Second of three parts

We know it's baseball.

But to 21st-century eyes, the sunlit sport Thomas Eakins portrayed in his 1875 watercolor Baseball Players Practicing might just as well have been cricket.

In it, an upright, uptight batter stands with his foot in the bucket. He chokes up on an untapered bat, holding it away from his body as if preparing to swat an annoying insect. He wears high-top shoes, a floppy cap and a thick blue belt.

While the catcher's pose is more familiar, he looms dangerously close to the hitter for someone so unprotected.

The most curious feature of Eakins' work, however, is the conjunction of dirt paths. The image depicted by Philadelphia's most renowned artist, whose work again has been in the news 91 years after his death, appears to be taking place at first base or at least somewhere other than home plate.

"Eakins was very interested in the human form," said Tom Shieber, senior curator of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, "and that may be why this picture looks a little wacky."

Still, like Eakins' other richly detailed works illustrating popular Philadelphia sports in the 19th century - rowing, sailing, boxing and wrestling - Baseball Players Practicing provides a rare glimpse into a city game at the dawn of its professional era.

The watercolor captures a sunny afternoon's practice at North Philadelphia's Jefferson Street Grounds late in the 1874 season. The two players, batter Wes Fisler and catcher John Clapp, were Philadelphia Athletics.

"The mood," wrote Thomas Stebbins, an art critic and an Eakins contemporary, "is more one of reverie than of exaltation . . . as the ballplayers stand poised in late afternoon sunlight, the artist trying to make sense of an increasingly complex world through the ritual of sport."

The artist might have been a frequent visitor to the ballpark, which was bounded by 25th, 27th, Master and Jefferson Streets. He lived nearby in his parents' home at 1729 Mount Vernon St.

Early in a career that would make him one of America's foremost painters, Eakins, then 30, was attracted to the young game of baseball as he was to any activity involving intricate or vigorous motion, the more modern the better. Author Elizabeth John has characterized his artistic interest as "the heroism of modern life."

International curiosity

Baseball had exploded in popularity since the end of the Civil War. It was being played in big American cities and small towns. Rivalries between local amateur clubs became so popular - and heated - that teams began to pay for the best players.

The Cincinnati Redlegs fielded a team of pros in the 1860s. Then, in 1871, the first professional league, the National Association, was founded. It included the Athletics, who played and practiced at Jefferson Street Grounds.

By the summer of 1874, just months before Eakins began his watercolor, baseball's popularity had surpassed cricket in Philadelphia. The game was such a national and international curiosity that the A's and Boston Red Stockings had toured Europe just a few months earlier.

The A's - not the direct antecedents to Connie Mack's American League franchise - established their reputation three years earlier when they won the National Association's first championship.

In 1874, they would finish third in the eight-team association with a 33-22 record. One of the league's other clubs that season was the Philadelphia White Stockings, who shared the ballpark with the A's from 1873 to '75.

When the National League came into being in 1876, the association and many members, including the White Stockings, folded. The Athletics lasted a year in the National League. In 1883, after the league's Worcester franchise was dissolved, the new Phillies filled the vacancy.

Eakins was a fan. After he finished his 103/4-inch-by-13-inch watercolor in January 1875, he wrote excitedly about it to Earl Shinn, a friend and art critic.

"The moment is . . . just after the batter has taken his bat, before the ball leaves the pitcher's hand," Eakins wrote. "They are portraits of the Athletic boys, a Philadelphia club. I conceive that they are pretty well drawn. Ballplayers are very fine in their build. They are the same stuff as bullfighters, only bullfighters are older and a trifle stronger perhaps. I think I will try [to] make a baseball picture some day in oil."

He never did, perhaps because other subjects caught his interest.

That same year, Eakins would paint his masterpiece, The Gross Clinic, which Philadelphia philanthropists, eager to keep this treasure here, recently bought for $68 million, the most ever paid for an American art work.

Though it's rarely mentioned among his better-known works, Eakins liked Baseball Players Practicing, now owned by the Rhode Island School of Design.

"His pride . . . was manifest in his decision to show it repeatedly for a full decade, at venues including the American Society of Painters in Water Colors [exhibit in 1875], and the Centennial International Exhibition [1876 in Philadelphia]," said Marc Simpson, curator of American art at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.

Unusual positioning

In the mid-1990s, Shieber, of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and Howard Pollack, a now-deceased Philadelphian, undertook a detailed study of Eakins' watercolor.

Like most baseball-literate observers, they were struck immediately by the unusual positioning of Fisler and Clapp. Most assumed their placement, near what appeared to be first base, was done for compositional reasons.

"The artist rendered this scene with great precision, yet there remain certain problems in interpreting the players' positions," wrote Sydney Kirkpatrick in his The Revenge of Thomas Eakins. "Eakins may have been less familiar with this sport than with rowing or hunting."

But Shieber and Pollack saw something many viewers and critics missed.

"It's definitely not first base," Shieber said.

Just to the left of the batter's shadow, they noted, is a thin white stripe. Shieber believes that is the first-base line, though acknowledging that Eakins rendered it too narrowly.

If that's the case, then the wider dirt path to the batter's left would be the third-base line. And the one in front would be the dirt runway between pitcher and catcher, then commonplace.

But what about the path extending behind the catcher?

"That was perfectly normal in that era," Shieber said. "The pitchers threw underhanded and the catchers caught the ball on the bounce. They wanted the area where the ball bounced to be free of grass and pebbles."

Eakins probably did make some factual concessions for composition's sake. Normally, Shieber said, the catcher would have stood much farther back than shown to allow for a longer, softer bounce.

And both Shieber and Eakins authority Kathleen Foster of the Philadelphia Museum of Art think the grandstand may not match that at the old ballpark, whose footprint is now occupied by Daniel Boone Elementary School.

"There are only a couple of photos of Jefferson Street Grounds, and we don't think it looked exactly like that," Shieber said. "The grandstand would have to have been wood, yet it almost looks like concrete."

Those white lines visible behind the seating area could have been blinds to keep the sun out of players' eyes. Those, Shieber said, were common features in an era when ballparks were not constructed with sunlight in mind.

Some believe the two fans just above Fisler's bat - a woman in red and an elderly bearded man - were Eakins' friend, Elizabeth Crowell, whom he painted often, and his father, Benjamin, a master writer and calligrapher.

Others say the man seated on the ground in front of the grandstand is Eakins. The artist, a la Alfred Hitchcock, frequently inserted himself into his art.

In his book, Kirkpatrick suggested that the seated man might have been the manager, Dick McBride. But Shieber pointed out that McBride, a pitcher, was, like all other 1870s managers, a player, too, and would have been in uniform.

Lucky pick

There's no indication why Eakins selected Fisler instead of Athletics stars such as, say, Cap Anson or Al Reach. Anson would become a Hall of Famer. Reach became a sporting-goods magnate and, in 1883, the Phillies' first owner.

But it was a lucky pick. In choosing Camden native Weston Dickson Fisler as a model, he unknowingly was illustrating a significant figure in baseball history.

Less than two years later, on April 22, 1876, in the first National League game ever played, Fisler scored the first run in major-league history as the Athletics lost to Boston, 6-5.

Nicknamed "Icicle," Fisler was a 5-foot-6, 137-pound infielder/outfielder. He hit .330 in 1874 and finished his six-year professional career with a .316 average. He died in Philadelphia at 81 in 1922.

Clapp, meanwhile, was just 23 at the time. In his 11-year career, the Ithaca, N.Y., native led the National League in games played (1,878) and walks (1,881). He died in 1904 at 53.

Without gear, Clapp looks vulnerable. No players wore gloves at the time. The introduction of a fingerless model for catchers would come gradually over the next few seasons.

"There were no shin guards until the turn of the century," Shieber said, "and the first chest protector didn't show up until 1884. Catchers did sometimes wear mouth guards."

The shoes Eakins painted, multicolored and made of canvas and leather, were standard. The Hall of Fame's uniform collection identifies them as Chicago Club Shoes, priced at $6 a pair.

"They may have had spikes on the bottom," Shieber said, "since we know the 1874 Boston Red Stockings were among the first to wear them."

According to the Hall, the caps worn by Fisler and Clapp were the popular No.1 model, manufactured by Peck & Snyder of New York. They cost between $1.25 and $2.

Knickers had replaced long pants in baseball six years earlier, popularized by the Cincinnati Red Stockings. Like those worn by Fisler and Clapp, belts and stockings often matched. Their color typically became the team's colors and often lent the ballclubs their nicknames (Redlegs, Red Stockings, White Stockings).

The vivid blue Eakins depicted in Fisler and Clapp's uniforms might look familiar. It was adopted by Mack's Athletics when that original American League franchise began play here in 1901, 15 years before Eakins death.