BA Book Reviews

Live All You Can: Alexander Joy Cartwright & the Invention of Modern Baseball

By Jay Martin

Columbia University Press, 2009

List Price: $22.95

Alexander Cartwright: The Life Behind the Baseball Legend

By Monica Nucciarone

University of Nebraska Press, 2009

List Price: $27.95

It has been 100 years since the Mills Commission erroneously credited Abner Doubleday with starting what we know as baseball. By the time the Hall of Fame opened in Doubleday’s hometown 30 years later, however, the honor had shifted to Alexander Cartwright, who was enshrined in Cooperstown as a pioneer in 1938. His bronze plaque reads, “Father of Modern Base Ball.” But was he really? Two new Cartwright biographies examine his role in the creation of the game. Their conclusion? That all depends on which one you read.

Jay Martin, in “Live All You Can: Alexander Joy Cartwright & the Invention of Modern Baseball,” states in his second chapter that Cartwright “invented baseball in 1845. This was an age of invention, and Cartwright became one of its greatest inventors.” He softens this somewhat in his second appendix, when he describes Cartwright as “an eminent representative of all those anonymous figures who contributed to creating baseball.”

Monica Nucciarone takes a more skeptical approach in “Alexander Cartwright: The Life Behind the Baseball Legend.” The second half of the book is devoted to her search for hard evidence supporting Cartwright’s role in the codification of the game’s rules. She concludes that Cartwright’s designation, like that of several other notable baseball figures, deserves an asterisk. She writes: “I feel Alexander Cartwright deserves to be honored as one of baseball’s ‘pioneers.’ Yet to call him the sole ‘Father of Modern Baseball’ is more than a stretch.”

Cartwright’s grandson, Bruce Cartwright Jr., boosted Alexander Cartwright’s case as the game’s founder by starting a letter-writing campaign when he learned of plans for the Hall of Fame in the 1930s. He offered up a copy of Alexander’s diary as evidence. Though several copies of the diary exist, there is controversy over whether the original is among them. What makes this significant is that the diaries don’t all contain the same details about his baseball playing days. A handwriting analysis done in 2005 indicated that the journal donated by one of his heirs to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu was not penned by Cartwright. Martin, who has transcribed it, insists it was. “There’s no doubt it’s his handwriting,” he said. Nucciarone does have doubts, and speculates that Cartwright’s original may have been burned around the time of his death. (It wouldn’t have been uncommon in the 1800s for someone’s papers to be destroyed when they died.)

We know for certain that Cartwright was a member of the Knickerbockers Base Ball Club in the 1840s while he lived in New York. He and his younger brother Alfred played with the team for several years. Scorebooks from those early days list both brothers. Had they stayed in New York, perhaps the evidence would be clearer one way or the other regarding Cartwright’s role in laying out the diamond and drawing up the “Knickerbocker rules.” Instead he followed the lure of the California Gold Rush in 1849. Both books describe his arduous journey across the country, and his subsequent decision to keep moving from California to Hawaii, though they differ, as you might expect, on some of the details.

Cartwright became a successful businessman in Honolulu, where he lived the rest of his life. He also served as fire chief and a financial adviser to members of Hawaii’s royal family. As for his involvement with baseball in Hawaii, here again, the authors disagree. His sons were known to have played baseball for their school team in the 1860s and ’70s. Martin credits him with promoting the game at his children’s school as well as on the nearby sugar plantations. Nucciarone, however, found “no direct evidence of Alexander Cartwright’s participation—in any capacity—in baseball while he lived in Hawaii.”

For all their disagreements, the two cited many of the same sources. Martin’s research began when he stumbled across 12 boxes of Cartwright material at the Hawaii State Archives. Nucciarone also reviewed these. Both also studied documents available at museums and in private collections. Despite their treading the same ground, Nucciarone says she didn’t learn of Martin’s project until shortly before her book hit the shelves this spring. She had her suspicions, however. At one research stop she was told, “We had a man here a few months ago asking questions about Cartwright. He said he was writing a book.” Martin, likewise, didn’t learn about her book until after his came out, though he too had hints along the way.

There’s no significant milestone to tie the titles to, so why the sudden interest in Cartwright? Since his death in 1892 there had been only one biography published (“The Man Who Invented Baseball” by Harold Peterson, in 1973). Martin was originally investigating the history of baseball in Hawaii when he decided Cartwright warranted a full bio. Nucciarone began working on her book eight years ago, though she said her final product bears little resemblance to the story she envisioned when she began.

“I became acquainted with some Cartwright descendents years ago,” she said. “It was an intriguing history. I had no reason to believe the oral history wasn’t true. But when I dug and dug it didn’t quite pan out that way.”

She searched for evidence to corroborate Bruce Cartwright Jr.’s claim that his grandfather was the father of the game, but found more questions than answers. These are detailed in the second half of her book, which was the most engrossing portion of either volume. It reads almost like a detective story—which is essentially what it is.

Though she had frequent contact with the Cartwright family during her research, she said she hasn’t heard from them since it was published. “I have a feeling they don’t agree with any of my research,” she said. “They all grew up and lived for years with a certain story about their ancestor.”

The Cartwright family seems more supportive of Martin’s work. He says on his publisher’s site: “Mrs. Anne Cartwright and Cartwright’s great-great grandchildren, Ana Cartwright and Alexander Joy Cartwright IV, recently wrote me to say, and I quote, ‘We love your book!’ They said without qualification that it is the only book on Cartwright that is accurate.”

The author of 23 books, including biographies of Nathanael West, Henry Miller, and John Dewey, Martin claims his is the “only fully researched, authoritative biography on Cartwright and is likely to remain the standard biography of this important inventor.” This, like many of the central points of contention, is open to debate. “The Library Journal,” for one, disagreed, stating, “Academic and large public libraries should acquire Nucciarone, which has a foreword by ‘Total Baseball’s’ John Thorn. Martin’s is optional for public libraries.”

Thorn subscribes to the more skeptical view of Cartwright’s legacy. In his foreword he writes: “To separate the man from the myth, Nucciarone has accepted at face value none of the claims made by those scholars who, in debunking Doubleday, have elevated Cartwright beyond the demonstrable record of his accomplishment.” His endorsement certainly carries weight among SABR members.

Martin’s book is not without its merits. It provides more detail on Cartwright’s early life, his business ventures in Hawaii, and his relationship with his two younger sons, the only of his five children to live long enough to continue the family line. As one might expect from a longtime professor of humanities, it’s written in much more of an academic style, with different topics broken out into short sections, which Martin favors over chapters.

Nucciarone, whose tone is more conversational, brings some of Cartwright’s political and Masonic rivalries to light, providing a more balanced view of the man. But what sets her book apart is the second half, where she dissects the case for Cartwright as father of the game.

So here we are, with two Cartwright biographies, and our subject is still a heated topic for the SABR water cooler. As Martin puts it, “Partisan arguments about the origins of baseball are passionately intense.” Instead of settling anything, the two biographies are likely to spawn more research into Cartwright’s place in baseball’s history. Perhaps somewhere, in an attic or archive, sits convincing evidence of his—or one of his contemporary’s—role in the evolution of the game. Until such a discovery is unearthed, let the debate continue.