Jim Creighton was a baseball player with the Brooklyn Excelsiors in 1860, and the effects of his “speedball” can still be felt today.
In a ceremony honoring the late pitcher on October 18, the 150th anniversary of his death, men who play in a baseball league that still uses 19th century rules provided a look into the past as Eric Miklich, one of the players and historian of vintage baseball, mimicked Creighton’s unique pitching style.
The players sported the vintage uniforms, played with an old fashion baseball, and demonstrated how much different pitching is thanks to Creighton.
In 1860s baseball, the pitcher wouldn’t dictate the game as they do today. Instead the batter would ask the pitcher to deliver the ball exactly where they wanted to hit it. Then the pitcher would lightly toss the ball underhanded to the batter and leave everything up to the fielders to make the play. All pitchers practiced this, except for Creighton.
He would throw the equivalent of a modern day fastball that was accused of being illegal and unsportsmanlike throughout the league. Creighton would whip the ball and snap his wrist toward the batter, releasing the ball at an estimated 85 mph. With hitters at the time being accustomed to seeing pitches cross the plate at below 50 mph, he quickly dominated the game.
As a result, the rules of the game changed as others pitchers imitated Creighton’s unique style. Officials instituted a ruling that two lines be drawn 3 feet apart limiting the distance the pitcher had to wind up, which they hoped would limit the speed generated by Creighton’s style. This would eventually lead to the pitching rubber that is used today.
Miklich said that as a historian he is constantly asked who is the first star of baseball.
“Without question Jim Creighton,” he said, “And that is because of his extraordinary 1860 season. Not only was he the best pitcher, but he was also the first player that I know of to have his name specifically attached to a rule.”
Creighton died in 1862 after a chronic condition caused him to collapse as he was rounding the bases in a game, historians believe. The injury was most likely a severe hernia, said Thomas Gilbert, a baseball historian. After collapsing on the field he was taken to his home where he died three days later.
“He died before there was even an organized league,” Gilbert said.
After a few words were spoken at the site of his grave and monument, a 19th-century baseball player wearing the uniform of the 1860s read a poem in honor of Creighton.
“Creighton you were the brother of the ball from long ago, a man who ran the bases before us, who pitched a snap wristed curve ball that went where no sphere before had ever been,” he read.