This article was written by Andrew Schiff
This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 28, 2008)
In the fall of 1856, a New York Times cricket journalist spotted a fascinating game of “base ball” being played across the field. Henry Chadwick knew baseball well enough but was now seeing the game in a new light, as if for the first time. He had never considered how this rudimentary game played with a ball and a bat was so fast and rugged and “suited to the American temperament.” After watching a particularly spirited contest between the Gotham and Eagle clubs of New York on the grassy grounds of Elysian Fields in Hoboken, Chadwick came away a changed man.
You might say that Chadwick, a British-born journalist, who had arrived on this side of the Atlantic Ocean nearly two decades earlier, suddenly ceased being English and became American. He never lost his love for the intricate, demanding game of cricket, but he became convinced that baseball, fast-paced and rugged—a style that suited the American temperament—was good for Americans, that it would inspire them to take to the outdoors and to exercise. Chadwick saw that the nation was shifting increasingly from an agrarian to an industrial way of life. In baseball, he saw great possibilities for the promotion of public health—and, perhaps, for his career. Was it the platform on which he might be elevated to the level of fame enjoyed by his older half-brother, Edwin Chadwick, the sanitary reformer of England who many years later would be knighted?
Why did it take so long for Chadwick to appreciate baseball? He knew of the game’s existence and had even played it from time to time. It resembled, perhaps too much, rounders, a game that he played in childhood and so may have come to feel was too simple and unscientific. Chadwick often reminisced about playing rounders in Exeter, England, where he was born on October 5,1824. He recalled how, as youngsters, he and his friends would “dig a hole in the ground for the home position, and place four stones in a circle, or nearly so, for the bases, and, choosing up sides, we went in for a lively time at what was the parent game of base ball.”
Like all good English boys, Chadwick advanced to cricket as he matured. He was not quite a teenager when his father, James Chadwick, a noted radical journalist, decided to take his new family (Henry was the product of James Chadwick’s second marriage) and emigrate to the United States. Was it his allegiance to the principles of the French revolution that drew him to this country founded on a revolution by colonists from his homeland? In any event, in September 1837, with his wife Theresa, his son Henry, and his daughter Rosa, he emigrated to the United States, and American history would be forever altered.
Soon after landing in New York, the young family moved to Brooklyn. Henry in adulthood would cherish fond memories of his adolescence there; he spent his first years in Brooklyn fishing in Gowanus Canal, hunting birds, and stealing fallen apricots near a Brooklyn farm. He ice-skated in present-day downtown Brooklyn (Brooklyn Heights), on Court Street near Hamilton Avenue. It was in Brooklyn, in 1838, where he resumed his youthful interest in cricket, attending there a match between the English towns of Sheffield and Nottingham— a sporting event of a sort not so unusual in this early phase of American history, when the English sport was still the dominant sport in America. As a young adult, Chadwick made his livelihood by teaching piano. He never lost his passion for music. He even composed waltzes and quadrilles. Gradually, though, he found himself drawn to his father’s footsteps—his older brother, too, had dabbled in journalism before pursuing his career in public health. Chadwick began reporting for Brooklyn’s Long Island Star in 1844.
By the mid-1850s he had managed to integrate his love for cricket into his professional life, working as cricket writer for the New York Times. Like all enthusiasts of the sport in the New York metropolitan area, Chadwick would frequent Elysian Fields. He would later draw on his encyclopedic knowledge of cricket in formulating his suggestions for improvements to baseball, a younger game that was still somewhat unformed and that he sought to make “more scientific” and more “manly.”
The first journalist to report on baseball regularly was actually William Cauldwell, editor of the New York Sunday Mercury.However, because of Chadwick’s driving ambition to publicize the game and raise it to the status of the national pastime, he soon outshone Cauldwell. Later, Cauldwell hired Chadwick to take over as baseball reporter at the Mercury. After several minor successes in carving out space for baseball in the dailies, Chadwick in 1857 joined the staff of the New York Clipper, an entertainment weekly, which, like many New York weeklies at the time, was read nationwide. And so his articles on the New York game were circulating in Boston and Philadelphia, where town ball still dominated, but would eventually give way to baseball. Chadwick’s influence on this development would be hard to measure but also hard to deny.
His standing in the baseball world by this time had earned him a place with the rules committee. On the side, he began to make improvements to the format of the box score.
By 1860 he was working for Beadle Dime, editing Beadle’s Dime Base-Ball Player, which he would make into the quintessential baseball guide. It was there that Chadwick developed the framework for the in-game scoring system that, while evolving somewhat over the years, has remained an enduring feature of baseball in the press box as well as among fans in the seats. Use of the letter K to indicate a strikeout, for example, dates back to Chadwick’s work in the Beadle publication. Around this time he began to tabulate hits, home runs, and total bases. This practice led to the formulation of such familiar statistical metrics as batting average and slugging percentage, although Chadwick was not directly responsible for their invention.
Chadwick’s ongoing concern about the game’s rules led him to conclude that they needed reform. Early on, he began to advocate for the elimination of the bound catch, whereby the fielder would retire the batter by catching the ball on the first bounce. In his view, the fly catch was more manly and scientific. Moreover, it was the rule in cricket, the elder, established sport, that baseball had reason to emulate. Chadwick won the argument. In 1864 the rules committee voted to eliminate the bound catch. The move from the bound to the fly catch would coincide with the growth of the New York game and its expansion across the continent in the late nineteenth century. In related developments, Chadwick helped to promote the establishment of the overhand pitch as normative and to determine the uniform distance between the pitcher’s mound and home plate.
Chadwick’s contribution to the game’s inner workings—its rules and its systems for keeping score and keeping records—was great but should not be taken to mean that he ever lost sight of the larger social function he thought baseball should serve. In the early days of the Civil War, in 1861, he had arranged for a special baseball game, billed as the Silver Ball Match, to be played in late October—three months after the Battle of Bull Run. The Brooklyn nine defeated the New York nine, 18—6, in a contest that was welcomed as a necessary diversion from the stress experienced by a civilian population during wartime.
The great expectations that Chadwick had for this noble civic institution, as he saw it, were of a piece with his moral stand against drinking, gambling, and hippodroming (the practice of predetermining the outcome of games). He said he was moved to speak out against gambling after overhearing attempts by gamblers to fix the outcome of the Fashion Course games, an all-star series between New York and Brooklyn and an important matchup in the early years of baseball. Chadwick’s subsequent campaign against gambling earned for him a reputation as the conscience of baseball. Though it is unclear when he began to speak of “the best interests of baseball,” he is among the first to use the phrase.
Much of Chadwick’s hope for baseball’s moral reform was finally realized when in 1871 the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was created with the intention of cleaning up the game. In 1876 it gave way to the the National League, and Chadwick’s influence in professional baseball was curtailed but not ended. He still had a voice.
In the early 1880s, Chadwick began his new position as editor of Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide. The official guide of the National League, it was distributed by his friend Albert Spalding, a sporting-goods magnate and a former pitching great for Boston and Chicago. Chadwick was among Spalding’s mentors, though Spalding had a special talent for marketing and a good baseball mind of his own, as the success of his sporting-goods business demonstrated.
Spalding and Chadwick remained friends despite the growing differences between them. As the business of baseball grew, so did Spalding’s business, and Chadwick began to lose touch with that side of baseball’s development. They found themselves divided as well on the issue of baseball’s origins. Motivated by nationalism and the calculation that it was good for his business, Spalding propagated the idea, now discredited, that baseball’s origin was entirely American, that it was invented in the United States and without any foreign influence. Chadwick maintained that baseball derived from the English bat-and-ball game he knew as rounders, which shared many of the same rules with baseball. Chadwick assumed, with good reason, that the English variant was parent to American baseball. Chadwick had said as much in the first Beadle guide, in 1860.
Spalding was adamant, however, and in 1907 he appointed the Mills Commission to determine baseball’s “true origins.” After some deliberation, the members determined that Civil War general Abner Doubleday invented the game in Cooperstown, New York, although Doubleday never mentioned baseball in his voluminous diaries and there is no evidence that he ever even played the sport. Authoritative voices from the four corners of the baseball world chimed in to affirm the commission’s finding, but Chadwick stuck to his guns, maintaining to theend that baseball’s origins in rounders were undeniable. He genuinely sympathized with Spalding’s wish to imagine a national pastime as a purely American game, though not at the cost of confusing fiction with historical fact.
He lost the argument, for the time being, but not his reputation. As early as the 1870s he had been carrying the title “Father of Baseball.” He had won admiration from all quarters; President Theodore Roosevelt saluted his work. In 1904, as Chadwick celebrated his eightieth birthday, Roosevelt wrote to him: “My Dear Chadwick: I congratulate you on your eightieth year and your fiftieth year in journalism . . . and you are entitled to the good wishes of all for that part you have taken in behalf of decent sport.”
Chadwick continued to write throughout the 1880s and 1890s, working as editor of the Spalding guides, and the Sporting Life was a venue for his opinions on a range of topics—the Player’s Revolt of 1890, the home run (an expenditure of too much energy, he thought), the rise of the American League in 1901, and Turkish baths, which he recommended. He was a versatile sportswriter and penned numerous articles and guides on football, chess, tennis, yachting, rowing, ice skating, and bowling (specifically, lawn bowls). In his last years, though, his output began to wane. He left the Sporting Life and returned to write almost exclusively for the Brooklyn Eagle.
Chadwick caught a cold after attending two opening day games in April 1908 and grew progressively weak. Though sick, he attempted to move some furniture from one apartment to another in his Brooklyn walkup. Overstraining his heart, he fell unconscious. His illness had worsened to pneumonia. Chadwick died the next day on April 20, 1908, a few minutes past noon. He was 83. He is buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, his grave marked by a monument on top of which is a granite sphere carved to resemble a baseball. The four corners of the site are marked by stones etched to look like bases.
Chadwick was the most important figure in nineteenth-century baseball, according to Christopher Devine in his biography of Harry Wright. (Spalding ranked second, and Wright third.) A visionary, Chadwick saw baseball’s great potential and dreamed of. the day when it would be enshrined as the national pastime, and all this at a time when it was relatively ill defined, fledgling, and under the shadow of cricket. Given the place of importance that baseball would come to occupy in American society and culture, Chadwick’s own place in American history has to be deemed high. We can only speculate whether it exceeds the aspirations he nurtured in his ambitious youth. In bringing his seriousness and reformer’s zeal to his work as a baseball journalist, he anticipated our own time, when sports news has the power to knock political news off the front page and often does. Chadwick was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1938. He is the only journalist enshrined in the player’s wing in the museum.
ANDREW J. SCHIFF is author of “The Father of Baseball”: A Biography of Henry Chadwick (McFarland, 2008), the first full-length book devoted to the Hall of Fame journalist.
Adelman, Melvin L. A Sporting Time: New York City and the Rise of Modern Athletics, 1820—70. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
Chadwick, Henry. The Game of Baseball: How to Learn It, How to Play It, How to Teach It. New York: George Munro, 1868.
Devine, Christopher. Harry Wright: The Father of Professional Base Ball (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003), 10.
Richman, Jeffrey I. Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery: New York’s Buried Treasure. Brooklyn: The Cemetery, 1998.
Schiff, Andrew J. “The Father of Baseball”: A Biography of Henry Chadwick. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2008.