British & European Baseball / Features / Showcase

The English Father of America’s National Pastime

Baseball is a game of nuance; a game of subtle tradition; a game of debate and discussion and dexterity and detail. But what if this wasn’t the case? What if quintessential aspects of the game had remained just figments of fantasy? It’s largely impossible to envisage baseball without box scores, batting averages and ERA; without obsessive player evaluations backed by a myriad of metrics; without idiosyncrasies like hanging a “K” on the grandstand facade after each strikeout. These are the very ingredients which constitute baseball as we know it, and which make it so achingly-evocative. Accordingly, all baseball romantics are forever indebted to one Henry Chadwick, an Englishman who conceived many of the customs we so admire today. Without him, baseball may not even exist in our sporting lexicon. The man was a giant.

Chadwick filled more roles in baseball than José Oquendo. A sportswriter by occupation, the English-born American collated stats as a hobby, blazed a trail of innovation through the games rulebook, and generally sought to improve baseball through all means possible. Often dubbed The Father of Baseball, Chadwick rose like a phoenix from the ashes of 19th century sport, intent on refining this game of bat-and-ball into a monument of all that was good in America. He pushed for new regulations which made baseball more appealing; he yearned to make baseball a nationwide topic of conversation; he ushered to fruition the modern game we appreciate today. A fervent optimist, Chadwick created the first box score known to man; encouraged the growth in baseball analytics by founding the contingent parts of batting average and ERA; and popularised “K” as an abbreviation for strikeout. These rank amongst the fundamental characteristics of baseball. We take them for granted, such is our accustomed state towards them being ingrained in the game we love. Thus, we see the original genius of Henry Chadwick; in gauging with fine aptitude the mood and miasma of this sport, he was able to implement features which have simply morphed into baseball. As such, it can be argued that America’s Pastime is but an outgrowth of Chadwick’s imagination, intellect and desire. A finer tribute cannot be bestowed upon the Hall of Famer, who set this joyous game on a path towards worldwide adulation.

It’s slightly incongruous that such a man be born in Exeter, Devon. A sleepy cornish city nestled deep inside south-west England, Exeter is rarely the scene of anything. Good or bad. Many Brits are yet to hear about the place, let alone Americans. But here, in 1824, Chadwick entered the world. As a child, Henry played rounders before graduating to the stately game of cricket, which so obsessed aristocratic Britain in the 19th century. Indeed, Chadwick was born into a wealthy family of renown; his father a pro-French Revolution journalist who tutored in music and botany. Accordingly, young Henry was prescribed a rather rigorous childhood, as biographer Andrew Schiff writes. “Chadwick was not brought up to value possessions or with an understanding of commerce and trade; rather, he received an education that was drenched in moral philosophy and science.” It all sounds rather heavy for a little guy whose only desire was to play ball.

Whilst history is somewhat quixotic in recording the rationale, Chadwick moved with his family to Brooklyn in 1836, aged 12. As in many American cities of the time, cricket was fairly popular in neighbourhood adopted by the Chadwicks; its existence tantamount to residue from British colonial rule. Henry played occasionally in sentimental yearning for his homeland, from where cricket was initially spawned. When Nottingham and Sheffield staged a Brooklyn exhibition in 1838, Chadwick watched on in fascination. It rekindled his hunger for the esteemed old game of bat-and-ball. Henry yearned to cover cricket on a journalistic level; a side ambition which bubbled along whilst his initial career as a piano teacher fizzled out.

Ultimately, Chadwick decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and take a plunge into the bustling world of New York media; his nose for a story, prideful conviction and written flair landing a cricket beat at the Long Island Star in 1844. Whilst covering an 1856 game at the hallowed Elysian Fields in Hoboken, Chadwick happened upon a baseball game between the Gotham and Eagle clubs of New York. As a talented journalist and doting American adoptee, Chadwick had undoubtedly heard about baseball. It was hard not too. But rarely had he stopped to afford it more than a cursory glance. However, at Elysian Fields that fateful day, he was struck by something new; something which stood-out and set the wheels of thought in motion. Chadwick realised just how well baseball matched the appetite, pace and culture of American life. In rather romantic terms, he envisaged using the sport as a tool to get the United States talking, reading, exercising. By extension, if this raw diamond could be polished to a high specification, Chadwick would have more material with which to progress in his journalistic work; if the game could be transformed from its bristling state of potential to shiny finished article, more people would be interested, meaning greater scope for newspaper sales and the enrichment of an often arduous career.

Chadwick saw the potential impact baseball could have on American work and life long before anybody else. He may have envisaged the game we adore today, but almost two-hundred years prior.

That, let me tell you, is a stroke of pure genius.

Almost immediately following his Elysian excursion, Chadwick set to work on moulding baseball in his revolutionary vision. Whilst cricket remained of interest to our Devonshire hero, baseball’s pace and comparatively sturdy foundation excited him. Thus, Chadwick dedicated his entire life to the games promotion, enhancement and growth. In time, he would brainstorm, push for, and ultimately usher in, reams of new measures which brought sophistication and, somewhat inexorably, the professional age.

Chadwick made his first step into the baseball arena in 1857; the driven Englishman focusing his journalistic attention on the game for New York’s Clipper newspaper. In this regard, Chadwick opposed William Cauldwell of the New York Sunday Mercury as the only professional baseball writer anywhere on Planet Earth. The Clipper was syndicated nationwide, so the intrigue and excitement which Chadwick injected into his reports attracted many to baseball. In fact, his absorbing prose may have been the single biggest factor in expediting an end to ‘town ball,’ in favour of this thrilling new game. A precursor to baseball, town ball was a rudimentary bat-and-ball game which captured the imagination of Americans along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Somewhat brutish, the game was blessed with a certain rugged nihilism; there was no limit to the number of partaking players, foul territory was simply unheard of, and base runners could be retired by any means short of cold-blooded murder. Naturally, town ball and baseball shared an often hostile rivalry but the subject of Chadwick’s desire ultimately won out.

So good was his coverage, and so voracious his appetite to see baseball as America’s national sport, that the media world became more receptive to Henry Chadwick. Indeed, he became coveted across New York, already a thriving hub of newspaper productivity. Eventually, even Cauldwell, one of Chadwick’s early rivals on the baseball beat, surrendered and hired the Brit to work for him. Thus, Chadwick’s proficient style was read by thousands more; his heartfelt determination to see baseball enthuse the masses acknowledged by new crowds, new papers, new decision-makers. This early success only drove him further to break new ground. Indeed, to become baseball’s first real pioneer.

In 1859, The Clipper published the first baseball box score of all-time. A relatively simplistic matrix of numbers, the box score has endured through generations as a prime method of reviewing a baseball game. It informs of how each player performed, including the results of each turn at bat and a summary of scoring. To the trained eye, a box score can quickly unveil a concise overview of how a game unfurled within minutes. Whilst we enjoy a somewhat extrapolated version nowadays, replete with walks and strikeouts and even number of pitches seen, the earliest iterations were extremely similar to the cricket scorecards which Chadwick was so fond of. In his drive to make baseball more sophisticated and scientific, Henry believed that a functional procedure for scoring a game would be extremely beneficial. Thus, box scores, tracking events such as runs, put outs and the amount of times a player reached first base safely, became a frequent occurrence alongside his reports. By the mid-1880s, everybody was doing it.

Whilst Chadwick’s reportage was peerless, the actual object of his obsession was far from refined. He knew that for baseball to really take-off, it would have to be forced through a traumatic adaptation period. It would have to become more rounded and wholesome; more fun to watch and engaging to play; more regulated and sustainable. Here, Chadwick again used his familiarity with cricket to initiate baseball reform. In the early 1860s, he won a place on the Rules committee, and quickly campaigned for an end to the “bound catch,” whereby a fielder could retire any batter on one bounce. Chadwick sought a more streamlined method, with cricket’s regal system of catching on the fly a favourable model. Accordingly, baseball adopted his suggestions in 1864; this subtle change representing the first major move away from the brutish, nascent sport to our polished modern game. Without this adjustment, baseball fans would never have witnessed Mays’ basket catch, Bo Jackson’s spiderman imitation or Jim Edmonds’ reckless pursuit of Web Gems. This is a fundamental part of the game we love; a fundamental part which has Chadwick’s fingerprints smeared all over.

Similarly, Chadwick worked hard on instituting the overhand pitch, and was part of the council which selected the distance between home plate and the pitchers mound. Again, Chadwick struck absolute perfection! Just imagine if that distance was not 60 feet 6 inches. Even if it was off by mere centimeters, the game, and the course of baseball history, would have become distorted. If the distance was 60 feet 10 inches, hitters would dominate. If the distance was 60 feet 2 inches, pitchers would overpower their opponents. To me, this is the finest innovation which has ever been made in baseball history. The distance between pitcher and batter is sacrosanct; it works with such fine balance and poetry as to be entirely accommodating to fierce competition. In helping locate this delicate equipoise, Chadwick should be accorded every superlative know to man.

I’m excessively proud that he was an Englishman, just like me.

By day, Chadwick helped redefine the fundamental aspects of baseball. By night, he continued to make strides with the written word. The Beadle Dime Baseball Player, the game first publicly-sold annual, was edited by Chadwick. Similarly, the Englishman oversaw many editions of Albert Spalding’s eponymous Guide; contributed to the ever-impressive Reach annuals; and authored the very first hardback baseball book. Chadwick was a scion of early sports journalism; his every word shaping the direction of that noble profession and enabling future greats such as Ring Lardner and Grantland Rice and Damon Runyon and Jerome Holtzman and Roger Kahn and Peter Gammons and Dan Shaughnessy and Roger Angell. We all enjoy the work of such immortal ink warriors, but it’s not unreasonable to conclude that, without Chadwick crossing the Rubicon, baseball writing would have remained a closet hobby all these years. Again, we see Henry Chadwick, a humble Englishman, responsible for steering to greatness the grand American game of baseball. Without him, even the finer trappings of this sport may never have developed.

In his many published pieces, Chadwick’s keen amateur enthusiasms came seeping through. He often referred to statistics such as games played, home runs and strikeouts. Indeed, he abbreviated the latter to “K,” reasoning that, as the most prominent letter in strikeout, it was easier for folks to remember. Often, Chadwick delivered assessments on whether one particular player was a help or hindrance to his team; this an early foreshadowing of the kind of evaluative debates which have unfurled throughout baseball history. Similarly, the recent tide of sabermetric influence, whilst definitely innovative, has its spiritual roots in Chadwick’s work. It was Chadwick who assembled the ingredients needed to compute batting average and ERA which, in turn, led to yearning for more precise measures like on-base percentage, WAR and slugging percentage. Thus, even the revolutionary work of Bill James has ancestral links to Chadwick, whose early collation of baseball stats facilitated barroom debates, inspired angry sports radio discussions and generated trillions of arbitration dollars for players over two centuries.

Since time immemorial, baseball fans, players and executives have desired to analyse its finest minutiae. Henry Chadwick went further than anybody in providing a cogent framework to furnish, enrich and prolong such inquisitive participation.

And how the masses engaged. A quasi-professional league, The National Association of Base Ball Players, mushroomed from 22 New York City clubs in 1857 to over 400 clubs nationwide just a decade later. Word of “Chadwick’s games” spread far and wide, with teams forming in places like San Francisco and Louisiana. Such was the expansion of baseball across America, regional and state organisations assumed a prominent role in supporting the game. Increasingly, people flocked to local fields not only to play, but watch baseball. The NABBP helped transform this humble sport into one worthy of an audience.

Of course, where money is to be made, collusion is never far behind. Once teams discovered the new-found public willingness to pay an admission fee to watch baseball, dissident elements wanted a share of the pie. Gamblers set-up shop at ballgames, often influencing results to their own nefarious ends. Concessionaires sold food and programmes and the occasional beer. Even players, hitherto models of recreational restraint, attempted to earn a few bucks at the yard; James Creighton, a superstar for the splendid Brooklyn Excelsiors, receiving backhanded compensation for his fine service. Consequently, the game lost its way a little. Almost inevitably, the actual craft of baseball was lost in its own surrounding antics. Attendance sagged. Teams often abandoned remaining games once the near-unbeatable Boston club had secured another pennant. Mismanagement pervaded.

Thus, a change was needed. In 1871, the National Association was created with the intention of cleaning-up baseball. This league, which paid players and put greater emphasis on sustainable regulation, encountered early struggles but eventually morphed into the National League we adore today. Thus, we see how Henry Chadwick helped coax baseball into its definitive, competitive, professional age. Often indirectly, occasionally explicitly, always involved, his was a guiding force driving baseball forward. In many respects, Henry became almost a distant doyen of baseball; indeed, a father figure making suggestions and aiming to uphold the sanctity of baseball.

In 1874, Chadwick was instrumental in arranging a baseball world tour. A source of revenue and exposure for personal ventures (for instance, Albert Spalding liked to expand markets for his sporting goods empire), such expeditions were exceedingly popular throughout the late 19th century. On this particular venture, Chadwick helped organise a leg which saw the Boston Red Stockings and Philadelphia Athletics play both baseball and cricket. In many respects, this was his magnum opus: a delicate meshing of his two greatest loves, his two beloved nations, his sole life aim.

It was all Henry Chadwick ever wanted.

The awakening 20th century brought bad luck for Henry. An automobile accident in the winter of 1908 left him bedridden for months. However, once recovered, Chadwick’s first wish was, naturally, to attend a ballgame. A Polo Grounds exhibition one week prior to the seasons start provided an ideal opportunity. Unfortunately, Chadwick caught a cold while watching his beloved game, and the illness worsened as he watched the Opening Day game in Brooklyn soon after. He never did recover fully. When moving furniture at his fourth floor apartment a fortnight later, Chadwick fell unconscious. At a nearby hospital, he was diagnosed with pneumonia and heart failure. During emergency care, he awoke briefly to enquire about the outcome of a recent Brooklyn-New York game, before passing away in his sleep. Henry Chadwick was 84.

Now, physical monuments to his legacy are erected at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn and at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where he was enshrined by the Veterans Committee in 1938. But the finest bequest to this baseball dean is in the continued development of the trinkets and traditions he helped create. Thanks to Henry Chadwick, we enjoy a game which places pitcher 60 feet, 6 inches from batter; which allows players to be retired without the brutal intent of “town ball” bulwarks; which sees ball propelled overhand towards the plate. Thanks to Henry Chadwick, we scan statistics in our lunch hour; comb the box score hoping for info; fill time at awkward social gatherings by comparing players across eras with like-minded baseball fans. Thanks to Henry Chadwick, we hang a “K” when our favourite pitcher finds a strikeout; enjoy the work of his descendant sportswriters; and strive for innovation.

If America’s National Pastime was never endowed with its grand English father, baseball may not even exist.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s