OE START began playing baseball during its organized infancy and retired after the game became big business, 28 years later. He played for 1 amateur team and six professional teams and attained the reputation of a well tempered, well-mannered steady ballplayer.
He played first base for the Enterprise Club of Brooklyn in 1860 and moved to the powerful Atlantic Club of Brooklyn the following year. During the 1864 season, Start hit 11 home runs in 18 games, and led the Atlantic Club to undefeated seasons in 1864 and 1865. On September 6, 1869, Start hit four homerun's in a 45–25 win over the Eckfords of Brooklyn and had seven hits on the day and totaled 21 bases. Against the undefeated Cincinnati Red Stockings on June 14, 1870, at the Capitoline Grounds in Brooklyn, Start hit a long fly ball in the bottom of the eleventh inning, with the Atlantics trailing 7–5. As Cincinnati's right fielder, Cal McVey, caught up with the ball and attempted to coral the ball on the first bound, he was interfered with by an Atlantic supporter. Start ended up on third and Atlantic's third baseman, Charlie Smith who had singled and moved to third on a wild pitch, scored to cut the Red Stockings lead to 7-6. The Atlantics would score two more runs to end the Red Stockings game winning streak. Before leaving the Atlantic Club in 1871, Start would help them to Championships in 1861, 1864–1866 and 1869.
Joe Start and his good friend Bob Ferguson moved to the Mutual Base Ball Club of New York for the 1872 season. Both Ferguson and Start were loyal and honest which was a rarity during the early days of baseball which were surrounded by betting scandals, especially the Mutuals. In 1873, Start managed the New York Mutuals for the final 25 games of the season and the Mutuals were 18–7 in those games but still finished in fourth place. Third baseman John Hatfield began the season as the manager and was 11-17, before being replaced.
Joe Start broke up Brooklyn Atlantic pitcher Tommy Bond's bid to become the first professional pitcher to throw a no-hitter on October 19, 1874. Start, a left-handed batter, doubled to left field with two outs in the top of the ninth inning at Brooklyn's Union Grounds. Brooklyn prevailed 5–0.
On July 21, 1876, he hit three home runs and a triple against the Athletic Club of Philadelphia.
In 1877 he played for the Dark Blue of Hartford, who actually played their home games in Brooklyn at the Union Grounds, and in 1878 he played for the Chicago White Stockings, following Ferguson, who managed both teams. Start was the only player to make 100 hits during the 1878 season. Wanting to return to the east he joined the Providence Grays for the 1879 season, helping to lead them to the National League Whip Pennant.
At age 41 in 1884, he missed 21 games, four in the middle of May due to Malaria, but was able to hit safely 105 times and was third on the team in average and runs scored. On September 26th, he hit his only homerun of the season, a three run home-run in the seventh inning, against his former team the Chicago White Stockings at League Front Park in Chicago, to clinch the Whip Pennant for the Grays. The Grays would win the first "World Series" over the American Association's New York Metropolitans three games to none, with all of the games being played at the Polo Grounds in New York.
He played with Providence until 1885 and at the end of the season married a Rhode Island native. In 1886, he played in only 31 games for the Washington Nationals before retiring at the age of 43.
He returned to Rhode Island and ran the Lakewood Inn in Warwick for several years. The Starts never had any children; his wife, Angeline, died in February of 1927 and Joe Start died one month later at age 84.
During his career the 5'9' 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.