Grave Story: Alexander Cartwright (1820-1892)

Here lies Alexander Cartwright, one of the Fathers of Baseball who created some of its earliest rules. Or maybe he was just A Guy Who Played Baseball in its earliest development and gets more credit than he deserves. That’s the problem when you go back to the 1840s and 1850s to the development of what would eventually become professional baseball. Fact and mythology have been mixed up to the point that we don’t really know how exactly how base ball came to be baseball, and newly recovered documents occasionally change what we thought we knew. At any rate, Cartwright was a player and executive for the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York City before ending his days as a respected citizen in Hawaii.

Cartwright’s biography from the SABR Bio Project by Monica Nucciarone is exceptionally well-researched. Alexander Joy Cartwright was born in New York City on April 17, 1820. By 1836, Cartwright was working as a clerk for the broker Coit & Cochrane. He also worked as a banker’s clerk and a volunteer fireman, and that is supposedly where Cartwright met up with a group of young men who were interested in base ball (which was two words back then).

The Knickerbockers moved their games to Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J. in 1845, helping to drive the popularity of the game. Cartwright transitioned to the team’s secretary in 1846 and then as the vice president in 1847 and 1848. He was a member of the club’s rules committee in 1848 as well.

Cartwright’s plaque in Cooperstown calls him the “Father of Modern Base Ball” and states that he: “Set bases 90 feet apart. Established 9 innings as game and 9 players as team.” Did he actually do those things? Nucciarone points out that Cartwright’s contemporaries claim some credit for things that have traditionally been considered Cartwright’s invention. William Wheaton stated that he set the diamond configuration of the field and established the rule that a fielder had to throw the ball to the baseman for an out rather than hitting the runner with the ball. Pioneers like Daniel “Doc”Adams and Duncan Curry also helped shape the game.

Even if Cartwright isn’t the “father of baseball” any more than Abner Doubleday is, he was there at the time when it evolved from a leisure activity to something more organized. As you’ll see below, he was an ambitious person who liked to be involved in as many things as possible, so it’s likely that his role with the Knickerbockers was an important one.

Cartwright left New York in early 1849, traveling West to take part in the California Gold Rush. He didn’t stay long and set sail for Hawaii later that year. There, he begins to appear frequently in the local newspapers, as his place in Hawaiian society grew. By February 1851, the governor of Oahu had appointed Cartwright to be the Chief Engineer of the Fire Department of the City of Honolulu. At some point prior to 1854, he and Jules Dudoit had been appointed Commissioners in Bankruptcy.

February 9, 1859 was a pretty noteworthy day in Hawaii and possibly for baseball, too. It was the birthday of King Kamehameha IV, and the entire island celebrated. Ships in the harbor were decorated with flags and bunting, and foreign consuls gathered at the royal palace to pay their respects. The highlight was said to be the parade of the Honolulu Fire Department. They led a cheer for the king, and the department band serenaded Kamehameha with a rendition of “God Save the King.” Then, according to The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, this happened:

After the parade, the entire Department, with the Chief Engineer, Alexander J. Cartwright, Esq., at the head, marched to the pic-nic ground, makai of the Stone Church, where, after a few appetizing games of ball, they sat down to a sumptuous repast, prepared in Monsieur Victor’s unequalled style.

There is no further description of exactly what the games of ball were, but given Cartwright’s part history, you could assume that there was a base ball game played in Honolulu on February 9, 1859 with King Kamehameha IV in attendance. While Cartwright and his firemen may have played games before this date, could this be the first baseball game ever witnessed by royalty?

Cartwright continued to be a big part of the Hawaiian business scene. Throughout the early 1860s, he was accepting exports varying from walrus ivory to British ale. By 1868, he was serving as the Consul for Peru. In 1879, he was named treasurer of the Waihee Sugar Co. LLC. He was involved in countless real estate and legal transactions and served as the executor to the will of Queen Emma Kaleleonalani of the Hawaiian Islands when she died in 1885.

Alexander Cartwright died on July 12, 1892 in Honolulu. He had been ill for several weeks, with a carbuncle on his neck being the cause of death. He was 72 years old. “It would be hard to conceive of any other death that would cause such a blank in the community as the one now recorded,” mourned the Evening Bulletin the following day. “Mr. Cartwright was prominent in almost every line of benevolence and charity. The Queen’s Hospital, the Honolulu Library, the American Relief Fund, etc., are institutions among those of which he was a valued supporter and counselor. In his career he has been the trustee and business confidant of many people, and has managed the affairs of more than one royal personage.”

Cartwright was buried in Oahu Cemetery. His massive granite monument has become a tourist destination for baseball lovers, many of whom leave a baseball as a memento for the man who may (or may not) have contributed so much to the game’s development. Cartwright was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1938 as an executive.

The marker on Cartwright’s grave copies the verbiage from his Cooperstown plaque and adds the following: “Mr. Cartwright settled in the Hawaiian Islands in 1849. He became a financial and political advisor to members of the Hawaiian Monarchy and was Honolulu’s second fire chief. He is also remembered for his many other civic contributions. In 1997, he was among the first group to be inducted into the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame. Hawaii’s ever-growing sporting community remembers the “Father of Baseball” for his introduction to our islands of a game that embraces team competition and which bonds culturally diverse peoples together through a universal love of sport.”

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