By Glen Sparks
A handful of baseball’s most astute fans gathered Saturday, May 14, at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. They were there to honor the life of James Whyte Davis.
“Too Late” Davis, as many called him because he often showed up tardy to his own games, played for the historic Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, based in New York City, one of the sport’s early teams. Davis also served as Knickerbockers president for a time.
Born on March 2, 1826, Davis died in Feb. 15, 1899, put to rest in an unmarked grave. Now, thanks to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), that sad circumstance has changed. SABR, a Phoenix-based group dedicated to all things baseball, placed a headstone at Davis’ burial spot.
The black marker is shaped like home plate. An epitaph, a quote from Davis himself, reads “Wrapped in the Original Flag of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of N.Y. Here lies the body of James Whyte Davis. A member for thirty years, He was none ‘Too Late’ Reaching the ‘Home Plate.’”
SABR hopes to provide many more former players with headstones (or replace crumbling ones) through its 19th Century Grave Marker Project. Davis’s was the first. Other candidates include Hall of Famers James “Pud” Galvin, a 365-game winner, and King Kelly, who compiled a .308 lifetime batting average and led the league in hitting twice.
A page on SABR’s web site explains the Grave Marker project. Anyone interested can make a tax-deductible donation to support this mission. MLB has kicked in a $10,000 donation to help get things going.
SABR also needs members to do some field research and verify if a former player is buried in an unmarked grave or one that is in serious disrepair. (Click here for SABR membership information.) Former managers, umpires, baseball writers and others connected to the game also may be included in this project.
The stories of so many early baseball people have been lost to time. “Too Late” Davis’s story is worth knowing. He began playing for the Knickerbockers in September 1850 and kept going for 25 years. Davis roamed centerfield in the Fashion Race Course Games of 1858, a three-game series played in Queens, N.Y., between New York and Brooklyn and basically baseball’s first All-Star games. Davis competed for New York.
From 1858 to 1860, he was president of the Knickerbocker club. In 1867, Davis served as a delegate to the 1867 national convention of the National Association of Amateur BaseBall Players, the game’s governing body.
Davis also gets credit for designing the Knickerbockers’ first banner, unveiled Aug. 27, 1855, at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J. In the shape of a triangle, the banner featured a blue “K” set against a white circle with a red-and-blue background. Until 1875, this flag flew over the team’s clubhouse.
Besides being a ballplayer, Davis also worked as a firefighter and stockbroker. He never made much money, however. Late in life, knowing the end was near, Davis wrote a letter to New York Giants owner Edward B. Talcott.
Subsequently printed in the New York Sun, the letter read in part: “My wish is that Baseball players be invited to subscribe Ten Cents each and no matter how small a sum is collected, it will be sufficient to place an oak board with an inscription on my resting place. I desire to be buried in my baseball suit, and wrapped in the original flag of the old Knickerbockers 1845, now festooned over my bureau and for the past 18 years.”
The letter also includes the former ballplayer’s proposed epithet: “Wrapped in the Original Flag …” Unfortunately, times were tough, and the dimes didn’t trickle in. Davis was, however, buried in his baseball uniform, wrapped in the team pennnat.
Speakers at Davis’ recent ceremony offered kind words. A singer and violin player performed a song called “Ball Days,” written by Davis. SABR member Bill Ryczek said this: “It’s important to commemorate his presence since he was such a historic figure in baseball,”
It’s never too late.