|Born: April 15, 1841|
Manhattan, New York City, New York
|Died: October 18, 1862 (aged 21)|
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. In 1860 and 1862 he played for one of the most dominant teams of the era, the Excelsior of Brooklyn. He also was reputed to be a superb cricketeer, and played in many amateur and professional cricket matches.
During this early, pre-professional period of baseball's evolution, Creighton's pitching technique changed the sport from a game that showcased hitting, running, and fielding into a confrontation between the pitcher and batter. Under rules of the day, a pitcher was required to deliver the ball in an underhand motion with a stiff arm/stiff wrist movement. The intention was to induce the batter to swing and put the ball in play, thus initiating action on the diamond. Creighton's swift delivery was difficult for opposing batters to hit, because they were accustomed to balls being lobbed over the plate.
The speed with which Creighton was able to hurl the ball had previously been considered impossible without movement of the elbow or wrist, which was prohibited by existing rules. If there were any such movements by Creighton, they were imperceptible. Nonetheless, he was accused by some opponents and spectators of using an illegal delivery. In effect, because Creighton was exceptionally successful, his opponents assumed he was cheating.
However, the competitive advantage of this delivery, and his success as a pitcher, eventually led others to emulate his technique. Historian Thomas Gilbert, in his 2015 book Playing First: Early Baseball Lives at Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery, which includes a chapter on Creighton and his extended family, referred to Creighton's pitching style as "weaponizing the ball."
In October 1862, at the height of his popularity, Creighton 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.
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. Young America played a few match games before disbanding. Creighton then became a member of Niagara of Brooklyn, playing second base.
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 batted 1.000, getting hits in all 65 of his at-bats. (The Excelsiors did not play in 1861, as many players had left to fight in the Civil War.)
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 [a] 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 more tradition-minded members in the baseball community, complained that not only were his pitches illegal, but also unsportsmanlike. After Creighton held 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 an amateur sport, and clubs served as social organizations with sporting activities rather than as strictly sports alliances. Creighton was described as principled, unassuming, and gentlemanly -- traits considered ideal during the amateur era. However, rumors circulated that clubs had started paying exceptional players in an under-the-table manner. Clubs would hire the player in a created position of responsibility within their administration, with the understanding that there were no actual duties required beyond playing for the sports team. In 1860, the Excelsior Club lured Creighton, along with teammates George Flanley and the brothers Asa and Henry Brainard. All but Henry Brainard were quietly paid a salary, with Creighton earning $500, thus making these men some of the earliest "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 Excelsiors. While the practice of pay-for-play unofficially spread throughout 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 Hoboken's 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 on the Excelsior Grounds against the Union of Morrisania club, Creighton had hit four doubles in four at bats during the first five innings, playing second base 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 1] 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 and hemorrhaging in his abdomen. 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 Sporting Life, a letter-writer, who signed only as "Old Timer", sent in his account of the event. This account, as well as the Findagrave website, reported it as a ruptured bladder; in the light of modern medical understanding, the injury was most likely a ruptured inguinal hernia.
Later research has suggested that Creighton's hernia was chronic, and that the tremendous workload from baseball and cricket contributed to worsening the hernia. In that era, balls and strikes were not called, and batters who couldn't hit Creighton's rapid deliveries adapted by refusing to swing at good pitches, forcing Creighton to throw well over 300 pitches per match. Pitching with great force and the exaggerated body contortions necessary to achieve high velocity exacerbated his condition.
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, hurting the sports' popularity. Though it is generally accepted that Creighton 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 after losing their best player. Baseball at the time was constantly "looking forward", and Creighton's 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 marking 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 attention 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 long 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' program 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.
The television series The Simpsons made reference to Creighton in the Season 3 episode "Homer at the Bat", where Mr. Burns has him pegged as the right fielder for his company's softball team. His assistant Smithers has to point out that all the players Mr. Burns had selected are long dead, making reference in particular to Creighton by saying "In fact, your right fielder has been dead for 130 years."