Born: July 20, 1847
Died: February 20, 1909
John Van Buskirk Hatfield was born July 20, 1847 in Hoboken. John watched and learned baseball near his home at the Elysian Fields, a popular cricket and baseball grounds in the pre-Civil War era. His powerful throwing arm was the talk of the sport in the 1860s, and starting at age 16, he was recruited to play for several New York ball clubs, including the Actives, Gothams and Mutuals. The Mutuals were an amateur club run by New York’s notorious mayor William Tweed, who compensated the best players with cushy city jobs.
In 1868, John was recruited by Harry Wright to play for the Cincinnati Red Stockings. He became a living legend when he threw a ball 396 feet during contest that year, breaking a record he set as a teenager of 349 feet.
The Red Stockings and Cincinnati Buckeyes were the most powerful teams in the west. John played left field for the Red Stockings and was one of their leading hitters. The two clubs arranged a best-of-three series for the city championship, with the Red Stockings winning the opening game. The night before the next game, gamblers got John drunk and convinced him to switch sides. The next day he sobered up and came clean to Wright, who benched him anyway. The team was able to win without John in the lineup.
John was invited to be a part of the 1869 club, the first all-professional team, and actually signed a contract for $800. The Mutuals made a competing offer, which John also accepted. Wright was furious when he found out and kicked him off the team. This was nothing new. John had played for the Actives and Gothams at the same time in 1864, earning a reputation for “revolving” five years earlier.
John returned to New York (leaving considerable debts behind). He was a regular for the Mutuals from 1869 to 1874, ranking among the top hitters in the game and managing the team in 1870. John played the outfield, as well as second base and third base. In a contest held at the end of the 1872 season, John threw a ball just over 400 feet and pocketed a $50 prize. Among the players he beat were Hall of Famers Cap Anson and George Wright.
John appeared in a handful of games for the Mutuals in 1875 and 1876, when the team joined the new National League. After his playing days he retained his ties to New York gamblers and sportsmen, selling pool tickets (a kind of 50–50 chance contest) among other things to earn a living. He died in Long Island City in 1909 at the age of 61.