BOOKS: Two new biographies of Alexander Cartwright

By William J. Ryczek

This article was published in the Fall 2009 Baseball Research Journal.

Live All You Can: Alexander Joy Cartwright and the Invention of Baseball by Jay Martin
Columbia University Press (2009)
$22.95, cloth. 168 pages. 20 illustrations.

Alexander Cartwright: The Life Behind the Baseball Legend by Monica Nucciarone
University of Nebraska Press (2009)
$27.95, cloth. 326 pages. 27 photos, 1 map.

Alick, we hardly knew ye. For many years, the only full-length biography of Alexander Cartwright was The Man Who Invented Baseball, written by Harold Peterson and published in 1973. In 2009, two new portraits of Cartwright have appeared: Live All You Can: Alexander Joy Cartwright and the Invention of Baseball by Jay Martin and Alexander Cartwright: The Life Behind the Baseball Legend, by Monica Nucciarone.

Each biography contains vast amounts of material having nothing to do with baseball, as Cartwright’s involvement with the game consumed only a brief period of his life. Nucciarone’s narrative covers the baseball portion of her subject’s life in pages 12–22, and Martin devotes only slightly more space to baseball. Aside from that commonality, however, the books have distinctly different structures. Nucciarone’s is divided into two parts. The first is the story of Cartwright’s life; the second, a critical examination of the evidence that has led others to call Cartwright baseball’s “inventor” or at least a prominent contributor to its development. Martin’s book (the main text is only 133 pages) is divided into twenty-five short chapters and two appendices. The sequence is primarily chronological, although it is segmented thematically.

Both books document the long, interesting, and accomplished life of an entrepreneur, adventurer, and family man. From there, however, the two works move in dramatically different directions. Nucciarone tells us that Cartwright was active in the formation of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, was present when major steps were taken to change the old versions of baseball, and was a good player. Martin gives Cartwright credit for “inventing” virtually every aspect of modern baseball except the designated-hitter rule, proclaiming unequivocally that “Alexander Joy Cartwright invented baseball in 1845.” He calls him a pioneer of California baseball and, finally, states that “Alexander Cartwright must be credited for stirring the passion for baseball in Hawaii.” According to Martin, Cartwright invented the base on balls (!), established thirty paces as the distance between bases (he even gives us a detailed account of Cartwright’s thought process and methodology), and established the length of a game at three innings (a claim Martin does not document and that I have never heard postulated elsewhere).

How can two people, each with access to many of the same source documents, reach such radically different conclusions? Could Nucciarone have missed so many significant accomplishments? One can predict the probable direction of her work from the fact that the foreword is written by noted historian John Thorn, an enthusiastic debunker of the Cartwright legend. While Nucciarone is not as hard on Cartwright and his contributions as Thorn has been, she is cautious, taking a fresh look at familiar sources and refusing to accept, without solid proof, the orthodox view of Cartwright’s involvement with baseball in its early days. Clearly frustrated by the lack of original source documents regarding Cartwright and baseball, she admirably refuses to yield to the temptation to fill in the blanks or ignore discrepancies in order to reach an appealing conclusion. When the evidence is absent, contradictory, or dubious, she tells the reader. She concludes only what she can comfortably support with credible evidence.

Martin, on the other hand, gullibly accepts thirdand fourth-hand accounts, most of them produced decades after the events in question. He accepts questionable statements made by Albert Spalding in America’s National Game, which most scholars take with a few grains of salt. He accepts unsupported assertions in Charles Peverelly’s 1866 history of baseball when they suit his purposes. As partial “proof” that Cartwright invented baseball, Martin cites a statement, delivered to the Mills Commission in 1905, by 58-yearold former star player George Wright concerning events that occurred sixty years earlier, two years before he was born. Martin also points out that noted historian Babe Ruth thought Cartwright invented baseball. He more substantively hangs his hat on the 1877 statement of former Knickerbocker president Duncan Curry, which, as Nucciarone indicates, Curry contradicted on other occasions. Martin’s source for the thesis that Cartwright played a major role in the development of baseball in California is an article by Angus Macfarlane, who plainly states that Cartwright had nothing to do with the 1851 games he describes. The claims regarding Cartwright’s popularization of baseball in Hawaii are set forth without citation.

Documentation is a problem throughout Martin’s book; it is surprisingly poor for a work published by a prestigious university press. There is no bibliography, and the notes are presented in block format by chapter, without page identification, which makes them hard to follow. Nucciarone’s notes are voluminous and much easier to trace. She also provides sufficient background so that a person with no prior knowledge of early baseball can enjoy her book and understand the issues surrounding the development of the game as well as the difficulties involved in anointing an “inventor.”

In his acknowledgments, Martin thanks three research assistants. Nucciarone did not mention any assistants, and it appears that she was a one-woman task force, spending nearly eight years researching, following leads, and critically examining documents for authenticity. While Martin utilized many source documents, he made a number of careless errors, including repeatedly misspelling the name of Knickerbocker catcher Charles DeBost (he calls him DeBorst); putting Cartwright’s son DeWitt in a boarding school in Sheffield (rather than Suffield), Connecticut; dating an interview with Doc Adams as 1876 rather than 1896; dressing the Knicks in woolen uniforms in 1845 (they didn’t adopt formal uniforms until much later); stating that Abner Doubleday was born in Cooperstown; and placing the death of Cartwright’s infant daughter in the wrong place and at the wrong age. Such errors are indicative of a writer who is unfamiliar with the subject matter and relied on others to conduct his research.

One of the major divergences between the two books is the degree of credence placed on Cartwright’s diary of his overland journey to California. The original journal was destroyed, and the extant versions are various transcriptions by Cartwright’s descendants. Peterson and Martin accepted the transcriptions as accurate, while Nucciarone did not. She employed a handwriting expert and concluded that even those parts previously thought to be in Cartwright’s own hand were not—and that the transcriptions included embellishments intended to secure Alexander a place in baseball history.

The story of Alexander Cartwright from 1850 until his death is deeply intertwined with the history of Hawaii. The bulk of the biographical section of Nucciarone’s book is more a history of late-nineteenth-century Hawaii than the story of Alexander Cartwright. Martin gives a much more detailed account of Cartwright’s life and business activity and attempts to delve into the personality and character of his subject, something Nucciarone does not do. The Hawaii portion of Martin’s book is quite interesting and the best part of the biography, for the author has an engaging writing style that flows easily across the page. He dug deeply into Cartwright’s correspondence and sets forth details (some rather juicy and salacious) regarding the Cartwright family that I have not seen in other portraits. I was enjoying the Hawaii section immensely until I reached the chapter on the Spalding world tour. Digressing for a paragraph on the Cincinnati Red Stockings and the background of Spalding, Martin again demonstrates his superficial and frequently inaccurate knowledge of baseball history.

If you are looking for an entertaining read about the events of Alexander Cartwright’s life, you may find Martin’s book a pleasant diversion. If you are looking for sound baseball history and critical, insightful analysis of Cartwright’s involvement with the origins of the game, read Nucciarone’s book instead.

WILLIAM J. RYCZEK is author, most recently, of "Baseball’s First Inning: A History of the National Pastime Through the Civil War" (McFarland, 2009).

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.