By Glen Sparks
Marjorie Adams is the great-granddaughter of baseball pioneer Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams. Doc is a candidate for induction into the Baseball of Fame this year as part of the Pre-Integration ballot. Baseball experts credit Doc Adams for creating the shortstop position, serving as an early leader of the Knickerbocker Baseball Club and leading several early rules committees. He manufactured bats, balls and other equipment, and much more. Doc also ruled that bases should be placed 90 feet apart from one another.
Not surprisingly, Marjorie Adams is one of Doc’s biggest supporters. Born and raised in New York City, Marjorie now lives in Connecticut. She has a bachelor’s degree from Stephen’s College in Columbia, Mo., and is retired from working in the furniture business. She likes American history, Broadway musicals and Shakespeare. She also enjoys educating people about Doc Adams and is a big fan of both the New York Yankees and New York Mets.
This is the first of my two-part interview with Marjorie.
Marjorie, could you provide a brief biography of your great-grandfather?
Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams was born in Mont Vernon, N.H., on Nov 1, 1814. His father, Daniel Adams, was a doctor and also wrote arithmetic and geography textbooks. Doc graduated from Yale in 1835 and Harvard Medical School in 1838. He moved to New York City in 1839 and set-up his medical practice. His primary practice was treating “stammerers.”
In 1866, Doc retired from medicine and moved to Ridgefield, Ct. Doc served one term in the state legislature (1870) and about 15 years as first president of the Ridgefield Savings Bank. In about 1888, he moved the family to New Haven. He died there on Jan. 3, 1899.
While growing up, how much did you know about your great-grandfather’s contributions to early baseball?
In 1939, my grandfather, Roger Cook Adams (1874-1962), wrote an extensive essay on Doc, not for publication, just for his family and descendants. Because of that, we knew quite a bit. I’ve learned so much more about him, though, in the last few years. I’ve read about 150 letters written to Doc by his father. They cover the years 1827-1864. They’re enormously revealing as much for what they don’t say as for what they do say. Not one letter to Doc mentions baseball at all.
I do have a letter from 1832, written by Nancy, Doc’s younger sister, in which she writes to her big brother: “I have not played with your bat and ball as you bid me. I forget it every morning and indeed I have not seen it since you went away.” She was 11, and Doc was 17.
Why do you think the letters fail to mention anything about baseball?
I suspect his father would not have approved of such a pursuit. He was a strict Congregationalist, and he would not have considered it worthy of a great deal of time and effort except maybe for a little exercise. To his father, education and making your way in the world with high morals and an active religious life was everything a man should aspire to accomplish.
How did “Doc” Adams’ baseball career begin?
According to Doc in a Sporting News interview in 1896, “I was always interested in athletics while in college and afterward, and soon after coming to New York  I began to play base ball just for exercise, with a number of other young medical men.” (Baseball was spelled “base ball” in the early days.) I think he thought of the game as a hobby.
What do we know about “Doc” Adams’ ability as a player?
Not a great deal, but he was terribly enthusiastic about the game and would do most anything to promote it among the members of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. I do have a quote from a New York City newspaper, Spirit of TheTimes, Dec. 6, 1856: “Adams, as short field has for many years, (sic) been deservedly distinguished. Excellent as a catcher and probably the most accurate thrower in any club. A ball sent to him to first base rarely fails in proving fatal to the runner. He strikes with great force, but by raising the ball he gives many chances to the long field.” Doc played, at one time or other, all positions except pitcher. He was even an umpire, and on Sept. 10, 1858 at the third match of the Fashion Race Course Games on Long Island (an early All-Star game), was the first umpire to apply the new rule of calling men out on non-swinging strikes. Doc had presided over the committee that had passed that rule earlier in the year. Doc also presided over the convention that founded the National Association of Base Ball Players (the first professional baseball league).
Is it true that “Doc” Adams helped form the famous Knickerbocker Base Ball Club?
No, Doc was not there when the Knickerbockers were formalized as a club on Sept. 23, 1845 (170 years ago). Again, according to Doc’s 1896 interview with The Sporting News, he “joined about a month later” He did play in two intramural games in November of that year. Among other things, what Doc can be credited with (and this comes from a number of respected historians and my grandfather’s 1939 essay) is holding the team together in the earliest years of the club.
After the June 1846 game against the New York Base Ball Club (which faded away after that), there were no other teams in New York until about 1850 for the Knickerbockers to play against, and enthusiasm ran low. Doc was VP of the club in 1846 and President from ’47-’49 (and ’56, ’57 and ’61). He gave the Knickerbocker members lectures at team meetings and dinners to encourage them to show up for practice days and intramural games. There is much more on this in The Sporting News interview, which is on our Doc Adams web site. It was Doc’s “love of the game” (his own words) that got members onto the field in the discouraging early days.
How did your great-grandfather go about creating the shortstop position?
Doc was responsible for making the balls for his club. Later, he made balls for other New York-area teams. These balls were very light and while they could be batted a long distance, they couldn’t be thrown very far. Getting a ball from the outfield back to the bases was not easy, so Doc created an intermediary player/position to catch the balls from the outfield and throw them back into the infield. As the balls improved and got heavier, Doc moved himself into the placement of the shortstop position that it is today. The first year that he occupied that shortstop position was in 1849/50. And according to my grandfather, it was his favorite.
The late sportswriter Red Smith once wrote that 90 feet between bases is the closest that man has ever come to perfection. Your grandfather gets credit for establishing that length. He also rejected the idea of a “bound rule.” Could you talk about these subjects?
Oh, thank you for the Red Smith quote. Yes, Doc did do that calculation of 90 feet between bases, as he said in the 1896 interview, “after careful study”. He also set the distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate at 45 feet (That measurement varied through the years. In 1893, baseball ruled that the distance should be 60 feet, six inches, the current measure.) It’s important to keep in mind that Doc’s father was a mathematician. Doc was, too. He helped his father revise one of the editions of his math and accounting textbooks in the early 1860’s. Actually, I think he preferred math to his medical practice.
As for the “bound rule” (A fielder could catch a batted ball on one bounce and it would still be recorded as an out.), Doc worked very hard to eliminate that from play. He frequently and vocally spoke in favor of the “fly game” (A player needed to catch the ball before it dropped for an out to be recorded.) because he thought it made the game manlier. Unfortunately for Doc, he would be disappointed as the rule did not change until after he retired. But in his last speech before the rules committee and his club, he predicted that someday the fly game would be the standard, and the bound rule eliminated.
(My interview with Marjorie Adams continues tomorrow.)