The history of baseball is a lie from beginning to end, from its creation myth to its rosy models of commerce, community, and fair play. The conventional tale of the game’s birth is substantially incorrect — not just the Doubleday fable, pointless to attack, but even the scarcely less legendary development of the Knickerbocker game, ostensibly sired by Alexander Cartwright.
Let’s look at the delicate condition of baseball’s paternity.
Earlier histories of baseball, from those published annually by Henry Chadwick in the Beadle, DeWitt, and Spalding Guides to book-length histories such as Charles Peverelly’s Book of American Pastimes (1866) and Jacob Morse’s Sphere and Ash (1888), gave credit to the Knickerbockers for the eventual ascendance of the New York Game of baseball over the competing Massachusetts Game, but did not single out Cartwright as the sole creator. In 1860, in the premier edition of the Beadle Dime Base Ball Player, Chadwick acknowledged the existence of the New York Base Ball Club prior to the organization of the Knicks, but stated, “we shall not be far wrong if we award to the Knickerbocker the honor of being the pioneers of the present game of base ball.”
Still, he never swerved from his assertion in that same essay that it was rounders, the English childhood game, “from which base ball is derived.” Only in the next century did Cartwright become, no less than Doubleday, a tool of those who wished to establish baseball as the product of an identifiable spark of American ingenuity, without foreign or Darwinian taint.
Cartwright did much to formulate rules that codified the game that the Knicks were already playing: laying out baseball on a “diamond” rather than a square, introducing the concept of foul territory, and eliminating the rounders and town-ball practice of retiring a runner by throwing the ball at him. But Cartwright assuredly did not do any of the three central things credited to him on his plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame: “Set bases 90 feet apart. Established 9 innings as a game and 9 players as a team.” He also did not create the 45-foot pitching distance, nor the requirement that a ball be caught on the fly to register an out, nor a system for calling balls and strikes.
The truth of the paternity question? Eighty-year-old Henry Chadwick had it right when he said in 1904, only one year before the formation of the Mills Commission, “Like Topsy, baseball never had no ‘fadder’; it jest growed.” In fact, until Papa Doubleday was pulled out of the hat, it was Chadwick himself who had most frequently been honored with the sobriquet “Father of Baseball,” not for any powers of invention but for his role in popularizing and shaping the game. Others to have been accorded patriarchal honors were Harry Wright, who organized the first openly professional team; Albert Spalding, the tireless player, magnate, and tour promoter; William Hulbert, founder of the National League in 1876; and Daniel L. Adams, whose name today is scarcely known.
Daniel Lucius Adams was born on November 1, 1814, in Mont Vernon, New Hampshire, the younger of two sons of Dr. Daniel Adams (born in 1773; graduated from Dartmouth College, 1797, and received his medical degree from the school in 1799) and Nancy Mulliken Adams. Both parents were born in Townsend, Middlesex County, Massachusetts. In addition to being a doctor of medicine, the father was a noted orator and author, whose mathematics textbook The Scholar’s Arithmetic, Or, Federal Accountant was in constant use under varying titles and editions from 1806 to the Civil War. In his biographical record for Yale University, Daniel Lucius Adams was to write of his father, “He was deeply interested in common schools; an active promoter of improvement in agriculture; an earnest advocate of the temperance cause, and was frequently called upon in public in the advancement of these objects. He was an early decided, abolitionist. …”
The younger Adams received his early education at the Mt. Pleasant Classical Institution in Amherst, Massachusetts, going on to spend his first two years of college at Amherst after entering in 1831. He graduated from Yale in 1835, progressing to a medical degree from Harvard in 1838 and then a general practice first with his father back in Mont Vernon, then in Boston, and ultimately in New York City, coupled with an active involvement with treating the poor at the New York Dispensaries. He first resided and practiced at 511 Broadway, moving to 45 White Street in 1843; ultimately he settled in at 14 Bond Street in the 1850s.
Adams, known to all as “Doc,” began to play baseball in 1839. “I was always interested in athletics while in college and afterward,” he told an interviewer at the age of eighty-one, “and soon after going to New York I began to play base ball just for exercise, with a number of other young medical men. Before that there had been a club called the New York Base Ball Club, but it had no very definite organization and did not last long. Some of the younger members of that club got together and formed the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, September 24, 1845 [actually September 23]. The players included merchants, lawyers, Union Bank clerks [like Cartwright], insurance clerks and others who were at liberty after 3 o’clock in the afternoon. They went into it just for exercise and enjoyment, and I think they used to get a good deal more solid fun out of it than the players in the big games do nowadays.
“About a month after the organization of this club, several of us medical fellows joined it, myself among the number. The following year I was made President and served as long as I was willing to retain the office.”
What’s new here? Plenty. According to Adams, the New York Base Ball Club not only preceded the Knickerbocker, but formed it; for example, such early New York Base Ball Club (NYBBC) members as James Lee, Abraham Tucker, and William Wheaton all became Knickerbockers in 1845-1846. As early as 1840, Adams played a game in New York that he understood to be baseball, no matter what it was called: with a handful of participants, it was compelled to be a version of cat; with as many as seven or eight, however, it was likely to be baseball — just as it was played by members of the NYBBC or Gotham Ball Club, the ancestor of both the Knicks and the New Yorks.
This game, called “base ball” and not “rounders” or “town ball,” had been played in New York City as early as 1832 by two clubs, one composed of residents of the first ward (the lower part of the city), the other of residents of the ninth and fifteenth wards (the upper part of the city). By 1843, when the Knicks were still playing at their original site in Madison Square, the sides had been reduced to eight, which included a “pitch,” a “behind,” three basemen, and three in the field, and the playing field had been changed from a square to a diamond, as in rounders. According to Alphonse Martin, a prominent pitcher in the 1860s who left an unpublished manuscript “History of Base Ball,” it was Cartwright who prompted this move. In later years, when asked how the game of baseball originated, Doc Adams declined to identify a distinct starting point; he believed it grew from rounders.
Actually, baseball as played by the Knicks in the years 1845-1849 (Cartwright left for California in the gold-rush spring of 1849) was almost never a nine-man game; eight, ten, and eleven men to the side were all more frequently employed. (As late as 1855, an unsigned columnist for the New York Clipper wrote: “Base Ball can be played by any number from five upwards; nine, however, being the usual number of each side.”) Play was conducted in accord with Cartwright’s model of only three basemen, and on the rare occasions when nine or more fielding positions were created by a surfeit of players, the “extras” were put into the outfield or held in reserve. In a game in late May 1847, for example, when eleven men were available to each side, the Knickerbockers’ response was to play with nine, including four outfielders, and hold two men out as substitutes.
The advent of the short fielder, or shortstop — the position created in 1849 or 1850 by Adams — was a crucial break with rounders. “I used to play shortstop,” he reminisced, “and I believe I was the first one to occupy that place, as it had formerly been left uncovered.” But when Adams first went out to short, it was not to bolster the infield but to assist in relays from the outfield. The early Knickerbocker ball was so light that it could not be thrown even two hundred feet, thus the need for a short fielder to send the ball in to the pitcher’s point.
“We had a great deal of trouble in getting balls made,” Adams recalled, “and for six or seven years I made all the balls myself, not only for our club but also for other clubs when they were organized. [He also supervised the turning of the bats during this period.] I went all over New York to find someone who would undertake this work, but no one could be induced to try it for love or money. Finally I found a Scotch saddler who was able to show me a good way to cover the balls with horsehide, such as was used for whip lashes. I used to make the stuffing out of three or four ounces of rubber cuttings, wound with yarn and then covered with the leather. Those balls were, of course, a great deal softer than the balls now  in use.”
When the ball was wound tighter, gaining more hardness and resilience, it could be hit farther and, crucially, thrown farther. This permitted the shortstop to come into the infield, which Adams did. Even more important, the introduction of the hard ball permitted a change in the dimensions of the playing field. The Knickerbocker rules of 1845 had specified no pitching distance and no baseline length; all that was indicated was “from ‘home’ to second base, forty-two paces; from first to third base, forty-two paces, equidistant.” It has been presumed by scholars that when a three-foot pace is plugged in, the resulting baselines of eighty-nine feet are close enough to the present ninety so that we can proclaim Cartwright’s genius. In fact, the pace in 1845 was either an imprecise and variable measure, to gauge distances by “stepping off”; or it was precisely two and a half feet, in which case the distance from home to second would have been 105 feet and the Cartwright basepaths would have been 74.25 feet.
The pace of 1845 could not have been interpreted as the precise equivalent of three feet. This alternate definition of a pace as a three-foot measure did not come into practice until much later in the century. (Here is the definition of a pace from An American Dictionary of the English Language, by Noah Webster, 1828: “1. A step. 2. The space between the two feet in walking, estimated at two feet and a half. But the geometrical pace is five feet, or the whole space passed over by the same foot from one step to another.” This definition was not changed for Webster’s 1853 revised edition.)
Personal research indicates that 75-foot basepaths were the norm well into the mid-1850s, when the distance between home and second base and between first and third bases was first prescribed as “42 paces or yards,” and were the standard for youth play well into the next decade.
In 1848 Adams, as Knickerbocker president, headed the Committee to Revise the Constitution and By-Laws; Alexander Cartwright served under him. Adams’s interest in refining the rules of the game, already evident, was further piqued by the formation of additional clubs, beginning with the Washington Base Ball Club in 1850, which like the Knickerbockers was constructed around several former New York Base Ball Club members. In 1852 the Washingtons were renamed the Gothams and took in additional players, and the Eagle Club, which had been organized to play town ball in 1840, reconstituted itself to become the Eagle Base Ball Club.
“The playing rules remained very crude up to this time,” Adams said, “but in 1853 the three clubs united in a revision of the rules and regulations. At the close of 1856 there were twelve clubs in existence, and it was decided to hold a convention of delegates from all of these for the purpose of establishing a permanent code of rules by which all should be governed. A call was therefore issued, signed by the officers of the Knickerbocker Club as the senior organization, and the result was the assembling of the first convention of baseball players in May 1857. I was elected presiding officer.”
Laws of Baseball, KBBC to Convention, January 22, 1857, page 1 (COURTESY OF JOHN THORN)
It was at this meeting, eight years after Cartwright’s western expedition, that the winner of a game was defined as the team that was ahead at the conclusion of nine innings, rather than the first team to score twenty-one runs. “In March of the next year the second convention was held, and at this meeting the annual convention was declared a permanent organization, and with the requisite constitution and by-laws became the ‘National Association of [Base] Ball Players.’
“I was chairman of the Committee on Rules and Regulations from the start and so long as I retained membership. I presented the first draft of rules, prepared after much careful study of the matter, and it was in the main adopted. The distance between bases I fixed at 30 yards, the only previous determination of distance being ‘the bases shall be from home to second base 42 paces, from first to third base 42 paces equidistant,’ which was rather vague. In every meeting of the National Association while a member, I advocated the fly-game, that is, not to allow first-bound catches, but I was always defeated on the vote. The change was made, however, soon after I left, as I predicted in my last speech on the subject before the convention.
“The distance from home to pitcher’s base I made 45 feet. Many of the old rules, such as those defining a foul, remain substantially the same today,” he concluded in 1896, “while others are changed and, of course, many new ones added. I resigned in 1862, but not before thousands were present to witness matches, and any number of outside players standing ready to take a hand on regular playing days.” In the 1840s players could not be relied upon to show up for practice. Adams recalled that the Knickerbockers frequently went to Hoboken to find only two or three members present and were often obliged to take their exercise “in the form of ‘old cat,’ ‘one’ or ‘two’ as the case might be.” (Bat-and-ball games of cat, or catapult ball, could be played by as many players as were on hand, with the number of bases or holes expanding with the cast of characters-the game was really one ol’ (hole) cat, and had nothing to do with superannuated felines.) But, he summed up in 1896, “we pioneers never expected to see the game so universal as it has now become.”
On May 7, 1861, Adams married Cornelia A. Cook. As he would later write, “My marriage was the crowning achievement of my life.” Less than a year later he resigned from the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, which awarded him an honorary membership and passed a resolution naming him the “Nestor of Ball Players.” In 1865 he retired from his medical practice in New York for reasons of health, moving to Ridgefield, Connecticut. There he lived on Main Street in the former home of Revolutionary War hero Colonel Philip Burr Bradley.
Soon becoming a prominent citizen of his new hometown, Adams served in the State House of Representatives for the legislative session of 1870 and, in the following year, was elected the first president of the Ridgefield Savings Bank. Adams remained in that position for eight years and then, after a five-year hiatus, resumed the post for another two, serving until July 1, 1886. Between terms as president of the bank, he was elected the first treasurer of the Ridgefield Library.
“The current of my life,” he wrote in 1880 or so, “has been very quiet and uniform, neither distinguished by any great successes, [n]or disturbed by serious reverses. I have been content to consider myself one of the ordinary, every-day workers of the world, with no ambition to fill its high positions, and have no reason to complain of the results of my labor. The condition of my health has prevented active employment for several years past, but life has passed very pleasantly in the midst of a thoroughly united and happy domestic circle.”
Although Adams had played his last formal game of baseball on September 27, 1875, in an old-timers’ contest arranged by longtime Knickerbocker comrade James Whyte Davis, he continued to play backyard ball with his two sons well into the 1880s. In 1888 he moved his family to New Haven, where the boys attended Sheffield Scientific School. After suffering five days from influenza that developed into pneumonia, on January 3, 1899, Daniel Lucius Adams died in his home at 146 Edwards Street.
For his role in making baseball the success it is, Doc Adams may be counted as first among the Fathers of Baseball. He was survived by his wife, two daughters, and two sons. Catherine, born May 3, 1866, married Dr. William L. Elkin, but they had no children. Mary W., born October 15, 1868, never married. Francis M. Adams, a son born June 7, 1871, drifted away from his family, and nothing is known of his later life. It is through Roger C. Adams, born May 1, 1874, that the family lineage persists. Additionally, in 1939 R. C. Adams wrote a memoir of his father. Unpublished in his day, it was printed in the New York Times on April 13, 1980, along with a letter to the editor by R. C. Adams’s great-grandson Nathan Adams Downey.
- Related link: “The Making of Baseball’s Magna Carta,” by John Thorn (Our Game)
This essay is adapted from one that originally ran in Elysian Fields Quarterly in 1992 and was subsequently published in several editions of Total Baseball and online at totalbaseball.com. The research underlying the original version commenced ten years earlier, at the New York Public Library’s (NYPL) Spalding Collection, which housed not only the invaluable Knickerbocker Base Ball Club scorebooks, game books, and minutes of the club’s meetings, but also the multivolume scrapbook collection of Henry Chadwick. The key find, however, took place at Cooperstown’s National Baseball Library (NBL), where in a file unrelated to either Adams (of whom no one, including myself, had any knowledge) or Cartwright, I came upon a Sporting News article of February 29, 1896, headed, “Dr. D. L. ADAMS; Memoirs of the Father of Base Ball; He Resides in New Haven and Retains an Interest in the Game.”
Additional research took me to editions of Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828, 1853, et seq.) and club constitutions of the Eagle, Olympic, and other early ball clubs. Dick and Fitzgerald’s The American Boy’s Book of Sports and Games of 1864 states that boys’ baseball was played to that time on seventy-five-foot basepaths. William Wood’s Manual of Physical Exercises (Harper & Brothers, New York, 1867, pp. 189-190) bears a key citation of New York baseball in 1832. For color and flavor, a description of the Elysian Fields in the Ladies Companion of May 1836 was helpful. Also useful were Yale University’s Obituary Record, 1890-1900; Alphonse Martin’s unpublished History of Baseball in the NBL; and Will Rankin’s dyspeptic columns in The Sporting News in the first decade of the last century. Years of nondirected rummaging at the New-York Historical Society, the Cleveland Public Library, the NBL, and the NYPL yielded nuggets about the hotels and taverns surrounding Madison Square, the refreshments served in Hoboken, the cricket matches at the Red House Grounds, and other delightfully unexpected finds.
Alexander Cartwright’s letter to former teammate Charles DeBost of April 6, 1865, a letterpress copy of which was obtained from the Archives of the State of Hawaii, was also atmospherically rich. The Amherst College Alumni Archives, the Harvard Medical School Library, the Yale Alumni Records, and the Connecticut State Library’s History & Genealogy Unit proved to be of little help, though the archivists were uniformly professional. In 1996, John R. Husman located an Adams descendant who provided a photo of D. L. Adams that enabled us to confirm his presence in two notable photographs of the Knickerbockers: the daguerreotype plate of 1849, in which Cartwright and Adams are joined by four other Knickerbockers, and the 1859 panoramic view of the Knickerbockers and Excelsiors, in which Adams stands fourth from the left … and Harry Wright stands sixth from the left. In 1997 Jeffrey H. Orleans kindly provided me with some fine autobiographical bits that Adams had provided for the Biographical and Historical Record of the Class of 1835 in Yale College for the Fifty Years from the Admission of the Class to College, New Haven, 1881.
In 2008 I became convinced that a view offered in my original essay, going back to its first incarnation in 1992, was almost certainly wrong, and I have altered it in the text above. I had written that in 1840 Adams and the men who would become Knickerbockers were playing baseball “on a square, at first with eleven men on a side, as in cricket and perhaps the Massachusetts Game. This game, called “base ball” and not “rounders” or “town ball,” was played in New York City as early as 1832 by two clubs, one composed of residents of the first ward (the lower part of the city), the other of residents of the ninth and fifteenth wards (the upper part of the city).” I had only one bit of evidence for what New York baseball looked like in 1840, Henry Chadwick’s diagram, drawn in later years, of baseball on an irregular pentagonal field. It this configuration — with multiple scouts or behinds — that has been reproduced in Menke and Orem. However, the accumulated recent finds of William R. Wheaton’s 1887 interview recalling the Gothams of the 1830s, and then the image of the Magnolia Ball Club arrayed on a diamond in 1843, have persuaded me that with multiple pointers to a Knick-like game prior to 1845, the weight of evidence lies with the 1840-45 game having been played on a diamond. Live and learn.
(Top photo courtesy of DocAdamsBaseball.org.)
Daniel Lucius Adams
November 1, 1814 at Mount Vernon, NH (US)
January 3, 1899 at New Haven, CT (US)
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