Knickerbocker Generation

The New York Knickerbockers Base Ball Club, circa 1847
Born: 1812-1834

"Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs," Walt Whitman urged his fellow New Yorkers in 1846. "Let us leave our close rooms.... The game of ball is glorious."

The previous fall, a group of friends - "merchants, brokers, insurance salesmen, a United States marshal, a portrait photographer, a dealer in cigars" - finding precious little room to play ball in the crowded streets of lower Manhattan, “crossed the Barclay Street Ferry in a body, like unto the Pilgrims of yore," to Hoboken, New Jersey, and a grassy area called the Elysian Fields. There "they perfected their organization, calling it the Knickerbockers, which was the nucleus of the great American game of base ball."

Volunteer fireman and bank clerk Alexander Joy Cartwright helped establish the Knickerbockers and codify rules: a diamond-shaped infield, foul lines, and three missed swings before the batter was called out. Cartwright later left Manhattan for the California gold rush and then Hawaii, where he became a wealthy merchant.

In the 1850s, while New York went "baseball-mad" with "teams of doctors, teams of teachers, teams of tradesmen...shipbuilders...firemen, bankers, teamsters, lawyers, even undertakers," the Knickerbockers continued to refine the rules (nine innings to a game, nine men to a side, bases 90 feet apart).  

In 1856, British-born music teacher and cricketer Henry Chadwick "took note of the possibilities of the game" while witnessing a contest between the Knickerbockers and the New York Gothams. "Americans do not care to dawdle over a sleep-inspiring game," he observed. "What they do they want to do in a hurry. In baseball, all is lightning." Chadwick developed the box score, wrote and edited the most popular players manual, launched one of the first baseball columns, and began keeping statistics.

For the Knickerbockers and the other established clubs who banded together to form the National Association of Base Ball Players, baseball was an amateur’s game. They disapproved of the more competitive and money-driven generation of ballplayers that followed them.

"Harvard is not in the business of teaching deception," insisted Harvard president Charles Eliot after learning a pitcher on the school's championship baseball team threw a curve ball. "They don’t play ball nowadays as they used to," complained a former Knickerbocker in 1868. "They don’t play with the same kind of feelings." The Philadelphia City Item, meanwhile, wondered "what must be the contempt for those who would degrade our great national game and make it a business?" and predicted that baseball would "gradually, but surely, die out."

Henry Chadwick agreed. "Baseball has fallen," he lamented of the gambling corruption that had rotted out the professional game by the mid-1870s. "Yes, the national game has become degraded."

Seeing an opportunity to take control of the game and restore its respectability, Chicago White Stockings owner William Hulbert started the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs in 1876. As league president, Hulbert banned beer sales and gambling on league grounds, set ticket prices at 50 cents, and forbade Sunday games.

When four Louisville Grays players threw the 1877 pennant for gamblers, Hulbert banned all four from baseball forever. "Damn you, Devlin, you are dishonest," he told Louisville's star pitcher. "You have sold a game, and I can’t trust you."

In the first years of the 20th Century, the next generation of baseball luminaries rightly looked back on the Knickerbocker Generation as baseball's founding fathers. But, in determining to prove that baseball was an exclusively American invention, and seeking a single point of origin to prove it, Albert Spalding ironically identified a peer of Cartwright and Chadwick who "never claimed to have had anything to do with baseball" as its inventor: Civil War hero Abner Doubleday.

"It’s our game; that’s the chief fact in connection with it," Walt Whitman reflected as an old man in 1889. "America’s game; it has the snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere; it belongs as much to our institutions; fits into them as significantly as our Constitution’s laws; is just as important in the sum total of our historic life."

Knickerbocker Generation (Born 1812 to 1834)

Total MLB players: 2

Percent foreign-born: 0%

First appearance: October 30, 1871 (Nate Berkenstock)

MLB majority: -

Final appearance: September 9, 1874 (Lew Carl)


"Batting Season Finder." Baseball-reference, Accessed 19 January 2017.

Burns, Ken. Baseball. Florentine Films, 1994.

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