The Baseball Press Emerges

With this thirteenth 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 yours truly, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball.

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 1853.5, reflects that it is the fifth Protoball entry for the year 1853.

1853.5 The Baseball Press Emerges

John Thorn

“BASE BALL AT HOBOKEN: The first friendly game of the season, between the Gotham and Knickerbocker Base Ball Clubs was played on the grounds of the latter on the 5th inst. The game was commenced on Friday the 1st, but owing to the storm had to be postponed, the Knickerbockers making nine aces to two of the Gothams, the following is the score for both days.”

The Knicks won, 21–12, according to an abbreviated box score, which uses “No. of Outs” and not “Hands Lost” in the left-hand column, and “Runs,” not “Aces,” in the right-hand column. Paul Wendt estimates that this is the first certain Knick-rules box score known, and the first since the October 1845 games.1 Henry Chadwick may have been baseball’s most important writer in its early days, but he was not its first. That honor would go to William Cauldwell, who, like Chadwick, was born in 1824. “I can speak as a New York boy from away back,” Cauldwell told the Mills Commission in 1905, “and in an all my experiences I had no knowledge of the prominence of a ball game called ‘rounders.’ I played ball in my native city from the time I was (to use an old time phrase) ‘knee high to a mosquito’ dating back to a period when Fourteenth Street was considered out of town.”2

Cauldwell would have played ball in lower Manhattan, near Crosby Street, for he went to primary school at the “High School for Males,” at No. 36 Crosby near Broome Street. As editor of the weekly Sunday Mercury, Cauldwell made mention of baseball on May 1, 1853, and later that year devoted space to the Knickerbocker–Gotham match of July 5. These were the first press accounts of baseball games since various newspapers covered the three October 1845 contests between clubs from Brooklyn and New York.

As Chadwick was not the first to cover baseball, neither was the New York Clipper. For decades after its debut number of April 30, 1853, the Clipper was never all about baseball, or even primarily so.3 Yet more than any other publication, it may be said to have transformed a boys’ game into the national pastime. To place in context how the Clipper advanced the status of baseball, let’s look at the sporting papers that paved its way.

I suggest that three essential ingredients facilitate the growth of any localized game to national sport. First, gambling. Adults must care about the outcome, and their willingness to place a wager is a reasonable measure of their interest. As a game matures, investors and civic boosters may pool their interests in order to absorb a greater risk, placing their bets on the protracted success of a club or a ball grounds. Second, statistics. Whether merely game scores or primitive box scores, these numerical attachments to prose accounts accord a mantle of importance to the matches—an importance like that of trade or transport or government; in addition, quantifying the game’s constituent parts further fuels the first mover of sport, gambling. Third, publicity. Regular press coverage is a necessary development to waft the enthusiasm exhibited at a single contest, however it may have been fueled, to those only reading about it afterward, often at great distance from the event.

Before baseball came to dominate the sporting scene in the last quarter of the 19th century, these three elements had previously advanced the popularity of other sports: the turf, the ring, sculling, cricket, and the pit (blood sports such as ratting, baiting, cockfighting, and dog-fighting). Whether the crowd drawn by the activity was low or genteel, the ingredients and the progression were similar. American sporting papers, beginning in the 1820s, paved the way for each sport to mature by providing records and prognostications related to events of interest to the sporting set and—underlying it all—the basis of a potential wager.

Despite the nationwide surge of interest during the Jacksonian era in newspapers and magazines touching upon all topics—from politics to religion, from literature to commerce—sporting coverage lagged. Devotees of turf, ring, field, and stream had to await the arrival by packet ship of the weekly Bell’s Life in London, founded in 1822. Three years earlier, Baltimorean John Stuart Skinner had established The American Farmer, the first agricultural journal in this country; in 1823 he replaced it with the  monthly American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, which became America’s first enduring sporting paper.

Skinner sought for his new publication an encyclopedic status, but while industrious in collecting material for his magazine, unfortunately he published whatever was sent to him relating to the horse, and just as it was sent. His indifference to fact and straying attentions would continue to plague sporting papers, as the standards of self-promotion and humbuggery were more readily met than those of journalism.

A competitor to Skinner’s magazine arose in 1831.4 Founded by the aptly named William Trotter Porter, the Spirit of the Times was a high-toned weekly of horse literature and southwestern wit. Under his aegis it became a landmark in its approach to sport and, with nationally distributed subscription, a significant part of American periodical history. Porter pitched his paper to “gentlemen of standing, wealth and intelligence, the very Corinthian columns of the community,” rather than the crowd attracted by sensationalistic sheets of the day like The Whip or the Police Gazette (of which outlaw Jesse James was a noteworthy subscriber).5

An early–1830s competitor to Skinner and Porter was the sumptuous (and thus not surprisingly short-lived) New York Sporting Magazine and Annals of the American and English Turf, published by Cadwallader R. Colden with colored aquatints. Colden had written for Skinner’s publication under the pseudonym “An Old Turfman.” His own venture, launched in March 1833, ceased publication a year later, but it presaged the illustrated sporting papers to come.

Spirit of the Times began to cover cricket in 1837 (a match between elevens from Schenectady and Albany). Not until July 9, 1853, however, did it give notice to a baseball match, the one played between the Knickerbocker and Gotham clubs on July 5—the same noted in the fledgling Clipper one week later. Over the next few years, however, the Spirit would cover baseball much more assiduously than the Clipper. For a long time after it launched, the Clipper was seen as a cheap cousin of the flash or racy weeklies rather than as a competitor to Spirit of the Times. In 1853 the Clipper sold for two cents per copy at the city’s newsstands; the Spirit, if available there (it sold primarily via annual subscription), went for six cents per copy.

Although Spirit of the Times attracted a widely dispersed circulation that peaked at 40,000, it struggled to break even, it was said, because of the profligate habits of its proprietor. Porter lost his publication to his former pressman, John Richards, and looked for employment to George Wilkes, who had sold the Police Gazette, which he had co-founded. Wilkes took him under his wing, and started a new sporting paper called Porter’s Spirit of the Times. Porter died in 1858 (his death was reported on the day of the first Fashion Race Course game, July 20), litigation arose, and Wilkes finally withdrew from Porter’s Spirit of the Times and in September 1859 started Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times. For a while there were three sporting papers all claiming to be the original and only legitimate Spirit.6

Frank Queen (1823–1882), who created the Clipper, was born of working-class parents in Philadelphia. Self-educated, he was influenced by Frank Adriance, a cheap-book dealer, to think that a man could make a living by giving the public what it wanted. After arriving in New York in 1850, with Adriance’s help he set up as an operator of newsstands in the Bowery. This experience aided Queen in determining “the material most in popular demand,” which “suggested an opportunity for venturing upon his long cherished project of starting a newspaper of his own.”7

Connecting with well heeled Harrison Trent, who took the position of publisher, Queen launched the Clipper from 150 Fulton Street as a four-page weekly with six columns to the page. After three months the sheet was enlarged and its price was raised to three cents, “to enable us to meet the extra expense attendant upon the enlargement, and to employ additional reporters in the news department. The Clipper will now be enabled to keep the public advised of all movements transpiring in the Sporting and Theatrical world….”7

For some time, boxing and aquatics continued to form the core of the Clipper’s sporting coverage, supplemented by cricket, shooting, rat-baiting, and pedestrianism. In 1854 the paper did assign a reporter to cover yachting, billiards, cricket, and baseball—the expatriate Briton William H. Bray. In 1855 Queen bought Trent out. In 1857 he hired Chadwick to replace Bray. A few other sporting papers appeared in the years before 1865, including the California Spirit of the Times (1854), the Horse Journal (1855), the Philadelphia Police Gazette and Sporting Chronicle (1856), Billiard Cue (1856), Sportsman (1863), and San Francisco’s Our Mazeppa (1864). The Ball Players’ Chronicle and the New England Base Ballist were baseball-only publications in the years after the Civil War. But with only Wilkes’ Spirit offering real competition, the Clipper was beginning to exert dominance.

On April 5, 1868, the paper began its baseball coverage for the season by crowing:

The Clipper, as the leading organ of all legitimate sports, was the first to recognize the game of base ball as a recreation that was destined to be the National Game of America. We fostered the incipient pastime, gave advice to clubs and players, and exerted our widespread influence to perpetuate it as a healthy and harmless amusement.

Notes

1. Letter, July 6, 1853, to The Spirit of the Times: July 9, 1853, p. 246, col. 1. Posted to 19CBB by David Block, Sept. 6, 2006. SOT facsimile provided by Craig Waff, Sept. 2008.

2. Jack M. Doyle, Albert Spalding Scrapbooks, BA SCR 42, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, N.Y.

3. This debut number does not survive, but an issue for May 7 bears the number “2.” Perplexingly, the Clipper for May 14 is listed in the page-one masthead as “Vol. I, No. 1.” Yet on page two of this issue the editor writes: “THE CLIPPER./ITS COURSE ONWARD./ITS PROSPECTS BRIGHT./We have now entered upon the third voyage of our Clipper, and bright skies shine upon us, and favoring gales still waft us onward to that point, we desire to reach, the approbation of an indulgent public, and the cheering smiles of kind friends, and well wishers.” Confirming this reconstruction, the Clipper of May 21 is numbered as “Vol. I, No. 4.”

4. Two short-lived predecessors were Annals of the Turf (1826), published by George W. Jeffreys in North Carolina, and the Farmer’s, Mechanic’s, Manufacturer’s and Sportsman’s Magazine, published briefly (March 1826–February 1827) in New York. Betts, J. 1953. “Sporting Journalism in Nineteenth-Century America,” American Quarterly 5.1, 39–56. See also the “Stuntz List”: Stuntz, S. 1941. List of the Agricultural periodicals of the United States and Canada Published during the Century July 1810–July 1910. 

5. Porter, Spirit of the Times: May 11, 1835.

6. Wallace, J. 1897. The Horse of America in His Derivation, History and Development (pp. 97 ff.).

7. “Frank Queen and His Contemporaries,” Clipper: Nov. 4, 1882.

3 Comments

Mr. Thorn, Rat baiting and pedestrianism ? Help me out here. John.

Both are antique sports that aroused passionate betting activity. See:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rat-baiting

and

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pedestrianism

Blood sports continue in considerable strength under the radar of the press and the police, while race walking survives in the Olympics.

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