On October 18th 1862 in a rowhouse on 307 Henry Street in today’s Brooklyn Heights neighborhood, a 21-year-old baseball and cricket phenom named Jim Creighton died from injuries sustained while playing in a baseball match. He was the sport’s first on-field fatality and widely considered to be baseball’s first superstar. He was the most feared pitcher of his day.
James ‘Jim’ Creighton was born in Manhattan in 1841 and moved to Brooklyn with his father. At age 17 he started playing for the Brooklyn Niagaras. While pitching against the Brooklyn Stars in 1859, he was noticed for his ‘low, swift delivery’ as a pitcher. Pitchers were required to throw underhand in that era. Though Creighton’s pitches were considered within the rules, they were perhaps aided by some hidden, but illegal, wrist movement. Creighton’s opponents were impressed, and soon he was playing for the Stars, A year later he was playing for the Brooklyn Excelsiors, probably the second strongest team in Brooklyn, and America, behind the mighty Brooklyn Atlantics.
The Excelsiors were desperate to surpass their crosstown rivals, so much so that in all likelihood the paid Creighton ’emoluments’ under the table, making him what some historians call baseball’s first professional. Organized baseball was still officially amateur. The Excelsiors nevertheless became a profitable attraction for the league. Anchored by their star, they went on a barnstorming tour in 1860 to Albany, Buffalo, Canada, Baltimore, and other stops.
Creighton was not a one-sport man. Like many baseball players of his time he also played professional cricket simultaneously and starred for the American Cricket Club and the fabled St. George Cricket Club.
The exact cause of Creighton’s death is the subject of debate to this day. Legend has it he ruptured his abdomen while hitting a home run against the Unions of Morrisania. The truth is probably a little less dramatic. Accounts vary but it appears he ruptured his abdomen playing cricket and then aggravated it while pitching against Morrisania. In any case he died four days after the baseball match at his home. His Excelsior teammates mourned at their clubhouse at 133 Clinton St a few blocks away.
The mystery surrounding the cause of Creighton’s death is in part because of the rivalry at the time of cricket and baseball as America’s most popular sport. Baseball was on the rise at the time but it was still far from certain whether cricket or baseball would rule as A
merican’s most popular team sport. Many baseball officials feared that if the injury were blamed on baseball, the sport’s popularity would suffer. These fears turned out to be unfounded; in fact, baseball used Creighton’s death as as a means to create a sense of history and nostalgia. Creighton was immediacy held as the game’s first superstar. His grave at Green-Wood Cemetery became an attraction, decorated with a baseball carved onto the headstone.
In later years, Creighton’s grave would become a model for plaques used at the Baseball Hall of Fame and at Monument Park in Yankee Stadium. Creighton’s house on Henry Street still stands and is now called “The Creighton.” The Excelsior clubhouse at 133 Clinton also in Brooklyn Heights still stands and now has a plaque honoring the team and Creighton (Though several details on the plaque are wrong; Creighton is inaccurately credited with inventing the curveball.). The death of James Creighton marked the beginning of baseball celebrating its past, something which the sport loves to do.