Captain John Wildey, Tammany Hall, and the Rise of Professional Baseball
This article was published in the 2017 The National Pastime.
“On Monday morning, before accepting of any civilities at the hands of the Nationals, the Mutuals [of New York] held a special meeting at Willard’s Hotel, at which President [Andrew] Johnson was unanimously elected an honorary member of the club. After which such of them as felt like sight-seeing were taken in charge by the Reception-Committee of the National Club and escorted to the Capitol, Patent Office, Smithsonian Institute, Treasury, and the White House, where the entire party were received and presented to the President. The President of the Mutuals, Coroner Wildey, in a few appropriate remarks, informed the President of the action of the club in the morning and presented him with a badge of membership. The President, attaching the badge to his coat, made a few brief remarks, acknowledging and accepting the honor conferred upon him, paid high eulogy to the American game of baseball, and signified his intention of being present at the contest about to take place. The Mutuals and their friends then returned to the hotel.”
—New York Sunday Mercury, September 1, 1867
This newspaper article gives us a glimpse of the nineteenth century. The New York World had carried a similar story a few days earlier which stated that “the Mutuals held a special meeting at their rooms at Willard’s Hotel to-day, and elected President Johnson an honorary member of the club. They then visited the President’s house, accompanied by the Committee of the Nationals, and held an interview with President Johnson.” It also notes that Coroner Wildey presented the President with his badge signifying his honorary membership in their club.
What in the world was going on under the surface? How much of this actually was about baseball? Why is a New York City coroner the only name mentioned in all the stories except for the President of the United States?
Baseball existed before the Civil War but New York-style baseball, the game as we know it today, was focused almost exclusively in New York. The Civil War helped spread its popularity but most importantly, a new sense of nationalism boosted pride in the game. Politics accelerated the professionalization of it, and once it became publicly significant competition that people were willing to pay to see, baseball became part of public policy and politics from then to now. When President Andrew Johnson became the first President to refer to baseball as “our National Game” during the 1865 baseball matches in Washington, it boosted the idea, first put forth by the New York Mercury and other New York newspapers, that baseball was becoming America's national pastime.
Washington, Boston, Philadelphia and Cincinnati Base Ball Clubs began to hire better players post-War, even though the sport was still officially amateur. These “clubs” of young professionals included budding politicians and other emerging leaders often backed by key figures in the political, media, and economic establishment.
Upstate New York was then a powerful political counter-balance to the metro New York City area, and Brooklyn was still independent, but post-Civil War, Manhattan was increasingly dominant as the economic and media center of the country. A fire captain named William Tweed had re-vitalized the St. Tammany Society of New York into the most powerful local party political organization in American history.
The Mutuals were the first Tammany team and the dominant post-War Manhattan team, which was not unrelated. And the Tammany influence was carried forward from the Mutuals into the establishment of the major-league Giants, Yankees, and Dodgers. Though the Mutuals were expelled from the National League after by the 1876 season, baseball returned to Manhattan in 1883, when the New York Gothams joined the League. This would not have occurred without Tammany consent. The Gothams evolved into the New York Giants, which continued as Tammany’s Team particularly during the ownership of Tammany powerhouse Andrew Freedman and influence of Manhattan Borough President James J. Coogan (Coogan’s Bluff). It continued as such through the ownership of Tammany ally Charles Stoneham. Congressman Jacob Ruppert was but one of the prominent Tammany Yankees. State Assemblyman Charlie Ebbets and Walter O’Malley were the “Tammany Lite” Brooklyn Division.
This extraordinary linkage of professional baseball and Tammany Hall began with the rise of both baseball and Tammany prior to the Civil War. Fireman John Wildey was the point person for the Mutuals baseball team and aided Boss Tweed’s rise to political power. Post-War, Wildey was the first and last President of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP), the organization that represents the major turning point in the official professionalization of baseball.
It is an amazing story of firemen, war, politics, corruption, and baseball.
Fireman John Wildey
NY Fire Department Baseball & Rise of Tammany Hall
John Wildey was born in New York City, March 28, 1823. He was a “plain but intelligent looking gentleman.”1 Wildey lived in the 8th Ward for over fifty years, moving late in life to Bayonne, New Jersey. He officially joined his first fire engine company in 1844, moving over to the Oceanus Engine Company No. 11 where he later served as foreman (i.e. chief).2 Wildey took fifty of his firemen and “their splendid engine” by steamboat to Boston to participate in a celebration of the Battle of Bunker Hill, which built recognition for Oceanus.3 Proving his popularity beyond his own engine house, in 1860 Wildey won a closely contested race to the New York area Board of Foreman and Engineers.4
He continued as a “prominent member of the Veteran Firemen’s Association” after retirement.5 When the Association visited Bayonne, they were “received by the Common Council and the Fire Department, John Wildey, an old New York fireman, acting as grand marshal.”6 In other words, while John Wildey was an enthusiast in numerous areas—baseball, politics, and the military—he was a fireman from his youth to his end. But the activities are not unrelated.
The Mutuals baseball team took its name from a firehouse. It wasn’t just any firehouse but arguably the most historically significant firehouse in our nation. Founded in 1737, Mutual Hook & Ladder Company No. 1 of New York City was the first volunteer fire department in New York City. Among things credited to it were the first use of a horse as opposed to just manpower and creation of the fireman’s hat design still used today.
Mutual Hook & Ladder Company No. 1 is yet another merging of politics and baseball. Fire and police departments were the backbone of the populist base of boss systems. The structures were hierarchical, with officer positions given through a combination of top down alliances, assessments, and the “bottom up” ability to deliver votes. Terry Golway wrote in Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics that the “firehouse was a finishing school in the fine art of local politics.” While most would prefer the reputation of a firehouse was as a finishing school in firefighting, in most cities it was the most disciplined early political force along with the police department.7
In 1846, at the invitation of Assemblyman John J. Reilly, 23-year-old William Tweed organized Americus Fire Company No. 6, which took as its symbol a tiger. It later became one of the symbols of Tammany Hall.8 Tweed lost his first race for Alderman in 1850, then won in 1851, and was elected to Congress in 1852. The evolution of Tammany to a powerful organization built around graft began when Tweed was appointed to the County’s Board of Supervisors in 1858.
An 1887 New York Fire Department history described the origins of the baseball team this way: “The famous Mutual Base Ball Club was named after this company and was organized in their house. John Carland was its first president, and John Wildey followed him. They had their grounds at the “Elysian Fields” in Hoboken, and their contests in 1859 and 1860 with the Atlantic, Eagle, Empire and Gotham Clubs will be remembered by all old-time lovers of the game.” 9
The New York Sun made the political linkage clear: “In 1857 a number of local politicians in the city conceived the idea of forming a base ball club, and at once set about it. Money was somewhat plentiful with them at the time and it did not take long to organize the Mutual Club. The Mutuals were controlled by a number of local politicians, who spent money freely on the results…Bill Tweed was the leading spirit of the Mutuals for several years, and could be found at many of the games played by that club. For several years the club ranked as the most popular and strongest in New York, and for a long period held the lead over all the other clubs.” 10
The New York Mutuals baseball team and the rise of modern Tammany Hall were simultaneous in part because they were the same people.
Captain John Wildey: The Fire Zouaves and the Battle of Bull Run
From 1861 to 1865 the United States of America had been rendered asunder. No community in the nation failed to avoid the tragic impact of the Civil War. Not only did families lose loved ones, but communities lost leaders. Men without limbs, the walking wounded, and those left in homes for the invalid were daily reminders. World War II left America scarred and wounded, but it was not the same as a war fought on our soil against fellow Americans. The Civil War defined American politics for decades afterward.
Heroes also come from war. The first major battle of the Civil War took place just west of Washington, near a creek called Bull Run just north of Manassas and west of Centreville, Virginia. One of the celebrated heroes to come from that first battle was Captain John Wildey, fireman, future Coroner, head of the Mutual Club of New York, and Tammany man. He was a senior officer of the famed 11th New York Fire Zouaves, who were a national phenomenon far greater than baseball.
The leader of the Fire Zouaves had fame nearly unfathomable today. Elmer Ellsworth was raised in the town of Halfmoon, New York, in a very poor family. He moved to Chicago where he met a former French officer in the Zouaves, famed for their distinctive uniforms. Colonel Ellsworth created the first American Zouaves. The Chicago Zouaves went on a tour of the East. When they paraded, they did acrobatic flips and landed with their rifles in firing position. Civil War historian Adam Goodheart referred to it as a nineteenth-century version of Cirque du Soleil. For example, 25,000 people lined the streets of Albany to watch them. They took a fascinated nation by storm. Charles Dickens wrote that the “Zouave drill, which is almost acrobatic, delight the Americans.” President Buchanan hosted them at the White House. The fame of the Ellsworth Zouaves generated copycat units in all sections of the nation.11
Ellsworth’s young men became part of the entourage of a candidate named Abraham Lincoln in Illinois. Ellsworth became so close to the Lincolns that he caught measles from the Lincoln boys. When Lincoln went to Washington, so did Ellsworth as part of his escort. In fact, President Lincoln was planning to name Ellsworth commandant of the militias of the United States. However, when the Civil War began, Ellsworth decided to go New York City to form a volunteer division of firemen soldiers called the 11th New York Fire Zouaves.12
At the first call for Fire Zouave volunteers, firehouse foreman John Wildey raised a company of ninety men, all of whom belonged to a New York City firehouse. They were designated Company I of the Eleventh Regiment New York Volunteers. Wildey was elected captain.13 He had demonstrated his interest in military organization as early as 1853 as captain of the Carlisle Light Guard, which was considered “one of the best-equipped and disciplined in the city.”14
When Colonel Ellsworth’s volunteers prepared to depart New York City they were given the 1860’s version of a ticker tape parade. From the time of their arrival in Washington, the Zouaves were treated uniquely.
Congress was not in session because Southern defections and disputed elections left Congress without a quorum for months. The Capitol Building was thus put to use in other ways. A Harper’s Weekly etching from May 25, 1861, is titled: “The New York Fire Zouaves Quartered in the House of Representatives at Washington.” The drawings feature the Zouaves lounging around on the House Floor and the officers at a table in one of the major committee rooms in the Capitol Building.
Their first battle, however, wasn’t against southern soldiers. The City of Washington was filled with sympathizers to the Confederacy. Arsonists made an attempt to set the northern capital city on fire, beginning with buildings next to the Willard Hotel. As the fire spread unchecked, with the Washington fire department being a little slow to respond, the Fire Zouaves came to the rescue from their temporary home on the House floor. With smoke beginning to pour into the Willard, and fire right behind it, the New York firemen/soldiers saved the Willard. Harper’s Weekly again featured an engraving of the Zouaves battling the Willard Hotel blaze entitled “The Ellsworth Fire Zouaves fighting their old New York enemy in their usual way.” No wonder the Mutuals were welcomed at the Willard in 1867.
The Fire Zouaves moved out of the Capitol Building to a point across the Potomac River from what is now Ronald Reagan National Airport to help prevent southern sympathizers from launching attacks on Washington. The Zouave diarist noted that “in the absence of anything more exciting” that the Fire Zouaves began playing baseball with Wildey in “ball cap and ball shoes.”15
On May 7, Colonel Ellsworth announced that the Fire Zouaves were to remove some threats in Alexandria. As Ellsworth turned on King Street, he stopped in front of the Marshall House Hotel on top of which was flying a huge rebel flag that could be seen from as far as the Capitol Building. He said to those with him “that flag must come down.” Ellsworth charged up to the roof, and as he re-entered the hotel lobby, the owner assassinated him. The celebrated Col. Ellsworth thus became the first recognized death of an officer in the American Civil War.16
In spite of all that I have just noted, it is still hard to fathom that upon his death, Col. Ellsworth’s body was moved to the White House for viewing. The funeral was held in the East Room. This has been seldom done at any time in American history. Ellsworth’s death was personal to the President and his family. For a long time, Lincoln was known to weep at the mention of his name.17 Going into the Battle of the Bull Run the Fire Zouaves of NYC had extraordinary national fame, critical to understanding Wildey’s future fame in politics and baseball.
Wildey was the Zouave closest to Ellsworth. The more senior Lt. Colonel Noah L. Farnham, however, replaced Ellsworth as the Fire Zouaves commander. Farnham was “struck by a musket ball” during the Bull Run battle and soon died from complications from typhoid fever.18 Farnham had been the head of the Mutual Fire Company unit. Post-Civil War the G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic), an organization of veterans of the Northern Army, became a powerful national political organization.19 Not surprisingly, Wildey was a leader of the Noah Farnham G.A.R. Post No. 458 in NYC until his own death.20
The first Bull Run battle is enshrouded in more confusion and myth than most Civil War battles. Not only was soldier training minimal when the War began, but commanders were unfamiliar with one another and even uniforms were not coordinated. Some Southerners wore blue and some Northerners wore gray. This not only confused those trying to record what precisely happened, but was chaos on the battlefield during the fighting. Henry Hill became the pivotal ground during the Battle at Bull Run Creek. During the fight the N.Y. Zouaves, and the rebels, became confused as to whether oncoming soldiers were allies or enemies. Jeb Stuart spotted the Zouaves but then remembered there was a Southern unit dressed similarly so shouted out: “Are those our men or the enemy?”21
The Zouaves were in the heat of the battle and suffered serious casualties. They lost so many men that the unit did not survive. While most historians credit them with beginning the battle with bravery, they note that when counter-attacked the Zouaves panicked. Few reports, including those by soldiers present on the battlefield, agree on key facts. General Thomas Jackson received his nickname at Bull Run, though initially the reference to his standing there “like a stone wall” off the battlefield east of Henry Hill was not intended to be complimentary. When Stonewall Jackson did intervene, however, it was decisive.
The Union retreat at the First Battle of Bull Run stunned the North. Blame was flying everywhere. Today with the advantage of hindsight we know that the War would last four years and the other battles would have more significance. But in 1861, post Bull Run, the northern militia enlistment periods were about to expire. The Federal troops had been demoralizingly routed which put the survival of a united nation in doubt. Some heroes were immediately needed.
Captain John Wildey's exploits made him famous. The New York Herald reported that “in the midst of the battle-field the stalwart form of Jack Wildey could at all times be found at the head of his comrades.” The Herald continued that when the regimental flag had been seized by Black Horse Cavalry Confederates of Jeb Stuart “Wildey rushed forward at the head of his brave men, and after a bloody contest, in which he killed two men, recaptured the flag.”22 In the Civil War men died defending their regimental flags. In this case, it was the flag of Ellworth’s famous Zouaves, firefighters from the largest city in America. Many sketches and lithographs appeared with the gallant Fire Zouaves fighting off the Black Horse Cavalry. More than 150 years later the image remains among the more prominent of the first Civil War battle.
Wildley’s fame was spread throughout the nation. In New York City, Wildey had become a hero, a defender of the city’s honor. Wildey was recalled home, ostensibly to recruit more soldiers. But Boss Tweed had other ideas. He needed Wildey to represent Tammany in the upcoming election.
Coroner Wildey: The Mutual Interest of Politics and Baseball
Tammany Hall under Boss Tweed played an important role in backing the North in the Civil War’s first years. It was a pivotal time for Tammany, which had begun as a national organization founded by Pennsylvania Revolutionary War leader John Dickinson as a more thoughtful alternative to Boston’s Sons of Liberty. Aaron Burr in New York helped perpetuate New York City’s branch long after others had faded away. Tweed’s goal was to politically dominate the Democrat Party (sic), and New York through Tammany Hall.
In 1860 Confederate sympathizer Fernando Wood was the Mayor. He was tied to the South’s cotton industry, which generated great revenue for the City and for his political base. Because of the Mayor’s opposition, Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edward Stanton desperately needed allies in New York City. Tweed made a deal: throw some support to Lincoln in return for, among other things, some shared power and more importantly to Tammany’s future, government contracts.23
Tweed’s Tammany system required power, and maintaining power required some election victories. ''It's hard not to admire the skill behind Tweed's system, though,'' Kenneth Ackerman writes in Boss Tweed. ''The Tweed ring at its height was an engineering marvel, strong and solid, strategically deployed to control key power points: the courts, the legislature, the treasury and the ballot box. Its fraud had a grandeur of scale and an elegance of structure: money-laundering, profit sharing and organization.’''24
In the 1861election Tweed had parts of the Tammany organization align with the Union tickets (there were multiple slates). “Tammany Democracy” ran a full slate, including for the Coroner positions and highlighted by Tweed himself for Sheriff. This slate was calculated for show, not victory. Boss Tweed also participated in putting together a “fusion ticket,” with Tammany agreeing to support some non-Tammany candidates in return for enough Republican support for a few Tammany-selected choices. John Wildey for Coroner was one of the Tammany candidates selected to prevail (i.e. weak opposition slated against him). Included in the fusion ticket sweep of offices was Coroner John Wildey.
Coroner seems like an odd office for Tammany to focus upon. Even by Tammany standards, it is possible that Wildey’s experience at the Fire Department, Civil War reputation, and as a baseball player did not give him enough plausibility for a position with more power regardless of his popularity. On the other hand, it was enough to make Wildey one of the top citywide candidates in the election in spite of lacking any qualifications for Coroner. Being a Tammany Coroner was not like serving as a coroner today. It was a political undertaking, not medicine. A PBS documentary pointed out that “even in an era of rampant corruption, New York coroners stood out.”25
Obviously, the coroner does an autopsy to determine the cause of death. For each autopsy conducted the coroner received a fee plus all expenses covered. It would appear to have been a pretty scientific, straightforward post. As the city grew, in 1852 New York City went from two to four elected coroners to handle the increased load.
Because they were paid by the dead body, Coroners had an incentive to process as many as possible and as quickly as possible. “Suspicious deaths” could be lucrative, which Tammany obviously recognized. “I don’t want my husband to have committed suicide” was open invitation to assessing a fee to have that fixed. A study suggested that “skillful poisoning can be carried out almost with impunity.” How many “errors” were due to incompetence (since no medical background was required or Wildey, nor years later Tammany Boss Richard Croker, would not have been a coroner) and how much was the result of kickbacks to the coroners is impossible to determine.26
The funeral home business provided additional graft potential. After the negotiable death determination, if the coroner had a body a family wanted released, it was essential that one chose a Tammany-certified funeral home. This obviously provided more kickback opportunities.
Given that Wildey owed his political career to Tweed, it is likely that he was a willing participant in the corrupt coroner process. The New York Times 1889 obituary of Wildey states with a trace of irony: “He died in poverty. He had made plenty of money, but long ago lost the last of his fortune.”27 He didn’t make a “fortune” as a fireman, Civil War vet, or in baseball.
A coroner named Henry Woltman, a ward politician prior to becoming coroner, was particularly excoriated by a New York State Senate inquiry in 1877. They concluded that “a more thoroughly expensive, wasteful and incompetent set of officials never existed.” In addition to the opportunities for graft that I already raised, this inquiry cited many “gross abuses, among which were the following:
- inquests were unnecessarily held.
- juries were constantly called contrary to the intent of the statue.
- in many cases jurors did not view the bodies of deceased persons, as required by law.
- the inquest papers of the coroners were valueless as records, proving nothing.
- there existed a ring of jurymen who served on hundreds of inquests, and were mere hangers-on, or creatures of the coroners.
- the fees of the coroners were excessive, and their bills against the county, if legal, were far from being equitable or just.”28
Baseball man John Wildey was part of an important Tammany Coroner tradition, which is rather different from being an honorable tradition. Wildey obviously had grassroots political skills demonstrated repeatedly in fire organizations, baseball organizing, and military organizations. He was elected to two three-year terms as coroner. He formed a “John Wildey Association” similar to the powerful ones later formed by Tammany powers such as Big Tim Sullivan, John Ahearn, and Maurice Featherson which became the backbone structure of Tammany in the sprawling city. The New York Times noted John Wildey Association Annual Balls in 1864, 1865, and 1866.29
Wildey continued in politics post-Coroner. In 1869 and 1870 he ran for the position of election canvasser in the 8th Ward (Tweed was one of the two elected canvassers for the 7th Ward.)30 In other words, should there be any doubt about Wildey being Tammany connected, his position as an official Tammany-style vote counter removes it. It was the last political position in New York City for Wildey. Not coincidentally, Tweed was chased away for corruption in 1871. Tweed fled to England and eventually went to jail. Wildey crossed the Hudson River to Bayonne, New Jersey. There is no record of Wildey being charged with any crime.
George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall is among the most famous political books of all-time because it boldly proclaims how Tammany did business. Even for baseball.
“I hear a young feller that's proud of his voice... I ask him to join our Glee Club. He comes up and sings, and he's a follower of Plunkitt for life. Another young feller gains a reputation as a baseball player in a vacant lot. I bring him into our baseball club. That fixes him. You'll find him working for my ticket at the polls next election. I rope them all in by givin' them opportunities to show off themselves off. I don't trouble them with political arguments.” —George Washington Plunkitt31
Wildey’s Coroner’s office was one in which employment was found for Mutuals baseball players. But Tammany’s assistance was more than just jobs. SABR historian Tony Morante noted: “By 1869, Tammany was contributing generously to the upkeep of the Mutuals, who were all on salary, making them a truly professional team. When the New York City Council voted the team $1,500 towards a trip to New Orleans in 1869, Tweed countered with $7,500 from his own pocket, another way to secure votes.”32
Nothing in politics occurs in a vacuum. Once the context is understood—the Battle of Bull Run, Wildey’s election as Coroner, the Tammany ties to the Mutuals—the opening story in Washington becomes clear today like it was to the readers at the time.
The visit of the Mutuals to Washington D.C. in the fall of 1867 came during one of the most politically contentious times in American history. Tennessee Democrat Andrew Johnson had been selected as the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate because the prolonged War made President Lincoln vulnerable in the 1864 election. Republicans had not expected Lincoln to be assassinated after his victory. President Johnson was opposed to the Radical Republican agenda for Reconstruction of the South.
When the Mutual baseball team arrived in New York, among the New York Congressmen were Fernando Wood, the former Mayor, and John Morrissey, former Dead Rabbits Gang leader, gambler, long-time Tammany boss, and purported owner of the Haymakers of Troy. New York Democrats were the core of the Democrat Party. The head of the Mutual Club of New York was military hero Wildey. New York Democrats had not been of one mind in support of the Union cause, but they were united in opposition to the Radical Republicans.
Vice-President Johnson was mostly scorned by his new party. In March of 1867, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act. It prohibited Johnson from removing federal office holders who had been confirmed by the Senate as they battled each other over implementing Reconstruction. In early August - just weeks before the Mutuals visited to play baseball in Washington - Johnson tested the constitutionality of the Act. Republicans in Congress were furious.
President Johnson desperately needed some friends and the united help of Democrats to survive the Republican purge attempt. (His impeachment by the House occurred in February 1868; he—like later President Bill Clinton—survived the Senate trial.)
What could be more dramatic than the baseball team of the Mutual Fire Company of New York, led by former Fire Zouaves Bull Run battle hero Captain John Wildey, coming to Washington? And the Mutuals weren’t just a baseball team. They were Tammany’s team and their leader was an elected official, part of Tweed’s political team.
When newspaper accounts record that the President hosted the team, was appreciative of being made an honorary member, and proudly put the Mutuals badge on his lapel, I’m sure they were completely accurate. In fact, Johnson was undoubtedly thrilled that the Mutuals had made sure that he was identified with the most prominent Democrat organization and a Civil War hero. Johnson might have liked baseball, but he loved important allies even more as he fought for his political life.
After the political tourism, they also played baseball. President Andrew Johnson attended, possibly still wearing his Tammany Mutuals badge. He was among political allies and friends. War and politics united them. Baseball was a respite from bitter politics.
NABBP President Wildey and the Rise of Professional Baseball
In 1865—the first post-Civil War convention of NABBP—baseball clubs gathered from ten states. The percentage from New York had dropped to 55%, a sign of increasing national popularity of the game. New York still held the majority but was a decline in dominance. It remained enough of a majority to elect Coroner John Wildey as the first truly national President (representatives from five states had been the previous high).33
The Mutuals were not known for honesty in baseball. The Mutuals cheated on a grander scale than most teams. John Thorn, the official historian of MLB, has written that gambling was the most important ingredient facilitating the growth of baseball (followed by statistics and publicity).34 But Bill Ryczek notes that in the Mutuals case, it was much more serious. Whenever a big upset occurred involving the New York team, it was suspected that the losing Mutuals had thrown the game.35
For example, on September 28, 1865, the Mutuals faced the Eckford Club of Brooklyn in what is considered to be one of the most significant baseball games because it helped push baseball towards professionalism.
During the first four innings, the Mutuals played like the favorites they were. Gamblers moved through the crowds changing the odds around events during the game, as they generally did and especially in New York. But in the fifth inning, things on the field changed dramatically. In what became known as “the Wansley affair,” the Eckfords scored eleven runs. It wasn’t just that they scored that many in one inning. Games could be high scoring in the days when fielders, for example, had no baseball gloves and catchers were getting battered by trying to nearly bare-handedly catch pitched balls. It was the more than suspicious way that the eleven runs were suddenly accumulated. Experienced Mutuals catcher William Wansley had two missed catches, six passed balls and four wild throws in the pivotal fifth inning.36
The Fix Is In by Daniel E. Ginsburg, a history of gambling in baseball, describes how Wansley corralled two fellow Mutuals players to help ensure that the Eckfords won (it wasn’t clear that his yeoman efforts to throw the game alone could have accomplished the mission). The gambler’s contact offered Wansley $100 to guarantee the success of their scheme. A few hours before the game, he drove the three players by wagon to the Hoboken Ferry where, once on board, Wansley kept $40 and gave the other two players each $30.37 Obviously, the informed gamblers were able to maximum their betting odds going into that inning and cashed in.
Early baseball historian William Ryczek noted that “the Mutuals followers were avid bettors and generally sore losers.”38 So were the Mutuals’ teammates of Wansley, Ed Duffy, and Tom Devyr. After the game, President of the Mutuals John Wildey, charged Wansley with “willful and designed inattention” during the game.39
When a repentant Devyr confessed his role in throwing the contest, the Mutuals-Eckfords match officially became the first rigged game in baseball history. The significance reverberated in baseball far more than if it had been a more obscure match. Not only did the game involve the top teams in the largest metro area in the nation but New York had been the cradle of baseball. The majority of the amateur teams were in the New York metro area. The game-rigging had occurred on the biggest baseball stage in the country.
But the time was nearing for John Wildey’s last hurrah. 1868 Wildey had spear-headed the return of suspended Devyr, in 1869 Duffy was re-admitted, and at the 1870 meetings Wildey pushed to allow ringleader Wansley back into baseball. At the November 30, 1870, meeting in New York City, Wildey was again elected to head the National Association of Base Ball Players by a vote of 18 to 8. The NABBP also voted by a two to one margin to become professional. Wildey of the Mutuals was thus the last President before baseball officially went pro.40
Wildey was not one of those wringing his hands about the evils of the change. He stated in response to a proposal to remain amateurs: “We are perfectly willing to adopt such a rule,” answered Wildey with a quaint smile, “but I fear, ladies and gentlemen, if we did, the players wouldn’t observe it. It seems to me that the days are over when baseball is purely a game for amateurs.”41 Of course, in New York, they hadn’t been purely amateur since the Civil War had ended. This just made professionalization official.
The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NA), the first professional baseball organization, began its first season in 1871. The Mutuals survived the Association but not without controversy. The National League was created in 1876, the official start of Major League Baseball, in order to provide more stability and integrity to professional baseball. The Mutuals were kicked out after the first season, officially for refusing to complete their schedule.
John Wildey had a very brief playing career for the Mutual Club prior to the Civil War but had been a leader of the powerful New York team for nearly two decades. He also served as an umpire, including a 1870 Mutual game against Brooklyn and a 1871 game versus the Haymakers.42
Four years before Wildey’s death, a history of the New York and Brooklyn fire departments concluded a brief biography of him stating: “Everyone knows of Jack Wildey of ‘Black Horse Guard’ fame. He was always a great admirer of athletic sports of all kinds, and, although sixty-two years old, he would astonish some of the present generation should they try their strength against him.”43
Capt. John Wildey, Tammany Hall, their baseball team the Mutuals, the Fire Zouaves at Bull Run, and the firehouses of New York City all played important roles, albeit stormy ones, in establishing professional baseball's role in our National Pastime.
MARK SOUDER served as the US Congressman for northeastern Indiana from 1995–2010. He was a senior staff member in the US House and Senate for a decade prior to being elected to Congress. He was one of the primary questioners in the hearings on steroids abuse in baseball. His article “Why did Wrigley, Lasker, and the Chicago Cubs Join a Presidential Campaign?” was published in the 2015 The National Pastime. “When Boston Dominated Baseball” was included in the 2016 SABR book "Boston’s First Nine." He has written articles that will appear in scheduled SABR books on Puerto Rican baseball and the Boston Beaneaters. The article on John Wildey in this magazine is an expanded version of his presentation at the 19th Century SABR Conference (The FRED) at Cooperstown in 2015. Souder is retired other than occasional political commentary and meddling. He lives in Fort Wayne with his wife Diane and his books.
1 William J. Ryczek, When Johnny Came Sliding Home: The Post-Civil War Baseball Boom, 1865-1870 (Jefferson N.C. and London: McFarland & Company, 1998); 20
2 Frank Kernan, Reminiscences of the Old Fire Laddies and Volunteer Fire Departments of New York and Brooklyn, Together with a Complete History of the Paid Departments of Both Cities (New York: M. Crane: 1885); 474
3 New York Tribune, June 16, 1857; 6
4 Brooklyn Evening Star; October 19, 1860; 2
5 Kernan; 474
6 A. E. Costello, Our Firemen: A History of the New York Fire Departments 1609- 1887; http://www.newyorkroots.org/bookarchive/historyofnyfiredepartments/index.html; Chapter 45, Part V
7 Terry Golway, Machine Made: Tammany and the Creation of Modern American Politics (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2014); 60
8 T. Jackson, Lisa Keller, and Nancy Flood; “Tweed, William M(agear) ‘Boss’ “Encyclopedia of New York City: Second Edition (New Haven and London: Yale University Press 2010)
9 Costello; 683
10 “The Mutuals of New York,” New York Sun, January 02, 1887; 11
11 Adam Goodheart, 1861: The Civil War Awakening (New York: Vintage Books, 2011); 194, 203
12 Goodheart; 207, 211
13 Kernan, 474
14 New York Tribune; Feb 18, 1855; 7
15 Brian C. Pohanka and Patrick A. Schroeder, With the 11th New York Fire Zouave In Camp, Battle, and Prison (Lynchburg, Virginia: Schroeder Publications, 2011); 139
16 Goodheart; 285
17 Goodheart; 290, 291
18 White Cloud (Kansas) Chief, June 20, 1861; 1
19 “The Late Col Farnham,” New York Times; August 16, 1861
20 Kernan, 474
21 William C. Davis, Battle of Bull Run (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1977); 207, 208
22 Kernan; 475-481 including a July 27, 1861, story in the New York Herald
23 Kenneth D. Ackerman, Boss Tweed (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers; 2005); 27
24 Ibid, 357
27 “John Wildey Died in Poverty,” New York Times; June 1, 1889
28 Jerome B. Parmeter, State Printer; Documents of the Senate of the State of New York; Ninety-Ninth Session—1876; Volume VII.—No 79; 1876
29 New York Times; Jan. 27, 1865; 4; New York Times; Jan. 20; 1866; 3
30 “Democratic Primaries,” New York Times, Sept 19, 1869; 5; “Official City Canvass” New York Times; June 2, 1870; 3
31 William L. Riordan, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1963); 25,26
32 Steven A. Riess, Touching Base: Professional Baseball and American Culture in the Progressive Era (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press; 1980), 66; Tony Morante, “Baseball and Tammany Hall;” Baseball Research Journal, Spring 2013, Volume 42, Issue 1
33 Brian McKenna, “Amateur National Association Conventions;” Baseball Fever website
34 John Thorn, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011) 87
35 Ryczek, 196
36 Philip H. Dixon, “The First Fixed Game: Mutuals of New York vs. Eckfords of Brooklyn,” Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the 19th Century, (SABR, 2013); 46,47
37 Daniel E. Ginsburg, The Fix Is In: A History of Baseball Gambling and Game Fixing Scandals (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1995); 5,6
38 Ryczek; 75
39 Dixon, 47
40 Ryczek; 246-259
41 Jimmy Wood, “Baseball of the Bygone Days, Part 3” from the blog of Major League Baseball historian John Thorn on MLB.com
42 Brooklyn Daily Eagle August 8, 1870; 3 and Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 6, 1871; 3
43 Kernan; 474