Monday, March 10, 2014

Newton Crane - Base Ball Pioneer on Two Continents

Obituaries of early New Jersey base ball players seldom include much information about the deceased's base ball activities regardless of their duration or significance.  As a result it isn't surprising that the most detailed obituary of Robert Newton Crane fails to mention his involvement in base ball pioneering on two continents over two centuries.  Also contributing to the lack of base ball related information in the obituary is the fact that Crane's primary base ball roles were off-the-field.  Even more important, however, in the absence of any mention of this aspect of Crane's life is that the most detailed obituary appeared not in an American paper, but in the stately Times of London where Crane lived for the last half of his long life.  But even though far away from his native land and national game, Crane never stopped trying to further base ball's advancement.

Portion of Crane's obituary in The Times, May 7, 1927

Robert Newton Crane, more commonly known as Newton Crane, was born on April 1, 1848 in Long Branch, New Jersey, the son of John Newton Crane and Fannie C. Crane.  The elder Crane was a Methodist minister, born in West Bloomfield, New Jersey (now Montclair) in 1810. Reverend Crane served multiple congregations in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey so the family moved frequently in the 1850's and 1860's and there were a number of places where Newton could have been introduced to base ball.  If, however, he hadn't caught the base ball bug by the mid 1860's, Crane certainly did so while attending Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut as one of the 17 members of the class of 1867.

Wesleyan in the late 1860's

While the class size seems incredibly small today, like most 19th century institutions of higher education, Wesleyan was a very small place in the 1860's with a total college community of about 150 people.  Even with a small student body, however, Wesleyan was not immune to base ball excitement as the school reportedly had "various" base ball clubs in the 1860's including the Agallian Club which was formed in the fall of 1864.  About a year later, on September 30, 1865, the club played its first match game, traveling to relatively near New Haven to take on Yale where they were decisively defeated 39 to 13.  Although hardly a major sporting event, for some reason the contest merited an article and box score in the New York Times listing one R.N. Crane as the Agallian score keeper documenting his participation in the early days of college base ball.

Newark Daily Advertiser - September 14, 1867

College in the 1860's usually prepared young men for a career in the church, medicine or the law, the so-called learned professions.  By the time of his 1867 graduation, however, Crane had apparently decided, at least initially, not to pursue any of those options.  Instead he came to Newark and took a job as a reporter for the Newark Daily Advertiser which included covering base ball matches.  The post Civil War period saw not only significant base ball expansion in New Jersey, but also the initial phase of wide spread media coverage so, as with his college experience, Crane participated in the early stages of an important and permanent development in base ball.  As noted in a prior post, Crane even played in an 1867 match between Newark and New York/Brooklyn reporters, having much success at catcher as he retired 10 opposition strikers on foul bound outs.

Newark Morning Register - May 20, 1869

During Crane's time at the Advertiser he formed what became a lifelong friendship with Richard L. Gilder who went on to a long and successful career as the editor of the Century magazine, a leading national publication of the late 19th century.  After Crane had spent a year or so with the Advertiser, he and Gilder became more than friends as they joined forces to start a new paper, the Newark Morning Register.  Although the new venture meant more responsibility for Crane, he still found time to play in base ball matches between Newark newspapers.

St. Louis about 1860

While Crane and Gilder may have been lifelong friends, their business relationship lasted only until 1872 when Crane his sold interest in the paper and moved west to St. Louis.  Like almost every U. S. community, St. Louis was the scene of intense competition between politically partisan newspapers.  Ironically the Republican newspaper at the time was the St. Louis Democrat owned by George Fishback and two partners.  It's not entirely clear what drew Crane to St. Louis, but in March of 1872, Fishback bought out his other two partners and brought his brother, William, in from Indianapolis to help run the paper.  William, in turn, recruited new talent including Crane although how he knew Crane isn't clear.    Supposedly Crane used "considerable charm and a patina of good manners" to win over the city's "social elite" and whether it was his "charm," talent or some combination of the two, George Fishback promoted Crane to managing editor.

Gerard Allen - Crane's Father-in-law and reportedly the wealthiest man in St. Louis

Fishback's buyout of his partners and promotion of Crane drove both the former partners and the former managing editor to the rival St. Louis Globe and Crane's college education and social skills not withstanding, the Democrat lost the newspaper war with its rival.  In 1875 the Globe took over the Democrat forming the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, but by that point, however, Crane was not only out of journalism, but out of the country.  Among those apparently impressed by Crane in the city's "social elite" was Mary Frances Allen, daughter of Gerald B. Allen, reportedly the wealthiest man in St. Louis.  Crane and Mary Frances were married in 1873 and a year later moved to England when Crane was appointed U. S. Consul to Manchester by President Grant.  Crane's time in England was life changing in multiple ways beginning with a career change as upon returning to the U. S. in 1878 he forsook journalism to become a lawyer.   Once admitted to the bar, Crane became partners with Everett W. Crane in the firm of Pattison and Crane supposedly "one of the most prominent" in St. Louis.

Everett Pattison - Crane's law partner

In addition to whatever financial and personal rewards Crane got from the career change, the move also got him back into base ball.  One of Crane's clients was Henry V. Lucas, who had inherited a large fortune from his grandfather, an early settler of St. Louis.  Lucas loved base ball and had built a field at "Normandy" his country estate where he invited friends to play ball, followed by elegant dining.  It's not hard to imagine Crane at these gatherings, getting back on the field and then talking base ball with his host.  At the time (late 1883) there were two major leagues, the National League and the American Association which at the end of that year signed the National Agreement which among other things formalized the reserve clause binding a player to one team as long as the team desired.

Newton Crane in his prime

Lucas wanted to own a major league team and finding no existing franchises available for purchase decided to start a new major league, the Union Association.  While Lucas pledged to honor existing contracts, he declared war on the reserve clause so that as Lucas' attorney, Newton Crane became involved in the first large scale attack on that controversial restriction of player's rights, an effort that finally succeeded roughly a century later.  As the Union Association prepared for the 1884 season, some 30 players subject to the National Agreement signed contracts with the new league including Tony Mullnane known as the "Count of Macaroni" because of his "dandified appearance."  Mullnane became a focal point of the war as after jumping from the American Association St. Louis Browns to the Lucas' St. Louis Unions, he promptly jumped back to Toledo of the American Association.

Tony Mullnane - the King of Macaroni

A large part of Mullnane's motivation for defecting from his defection was probably because the National Agreement clubs "blacklisted" those who jumped to the new league. When Mullnane's subsequently arrived in St. Louis with the Toledo club, Crane took legal action on Lucas' behalf and obtained an injunction preventing Mullnane from playing in St. Louis unless it was for Lucas' team.  Crane then followed Mullnane and the Toledo Club to Cincinnati where he obtained an initial injunction there as well.  Not surprisingly the Toledo club appealed and very surprisingly U. S. Circuit Judge John Baxter dismissed the injunction without even reading the legal briefs because the matter was "too trivial" for the court to consider since base ball was a sport not a business.

Henry V. Lucas' grave - reportedly no pictures survive of the Union Association founder

While Mullnane's status was important from a legal standpoint, his loss on-the-field didn't have much impact as Lucas' club dominated the Union Association's first and only season, going 91-16 and easily finished first.  Financed primarily with Lucas money, the other clubs struggled with only five playing out the full schedule.  In the end, Lucas killed the league before it died on its own, as it had served his purposes when his team was accepted into the National League even though it meant accepting the hated reserve clause.  A larger question were the players who had been "blacklisted" for signing with Lucas.  Once again Crane was involved and the two men attended the National League meetings in early 1885 and plead "by every art known to them," but to no avail.  Fortunately the ban was finally listed, but Lucas' membership among the magnates was short lived as he was out of base ball by 1886 and in serious financial trouble thereafter.

St. Louis Republic - October 24, 1897

Perhaps some of Lucas' problems could have been averted by Crane's legal counsel, but by the end of 1885 Crane had once left St. Louis and returned to England.  Apparently Crane and his wife enjoyed their four years in England so much they moved back there permanently and Crane was admitted to the British bar.  His English legal career was so successful that in 1921, Crane was appointed a King's Counsel, one of England's highest legal honors, known as "taking silk" because of the robes worn in court.  At the time Crane was the first American ever to be so honored.  In addition to his legal work, Crane was a long time leader in the American colony in England including helping to found the American Society in London and serving as chairman in 1898.

The Northern Echo - March 26, 1890 - one example of Crane's promotion of base ball in England

Being over 3000 miles from American base ball did not, however, prevent Crane from promoting the game.  Albert Spalding's 1889 world tour made it's last stop in England, playing matches for over a two week period, primarily in the Midlands.  The tour sparked interest in getting American base ball played competitively in England and from 1890 on, Crane was reportedly "the true north of British base ball for the next two decades."  The initial effort was the formation of the National Base Ball League of Great Britain with Crane as president and money, players and managers provided by Albert Spalding.  The league had four teams in the Midlands, but unfortunately problems of rowdiness and discord led to the dissolution of the league after one season.

However, Crane continued to promote the game including writing an 1891 base ball book aimed at the English audience and also served as President of the London Base Ball Association in 1894.  None of these effort bore much fruit and Crane resigned his president's position in 1895, giving up for the moment, his efforts to bring his beloved game to his new homeland.  Base ball passion dies hard, however, and 1918 saw Crane take part in one last effort to sell base ball to the British.  With so many Americans and Canadian military personnel in England, Crane helped organize the Anglo-American League which played on Saturdays and holidays.   Any long term success was probably unlikely, but the end of World War I and the Spanish Influenza epidemic ended any chance for the league's survival.

Newton Crane in 1917

The Anglo-American League apparently marked Crane's last active involvement in base ball prior to his death on May 7, 1927.  As noted the Times obituary gives a detailed history of Crane's distinguished career without mentioning any of his various roles in base ball.  Although Newton Crane's on-the-field career was brief, in other capacities he was involved in four pioneering efforts - the early days of college base ball, sports writing, the first major challenge to the reserve clause and introducing American base ball to a England.  The ultimate success of the first three is well known, much less visible is that baseball is indeed played in England today, most prominently through the British Baseball Federation which in 2013 had 58 teams participating in four different leagues. 

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