Jimmy Wood was the second baseman on the National Championship Eckford baseball club and later was a founder of the Chicago White Sox. In 1919 he published a fascinating memoir, part of which dealt with the Eckford Club. He claims that the Eckford Club star pitcher, Joe Sprague, was the greatest pitcher ever.
Related by James Wood, Captain and Manager of the Famous Chicago White Stockings of 1870-71, to Frank G. Menke.
And now my story shifts to a baseball club—the Eckfords—which swept through two seasons achieving 144 victories without suffering a single defeat [this claim is without merit—jt]; to a man— Joe Sprague—who pitched and won every one of those games for the Eckfords.
The records of both are without parallel in baseball history; accomplishments so remarkable that they never can be surpassed nor closely approached.
The Eckfords, as I stated in a previous article, represented Williamsburg, then a separate town, but now a part of Brooklyn. It was the first team I played on and I held down second base in every one of those games that we won while establishing our record mark.
Our winning streak began with the opening of the 1862 season and continued right through to the end of 1863. During that time we played —with one exception—every team of strength and importance in New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Troy, Syracuse, Albany, Washington and the smaller cities. And we beat them all, not once, but as often as they cared to try conclusions with us.
The single exception was the Excelsior team of Brooklyn. We wanted to play them, issuing repeated challenges. But their Captain, Joe Leggett, refused for the sole reason that he had become angered during the summer of 1862 when our Captain, who was captain of a picked nine on which Leggett played, was presented with a souvenir ball. Leggett thought he was entitled to it and vowed afterward that so long as he was leader of the Excelsiors he never would permit them to play the Eckfords. He kept his word.
Joe Sprague, in my opinion, was the greatest pitcher of all time. When one calls to mind the fact that he pitched—and won—144 games in two seasons, pitching three times a week, it doesn’t leave much room for argument, does it?
Sprague, throwing an underhand ball, had terrific speed and wonderful control. But, most important of all, Sprague threw a curve ball—that was back in 1862—which means that Sprague, not Arthur Cummings of the Brooklyn Stars of 1863-64, or Bobby Mathews, of the Baltimores of 1866-67, was the original curve-ball pitcher.
In those days when Sprague pitched for our Eckford team a curve ball, as such, was unknown. But we always noticed that some of Sprague’s deliveries took a sharp twist, sometimes turning in and sometimes turning away from the batter. All of us used to remark about the peculiar gyrations of the ball that he threw. I was not until some years later, however, when curved balls became an established fact, that we recognized the delivery then called a curve, as the very same kind of ball that Sprague had thrown in 1862 and 1863 while pitching himself—and the Eckfords —to fame.
And yet the amazing accomplishments of both the Eckfords and Sprague never have found their way in the record books. No mention is made of them anywhere. There is one way that I can account for this failure to chronicle properly the greatest feat in the entire history of the game. And that is that the record was made in the days before any records were kept—in the era before tabulation began. It was not until along in 1864 and 1865 that Henry Chadwick put into operation his tabulating system and began preserving records.
1868 Cincinnati Red Stockings
The Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869 have gained undying fame for having won 56 games, tying one and losing none in that season, but their record is insignificant in comparison with the 144 straight victories of the Eckfords of 1862-63. The Red Stockings’ record for two years, 1869-70, totals 79 victories, one tie and three defeats, and not one defeat, as some records show.
The Red Stockings were defeated two straight games in the Fall of 1870 by the Chicago White Stockings. a team which I organized, captained and managed. That team was recruited for the sole purpose of beating the arrogant Red Stockings —and it accomplished its object in the most sensational baseball series ever played. (He fails to mention that many of the White Sox players were former Eckford players.) In a later article I shall deal with those two games, one which was witnessed by the greatest crowd—50,000—that ever saw a professional ball game in America.