New York Times: Ground as Hallowed as Cooperstown; Green-Wood Cemetery, Home to 200 Baseball Pioneers

April 1, 2004

Before A-Rod and Jeter, there were J-Creigh and Woodward.

That would be James Creighton Jr., the world’s first true baseball star, and John B. Woodward, an outfielder who became a Union general in the Civil War. Both played for the Excelsior Club — sort of the Yankees of the early 1860’s — and now both reside in the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

It is there, on Sunday, even as the Red Sox are gathering in Baltimore for the North American, Tokyo-free debut of the baseball season, that history buffs will assemble for the first organized tour of some extraordinary monuments and their century-old baseball adornments. They mark the resting place of some 200 important figures in the early decades of the game.

All but a few of them — players, managers and sportswriters who are now credited with inventing and developing the sport — are forgotten. But intensive scholarship is showing that the cemetery is the final resting place not only for a Who’s Who of baseball heroes and dignitaries of the 19th century but also for dozens of other trailblazers of the sport.

“We knew that Green-Wood was a repository of New York’s past, but we never realized the extent of the cemetery’s inventory of early baseball history,” said Richard J. Moylan, president of Green-Wood.

To Peter J. Nash, the monuments of Green-Wood are “a living history of 19th-century baseball in the land of the dead.” Mr. Nash, an amateur scholar of the game who has spent four years poking around both hillocks and archives at the cemetery, has compiled these discoveries in a new book, “Baseball Legends of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery” (Arcadia Publishing, $19.99).

Jeff Richman, the cemetery’s historian, has furthered this effort, using his encyclopedic knowledge of grave locations at the 478-acre property. “Peter came along and found baseball player after owner after team manager after scribe,” Mr. Richman said.

Their investigations have added weight to the growing body of evidence showing that the New York City region was an important incubator for the game. The monuments at Green-Wood, they found, chronicle the sociological transition of early baseball from a gentleman’s game to a more capitalistic enterprise for professionals. And researchers were surprised to learn of so many connections between baseball and the Civil War.

Green-Wood’s most prominent baseball monuments have long been celebrated. Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker, who chronicled some of the cemetery’s better-known personages in his nine-episode Public Television series, “Baseball,” said: “We fooled ourselves for more than a century, thinking that baseball was, in its origins, a pastoral American game, born in Cooperstown, N.Y., and fulfilling every romantic image of who we are. But it was born in gritty cities — New York and Hoboken.”

“So if you’re looking for your true field of dreams,” he added, “try Green-Wood.”

The origins of baseball are murky and may stretch back to Revolutionary times and English roots. But Ted Spencer, chief curator of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, said that “the more and more we see, I think the game finds its birthplace in Manhattan.”

Previous scholarship uncovered an organized baseball association in Manhattan in 1823. Some two decades after that, Mr. Spencer said, a New York group was “the first baseball club that wrote down the rules and played by them.”

The development of early baseball paralleled the development of Green-Wood, which was incorporated in 1838. Among the nearly 600,000 people buried there are no less than four pioneers who were accorded the title “Father of Baseball” in the popular press: Henry Chadwick, Duncan Curry, William Tucker and William Wheaton.

The memorial for Henry Chadwick bears a “Father of Base Ball” inscription. A journalist and tireless promoter of the game who perfected the box score, Chadwick railed against corruption, was the editor of annual baseball guides and made the future existence of rotisserie baseball possible by pioneering the adoption of statistical measures like the batting average.

The Chadwick memorial is topped by a massive granite baseball — complete with classic stitching — as well as a bronze catcher’s mask and baseball glove. Its boundaries are four sculptured stone bases around the monument’s perimeter, accurate down to the straps once used to fix them in place.

Mr. Nash discovered some monuments, like that of Duncan Curry, by sheer chance, while walking through the cemetery. Curry, first president of the Knickerbocker Baseball Club, is immortalized with a monument that proudly dubs him “Father of Baseball” because he headed the club that scholars say first codified many of the game’s rules.

According to a 19th-century account, Curry helped promulgate formal baseball rules with Alexander J. Cartwright and two other members of the Knickerbockers, Tucker and Wheaton (one of the game’s first umpires). Cartwright is buried elsewhere.

Another legend was Creighton, who died at 21 in 1862. He revolutionized the art of pitching and played for the Excelsiors of South Brooklyn, who in their day were as dominant as the Yankees are now, Mr. Nash said. Creighton found peace under an ornate, seven-foot-high obelisk adorned with crossed bats

“Creighton was the first baseball immortal,” Mr. Spencer said, “and given the myth about how he died — swinging at a home run ball — he is the perfect example of the sports figure becoming larger than life.” Creighton is believed to have aggravated a cricket-game injury by playing a subsequent baseball game; he died four days later.

Another Green-Wood resident, DeWolf Hopper, a thespian, delivered a rendition of the Ernest Thayer poem, “Casey at the Bat,” shortly after it was published in 1888, and proceeded to perform it more than 10,000 times over the next half-century. One of his six marriages was to a Hollywood socialite who took his name: Hedda Hopper.

At Tulip Hill, the imposing granite vault of the three Patchen brothers — Sam (shortstop), Joe (right field) and Edward (infielder) — is the only crypt of early baseball players, the Alou brothers of their time.

Another pioneer at Green-Wood, Archibald Gourlie, a Knickerbocker, was fined six pence in 1845 for protesting an umpire’s call, thus becoming the first player ever penalized on a ball field, Mr. Nash said.

More recently, there is the imposing 1925 stone slab memorializing Charles Hercules Ebbets, the Dodger patriarch who gave his name to the imperishable home of The Bums. Tragically, Ebbets’s partner, Edward McKeever, attended Ebbets’s interment at the Green-Wood on a blustery day, caught a cold and died of pneumonia. Perhaps understandably, he is not buried there.

Many players fought in the Civil War. Nelson Shaurman, for example, was the manager of the Brooklyn Charter Oak team. He gave up a captainship in the Brooklyn City Police Department to become a colonel in the 90th New York Regiment; during the Civil War he was brevetted to general.

Creighton’s teammate, Woodward, also traded in his Excelsior uniform for Union blue; ultimately the team sent close to 90 players to battle. The connection between baseball and the Civil War “is moving,” Mr. Burns said. “The Civil War is, in a way, the representation of our unraveling and our undoing, and baseball — growing up at just that moment — becomes one of the agencies of connecting us, a kind of ritualized warfare in which nobody dies,” he said.

Mr. Nash has established a fund to erect monuments and headstones over the unmarked graves of baseball pioneers. Perhaps the most poignant example is that of James Whyte Davis, a president of the Knickerbockers, who was buried in his uniform, wrapped in the original team flag, without a gravestone.

A happier story is that of Charles J. Smith, “one of the great players of the 1860’s,” Mr. Richman said. He was buried in a seemingly unmarked grave at Green-Wood. But investigation by a grounds crew discovered his monument last year, a few feet underground, where it had sunk. It has now been restored.

Mr. Nash, 37, lives in Cooperstown, and is a businessman and the curator of a traveling collection of baseball memorabilia. He was once the rapper known as Prime Minister Pete Nice, co-founder of the group called, yes, 3rd Bass. Coinciding with the baseball opening on Sunday, Mr. Nash and Mr. Richman will give a two-hour tour of the monuments of Green-Wood’s baseball legends (visitors are to gather at the main gate at 25th Street and Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn at 1 p.m.; admission is $10).

“There is this great concentration of baseball-in-heaven there,” Mr. Burns said of Green-Wood. “You know they’ve got a hell of a team.”

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