Joseph Start (October 14, 1842 – March 27, 1927), nicknamed "Old Reliable", was one of the most durable regulars of baseball's earliest era, and one of the top first basemen of his time. He began his playing career in 1859, before the advent of organized leagues and paid professionalism, and continued to play regularly until 1886, when he was 43. Start's career spanned countless innovations that transformed the game in fundamental ways, but he adjusted and continued to play at a high level for almost three decades.
|Born: October 14, 1842|
New York City
|Died: March 27, 1927 (aged 84)|
Providence, Rhode Island
|May 18, 1871, for the New York Mutuals|
|Last MLB appearance|
|July 9, 1886, for the Washington Nationals|
|Career highlights and awards|
Born in New York City, he led the Brooklyn Atlantics, the team he joined in 1862, to undefeated seasons in 1864 and 1865. In 1871, he joined the new National Association's New York Mutuals, hitting a career-high .360 in his first season with the team, when he was age 28. When the National League was formed in 1876, the Mutuals joined, bringing Start with them. After spending 1877 with the Hartford Dark Blues and 1878 with the Chicago White Stockings. 1878 was possibly Start's best season with the bat. He led the league with 100 hits and 125 total bases. He came close to the league lead with 12 doubles, 5 triples, and one home run. His 58 runs that year were second in the league. These statistics came in only 285 at bats, and at the age of 35, long after most players have begun to decline.
From 1879 until 1885, when he was 42, Start held down first base for the Providence Grays and continued to hit well; he also served as team captain, a role that provided field leadership before the establishment of team managers.
Unfortunately, 1885 was Providence's last season in the NL, so in 1886, he moved to the Washington Nationals for what would be his final season. Start only played 31 games for the Nationals, did not hit well, and retired from professional play. After this final sub-par season, his lifetime Major League batting average dipped below .300, to .299. For the final nine seasons of Start's career, he was the oldest player on any major league roster.
Over his full major league career Start amassed 1,418 hits, 854 runs, and 544 RBI in National League and National Association play. He logged a .299 batting average, a .322 on-base percentage, and a .367 slugging percentage. These totals do not include his first twelve pre-league years, during which cumulative player statistics were not recorded. In addition, since Start's lifetime totals were achieved in much shorter seasons than today's professionals play, they tend to under-represent his sustained quality as a ballplayer.
Start's 1879 Providence team won the National League, and in 1884 they won a championship, beating the New York Metropolitans.
In his final major league season, while playing for the Washington Nationals, one of Start's teammates was a 23-year-old rookie catcher named Connie Mack, who was at the beginning of a 64-year-career in the major leagues.
In the SABR Nineteenth Century Committee's Nineteen Century Notes (Summer 2018), baseball historian Bill Ryczek wrote: "There have been a number of 20th-century players who had long careers, but the game that Tommy John played during his  rookie year was very much like the game he played during his final season in 1989. When 16-year-old Joe Start began playing in 1859, pitchers threw underhand with a stiff wrist from behind a line 45 feet from home plate, a fly ball caught on one bounce was an out, and gloves were unheard of, as were professional ballplayers. During his final season, pitchers threw over-hand or sidearm with velocity that was unimaginable in 1859. The one-bounce out was 20 years in the grave, and most players wore fielding gloves. All of the top players were professionals, and baseball had become big business, far removed from the amateur affair of 1859. Despite the dramatic changes in the game of baseball, Joe Start remained a steady, productive player, adapting to the changes as quickly as they appeared. He was a regular until his final year."
Writing at 19cBaseball.com, early game historian Eric Miklich asserted that "Start was reported to be an excellent fielder and may have been the first first baseman to play off of the bag when not receiving a throw, enabling him to increase the area of the infield that he covered. At that time first basemen played close to or on top of the base, waiting to take throws from the infielders."
Although born in an era when baseball was a gentleman's leisure pursuit, had no press coverage, and was unknown outside of New York City, Start lived long enough to see the worldwide popularity of slugger Babe Ruth's exploits during the 1920s.
After his retirement from the game, Start returned to Rhode Island and operated the Lakewood Inn in Warwick. His wife, Angeline, died in February, 1927, and Start died one month later, in Providence, Rhode Island, at age 84.
- Career statistics and player information from Baseball-Reference
- Karmik, Thom, “Sweeney Was Drunk, But I Didn’t Know It”, Baseball History Daily
- Connie Mack lifetime player stats at Baseball-Reference.com
- Ryczek, William, "My Favorite Nineteenth Century Player: Joe Start," Nineteenth Century Notes, Society of American Baseball Research 19th Century Committee, Summer 2018
- Miklich, Eric, "Joe Start, 1842-1927", 19cBaseball.com, 2016