Baseball in New York in 1823
With this eighth of sixteen articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by George A. Thompson, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball. George reads all he can in newspaper coverage in New York City in the 1800s, a habit that led to the discovery of a previously unknown reference to baseball in 1823, upon which he expands below.
These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1823.1, reflects that it is the first Protoball entry for the year 1823.
1823.1 Game of Baseball Reported in the National Advocate
George A. Thompson
COMMUNICATION. I was last Saturday much pleased in witnessing a company of active young men playing the manly and athletic game of “base ball” at the Retreat in Broadway (Jones’). I am informed they are an organized association, and that a very interesting game will be played on Saturday next at the above place, to commence at half past 3 o’clock, P.M. Any person fond of witnessing this game may avail himself of seeing it played with consummate skill and wonderful dexterity. It is surprising, and to be regretted that the young men of our city do not engage more in this manual sport; it is innocent amusement, and healthy exercise, attended with but little expense, and has no demoralizing tendency.— A SPECTATOR.1
Finding this note—roughly 10 years ago—made me famous for about 72 hours. I hit the front page (above the fold) of The New-York Times and the International Herald Tribune; the story was reprinted by newspapers in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and elsewhere; I was interviewed by telephone by a sports-talk jock in Cincinnati and by the BBC, where I followed a discussion of the Kyoto Accord. Since then, of course, I have sunk back into obscurity.
Another newspaper received this same press release, but chose to summarize it:
We have received a communication in favor of the manly exercise of base ball; stating that an organized company, who are in the habit of taking this exercise at the Retreat, will play a great match there on Saturday next, to commence at half past 3 o’clock.”2
If the notice was sent to other papers, it was ignored: I have looked in several for that week without finding it. The letter was published on Friday, the day before the game. There was no later report on the outcome of the game. The newspapers of that era did not employ reporters, and depended on letters like this one for their coverage of local events that the editor did not himself witness. The editors seem to have felt more responsible for telling their readers that an interesting event was going to take place than for describing it afterwards. For example, shipbuilding was the most highly organized industry in New York at that time, and the launch of a full-sized ship was a spectacular event. Newspapers regularly printed one-sentence notes telling their readers that a ship was to be launched the next morning from some yard on the East River, but rarely ran an account of the event afterwards.
Let us read this letter carefully:
The “spectator” tells us of “a company of active young men” who play “the manly and athletic game of ‘base ball.’” The game was played by adults.
These men have formed “an organized association” and “a game will be played on Saturday next, to commence at half past 3 o’clock, P.M.,” that is, the men have formed a club, and they plan their games well in advance, to start at a set time.
“Any person fond of witnessing this game.” It seems that baseball was already a spectator sport, or at least the writer of this note was hoping that it would become one.
Baseball is “attended with but little expense.” I suppose here the writer had in mind the fact that baseball could be played with homemade equipment.3
It has “no demoralizing tendency.” This phrase today tends to raise smirks on those who read or hear it, but it most likely refers to the fact that no one bet on the games. Huge sums were bet on horse and boat races, and the prizes for winning footraces were big enough that a highly publicized race at Hoboken in 1824 was discovered to have been fixed, with the apparent intention of setting up a rematch. The Post was shocked: “We cannot help regretting that so manly a sport should be brought into disrepute by the disgraceful conduct of the competitors.”4
The letter was signed “A Spectator.” The writer was taking the mask of a casual passerby who had just happened upon this baseball game, and maybe he was, but the fact that he took the trouble to write to at least two newspapers suggests that he had some interest at stake. I suspect he was really Mr. Jones, the proprietor of The Retreat, hoping to use the game that the young men were going to play on his grounds to attract visitors to watch, eat, and drink. It is, however, also possible that our “Spectator” was one of the ballplayers, hoping to attract attention to his ballclub, perhaps hoping that other manly and athletic young men would form other ballclubs, to provide his club with opponents.
We know something about “the Retreat in Broadway ( Jones’).”5 It had been the country estate of William Neilson, at Broadway and Art Street, in Manhattan. (Art Street is now 8th Street, so the Retreat was about three blocks east and two blocks north of what is now Washington Square Park.) Neilson had died in November 1820,6 and the next spring his house and grounds had been opened to the public as a hotel and eating house, under the name of The Retreat, by a man named W. B. Heyer.
THE RETREAT—NEW HOTEL. The subscriber begs leave to inform all those who wish to encourage him with their patronage, that the elegant house at the corner of Art street and Broadway, opposite Vauxhall, is now open for their reception. Gentlemen may be accommodated with Board by the week or month. He keeps a constant supply of Ice Cream, and parties may be accommodated with Coffee, Tea and Relishes of various descriptions. HEYER.
N. B. The Retreat is opposite Vauxhall Garden. The proprietor has thought proper, with the advice of his friends, to issue a limited number of Tickets of Admission to this House, on the day of Mr. Guille’s [Balloon] Ascension, at twenty-five cents each, to be had in refreshments, such as Ice Cream, Cake, Punch, Lemonade, &c. &c.7
By June 1822 it had changed hands, and was being managed by William Jones, “formerly of Fulton st.,” who promised “Dinner and Supper Parties supplied at the shortest notice.”8
A deadly epidemic in August 1822 drove New Yorkers who lived or did business in the lower part out of town, to Greenwich Village, on the shores of the Hudson River, what’s now thought of as the “West Village,” or up Broadway. A committee led by Archibald Gracie (the man who built Gracie Mansion), settled on The Retreat as the meeting place for those merchants whose temporary offices were on Broadway.9 A newspaper described the new site of the Merchants’ Exchange:
The Retreat.— This large and convenient establishment, in a delightful situation near the junction of Broadway and the Bowery, has been fitted up by Mr. Jones with every accommodation suitable for a temporary Exchange. The halls and rooms where the Exchange is held are spacious and airy, and the house at sufficient distance from the street to be free of noise and dirt. A spacious garden belonging to the establishment, and the extensive area in front of the house afford fine walks for exercise and health. Mr. Jones keeps an ordinary, and also furnishes regular board.10
Less than a month after the baseball game was played in 1823, William Jones had moved on:
CARD. WILLIAM JONES, of the Retreat, Broadway, has removed from hence to No. 27 James street, and is now ready to entertain his friends and the public, in the line of his business. He feels grateful for past favours, and will do all in his power to merit a continuance of public patronage.11
Our Spectator does not indicate what sort of a game these active young men were playing. I assume that it was at the least ancestrally related to the game played at mid-century. That game was described as the “good old fashioned game of base ball” in stories that specifically mentioned the Knickerbocker club, in 1854 and 1855,12 and if the game played at The Retreat was radically different from the mid-century game, I would expect some remark along the lines of “not your grandfather’s game of base ball.”
1. National Advocate: Apr. 25, 1823, p. 2, col. 4.
2. New-York Gazette & General Advertiser: Apr. 25, 1823, p. 2, col. 2.
3. Charles H. Haswell describes how boys played baseball in his childhood (the late 1810s) with a ball made from scraps by a mother or sister and perhaps a piece of found wood for a bat. Reminiscences of an Octogenarian of the City of New York (1816 to 1860) (p. 77).
4. New-York Evening Post: July 23, 1824, p. 2, col. 2.
5. The history of The Retreat is summarized in: Garrett, T. 1978. “History of Pleasure Gardens in New York City, 1700–1865,” PhD dissertation, New York University (pp. 487–489).
6. American: Nov. 27, 1820, p. 3; New-York Commercial Advertiser: Nov. 27, 1820; Mercantile Advertiser: Nov. 28, 1820; National Advocate: Nov. 28, 1820; New-York Daily Advertiser: Nov. 28, 1820.
7. New-York Evening Post: June 5, 1821.
8. National Advocate for the Country: June 21, 1822 (per John Thorn, September 12, 2009).
9. National Advocate: Apr. 25, 1823, p. 2, col. 4. s
10. New-York Gazette & General Advertiser: Apr. 25, 1823, p. 2, col. 2.
11. New-York Evening Post: May 14, 1823.
12. New York Daily Times: Dec. 19, 1854; New-York Daily Tribune: Dec. 19, 1854, p. 6, col. 2 (the same report); New-York Herald: May 26, 1855, p. 1, col. 1.