September 18th, 2011

The Olympic Ball Club of Philadelphia

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 

Richard Hershberger

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.

Notes

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.

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