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The Legend of Jim Creighton

Very few images of baseball’s first superstar are known to exist. This November 4, 1865 issue of “Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper” features an enshrouded portrait of Creighton surrounded by the leading players of the year.

Jim Creighton was baseball’s first hero, regarded as the paragon of pitching perfection during the 1860s and 1870s, and never forgotten by his contemporaries thereafter. Many a promising young pitcher was referred to as “another Creighton.”  

Yet his iconic status is a puzzle for many. Creighton had a very brief career and there were others of his era who were seemingly as talented. How did the legend of Jim Creighton arise and why has it endured among baseball historians for a century and a half? What was so special about someone who pitched just 32 games during his career?  

Baseball began as recreation for working men, and little public notice was taken of individual skill levels. Some players were better than others, but the names that survive from the early days of baseball are those like Alexander Cartwright, Daniel “Doc” Adams and William Wheaton. Although the first two were regarded as above-average players, the three are remembered not for their performance on the field but for their roles in the development of the game.

As baseball progressed and participants and spectators took it more seriously, individual standouts emerged. The three games of the Fashion Race Course series of 1858 were the first “all-star” games, pitting the best players from Brooklyn against the cream of New York. Newspaper coverage of games, initially limited to terse reports of the result and a rudimentary box score, began to include more detailed descriptions of the action and some comment on the skill of individual players.

This beautifully crafted, custom-made wooden case commemorates the historic three-game series between the All Stars of Brooklyn and the All Stars of New York played in 1858 at the Fashion Race Course in Corona, Queens. This case was presented to baseball journalist Henry Chadwick by his friends at the Excelsior Club.

The position of pitcher, which eventually became the most important on the diamond, was initially that of a feeder who served up a hittable ball to be put into play. By the time of the Fashion Course Series, the top pitchers were Frank Pidgeon, Tom Van Cott and Mattie O’Brien, best known for their stamina, control and fielding ability. Within a year, Creighton would ignite the revolution that made pitchers like Pidgeon, Van Cott and O’Brien obsolete.

Creighton began playing baseball as a 16-year-old in 1857, becoming a member of the Young America club composed of the young men of his neighborhood. The club lasted just a year, after which Creighton joined the Niagara Club as a second baseman. In 1859, in the middle of a game against the Stars of Brooklyn, Creighton switched with pitcher John Shields and made his first appearance in the position at which he would become a legend.  

Creighton utilized a pitching style no one had seen before, and there is no indication where he learned it or what caused him to adopt it. Unlike most pitchers who delivered the ball like a modern slow-pitch softball hurler, Creighton swept his hand close to the ground, and sent the ball rising toward the batter faster than most had ever seen before. He was not the first pitcher to throw at a fast speed, but his control, the spin he put on the ball and the upward trajectory of his delivery made him the first to serve as a formidable defensive weapon rather than a passive feeder.  

The young pitcher left the Niagara Club and joined the Stars midway through the 1859 season and moved on to the Excelsiors of Brooklyn the following winter. The change of allegiance was possibly an historic one, for it is strongly suspected that Creighton and teammate George Flanly were given monetary incentives to join the Excelsiors. Professionalism was strictly forbidden in 1860, so any payment had to be made surreptitiously, but it is quite possible that Creighton and Flanly were the first men to be compensated for playing baseball.  

If they had indeed paid Creighton, the Excelsiors got their money’s worth during the 1860 season. As the club made a groundbreaking tour through upstate New York and battled the Atlantics for the national championship, the 19-year-old right-hander became the best pitcher in baseball.  

Creighton’s vaunted speed was universally noted by spectators and opponents. It is impossible to know how hard he threw, but since he was pitching from behind a line just 45 feet from home plate, his tosses seemed faster than if they were coming from farther back. More importantly, they were much faster than batters were accustomed to seeing from other pitchers.  

Creighton struck out some batters, but not nearly as many as the top pitchers of today. The speed and spin of his delivery were very likely, however, to induce foul tips and soft pop-ups. Under the rules of the day, any foul tip held by the catcher was an out.  

In the initial Excelsiors-Atlantics game, Creighton made quick work of his opponents in the first inning, striking out one and retiring the other two on foul tips. Atlantics veteran Peter O’Brien, the strikeout victim, complained to journalist Henry Chadwick, “We can’t hit that pitching, Henry. The fact is, it’s underhand throwing.”

The distinction between a “fair pitch” delivered with a stiff wrist and an illegal “underhand throw” delivered with a snap of the wrist was very difficult to detect. The Brooklyn Eagle sent a reporter, probably Chadwick, to study Creighton’s motion, and the reporter declared his delivery to be legal.

Often called “The Father of Baseball,” sportswriter Henry Chadwick helped spread the baseball gospel after the Civil War. Chadwick provided baseball coverage for several New York newspapers including the New York Clipper, Sunday Mercury, Brooklyn Eagle and others.  With his detailed record keeping, Chadwick became the game's first statistician and is credited with the development of the box score.

The 1860 season was the apogee of Creighton’s career and the only one in which he played a significant number of games. He pitched just six times for the Stars in 1859, did not pitch at all in 1861 other than in an all-star game and was in six games for the Excelsiors in 1862. The 20 games he pitched in 1860 were more than half his career total. 

How good was Creighton in those 20 games? Precious few pitching statistics were tabulated during his era. The number of runs yielded can usually be determined, but since there were many errors, it is often difficult to ascertain the number of earned runs.  

A further difficulty in analyzing antebellum pitchers is the inconsistency of the competition. Many of the clubs the Excelsiors played during their trip upstate and their later visit to Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia were inexperienced nines far beneath the caliber of the leading New York and Brooklyn clubs. Most had never seen pitching like Creighton’s.

With these disclaimers, let’s look at Creighton’s 1860 performance. During his 20 games, the Excelsiors yielded an average of 7.95 runs in an era where it was common for teams to score well into double digits. The other top Brooklyn teams, the Atlantics and Excelsiors, gave up 13.38 and 14.24 runs per game, respectively — nearly twice what Creighton surrendered. 

Some of Creighton’s greatest success came against the St. George’s Cricket Club, which he shut out, and the Flour City Club of Rochester, which scored just one run. He yielded only four runs to an all-star combination from Philadelphia, many of whose members were playing their first season of baseball. Still, there is clearly a case for calling Creighton the best pitcher of 1860.  

But why is the best pitcher of 1860 remembered today while the best pitchers of 1859 and 1861 remain completely unknown? Why are the best players at other positions likewise long forgotten? Joe Leggett was the best catcher of his era and played much longer than Creighton, but hardly anyone remembers Leggett, or star outfielders like Pete O’Brien.    

Neither Leggett nor O’Brien revolutionized the playing of a position and neither came to a suitable hero’s end.  After Leggett’s playing career was over, he was found to have embezzled funds, and fled the New York area.  O’Brien died in 1874 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound that was either an accident or a suicide.  

Creighton’s end came at the peak of his career and constituted an integral component of his legend. On Oct. 18, 1862, he died at 21 at his father’s house on Henry Street in Brooklyn from what later research indicated was a ruptured inguinal hernia. The fatal injury was suffered either in a cricket match between the St. George and Willow clubs or in a baseball game between the Excelsiors and the Unions of Morrisania. It is possible that he first injured his groin playing cricket and aggravated it during the game with the Unions.          

The baseball cause of death was the accepted one for more than a century, probably because it was much more dramatic. In the game against the Unions, Creighton hit a home run and collapsed into the arms of his teammates after crossing home plate, the last move he would ever make on a baseball field.  

Creighton was buried with appropriate ceremony, and an immense monument was built at the site of his grave in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn; his remains lie near those of Henry Chadwick, Samuel Morse, Horace Greeley and Joey Gallo.  When clubs came on tour from out-of-town, Creighton’s monument often was a stop on their tour of Brooklyn.

With Creighton’s death, his immortality was assured. Any blemishes that might have adhered to his character, such as subverting the rules of the game regarding professionalism or throwing an illegal pitch, were eradicated and the persona of an untainted hero was affixed to him. He was noble, he was honorable, he was talented, he was a pioneer, and he was dead. The legacy of baseball’s first hero was complete.

 

 

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