Baseball Stars of the 19th Century

Color print of baseball game in late 1800s
A late 1800s lithograph of a baseball game. Getty Images

The game of baseball developed gradually throughout the 19th century, contrary to the popular tale of Abner Doubleday inventing it one summer's day in Cooperstown, New York. The game was referred to by Walt Whitman in the 1850s, and it's known Civil War soldiers played it for diversion.

After the war, professional leagues caught on. Fans flocked to ballparks across America. And in the late 1880s a poem about a baseball game, "Casey At the Bat," became a national sensation. 

The widespread popularity of baseball meant specific players became household words. The following are some 19th century baseball superstars:

Legendary Pitcher Cy Young

Baseball pitcher Cy Young
Cy Young. Getty Images

Modern fans know his name, as the Cy Young Award is given annually to the best pitchers in each of the two major leagues. But today's fans may not fully appreciate that Young's record for winning the most games, 511, has stood for more than a century. And it's a record that most likely will never be broken, as no modern pitcher has come close to winning 400 games.

Young's career began with the Cleveland Spiders in 1890. He soon made an impression, and an 1893 mention in the New York Times referred to him as "the raw-boned crack pitcher of the Clevelands."

Throwing very fast and very hard, Young dominated batters throughout the 1890s. When the owner of the Cleveland franchise bought a franchise in St. Louis and transferred players to his new team, Young joined the St. Louis Perfectos.

In 1901 the arrival of the American League created a bidding war for talent, and Young was lured to the Boston Americans. While pitching for Boston, Young threw the very first pitch in World Series history, in the 1903 series against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Young retired after the 1911 season and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937. He died at the age of 88 on November 4, 1955. Two days later New York Times published an appreciation of his career which described how he loved to tell old baseball stories:

"There was a remarkable occasion when Cy was rambling away good-naturedly when a bumptious young reporter, unaware of Cy's identity, interrupted.
"'Pardon me, Mr. Young,' he said. 'Were you a big league pitcher?'
"'Young feller,' drawled Cy, an impish glint in his eyes, 'I won more major league games than you're likely to see in your lifetime.'"

Willie Keeler

19th century baseball player Wee Willie Keeler
Willie Keeler. Getty Images

Known as "Wee Willie" for his small stature, Brooklyn-born Willie Keeler became a star of the great Baltimore Orioles teams of the mid-1890s. He is still regarded as one of the game's greatest hitters, and no less an authority than Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox legend considered the greatest hitter ever, regarded him as an inspiration.

Did You Know?

  • Willie Keeler, speaking in a Brooklyn accent and employing eccentric grammar, became a favorite of newspapermen.
  • His motto is still remembered: "Hit 'em where they ain't."

Keeler broke into the major leagues with the New York Giants in 1892, but the seasons he spent with the scrappy Baltimore Orioles from 1894 through 1898 made him a legend. Standing only five feet four inches tall, and weighing 140 pounds, Keeler seemed an unlikely athlete. But he was crafty at the plate.

Keeler's approach to hitting inspired changes in baseball's rules. In an era when foul balls didn't count as strikes, he would keep himself alive at the plate by fouling off balls until he got a pitch he wanted to hit. And his technique of fouling off pitches inspired the change in rules that made foul bunts count as a third strike.

A pitcher of the era described Keeler in an article that appeared in the St. Paul Globe on June 7, 1897:

"'The most scientific batsman I ever pitched to is Willie Keeler of the Orioles,' says Win Mercer. 'At least 90 percent of the batsmen have their weakness, but Keeler is flawless. He can smash a slow curve and he can bat out speed. Nothing is impossible to him—curves, speed, height, or anything else—and with all his great talent as a fielder and batsman he a modest unassuming little gentleman.'"

Willie Keeler was born March 3, 1872, in Brooklyn, New York. He died of heart disease at the age of 50 on January 1, 1923, in Brooklyn. Keeler was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.

A story in the New York Times on January 4, 1923 noted that six of Keeler's teammates on the 1890s Baltimore Orioles served as pallbearers. Remarkably, four of the six pallbearers would also be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame: John McGraw, Wilbert Robinson, Hugh Jennings, and Joe Kelley.

Buck Ewing

Illustration of 19th century baseball player Buck Ewing
Buck Ewing sliding into home. Getty Images

Buck Ewing was perhaps the greatest catcher of the 19th century. He was feared for his hitting ability, but it was his defensive play behind the plate that made him a hero.

In the 19th century bunting and base stealing were a large part of the offensive game. Ewing's fast fielding often thwarted hitters trying to bunt their way aboard. And with a mighty throwing arm, Ewing was known for cutting down runners trying to steal.

Ewing came into the professional leagues in 1880, and within a few years became a star with the New York Gothams (who became the New York Giants). As captain of the Giants team in the late 1880s he helped win the National League title in 1888 and 1889.

With a batting average above .300 for ten seasons, Ewing was always a major threat at the plate. And with his great instinct for getting a jump on a pitcher, he was very successful at stealing bases.

Ewing died of diabetes on October 20, 1906, at the age of 47. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.

Candy Cummings, Inventor of the Curve Ball

19th century baseball pitcher Candy Cumming
Candy Cumming. Getty Images

There are competing stories about who threw the first curveball, but many believe the lore that "Candy" Cummings, who pitched in the major leagues of the 1870s, deserves that honor.

Born William Arthur Cummings in Massachusetts in 1848, he made his professional debut pitching for a Brooklyn, New York, team when he was 17. According to popular legend, he had gotten the idea of making a baseball curve in flight while throwing seashells into the surf at a Brooklyn beach a few years earlier.

He kept experimenting with different grips and pitching motions. And Cummings claimed he finally knew he had perfected the pitch during a game against the Harvard College team in 1867.

Cummings became a very successful professional pitcher throughout the 1870s, though hitters eventually began to learn how to hit the curveball. He pitched his last game in 1884, and became a baseball executive.

Cummings died May 16, 1924, at the age of 75. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.

Cap Anson

19th century baseball player Cap Anson
Cap Anson. Getty Images

Cap Anson was a fearsome hitter who played first base for the Chicago White Stockings for more than 20 seasons, from 1876 to 1897.

He hit better than .300 for 20 seasons, and in four seasons he led the majors in hitting. In the era of the player-manager, Anson also distinguished himself as a strategist. Teams he led won five pennants.

However, Anson's on-field exploits have been overshadowed by the knowledge that he was a racist who refused to play against teams with Black players. And Anson is believed to be partly responsible for the longstanding tradition of segregation in major league baseball.

Anson's refusal to take the field against Black players is thought to be responsible for an unwritten agreement among major league owners in the late 1880s to segregate the game. And segregation in baseball continued, of course, well into the 20th century.

John McGraw

Photograph of baseball legend John McGraw
John McGraw. Getty Images

John McGraw was a superstar as both a player and manager, and distinguished himself as an intensely competitive member of the great Baltimore Orioles teams of the 1890s. He later managed the New York Giants, where his drive to win made him a legend.

Playing third base for the Orioles, McGraw was known for aggressive play which sometimes led to brawls with opposing players. There are countless stories of McGraw bending (if not breaking) the rules, including hiding spare baseballs in tall grass or holding a runner's belt when he tried to leave third base.

McGraw, however, was no clown. He had a lifetime batting average of .334, and twice led the majors in runs scored.

As a manager, McGraw led the New York Giants for 30 years in the early 20th century. During that period the Giants won 10 pennants and three world championships.

Born in 1873 in upstate New York, McGraw died in 1934 at the age of 60. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937.

King Kelly

19th century baseball player King Kelly
King Kelly. Getty Images

Michael "King" Kelly was a star of the Chicago White Stockings and the Boston Bean Eaters. He picked up the nickname the "Ten Thousand Dollar Beauty" after his contract was sold from the White Stockings to the Bean Eaters for the then-astronomical sum of $10,000.

One of the most popular players of his era, Kelly was known for introducing innovative tactics. He is often credited for creating the hit-and-run play and the double-steal. Kelly hit better than .300 in eight seasons and was also known for stealing bases.

Kelly's popularity was so great that a gramophone recording of a comic song, "Slide, Kelly, Slide," became one of the earliest hit records in the early 1890s. 

Born in Troy, New York, in 1857, Kelly died of pneumonia at the age of 36 in 1894. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945.

Billy Hamilton

19th century baseball player Billy Hamilton
Billy Hamilton. Getty Images

Billy Hamilton set a number of baseball records during his career in the late 1800s. Known during his career as "Sliding Billy," he stole 937 bases while playing from 1888 to 1901. 

Remarkably, Hamilton is still ranked third in career stolen bases, behind modern era players Rickey Henderson and Lou Brock.

Despite playing shorter seasons in his era, Hamilton also set a record for scoring 198 runs in the 1894 season (the Baseball Hall of Fame gives the number as 192 runs). Hamilton set the major league record for runs scored in four separate seasons of the 1890s.

Born in Newark, NewJersey, in 1866, Hamilton died at the age of 74 in 1940.