The Golden Game: The Story of California Baseballby Kevin Nelson, Hank Greenwald (Foreword by)
Baseball and the Gold Rush, Ernest Thayer and "Casey at the Bat," baseball crook Hal Chase, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson and integration, crusty Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Hollywood baseball movies, Satchel Paige vs. Dizzy Dean, Kenichi Zenimura and the Japanese American experience, Sparky Anderson, Gene Autry, Willie Mays, Tommy Lasorda, and the rise of the baby boom generation of players -- all of these people and stories are part of the incredible saga of California baseball and how it has shaped the national pastime. Kevin Nelson, author of over a dozen books on sports, presents in words and pictures 150 years of baseball history, from sandlot ball in the 1850s to the coming of the Dodgers, Giants, Angels, Athletics, and Padres. Here is a stirring, colorfully written narrative about the state that has been the birthplace and proving ground for more major leaguers than any other. With more than 150 photographs of vintage and modern ballplayers and scenes, The Golden Game is not only a richly illustrated and lively read, but also a well-researched reference work that will delight baseball fans and anyone who loves a good story.
“A superb blending of United States and California history, plus baseball. Well-illustrated and written in a compelling manner that few books can rightly claim, this is a rare literary sports treasure that can be recommended with great enthusiasm.”—Oakland Tribune
“[Nelson’s] wholly charming and endearing book allows us to see baseball as a kind of benchmark for the birth and growth of California over the last century and a half. . . . Nelson shows us that baseball was always much more than a form of recreation or entertainment—it was a means of self-definition.”—Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Times Book Review
“[An] excellent history. . . . You don’t have to be a Californian to enjoy these important chapters in the game’s history.”—Ron Fimrite, Sports Illustrated
“[This is] the rare baseball book that transcends its regional emphasis to earn a place on the shelf of anyone who loves the game. It reads like a core sample of a polar ice cap, with layer upon informative layer the deeper you go.”—David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle
“I’ve read some terrific sports books in recent years . . . but I found none more interesting than Kevin Nelson's current page-turner, The Golden Game: The Story of California Baseball. If you’re a baseball aficionado or even if you aren’t, this is a wonderfully researched narrative about the genesis of the sport in the state.”—Doug Krikorian, Long Beach Press-Telegram
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Read an Excerpt
The Golden Game
The Story of California Baseball
By Kevin Nelson
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2004 Kevin Nelson
All rights reserved.
The Seed Is Planted
In the fall of 1845 a group of New York men formed the first organized baseball club. They called it the Knickerbockers, and the following spring they played a game in a meadow across the Hudson River in Hoboken, New Jersey. Elysium was for the ancient Greeks a blessed state, the heavenly paradise where souls went after death. This meadow in Hoboken, this green space where the Knickerbockers played their first game of baseball, was called Elysian Fields.
The founder of the Knickerbockers was Alexander Joy Cartwright Jr.—"Alick," for short. Born on Lombardy Street in New York City, Alick was the son of a retired ship captain. Over six feet tall, a big man for his time, he had brown eyes, a thick crop of wavy hair, and a beard, which was practically standard dress for men of the era. In his midtwenties, he lived in Manhattan with his wife and children, working as a teller at Union Bank while also serving as a volunteer firefighter. Several of his teammates on the Knickerbockers were also firefighters.
When Cartwright and his friends began their sporting experiments, there was already a game popular in New York and Boston called "town ball," a bat and ball game played on a square field. The rules changed according to where the game was played and were often made up on the spot by the players themselves. The number of men in the field varied and so did the number of bases—three, four, or five, depending on the rule makers of the moment. The team on the field got a runner out by trying to hit him with the ball or by catching a pop fly.
What the Knickerbockers did was take the raw materials of town ball and craft them into a new shape. They devised the first set of baseball rules, the original seedbed for all the refinements that have come since. They changed a square into a diamond. Before the Knickerbockers there was no concept of fair territory versus foul; that was their idea. In a simple yet daring burst of inspiration, they decided that the players on the field had to throw to a base to get a runner out, rather than hit him with a ball. This last rule made for close plays at the bases and created the need for an arbiter, or umpire, to resolve any disputes that arose.
At the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, the plaque that honors Cartwright describes him as "the father" of modern baseball. Contemporary baseball historians have challenged this claim, saying that the game evolved over time and that many men, not just one, originated it, but no one disputes that Alexander Cartwright was one of the architects of early baseball, a witness to its creation. He played in that first Knickerbockers game in Hoboken and remained with the club until a force stronger than any game pulled him away from New York City, causing him to leave behind his wife and children and all that was settled and known.
In January 1848 one of the most famous accidents in American history occurred. James Marshall, a carpenter, found gold on the banks of the American River in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. This discovery set off a mass global migration unlike any before or since. People poured into California territory from all over, lured by stories that gold could be had as easily as plucking an apple off a tree, stories that, incredibly, sometimes turned out to be true. In the first year, when the plucking was best, gold seekers came from Mexico, Latin America, the Oregon territory, the sun-kissed islands of Hawaii. Indians and local Californios feverishly worked the diggings too. Easterners tended to view the news from California with skepticism until President James Polk, in December 1848, made the headline-grabbing announcement that yes, the claims appeared to be real. It was like firing a pistol to start a race. Now it seemed every young man with a bounce in his step and a wink in his eye was heading west to make his fortune.
The entire nation was swept up in the excitement. The New York Herald wrote, "All classes of our citizens seem to be under the influence of this extraordinary mania." The Express agreed: "We have seen in our day manias, fevers, and excitements of sorts, [but] this last gold news has unsettled the minds of even the most cautious and careful among us." The papers contained sensational stories and accounts from California, as well as the advertisements of companies eager to sell supplies to gold seekers before they left. Being a Manhattanite working in the Wall Street district, Alick Cartwright heard the wild stories and read the newspapers with avid interest, for he was among those who had caught the bug.
Other New York men had caught it too, including his brother Alfred. Though not a ballplayer like Alick, Alfred had umpired a Knickerbockers game. Now the brothers Cartwright, who had once run a Wall Street bookshop together, were each about to have the adventure of a lifetime, the stuff of storybooks.
Alfred left for California first, setting sail on a clipper ship out of Newport Harbor in January 1849. Alick chose the land route, departing two months later from Newark, saying goodbye to Rebecca, his wife of six years, and their four children, including the youngest, little Alick, who was still only a baby. All around the States, men were diving off the edge of the known world into the unknown. They left families, friends, loved ones—perhaps never to see them again.
From his papers, correspondence by his family, and research by biographer Harold Peterson, we know Cartwright traveled on trains and wood-burning side-and stern-wheel steamboats from New York City to Independence, Missouri, on the edge of the western frontier. Dreaming private dreams of riches, the gold seekers banded together for the hard journey ahead, forming temporary, mutually held companies that bought wagons, animals, and the million and one things they needed to survive. Cartwright bought into one of these companies and joined a party of more than thirty wagons and one hundred men. Nearly all of the early gold rush emigrants were men, and young men at that. When his wagon, pulled by mules, set off down the trail, Cartwright was twenty-nine years old.
The wagon trains of the forty-niners may appear to be far afield from the world of baseball, but this is not the case. Wooden wagons actually became part of the game—pieces of them anyhow. Until the coming of the railroads, goods being shipped from the East Coast to the West mainly came by sea and carried a high price tag. If people wanted to play "base ball"—it was spelled as two words in those days—and needed a bat, they had to make it out of materials that were available locally. "Wagon tongue" bats, made of ash and hickory, derived their name from the old-fashioned bats cut from the tongues and axletrees of farm wagons. Of course, many early bats had equally humble origins. The hitting stick used by a boy to sock a clutch single and win a game for his team may have come from his mother's washroom; she had used it to stir a tub of laundry.
Hundreds of wagon trains embarked on journeys down the California-Oregon Trail during this raucous moment in American history when the country's borders were being pushed outward. But on this particular wagon train, tucked into the bag of one of its passengers, was a ball.
Cartwright had brought with him from New York a ball with a core of yarn or rags and a catgut cover. Certainly it more resembled an antique town ball than any regulation hardball in use today in that it was soft, perhaps a little squishy. Nor did it go far when you hit it.
From time to time on his way west the founder of the Knickerbockers apparently tossed the ball around with his fellow travelers. Participants may have included Indians and frontiersmen. "It was comical to see mountain men and Indians playing the game," Cartwright later told friends.
As the journey progressed and the trail became too tough for idle play, however, there were undoubtedly fewer and fewer chances to play with this ball, and much less inclination to do so. Not long after leaving behind the white settlements, the travelers entered Indian territory. The New Yorker carried a double-barreled rifle for protection, but mirroring the experiences of many other emigrants, his wagon party passed freely through these lands. A far greater danger was cholera, which killed hundreds of gold seekers before they breathed one breath of California air. Indians caught the disease too, and it made them, like so many others, go crazy with pain before they died.
The long, hard road across the desert and the mountains ended in August, five months after it began on the other side of the continent on the shores of a different ocean. Cartwright walked virtually the whole way. After crossing the Sierra Nevada, his party came to a valley, probably what is now Grass Valley, before turning south to Sacramento City.
A bustling inland river city, poised on the doorstep of gold country, Sacramento City was the main staging area and supply center for the Northern Mines. As such, it surged with the energy of men in pursuit of instant fortune. Everything and everybody seemed to be in motion, with most of the citizens on their way up to the diggings or just getting back from them. The mining sites were called diggings because that was what you did when you got there: dig. You used a pick or shovel or anything you could get your hands on to unearth those gold flakes buried in the hillsides and streambeds.
Downriver from Sacramento on a peninsula at the mouth of a bay, on the far western edge of land, was the headquarters city of the gold rush. San Francisco was like Sacramento only more so: everybody moving in quick time, spinning fabulous schemes of how they were going to make a bundle, and fast. Once-proud square-masted clipper ships, having weathered the eighteen-thousand-mile voyage from the East Coast around South America up to California, sat rotting in port, abandoned by captain and crew who had run off to the diggings. Along the waterfront men lived in makeshift wooden huts or canvas tents that provided scant protection from the chill ocean winds and layers of fog blowing in across the sandy hills. Everything was makeshift in a way, with no thought for tomorrow except: How much is in it for me? Drunken rascals of every description—chollos, to use the Spanish word—crowded into the smoky saloons and spilled onto the streets, looking for their next hustle. There were few women and fewer children. Some of the women were working girls who never lacked for customers willing to pay with nuggets of real gold.
Into this wild, testosterone-charged place came the bearded young patriarch of baseball, beaten down by how hard it had been to get there. Cartwright's wagon train had collapsed late in the journey. Mules had quit or died, their converted farm wagons had broken down on the rocky, rutted trails, and they had lost "most of their truck," as his brother Alfred put it in a letter to Alick's wife. Alfred explained that Alick and his wagon party had arrived in San Francisco only with "what they had upon their backs, a cup and a spoon apiece." In the land of El Dorado, where legend said you could scoop up handfuls of gold like sand at the beach, he owned almost nothing except dented dreams and that cat-gut-covered ball. On top of it all, a bad case of dysentery raced through his weakened body.
Alfred Cartwright, who had left the East Coast nearly two months before his brother yet reached San Francisco at about the same time, had a harrowing story of his own to tell when the two met on the waterfront amid the empty, rotting ships and makeshift huts. Alfred had set sail on the Pacific. Its route was down the eastern coast of the Americas, around Cape Horn, and on up to California. (In baseball, when infielders whip the ball from first base to second to third during practice or after a batter makes an out, this is called throwing it "around the horn." The term likely stems from this ancient, storied sailing route.) But problems arose almost as soon as they put land behind them. The ship's tyrannical captain refused to give the passengers food or medical treatment. One of the other passengers on board was Mark Hopkins, a New York shopkeeper who would later play a monumental role in the shaping of the American West, becoming a founder of the company that built the transcontinental railroad linking California with the rest of the country. Slowly starving to death, Hopkins, Alfred Cartwright, and the other passengers plotted mutiny until they managed to get a Rio de Janeiro physician to examine Captain Tibbets, who was declared insane and relieved of his command. The voyage proceeded less eventfully from there.
What the Cartwrights realized—indeed what men all over gold country were realizing—was that they were too late. Other men had gotten there before them and beaten them to the spot. The days of easy pluckings, if they had ever existed, were over. Jacob Stillman, a New York physician who was also on the embattled Pacific, related in his diary the word they were hearing on the street: "Many who went to the mines returned unsuccessful and report that the exertion in getting gold is too great." For some men it was no longer worth the effort. "Some are leaving for the Sandwich Islands and beyond," wrote Stillman.
One of the men leaving was Alexander Cartwright, who booked passage on a Peruvian ship for the Sandwich Islands—Hawaii. A friend from New York who had lived there told him, no kidding, the islands were truly paradise. So after less than a week in San Francisco, Alick set off on the next leg of his epic journey, sailing through the Golden Gate and leaving behind the mystery that is at the heart of this story.
Contemporary accounts often refer to Cartwright as the "Johnny Appleseed" of the game, planting baseball seeds across the western frontier. His Hall of Fame plaque records how he carried a ball (gone now, apparently tossed aside and lost) to the Pacific Coast and onto Hawaii, where Rebecca and the children later joined him and he lived the rest of his life. But given his condition when he arrived in gold country, how long he stayed, and the atmosphere he encountered when he got there, Cartwright almost certainly did not plant any seeds in California.
But if baseball's Johnny Appleseed did not bring the game to California, who did? Although Alick may have been disillusioned by his prospects in this new land, thousands of other outsiders continued to pour in from all over. Men from such early baseball hot spots as Manhattan and Brooklyn ranged all over the boom country map, testing their luck in the now-forgotten mining towns of the era. Most of these men sooner or later ventured through Sacramento City or San Francisco or both. One New York Knickerbocker, Frank Turk, served as an alcalde—an attorney, judge, sheriff, and mayor rolled into one—in frontier San Francisco.
By 1850 California the territory had become California the state. Even as the early euphoria of the gold rush faded, more people—and more New Yorkers—kept coming west. Two years later, on January 14, 1852, the Daily Alta California carried an intriguing item. It described how, on a street in San Francisco, "full grown persons [were] engaged very industriously in the game known as town ball." The newspaper did not provide the names or any details regarding the identity of these full-grown persons. But the seed had been planted. The game had arrived. Guys were playing ball, winter ball, in California.CHAPTER 2
Perched on the western edge of the continent, walled off by mountains and desert on one side and ocean on the other, accessible only by ship or hard travel overland, California was a distant planet far removed from the orbit of New York and other eastern cities. Nevertheless, residents of America's newest state found they had at least one thing in common with their brethren across the country: a fascination with baseball. Interest in what would later be dubbed "the national pastime" surged in the 1850s, particularly in the metropolitan centers of the East Coast. Meanwhile, easterners continued to come west to seek their fortune, and the gold rush cities of San Francisco and Sacramento became early hotbeds of baseball activity in the state.
Sacramento can lay claim to the first active ballclub in the state: the Sacramento Base Ball Club, established in the closing months of 1859. This development caused feathers to be ruffled all over San Francisco, where a local newspaper wondered how Sacramento could have beaten California's largest city to the punch. Within days the San Francisco Base Ball Club was born, and almost immediately, and for the next decade, it was the most successful team in the state.
As baseball historian David Nemec points out, the nineteenth-century game contains many hard-to-unravel mysteries. Records about individuals and the games they played are sketchy and draped in shadow. What have survived are fragments. Such is the case with John M. Fisher, one of the founders of the San Francisco club. Not much is known about him except that he grew up in New York, where he played for the Empires, one of the early teams that sprung up in the aftermath of the Knickerbockers. He came to California and settled in San Francisco, bringing his baseball knowledge with him. Fisher, a shortstop, recruited other East Coast transplants to be his teammates.
Excerpted from The Golden Game by Kevin Nelson. Copyright © 2004 Kevin Nelson. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Kevin Nelson is the award-winning author of nineteen books. He spent three years researching and writing The Golden Game, traveling around California to uncover the state’s storied baseball past. Hank Greenwald is a former Major League Baseball announcer who was for many years the voice of the San Francisco Giants.
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