Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Ex-Excelsior, Founding Father of Montgomery Baseball

Dr.Pearsall, I presume...


 Alabama's Link to Elysian Fields and the First Banned Player

Excelsior Club of Brooklyn 1860 (left to right): Thomas Reynolds, SS; John Whiting, 3B; Jim Creighton (holding ball), P; Henry D. Polhemus, 2B; Aleck T. Pearsall, 1B; Edwin Russell, LF; Joe Leggett, C; Asa Brainard, LF; and George Flanly, CF.

This is a chapter from my book: Montgomery's Nines - A History of Baseball in Montgomery Alabama.

A while back I read a post in MLB historian John Thorn's blog about Elysian Fields in which a letter writer is from Montgomery. Its not the focal point, just a sideline, but I made note of it since it fell in our city baseball history. Later when I looked deeper into it, I found a nice page with a little written about the player in question, but now that I go back and try to access it that page has fallen off the internet. 

I would like to credit both Thorn and this anonymous internet scribe for inspiring me to look into this odd piece of early Montgomery Baseball history a little deeper and expanding on what is known about this unheralded early figure in our baseball story. 


Andrew Thurston Pearsall
known as A.T. or maybe "Aleck", Pearsall was born in Florence, Alabama in April of 1839 and there he stayed until his family moved to Hoopers Valley in New York around 1845, where his father had grown up.

Pearsall would grow up as a dedicated student but like most boys, developed an interest in playing cricket and its variant, town ball. The early pre-baseball townball game was a sandlot sport played in many northern towns and cities, and has roots going way back into a murky antiquity.
"Stump ball" ca.1500's

A.T. Pearsall studied at several fine schools and eventually earned his Doctorate in 1861 from the Columbia, NY College of Physicians and Surgeons. While he was studying for his medical exams, he would take time out from classes to play cricket or baseball. He had progressed beyond simple town ball and had taken a position with one of the early organized amateur base ball teams. Comprised mainly of med students, the Aesculapians team deployed Aleck as a first baseman.
Pearsall ca 1859-60
That is where he was when the Excelsiors found him in early 1859, picking him up and adding him to the roles of the first organized league. With a membership of just over 50 men, the National Association of Base Ball Players was a very exclusive group of the best base ball teams in the world, and Aleck Pearsall was about to join them.

Jim Creighton
The Brooklyn Excelsiors, also known as the "Jolly Young Bachelor Base Ball Club", were led by star James Creighton, known as the top pitcher of the era - Jim Creighton is baseball's first great pitcher.

However, Creighton would also be its first fallen hero, dying from an on-field injury caused by his fierce swing of the bat rupturing internal organs.

Pearsall would man first base for the Brooklyn Excelsiors during their 1859 and 1860 seasons. He drew praise for his play and it was said there was no equal to him at the position to be found anywhere. It was an especially tough time to be a first baseman or catcher, since no gloves were used.
Pearsall, second from right in photo of Knickerbocker and Excelsior players
Pearsall was known for his big bat in the lineup, literally. He reportedly used a 50 inch bat. His defense was impeccable, known to not let any throws past him, an impressive feat even if embellished a little when described as his "steel trap style".

More than that, they were gentlemen. At a time when on-field antics and outrageous behavior plagued most teams, the Excelsiors demanded a more refined and level headed game that was ahead of its time. Bickering and unsportsmanlike play was simply not accepted, and in its place grew one of the first great teams in the early history of the sport.


The team took to the road in 1860, winning each contest handily while traveling as far south as Baltimore. One such victory was against the Hudson River club, who fell 59-14. The Excelsiors won 18, lost 2 that season. They had one tie - with the rival Atlantics.

That a baseball team would take to the road for an overnight trip was an oddity in 1860, but would set the precedent to encourage later teams to organize and eventually form leagues that involved travel requirements.

Even their hats were trend setting, the Excelsiors wore the first hats that would be considered "ball caps" by modern standards. With a bill and panels that would later be known as the "Brooklyn style" the Excelsiors were ahead of their time in so many ways.

Entrenched in the War between the States as the nation was, medical experts were in high demand and Pearsall was fresh from medical school in October 1861. He was contracted at $100 a month to be an Assistant Surgeon for the Confederates, working on the wounded at Richmond and Atlanta. He served at Roy Hospital and Fair Grounds Hospital in Atlanta, and was attached to the Kentucky Cavalry. He was known for his positive and easy disposition with patients, who were both Union and Confederate.

In fact it was while doctoring Union wounded and inquiring on the welfare of ex-teammates fighting for the Federals that word got back to the Brooklyn team about the Excelsior player now tending injured rebels. Of 91 current or former members of the Excelsiors who fight in the war, only Pearsall sided with the south. The remaining Excelsior players banned their former star first baseman, vowing to bar anyone who assists the Confederates from ever playing again.

Pearsall is discharged from duty in 1863, likely avoiding the worst of the triage that would be seen in the Confederate hospitals around Atlanta in the following months.

1870s baseball players in MGM
After the war, Aleck Pearsall came to Montgomery Alabama and opened a medical practice downtown. He also joined the Montgomery baseball team, the 1867 Montgomery team was known then as Pelham, though not based IN Pelham it is likely named for the local teams sponsor. Pelham, along with the Mobile Dramatics are the first recorded baseball teams in the state of Alabama, both being organized in the late spring of 1867.

I found it more than a little noteworthy that when the former Excelsiors star first baseman comes to Montgomery, Montgomery suddenly has its first baseball team.

Pearsall was one of, if not THE founding father of the game of baseball in Montgomery and all across Alabama, simply with his presence. He was instrumental with his participation on the first team in Montgomery. There is no more pedigreed player in Montgomery's baseball early ranks, perhaps the entire state.

Having Pearsall on the team would have educated its players on how to play the gentlemans game the right way. He brought knowledge of Jim Creightons pioneering fast pitching, of Leggets legendary catching moves, Asa Brainerds pitching brilliance and of the strategy employed by the early managers never known locally.

The postwar baseball scene was usually a locals vs locals event, rarely did teams travel far, but on at least one occasion a barnstorming team of Northern pros came through the south, playing games against Southern teams. It was reported that "former Brooklyn players" would appear for the Southern team, which would be Pearsall as the lone Confederate AND former Brooklyn Excelsior.

The 1870 Census records indicate Pearsall and his wife Mary had a daughter Osa, who was shown to be age 0. Also with them in residence was Mosses Holland, a 16 year old black youth from Georgia that the Pearsalls hired as domestic help and enrolled in the Negro School.
1870 Census

Dr.Pearsall was active in the medical community, listed among the areas prominent phsyicians. One reference describes some of his surgeries in the year of 1871:
Dr. A. T. Pearsall reports five amputations, two of the leg, one of 
the arm, and two of the fingers, also a number of fractures and 

Tombigbee River, White Bluffs at Demopolis
A "Mr.Pearsall" is on record as having been "highly recommended by prominent parties" to lead an expedition from the mouth of the Tombigbee River to the end of its navigation and file a report with the U.S.Army Corps of Engineers.

This excursion took place from the middle of September 1870 until March of 1871, when the report was filed. Its easy to guess that this exploring Mr.Pearsall is our former Excelsior.

1870s Fire Brigade on Parade on Dexter Ave
Aleck, now Dr.Pearsall, lived and worked in Montgomery until at least the late 1870s, which is where he was when he was asked about the 1866 Currier and Ives woodcut of the Elysian Fields game. Pearsall was able to identify the players as his former teammates and pick them out by name, as seen in a letter written to a New York newspaper describing the famous image and its historic players....

from THORNS blog:
A letter from a Mr. A. Jacobi of Montgomery, Alabama, to the New York Clipper, published on September 4, 1875, provided the identities of each man in the 1860 salt print, from which the Clipper executed a woodcut: Through the courtesy of Mr. A. Jacobi of Montgomery, Ala., we are enabled to lay before our readers a picture of the model baseball nine of the period when the game was entirely in the hands of the amateur class of the fraternity. Mr. Jacobi, in a letter to us, says he is indebted to Dr. A. T. Pearsall of Montgomery for the photograph sent us, that veteran first-baseman being still a “play list” in the South….  

 The picture contains the portraits of the following players: On the extreme left is the old shortstop of the nine, Tommy Reynolds…. Next to him stands John Whitney…. The third is James Creighton—he has a ball in his hand—the pitcher of the period par excellence, and the first to introduce the wrist throw or low-underhand-throw delivery. His forte was great speed and thorough command of the ball…. This team defeated nearly every nine they encountered in 1859 and 1860, but in the latter year they had to succumb to the Atlantics….

A.T.Pearsall moved back to Oswego New York in the 1880s with his daughter and retired to run a small doctors practice there until his passing in 1905. He was active in watching youth sports, especially baseball and basically enjoyed being a quiet town doctor.

Just a year before his death, Oswego NY learned that their old doc was the star first baseman of the 1860s, and the elderly Aleck received a round of recognition for his past diamond exploits before the sun set on the first banned player.

*** Some references list Pearsall as a native Virginian, but there is little to back up that claim.

*** Other sources place Pearsall as a New York state native who is married to an Alabama woman and say he changed his birthplace claim when the war breaks out. In fact, Pearsall doesn't marry until after the war. I find the most reliable family reference to him as born in Lauderdale County, Alabama, near Muscle Shoals.

*** Some references say the nickname "Aleck" was never used during his lifetime, only attached later by sportswriters and baseball historians. Either way, this is how he is known, so I use it too.

*** Census records sometimes spell his last name as "Pearsol"

*** The Montgomery Medical Assn in 1871 spells his middle name "ThuRston", as does Hobart College where he attended pre-med classes. Others list the name as "Thuston", without the R.

*** The A.Jacobi of Montgomery likely isn't "of Montgomery" at all - Dr.A.Jacobi of Albany, New York 1870-90's era is probably friends with Pearsall and enjoying a visit. Jacobi may even have known Pearsall as the former ballplayer and is surely the author of the letter.

*** In Greek Mythology, The Elysian Fields was where the souls of the heroic and virtuous reside after death, ruled by Hades. In base ball, The Elysian Fields of Hoboken is the site of the first organized base ball game ca.1845. In 1865 the championship match between the Mutuals and Atlantics was the subject of a popular print by Currier and Ives.

No comments: