SABR

Dickey Pearce

This article was written by Brian McKenna.

One could pull up Dickey Pearce’s statistics at the reference sites and be completely unimpressed. His numbers in the National Association and the National League are unremarkable. This is only part of the story; he was 35 years old when the National Association started and 40 when the National League began. Pearce’s reputation and contributions were made long before. He was one of the most famous and respected of all the early ballplayers. He and James Creighton were two of the game’s most recognizable stars. They were also among the first to be paid for their skills. Creighton’s fame blew bright but short because of his early death, but Pearce played until he was pushing 50 years old.

Pearce, a Brooklyn resident, took part in some of the top games in the early era that defined baseball as the national sport. After one of those contests, the Brooklyn Union proclaimed, “Baseball has become permanently established as the most popular and exciting sport of the American people.” Pearce played for and captained perhaps the top team of the amateur era and the game’s first dynasty, the Atlantics of Brooklyn – champion of the National Association of Base Ball Players in 1859-1861, 1864-1866 and 1869.

Pearce’s contributions as a pioneer were numerous. As noted, he was one of the first professionals. Upon joining the Atlantics, Pearce, short and squat (5-feet-3½, 161 pounds), was assigned to the short field position, a roving spot much like the short fielder in present-day softball. At the time the three infielders hugged their bags. Pearce quickly decided he was more valuable moving into the infield to the open spot to the left of second base; hence, he redefined the infield, in the process creating the now-familiar shortstop position. With the bat, Pearce also redefined strategic hitting. He introduced the bunt, and this led to introduction and/or refinement of the sacrifice bunt, squeeze play, fair-foul hit, and place hitting.

Richard John Pearce was born on February 29, 1836, in Brooklyn, New York, to William Pryce Pearce and Louisa (Ball) Pearce, who were born and raised in or near London, England. William, born in 1809, and Louisa, born in 1808, were married on March 15, 1829 in St. Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch, London, immigrated to the United States in the early 1830s, probably 1832. William was a shoemaker like his father. The family included four children, all born in the United States: Uriah, 1832; William Henry, 1834; Richard, 1836; and Sarah Jane, 1843.

Richard Pearce, better known as Dick or Dickey to the baseball public, joined the Atlantics of Brooklyn in 1856. The club had been recently formed, in August of the previous year. Pearce told sportswriter Henry Chadwick that his first game with the Atlantics was a September 18 contest against the Baltics of Yorkville, New York. Pearce played center field in the 21-19 victory. He let Chadwick in on another interesting piece of information; he had no experience. As Chadwick proclaimed, “He knew nothing of the game.” That was his first baseball contest, at the age of 20. He did, however, have experience with cricket.

Pearce may have been inexperienced, but he brought the necessary toughness to his craft and an athletic and competitive nature. At 5-feet-3½, with dark hair, brown eyes, a big mustache, and balding, he was one of the smallest major leaguers in history, but he weighed a solid 161 pounds. This suggests, as many have noted, that he was stocky, perhaps pudgy; however, it must be taken into account that the weight figure stems from his later professional years, after age 35. Pearce was solidly built in his early 20s and was spry or he would have been a detriment to his club being placed at the mobile short field position, as he was in 1857. At the time the short fielder was a roving position. He had a multitude of responsibilities, such as covering and backing up various bases – all of them including home -- backing up infielders and the pitcher, lending assistance at home when needed, chasing short hits into the outfield, and cutting off relays from the outfield. Basemen clung to their bases, which meant someone had to fill the gaps and weaknesses. The short fielder might set up in any of various spots on the left or right side of the field, in the infield or the outfield. Pearce quickly changed this.

Tim Murnane, an old-time ballplayer and longtime columnist for the Boston Globe, wrote that Pearce “was the first man to play the position [shortstop] as it is played now.” It’s not that he merely positioned himself to cover the gap on the left side of the infield; it’s that he did it so well, transforming the contemporary views of the defensive makeup of a team and placement of the other fielders in the process. He was the premier shortstop in the game prior to the great George Wright. Pearce had a strong and reliable arm and he was extremely sure-handed – in the barehanded era. He would later claim that after 28 years of competitive ballplaying, he didn’t have as many dropped balls or wild throws, a boastful and surely exaggerated declaration but one that perhaps makes a statement nonetheless.

The National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) was formed in 1857. It was a loose association that eventually started to spread the New York style of play (which is used today) through the country and tie the game together across geographic boundaries. Pearce finished third in the NABBP in runs scored in 1857. That year was the genesis of the Atlantics’ first dynasty. They won the Brooklyn championship and captured the metropolitan championship the next season. From 1859 to 1861, the Atlantics were crowned champions of the NABBP.

Quickly a star, Pearce, a right-hander, was named to various picked nines, contemporary all-star teams, during the summer of 1858 as the best players from Brooklyn took on those from New York. (Brooklyn, a separate city, didn’t become a borough of New York City until 1898.) Pearce didn’t just impress at shortstop; he caught as well and was soon named captain of the Atlantics. He told Murnane in 1905, “I was a catcher for nine years, and had no trouble in holding the great [James] Creighton without gloves or mitts, and I doubt if there is a man today with the speed Creighton displayed in those days.” The Brooklyn Eagle said, “Pearce’s excellent play as catcher … was marked by a commendable degree of coolness.” He was one of the earliest, if not the first, to signal the pitcher. This was before the curveball era so he was in fact signaling location. As noted in the National Chronicle in 1869, research found in Peter Morris’ A Game of Inches, Pearce kept his eyes on the batter so as not to give away the intended location and communicated with pitcher Tommy Pratt of the Atlantics with presumably a discreet nonverbal gesture. He did the same later with pitchers Matt O’Brien and George Zettlein.

Pearce also played other related games. In 1859 a group of English cricketers toured the United States. Riding the hype, some New Yorkers in 1860 formed the American Cricket Club, which included Pearce, Creighton, Asa Brainard, and other baseball players. In truth, the baseball men played relatively few cricket matches before the club was melded into another in 1861. Pearce also played the trendy ice baseball, which was introduced around this time. He played a game or two on skates many winters into the 1870s.

It appears that Pearce and James Creighton were among the very first to derive an income from the game, along with perhaps Al Reach, moving the game toward semi-professionalism and professionalism. The specifics are fuzzy at best as payments weren’t made aboveboard. At the time it was very unpopular to pay players. The ideals of amateurism were held as a high standard. Payments from club officials, if made, were done under the table. Fans made an effort to show their appreciation as well. On November 16, 1861, friends of Pearce’s organized a benefit game for him. Ten cents admission was charged with all the proceeds headed to the player. The gracious Pearce insisted that his good friend and fellow star Creighton reap half the rewards. Unfortunately, the contest was held late in the year, and the bleak weather severely limited the gate.

The Atlantics were a working-class, competitive nine. They were juxtaposed against the supposedly more professional, career-minded Excelsiors of Brooklyn, for whom Creighton starred until his early death at the age of 21 in October 1862. The Excelsiors were said to be more gentlemanly, interested in sportsmanship and the ideals of amateurism more than championships. Or perhaps this was merely self-justification, as the Atlantics were copping all the championships. The Atlantics were definitely more combative on the field, to the shock of many. The men were verbally aggressive with opponents – and with each other in fact. Pearce fit that mold; he had a temper. He was chastised by reporters for it and at times ran afoul of the umpire. He seemed to calm down some by 1870 as Henry Chadwick commented, “Dick used to be a first class growler … but he has wisely seen the error of his ways in this respect and since then has got that temper of his under excellent control.”

It may be that Pearce just didn’t need to display temper as much. He was no longer captain of the Atlantics by that time. The job was taken over by the younger Bob Ferguson, who was as combative as they came during the era. Perhaps Pearce’s competitive nature can be garnered from an old-timers game in August 1888, when he was 52 years old. According to the New York Times, “The ancients went on the field under the captaincy of Dickey Pearce, the once famous shortstop of the Atlantics. … Mr. Pearce was the only one who made any attempt at real playing and he distinguished himself by some really clever pick-ups and throws. … This kind of playing made Mr. Pearce angry and his old-time blood was up. He shouted at his men until his face got red.”

In 1861 Pearce led the National Association of Base Ball Players in runs scored. In 1864 he placed second behind teammate Charlie Smith. That year, the Atlantics began their next dynasty, going 20-0-1 in NABBP competition. They copped the championship three years in a row. On October 13, 1864, Pearce participated in perhaps the sport’s first old-timers game. The contest pitted the 1861 Atlantics against the 1864 Atlantics. Pearce played for the older squad, but the “Youngsters” won, 19-11.

Pearce captained the club through 1865. In early 1866, the Excelsiors enticed Pearce, Fred Crane, and Frank Norton to jump the Atlantics. The move stoked the existing hard feelings between the two clubs and further sparked their rivalry. In truth, the exact reason for the trio’s departure is a mystery. However, considering the changes in the game at this time, it’s a good bet that the trio’s transfer was financially motivated. Pearce, the team’s new captain, appeared in five NABBP games for the Excelsiors before he and Crane returned to the Atlantics in August. Under NABBP rules, however, they weren’t permitted to play for 30 days. Nevertheless, the Atlantics took their third consecutive pennant without Pearce’s services for much of the season.

Pearce also made his mark on the game with his bat. He originated and excelled in three areas that substantially affected the dynamic between the batter, pitcher, and fielders: bunting; fair-foul hitting; and place-hitting. The three are closely linked and make up, in the vernacular of the day, “scientific” or “intelligent” hitting. Basically, this meant a thoughtful approach at the plate outside the normal rearing back and swinging with all one’s might.

Bunting was an element of earlier stick-and-ball games but was never really used in base ball at first. It’s clear that Pearce was the first to capitalize upon its use during the 1860s. (Future teammate Tom Barlow later picked up on the idea and expanded upon it, causing some to believe that he was in fact the originator of the idea.) By 1868, Pearce was also striking the first sacrifice bunts and initiating the first suicide squeeze plays, as noted by researcher Robert H. Schaefer. As Pearce told Tim Murnane of the Boston Globe in December 1905, “Yes, I was the first to introduce the bunt hit. While with the Atlantics, in ’67, the idea came to me, and I figured out just how a ball would bound when met from different angles. First I practiced bunting, then hitting the ball on top so that it would carom from the fair ground to the ground back of third base.”

Closely related, fair-foul hits capitalized on a loophole in the rules that wasn’t plugged until 1877. Pearce’s pioneering strategy was recognized by Henry Chadwick in 1872 in the New York Clipper: “Dick is the originator of that strategic style of batting known as ‘fair-foul hits.’” Peter Morris in A Game of Inches seconds this: “All evidence points to Dickey Pearce having invented the fair-foul in the 1860s.” Two decades after his earlier claim, Chadwick asserted that he himself was the originator of the idea, but that’s neither here nor there; Henry never picked up a bat in league play.

The fair-foul was a trick play. The goal was to tap the top of the ball as it approached the plate, have it land in fair territory near the batter’s feet and roll foul out of the reach of the fielders as the batter-runner made a break for first base. Pearce increased its effectiveness by putting a spin on the ball that could take a fielder far out of his range. Third basemen occasionally set up in foul territory to combat this, but Pearce was still successful. The fake bunt or fair-foul was also an effective part of his arsenal. As the infielders inched in to field the short hits, Pearce would counter them by swinging away in an effort to get the ball by them.

In the mid-1860s, the “fly rule” came into effect. Until that time, outs could be made by catching a batted ball on one bounce. The fly rule essentially opened up the field to batters, as the fielders’ ranges were now substantially lessened. Peter Morris wrote that Pearce “was one of the first players to emphasize place hitting.” He “hit ’em where they ain’t,” to borrow a phrase from another generation. As the Boston Chronicle proclaimed in 1869, “Pearce … comes to bat, views the position of the field and finds an open slot or weak point on the field and aims to send the ball there.” All these measures, the bunt, fair-foul hitting and place-hitting, led many to proclaim Pearce as the top practitioner of scientific batting.

The fly rule opened the door to another trick play, one that Pearce naturally became an early practitioner of: the trapped-ball play. With runners on base, an infielder faked catching a batted ball in the air, to cause the runners to hesitate. He actually let it drop and then quickly initiated a double play. This clearly put runners at a disadvantage. The infield fly rule was instituted to counter this, but not until the 1890s.

In 1869, the National Association of Base Ball Players essentially split as it formally permitted openly professional clubs for the first time. The Atlantics were among the first to declare themselves professionals when allowed to do so, though it’s apparent that Pearce had been paid to play for quite some time before that.

The Atlantics played the game of the year in 1870 when they defeated the strong Red Stockings of Cincinnati on June 14. The Red Stockings hit Brooklyn riding an 89-game winning streak. They hadn’t lost since October 1, 1868, a victory claimed by the Atlantics. During the interim, Cincinnati crushed the Atlantics in 1869. The NABBP had named the Atlantics champions in 1869, so the 1870 rematch caught the attention of the baseball community: the declared champions versus the acknowledged best team in the country. It was a well-played contest, with only three errors. The crowd reached upwards of 20,000 strong, standing room only long before game time. At the end of nine innings at the Capitoline Grounds in Brooklyn, the clubs were tied, 5-5. The Reds scored twice in the top of the 11th, but in the bottom of the inning the Atlantics rallied for three to win. The fans rushed the field and carried many of the men off on their shoulders. “The yells of the crowd could be heard for blocks around, and a majority of the people acted like escaped inmates,” the New York Sun reported. It was perhaps the biggest game to that point in baseball history.

At the end of 1870, the National Association of Base Ball Players was in turmoil as internal factions, torn between amateurism and professionalism, fractured the organization. The directors of the Atlantics decided to shed the club of its professional members and enter the new National Association of Amateur Base Ball Clubs. Nine of the strongest clubs throughout the country promptly formed the professional National Association. Pearce, Bob Ferguson, Charlie Smith, and Joe Start, all formerly of the Atlantics, signed with the New York Mutuals in the National Association. The age of open and respected professionalism was born.

Pearce was 35 years old in 1871, past his prime when the first professional league began. Throughout his National Association and National League career, he was among the oldest still playing at the top level. In 1871 he led the league in games played. The following year, he was re-signed for $1,200, according to the New York Times. He briefly managed the club for 16 games and umpired a league contest between the Brooklyn Atlantics, now professional, and the Brooklyn Eckfords on September 24.

Ferguson left the Mutuals to take over the Atlantics, and Pearce rejoined him in 1873. That year, Dickey helped pull off the earliest documented delayed double steal, on May 26 against the Philadelphia Athletics. With teammate Herman Dehlman on third, Pearce took off from first base but stopped midway to second. This drew a throw from the catcher, which prompted Dehlman to take off for home. Seeing Dehlman off base, the fielders set their sights on him, throwing twice to relay the ball home. Dehlman, however, was safe and Pearce took second rather casually. It wasn’t the first time Pearce did it, though; a Brooklyn Eagle reporter wrote that he had pulled off the same trick within the previous week against the Philadelphia White Stockings.

The crux of the Atlantics roster departed after the 1874 season. Bob Ferguson and rookie Tommy Bond headed to Hartford. Pearce was initially slated to return to the Mutuals, but he jumped at a better offer. In the fall of 1874, a group of civic boosters in St. Louis raised $20,000 to organize a baseball club called the Browns, the first openly professional nine in the city’s history. James Lucas was named president. Vice president C. Orrick Bishop, a local lawyer and amateur baseball promoter, went east to recruit some top talent in order to be competitive as the club set its sights on joining the National Association. In Brooklyn, Bishop picked up Pearce, Jack Chapman, Dehlman, and Lip Pike. In and around Philadelphia, Bishop added Ned Cuthbert, Reddy Miller, George Bradley, Bill Hague, and Joe Battin. In the days before the reserve clause, such tampering and contract jumping, known as revolving, was rampant.

St. Louis agreed with Pearce; he arrived in February 1875 and stayed until April 1881. He opened a cigar store on Franklin Avenue and gained a new nickname in the town, Bad Dickey. That first spring, Pearce worked out with teammates, playing a lot of handball. He was named manager of the club and saw the club to a fourth place finish in the National Association, 26½ games behind powerhouse Boston. Pearce appeared in all the club’s 70 games at shortstop and even pitched in two contests. He also umpired local games in St. Louis during the year.

The National Association was replaced in 1876 by the National League. St. Louis joined the new league but changed its manager. In April the Boston Daily Advertiser declared,

“The St. Louis club has put ‘Bad Dickey’ Pearce on the retired list, and made Dennis McGee (Mack) short stop – at least until [the] trial proves the unfitness of the arrangement.” Pearce was eventually activated but he was 40 years old. Mack kept the shortstop job for much of the year, playing in 41 games to Pearce’s 23 at short after he was added to the roster. Pearce appeared in only 25 of the club’s 64 games, batting a meager .206 in the first year of the National League. The Brown Stockings, though, jumped to second place on the right arm of George Bradley, who posted a 45-19 record.

The Browns released Pearce at the end of 1876. His departure led to a lawsuit. He had signed with the club in 1876 for $1,500; an extra $300 was promised if he was made captain. In May, he was asked to serve as captain but for only one game. Pearce believed he was owed the $300. He lost the case when it went to court on May 2, 1877. Pearce negotiated with a couple of clubs, including Providence and Louisville but landed with Ludlow, a Cincinnati team, in the League Alliance for the ’77 season. He played for the club for about a week starting on April 19 and then umpired local games in Cincinnati and dealt with the lawsuit.

In mid-May, Pearce was picked up by Providence of the New England League, appearing in 68 games at shortstop through September 14 and batting .233. Meanwhile, the Brown Stockings had a rocky season, capped by some tainted games in August that may have involved game-fixing. After Herman Dehlman came down with malaria, St. Louis brought Pearce back on September 24 to finish out the last eight games on the schedule. In December, St. Louis resigned from the National League in wake of the gambling difficulties and disbanded.

In 1878, former Browns Cuthbert, Pearce, Battin, Joe Blong, and Mike McCeary joined a St. Louis independent semipro club also called the Browns. The club played a few games against a team identified as the Reds and disbanded in early May. By now, Pearce was in all likelihood the oldest player in the country. He spent the rest of the season umpiring local games out West plus 15 contests in the National League. Cuthbert reorganized the independent Browns in 1879 with Pearce joining the club. The newest edition of the Browns traveled extensively, racking up an impressive win-loss record, though in truth, their competition was not always of the highest standard. The wins rekindled St. Louis’s thirst for professional ball, which soon led local benefactors such as Chris von der Ahe to pour money into ambitious local efforts. Pearce played for the Browns in 1880 as well, as the St. Louis Globe-Democrat announced on May 9, “Pearce has been added to the team.”

In 1881, Pearce returned to Brooklyn and umpired local games throughout the summer. On July 29, a benefit game was held for him to celebrate his 25 years in the game. With the proceeds he opened a saloon at 7 Boerum Street in downtown Brooklyn called the Atlantics Shades. It was an early version of a sports bar; nostalgia dotted the walls and sports weeklies and dailies littered the tables. Pearce spent 1882 umpiring in the National League. It was an antagonistic summer. In May he was attacked by Ezra Sutton of Boston after the ballplayer was fined during the course of a game. Sutton chased Dickey down at the end of the game and punched him in the face when the umpire wasn’t looking. Things became even more heated in July and August; bad press became the norm instead of the exception.

The Daily Inter Ocean of Chicago was particularly critical of Pearce’s performance after a July 25 game in Chicago: “It has not been the custom heretofore to criticize severely the decisions of any umpire upon the Chicago grounds, nor has it been necessary, for their decisions have had at least a show of an intention to be fair and just, but this is a case that calls loudly for the condemnation of Pearce as an umpire totally unfit for his position,” the paper’s sportswriter covering the game said. “His decisions were, in several critical moments when the game hung trembling in the balance, either dictated by ignorance, incompetence, or a less honorable motive.” The article continued to list specific instances of alleged incompetence during the game, plays that were judged wrongly in the reporter’s opinion for both sides.

After the August 10 game between Cleveland and Boston, the Cleveland Herald proclaimed, “The umpiring of Pearce was very unsatisfactory to both sides.” A week later, after a game between Cleveland and Worcester, the Herald wrote, “The spectators hooted at Pierce [sic] all through the game. He lost his temper and his judgment at the same time, made some bad decisions, fined [Doc] Bushong and finally sought police protection.” The article continued, “The Bostons and Worcesters have united in disqualifying umpire Pearce.” Specifically, those clubs filed a protest with the league against Pearce, asking that he be removed from his job. On August 25, National League secretary Nick Young did just that. The Herald reported, “Secretary Young has issued a notice of the removal of R.J. Pearce from the list of league umpires.” Even the fines Pearce issued during his final month were rescinded and a declared forfeit he made was ordered replayed.

In 1883 Pearce, then 47, was named player-manager of Quincy (Illinois) of the Northwestern League. He was with the club until an accident ended his career. He then found a slot umpiring in the Interstate League. In 1884, he umpired in the Northwestern League. Pearce worked games in the International League in 1887. He was a candidate for various baseball management jobs, including Portland, Maine, but didn’t land one. He also attended various old-timers games throughout the years. By 1891, he was employed as a security guard at the Dick & Meyer sugar refinery in Brooklyn, working there for much of the decade.

Pearce married a woman named Mary, another New Yorker, on May 9, 1857. They had two children. Jennie was born in January 1860; she later became a chorus girl. The other child passed away at a young age in August 1864.

Pearce held various jobs throughout his life besides baseball. In the 1870 Census, he listed his occupation as clerk for the water board. Ten years later, he listed laborer. It appears that he was working as an umpire in local games in the Brooklyn at least part time through 1889. In 1890, he stayed close to baseball, finding a job as a groundskeeper at what became known as the Polo Grounds IV, a park built that year for the New York Giants of the Players League. Pearce then took the job at the sugar house. Money was tight, though. The Brooklyn Eagle wrote in September 1898, “Pearce … has arrived at an age when a man’s labors are supposed to be ended, and he has retired to spend his days in rest. But Pearce has not been so fortunate…He has been an employee in a local sugar refinery for some years, but the work has been so irregular that he has been unable to save much.”

Pearce’s friends petitioned the National League for a pension on his behalf in 1898. The old shortstop even presented his case at a league meeting, but the magnates weren’t a particularly charitable group. However, numerous benefit games were held for him over the years: November 1861; July 1881; September 1885; in St. Louis in November 1879 and September 1899.

In 1902, Pearce and his wife moved to Onset, a village in Wareham, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. They rented a house on a cliff at Point Independence on Buzzards Bay. In July 1904, he wrote Tim Murnane of the Boston Globe, “I left Brooklyn two years ago to live among the pines and near the salt water at Onset, Mass., a beautiful spot, where I have found much better health. I am trying to make a living out of a few chickens, but very often they go on a strike and keep me guessing.” Murnane visited the Pearces in December 1905, further clarifying the previous statement: “We came here three years ago broken down in health and now we both feel like 2-year-olds. Wife and I were both given up by the doctors of Brooklyn, as Bright’s disease had us tight in his grip, but we won out thanks to some pills sent by a Chicago doctor. … I pay $2 a week for this place, and consider it my limit. My daughter comes on from New York and spends the summer with us, and my time is taken up in taking care of my garden and about 75 hens, mostly Rhode Island Reds.” At the time, Murnane deemed that Pearce was the oldest living former professional ballplayer.

On August 12, 1908, Pearce attended an old-timers game at Peddock’s Island in Boston Harbor. According to Baseball Magazine, “He caught a severe cold as the result of the outing, and soon afterwards passed away.” Richard Pearce died at home in Onset on September 18, 1908, at the age of 72. The death certificate listed the cause of death as Bright’s disease of five years’ duration with a contributory cause of mitral regurgitation of ten days duration. Mitral regurgitation is a valvular heart disease. Pearce was buried at Long Neck Cemetery in Wareham on the 19th. Word of his death didn’t filter back to Brooklyn until October 13, when the Brooklyn Eagle notified its readers.

Sources

A great deal of insight into Pearce’s time in St. Louis was provided by Jeff Kittel. The assistance was greatly appreciated.

Thanks to Bill Nowlin for helping me gain a better perspective of Pearce’s retirement surroundings.

I appreciate Peter Morris offering me his opinion of the roving and positioning of early short fielders.

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