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NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 15.2 (2007) 46-65

From First Baseman to Primo Basso
The Odd Saga of the Original Pirate King (Tra La!)
Peter Morris

After Brooklyn captured the 1899 National League pennant, it seemed only right that the team's most devoted supporters be part of the official tribute to Ned Hanlon's men. Instead of a fancy banquet, the Trolley Dodgers were accorded a testimonial at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with bleacher fans packing the upper decks. This populist bent was reflected in the entertainment. The team was regaled with vaudeville performances, animal acts, songs, speeches from the likes of John L. Sullivan, and recitations of "Casey at the Bat" and of a poem composed especially for the occasion.

The tribute climaxed with Hughey Jennings, Joe Kelley, Deacon McGuire, and the rest of the players being presented with the pennant and other tokens of esteem. Special commendation was reserved for the "man among men, who can't be seen unless you cut the grass"—local hero Wee Willie Keeler. In presenting Keeler with a gold watch, Assistant District Attorney Frank X. McCaffrey gushed,

Brooklynites are essentially a home people. As a vigorous and health-loving community, we have long espoused the cause of the national outdoor game. So, when we have watched one of our own—a Brooklynite by birth and choice—rise to eminence in his chosen field, we point to him, with honest sincerity, as a typical Brooklynite.

Most of the spectators would have been surprised to learn that McCaffrey's words were almost equally applicable to a man who had entertained them that evening by singing "Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep" in a fine bass voice. They knew Signor Brocolini as a singer who had brought fame to Brooklyn, but few of them would have realized that he had first made a name for himself on the baseball diamond.1

The man who became known by that mellifluous-sounding appellation had begun life with the more plebeian name of John Clark. He was born in Cork, [End Page 46] Ireland, probably on September 26, 1841.2 His parents, John and Lillian, were Scottish natives, and the family joined the hordes of Irish men and women who fled the Great Potato Famine. They first returned to Glasgow and then crossed the Atlantic with their three children and settled in Brooklyn around 1853.

Their new hometown had traditionally been known as the "City of Churches," but as young John grew up, it was gaining a new reputation. In 1857 Porter's Spirit of the Times observed, "Verily Brooklyn is fast earning the title of the 'City of Base Ball Clubs,' as well as the 'City of Churches.'"3 The game of baseball had long been a familiar American pastime, but during the first half of the nineteenth century, it had almost exclusively been played by children. That began to change in the mid-1840s, largely due to the activities of the Knickerbocker Club of New York City.

With urbanization and industrialization changing the American landscape in innumerable ways, fraternal organizations provided many city dwellers with a way to rekindle the sense of community that they had lost when they left the country behind. The Knickerbockers saw baseball as a way to address the need to belong and, at the same time, to remedy another of the unfortunate consequences of urban life: declining physical fitness. They adopted the boy's game and attempted to give it dignity by modifying its structure with formal, printed rules.

The Knickerbockers encountered a practical obstacle in their efforts to bring a touch of the countryside to the increasingly crowded island of Manhattan. Even after a rule change that introduced foul territory, baseball simply required too much space for any of the available sites. As a result the club began to play at a variety of outlying sites, most notably the Elysian Fields in Hoboken. By...


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