Here lies Fred Cone, an outfielder who played in the first season of the first ever professional baseball league. He was a pioneer in another sense as well; he was one of the earliest players to complain that baseball just wasn’t as good as it was back in his day. Cone played for the Boston Red Stockings of the National Association (1871).
Joseph Frederick Cone was born in Rockford, Ill., at some point in 1848. There’s some contention about exactly when. Find-a-Grave narrows it down to May 1848, but I can’t find anything to corroborate it. A history of the Cone family available on Ancestry lists April 2, 1848 as his birthday. That same history gets Fred’s marriage date wrong by more than 6 years, so take it for what it’s worth. Cone’s father, Mander, came from Massachusetts, and his mother, Sarah, was Canadian. Fred was one of at least six children, if the census reports are accurate.
While baseball exploded in popularity on the East Coast in the 1860s, it swept westward into Chicago and beyond. Rockford, about 100 miles west of Chicago, gave rise to the Forest City club. Cone played with the team from 1868-70 and was teammates with several players who went on to play professionally in the National Association and the National League, including Bob Addy, Gat Stires, Ross Barnes and Al Spalding. The Rockford club traveled throughout the Midwest, taking on teams of all manner. On June 18, 1868, the Forest City Nine traveled up to Chicago to face the Philadelphia Athletics. The powerful East Coast team, loaded with the likes of Al Reach, Dick McBride and Wes Fisler, destroyed them 94-13. That is not a typo. A month later, Rockford traveled to Wisconsin, beating the Capital City Nine 43-12. From what I can tell by the recaps, Cone was a good hitter and base-stealer but struggled sometimes with “muffs” (errors) while playing first base.
Rockford played the Cincinnati Red Stockings several times during the Reds’ undefeated 1869 campaign, including a wild 53-32 loss on July 31 in Chicago. Cone scored 5 runs in that game, which was reasonably close until Cincinnati scored 19 runs in the 6th inning. Reds manager Harry Wright was a good judge of talent, so when he was hired to manage Boston for the National Association’s inaugural 1871 season, he signed Cone and Rockford teammates Spalding and Barnes. Wright also picked some of his Red Stocking players, including his superstar brother George.
Boston finished second to Philadelphia that year, with a 20-10 record. With former Red Stocking Charlie Gould at first base, Cone moved to left field. He played in 19 of 30 games and hit .260, with 16 RBIs and 17 runs scored. He was second on the team with 12 stolen bases and 8 bases on balls. He committed 7 errors in left field for an .854 fielding percentage, which doesn’t sound good, but it was well above the league average of .832. He also played as part of a combined team with the Olympics of Washington D.C. that beat the reunited 1869 Red Stocking team on a July 3 exhibition game.
Cone was part of an unfortunate play that probably cost Boston the 1871 championship. It happened on May 9 against Troy, which was just the second game of the year. A fly ball was hit to shallow left, between Cone and shortstop George Wright. Wright called for the ball just as a passing train came by, so Cone never heard his teammate. Cone got to one knee to grab the ball, and Wright slammed into him at full speed, his right leg colliding with Cone’s knee. Wright had to be carried off the field and was limited to 16 games, though he did hit .413 for those 16 games. Had he and Cone been able to play the full schedule, it’s highly unlikely that Boston would have lost 7 of their next 12 games.
Rather than play, Cone acted as the team’s business manager in 1872. He took on the same position for the Chicago White Stockings for the inaugural National League season of 1876, where he was under the employ of his old teammate Spalding. He also umpired occasionally from 1873-5 for the National Association and 1876-7 for the National League. While there was occasional grousing in the papers about his umpiring, Cone was considered a fair arbiter. Baseball Reference indicates that Cone played in a league in Connecticut in 1878, but I can find no game recaps that include his name. He married Elizabeth Holley on December 2, 1881, in Chicago.
When he wasn’t engaged in baseball in one form or another, Cone worked as a hotel clerk of some renown in Chicago. He served in places like the Grand Pacific Hotel, the Victoria, the Wellington and the American House. It was reported that Cone first came to Rockford in 1868 in overalls and cowhide boots, as a member of the Stillman Valley Plowboys. By 1896, wore a gorgeous diamond in his shirt front as the day clerk at the Victoria Hotel.
The death of Harry Wright in 1896 brought Cone, and many of his old teammates, back into the baseball world. He reunited with his Forest City mates in a reunion game to honor Wright in Rockford on April 13. Even though it was a rainy day, the game raised about $800, which was sent to Philadelphia to erect a statue in Wright’s honor. It was the first baseball game he had been to in years.
“From what I read in the papers I have come to the conclusion that they don’t play ball nowadays,” Cone complained. “I don’t want to see the old time-honored game dragged in the dust. I will stay away and still have a good opinion of the game.”
That August, some baseball fans coaxed Cone to take in a game to see his old teammate Cap Anson, who was still playing and managing the Chicago Colts. He was… less than impressed with the evolution of the game. His comments, as reported by The Buffalo Enquirer, are reprinted below:
“I must say that the practice before the game was good and some quick plays were made. But it made me feel sad, yes, all but made me feel as though I had lost some good friends, to see the big muffs on the hand of each player. I felt ashamed to ask [Colts] President Hart what they did with that big glove, as I am supposed to know the game, but I don’t know the game they play today.
“Try as hard as I could I was unable to pick out the catcher among the crowd of players. All because they had that big bunch of cotton on their hands. Even the fielders wore them. After the game was started the first batter knocked a little weak fly over third base and the crowd yelled. I could not see what they yelled for, as I was ashamed of the batter. Then I found the catcher. Oh, what a sight he was. On his breast he wore a mattress that was large enough for a family of six to sleep upon, and talking about gloves, it was a corker, big as a large pillow. Around his head he wore enough steel to keep all the firm of the ‘Long, Short & Co.’ in confinement for years to come. How that poor, imposed upon fellow could see is more than I can make out.”
To sum up so far: gloves are bad, and protective equipment to keep the catcher from getting maimed is worse. Then Cone’s heart really broke, because he saw Anson on the field, wearing the same glove as everyone else.
“How can a man who was raised among ball players follow in the steps of the crowd of the young upstarts? I will make it my duty to go and see the old man and remind him of how we did it years ago and see if I cannot change his actions. Of course he is a ball player—the best in the country, as he is the last of the old stock. Poor Anson, he has my sympathy. I know it must make him feel bad to think that the National game should sink so low.”
Naturally, Cone said the players of 1896 didn’t hit or field nearly as well as the players of the 1860s & ‘70s. The pitchers, who in Cone’s day had to throw the ball underhanded and where the batter requested, had gone out of control with curveballs that were hard to hit.
“A game that each side did not score over 15 runs was counted as a bad game. But now if a side scores 10 to 12 runs the pitchers are counted as ‘knocked out of the box.’ It won’t do at all,” he said. “All I have got to say is that they don’t play ball nowadays, and I for one will stay away until they get some kind of rules where both sides will score at least 20 runs in each game.”
Wow, that’s a lot to unpack. All of the advancements that pushed the game forward — better pitching, fewer errors, improved protective equipment — were all the things that Cone hated. What really is interesting is that Cone’s comments aren’t fundamentally different from any modern article that asks yesterday’s ballplayers what they think of today’s game. Check it out:
“I can’t watch these games anymore. It’s not baseball. It’s unwatchable. A lot of the strategy of the game, the beauty of the game, it’s all gone. It’s like a video game now. It’s home run derby with their [expletive] launch angle every night.”Goose Gossage, 2019
“From what I read in the papers I have come to the conclusion that they don’t play ball nowadays. I don’t want to see the old time-honored game dragged in the dust. I will stay away and still have a good opinion of the game.”Fred Cone, 1896
Those quotes are 123 years apart. The language is different, but the tone is fundamentally the same. Any change to the game, from strategy to equipment, will be seen as sacrilege to the players who came before the change. To be fair, sometimes they’re right. I can see Gossage’s point of view that an over-reliance on launch angle means that fans sit through strikeout after strikeout waiting for a home run to happen. A lot of times, though, old ballplayers sound a lot like Cone: mad at the game because it’s not played the exact way they played it. That attitude, as the above quotes show, is almost as old as the game itself; it started the moment the first generation of ballplayers watched the second generation play ball.
As the turn of the 20th Century dawned, articles popped up about the way things used to be. Cone got a few more chances to reminisce about his old teammates who managed to play without pillows on their hands. Nobody ever asked him about launch angle, as far as I can tell. Fred Cone died on April 13, 1909 in his home in Chicago from apoplexy. He was 61 years old. He is buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.