The New York Game in 1856

With this fourteenth 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 Craig B. Waff and Larry McCray, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball. Craig holds a doctorate in the history of science, and is the originator and compiler of the Protoball website’s “Games Tabulation,” a detailed directory of all known games of baseball—numbering over 1500 contest—up to 1860. Larry is guest editor of this special number of Base Ball. He designed and developed the Protoball Project to help researchers and writers locate and refine primary data on the evolution of ballplaying up to 1870. He serves on the MLB origins committee.

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 1856.4, reflects that it is the fourth Protoball entry for the year 1856.

1856.4 The New York Game in 1856: Poised for National Launch
Craig B. Waff and Larry McCray

In the summer of 1856 … there were fifty-three games in New York and the metropolitan area.1

One senses that Harold Seymour, in the above remark, was moved to highlight the number of games played in 1856 because it showed that, more than a decade after the Knickerbocker Club had codified rules for baseball, the game was actually taking root. Merely two years earlier, the entire known playing season had involved only three Manhattan-based clubs (Knickerbocker, Gotham, and Eagle) and they played a modest sum of seven interclub games at two locations—the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, and grounds near the Red House in Harlem. In comparison, the 53 games then known for 1856 show impressive growth.

The Game on the Field
A recently launched online data compilation, the Protoball Games Tabulation compiled by Craig B. Waff,2 allows us to profile the facts of the 1856 season and the nature of the mid–1850s style of play. The tabulation reflects all of the published accounts of games that had come to light by 2008, when the Protoball Project uploaded version 1.0 of the tables. They profile over 1,500 games reported from 1845 to the Civil War.

For the 1856 season 70 games are listed (including several played by junior clubs and second nines).3 About half were played at either the Elysian Fields or the Red House sites, but the city of Brooklyn had now already bypassed both of their totals, hosting 21 games, with seven other games reported at sites in New Jersey towns and in what is now the Bronx. No game was reported for any Manhattan location south of Harlem. For the season, games involving 26 distinct clubs are displayed, including eleven from Brooklyn and eight from Manhattan. Another five active clubs had formed in New Jersey localities, and two more to the north of Manhattan Island.

At this juncture, baseball seemed more aptly termed the Fall Game than the Summer Game; the season’s first recorded interclub game took place only on July 1. Only half of these games had been played by October 1, and the year’s play concluded with several bracing Thanksgiving Day games. Games were distributed fairly evenly among the days of the work week, except that only two games took place on Mondays. No Sunday play is listed.

The 47 games that were reported as completed contests averaged about 36 total runs—24 runs for the winning club and 12 runs for the loser. This was the last year that games were played to 21 runs, with both teams being assured the same number of complete half-innings to score.4

The length of completed games ranged from two to twelve innings, with an average duration of slightly more than six innings. It is thus interesting that a year later the nine-inning game would be chosen as the official standard; in fact, only about 10 percent of 1856 games had reached nine innings. About one game in every five was suspended, most frequently because of encroaching darkness, and this resulted in a relatively high proportion of drawn games. The earlier sunset experienced in the fall months seems a likely a factor in the proportion of unfinished games.

Notable Historical Trends
Two key developments in 1856 vitally affected baseball’s future. First, the 1856 season marked an abrupt decline in play of the pioneering Knickerbocker Club. Portrayed in newspaper accounts as one of the strongest of all teams early in the season, the 1856 Club had a losing record, and in fact the club stood among the least successful of the eight most active teams. The club may have anticipated this decline: it had, for the first time, required prospective team members to undergo actual tryouts for the 1856 season.5

Off the field, too, the Knickerbockers seem to have lost stature. In the prior offseason, they had tried to head off the growing practice of “revolving”—the movement of the ablest players from weaker club to stronger ones—but failed to induce other clubs to go along.6 Tom Melville suggests that some clubs, at least, declined to comply with some of the playing rules that the Knickerbockers had set down,7 as later modified marginally in 1854 in an agreement with the only other clubs playing then—the Eagle and Gotham clubs. At season’s end, however, there were almost ten times as many clubs playing, and by October 1856 it was suggested, in print, that a new baseball convention was needed to reconsider existing playing rules.8

Two months later, the Knickerbocker Club met and agreed to make a call for a general convocation of clubs. When it took place in January 1857, each of the attending 14 clubs was given three votes to cast, thus instantly democratizing the game. The Knickerbocker Club was not fated to steer the game the way that the Marylebone Cricket Club so long has governed cricket. Some key Knickerbocker proposals were turned down at the meeting, which produced a much more complete code of playing rules. In 1858, the officer slate of the new National Association of Base Ball Players, devoid of Knickerbocker representatives, was dominated by men from the diverse new Brooklyn clubs. Thus the “New York game” was passing out of the hands of New Yorkers (Brooklyn was not to become a borough of New York until 1898).

The second of two 1856 trends was the identification of the New York game with the United States as a nation. What may be the first reference to baseball as a national game had been written in the Knickerbocker Club minutes in August 1855.9 The description of the New York game as being a “national” game in 1855 and 1856 was a stretch; at the time, interclub games in America were to be regularly seen at perhaps no more than eight sites, all in the New York City area.10

But we should perhaps see the term “National Game” less as geographical description and more as aspiration that the United States have its own unique pastime. In 1856 the aspiration was irresistible to many commentators. In mid–August, the New York Clipper pronounced baseball “thoroughly established as an American game, equal, to a certain extent, to the English game of Cricket.”11 Four weeks later, Porter’s Spirit of the Times stated, “This fine American game seems to be progressing in all parts of the United States with new spirit, while in New York and its neighborhood its revival seems to have been taken up almost as a matter of national pride.”12 And in mid–November the same newspaper confessed that “we feel a degree of old Knickerbocker pride, at the continued prevalence of Base Ball as the National game of the region of the Manhattanese of these diggings.”13 By December, aspirants had arrived at the perfect term for the game when a Sunday Mercury correspondent used the now-traditional term “national pastime” for the game.14

Henry Chadwick, baseball’s great promoter/journalist, was later to state, oddly, that “It may be truly said that the year of 1856 was the birth year of the evolution of base ball.”15 Given the 150 years of prior evidence of baseball’s predecessor games that is detailed in this issue of Base Ball, it is hard to know what he was trying to convey with this assertion. Perhaps he wrote “evolution” where he meant to write “diffusion”? By the end of 1856, intramural forms of the New York game had appeared in Trenton to the south, Albany and Newburgh to the north, and Rochester and Chicago to the west.16

The geographical explosion of enthusiasm for the game was clearly under way. During the next season it would reach Detroit, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Princeton, and even Boston. Pastimes that might have competed with baseball, including cricket, wicket, and the regional ball game in the northeast that would be codified a year and a half later as the Massachusetts Game, were not expanding. Much of America was turning to baseball now, and Chadwick was not wrong if he merely meant to suggest that the fuse had been lit in 1856.

Notes
1. Seymour, H. 1960. Baseball: The Early Years (p. 24). A list of precisely 53 games, attributed to the (New York) Sunday Mercury, was reprinted in Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Dec. 27, 1856, p. 277.
2. The “Games Tabulation” can be found at: retrosheet.org/Protoball/GamesTab.htm. The 261-page compilation of game summaries for the New York area is found at: retrosheet.org/Protoball/GT.NYC.pdf. Version 1 of the Games Tabulation lists over 1,500 games played through 1860, and includes key details and comments for each.
3. These 70 interclub games, representing only about three games per week over the five-month playing season, must have been supplanted with ubiquitous intra-club games and, perhaps, pick-up games. One reporter observed that “Matches are being made all around us, and games are being played on every available green plot within a ten mile circuit of the city.” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Sept. 13, 1856, p. 28.
4. Games in 1856 where both teams scored 21 or more runs were played on August 15, when the Continental club defeated the Putnam club (two Brooklyn nines) in eight innings by a score of 23–22, and on August 30, when the Knickerbocker and Empire clubs of New York played eight innings to a 21–21 tie.
5. Ryczek, W. 2009. Baseball’s First Inning (p. 48).
6. Gilbert, T. 1995. Elysian Fields (p. 38).
7. Melville, T. 2001. Early Baseball and the Rise of the National League (p. 12).
8. Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Oct. 11, 1856, p. 93, reported that “It is said that a Convention of all the Base Ball Clubs of this city and suburbs will be held this fall, for the purpose of considering whether any and what amendments to the rules and laws governing this game should be made.”
9. Knickerbocker Club Books, Minutes of August 22, 1855, as cited in Ryczek 2009, 242.
10. The eight sites include Hoboken (Elysian Fields), East Newark (near the depot), Jersey City (on a field part way toward Hoboken), Harlem (near the Red House), Morrisania (in the present-day Bronx), East Brooklyn (Wheat Hill), Bedford (Brooklyn: opposite Holder’s), and South Brooklyn (at the foot of Court Street). See data from the Protoball Games Tabulation (ref. 2).
11. New York Clipper: Aug. 16, 1856.
12. Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Sept. 13, 1856, p. 28.
13. “Out Door Sports,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Nov. 15, 1856, p. 176.
14. Letter signed by “A Lover of Base Ball” and dated Dec. 5, 1856, originally published in the (New York) Sunday Mercury, Dec. 7 or 14, 1856, and reprinted in “Base Ball, Cricket, and Skating,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Dec. 20, 1856, p. 260.
15. Chadwick, H. 1904. “On the Evolution of Base Ball,” in Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide (p. 7).
16. The SABR Committee on the Origins of Base Ball sponsors an open database on these and other incursions of the New York game. Early games and early clubs in U.S. localities are compiled at: sabrpedia.org/wiki/Spread_of_baseball_project.

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