- For the basketball player, see Jim Creighton (basketball).
April 15, 1841|
Manhattan, New York City, New York
|Died: October 18, 1862
Brooklyn, New York
James Creighton, Jr. (April 15, 1841 – October 18, 1862) was an American baseball player during the game's amateur era, and is considered by historians to be its first superstar. He played for the Excelsior of Brooklyn from 1860 to 1862, as well as local amateur and professional cricket matches.
As a pitcher in baseball's amateur era, Creighton's pitching style changed the sport from a game that showcased fielding into a confrontation between the pitcher and batter. During his era, a pitcher was required to deliver the ball in an underhand motion with a stiff arm/stiff wrist movement. The speed with which Creighton was able to pitch the ball had previously been thought of as impossible without movement of his elbow or wrist. If there were any movements in his elbow or wrist, they were imperceptible, but he was accused by some opponents and spectators of using an illegal delivery. However, due to the competitive advantage of this delivery, and his success as a pitcher, eventually led others to emulate his technique.
In October 1862, at the height of his popularity, he injured himself in a game when he suffered a ruptured abdominal hernia hitting a home run. The rupture caused internal bleeding, and he died four days later. Diagnoses differ as to the cause of death, ranging from a strain to a ruptured bladder, but modern medical understanding of the symptoms suggest that it was most likely a ruptured inguinal hernia. His death created an emotional connection to the sport, propelling its popularity much closer to cricket.
Creighton was born on April 15, 1841 in Manhattan to James and Jane Creighton, and was raised in Brooklyn. By age 16, he had become recognized in the Brooklyn area for his batting skills in both baseball and cricket. In 1857, along with other neighborhood youths, he formed a local baseball club named Young America. During this period, there were no organized leagues and few competing teams, so amateur clubs spent much of their time practicing and playing intra-squad games, with occasional matches against rivals. Youth America played a few match games before disbanding. Creighton then became a member of Niagara of Brooklyn, playing second base.
Discovery by the Stars
In a match on July 19, 1859, the Niagaras were being heavily outscored by the Star Club of Brooklyn. Creighton, who had thus far been used by the team primarily in the infield, was brought on as a substitute pitcher. Using what observers described as a "low, swift delivery," Creighton achieved uncommonly swift velocity. With the balls "rising from the ground past the shoulder to the catcher," the Star batsmen were unable to hit them effectively. Under the rules of baseball at the time, a pitcher was required to deliver the ball underhanded with arm locked straight at the elbow and at the wrist. Another technique he used was to give the baseball spinning motion, making it harder for the batters to hit it squarely. Additionally, he threw a high-arcing slower pitch called a "dew-drop." It was the job of the pitcher to make it easy for the batter to hit the ball as fielding was considered the game's true skill. Star batsmen claimed that Creighton was using an illegal snap of the wrist to deliver the pitch. Although the Star Club prevailed, Creighton joined their club following the game.
Before the 1860 season began, Creighton left the Star Club and joined one of the highest-profiled clubs in the game at the time, the Excelsior of Brooklyn. With their new star pitcher, the Excelsiors became a national sensation. They organized the first known national tour, which pitted them against teams on the East Coast of the United States. That first season, Creighton scored 47 runs in 20 match games, and was retired just 56 times and did not strike out. In a game against the St. George Cricket Club on November 8, he recorded baseball's first shutout. In addition to his pitching skills, he became the game's best batter. In 1862, he was retired just four times, either as a batter or baserunner.[notes 1]
When observing Creighton pitch a baseball, English cricketer John Lillywhite commented, "Why, that man is not bowling, he is throwing underhand. It is the best disguised underhand throwing I ever saw, and might readily be taken for a fair delivery." Another observer said that his pitch was "as swift as [if] it was shot out of cannon." Exclesior teammate John Chapman later in his life wrote that Creighton "...had wonderful speed, and, with it, splendid command. He was fairly unhittable." Others, especially the conservative members among the baseball community, complained that not only were his pitches illegal, but also unsportsmanlike. After holding the famed rival Brooklyn Atlantics to five runs, an extraordinarily low total for the era, the Brooklyn Eagle dispatched a reporter to determine whether or not his pitch was legal; in the end, it was determined he was throwing a "fair square pitch", rather than a "jerk" or an "underhand throw."
During this era of baseball, the game was strictly an amateur sport. Creighton was described as principled, unassuming, and gentlemanly — traits considered ideal during the amateur era. However, rumors circulated that clubs had circumvented this rule by paying players in an under-the-table manner. Clubs would hire the player in a created position within the their administration, with the understanding that there were no actual duties required. In 1860, the Excelsior Club lured Creighton, along with teammates George Flanley, Asa Brainard, and his brother Henry Brainard. All but Henry were quietly paid a salary, with Creighton earning $500, thus are believed to be the first "professional" baseball players. After winning the National Association championship in 1860, Creighton and Asa Brainard, jumped from the Excelsior Club to the Atlantic Club of Brooklyn. This move lasted only three weeks, and without having played any games, both players returned to the Excelsior Club. While this practice spread over all of baseball in the coming years, open professionalism didn't begin until the 1869 season, when the Cincinnati Red Stockings paid a salary to each member of the team.
Creighton was considered a prominent member of the cricket community, playing both amateur and professional. He performed for the American Cricket Club in both 1861 and 1862, often playing against the all-England team, whether at the Elysian Fields or elsewhere. Though the English teams would dominate these matches, Creighton fared well. In an 1859 match of 11 Englishmen against 16 Americans, he clean bowled five wickets out of six successive balls.
On October 14, 1862, in a match against the Union of Morrisania, Creighton had hit four doubles in four at bats during the first five innings while Brainard pitched. In the sixth inning, he took over pitching duties, and in his next at bat he hit a home run. However, during the swing, he suffered an injury in his abdominal area.[notes 2] According to Jack Chapman, who played for the Atlantics, when Creighton crossed home plate, he commented to Flanley that he heard something snap, thinking that it might have been his belt. After the game, he began to experience severe pain in his abdomen, hemorrhaging from what was reported at the time a ruptured bladder.[notes 3] He died in his father's home on October 18 at the age of 21. In an 1887 issue of an early sports newspaper, the The Sporting Life, a letter-writer, who signed only as "Old Timer", sent in his account of the event. Robert Smith (Baseball in America, Holt Rinehart Winston, 1961, p. 10,13) as well as the Findagrave website  reported it is a ruptured bladder.
Creighton's death caused concern in the sports-world that public perceptions of baseball and cricket would focus on the inherent dangers of their play, in turn, hurting each sport's popularity. Though it is generally accepted that he fatally injured himself while playing baseball, it was reported that the Excelsior president, Dr. Joseph Jones, made comments during the National Association convention of 1862 in attempt to "correct" this notion. He claimed that Creighton had suffered the injury, instead, while playing cricket in a match on October 7. Later research claims that Dr. Jones' assertions are correct; Creighton had died of a "strangulated intestine", and did not hit a home run during his final game. Dr. Jones' remarks have been interpreted as his attempt to save baseball's image, and its nearly-equal standing with cricket, as well as his team's legacy considering that they had now lost their best player. Baseball at the time was constantly "looking forward", and his death provided the sport with a certain mythology and much-needed nostalgia. Creighton was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The 12-foot marble obelisk that marks his grave was originally topped with a large marble baseball (which has long-since disappeared).
At the time, the sport of Cricket was the most popular sport in the United States, but Creighton and the Excelsiors had brought considerable notoriety to baseball. Creighton's popularity grew substantially after his death. In the following decade, teams began honoring him by naming themselves after him, and others paid tribute by visiting his gravesite. As much as twenty years later, though the public adored their star pitchers, comparisons to Creighton would inevitably emerge. It was not considered controversial to compliment a pitcher with the caveat that he "warn't no Creighton." For years following his death, the Excelsiors' programme included a portrait of their team with Creighton, shrouded in black, featured prominently in the center.
Baseball writer John Thorn commented in his book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, that Creighton "was baseball's first hero, and I believe, the most important player not inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
- At the time, players out on the basepaths were charged with the out, instead of the batter as today.
- Players of the era held the bat with their hands separated and swung by twisting their upper-body with little or no movement of the wrists.
- Aided by modern medical understanding, the injury was most-likely a ruptured inguinal hernia.
- Thorn, p. 122
- Thorn, James. "Jim Creighton". bioproj.sabr.org. The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). Retrieved May 23, 2013.
- Thorn, p. 123
- Robbins, p. 241
- Ryczek, p. 4
- "Excelsior vs. St. George". Brooklyn Eagle. November 10, 1860.
- Robbins, p. 242
- Thorn, p. 120
- Spink, p. 128
- Terry, p. 140
- Thorn, p. 126
- Ryczek, p. 14
- Thorn, p. 127
- Robbins, Michael W. (2000). Brooklyn: a state of mind. Workman Publishing Company. ISBN 0-7611-1635-4.
- Ryczek, William J. (1998). When Johnny came sliding home: the post-Civil War baseball boom, 1865-1870. McFarland & Company. ISBN 9780786405145.
- Spink, Alfred Henry (1911). The National Game. Southern Illinois University Press. ISBN 9780809323043.
- Terry, James L. (2002). Long Before the Dodgers: Baseball in Brooklyn, 1855-1884. McFarland & Company. ISBN 9780786412297.
- Thorn, John (2012). Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game (reprint, illustrated ed.). Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9780743294041.