This article was written by Charles F. Faber
His teammates nicknamed him “Innocent Fred.” Was he really innocent? Fred Waterman’s behavior didn’t seem all that innocent, but maybe he was an innocent participant in others’ machinations. Boss Tweed put him on the New York City payroll although he did no work for the city. Asa Brainard took him cavorting on the streets of Buffalo. George Wright instigated the trick play that may have led to a change in the rules of baseball.
Frederick A. Waterman was born in New York City in 1845. The exact date of his birth is not known, nor are any details of his childhood. Information about his early days cannot be found in census reports or available genealogical records. No biographies of him exist. He is not mentioned in the leading books on nineteenth century baseball.1
He did exist, though. In fact, Fred Waterman was one of the outstanding players of his time. His baseball career began in 1864 with an amateur club called the New York Empires.2 He soon switched to a stronger club, the Mutuals. Founded by firemen of the Mutual Hook and Ladder Company in 1857, the Mutuals fell under the sponsorship of William “Boss” Tweed. He became their chief financial supporter and served on the board of trustees. He attended their games, mingling with the fans, in an effort to enhance his political standing. Tweed placed all members of the club on the city’s payroll, without requiring them to perform any actual work for the city. The players retained their amateur status, while secretly being professionals.3 Waterman’s pseudo job was examining cadavers in the city coroner’s office.4
According to Aaron Burt Champion, president of the Cincinnati Base Ball Club, “In the spring of 1868, I went east to get Fred Waterman, who was with the Excelsiors of Brooklyn, to play third base for us.”5 Champion’s memory was probably faulty. Waterman played for the New York Mutuals, not the Excelsiors, and he was in Cincinnati as early as 1867.6 At any rate, Waterman joined the Cincinnati Red Stockings. In order to protect his amateur status he was given a part-time job with an insurance agency, leaving him plenty of time to play baseball. Waterman was slightly built, 5-foot-7 ½, weighed 148, balding, with a droopy mustache. His teammates nicknamed him “Innocent Fred” due to his guileless appearance.7
Late in 1868 the editor of the New York Clipper awarded a gold medal to the best hitter in the nation at each position. Waterman received the award for third basemen.
After defeating all their opponents in the Midwest in the spring of 1869, the Red Stockings headed east to try their mettle against the strong teams in that area. After a game in Cleveland, the team boarded a train for Buffalo. Stephen D. Guschov described the events of the next morning:
“The weary band of baseballers finally pulled into Buffalo at 4 A.M. the next morning, worn out from the long train ride through the night. For most of the players, their only desire was to go directly to the hotel to get some rest, before that afternoon’s tilt with the Niagara BBC. Asa Brainard, however, had other plans. As the rest of the Red Stockings sleepily boarded the carriage that would take them to the hotel, Brainard grabbed Fred Waterman – “Innocent Fred” – and convinced him to tag along on an early morning romp through the streets of Buffalo…. The Count [Brainard] and Innocent Fred bounded off into Buffalo’s downtown section, full of thirst and curiosity, as the purplish sky overhead cracked golden with the first rays of morning.”8 Harry Wright was understandably displeased with the early morning trek, and he castigated Brainard for it, and for being a bad influence on Waterman.
Waterman played well during the Eastern tour. In one game in Albany he collected seven hits and scored seven runs. He improved on that record in Springfield by going 8-for-12, with nine runs scored and six stolen bases. In a game in Wheeling, Waterman made six hits in a game that was held by rain to four innings. The Red Stockings returned home and annihilated their cross-town rivals, the Buckeyes, 103-8. Waterman collected three hits in one inning in the mismatch. Up to this point the Red Stockings had outscored their opponents, 1,676-485, an average per game of 39-11.9
One of the most exciting games on the Eastern tour was on June 15 at Brooklyn’s Union Grounds against the Mutuals of New York. With the score tied, 2-2, in the ninth inning the Mutuals had runners on first and second and none out. Waterman purposely dropped a fly ball and threw to shortstop George Wright, who, anticipating Waterman’s play, had rushed to cover third, for the first out and then threw to second base for the second out. The Red Stockings scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth to win the game, 4-2. The game was hailed by a New York newspaper as the greatest ever played. A Cincinnati Gazette reporter wrote: “We are tossing our hats tonight and shaking each other by the hand. We are the lions… because we have beaten the Mutuals, and because the game was the toughest, closest, most brilliant, most exciting in baseball annals.”10 Waterman’s cunning play had saved the streak.
The Red Stockings swept undefeated through the best competition the East could provide, then hosted some eastern clubs in the Queen City. Then they headed West, riding the new transcontinental railroad to the coast. They found the western clubs woefully weak, winning by scores of 66-4, 76-5, 46-14, 20-7, and 50-6. The San Francisco Chronicle noted that “Fred Waterman generally hit the ball which is hardest for the fielders to stop. He takes the ball upon the end of his bat and sends it whizzing through the air about four inches off the ground, making what is called a daisy cutter.”11
The Red Stockings’ winning steak continued until June 14, 1870. In a game against the Atlantics in Brooklyn, the clubs were tied, 5-5, in the tenth inning. With nobody out and two men on base (Jack McDonald on second and Dickey Pearce on first), the Atlantics mounted a threat. According to The Sporting News, Atlantic batsman Charlie Smith lifted a pop foul over the head of George Wright. The runners, certain the ball would be caught, held their bases. Wright signaled to Fred Waterman to cover third, let the ball hit the ground, picked it up on the first bounce, and threw to Waterman at third to force McDonald. Waterman heaved the ball to Charlie Sweasy at second base for the double play. The relay to first was not in time for a triple play.
Using his pen name Jim Nasium, Edgar Forrest Wolfe wrote about the stratagem in The Sporting News many years later. Under the headline “Plays That Made Baseball History” and the sub-head “Wright Introduced Trick of Trapping Ball Which Led to Infield Fly Rule,” Wolfe wrote: The crowd, players, umpire all stood thunderstruck at this play as it had never even been thought of before, but the umpire, after referring to the rules to make sure, had nothing to do but declare the baserunners out. Later it got to be the usual thing for an infielder to turn this trick…so some years later the infield fly rule was adopted.”12
The self-proclaimed Baseball Bible is not infallible. This was not the first time an infielder intentionally dropped a ball to create a double-play situation. Wright and Waterman had used the same ploy in a game against the Mutuals in the previous season. It seems unlikely that none of the “thunderstruck” viewers had heard of that play. To say that the 1879 game led to the adoption of the infield fly rule by the National League in 1895 seems a bit of a stretch.
Perhaps the most important outcome of the June 14 game was its contribution to the downfall of the Cincinnati Red Stockings. The Atlantics pushed across the wining runs in the eleventh inning, sending the Cincinnatis to their first loss in 95 games. They lost a few more games during the closing months of the 1870 season, and the Cincinnati newspapers and some fans turned against them. Attendance was down. Dissension broke out on the club. Cliques developed. Waterman was a member of a group led by Brainard that accused Wright of being too strict in his discipline, particularly in regard to off-the-field conduct. In the midst of the controversy, Aaron Burt Champion resigned as president of the club.
On November 21, 1879, Champion’s successor A. P. C. Bonte issued a statement on behalf of the executive board. “We have arrived at the conclusion that to employ a nine for the coming season, at the enormous salaries now commanded by professional players, would plunge our club deeply in debt at the end of the year…. We are also satisfied that payment of large salaries causes jealousy, and leads to extravagance and dissipation on the part of the players, which is injurious to them, and is also destructive of the subordination and good feeling necessary to the success of a nine.”13
So the Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball’s first openly all-professional team reverted to amateur status. The enormous salaries of which Bonte complained seem ridiculously low to the modern baseball fan. The typical pay for a Red Stocking in 1869 was $800. Waterman’s salary was above the median at $1,000, making him the fourth-highest paid member of the team, behind only Brainard and the Wright brothers.
The National Association of Professional Baseball Players, often considered baseball first major league, was formed in 1871. Cincinnati did not have a club in the new loop, so the Red Stocking players looked for jobs elsewhere. Harry Wright became the face of the Boston franchise, serving simultaneously as captain, field manager, and front office executive. He took his brother George, Cal McVey, Charlie Gould and the name Red Stockings to the Hub with him. When the Boston owners asked him about other Red Stocking players, he demurred. He wanted no drinkers, complainers, or shirkers on his club.
The other five Red Stockings, including Waterman, joined the Washington Olympics club in the National Association. Waterman made his major-league debut on May 5, 1871, at the age of 26. He had a good year for the Olympics, hitting .316 and ranking fifth in the league in runs scored. In the field he was outstanding, ranking second among third basemen in assists, second in putouts, and fifth in percentage. In 1872 he was named player-manager and hit .378 in only nine games, as the club failed to survive the season. Waterman’s managerial record was a mediocre 2-7 .222. A new Washington club, the Nationals (sometimes called the Blue Legs), joined the league in 1873 but folded in midseason, and Waterman was out of a job, despite hitting .350.
In 1875 Waterman caught on with the Chicago White Stockings, appearing in only five games, but hitting .300 to keep intact his record of never hitting below .300 in his major-league career. He played his final major-league game on September 23, 1875 at the age of 30.
Few facts are known about Waterman’s life after baseball. He and Asa Brainard may have owned a cigar shop in the late 1870s. The Sporting News reported in 1886 that Waterman had a saloon in Cincinnati.14 Apparently he lost the saloon and spent the rest of his life doing odd jobs around Cincinnati, where he was a pauper at the end.
Frederick A. Waterman died at City Hospital in Cincinnati on December16, 1899, at the age of 54. He left no known survivors. According to the Cincinnati Health Department, the cause of death was tuberculosis pyo-pneumothorax. That seems to be an unhappy ending to the life of the not-so-innocent “Innocent Fred.” He was buried in Cincinnati’s Wesleyan Cemetery.
Ryczek, William J. Baseball’s First Inning, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009.
Thorn, John, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011.
Tiemann, Robert L. and Mark Rucker, eds. Nineteenth Century Stars, Kansas City: Society for American Baseball Research, 1989.
2 Stephen D. Guschov, The Red Stockings of Cincinnati, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1998, 33.
3 Roger L. Abrams, “Early Baseball and the Urban Political Machines.” Albany: School of Law Faculty Publication, 2012, 12.
4 Guschov, 34.
6 Guschov, 12, 14.
7 Ibid., 34.
8 Ibid., 50.
9 Ibid., 81.
10 Cincinnati Gazette, cited by Greg Rhodes, “A Cunning Play Saves the Streak,” in Bill Felber, ed. Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the 19th Century, Phoenix: Society for American Baseball Research, 2013, 64.
11 San Francisco Chronicle, October 2, 1869, cited by Guschov, 87.
12 The Sporting News, October 28, 1926.
13 Guschov, 135.
14 The Sporting News, December 18, 1886.