In devastating news for baseball fans everywhere, Jose Fernandez died last night in a boating accident somewhere off South Florida. Reportedly, the small boat he was in was moving at top speed when it ran into a rock jetty, flipping the vessel and killing all three people aboard.
I am old enough to remember well the boating accident that killed Steve Olin and Tim Crews back in the early Spring of 1993, also in Florida. That’s the first thing that came to my mind when I woke up and read the news on the internet this morning. No word yet if last night’s boating accident involved drinking, as the 1993 tragedy did.
Plenty of players have died during their playing careers in baseball’s long history, but it is difficult for me to recall any that involved a player this young of this proven talent level. Austin McHenry, Ray Chapman and Lyman Bostock are probably the most comparable major league players, based on this list from wikipedia and what they could reasonably have been expected to accomplish had they lived on past the age of 40.
The one player in baseball history most comparable to Jose Fernandez is probably a pitcher who is remembered by few modern baseball fans indeed, because he pitched before the days of professional baseball. Jim Creighton is recognized as baseball’s first great star by baseball historians like John Thorn.
From the age of 19 to 21, Creighton dominated the baseball world’s attention, such as it was from 1860-1862. Not surprisingly, Creighton was from Brooklyn, as New York City was then the center of what would become the national pastime.
At the time Creighton entered New York City’s elite amateur game, pitchers were still required to “pitch” the ball underhand without bending the wrist or the elbow. Creighton’s innovation was adding a largely unnoticeable wrist flip which enabled him to throw the ball harder and with more movement than anyone had before. Creighton was so in demand as a pitcher that he may well have become the first truly professional player when he joined the Brooklyn Excelsiors in 1860.
Creighton was also one of the best hitters of his day and one of America’s best cricket players, at a time when most baseball players were still also regularly playing the English game. It was his batting technique that may have played a role in his untimely death.
In 1861 Creighton and his Excelsior teammate Asa Brainard, who went on to greater fame as the pitcher for the undefeated 1869 Cincinnati Reds, baseball’s first openly all-professional team, jumped to another great Brooklyn team, the Atlantics, presumably for more money than the Excelsiors had been paying them.
Creighton’s batting stroke involved a great deal of torque through his torso, which gave him more power than most players of his day. In a game on October 14, 1862, he hit four doubles in his first four at-bats, playing the field while Brainard pitched the first five innings. Creighton went in to pitch in the 6th inning and in the bottom half, he slugged a home run.
As he crossed the plate, Creighton commented to another player that he thought he must have snapped his belt. Instead, he had apparently snapped something inside his body, and he died a few days later, possibly of an inguinal hernia. He was only 21 years old.
At least, that is the legend. Other sources say he died playing cricket, and medical treatment and diagnosis in the early 1860’s were not what they are today.
It is no surprise that Creighton is not well remembered today. His death came during the Civil War, when a lot of young men were dying for reasons more significant than playing baseball. In fact, it was the Civil War that turned baseball from New York City’s pastime to the National pastime, as the New York rules, as opposed to those used in other East Coast cities, most notably Boston, became the rules in general use across the North by the end of the war. It is worth noting that the draft into the Union Army didn’t start until 1863, which is the reason why a young man of Creighton’s obvious physical health and strength was able to continue playing baseball as thousands of other young men were busy fighting and dying in battle or of disease in military camps.