Jim Creighton: Baseball’s First Superstar

James “Jim” Creighton, Jr. was born on April 15, 1841. Creighton, over the course of his short life, revolutionized the game of baseball. Creighton was known for making an impact in many aspects of baseball. Described as a high-principled, unassuming gentleman, he is known as the first “professional” player and an innovator of the fastball, as well as the pitcher to throw the first recorded shutout in baseball history. Even his death lives in baseball lore, as it has been reported that he hit such a vicious home run that it led to a hernia and internal bleeding.

Creighton began his baseball career at a young age, splitting time between the blooming pastime and cricket. From the get go, it was obvious to those that observed that he was a talent. Creighton was a star player for the Brooklyn Niagaras during his late teenage years.

The Fastball is Born

On July 19, 1859, Creighton’s Niagaras were playing the Brooklyn Star Club. In this game, Creighton, who had solely been an infielder during his stint with the Niagaras, had been brought in as a relief pitcher. At that time in baseball history, runs were in abundance, with game finals looking more like football scores than modern-day baseball scores. During this time, fielding was seen as being the most important aspect of the game, followed by hitting, and pitching being a distant third.

Pitchers were required to deliver their pitches underhand, keeping their arms and wrists stiff. Batters could even recommend the pitcher to pitch the ball to a certain location. Until the introduction of strikes just a year prior, pitchers were only a cog in the machine that was a baseball game.

That day, Creighton utilized speed that had never been seen before in baseball. He would deliver pitches with such velocity that opposing managers argued that what he was doing was illegal. According to accounts at the time, Creighton was throwing illegal pitches by snapping his wrist, but it was so slight it couldn’t possibly be picked up by the human eye. In addition, Creighton introduced pitches with spin, as well as a slower pitch called “the dew drop.” Although he was not the first to attempt to add speed, Creighton was the first to successfully and consistently control it. With the introduction of the “strike” just a year before, this was a perfect storm that led Creighton to become the best pitcher baseball had seen to that point.

Despite the valiant effort by relief pitcher Creighton, the Star Club still won the game. After the game was over, the Star Club offered Creighton a spot on their team, which he accepted.

Excelsior of Brooklyn

Creighton in his Excelsior of Brooklyn uniform / SABR.org

Prior to the 1860 season, Creighton jumped from the Star Club to the well-known Excelsior of Brooklyn. Although no official confirmation had surfaced, it is believed Creighton made the move due to an under-the-table deal for $500 with the Excelsior. During this time, baseball was filled with amateur players, yet it was common practice for clubs to pay players in secret to either join or stay with them. At the time, this was perceived much like free agency today. If this report is true, then this would make Creighton one of the first, if not the first, “professional” players.

For the 1860 season, the Excelsior of Brooklyn traveled on baseball’s first recorded tour. Going from July to November, the Excelsior began with games in upper New York and Canada. After working through the state, the team would travel to Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania.

During this trip, Creighton starred both at the plate and on the mound. In 20 games on the tour, Creighton scored 47 runs, was only retired 56 times at the plate or on the base paths, and didn’t strike out once. On the mound, he allowed, on average, single-digit runs, by far the best at the time. His pitching highlights on the tour included a 24-4 win against the Atlantic Base Ball Club on July 19 in front of around 10,000 fans, as well as the first recorded shutout in baseball history on November 8 versus the St. George Cricket Club. Creighton also held his own in the field, being involved in baseball’s first recorded triple play on September 22.

Overall, the Excelsior of Brooklyn finished the season with 19 wins, two losses, and one tie, tying with the Atlantic Base Ball Club as champions of the National Association.

In 1861, Creighton was on the move again, this time joining the crosstown rival Atlantic Base Ball Club. However, after three weeks and zero games played, he decided to return to the Excelsior. With many players being unavailable because of the Civil War, the Excelsiors and Creighton played no games outside of exhibition matches.

1862 Season and Death

Creighton’s 1862 season may have been his finest. Both at the plate and on the bases, he was put out only four times. His spectacular pitching continued. However, this season would end in tragedy for Creighton.

On October 14, 1862, Creighton was experiencing another great game, this time against the Unions of Morrisania. In the first five innings, he was 4-for-4 with 4 doubles, as well as a flawless second base. In the top of the sixth inning, he came in to pitch in relief. In the bottom half of the inning, according to those witnessed to the event, Creighton belted a home run in his fifth at bat. But, this home run would turn out to be deadly.

John Chapman, a witness to the game, wrote 50 years later: ““I was present at the game between the Excelsiors and the Unions of Morrisania at which Jim Creighton injured himself. He did it in hitting out a home run. When he had crossed the [plate] he turned to George Flanley and said, ‘I must have snapped my belt,’ and George said, ‘I guess not.’ It turned out that he had suffered a fatal injury. Nothing could be done for him, and baseball met with a severe loss. He had wonderful speed, and, with it, splendid command. He was fairly unhittable.”

In the early days of baseball, a baseball swing involved keeping one’s arms completely straight and violently torquing the hips and abdomen through. It was believed that Creighton swung with such violence that it caused a ruptured inguinal hernia (at the time it was credited as a ruptured bladder).

For the next four days, Creighton suffered from hemorrhaging and internal bleeding. He would pass away on October 18, 1862 at the age of 21. He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. A 12-foot marble obelisk stands at his burial site.

The Innovator of the Fastball

Jim Creighton is credited as one of the first pitchers to bring “heat” to his pitches. In Creighton’s day, pitchers were required to deliver their pitches underhand, keeping their arms and wrists stiff. Batters could even recommend the pitcher to pitch the ball to a certain location. Creighton was able to bring speed to such a delivery without it being perceived as an “illegal” pitch. It was Creighton’s ingenuity and control that shifted baseball from focusing on defense to the battle between batter and pitcher we know today. Such change opened the door for fireballers such as Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, and Nolan Ryan. Baseball’s hardest throwers could thank Creighton for the opportunity to share such an ability.

Baseball’s First Superstar, and Possibly First “Professional”

Creighton is considered by many historians and baseball enthusiasts as the game’s first superstar. He was involved in many firsts within the game, outside of the evolution of the fastball. Creighton also helped in turning baseball’s first recorded triple play on September 22, 1860, and threw the first recorded shutout on November 8, 1860. In addition, he also put up staggering numbers for his time. During the Excelsior of Brooklyn’s 1860 tour, Creighton scored 47 runs and was only retired a combined 56 times. Two seasons later, he was only put out four times at the plate and on the base paths. Throughout his pitching career, he allowed only 7.2 runs per game, way below the double-digit run average at the time. He did this while also throwing a staggering amount of pitches per game (he once threw 280 pitches in seven innings in the second meeting of 1860 between the Excelsiors and their rivals, the Atlantic Base Ball Club). Creighton’s popularity was widespread, as evident when he pitched the Excelsiors to a 24-4 win against the Atlantic Base Ball Club on July 19, 1860, in front of around 10,000 fans.

A crowed to watch Creighton and the Excelsior of Brooklyn / Wikipedia

If rumors were to be believed, Creighton may also be the first professional in the game’s history. When he jumped from the Star Club to the Excelsiors, he received an under-the-table payment. At this time, the Excelsiors were desperate to overtake the crosstown rivals Atlantic Base Ball Club. During this period of baseball, this was not frowned upon. These transactions were seen as occurring in a gentlemanly manner. These interactions were seen in 1860 as free agency is seen in today’s game. Creighton was a pioneer with his professionalism.

The Injection of Nostalgia in Baseball

More than twenty years after his death, veteran observers might say without fear of challenge that Keefe and Radbourn were fine pitchers, sure, but they “warn’t no Creighton.”

John Thorn, Baseball in the Garden of Eden (p. 127)

One cannot talk about Creighton without discussing his death on the ballfield. Although it has been claimed by those there that he died hitting a home run, this is a disputed fact. Creighton was quoted as thinking he heard a snap during the swing, as if his belt snapped in half, but the idea that this was on a home run is in question.

Whether he even injured himself in the fateful game is questioned, as Creighton had also competed in a cricket match close to the same time as this game. When Creighton passed away, baseball was worried about the game being seen as too dangerous. With the hopes of keeping the blossoming game of baseball as America’s game, rumors were soon spread claiming his time playing cricket was what led to Creighton’s untimely passing.

Baseball was also provided its first martyr. Creighton’s death was met with tears across the game. For years following, Creighton was honored by the Excelsiors in numerous ways in their games, and visiting ball clubs would visit Creighton’s grave site. Creighton’s death marked the beginning of baseball’s relationship with nostalgia that is still seen in the game today. With his death, numerous games of “what if” could be played, especially when the National Association first came to fruition. Creighton was young enough at his death that he could’ve had an impact in the first professional league. He was the first player that encouraged older fans to imagine what he would’ve done if he had the opportunity in pro ball.

Baseball’s War with Cricket

At the height of Creighton’s success, there was an ongoing battle between baseball and cricket as to which sport would be considered “America’s Pastime.” Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, cricket professionals from England were traveling to the United States to participate in various tours to spread the popularity of the sport. Once the Civil War began, the popularity of cricket began to wane in the north due to the English’s backing of the Confederacy.

It was decided that Creighton and the Excelsiors would barnstorm to spread the game of baseball, leading to their 1860 tour. Drawing thousands of people to their games, the Excelsiors, with Creighton being their main attraction, grew the popularity of the sport.

However, Creighton’s biggest impacts on the war between baseball and cricket came after his death. Following Creighton’s death on the ball field, baseball enthusiasts were worried that the death of their first major star on its own playing field would damage the reputation of the budding game. In response, a slander campaign began. Creighton, who was also a solid cricket player, had played in his last cricket match 11 days before his demise and a week before his final game. Claims were made that Creighton’s hernia was actually caused by the cricket match and only exacerbated by the baseball game.

Creighton’s lure and popularity post-death also helped baseball win the war against cricket. Four years after his death, on July 5, 1866, the Nationals of Washington, reciprocating the Excelsior’s visit to D.C. six year prior, made a trip to Brooklyn for a game. During their trip, they stopped by Green Wood Cemetery and paid their respects to Creighton at his memorial. Baseball had a martyr, while cricket had no such American to compete.

As late as 1872, numerous teams along the east coast named themselves the Creightons after the fallen star, cementing the popularity of baseball and its official title as “America’s Pastime.”

Indirect Effect on the Introduction of “Balls” and “Walks”

Creighton’s introduction of the fastball prompted many imitators. Although many had the same velocity as him, none had both the velocity and control. This would lead to absurd pitch counts and tedious at bats, lengthening the games and boring the newly interested crowd. This led to the implementation of the “ball” and the “walk” to the game. When the governing body of the time, the National Association of Base Ball Players, implemented the rule in 1864, the newspaper, the New York Sunday Mercury, wrote:

Many think that the rule in reference to pitching will greatly promote the attractiveness of the game… The time will come when slow, twisting balls, pitched with skill and judgment, will supersede the rifle-shooter of would-be Creightons. The fast pitching system is “played out”. Spectators have become disgusted with waiting hour after hour to see three or four innings played, the pitcher and catcher tired from over-work, the batsman annoyed and irritated from waiting for good balls, the fieldsmen idle and cross for want of something to do, and all the “vim” and spirit of the game being lost, because “we want to show ‘em what a bully swift pitcher we’ve got”.

These new rules, in this respect, practically take the most effective part of swift pitching out of the hands of pitchers; for, to tell the truth, not a solitary instance of fair pitching, that was very swift, have we seen since Creighton died (March 2, 1864).

The Simpsons

Jim Creighton was featured in the seventeenth episode of season three of The Simpsons, titled “Homer at the Bat”, airing February 20, 1992. During this episode, which centered around the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team, Mr. Burns tries to bring in ringers to win a bet against a rival power plant. To show Burns’ age, he recommends calling in players such as Honus Wagner, Cap Anson, and Nap Lajoie to play, all players that had long since retired and passed on at the original airing of the episode.

Mr. Burns had listed Creighton as his right fielder, to which his assistant, Waylon Smithers, quips, “Your right fielder has been dead for 130 years”:

Upon realizing his inability to get his original players, Mr. Burns settles on bringing in active players from the time, such as Roger Clemens, and future hall of famers Ozzie Smith, Wade Boggs, and Ken Griffey, Jr.

Restoration of his Memorial

Green-Wood Cemetary

When Jim Creighton passed away on October 18, 1862, his grave at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York was marked with a 12-foot marble obelisk topped with a marble baseball. Sometime during either the late 19th Century or early 20th Century, this baseball was stolen from atop of the monument.

In 2014, a fundraiser was started to get the baseball replaced on Creighton’s memorial. Funded by both the Green-Wood Historic Fund and private donors, enough money was raised to renovate the memorial and replace the baseball.

A ceremony was held on April 15, 2014, on Creighton’s 173rd birthday. Those in attendance included MLB’s official historian John Thorn, Green-Wood historian Jeff Richman, baseball historian Tom Gilbert, and VBBA historian Eric Miklich.

The event was reported by two newspapers: Brooklyn Paper and The Wall Street Journal.

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