- Alexander Cartwright: The Life behind the Baseball Legend, and: Live All You Can: Alexander Joy Cartwright and the Invention of Modern Baseball
Almost all of us have seen the television show, To Tell the Truth, with its famous question, “Will the real __________ please stand up?” Lately that question has come to apply in baseball history to that hoary old Knickerbocker, Alexander Joy Cartwright. Two recently published biographies, Jay Martin’s Live All You Can: Alexander Joy Cartwright and the Invention of Baseball and Monica Nucciarone’s Alexander Cartwright: The Life Behind the Legend, both resurrect the gent for historical re-examination. Rarely have two books presented such different findings.
Nucciarone’s superb historical detective work pays off in a much superior biography of Cartwright. Not content to rest with the conclusions of Harold Peterson’s 1973 work, The Man Who Invented Baseball, Nucciarone re-examines virtually every facet of the Cartwright claims. Her most stunning find is that the celebrated transcontinental diary that Cartwright penned on his way to California in 1849 received substantial embellishment from his grandson, Alexander Cartwright III, in the early twentieth century. Cartwright III, in his typescript rendering, added key passages about playing baseball along the trail. This reworked diary became the basis for the campaign that landed his Knickerbocker grandfather in the Hall of Fame in 1939. Many historians, including this reviewer, took the Cartwright clan’s claims at face value and even linked him teaching baseball to indigenous peoples.
Instead, as Nucciarone so skilfully demonstrated, Cartwright wrote nothing about baseball in his actual 1849 diary. Moreover the diaries of a couple of other travelers with the same wagon train also left no mention of baseball in their diaries. Once out in San Francisco, Cartwright had apparently no contact with the game. Then after he relocated to Hawai‘i for what turned out to be the rest of his life, Cartwright again barely noticed baseball, all this during five or so decades of tremendous expansion of the sport within the United States. If he had been so passionate about baseball as to revise its rules, why did the game have so little meaning for him by and after 1849?
If there is a fault to Nucciarone’s book, it is that she may have been too cautious in her critique dismantling the Cartwright legend. She is rightfully careful to show that he was a very interesting figure in his time, that his involvement in late nineteenth-century Hawai‘i politics and annexation maneuverings merit preserving that part of his reputation. To be sure Cartwright lived a more interesting life than most nineteenth-century Americans. But his overall importance for the development of baseball is exaggerated. Several baseball historians, including John Thorn and Randall Brown, have already undercut the Cartwright theories and attributed more influence to other Knickerbockers, such as Daniel Adams, [End Page 339] William Wheaton, and Daniel Brown. Nucciarone’s work should now inspire the complete toppling of the Cartwright mystique. Undoubtedly it would be nearly impossible to convince the Hall of Fame to remove or reword Cartwright’s plaque, but all baseball historians should sense the importance of Nucciarone’s detective work and conclusions and rework books, articles, and websites accordingly.
What of Martin’s book? The most obvious point is that it suffers tremendously in comparison to Nucciarone’s analysis. This is a slim book in every sense of the word. Martin grazed over the more easily available evidence, acknowledged some of the recent questioning of Cartwright’s role in the Knickerbockers, but then fundamentally accepted the canonical claims that Cartwright spread baseball across America and to Hawai‘i. Why such a reputable press as Columbia chose to publish this book is puzzling. The brief, blippy four- or five-page chapters underscore the thinness of the research.