Alexander Cartwright’s “Home Run”

1855 Daguerreotype of Alexander Cartwright

One of Honolulu's leading civic figures in the 19th century, Alexander Cartwright, knew how to play the game of baseball and he knew it well; in fact, he had basically invented it! It is appropriate, then, in these summer months of 2013, as the weather warms and the days lengthen, to reflect upon Hawaii’s surprising 174-year-old ties to our country’s
great “national pastime,” the revered game of American baseball. 


Now recognized by current historians as the true founder of the most storied, historically significant sport in the USA, Alexander Joy Cartwright Jr. (1820-1892) moved to Honolulu in 1849, four years after writing the rules that would change the game forever.

Quickly becoming Honolulu Hawaii’s chief fire-fighter engineer for 13 years and later a tireless public library advocate, Alex Cartwright was a good, upright family man born in New York. Once in Hawaii, he gradually became one of the Islands’ most respected civic leaders during the last half of the 19th Century.

Clearly gifted, this same man, as a young clerk on Wall Street, singularly defined the shape of baseball today in the United States of America.  Historically, Alexander Cartwright had hit a “home run” of epic proportions!

Most people in Hawaii have little idea of Cartwright’s baseball connection, and few throughout the United States are aware of his Hawaii ties.  Both parts of the story are worth knowing. 

Were it not for Cartwright’s invention, turning an informal game of outdoor child-play into adult competition, the legends of Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, the New York Yankees or the San Francisco Giants might never have occurred.

Like many young men of his era, Alick was a volunteer fireman at the Nickerbocker Station, who liked to play ball in the late afternoon.  It was his detailed “Nickerbocker” rules, crafted in 1845, which would put baseball on the U.S. map.  Arguably, no other sport has had a greater impact on the American character or the American culture. 

Thanks to Cartwright’s vision, baseball’s field of play is in the shape of a “diamond,” with 90 feet between the bases and “42” paces between the diameters; three outs constitute an inning; nine innings form the regular game; and there are nine players per team.

Also, lines drawn between home plate and first and third base clearly delineate between “fair” and “foul” territory, and players are “tagged” out rather than “hit” with the ball, resulting in smaller, faster “hard balls,” making the game both safer and more exciting.

When twenty-nine year old “Alick” Cartwright arrived in Honolulu on August 17, 1849, he was sick with dysentery after abandoning California and his dreams of finding gold there. 

According to vivid diaries now held in the Bishop Museum, he had lost his job as an accountant in New York when the market collapsed and he couldn’t sustain himself as an independent bookseller with his brother. 

Desperate to support his growing family, he joined a “discovery” stagecoach brigade, unfortunately at the peak of the soon-to-end Gold Rush; once there, he found little gold but lots of misery -- in the form of dysentery.  Deciding to return to the East Coast by sea, a friend told him he might get well in Hawaii.  The friend was right, Cartwright recovered, and he soon sent for his wife and three children to join him in the Islands. In 1851, they become permanent residents for the rest of their lives.

Throughout his adventurous ordeal and after his recovery, he continued to play baseball and teach others his Knickerbocker rules.

Cartwright’s fascinating story in Hawaii, including his rise to become an occasional financial advisor to David Kalakaua, the elected monarch (1874-1891), likely would not have happened without two key developments in the Hawaii’s governance in the dozen years before his arrival.

First, was the arrival of Harvard-trained attorney-at-law, William Little Lee, in 1846, an American who would form Hawaii’s judicial system and become Hawaii’s first Chief Justice a year later, as Hawaii entered the modern era with constitutional governance under the constitution of 1840, and a subsequent one in 1852, written in part by Lee.  

Second was the Great Mahele of 1848, which formalized fee simple ownership in real estate, resulting in a massive redistribution of lands controlled by the ali’i class under a feudal system, given in favor of the common people – a move toward a more democratic society embraced by the teachings of the invited Christian missionaries. 
It was also a time when many Americans were heading westward, and moving to new places.  The Hawaiian Islands were attracting growing numbers of new residents, as its society continued evolving into one that was more protective of personal rights, more respectful of the rule of law rather than individual fiat, and more conducive to commercial enterprise.

Essay by K.R. Harding



Literary and legal discoveries of original historical documents are the focus of The Research Institute’s ongoing research. As a private operating fund, our mission is educational: to document the rich history of Hawaii’s long pathway to Statehood, from 1778, the time of Contact, to 1959, when President Dwight David Eisenhower signed the law admitting Hawaii into the Union as its 50th coequal, sovereign State.  Our purpose is to tell the full, true story, insofar as we are able, about Hawaii’s past, and how this might impact its present and future.