SABR

Asa Brainard

This article was written by Brian McKenna.

The etymology of the term “ace” meaning the best pitcher on a team derives from the nickname of Asa Brainard, one of the top pitchers of baseball’s early years. Upon settling with the Excelsiors of Brooklyn in 1860, he was initially a second baseman and outfielder because the great James Creighton was positioned in the box. After Creighton’s premature death in October 1862, Brainard became the team’s main hurler. Over the years, he was a member of the first three significant barnstorming teams in the sport’s history: an eastern tour by the Excelsiors in 1860; a western trip by the Nationals of Washington, D.C., in 1867; a nationwide excursion with Cincinnati from 1869-1870.

In 1868, he was recruited by Harry Wright for the soon-to-be famed Red Stockings of Cincinnati, the team that altered the course of the sport’s history. The Reds rattled off two great seasons behind Brainard’s right arm. He was indeed the ace of the Red Stockings, a club that went 57-0 in 1869 and extended its overall consecutive winning streak to 89 games. In contemporary accounts the Brooklyn Eagle referred to him as “Acey” as early as August 15, 1864, and shortened it to “Ace” by at least September 3, 1875. The monikers were rhythmically related to his name Asa; it would be decades before the term “ace” became an adjective and noun commonly used to denote a club’s top hurler.

Asel Brainard was born in Albany, New York, around 1839. There is some confusion as to his given name and his birth year. Some sources claim that his first name was Asahel. Asel was chosen here because just as many sources claim that that was his given name; in addition, it was used more often in the U.S. Censuses and in fact sits on his grave marker. Likewise, the reference sites claim his birth year as 1841, but the 1840 Census seems to indicate that he was alive by that time. He could have been born as early as 1837, but 1839 was chosen because it is the date listed on his grave marker, which can be seen at Findagrave.com. There is a contemporary reference to his middle name beginning with the letter “C,” but this cannot be confirmed.

Asa’s parents were Leonard Whitmore Brainard and Sarah Ann (Kenyon) Brainard, who were married in Haddam, Connecticut, on August 29, 1828. Sarah was born in 1811; her family was from Connecticut but it seems that she was born in New York. Leonard was born in Eastbury, New York in 1802. Per a publication by the Daughters of the American Revolution, “He commanded a sloop launch when 18 years of age, which carried passengers at the time of the Erie Canal celebration at Sandy Hook at the meeting of the waters from Lake Erie to the ocean. He commanded a sailing vessel on the Hudson River, and then a steamboat for many years. He was captain of the steamboat South America, the handsomest boat of its day, the first to have staterooms, the first to burn coal, having previously burned pine wood.”

In 1844 the family moved to Brooklyn, where Leonard was employed as a commission and forwarding merchant, a wholesaler in boats and marine merchandise. He became involved in local Republican politics and served for years in various posts including assemblyman. In April 1861 the governor named him Harbor Master for New York City.

The Brainards had six children, all born in Albany: Sarah Allen, 1829; Redelia Kenyon, 1834; Josephine, 1835; Leonard Whitmore Jr., 1836; Asel; Harrison Whitmore, 1842. All three boys were baseball enthusiasts. The oldest, Leonard, can be placed in contemporary accounts as a scorer for the Stars of Brooklyn in 1859 and in left field for the Excelsiors of Brooklyn on October 4, 1862.

The youngest, Harrison, or Harry, played in substantially more games in the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP), a loose association which began in 1857 that eventually started to spread the New York style of play (which is used today) through the country. It was the first effort in baseball history to link the game together across geographic boundaries. Harry was playing for a club known as the “Independents” in 1860; it was probably a junior club. In 1862 he joined the Excelsiors, playing with the club regularly through 1864. He was primarily an infielder playing second, third and short. In 1864 he also caught, working the battery with his brother Asa. Harry then played scantily and irregularly with the Excelsiors through 1866.

Asa Brainard was one of the initial members of the Stars of Brooklyn, a team established in October 1856. Being young, between seventeen and nineteen years old, he played for the club’s junior team, or perhaps their second team, in 1857 and ’58. In 1859, he moved onto the first team’s roster, appearing in three NABBP games at second base through July. His first NABBP appearance came in the May 26 victory over the Charter Oaks of Brooklyn, 26-22. He played in the July 8 and 19 games against Hamilton of Jersey City and Niagara of Brooklyn, respectively, both victories as well. That summer, he also umpired several local games. In August, Brainard joined the Excelsiors of Brooklyn, appearing in nine games with the club at second base through the end of the year. His first contest with the club came on August 11 versus the Baltic club of New York, a 41-16 victory. The Excelsiors finished with a 12-3 record in NABBP competition.

The 1860 Excelsiors team made its mark on the sport. Pitcher Jim Creighton was pulled from the Star club to headline the team. He was the fastest pitcher of the day and was said to be the first man to snap his wrist, putting a little extra English and oomph on the ball. The club was captained by the tough and respected catcher Joe Leggett. Brainard mainly played in the outfield but also manned second. That season, the Excelsiors took the first extended tour in baseball history, helping to spark the growth of the game by igniting fervor for the sport across traditional boundaries. They traveled into upper state New York and to Philadelphia and into Maryland.

A rivalry was stoked with the Atlantics of Brooklyn, the reigning NABBP champions. The Excelsiors defeated them soundly, 23-4, on July 19. In the return encounter on August 23 the Excelsiors were up 8-6 in the sixth inning when the umpire declared the contest a draw because of excessive rowdiness over a disputed call. The teams didn’t meet again. The Atlantics were declared champions once again with a 12-2-2 record. The Excelsiors meanwhile posted an 18-2-1 mark. Brainard also pitched some in 1860. For example, he was in the box for the first intercity game in Baltimore history, a 51-6 victory by the Excelsiors over the similarly-named Excelsiors of Baltimore on September 22. Incidentally, Creighton played the outfield that day and began what may be the sport’s first triple play.

With the Civil War erupting in 1861, the Excelsiors took the season off from NABBP competition. Eventually 91 members of the extended club joined the Union Army. One member, A.T. Pearsall, the team’s starting first baseman, joined the Confederacy and, as a consequence, was expelled from the club. Brainard, one of the members who didn’t enlist, filled his time playing cricket as a member of the American Cricket Club. He soon had enough of the idleness and with Creighton resigned from the Excelsiors and joined the Atlantics. The move was met with a great deal of animosity considering the events of 1860. The pair soon rescinded their decision. According to the Brooklyn City News, “We understand from good authority that Messrs. Creighton and Brainard have resigned from the Atlantic club, and withdrawn their resignations from the Excelsiors, so that they are still members of the latter club, and will take part in their matches this month…[Their] withdrawal from the Excelsior Club was principally owing to the fact of that club having ceased to play either in matches or on practice days. No club can expect to retain their members unless they take active part in the matches of the season.”

The Excelsiors didn’t start taking on stiffer competition again until June 26, 1862. With many members in the service the roster was revamped. Creighton was still the team’s centerpiece, but Leggett only appeared in one game (at first base). Harrison Brainard joined the club in the infield. Asa only appeared in two of the club’s six games. In late October Creighton injured himself on the field and died at age 21. Whether he was hurt in a baseball or cricket match has been debated by researchers for years. Even to the nature of his injury, which some have speculated to be a ruptured bladder, is under question. His replacement in 1863 would be Asa Brainard.

Brainard stood five feet, eight and a half inches tall and weighed approximated 150 to 160 pounds during his career. He was a righthander as nearly all pitchers of the day were. He stood erect before delivering with his left foot touching the back of his right foot. He then went into his windup and delivered the ball after one step or stride. At the time, pitchers had to send the pitch to the batter’s specified general location, either high or low. It was delivered strictly underhand. At the onset of his career, the curve wasn’t a part of the game, though it soon would be. Pitchers typically mixed fastballs with a changeup, or slow ball. Asa, like others, started to use a whip-like arm motion to gain additional speed. Creighton was snapping his wrist to get movement and power on the ball. Brainard surely noticed Creighton’s technique and adopted it.

Brainard strove to upset the batters’ timing and keep them off balance and worked fast compared to the other hurlers of the day. Though he was required to deliver to a general location, the batter never seemed to get what he was looking for. Brainard was trying to out-think the man with the bat. He moved the ball in and out and up and down in the never-ending cat-and-mouse game between pitcher and batter.

After Creighton’s death during the 1860s, Brainard was said to be one of the hardest throwers in the game. Some claim he was the second fastest behind Will Williams of the Nationals of Washington D.C. Brainard was also among the first to master the underhand curveball. According to Harry Wright in reference to 1869, “Asa Brainard was the pitcher, and at his shoe latches every ball fan of the period worshipped. He was adept in the art of tossing the ball to the batsman – the pitcher’s delivery was a ‘toss’ in those days, and Asa’s toss had all sorts of twists with it; twists that evaded the onslaught of the batsman and rendered him incapable of inflicting an assault on the sphere beyond pop flies.”

Brainard, traditionally a second baseman, was one of the top defensive pitchers of the day. As described by Aaron Champion, president of the Reds Stockings of Cincinnati, “Brainard was the greatest fielding pitcher I ever saw. He covered more ground than any pitcher, and never thought of getting out of the way of any ball, no matter how hard it was knocked his way.” He was also among the earliest moundsmen to cover first base, helping his team’s defense immensely.

With so many members in the service plus the death of Jim Creighton, the Excelsiors never regained their dominance. They were essentially also-rans from 1862 to 1866. Brainard covered most of the mound duties. Joe Leggett was his batterymate, as well as Brainard’s brother Harrison on occasion. During this span the Atlantics of Brooklyn copped three straight NABBP titles starting in 1864. In the latter season, the Excelsiors enticed Dickey Pearce, Frank Norton and Fred Crane to jump the Atlantics, fanning the flames of the clubs’ rivalry. Nevertheless, in August Pearce and Crane returned to their old club, and the Atlantics once again took the championship. On August 28, 1866, Candy Cummings, future Hall of Famer and supposed inventor of the curveball, took his first turn on the mound for the Excelsiors on a day when Brainard wasn’t available. Cummings appeared in five other games for the club, signaling the end of Brainard’s stint with the Excelsiors.

Brainard left the Excelsiors and pitched for the Knickerbockers of New York in early 1867 and then joined the Nationals of Washington, D.C. Ex-teammates Frank Norton and George Fletcher were already with the Nationals, which in all likelihood induced Brainard to join the club. The Nationals that year were headlined by the great shortstop George Wright and embarked on baseball’s first western tour. In July they traveled over 3000 miles to Columbus, Ohio, Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Chicago and finally back to D.C. In Cincinnati, the Nats defeated the Red Stockings and their crack pitcher Harry Wright 53-10. The humiliation helped sparked the club to push aside the amateur ideal and hire Wright for $1200 at the end of the season to captain the club and build a winner that would soon make a similar barnstorming tour and set the baseball world afire. Asa joined the Nationals toward the end of the season, appearing in six games to ease the burden on fireballer Will Williams.

To revamp his club, Harry Wright brought New Yorkers John Hatfield, Fred Waterman and Brainard to Cincinnati in 1868. According to Reds’ president Aaron Champion, “His engagement with the Reds came about in this way. In the spring of 1868, I went east to get Fred Waterman, who was then with the Excelsiors of Brooklyn, to play third base for us…A young man named Brainard…was being talked about as the coming second baseman, and I determined to get him too. I found him clerking in a shirt store. He was a fashionable dresser, a perfect gentleman in manners, and from his appearance not at all a ballplayer. But he was shy, and I dickered with him some days before I got him…and he headed to Cincinnati in May.”

To skirt the NABBP rules against professionalism, the Reds obtained employment for Brainard at the law offices of Tilden, Moulton and Tilden. He later was listed working in the insurance business. Whether he in fact worked in those professions is left to conjecture. He appeared in 38 of the team’s 43 league games for the Reds, on the mound and at second base. A troubling episode occurred before the September 2 game against the Buckeyes of Cincinnati. Before the game Brainard and Hatfield were approached by gamblers about throwing the game to the Buckeyes. Neither reported the incident until called before the club directors when word leaked out. However, both men swore they had no intention of fixing the game. After some wrangling, Brainard was permitted to play in the game, but in the field – not in the box. Harry Wright pitched and won 20-12. (Hatfield was not permitted to play in the game and was soon released.) Additional allegations against Brainard would resurface after an August 1869 game.

Harry Wright revamped his club again in 1869. That year, the NABBP officially permitted professional clubs for the first time. The Reds were among the first to declare themselves as such and, considering their soon-to-be success, are often acknowledged by historians as baseball’s first openly-declared professional team. Wright kept Brainard, catcher Doug Allison, Waterman, Cal McVey and Charlie Gould. George Wright and Dave Birdsall were added from the Unions of Morrisania roster, as were Andy Leonard, Dick Hurley and Cal Sweasy from the Buckeyes. Before the 1868 season, the men were outfitted with new uniforms with knickers and red stockings and thus derived their famous nickname.

As the season wore on, the club gathered steam. It wasn’t merely the fact that they were unbeaten; they were barnstorming throughout the country, from Maine to California, and beating the best nines - in their hometowns. The Reds arrived, so to speak, on June 15 after defeating the Mutuals of New York 4-2. It was one of the best contests of the year and an extremely low scoring one for the era. All eyes were on Harry Wright’s crew from then on. They didn’t disappoint, going 57 and 0 for the year. The Reds’ barnstorming tour transformed the sport. If baseball wasn’t already considered the national pastime, it surely was by the turn of the new decade.

Obviously, the entire squad was solid. However, George Wright and Brainard rose to the top echelon of the game’s performers, as well as catcher Doug Allison. Wright scored 339 times with 49 home runs and a .629 batting average in a mere 57 games. Brainard’s right arm was the key to the season, and the streak. He appeared in 55 of the club’s games, occasionally playing the outfield and even catching. His fastball, slow ball and twisted pitches seemed to be unhittable, as Harry Wright, said inducing pop fly after pop fly. Brainard, 30, worked 338 innings. Wright was the change pitcher and notched 118 innings. He also occasionally relieved Asa, not to give the pitcher rest or bail him out per se, but to disrupt the opposing batsmen. George Wright also chipped in fourteen innings in the box.

Brainard stood out in other ways besides his dominance on the mound. Per Aaron Champion, “Asa was the ‘dude’ of that period in the history of professional ball playing, that is he was fond of dress, liked to win the admiration of the ladies, and, in fact, was the [Don Juan] of the Red Stocking nine.” His attire and manners had an English flair prompting Cincinnatians to dub him the “Count.” He had a big mustache with a full, scraggly beard and an ample head of hair parted just to the left of center (Page 142 of Al Spalding’s America’s National Game has a nice contemporary picture of him with Harry Wright and Fred Waterman). Brainard was also known to wear muttonchops, but during his time with the Reds, he sported a full beard.

Brainard did in fact run with the ladies. However, not long after joining the Red Stocking he fell ill from small pox. At the time he was lodging at the Truman residence on Pike Street. William Truman, deceased, was a partner in the printing firm of Truman and Smith, publishers of the successful McGuffey Reader series. The Trumans were big baseball fans; the daughters Margaret and Mary even made baseballs for local Cincinnati clubs. Mary nursed Brainard back to health, and they were soon married, just prior to the 1869 season. They had one child, a son named Truman. The boy died young in January 1879. Upon his death, it became known publicly that Brainard had abandoned the family after leaving the Red Stockings and never remitted any support. Mary eventually was granted a divorce.

The winning streak was marred by a 17-17 tie on August 26, 1869, a game that was declared in favor of the Reds by the umpire. Cincinnati was playing the Unions of Lansingburgh, New York, a club more familiarly known today as the Troy Haymakers. The Unions were owned by John Morrissey, a seedy character with heavy ties to local gamblers. According to famed sportswriter Grantland Rice, his relative Fletcher Rice, a ballplayer, assisted Morrissey in trying to fix the game in question. First, Rice approached the umpire but was threatened with a beating and turned away. Then, he allegedly sent a note to Asa at his hotel offering the pitcher $500 to tank his performance. Soon thereafter, $200 arrived at Brainard’s room; he didn’t report the incident. An additional $300 was promised if the Unions scored ten or more runs in the first two innings. They did; the score was 13-10 after the second frame. Brainard supposedly earned the extra cash. The Unions initiated an argument or two in the sixth with the score tied and then walked off the field and refused to continue. The umpire declared the game a forfeit. The Rice story is hearsay and indeed published many years after the fact. As such, it is just one of many unsubstantiated stories in baseball lore. Unfortunately, the events the previous September concerning the attempted bribe that wasn’t reported lends credence to Rice’s claims.

The Reds continued to win as 1870 began. They in fact ran the streak up to 89 games, sandwiched between two losses to the Atlantics of Brooklyn in Brooklyn on October 1, 1868, and June 14, 1870. Brainard appeared in 66 games, of the team’s 74 games in ’70. He worked even harder than in 1869, notching 440 innings.

The Reds didn’t collapse as some have suggested; after the loss on June 14, they went 18-0-1 before losing at home on July 27 to the Athletics of Philadelphia and finished the year with an impressive 66-7-1 record. The traveling and payroll expenses piled up, but the club eked out a small profit by the end of 1870. However, the club’s directors decided to get out of the baseball business, at least the professional end and reclaimed its amateur status - which naturally sent the professional stars packing.

After the disbanding of the club, certain aspects of Brainard’s behavior came to light as the men reminisced on their fine seasons. Harry Wright had trouble controlling Asa, who was a night owl and heavy drinker. According to researcher David Q. Voight, Brainard was “difficult to manage” and “complained of imaginary ailments” to get out of work. The latter charge probably had much to do with the carousing and subsequent hangovers and weariness. Wright exclaimed that the pitcher was the biggest violator on the club for being absent or late and complaining of illness. He hated practice and begged off at every opportunity. At times, the manager had to threaten, cajole or berate his pitcher to get him in the frame of mind for competition. Occasionally, Wright would just take the mound himself.

All in all, Brainard was a good teammate, though perhaps a handful for his manager. He’d sing on the trains to entertain his fellow players and passengers, and he always seemed to be able to lure a teammate or two for a night on the town. Some considered him a bit eccentric, though. As George Wright put it, he had “odd notions.” For example, Wright described one incident in the middle of a game Brainard threw the ball at a rabbit that crossed the field. This allowed two men to score as the ball and rabbit both scampered away. The pitcher’s base running style was unique as well. As author James L. Terry exclaimed, it “bordered on the vaudevillian.”

At the end of 1870, the NABBP was in turmoil as internal factions, torn between amateurism and professionalism, fractured the organization. The age of open and respected professionalism was born. The professional National Association (NA) was formed with nine of the best clubs in the country. Harry Wright took his brother, Gould and McVey with him to Boston. The so-called troubled players – perhaps a euphemism for drinkers – Brainard, Sweasy, Leonard, Allison and Waterman went en masse to the Washington Olympics.

Washington finished in the middle of the pack with a 15-15 record in 1871. Brainard was 32 years old by this time, among the oldest in the NA throughout his time there. Despite leading the Red Stockings as one of the most dominant pitchers in the game just a year before, his best days were behind him. In fact, his career would end before the major leagues as we know them began. He started and completed thirty of the club’s 32 games but accrued an unimpressive 12-15 record (including two ties and a declared forfeit).

In January 1872, Asa supposedly signed with the Brooklyn Atlantics but nevertheless remained with Washington and started seven of the first nine games, losing six. The club dropped out of the league, after the May 24 contest. On August 1, he joined the Middletown (Connecticut) Mansfields of the NA which included Orator O’Rourke and Tim Murnane. Brainard pitched on the 1st and 2nd and then went to second base for four more games for Middletown before it as well dropped out of the league. On August 22 he umpired a league game.

Brainard finished his career with the Baltimore Canaries in 1873 and ’74. Candy Cummings was the club’s main pitcher in the former season. He started 42 games for a 28-14 win-loss record through August 26. Brainard finished out the season beginning with the team’s next game on September 12. Baltimore finished in third place with a 34-22 record and Brainard with a meager 5-7 win-loss record. While not on the mound in Baltimore, he was superintendent of the billiards room at the Carrollton Hotel. He was a top pool shooter since his youth, even competing for the Ohio State championship back in 1869 while with the Red Stockings. He often competed in tournaments and was generally considered “a very skilled amateur player.”

Both Baltimore and Brainard tanked in 1874. The team finished last with a 9-38 record. Asa started all the club’s games, 27, through July 13 but lost his job with a meager 5-22 record. He finished out the season and his career at second base. Mound replacement Jack Manning was just as unimpressive, winning only four of his twenty starts to close out the season.

Brainard returned to Brooklyn and umpired a NA game on July 23, 1875. Around the same time, it was rumored that he had signed with Philadelphia, but that never materialized. He later tried to get a permanent umpiring gig with the National League, even appealing to Harry Wright for assistance, but no job was forthcoming. Meanwhile, Brainard ran a cigar shop with Fred Waterman. Asa played in benefit games as late as August 1878.

By the late 1870s, Brainard was living in Philadelphia running another pool hall. He returned to New York by the early 1880s and managed an archery club on Staten Island. Around this time, he married the daughter of Henry F. Vail, the president of the National Bank of Commerce of New York City. Henry’s brother James was married to Brainard’s sister Redelia. By 1887, Brainard moved to Denver to manage the billiard hall at the Markham Hotel.

Asa Brainard died on December 29, 1888. According to the Rocky Mountain News, “After an illness of only three days, Asa Brainard, the well-known and popular superintendent of the Markham Hotel billiard room, succumbed to a fierce attack of acute pneumonia.” He was interred at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Note

The 1840 U.S. Census did not list all family members by name. The head of household is listed with the number of males and females of certain age groups living in the household. The L.W. Brainard family lists two males under 5 years old, two daughters from 5-10 years old and another daughter between 15 and 20. This matches other genealogical research (save the age of the oldest sister) and strongly indicates that Brainard was born before 1841, as Leonard Jr. and Asa were the family’s first two sons.

Marshall D. Wright’s outstanding and extremely helpful work The National Association of Base Ball Players, 1857-1870 lists Harrison Brainard with both the Stars of Brooklyn and the Excelsiors of Brooklyn in 1859. It’s my contention that the listings in 1859 actually belong to Asa Brainard. For one, Harrison would have been only 16 or 17 years old at the time. Secondly, contemporary accounts in the Brooklyn Eagle show Asa Brainard with both the mentioned clubs in 1859. These factors lead me to the belief that the 1859 figures belong to Asa, not Harrison. I have incorporated them as such.

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