Courtesy of John Thorn

Lon Knight

This article was written by Chris Jones - Paul Hofmann

Courtesy of John ThornLon Knight’s career was one of firsts. He threw the first pitch in National League history, was likely the first player of Italian descent to play professional baseball, and was the first to hit for a natural cycle in major-league history. So who better to lead the Athletics into the 1883 season than the Philadelphia native and veteran of prior Athletics teams from both their National Association and early National League days? A homecoming to the Quaker City was welcome for Knight and the Athletics, and he was a key cog in leading the melting pot of talent that captured the 1883 American Association pennant.

Alonzo P. Leti (also spelled as Letti, Lettie, Lette) was born in Philadelphia on June 16, 1853. He was the second of three sons born to Amos and Maria Leti. His father was a boilermaker who made metal tanks for converting water to steam, and his mother was a dressmaker. The family lived in the northern section of Philadelphia. When Alonzo was 9 years old, his father died of typhoid fever. That same year, his younger brother, William, died of rubella. Undoubtedly, the work ethic that Knight learned growing up in nineteenth-century Philadelphia, as well as the challenges that he and his family faced, helped produce the man who would lead the Athletics later in life. Soon after the passing of his brother, he was sent to study at Girard College. It was at Girard that he took the last name of Knight.  

Girard College was formed by an unprecedented act of philanthropy shown by French immigrant and merchant, Stephen Girard. At his death in 1831, Stephen Girard was the richest man in America and his endowment for Girard College was, up to that point, the largest private charitable donation in American history. In his will, Girard directed the city of Philadelphia to use his money to build a boarding school for poor, orphaned, or fatherless white boys so that they might be prepared for the trades and professions of their era. Girard College opened its doors in 1848.1

According to SABR biographer Ralph Berger, Lon was a below-average student, with just a 6.64 out of 10 academic average. His conduct was an appalling 2.64. Perhaps that could be attributed to the atmosphere at Girard in the 1860s, which was said to be a “dreary station for a young boy.”2 At that time, there was a housemaster, a former military man who meted out harsh punishment to the inmates, as they were identified in census records. There was a punishment room for those who were considered out of line. It was a dark and foreboding place, and Lon at one point found himself sequestered there. One trip to the punishment room was apparently enough, as Knight learned to watch his behavior carefully and graduated from Girard without further incident.3

Baseball was a saving grace for many young men at Girard, and the school established a tradition of having solid baseball teams. Lon, like many of his classmates, found baseball to be an outlet from an otherwise difficult experience at Girard and developed into a quality ballplayer. By the mid-1870s, Girard had produced an abundance of professional and semiprofessional players, but Knight was the first Girard product to play at the major-league level.4  

Knight did not go straight from Girard to the ball field, though. After graduation from Girard in 1870, he became apprenticed to an accountant. To maintain his baseball skills, after working hours he would practice pitching. The practice must have kept him sharp enough, because in 1875 he pitched for the Shibe Club, the amateur champion of the city of Philadelphia.

It was apparent to Knight that it was time to move his full-time work to the baseball diamond.  Signing with the Philadelphia Athletics of the National Association, Knight debuted with that team on September 4, 1875. For the season he started and completed 13 games with a 6-5 slate and a 2.27 ERA; his hitting was less than impressive, just 6 hits in 47 at-bats for a meager .128 average.

Knight found his way into the record books only a year later. The first game in National League history took place on April 22, 1876, at the Philadelphia Athletics’ Jefferson Street Grounds. Knight, who was the starting pitcher for the Athletics, had the distinction of throwing the first pitch in the NL. After retiring the game’s first two hitters, he gave up the first hit in NL history when Jim O’Rourke singled. He was opposed by Boston right-hander Joe Borden, author of major-league baseball’s first no-hitter a year earlier. The crowd of 3,000 was treated to a competitive, albeit sloppy, inaugural contest. With the game tied, 4-4, Boston pushed across two runs in the top of the ninth to take a 6-4 lead. Knight, who was the victim of 16 Athletics errors, led off the ninth with a double that reached the left-field wall, stole third, and came home on a fly ball by shortstop Davy Force.5 That was all the offense the Athletics could muster in the ninth and the Red Caps hung on for a 6-5 victory. Knight thus added the first loss in NL history to his growing collection of firsts.

Knight, splitting the pitching duties with veteran right-hander George Zettlein – winner of 125 games in the National Association – finished the season with a record of 10-22 and a 2.62 ERA. While his won-lost record was certainly disappointing, it is more impressive when considering that the Athletics were just 14-45 before the team refused to finish the season by making a late-season road trip. The Athletics’ failure to finish the 1876 season led to their expulsion from the National League. Forced to find another employer, Knight caught on with the Lowell (Massachusetts) club, which competed in the League Alliance in 1877 and then moved to the International Association in 1878. In Lowell, Knight moved away from the mound and was instead used primarily as an outfielder (mostly right field) and infielder.

In 1879 Knight was recruited by Frank Bancroft, who most recently had operated a team in New Bedford (Massachusetts), to come to Worcester and play with the Grays in the National Association. Bancroft was a successful entrepreneur who had capitalized on the increased demand for hotel accommodations and theater entertainment and now saw the money-making potential in running a baseball team.6

Knight appeared in a team-high 50 games for the Grays and hit .367, the second highest on the team behind ace pitcher Lee Richmond’s .369. Other notable teammates in Worcester included Charlie Bennett, Doc Bushong, and Arthur Irwin.

In December, Bancroft organized a team named the Hop Bitters, which included Knight and many of his Worcester teammates. The team headed south and eventually made its way to Cuba, the first known American professional team to visit the Island. While the trip was cut short because of the lack of profitability of the games, the Hop Bitters enjoyed their brief stay with some sightseeing and passed the evenings with impromptu concerts that featured “[Curry] Foley’s Irish eccentricities, Bushong’s ballads, and a quartet composed of Knight, (Art) Whitney, Irwin, and Bushong.”7 After leaving Cuba, the team went to New Orleans and began what would amount to an extended spring training before heading north for Worcester. Meanwhile, early in 1880, the National League Board of Governors voted unanimously to admit Worcester into the league. The team changed its name to the Ruby Legs and Knight found himself back in major-league baseball, this time as a right fielder.

Knight’s name became etched in the nineteenth-century baseball folklore in May 1880. Visiting Troy for a three-game set with the Trojans, the Ruby Legs traveled to nearby Albany during an open day on May 21 and played an exhibition game against that city’s National Association team at Albany’s Riverside Park. The story is told that Lipman Pike hit a ball over the right-field fence and into the river. Knight, who was playing right field for the Ruby Legs, is said to have gone after the ball in a boat before giving up. While there is undoubtedly some fictitious element to the story, it does illustrate the fact that few parks had ground rules about giving the batter an automatic home run on a ball that cleared the fence.8

On June 12 Knight once again became a footnote to history when he factored prominently into left-hander Lee Richmond’s perfect game, the major leagues’ first. “Leading off the fifth inning, Cleveland first baseman Bill Phillips slapped a Richmond left-handed delivery into right field for an apparent base hit.”9 Knight, who was playing shallow in right field, fielded the sharply hit ball and fired to Chub Sullivan at first for a 9-3 putout. Richmond went on to retire the final 14 Blues hitters to complete the gem. Such individual exploits notwithstanding, the Ruby Legs finished in a disappointing fifth place with a record of 40-43, a distant 26½ games behind the runaway National League champion Chicago White Stockings. Knight, for his part, batted .239 with 21 RBIs.

The 1881 season took Knight to yet another location; he donned the uniform of the Detroit Wolverines. On July 30 Knight hit his first major-league home run, a first-inning, two-run shot to left off future Hall of Famer Pud Galvin at Detroit’s Recreation Park. Buffalo beat the Wolverines that day, 7-6. Overall, Knight appeared in 83 games with the Wolverines, 82 of them in right field, and batted .271 while driving in 52 runs, second on the team to Charlie Bennett’s 64. The right-handed-hitting Knight slumped in 1882. In 86 games, primarily as the Wolverines’ right fielder, he hit.207 with 24 RBIs.

Knight returned to his hometown in 1883 when he signed on as player-manager of the revamped Philadelphia Athletics. The Athletics also added veteran National League performers Harry Stovey, George Bradley, and Bobby Mathews to become one of the favorites for the American Association title. In its 1883 season preview, which profiled each member of the team, Sporting Life described Knight as follows:

“This gentlemanly and popular player will be the general manager for the club this year, a position for which his intelligence and varied experiences in base ball affairs peculiarily [sic] fits him.” Sporting Life went on to say, “Knight is considered one of the very best right fielders in the profession and is also a good batsman and fine base runner.”10

On July 30, 1883, Knight had the most productive offensive day of his career. In a game against the Pittsburgh Allegheny, he went 5-for-5, hitting for a natural cycle in the process. Knight started off with a single, then added a double and a triple in his next two at-bats. He completed the cycle with an inside-the-park home run, but also added a double for good measure in his final at-bat. The Athletics won, 17-4. July 30 proved to be an auspicious day for Knight. A year later to the day, Knight went 6-for-6 with five singles and a triple to lead the Athletics to a 19-11 win over Washington. Overall, Knight hit .252 in 97 games during the Athletics’ championship season.

The Athletics could not repeat their success of 1883. They finished the 1884 season in seventh place in the expanded 13-team American Association with a record of 61-46, 14 games behind the pennant-winning New York Metropolitans. For Knight, though, it was perhaps his finest offensive year. He led the Athletics in games played, plate appearances, and at-bats, matching his career-high .271 average with 94 runs scored. The end of the season also marked the end of Knight’s major-league managerial career. In two seasons at the helm of the Athletics, he finished with a record of 127-78, a .620 winning percentage. 

In 1885 Knight was replaced as the Athletics manager by Harry Stovey, but remained as a player. With a revamped roster that included only six members of the 1883 championship team, the Athletics fell to 55-57 and finished in fourth place. Knight, who turned 32 during the season, saw his playing time diminish. He was hitting just .210 with two extra-base hits and 14 RBIs when he was released by the club.

In late August Knight was reunited with Frank Bancroft when he signed with the Providence Grays, who were visiting Philadelphia for a three-game set against Philadelphia’s National League entry. Knight played in 25 games with the Grays and hit .160 with 8 RBIs. 

After the 1885 season, it was rumored that Knight was headed to Troy to manage a minor-league team.11 However, this did not come to fruition. Knight followed Bancroft and spent the 1886 season with the Rochester Maroons of the International League. For at least part of the season, he was the player-manager. He played in 92 games with the Maroons and batted .259.  

In 1887 Knight played for the Binghamton Crickets of the International Association. Again he was the player-manager for part of the season, after replacing Henry Ormsbee. While no statistics exist for that season, it was Knight’s last as a player in Organized Baseball.

After the 1887 season, Knight was hired as an umpire by the American Association. The Brooklyn Eagle opined, “Mr. Knight is not only a veteran ball player and captain, but he has shown himself eminently fitted for the important position to which he has been assigned.”12 By all accounts, Knight was a fairly opinionated and influential umpire.

For example, the American Association held a conference in Cleveland in the spring of 1888 in which rules-related instruction was provided for the coming season. Hot topics included the stance a pitcher could take before delivering a pitch, the balk rule, and whether or not a batter hit by a ball would take his base. Outspoken on many of the umpires’ interpretations of the rules, Knight’s explanations of the outcomes of the meeting to a Boston Herald reporter are evidence of his rising stock as an umpire and the evolving nature of the game.

In regard to a pitcher’s stance and delivery of the ball, Knight provided a detailed explanation of what he believed was a legal delivery, stating, “Now in the case of a right-handed pitcher, he will stand with his right foot on the rear line of his position. This, you will observe, will enable him to stand in a three-quarter position and yet show the umpire and bats­men his whole front. This is what the umpire will exact. The ball, too, must be in plain sight all the time. It cannot be hidden behind the back or upon the hip. Of course, the pitcher will wing his arm back before the last motion is made to deliver the ball. This will be allowable, but when the ball is delivered both feet must be upon the ground. The pitcher can step forward one step in delivering the ball, and he can even be out of his box after the ball has finally left his hand and his delivery is completed without incurring a penalty.”13

Knight also opined on changes to the balk rule, which at the time awarded the batter first base as well as permitting baserunners to advance.14 He said such calls would be “the hardest for the umpire to decide, and the balk question is where our greatest difficulty will come in.”15 Finally, Knight (albeit in a roundabout way) clarified the misunderstanding surrounding the dropped fourth strike rule. “I will give you a simple rule that will cover all cases: A man will be declared out on four strikes if the catcher does not hold the fourth strike in all cases where there is a chance to force out. For instance, with men on first base, first and second, first, second and third base, the batsman will be declared out should the catcher fail to hold the fourth strike: but if the fourth strike does pass the catcher in any of these instances, the base-runners will be entitled to as many bases as they can get. With none on bases, or men on second, or third, or on second and third the catcher will have to hold the fourth strike.

“Suppose a batsman has four balls and the pitcher wants to save a hit by hitting the batsman with a pitched ball, we have been instructed to defeat the scheme and call the balls ball five.”16     

Knight also umpired in the National League during the 1889 season and in the Players League in 1890. It is unclear when he retired from umpiring, but he was doing it through 1890.

After retiring from baseball, Knight returned to Philadelphia. In addition to working as an umpire he worked various jobs including hanging wallpaper and working as an inspector. There is no record of his ever being married.  

Knight died in Philadelphia on April 23, 1932, of toxic asphyxiation after inhaling gas while preparing breakfast in his home.17 He was 78 years old. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

While Knight’s career statistics would not place him in the company of some of the game’s better-known stars, there is no doubt that he left an indelible mark on baseball, and Philadelphia baseball in particular. His ability to find success at baseball’s highest level as a player, manager, and umpire demonstrated his unique blend of fortitude and ability. And in the city that raised him and had a front-row seat to many of his professional successes, Knight will forever be a champion along with the rest of his 1883 Athletics.


In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the authors relied on and



1 “Girard College: History, Our Founding,” Retrieved from

2 David Nemec, “Sam Kimber,” in Bill Nowlin (ed.), No-Hitters (Phoenix: Society for American Baseball Research, 2017), 52.

3 Ralph Berger, “Lon Knight,” Retrieved from

4 Eight Girard alumni played in the majors, including Harry Davis and Jocko Milligan.

5 “Base Ball: The First Championship Game of the Season – Boston and Athletic,” The Times (Philadelphia), April 24, 1875: 4.

6 Charlie Bevis, “Frank Bancroft.” SABR BioProject.

7 ‘The American Nine in Cuba,” New York Clipper, January 3, 1880. Retrieved from

8 “Charlton’s Baseball Chronology – 1880,”

9 John R. Husman, “Baseball Perfection,” In Bill Felber (ed.), Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the Nineteenth Century (Phoenix: Society for American Baseball Research) 2013, 120.

10 “The Home Clubs: Sketch of the Men who Constitute the Local Teams,” Sporting Life (Philadelphia), April 15, 1883: 2.

11 “Assists and Putouts,” Boston Globe, September 29, 1885: 2.

12 “Byrne’s Goal: The Championship of the American Association,” Brooklyn Eagle, March 31, 1887: 1.

13 “An Umpire’s Interpretation: Lon Knight Tells How the Association Umpires Are Instructed,” Sporting Life (Philadelphia), April 6, 1887: 1.

14 Berger.

15 “An Umpire’s Interpretation.”

16 “An Umpire’s Interpretation.”

17 “Alonzo Knight,” Hartford Courant, April 24, 1932: 8.

Full Name

Alonzo P. Knight


June 16, 1853 at Philadelphia, PA (USA)


April 23, 1932 at Philadelphia, PA (USA)

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