13 Statements About Alexander Cartwright and the Founding of Baseball

***This article was submitted by Doron “Duke” Goldman.***

Alexander Cartwright has been called both the “founder” of baseball and the “Johnny Appleseed of baseball.” His main claims to fame:

1) He authored the first written rules on baseball- 20 rules, 13 of which were playing rules, in 1845.

2) He umpired the “first” organized game of baseball, between the Knickerbockers and the New York club, at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, New Jersey on June 19, 1846.

3) In 1849 he traveled across the country to California, spreading baseball along the way (the Johnny Appleseed claim).

4) In Hawaii, where he spent the rest of his life after briefly stopping in California in 1849, he also “popularized” baseball.

5) When he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939, the year the museum was opened (but three years after the first inductions)- his plaque stated that he promulgated the following rules: 9 men to a team, nine innings, and ninety feet between bases.

Alexander Cartwright, the "father of modern baseball."
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons in the public domain of Alexander Cartwright, the "father of modern baseball."

The "Real Cartwright Rules"

1) Cartwright was a baseball pioneer. He was a member of the Knickerbocker baseball club from before 1845 until 1849. Also, a letter written by Cartwright in 1865 to a man named Charles DeBost clearly indicates that he had played baseball in Hawaii before 1865.

2) The Knickerbocker club promulgated 20 written rules for playing baseball in 1845.

3) Those rules were not the first written rules on baseball- Will Wheaton, a member of the 1845 rules committee, had written rules in 1837.

4) According to some recent research, only 3 of the 13 playing rules written in 1845 were new. First, you could no longer “soak” the batter/runner by hitting him with the ball- you had to tag him to record an out. Secondly, the field was situated as a 90-degree field, with the rest being foul territory. Lastly, there would now be 3 outs in an inning.

5) The original copy of the rules, which is in Cooperstown, only has William Wheaton and William Tucker‘s names on the document as members of the rules committee; Cartwright’s name does not appear.

6) The “first” game of organized baseball played on June 19, 1846, was not the first game played by the Knickerbockers; also, versions of baseball had been played in the U.S. going back into the 1700s.

7) Cartwright supposedly umpired the first game on June 19, but a scoresheet from that game exists- the umpire line is blank.

8)Neither Cartwright nor any of the other Knickerbockers in 1845 came up with 9 innings, ninety feet between bases, and 9 men to a side, developments attributed to Cartwright on his baseball Hall of Fame plaque.

9) Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams, also a member of the Knickerbockers, was president of the first National Baseball convention in 1857- this convention memorialized the rules on Cartwright’s plaque- and Cartwright was not at this convention- he had moved 8 years previously to Hawaii.

10) While Cartwright did travel across America in 1849, no credible documentary evidence exists that he taught people baseball along the way.

11) In Hawaii, Cartwright’s family claims, he met with Albert Spalding on the 1889-1890 worldwide baseball tour that Spaulding organized, which landed in Hawaii. But there is no documented evidence that he did. His family also claims that Cartwright paced out a diamond originally called Makiki Park but now named Cartwright Park in Honolulu, but their only evidence of this, according to Cartwright’s descendant Alexander Cartwright IV, is oral history handed down by Cartwright’s grandson Bruce Cartwright.

12) When Cartwright died in 1892, his contemporary obituaries did not mention his involvement in baseball

13) There is a great deal more evidence that the earlier mentioned Doc Adams, William Wheaton, William Tucker, and another early Knickerbocker named Duncan Curry were significantly more involved in the early development of baseball than Cartwright.

Researching Alexander Cartwright

I am drawing much of the information on Cartwright’s role in the founding of baseball from Monica Nucciarone’s book Alexander Cartwright: The Life Behind the Baseball Legend (U. of Nebraska Press 2009) but you can also find Monica’s abridged biography of Cartwright at www.sabr.org/bioproj/person/09ed3dd4

In 2009 another biography of Cartwright by a man named Jay Martin came out. He apparently substantiates the generally accepted beliefs about Cartwright. I have not read this book, but I doubt that Martin has any concrete evidence to support the 5 disputed claims at the top of this piece.

Why? Because I went to Mrbaseball.com , which is the website of Alexander Cartwright IV, his descendant. In this website’s bio of the original Alexander Cartwright, he states as follows: “Some speculation exists that Cartwright was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a means of deflecting the growing controversy over Abner Doubleday.

Yet, with the letter that Alexander Cartwright wrote to his former Knickerbocker teammate Charles DeBost reminiscing about their baseball playing days, it was still more than the Doubleday camp possessed as evidence (italics added).” And Cartwright IV directly states that the Hall of Fame plaque’s claims about Cartwright coming up with 9 innings, 9 players and 90 feet between bases are not true.

So, it seems clear that, although the Cartwright family still believes in the original Alexander’s importance in the origins of baseball, they are acknowledging that perhaps he was not quite as significant as the original version of his baseball accomplishments.

I won’t get into all the gory details here of why this version became accepted despite its inherent flaws- clearly, it does involve covering up the Cooperstown/Doubleday myth, but it also appears that Cartwright’s grandson Bruce was successful in promoting his “founder” story to the Hall of Fame, and in the process, Bruce presented a typewritten diary of Alexander’s trip across the country in which he mentions baseball, but Nucciarone has uncovered the original written diary which does not contain any mentions of baseball.

Mainly, I want to emphasize a reality of history- the truth is elusive- it can and is debated, while new evidence is often uncovered that questions earlier conventional beliefs. And many stories of history are promoted by individuals who have an agenda.

In the case of Cartwright, it is possible that he was heavily involved in the early development of baseball but the evidence that exists doesn’t support that conclusion. Yet Cooperstown still has that erroneous plaque about Cartwright in its Hall of Fame, and most websites (check out Wikipedia, for example) still endorse the Cartwright as the founder story, even though they may mention that there is a conflicting story. 

And often, people who write about these conflicts in the true story don’t want to take sides- I read a Baseball America review of the two competing books on Cartwright which essentially indicates that Nucciarone’s conclusions are well-documented and provides only faint “praise” for the Martin book but ends up saying that the conflict remains and may never be resolved. I believe that most of the conflict is resolved- there is no convincing evidence that Cartwright was the Johnny Appleseed of baseball, and his role in the origination of the game is limited.  

I think it is fair to say that Cartwright was a founder of baseball, but not the founder of baseball. I recently asked several friends of mine who are baseball origins experts who they considered to be the most important of baseball’s founders and they all picked Doc Adams ( but I will add that Doc Adams’ descendant Marjorie is a friend of theirs and fellow member of their local SABR chapter).

Alternatively, though, you could say that baseball was not founded, or invented- by Doubleday, Cartwright, or anyone else. Rather, baseball evolved (from earlier “bat and ball” games) – and continues to evolve- throughout our history.

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