With this eleventh 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 Randall Brown, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball. Randall Brown specializes in 19th century history and has published articles in Base Ball on early black clubs and the Doubleday-Cooperstown–baseball connection. His important research article on the Wheaton find appeared in National Pastime in 2004.
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 1837.1, reflects that it is the first Protoball entry for the year 1837.
1837.1 The Evolution of the New York Game—The Arbiter’s Tale
We first organized what we called the Gotham Base Ball club … in 1837. Among the members were Dr. John Miller, a popular physician of that day; John Murphy, a well-known hotelkeeper, and James Lee, president of the New York Chamber of Commerce.*
Creation or evolution? Baseball historians have argued a similar question for a century and a half. American invention or grownup English children’s game? The extensive 1887 testimony of William R. Wheaton, the game’s first umpire, provides satisfaction to both sides.
Wheaton turned 23 in the spring of 1837. He was newly married and had been practicing law for a year. According to John M. Ward, “Colonel James Lee, elected an honorary member of the Knickerbocker Club in 1846, said that he had often played the same game when a boy.”1
The members of the club soon swelled beyond the fastidious notions of some of us, and we decided to withdraw and form a new organization we called the Knickerbocker.
The 1887 narrative leaps ahead eight years to the fall of 1845. Wheaton and W. H. Tucker were delegated to draft the rules and bylaws of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. On the occasion of the club’s first game at Elysian Fields, on October 6, Wheaton served as umpire, endorsing the score in the Knickerbocker game book.
The Gothams played a game with the Star Cricket Club of Brooklyn and beat the Englishmen out of sight, of course.
This comment is significant because it links the Gothams of 1837 to the later New York club. The name may have been changed in 1843 when the club moved to Elysian Fields, which also hosted the fledgling New York Cricket Club. On October 21, 1845, the Brooklyn Eagle advised the public of “A Great Match at Base Ball,” between the New York Base Ball Club and the Brooklyn Club. The Morning News of the following day carried details of the game, a 24–4 victory for the former club. Wheaton was listed as one of three umpires, serving in the same capacity in the return match several days later.2
Confirmation is provided by the presence of Miller and Murphy in the lineup against Brooklyn, represented by members of the Union Star Cricket Club. Alexander Cartwright and Daniel Adams, pioneers of the Knickerbocker Club, each reluctantly acknowledged the New York club as a predecessor.3 The same club defeated the Knickerbockers 23–1 in a famous match on June 19, 1846.
We laid out the ground at Madison Square in the form of an accurate diamond, with home plate and sand-bags for bases. You must remember that what is now called Madison Square, opposite the Fifth Avenue Hotel, in the thirties, was out in the country, far from the city limits.
“Base ball” was a popular amusement in New York during the early 19th century. Charles Haswell refers to “the boy of 1816,” noting that “on Saturday afternoon in the fall of the year, a few students would meet in the hollow on the Battery.”4 After city authorities banned ballplaying at the Battery and City Hall Parks in 1817, the game moved up Manhattan Island. An anonymous item in the New York Clipper of October 23, 1880, recalled the days when “Baseball was the favorite game” played on Chatham square.”5 There were games in Greenwich Village in the early 1820s and at Washington Square after it was opened in 1826.
Originally used as a burial ground, the location of the future Madison Square had been part of the “Parade,” nearly 75 acres set aside by city planners as “an area sufficient to maneuver the entire militia of New York.”6 An arsenal was built in 1806 at the junction of Broadway and the Boston Post Road, and, during the War of 1812, the ground served its intended purpose. It is possible that baseball was played there by New York soldiers like James Lee.7
The growing city gradually encroached on the Parade. In 1825, the arsenal was converted into a juvenile detention hall. In 1837, there was still open ground in front of the “House of Refuge.” The opening of Fifth Avenue and the construction of the Harlem Railroad had recently made the neighborhood more accessible. In 1839 two events would interfere with the play of the Gotham club. On May 5, the City Council passed the following ordinance: “No person shall play at ball, quoits, or any other sport or play whatsoever in any public place in the City of New York.”8 Three weeks later, the House of Refuge burned to the ground in a spectacular fire.9 The institution was relocated and the old site was designated as “Madison Square.”
There were, however, still a number of vacant lots and backyards in the neighborhood, and these were occupied by a variety of ballplayers. In 1840, according to a later article in the Clipper, the St. George Cricket Club “mustered as a club upon the grounds of Ralph Burroughs to the rear
of the old House of Refuge.”10 The groundskeeper was Sam Wright, father of baseball pioneers Harry and George. On October 24, 1840, the Colored American called attention “to the practice of the lads of our City, who, in great numbers, are resorting to the suburbs of the city, as high as 25th or 30th street, for the purpose of ball playing.”11
Another informal group came to the area in 1842. Duncan Curry, first president of the Knickerbocker Ball Club, recalled that “for several years it had been our habit to casually assemble on a plot of ground that is now known as 27th street and Fourth avenue, where the Harlem Railroad depot afterward stood. We would take our bats and balls with us and play any sort of a game.”12
According to a clipping in Henry Chadwick’s scrapbook, the Gotham/New York club found a new home across the street.
Speaking of the first base ball club, a friend—the veteran shortstop of the old Eagle club of New York of 1860 recently wrote me from his home in Waterbury Connecticut. “I first saw the game played on the grounds of the old New York Base Ball Club in the forties, on the block bounded by 5th and 6th avenues and 23rd and 24th streets, a district at that time given over to fields.”13
Charles Haswell provided further identification, noting that during the early 1840s “the premises on Fifth Avenue between 23rd and 24th streets were occupied by Corporal Thompson as a well-known and popular way-side house of entertainment.”14
After the Gotham club had been in existence a few months it was found necessary to reduce the rules of the new game to writing. This work fell to my hands, and the code I then formulated is essentially that in use today.
As the version of baseball pioneered by the Gotham/New York and Knickerbocker clubs became popular, contemporary observers realized that it was replacing an earlier game. The Clipper of October 10, 1857, reported on a match between the Liberty Club of New Jersey and “a party of Old Fogies who were in the habit of playing the old fashioned base ball, which as nearly everyone knows, is entirely different from the base ball as now played.”15 The article on Chatham Square included some details of the differences: “Baseball was then a simple pastime, with flat sticks or axe-handles for bats, and yarn balls.”16 Wheaton also mentioned that
in the old game when a man struck out those of his side who happened to be on the bases had to come in and lose that chance of making a run. We changed that and made the rule which holds good now.
The most important innovations incorporated in new rules were the result of a technological advance. In his description of the tools of the game, Charles Haswell touched on the key breakthrough, recalling that: “If a baseball was required, the boy of 1816 founded it with a bit of cork, or, if he were singularly fortunate, with some shreds of India rubber.”17 Primarily used to erase pencil marks, the South American substance provided new bounce to balls and increased distance to hits. There were, however, consequences.
The ball was made with a hard rubber center, tightly wrapped with yarn, and in the hands of a strong-armed man it was a terrible missile, and sometimes had fatal results when it came in contact with a delicate part of the player’s anatomy.
Wheaton and his colleagues decided to impose two new rules. One remains in effect today:
The first step we took in making baseball was to abolish the rule of throwing the ball at the runner and order that it should be thrown to the baseman instead, who had to touch the runner with it before he reached the base.
The second change would shape baseball history for another fifty years. The pitcher was not allowed to throw the ball, giving batters an edge. Wheaton was particularly proud of this feature.
The pitcher really pitched the ball, and underhand throwing was forbidden. Moreover, he pitched the ball so the batsman could strike it and give some work to the fielders.
Not all contemporary ballplayers agreed. After describing a Canadian game “Very Like Baseball” in an 1886 letter to Sporting Life, the writer added:
I well remember when some fellows down at or near New York got up the game of base ball that had a “pitcher” and “fouls,” etc. India rubber had come into use, and they put so much into the balls to make them lively that when the fellow tossed it to you like a girl playing “one old cat,” you could knock it so far that the fielders would be chasing it yet, like dogs hunting sheep, after you had gone clear around and scored your tally.18
When Wheaton was interviewed in November 1887, the modern “throw as you like” rule, supplemented by a clearly defined strike zone, had recently been enacted, much to the relief of umpires. His disappointment was clearly stated.
Nowadays the game seems to be played almost entirely by the pitcher and catcher. The pitcher sends his ball purposely in a baffling way, so that the batsman half the time can’t get a strike or reach a base.
On balance, however, the “Old Pioneer” was pleased with the results of his work.
When I saw the game between the Unions and Bohemians the other day, I said to myself if some of my old playmates who have been dead forty years could arise and see this game they would declare it was the same old game we used to play in the Elysian Fields, with the exception of the shortstop, the masked catcher, and the uniforms of the players.19
*San Francisco Examiner: Nov. 27, 1887. Note: This quotation and all others from the Wheaton interview are set in bold italic.
1. Ward, Baseball—How to Become a Ball Player.
2. N. Y. Herald: Oct. 21, 1845; Brooklyn Eagle: Oct. 21, 1845; N. Y. Morning News: Oct. 22, 1845.
3. Cartwright letter to Charles DeBost, Barry Halper Collection; Adams in Sporting News: Feb. 29, 1896, p. 3
4. Haswell, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian (p. 81).
5. Clipper: Oct. 23, 1880.
6. Dunshee, As You Pass By (p. 233).
7. See Clipper of Aug. 25, 1860, for report of “a game of base ball” played by veterans of 1812.
8. N. Y. C. By-Laws and Ordinances, May 8, 1839.
9. Rochester Republican: May 27, 1839.
10. Chadwick Scrapbook.
11. The Colored American: Oct. 24, 1840.
12. Spink, The National Game (p. 54).
13. Chadwick Scrapbook.
14. Haswell, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian (p. 365).
15. Clipper: Sept. 29, 1857.
16. Clipper: Oct. 23, 1880.
17. Haswell, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian (p. 77).
18. Sporting Life: May 5, 1886.
19. For details of Union/Bohemian game see S. F. Chronicle: Nov. 5, 1887.
Major League Baseball will mark its 200,000th game with one of the games played later today (Saturday, September 24, 2011). Which cities will vie for the honor of hosting that game is as yet uncertain, with rainouts providing the wild card.
How MLB and Elias Sports Bureau came to this calculation makes for a twisty tale of interest to the historically minded. Here’s the background.
Months ago, we knew that MLB would bump into its 200,000th game, but there was conflicting precedent as to what we would recognize as the first game, way back when. Professional baseball began to ramp up in the years after the conclusion of the Civil War, but not in organized fashion. In 1869, for example, the celebrated Cincinnati Red Stockings went undefeated, taking on all comers from coast to coast. They are among MLB’s honored forebears; indeed, in 1969, MLB celebrated the centennial of the professional game, and in ’94 again, hailed Harry Wright’s Red Stockings with a 125th-anniversary patch that all players wore.
But 1869 was not when league play began; that event came on May 4, 1871, with the first game of the new National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. The problem with settling on that date for MLB’s Game 1 was the loosely organized National Association itself, which had a few strong cities, many fly-by-night franchises, erratic scheduling and a mix of salaried clubs with those that shared the gate receipts.
All the same, the players who would eventually stock the eight clubs in the first year of the National League (1876) overwhelmingly came from the National Association, which, after five seasons of play, disbanded to make way for the NL. Until 1969, MLB and its encyclopedias recognized the National Association as its point of origin; testifying to that status was the muted celebration of MLB’s 100,000th game on Sept. 6, 1963, between the Cleveland Indians and Washington Senators (the home-team Senators won, 7-2).
With the creation of the NL in 1876, the gate-sharing cooperative nines of the National Association would give way to stock companies, and gambling and drinking would diminish, if not disappear. Small-market clubs, like the Kekionga of Fort Wayne, Ind., or the Westerns of Keokuk, Iowa, or the Elm City of New Haven, Conn. — which had plagued the National Association through their inability either to compete or to complete their scheduled road trips or to draw enough fans at home to cover the expenses of visiting clubs — would be cut adrift.
In 1968-69, MLB’s Special Baseball Records Committee ruled on a number of disputed points, including the Major League status of the National Association and later rival leagues. MLB was henceforth defined as having commenced with the first game of the National League, played on April 22, 1876, between the Boston Red Stockings and Philadelphia Athletics. The score was tied, 4-4, after eight innings. But visiting Boston scored two in the top of the ninth and held on, as the Athletics could push across only one run before third baseman Ezra Sutton grounded feebly back to the pitcher. Joe Borden, who sometimes pitched under the nom de guerre of Joe Josephs, pitched the complete-game victory for Boston. Hall of Famer Jim O’Rourke notched the first hit, and his fellow Cooperstown inductee, George Wright, scored two of Boston’s runs. Oddly, while all the players that day were making their MLB debuts, one — left fielder Bill Parks of Boston — was playing his last game.
In accordance with its new definition of the first game, in 1976, MLB celebrated its centennial year as the nation celebrated its bicentennial. Omitting the 1,086 National Association games meant that MLB would celebrate its 200,000th game not on July 4 of this year, but on Saturday.
With this tenth 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 Richard Hershberger, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball. He has, in a few short years, become a leading fact-finder in our field, as he pursues his personal goal of understanding the social and organizational history of U.S. baseball from the 18th century to 1880. His recent articles in Base Ball include one on Philadelphia Town Ball (2007) and one on baseball and rounders (2009).
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 1831.1, reflects that it is the first Protoball entry for the year 1831.
1831.1 The Olympic Ball Club of Philadelphia
A small distance from the woods, I beheld a party of young men, (the majority of whom I afterwards distinguished to be Market street merchants,) and who styled themselves the “Olympic Club,” a title well answering to its name by the manner in which the party amused themselves in the recreant pleasure of town ball….1
The Olympic Ball Club of Philadelphia was by far the longest-lived baseball club of the amateur era. Its origins go as far back as 1831, when a group of Philadelphians in their twenties gathered to play ball. Two years later they merged with another group, which was loosely organized and went by the name “Olympic.” The combined group kept this name and adopted a formal constitution.2 The Olympics were still playing ball in the 1880s, with the last record of the club as a going concern dating to 1889.
The Olympics crossed the Delaware River to play in Camden, New Jersey. There is a persistent rumor that this was due to blue laws prohibiting ball play in Philadelphia, but there is no evidence for such an ordinance. It is more likely that they were driven by the same imperative that would have New York ballplayers crossing the Hudson River to Hoboken. There was not yet even rudimentary public transportation. Urban growth pushed open fields beyond easy reach of the center city. Camden was a rural village with ample open space, and conveniently accessible by ferry. There they would remain until just before the Civil War, by which time passenger railroads gave access to outlying regions.
The new club had the features that would become the classic model of a baseball club. The early clubs typically were urban organizations composed of young men of the professional and mercantile class. They held sedentary jobs, leading to a desire for exercise. They wished to take their exercise in a social context with their peers. They had the flexibility to make time for the activity, and the financial resources to support it.
The Olympics fit easily within the broad pattern of baseball clubs. But the lingering question remains: Do they really count as a baseball club? Traditional histories consider the Knickerbockers of New York, founded in 1845, the first ballclub, with the Olympics tending to be dismissed as a “town ball” club that did not switch to authentic baseball until 1860.
There is a kernel of truth here. Modern baseball derives from the version that arose in New York City in the late 1830s or 1840s. This “New York game” began to spread outward in the late 1850s. The Olympics switched to the New York game in 1860. But what did they switch from?
Baseball was brought to America from England in colonial times, played as an informal, unorganized game. It was part of our common English cultural heritage. But this is not to say that is was played in a single version, or went by a single name. Versions were local, in the way that informal children’s games even today vary from one locale to the next. It also went by different names, varying by region.3
In New York the game retained the old English name of “base ball.” In Philadelphia it went by a newer name: “town ball.” The origin of this name is unknown. (The common explanation that “town ball” was so called because it was played at town meetings is post hoc speculation with no supporting evidence.) It was the usual term through a wide swath of America, from Pennsylvania west through the Ohio valley and throughout the South. It is entirely likely that the term arose on the eastern seaboard and spread west with white settlement, but there is no direct evidence of this. The earliest citations appear in the late 1830s, appearing within a few years of each other in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Louisiana.4
Another misunderstanding is the common assertion that townball was the ancestor of baseball. This misconception arose in the later 19th century, when old-timers in areas such as the midwest recalled that “town ball” (meaning the old local form of baseball) came before “base ball” (meaning the New York game). This statement of chronological fact was misinterpreted as a statement of genealogy.
There is no direct evidence of the exact rules of the game as the early Olympics played it. The earliest game accounts are from a quarter-century later, when a community of competitive clubs arose in Philadelphia. The basic format would be familiar, with bases laid out in the field; two teams trading places each inning; and one team trying to bat the ball and run around the bases while the other team tried to catch the ball or throw out the runner. (Like most early forms, the technique to put out the runner was to throw the ball at him. Tagging was a development of the New York game.) Other features are less familiar. The six bases, marked by stakes, were about twenty feet apart. Unique among known forms, the batter had to complete the circuit with each hit, rather than stopping at a base to await a later batter.5
With their formal organization, the Olympics took the shape of the classic baseball club. But they came from an older model. Baseball requires sufficient space, a sufficient number of players, and sufficient time to play It. For juveniles, these requirements naturally come together on the school ground. Baseball followed westward white settlement, arriving as soon as population density had risen high enough to support a school. Matters were not so simple for adult play. There was a widespread taboo against playing on Sunday, which was the only frequent opportunity. This left occasional events such as barn-raisings and the calendar of holidays. The Fourth of July was by far the most important warm-weather holiday, and baseball play was a widespread feature of the day.
Sometimes these holiday games were impromptu. Sometimes they were planned in advance. It was an easy step from advance planning to organizing a club for the annual festivity: a bit like Philadelphia’s Mummers clubs today organize for the New Year’s parade. One of the predecessor groups that formed the Olympics was such a club. They had organized to play ball annually on Independence Day. They occasionally played informal games at other times. A few members went to Camden, where they began playing with the regulars there, leading to the merger of 1833.
The club retained something of its holiday origin. They would turn out in force every Fourth of July for ball play, accompanied by their longtime president, attorney William Whitman, reading the Declaration of Independence, the singing of national songs, and “an address delivered for the perpetuation of the Stars and Stripes.”
The Olympics were not the first baseball club, nor were they the most influential. They do, however, hold a unique status as the only club before the Knickerbockers to be well documented. Other early clubs are known only by vague references and reminiscences made long after they had faded away. The Olympics were the only pre–Knickerbocker club to survive into baseball’s heyday. As the club switched to the New York game in 1860, it already was aware of its unique status. It still included some of its original members, who kept its institutional memory, and took care to record its history. In 1866 the club published a pamphlet that included a history of the club and its historical membership roster.
An open question in baseball history is the extent of early clubs. There are clear signs that they existed, but there is little evidence for how common or widespread they were. It is tempting to take this absence of evidence for evidence of absence, so it is instructive to note how much early evidence there is for the Olympics. There is very little. The club pamphlet for 1838 survives in a single extant copy. There is exactly one known newspaper reference prior to 1857.
This is a letter to the editor published in the Philadelphia Public Ledger in 1838, quoted in the epigraph introducing this essay. The writer tells that, desiring a walk in the country, he took the ferry to Camden. While strolling through the woods he came upon a party of young men playing ball. He learned that they were Philadelphians and called themselves the Olympic Club. He was enchanted by them and impressed by the benefits of the exercise, and encouraged his readers to follow the club’s lead. This item is strikingly similar to the note 15 years earlier in New York’s National Advocate (Protoball 1823.1).
This paucity of early documentation shows that even a club indisputably stable and formally organized could barely appear in the contemporary record. This gives credence to the hints and memories of other clubs elsewhere. The mere fact that we know such a club existed is the Olympics’ legacy to early baseball history.
1. Public Ledger (Philadelphia): May 14, 1838.
2. The major source for the early history of the club is the club pamphlet of 1866. Early clubs frequently published pamphlets containing their constitution and bylaws, roster, and playing rules. The Olympics’ 1866 pamphlet includes a historical essay and historical roster. One known copy survives, in the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Center.
3. American baseball received little attention until the 1850s. Generalizations of earlier forms and terminology are derived from a combination of scattered early references, extrapolation backwards from documented events of the 1850s, and reminiscences from later in the century.
4. Respectively: Public Ledger (Philadelphia): May 14, 1838; Indiana Journal (Indianapolis): May 13, 1837; Southern Patriot (Charleston, S.C.): Aug. 31, 1841, quoting the Concordia (Louisiana) Intelligencer.
5. Hershberger, R. 2007. “A Reconstruction of Philadelphia Town Ball,” Base Ball 1.2, 28–43.
Disclaimer: If you have read my latest book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, or just happen to be a real smartypants, you know all this already and may as well find something else to amuse. This little entry in Our Game is not meant to be definitive on any point; more may be learned from the book, or just ask for explanation via the comment box.
1. When was baseball first played in America?
A game by that name was documented in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1791 but was probably played in that state way earlier. A game called baste or baste ball, which was probably just a regional variant spelling, was played at Princeton College in 1786.
2. Who invented baseball?
Neither Abner Doubleday nor Alexander Cartwright … not any one individual, certainly. But three other men had more to do with baseball’s rise than those two: William Rufus Wheaton, Daniel Lucius Adams, and Louis Fenn Wadsworth.
3. What did Wheaton do?
Wheaton (not Cartwright) wrote the first baseball rules for another club (the Gothams) and copied them, virtually unchanged, eight years later for the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of 1845.
4. What did Adams do?
Adams (not Cartwright) set the base paths at ninety feet, the pitching distance at 45 feet (its distance from the 1850s well into the era of professional league play, enduring until 1880). He also created the position of shortstop in 1849–50.
5. What did Wadsworth do?
Wadsworth (not Cartwright) is responsible for setting the number of men to the side at nine and the number of innings required to complete a game likewise at nine. In doing so he bucked the majority of his fellow Knickerbockers, who preferred the number seven. (Wouldn’t need so many closers today if Wadsworth had lost his argument.)
Like Cartwright he went to his grave in the early 1890s not knowing he had invented baseball, and no one credited either man with that remarkable feat. Doubleday DID start something—the Civil War, by firing the first shot in response to the Confederate assault upon Fort Sumter. And he was a Sanskrit-reading mystic, an odd fact that is crucial for understanding how he came to be the (symbolic) Father of Baseball.
7. When did baseball cards appear on the scene?
If a card is understood to be an item mass produced for sale, then the first would be the illustrated ticket to the inaugural soiree of the Magnolia Ball Club, an event that took place in 1844 to celebrate the club’s founding the year before. This aggregation of ballplaying brothel keepers, billiard hall owners, and bigamist aldermen was unknown to history until just a few years ago, when I discovered evidence that its members had cavorted at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken two years before the Knickerbockers arrived there.
8. Who was baseball’s first national hero?
Jim Creighton of the Brooklyn Excelsiors. Perfecting a low, swooping underhand delivery with an imperceptible wrist snap that was technically illegal at the time, he dominated hitters as no pitcher before him had ever done. That his success was due in part to cheating—compounded by his receipt of under-the table payments at a time professionalism was likewise illegal—troubled only a few in baseball’s rowdy formative years. When he died at the age of twenty-one in 1862, shortly after injuring himself with a too vigorous swing of the bat, his legend was immediately burnished by those seeking to elevate baseball, and a huge monument was erected over his remains at Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery.
Not Jackie Robinson in 1947, not Moses Fleetwood Walker in 1884 … but William Edward White in 1879. The regular Providence Grays’ first baseman, Joe Start, was injured and unable to play against the visiting Cleveland Blues on June 21, 1879. White, a student ballplayer at Brown University who was the son of a Georgia slave owner and his house servant, played in his place, with so little fanfare that his distinction as an African American went unnoted until 2004. The Providence Morning Star raved about White’s major-league debut and the support from his Brown University teammates. “The Varsity boys lustily cheered their favorite at times, and howled with delight when he got a safe hit in the ninth inning, as they also did his magnificent steals of second in that and the fifth inning.” Though he returned to play for Brown University in 1880, White never played another big league game.
10. Who was the first Hispanic American to play big-league baseball?
Cuban-born Esteban (Steve) Bellán was a naturalized American who played with the Troy Haymakers in 1871, the first year of baseball’s first professional league, the National Association.
With this ninth 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 Larry McCray, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball for which Larry served as guest editor. He is the founder of the invaluable Protoball Project, a website where many of the early game’s top scholars have shared their finds. He is also a panelist on Major League Baseball’s Origins Committee, which I chair.
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 1829.2, reflects that it is the second Protoball entry for the year 1829.
1829.2 The Rise and Fall of New England–Style Ballplaying
Mr. Lawrence says, as a boy [h]e played Round Ball in 1829. So far as [his] argument goes for Round Ball being the father of Base Ball, it is all well enough, but there are two things that cannot be accounted for; the conception of the foul ball, and the abolishment of the rule that a player could be put out by being hit with a thrown ball…. Mr. Lawrence considers Round Ball and Four Old Cat one and the same game; the Old Cat game merely being what they would do when there were not more than a dozen players, all told.1
If one is inclined to trust the reliability a senior citizen’s memories from his boyhood seven decades earlier, this 1905 testimony describes a long and simple arc for New England–style ballplaying. The ancient “old cat” games, including perhaps “hornebillets” as described in the 1670s in England, are linked to round ball as played in Massachusetts in the 1820s, which is itself linked, via the formalized Massachusetts Game of the 1850s, to modern baseball.
This essay reviews current evidence on the evolution of New England ballplaying up to the 1860s.
Beginnings and Folk Play to 1854
Excluding references to the English game of cricket and the American game of wicket, we find that scholars have, to this point, unearthed about seven dozen references to ballplaying in the six New England states before club play began in Boston in the mid–1850s. Can we discern the roots of the Massachusetts Game, as finally codified in Dedham MA in 1858, in these spare and disparate clues?
The short answer: Well, maybe, but only when we accept the general assurances of men like Mr. Lawrence, cited above, who assert strong resemblances between early and later forms of play.
The problem is that most of these earliest references give no details on the actual nature of the games they cite. The vast majority are of the quality of Bowdoin student and future poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s letter to his father in 1824:
This has been a very sickly term in college. However, within the last week, the [school’s] government seeing that something must be done to induce the students to exercise, recommended a game of ball now and then, which communicated such an impulse to our limbs and joints, that there is now nothing heard of, in our leisure hours, but ball, ball, ball.2
From our vantage point, this is an especially sweet morsel, but is still, effectively, a sweet nothing; it gives us no glimpse of the actual game played, or its rules, or even the name for the game that was played — just “a game of ball.”
And in fact, about two-thirds of our references fail to name the game played, using terms like “game of ball,” “playing at ball,” and the like.
The games that are specifically named, in order of their relative frequency of appearance, are (1) round ball, found mostly in Eastern Massachusetts, (2) bat-and-ball, mostly to the north and east of Boston, including Maine, (3) one of the old cat versions, (4) base, or base ball, and (5) goal, or goal ball.3 But we are given very few clues whether these labels attached to identical, similar, or dissimilar games, let alone what their playing rules were.
We do get glimpses of isolated aspects of the games: there are scattered references to the use of bats, or bat-sticks, or ball-clubs, and one Vermont account of playing goal in about 1828 mentions that “the elm trees by our yard were the goals (bases).”4 An account of ballplaying in Western Massachusetts in about 1850 mentions games of “round ball, two and four old cat, with soft yarn balls thrown at the runner,” rare evidence of the practice of “plugging” in those pastimes.5 Ours is not a rich feast of anecdotes.
There is one New England source that does lay out several features that were later formalized as the Massachusetts game rules. This book, published in 1834,6 lays out rules for “base, or goal ball” (also identifying it with “round ball”), including two teams, four bases, soft tosses to batters, a three strike rule, the fly rule, plugging, all-out-side-out innings, and backward hitting. Oddly, however, the basic text is not actually written to reflect New England ballplaying: it is taken, with only minor word changes, from an 1828 London book’s section on “minor sports.”7 The original version is found under the heading “rounders,” a game said to be popular then in the west of England.8 (This apparently marked the first appearance of the term “rounders” anywhere. We have 1905 testimony from seniors that round ball in America was believed to have extended back to before 1800,9 so the idea that New Englanders simply “imported” a game known as rounders from England is not easily supported.)
All in all, it seems fair to infer that the basic rules listed in the two books may have governed at least some forms of New England ballplaying in the early part of the 19th century, but that conclusion cannot, at this point, be solidly buttressed by hard contemporary evidence. We are forced to lean heavily both on reflections of the elderly, and on an assumption that the editor of the 1834 book was correct in linking the English rounders rules he printed to games then played in New England.
The Massachusetts Game Emerges and Blossoms, 1854 –1860
In 1854—a decade after the Knickerbockers had formed in New York—Boston saw the founding of the Olympic Club, its first. By 1856, the first known interclub games were reported. There were still major rules kinks to work out; when the Olympics played the Green Mountain Club in a “second trial game of base ball” in May 1856, the two teams were still smarting from an earlier dispute as to whether the “thrower” should deliver from 20 feet or from 40 feet,10 whether the “catcher” could move around during play, and how many strikes made an out (six, they had agreed). An all-out-side-out rule appeared to have been used to define a half-inning when these two clubs played.
In May 1858, 10 clubs met at the town of Dedham and agreed to 21 rules defining the Massachusetts game of baseball. (The term “base ball” was by then uniformly used to denote the New England–style game, sometimes with an indication its traditional name was round ball.) The rules reflected both a shorter list of New England–style rules laid down by the Olympic Club in 1857 and the recently amended 1858 rules of the New York Game, from which it borrowed phraseology. In contrast to the New York rules, the Dedham rules depicted an infield in the form we describe as a square, not a diamond, and with shorter basepaths; deliveries to the batter that were thrown, not pitched; use of a fly rule, but no bound rule; the plugging of runners; a one-out-side-out definition of a half-inning; matches played to 100 “tallies”; team size ranging from 10–14 players; stakes instead of flat bases; a noticeably smaller and lighter ball; and, while not explicitly stated, the absence of any foul territory, which allowed “backwards hitting.”
Some of these new rules may have simply codified traditional practice for New England ballplaying. For other Dedham provisions, however, we have, as yet, no local precedent on record, and for all we know such features may have been introduced more recently: such features may have included overhand pitching, playing one-out-side-out innings, using stakes as bases, playing to 100 tallies (more common format had been a best-of-three set of games to 25 tallies), and setting the number of players on a team.
The Massachusetts Game flourished for only a short while. Its peak may have been reached in October 1859, when a club from Medway and a club from Upton met to decide the state championship, for a stake of $500 in gold. The Upton club prevailed, 100–56, after 11 hours and 80 innings of play. A crowd of 5,000 or more souls was reported per day, and “the neighboring towns gave their employees holidays to see the game.”11
Subduction By the New York Game in the 1860s
But the onrushing New York game presented an irresistible force. Already in 1857, a new Boston club, the Tri-Mountain, had elected to play by the New York rules.12 In 1858, two clubs at Harvard College were playing the New York game.13 In 1859 a scrapbook clipping states that Massachusetts had 37 clubs playing by Massachusetts rules—but that another 13 clubs played by New York rules.14
A brief rivalry between the two forms of baseball arose. An aggressive article in the New York Tribune in October 1859, perhaps seeing overhand deliveries and plugging and the more demanding fly rule as features of a more “manly” game than the one New Yorkers had devised, charged that the New York game was “a bastard game, worthy only of boys 10 years of age. The only genuine game is known as the Massachusetts Game.”15 Detractors called the New York version a “baby game.” In 1860, the champion Upton Club reportedly offered to play the elite Atlantic Club of Brooklyn by Massachusetts rules for a winner-take-all stake of $1,000. The Atlantic Club did not take the bait.16
The national trend was obvious, even in New England. A regional journal in 1860 admitted that the New York game “is fast becoming popular in New England, and in fact over the whole country … requiring a greater attention, courage, and activity than the old game, sometimes called the Massachusetts Game…. The New York Game bids fair to supplant all others.”17 During the Civil War, a few Massachusetts regiments played their traditional game in the war camps, but there were 10 times as many reports of games played by New York rules. New England’s game was fading fast. Even today, it is reported, local vintage baseball clubs rarely play New England’s own game, strangely preferring the gentler one that had emerged from Pinstripe City.
1. Letter from Henry Sargent to the Mills Commission, June 25, 1905.
2. Andrew Hilen, ed. 1966. The Letters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, vol. 1 (p. 87).
3. We have no contemporary evidence of the game of “rounders;” a single account, written in 1917 when the “Rounders Theory” of the origin of baseball was already well publicized, places rounders at Phillips Andover in 1853; see Protoball entry 1853c.1.
4. See Protoball entry 1828c.5.
5. See Protoball entry 1850s.33.
6. Carver, R. 1834, The Book of Sports.
7. The Boy’s Own Book, 1828, p. 20.
8. Carver changes one feature of rounders in his book; while the original 1828 text stipulates that a backward hit is an out, Carver’s version deletes that provision. Both books depict clockwise baserunning.
9. See Protoball entries 1780c.4, 1790s.7, 1800c.4.
10. “Exciting Game of Base Ball,” New York Clipper: May 26, 1856, p. 35.
11. Sargent, H. “Roundball: Baseball’s Predecessor and a Famous Massachusetts Game,” The New York Sun: May 8, 1905.
12. “Base Ball in Boston,” New York Clipper: June 13, 1857.
13. “The Lawrence Base Ball Club,” The Harvard Graduates’ Magazine, Mar. 1917, pp. 336–340.
14. “Base Ball.” Unidentified clipping in the Mears Collection, Cleveland Public Library.
15. New York Tribune: Oct. 18, 1859.
16. Letter from Henry Sargent to the Mills Commission, June 25, 1905.
17. Farmers Cabinet: May 16, 1860, p. 2.
Yesterday the United States Postal Service announced that on July 12, 2012 it would release a postage stamp honoring my favorite ballplayer, Ted Williams. For on-field exploits alone I could as easily have chosen the Babe, or Henry Aaron, or Willie Mays; for a compelling back story I might have gone with Jim Creighton, or King Kelly, or Barry Bonds. But taken all in all, it’s The Kid; we shall not look upon his like again.
The Kid was born on August 30, 1918, to May Venzer Williams and Samuel Stewart Williams. Although the baseball record books list his formal handle as Theodore, the name on his birth certificate was Teddy Samuel Williams. If his parents were naming him in tribute to the rugged individualism of Teddy Roosevelt, they couldn’t have been more prescient. The road to manhood for this Kid was long and dark, and if he was going to get there, he’d damned well have to do it on his own.
“My mother was gone all day and half the night, working the streets for the Salvation Army,” Ted wrote in his autobiography. “I didn’t see much of my dad…. My dad and I were never close. I was always closer to my mother, always feeling I had to do right by her, always feeling she was alone.” She was alone? He had to do right by her? May Williams embraced the whole family of man through the Salvation Army. If that fervor for humanity left her husband and children—for Ted had a younger brother named Danny—a little short, well, they would find their way, somehow.
There is a story Ted told about himself in another context—how bold and brash he was in 1938, his last year in the minors—that forms a paradigm for his progress through life. Late in a tie ballgame, he hit a double. Trying to distract the pitcher, he began to wave his arms and jitterbug off the base. Manager Donie Bush had seen him pull so many bonehead plays that he became nervous. “Don’t go too far, now … be alert … watch that pitcher … look out for that pickoff!”
“Take it easy, Skip,” the Kid yelled back. “I got here by myself, I’ll get home by myself.”
Matinee-idol good looks; a lithe, powerful frame; offhand, unaffected charm; blistering intensity: that was the catalog of the Kid you formed in the first minute you met him. But there was more to the man, far more, and so much of it was visible beneath the thin skin that you were tempted to think you knew him, really knew what made him tick. You didn’t.
The big grin, the thundering voice, the hearty thump on the back, the genuine warmth and generous spirit—these were authentic parts of the man inspiring fierce loyalty by those who were permitted to love him. For the rest, not chosen, there was a sign on the fence: KEEP OUT.
With her dedication to outfitting souls for the ascent to heaven, Ted’s mother couldn’t be bothered much about everyday appearances. Second-hand furniture and clothing troubled her not a bit, for she ministered daily to those who had nothing. But Ted was ashamed of the shabbiness and neglect. “I was embarrassed about my home, embarrassed that I never had quite as good clothes as some of the kids, embarrassed that my mother was out in the middle of the damn street all the time.”
Ted’s home had one undeniable plus: North Park playground was only a block and a half away, and its playing fields had lights. If his parents were going to be away from morning until night, at least Ted could play ball instead of sitting on the porch waiting for someone to come home.
In 1946 John Chamberlain, in a profile in Life, wrote of May Williams that “growing up under her nervous but fascinating spell would either make or break any kid.” Seemingly it made Ted and broke Danny, who rejected authority parental and civil as vigorously as Ted welcomed it. In significant ways, however, their upbringing splintered Ted, too. If the playground was his salvation, it was not a total substitute for home, any more than the evangelical Army was for his mother. She and her husband split up in 1939, with the latter going north to the Bay Area. He had “stuck it out with my mother for twenty years,” Ted wrote, “and finally he packed up, and I’d probably have done the same. My mother was a wonderful woman in many ways, but gee, I wouldn’t have wanted to be married to a woman like that.”
When he reported to the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League in 1936, at age 17, after Ted had reached his full height of 6’3”, but he weighed only 148 pounds. Where did the power come from? Not from the physique, although that would become impressive over time, but from technique: God-given talent harnessed with hard, hard work. Ted had come close to signing with the Los Angeles Angels, but his dad, previously content to let Ted go his own way, now decided to get in on the act and scotched the deal. The Cardinals were the first big-league team to send a scout to look at him, but they didn’t like the way he ran. The Yankees made an offer but wanted to start him way down the ladder. Detroit sent scout Marty Krug, a former big leaguer, who was aghast at Ted’s beanpole frame. He told Ted’s mother that a year of pro ball would literally kill him. It is surprising that someone in the Detroit front office did not literally kill Krug.
When Eddie Collins, the general manager of the Boston Red Sox, came to San Diego in 1936 to check the progress of two Padres on who he had an option, Bobby Doerr and George Myatt, he saw this scrawny 17-year-old part-time pitcher taking batting practice, and he saw the most perfect batting form he had seen, better even than that of Joe Jackson. Collins talked Bill Lane, the Pads’ owner, into a handshake deal for an option on the boy who had The Swing. One year later he came back to exercise the option, and Ted Williams became the property of the Boston Red Sox.
After two years of methodically stuffing himself with eggs, milkshakes, bananas, and ice cream, Williams was still skinny, but no longer ghastly. When he first reported to the Red Sox spring-training camp in 1938, as green a pea as ever came off the farm, his reputation preceded him. It wasn’t his statistics that set him apart from mere mortals—in two years in the Pacific Coast League he had posted modest batting averages of .271 and .291. It was The Swing. His first day in camp, when he stepped into the batting cage, everything stopped. Even the most veteran players interrupted their drills to watch the Kid strut his stuff: take the wide, erect stance that made him look even taller than his 6’3” height; extend his bat across the plate, as if taking its measure; wiggle his hips and rock his shoulders as if he were searching for solid ground beneath his feet; twist his hands on the bat handle with bad intent. Then, the turn of the hips, the snap of the wrists, the fluid follow-through, and the crack of bat on ball. No student of baseball who saw The Swing will ever forget it.
He failed to make the big club out of spring training and bitterly set off for Triple-A Minneapolis. In 1938, his one year with the Millers, Ted tore up the American Association, winning the Triple Crown with a batting average of .366, 43 home runs, and 142 RBIs. But his play in the outfield and on the basepaths drove Donie Bush to distraction, drink, and despair. Maybe the Kid was going to be the game’s next great star, but the comparisons offered by newsmen around the circuit were not to Babe Ruth but to Babe Herman—or to Ring Lardner’s “Elmer the Great.” It is hard to fathom today, but as he rose to the majors Ted was universally regarded as a screwball.“I felt a lot of people didn’t like me,” Williams wrote in his autobiography, My Turn at Bat. He wasn’t going to let them do that to him. Anticipating rejection, he would make himself so disagreeable as to ensure it, and so deny its hurt. What other people thought of him—even the faceless crowd—mattered.
Ted had a remarkable rookie season in Boston in 1939, hitting 31 home runs and driving in 145 runs. After a sophomore season in which he failed to meet his own lofty goals, especially in home runs,he began his glory year of 1941 by breaking his ankle in spring training. This may have been a lucky break, as for the first two weeks of the regular season it limited him to pinch hitting duty, thus reducing his plate appearances in the cold weather that he despised. By mid-June he was hitting .436. Then came the All Star Game and the two-out, ninth-inning, three-run homer which he always described as “the biggest thrill I ever got in baseball.”
Ted’s average slipped down to .402 in late August, and veteran observers recalled all the other assaults on the .400 mark that had wilted as summer turned toward fall. Bill Terry, a boyhood favorite of Ted’s, had been the last man to attain the mark, hitting .401 in 1930. His record looked safe. But remarkably, the Kid perked up again, raising his average to a lofty .413 by mid-September. But it is hard to go 2-for-5 and see your average decline. In the last ten games of the season, Ted lost nearly a point a day. And then, with his average just a hair below the magical line, there was the climactic doubleheader in Philadelphia. He could have sat out the twin bill and finished with a rounded-off .400, but instead chose to play and went 6-for-8 to finish at .406.
Seventy years later, Williams remains the last man to hit over .400. Dueling with him for the baseball spotlight in 1941 had been the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio, who in midseason hit in 56 consecutive games. No one since has come close to that mark, either. This year both are honored with commemorative postage stamps, along with two other departed heroes, Larry Doby and Willie Stargell. Artist Kadir Nelson’s heroic style will make this set a keeper.