SABR

Fred Goldsmith

This article was written by David Fleitz.

Fred Goldsmith, one of baseball’s earliest curveball pitchers, was a burly right-hander whose mastery of the tricky delivery made him an important contributor to three pennant-winning teams during his six seasons in the National League (1879-1884). Later in life, long after most of his contemporaries had passed on, the elderly Goldsmith mounted a campaign to prove his strongly-held belief that he had, in fact, invented the pitch that brought him success.

According to a birth certificate in the possession of his descendants, Frederick Elroy Goldsmith was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on May 15, 1856 (not 1852, as often stated in reference books), to Ransom and Susan Goldsmith. Ransom Goldsmith worked as a steam-heating repairman and later went into the printing business in New Haven. Fred, the third of four children, spent much of his childhood tagging along with the baseball team of nearby Yale University, where he became acquainted with the players, including Charles Hammond “Ham” Avery, the star pitcher of the Elis during the early 1870s. Avery is generally recognized as the first college hurler to throw a curveball successfully, and made national headlines when he used the pitch to shut out Harvard in 1874. The teenaged Fred Goldsmith was fascinated by the curveball, and though he trained as a bookkeeper, he was more interested in mastering the elusive pitch.

Fred played semipro and amateur ball in and around New Haven for several years, making a name for himself with his curveball. By 1875 he had drawn the attention of top-level professional teams, including the New Haven Elm Cities of the National Association, precursor to the National League, for which he played one game at second base in October of that year.  His curveball had made him a desirable property, and in early 1876 Fred received an offer of $300 a month, a large salary in those days, to pitch for the Tecumseh club of London, Ontario. His father had expected him to take over the family printing business, but Fred could not resist the lure of the diamond. Though Ransom Goldsmith made no secret of his disapproval, the 20-year-old pitcher journeyed to Canada to continue his baseball career.

The Tecumsehs, with Fred pitching every game and recording a 41-5 mark, won the Canadian championship in 1876. The team joined the International Association in 1877 and took the pennant behind Goldsmith’s mastery of the curveball. Fred posted a 14-4 record in league play that year, and also defeated several National League teams in exhibition games. On two occasions, Fred dominated the reigning National League champs, the Chicago White Stockings, prompting Chicago manager Albert G. Spalding to file Fred’s name away for future reference.

While pitching for the Tecumsehs Fred met an aspiring concert pianist named Rowena Lavinia Rooks. The 21-year-old pitcher and the 19-year-old musician began dating, and though family sources say that her father opposed their union, Rowena, whom Fred always called Rowie, decided to give up her musical ambitions in exchange for a life with Fred. The two were married in London on July 24, 1877. 

Goldsmith remained with the Tecumsehs until 1879, when he joined the Springfield (Massachusetts) club of the International Association, and when that team folded in August of that year, he made his debut in the National League with the Troy Trojans. In Troy, Fred won only two of his six decisions, and the Trojans failed to place him on their list of reserved players for the 1880 season. Al Spalding, by now the team secretary of the Chicago White Stockings, and manager Cap Anson remembered Fred’s fine pitching against their club a few years before, and quickly signed the curveball artist to a contract. Shortly afterward, the club engaged fastballer Larry Corcoran to share the pitching load with Goldsmith.

With Corcoran and Goldsmith starting all but two of Chicago’s 86 games that season (in what many historians call the first true pitching rotation), the White Stockings ran away with the pennant in 1880. Corcoran won 43 games and lost only 14, while Goldsmith compiled a 21-3 log for the best winning percentage (.875) in the National League, setting a record that stood until Brooklyn’s Preacher Roe posted a 22-3 mark in 1951. The Chicago club, led by the pitching tandem of Corcoran and Goldsmith, repeated as National League champion in 1881 and 1882. Fred, though he gained weight noticeably from season to season (he was listed at 6-feet-1 and 195 pounds, but almost certainly weighed much more than that), did his part, contributing 24 wins in 1881 and 28 the following year. The club failed to win a fourth consecutive title in 1883, finishing in second place behind the Boston Beaneaters, but Goldsmith continued his fine pitching with a 25-19 record.

Anson, in his autobiography, later described Goldsmith as “a great big, over-grown, good-natured boy, who was always just a-going to do things that he never did.” Though Anson admired Goldsmith’s pitching, he was frustrated with Fred’s lackadaisical approach to other aspects of the game. The captain often criticized Fred for not taking his fielding responsibilities seriously and for failing to back up bases on throws from the outfield, to which Goldsmith usually replied that he would have been there if needed. One oft-quoted story says that the pitcher angered Anson one day in 1883 when he laughed off a dropped popup with the cheery statement, “Why, Cap! Didn’t you see? I made it hit my glove.” Fred was an easygoing sort on and off the field, and when young outfielder Billy Sunday, the future evangelist, joined the club in 1883, Anson assigned him to room with Goldsmith on the road instead of his more boisterous, high-living teammates.

Goldsmith was not much of a hitter, though he put on a memorable slugging exhibition on May 27, 1884, in Buffalo. Facing right-hander Billy Serad in the fifth inning, he swung as hard as he could and was the most surprised man in the park when the ball rocketed over the left-field fence for a home run, only the second of Goldsmith’s career. According to an account years later in the Washington Post, the pitcher burst out laughing at his unexpected success, and made it around the bases only with the greatest of difficulty. Two innings later, Goldsmith came to bat again and took another mighty swing. Once again the ball flew out of the park, and this time Fred collapsed at the plate, holding his sides and howling with laughter. He was so overcome by hilarity that he could not regain his feet, and only after a long session of pleading and prodding by Anson and his teammates did Goldsmith manage to stand up and stagger around the bases.

Both Corcoran and Goldsmith suffered from sore arms in 1884, and although Corcoran won 35 games that season, Goldsmith stumbled to a 9-11 mark.   Perhaps he saw the end of his career on the horizon, and by June it appeared that he had lost all interest in his work. The left-field fence at Chicago’s Lakefront Park was only 180 feet from the plate in 1884, and with home runs flying into the stands at a record pace (such hits were ruled as doubles in previous seasons), Goldsmith would reportedly whistle the popular tune “Over the Garden Wall” as the opposing hitter made the circuit of the bases. One of the local papers charged that he had grown “fat and lazy,” and with the White Stockings falling out of the pennant race by late July, Anson gave up on the curveball specialist. Goldsmith made his last start for Chicago on July 23 in a 13-6 loss at Cleveland. He remained with the team for a few more weeks as a spare outfielder, but on August 7 the club released him to the Baltimore Orioles of the American Association.

Goldsmith finished the 1884 campaign with the Orioles, for whom he pitched four games and won three. However, the collapse of the Union Association at season’s end reduced the number of major-league jobs available, and the sore-armed Goldsmith was unable to find a position the following spring. At 29 he was finished as a ballplayer, and never again pitched in a major-league game. He umpired in the American Association in 1888 and 1889, then left the sport for good. In all, Goldsmith won 112 games and lost 68 during his six seasons in the major leagues.

Fred and Rowena opened a tavern in London, Ontario, but it failed after a few years, and by 1898 the couple owned a general store near the town of Clawson, Michigan, where Fred also served as postmaster. A few years later, according to the US Census, they made their home in Detroit’s Sixth Ward, where he worked as a salesman and as a street-car repairman while they raised four sons and two daughters. Sometime around 1910, they divorced, and though Fred married a widow named Ida Conroy in Windsor, Ontario, on June 28, 1911 (and soon produced two more daughters), the former spouses apparently remained on friendly terms. 

After the death of his second wife, the aging ex-pitcher moved in with his daughter Phyllis Castle and her family on a farm about six miles from Ortonville, Michigan, northwest of Detroit, and pursued a new passion. Fred, already noted as one of the earliest curveball pitchers, proclaimed that he had not only invented the pitch, but was the first to demonstrate it to the public. He based his claim on a yellowed newspaper clipping in his possession, which was reprinted in The Sporting News on March 30, 1939, and in many other papers as well, and reads as follows:

He Pitched the First Curve Ball





“THE BROOKLYN EAGLE”

August 17, 1870.

Fred Goldsmith has won fame by developing a ball that twisted, providing to countless skeptics that a sphere can cheat natural laws.



Yesterday, at the Capitoline grounds, a large crowd assembled and cheered lustily as a youth from New Haven, Conn, named Fred Goldsmith, demonstrated to the satisfaction of all that a baseball could be so manipulated and controlled by throwing it from one given point to another as to make a pronounced arc in space. The test was made by drawing a chalk line on the ground a distance of 45 feet from one extremity to the other. An eight-foot pole was driven in an upright position at each end. Another pole was set in the same manner halfway between the two end poles, planted directly upon the line.

Now, everything was set up for the test. Goldsmith was set up on the left side of the chalk line near the end pole facing the pole at the other end. The purpose of this was that the ball delivered from the thrower's hand was to cross the line, circle the center pole and return to the same side of the line from which it was thrown, before reaching the far pole. This feat was successfully accomplished six or eight times and that which had up to this point been considered an optical illusion and against all rules of philosophy was now an established fact.

- Henry Chadwick, Editor

No one knows if this widely-quoted piece of newsprint, which disappeared after the pitcher’s death, was authentic, as neither the source of the clipping nor its date of publication can be readily determined. A search of the online Brooklyn Eagle archives failed to turn up this particular text on the date indicated, nor on any other; besides, in August of 1870 Henry Chadwick, the most prominent baseball writer of the day, was employed by the New York Daily Tribune, not the Brooklyn Eagle. Additionally, the fact remains that if Fred had made such a public demonstration at that time, he did so when he was only 14 years old. Despite the questions surrounding the clipping, Fred Goldsmith carried it wherever he went for the rest of his life, displaying it to all as proof positive that he was the first man to demonstrate that a ball could be made to curve in flight. 

The controversy surrounding the origin of the curveball had raged for years, with most observers giving credit for its invention to William Arthur “Candy” Cummings, a Brooklyn-born star of the late 1860s and early 1870s. Cummings, who was interviewed often on the subject, claimed that he had begun tinkering with the pitch as early as 1864 after watching the flight of clamshells thrown on a beach. Cummings said he had used the curveball in a game against Harvard University in 1867, and though several contemporaries remembered him throwing the pitch, solid evidence was lacking. Moreover, pitchers were not allowed to jerk or twist their wrists while delivering the ball until 1872, which would seem to render the use of the curveball in a game highly unlikely before that date. Printed references to “curved line balls” thrown by Cummings and others prior to 1872 are short on specifics, so Goldsmith, who was convinced that his piece of newsprint was genuine, declared that he, not Cummings, was the true inventor of the pitch.

As the years passed, Fred pursued his campaign against Candy Cummings with increasing vehemence. He wrote letters to the editors of various newspapers and sporting publications, disputing Cummings’ assertions and claiming that he and several other pitchers had preceded Cummings in making a baseball curve in flight. In July 1898, a quote from Goldsmith appeared in Sporting Life, in which he claimed that his long-ago friend from Yale, Ham Avery, threw the pitch before Cummings; later in life, Goldsmith insisted that he, while still in his early adolescence, had taught Avery the secret of its delivery. Cummings replied that he, not Goldsmith, had introduced the curve to Avery, and the battle was joined. Cummings and Goldsmith were both proud, stubborn men, and clashed in the public prints for years afterward.

By 1908, when Baseball magazine published an article by Cummings titled, “How I Pitched the First Curve,” such notable baseball figures as Al Spalding (who told the Chicago Tribune that he saw Cummings throw the curveball in 1870) and Boston sportswriter Tim Murnane had thrown their support to Cummings as the inventor of the pitch. Fred, undaunted, continued his solitary quest for recognition into his old age. Armed with his yellowed newspaper clipping, Goldsmith almost single-handedly kept the curveball controversy alive, long after Cummings and all other claimants had passed on. When not pressing his case with the national media, Fred enjoyed playing with his grandchildren and spinning stories of his baseball career. As he told a reporter from The Sporting News shortly before his death, “The most fun I get now is sitting and remembering what I used to do.”

He continued to give interviews, the last of which appeared in The Sporting News on March 30, 1939. In it, the 82-year-old Goldsmith, in failing health, insisted as firmly as ever that he had indeed invented the curveball. The baseball establishment paid little attention, and on May 2 of that year, Candy Cummings and five other men (including Al Spalding and Cap Anson) were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. However, in its edition of June 22, 1939, The Sporting News stated on its editorial page that Goldsmith’s claims were at least as convincing as those put forward by Cummings’ defenders, and that the two men “must be considered co-holders of the honor of inventing the curve ball.”

Fred Goldsmith did not live to read his final interview. He died of heart failure in Berkley, Michigan, on March 28, 1939, two days before the article appeared on the nation’s newsstands. Some reports state that he clutched his prized newspaper clipping in his hands as he took his last breath. He was buried in Roseland Park Cemetery in Berkley next to his former wife, Rowena, who had passed away a year before. Rowena’s grave has a headstone, but the final resting place of Fred Goldsmith remains unmarked. In 2011 Fred’s grandson, John Castle Jr., published a book titled Goldie’s Curve Ball in which he presents his long-dead relative’s case to a new generation of baseball enthusiasts. Castle, in his book, also insists that Fred Goldsmith’s absence from the Baseball Hall of Fame is “an injustice that the Veterans Committee should consider and correct.”

August 1, 2011

Sources

Anson, Adrian C. A Ball Player’s Career. Chicago: Era Publishing, 1900.

Castle, John Jr. Goldie’s Curve Ball. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Homelight Publishing, 2011.

Chicago Tribune, March 18, 1895.

Sporting Life, July 16, 1898.

The Sporting News, March 30, 1939, June 22, 1939.

Washington Post, February 18, 1903.

US Census records from 1860, 1870, 1910, 1920, and 1930.

E-mail correspondence with Goldsmith’s grandson, John Castle, Jr., in July 2011.

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