“Swing and a Miss”


2nd Lieutenant
Aug 6, 2016

From Clam Shells - to Curve Balls
(Max Pixel Public Domain)

It’s 1863: a 14 year old boy from Brooklyn is at the beach and he’s throwing clam shells into the water. He’s on vacation from a boarding school he is attending in Fulton, New York and it’s here by the sea when he makes an interesting observation. He notices that when he and his friend throws the shells a certain way it makes “wide arcs of flight” {1} before it lands in the ocean.

He later writes of that experience - - -

"We became interested in the mechanics of it and experimented for an hour or more. All of a sudden, it came to me that it would be a good joke on the boys if I could make a baseball curve the same way.” {1}

He never imagined how those clam shells would change his life nor would have never know that one day he will find his place in the most prestigious location in Cooperstown, New York; The Baseball Hall of Fame.


William Arthur "Candy" Cummings
(October 18, 1848 – May 16, 1924)
(Public Domain)

William Arthur “Candy” Cummings loved baseball. Born in Massachusetts his family moved to Brooklyn when he was 2 years old. In 1863 when he started playing ball, the rules of the game required the pitcher to pitch underhand, (the band for overhand pitching would not happen until 1884) and although being a pitcher was not considered a lofty position at the time; Cummings was going to be a pitcher. For the next 4 years, he develops and perfects his style and delivery. At 5’9” and weighing 120 he has a small build for a player but that will not stop his drive to play ball.

In 1865 he starts to play in the amateur league knows as the “Star Junior”. In his first season his record was 37-2 and was impressive enough to accept an invitation to play on the “Brooklyn Excelsior Club” one of the best amateur teams in the New York area. It was during this time that he acquired the nickname “Candy”. It was said it was a Civil War era superlative meaning the best of anything. {1}

October 7th, 1867

Unbeknownst to the fans; “they ain’t seen nothing yet” for Candy had not revealed his famous curve ball. A few days before his 19th birthday the Excelsiors were playing Harvard College at Jarvis Field in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard had an exceptional player, Archibald “Archie” Bush.

Archie was just shy of his 17th birthday in October of 1863 when he enlisted in the Union Army. After the war he briefly played ball in his hometown of Albany, New York. In the fall of 1865 he entered Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts and carried his love of the game into organizing their baseball team. He was expelled from school when in May of 1867 he was among several students that skipped out of classes to attend a ballgame in Boston. He studied over the summer and passed Harvard's entrance examinations and was admitted to the fall term. He played for the Harvard first nine starting on September 21, 1867. Within weeks he would meet Candy Cummings - - and the rest is history.

Bush was considered among the best baseball players of his day and was the pride of Harvard. Archie was the batter whom Candy feared. and it was on this day, with this batter, that Candy threw the 1st curve ball in baseball. According to Candy Cummings - - -

“I began to watch the flight of the ball through the air and distinctly saw it curve,” A surge of joy flooded over me that I shall never forget. I felt like shouting out that I had made a ball curve. I wanted to tell everybody; it was too good to keep to myself.” {1}

The story continues - - -

"All day long, Harvard batters flailed helplessly at the new pitch. The secret of the curve ball was his, and for several years afterward Cummings was the only pitcher in the nation to claim mastery over the pitch.’’ {1}

It was a bittersweet day as the Excelsiors would lose this game 18-6, but for Candy it was the turning point in his career. He continued working on his curve ball and turned professional in 1872. In the 6 years he played as a pitcher he placed in the top ten pitchers in number of strikeouts.

Candy Cummings took the field prepared to throw a curve,
a batter waits to hit the ball when suddenly it swerves.
Bush can’t believe his eyes; he swings a robust clout,
t’will be no joy at Harvard; for Archie done struck out!!

* * *

Every Good Pitcher Needs a Good Catcher


Nathaniel Woodhull "Nat" Hicks
(April 19, 1845 – April 21, 1907)
(Public Domain)

Nathaniel Woodhull "Nat" Hicks was born in Long Island. Towards the final year of the Civil War he served in the 15th New York Infantry Regiment. He, like Candy, was drawn to play ball in New York. Once again, baseball was in its’ infancy and at the time most catchers stood anywhere from 20 to 25 feet behind the batter. At this distance it was impossible to chase a curve ball. Nat came up with the idea of standing directly behind the batter and it was soon practiced along with the curve ball.

Nat, a seasoned Civil War veteran, was experiencing terrible hand injuries and burns as he caught that hard baseball coming in over the plate. By the end of the game his hands would be bloody and bruised. Nat came up with the idea of using heavy work gloves with the tips of the fingers cut off. He used what we now call a “catcher’s mitt”.

Although this duo revolutionized the sport, fame followed Candy Cummings, while Nat not so much. He never made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame and his story is more a footnote than an article. Once again, it is debatable if he was the “original” fellow that created the position of standing directly behind the plate or if he was the first to design a catcher’s mitt.

Nat died on April 21, 1907 at 62 years of age. The New York Times acknowledged his accomplishments behind the plate when they wrote his obituary - - -

“To catch behind the bat without the elaborate protection of mask, protector, great glove, and shin guards, as Nat Hicks was the first to do, required a grit and endurance that few of the high-priced artists of the diamond today would care to emulate. Hicks created a sensation by catching behind the bat with his naked hands and body unprotected.” {3}

* * *

Archibald McClure Bush never made baseball his career. He served in the 95th Regiment of the New York Volunteers and was promoted to Captain in November, 1864. He graduated from Harvard in 1871, married Margaret Boyd of Albany on October 24, 1877. Two months later, he died December 18th, 1877 while traveling to England as a result of typhoid pneumonia. He was 31 years old. His son was born the following July but soon joined his father in death 3 months later.

The graduating class at Harvard 1878 gave Archie Bush the following tribute - - -

“That, while we keep in lasting memory our dear friend and classmate, ever mindful of the mainspring of his life, - chivalrous, unswerving devotion to duty, however high or humble, - we cherish his example as one worthy of our highest emulation. He was a leader among men, not as one who shall say, ‘I command’ but rather ‘Come do this with me’! and while we, his contemporaries, were but entering our predatory work for college, he was learning, in a harsher school, those lessons which, in after years, made his sound judgment and power over others so preeminent. He was the first to receive our admiration, not alone for the prowess that placed him above others, but because of those rare traits of character that endeared him to all. Modest, yet self-reliant; forgetful of personal interests, yet ever thoughtful and considerate for the welfare of those about him; generous, cheerful, and devout - to the memory of such a life we offer our tribute of respect and love.” {4}

* * *

Candy Cummings died in 1924 at 72 years of age. He was posthumously elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939. Was he the 1st to throw a curve ball? This is still debated to this day but he definitely threw his first curve ball to Archie Bush on that October day in 1867 and baseball was never the same.


* * *

1. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/99fabe5f
2. https://www.sbnation.com/2018/12/1/18119682/the-story-of-baseballs-first-curveball
3. https://baseballhistorydaily.com/tag/nat-hicks/
4. Report of the Secretary of the Class of 1871 of Harvard College, Issue 11, by Harvard university., Class of 1871 - pages 34-35