"Too Late," they called him, because of his energetic objections to being benched after showing up to play with the New York Knickerbockers a few minutes after the appointed time. But in the case of James Whyte "Too Late" Davis, it is never too late to right a historical wrong.
On Saturday morning in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery, a dedication ceremony took place over a headstone that was placed at Lot 30010, Grave 110, in mid-April, where Davis was interred and has remained unmarked since his death in 1899.
The headstone, shaped like home plate and bearing an epitaph written by Davis himself, is courtesy of the Society for American Baseball Research's 19th Century Grave Marker Project, proposed in 2015 by Major League Baseball historian John Thorn. The goal of the project is to correct slights of history that left many early baseball luminaries and pioneers, involved in the sport before it became a lucrative business funded by endorsement deals and the autograph circuit, without the means to mark the ground where they were buried.
Davis is the first of many SABR hopes to provide with the headstone and the recognition the players were denied at the times of their deaths. With the help of a $10,000 grant from MLB, SABR hopes to install markers on many more graves in the near future.
"There are some prominent baseball figures who have been somewhat neglected by history," says MLB chief communications officer Pat Courtney. "This is a nice way to right some historical wrongs and link baseball's past to the present."
On the list are Hall of Famers Pud Galvin and King Kelly, whose headstones near Pittsburgh and Boston are crumbling and beyond repair. Also under consideration are Ezra Sutton, buried in the Finger Lakes region of New York and one of the first players to collect 1,000 hits in the Major Leagues; Bob Caruthers, buried near Chicago, who pitched for five League champions in his nine-year career; and Kurt Welch, an outfielder who scored the winning run for the St. Louis Browns in the 1886 World Series and is buried in Ohio.
"With the generous grant given to us by MLB and Commissioner Rob Manfred, we are able to guarantee that our committee has the ability to honor even more legends, both famous and unknown, who built the history of our game," said Ralph Carhart, chair of SABR's 19th Century Grave Marker Project committee.
Carhart was involved in the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project and, after helping to place a headstone at the unmarked grave of Hall of Famer King Solomon "Sol" White at Frederick Douglass Park in Staten Island in 2015, has helped to model SABR's program after that one.
While not an original Knickerbocker, Davis joined the club in September 1850 and played for the club for over 25 years. In the summer of 1858, three games were played between the cities of New York and Brooklyn. Essentially the first All-Star Games, they became known as the Fashion Race Course Games because of the grounds they were played on in Queens, N.Y., Davis was the center fielder for the New York team for the Aug. 17 match. However, as noted in the book, "Base Ball Founders," Davis was most known for the fact that his "humorous antics on the diamond always caused much amusement."
On Aug. 27, 1855, the Knickerbockers unfurled their first banner from the flagpole at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, N.J., which is widely believed to have been the site of the first organized baseball game when the Knickerbockers debuted there 10 years prior. The triangular pennant, designed by Davis, bore a blue "K" in a white circle on a red-and-blue background. It flew over the Knickerbockers' clubhouse until 1875, when the New York Sun reported it was "worn to ribbons by long service," removed, and draped over Davis' dresser until his death.
In addition to his duties with the Knickerbockers, Davis also served as a firefighter -- as a member of Oceana Hose Company No. 36 -- and stockbroker. Still, he was penniless later in life. Five years prior to his death, the Sun printed a letter Davis wrote to New York Giants owner Edward B. Talcott, whom the widower Davis had charged with his affairs.
"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," Davis wrote. "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."
Davis even included the text of his own epitaph, to be inscribed on his headstone. It read:
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 not "Too Late,"
Reaching the "Home Plate."
Born March 2, 1826.
According to cemetery records, the latter part of Davis' request was honored, and he was buried in his uniform, wrapped in the Knickerbockers pennant. However, sadly, no dimes were collected for a headstone, and when he died on Feb.15, 1899, of endocarditis, Davis was buried in an unmarked grave. Now, 117 years later, Davis has his headstone, inscribed with his own words.
"Other members meant more to the Knickerbocker club than James Whyte Davis, but to none did the club mean more," said Thorn. "His life was wrapped up in baseball, as in death he would come to be."
To close Saturday's ceremony, singer Danny Flinn and violinist Jake James performed the song "Ball Days," which was written by the ever-industrious Davis.
Nearly 200 early baseball notables are buried in Green-Wood Cemetery. They include Henry Chadwick, a journalist who perfected the box score and pioneered the use of statistics such as the batting average; Duncan Curry, first president of the Knickerbockers baseball club, who is credited with instilling the rules as we know them; James Creighton Jr., baseball's first superstar, who allegedly died swinging at a home run ball; Sam (shortstop), Joe (right field) and Edward (infielder) Patchen, who played together for the Star of Brooklyn Club and were the Alou brothers of their time; Charles Hercules Ebbets, the Dodgers owner whose name would long adorn the home field; and John B. Woodward, an outfielder who traded his Excelsior Club uniform for that of a Union general during the Civil War.
Green-Wood, which is a National Historic Landmark founded in 1838 and by the middle of the 19th century was the second-most popular tourist attraction in the United States behind Niagara Falls, is also home to other such notable New Yorkers as infamous politician William Magear "Boss" Tweed, composer Leonard Bernstein, stained-glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany and newspaperman Horace Greeley.
For more information on the 19th Century Grave Marker Project or to make a donation, visit www.sabr.org.