the most complete picture as is possible at the present time, or she refers to a document as the only one "that we have at this time." Clearly, there may be more history out there waiting to be discovered, (or there may not be… no one knows for sure) but, for now, on the subject of Alexander Cartwright and the founding of baseball, Monica Nucciarone has written the last word, and we are all indebted to her.

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