September 29th, 2011

The Evolution of the New York Game

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

Randall Brown

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

 

Notes

*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.

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