The Changes Wrought by the Great Base Ball Match of 1858

With this fifteenth 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 Robert H. Schaefer, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball. Bob is the author of three articles covering 19th century baseball that have won the McFarland–SABR award for baseball research. The most recent of these was “The Great Base Ball Match of 1858: Base Ball’s First All-Star Game.” His work has appeared in NINE, The National Pastime, and the Baseball Research Journal.

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 1858.2, reflects that it is the second Protoball entry for the year 1858.

1858.2 The Changes Wrought by the Great Base Ball Match of 1858

Robert H. Schaefer

Tuesday last, the day fixed upon for the great match at Base Ball between the Brooklyn and New York players, was as fine a day as the most ardent lover of the game could desire, either for play or for the drive out to witness the match. An immense concourse of people were upon the course before the time announced for commencing the game, and the cry was “still they come!” … Every imaginable kind of vehicle had been enlisted in the service, milk carts and wagons, beer wagons, express wagons, stages, and the most stylish private and public carriages. The Excelsior Club figured in a large stage drawn by fourteen handsomely caparisoned horses; the Eagle Club, of Jersey City, boasted an eight horse team, with a band of music; the Pastime eight horses; the Empire two stages, each drawn by six horse; the Putnams and St. Nicholas, each with four-in-hand, while several other Clubs were represented in a more unpretending, but not less enthusiastic manner.1

The Great Base Ball Match of 1858 paired a picked nine from the city of Brooklyn with a picked nine from the city of New York.2 Just which city threw down the gauntlet has been lost to history, but the captains of the clubs determined that the match—a best-of-three-game series—be played on a neutral site equally accessible by enthusiasts from both cities. Another requirement was that the site be adequately served by public transportation. Those charged with making this decision settled on a horse track called the Fashion Course located in West Flushing between the villages of Newtown and Flushing in what is now Queens.

Fashion Course was accessible by rail, omnibus, and trolley lines, many of which connected with the ferries that linked Brooklyn to Manhattan. It had a grandstand so the spectators could view the match in comfort. A baseball diamond was installed on the track’s infield—the grassy area enclosed by the perimeter of the race course’s interior fence. It was decided to remove the turf covering this area and lay out a diamond on the bare dirt. The dirt had to be leveled and rolled to provide a proper playing surface. Critics observed that it would have been better if the turf had been left in place and rolled to smooth it out.

Stripping the turf and converting the racetrack infield to a diamond required spending money the clubs didn’t have. In addition, there was a rental fee for using the Fashion Course. They had not planned on spending any money and there was no budget for these expenditures. The clubs had to find a method to fund the enterprise. Someone realized that the racecourse was already structured to regulate the admission of patrons explicitly for the purpose of collecting an entrance fee. Therein lay a novel solution to the clubs’ money problem—for the first time, baseball patrons would be charged a fee for the privilege of witnessing a match. If it had not been for the fact that the clubs had to pay for the expenses associated with putting on the match, they would have thrown open the gates and allowed free access to the racecourse.

The picked nine from New York won the honors and bested Brooklyn, two games to one. Attendance figures for each game are unreliable, but most sources agree that, following the first game, attendance was disappointing. But after deducting all expenses the treasury had a surplus of $71.10. It was divided into two equal parts and contributed to the Fire Department’s Widow and Orphans Fund in Brooklyn and New York. Although not planned as a fundraiser, the match was a financial success. The seed had been planted.

The concept of baseball as a commercial venture lay fallow for several years. The enclosed park movement began in 1860 when the Brooklyn Excelsior Club enclosed their grounds for the expressed purpose of keeping out unwanted and rowdy spectators.3 In 1861 William Cammeyer established an enclosed area for winter ice-skating in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. He then sought a yearly source of income and converted his fenced-in pond to a baseball field. Cammeyer’s Union Grounds were completely enclosed with an eight-foot-high fence.4 Seating was provided with a grandstand and a “bleaching boards” section.5 Every effort was expended to create the best possible playing surface. Cammeyer’s labors resulted in a high-class venue. Ball grounds of this caliber did not exist and so Cammeyer had no difficulty in getting three Brooklyn clubs—the Eckford, Putman, and Constellation—to call Union Park their home.

By May 15, 1862, the grounds were complete. Cammeyer arranged for an exhibition game between two nines picked from the three tenant clubs and advertised it widely. He also arranged for pregame entertainment, which was provided by a regimental military band. They struck up “The Star Spangled Banner,” the first known instance of it being played prior to a ballgame.6

Cammeyer did not impose an admission fee for this initial contest, but allowed the curious public to wander in and out and around his new facility without restriction. The Brooklyn Eagle estimated that more than 3,000 people had ambled into Cammeyer’s place. Seating was provided for 2,000 people, with ample room for more people to stand or to seat themselves on the fringe of the playing area.7

The “free show” lasted for just one game as Cammeyer then imposed a 10-cent admission fee. The clubs demanded a portion of this “gate money” and Cammeyer had to accommodate them. By 1867 the Atlantics received 60 percent of the gate money, less expenses.8 Suddenly, clubs had a source of income beyond the meager dues they collected from members. Flush with money, a novel item—a salary for players—was added to the club’s budget.

In the 1850s club membership was required in order to play organized baseball. Formal games were played between the various clubs. Most of the players joined chiefly for manly exercise and social interaction. The fraternal recreation was more important than the outcome of the game. The players were from the middle class and had leisure time to devote to this new form of vigorous exercise. This is reflected in the occupational distribution of the New York–Brooklyn area ballplayers 1855–1860. Melvin Adelman reports that 20.2 percent were professionals, 40.5 percent were low white-collar proprietors, 36.9 percent were skilled craftsman, and only 2.4 percent were unskilled workers.9

Club members paid dues and attended practice on a regular basis. Fines were imposed on those who missed practice, and missing an excessive number of practices was grounds for dismissal. Membership in the club was based as much on social credentials as on ballplaying skill. Indeed, one had to be a gentleman in order to be considered for membership.

Payment for a ballplayer’s services had long been a contentious issue. Direct financial compensation was prohibited by the rules agreed to at the 1858 Convention. Clubs regularly circumvented this ban. A common technique was to provide a “star” player with a job in a business owned by one of the club members. The only duty associated with such a job was to show up on payday.

The rapid expansion of baseball following the Civil War caused a high demand for top ballplayers. The Philadelphia club lured two players from Brooklyn—Alfred Reach and Lipman Pike—each for a handsome salary. Very likely they were the first openly professional ballplayers. With the advent of enclosed ball grounds and the resulting income, a club could afford to pay selected players a substantial wage.

Creating the salaried class of player caused a dramatic change in the clubs. The emphasis of the game had shifted so that winning became all important. The desire to obtain the “best” ballplayers removed all social considerations from the equation. This factor spelled the death of the baseball club as a gentleman’s refuge. Clubs now hired players based exclusively on their athletic ability.

The Union Grounds increased the admission fee to 25 cents for first-class matches in 1867. This move was endorsed as it would keep out the “roughs” who formed a “hooting assemblage that indulged in blasphemy and obscenity.”10 However, no steps were taken to restrict or limit the activity of gamblers, who set up shop in plain sight on the grounds. Failure to control this evil would ultimately contribute to the downfall of the first organization of professional baseball players at the conclusion of the 1875 season.

The financial success of the Union Grounds spawned imitators. The first of these was the Capitoline Grounds,11 located in the Bedford section of Brooklyn, less than two miles from the Union Grounds. The owners of the new ball grounds, Messrs. Weed and Decker, induced the Brooklyn Atlantics to become the resident club by offering them use of their facility free of all charges. May 5, 1864, saw the first match on the Capitoline Grounds. This contest pitted the Atlantics against a nine selected by Henry Chadwick from other Brooklyn Clubs. Chadwick’s nine was roundly defeated by a score of 45–11. The powerful Atlantics underscored their dominance by destroying their next opponent, the Nassau of Princeton, by a score of 42–7.

The enclosed grounds movement provided the financial foundation for the emergence of a new category of club—the professional. Unable to stem this trend, in 1868 the National Association of Base Ball Players elected to permit clubs to pay players for their services. In 1869, led by president Aaron B. Champion and directed by captain Harry Wright, the Cincinnati Red Stockings assembled the first all professional touring team. They played against clubs across the country, taking on all comers. Games played against amateur teams were won by lopsided scores, highlighting the disparity in skill level. For example, the Reds triumphed over a Chicago amateur nine by a score of 56–19, and shortly afterward humiliated the Kekiongas of Fort Wayne 70–1.12

When the still undefeated Cincinnati Red Stockings arrived in Brooklyn on June 14, 1870, to play the Atlantics, the Capitoline Grounds instituted an admission fee of 50 cents. Attendance reports ranged from 9,000 to 20,000. The Brooklyn “cranks” got their money’s worth as the Atlantics carried the day.13 The gate money realized from this match approached $5,000.

A team of amateurs could not compete with a professional one. Little was gained by a professional team playing an amateur one, either in dollars or reputation. The talent gap between them forced the creation of the first organization of professional baseball players in 1871. The face of baseball was forever changed. The Great Base Ball Match of 1858 set in motion a sequence of events that ultimately, after many incremental steps, produced the structure of major league baseball that we know today.

Epilogue
The practice of charging admission and paying players was spurned by the club that had provided the genesis of the sport—the Knickerbockers. Their playing grounds were not amenable to charging admission. This fact mattered not to the Knickerbockers. They were above such practices and continued to play the game for the pure sport of it. By the time the 1870s ended the Knicks were no longer relevant to the development of the game and played no further role in its evolution. All of the important games that paired the best clubs against each other were played in Brooklyn on enclosed grounds—the ones that charged admission. The Elysian Fields, along with the Knicks, had become obsolete.

Notes
1. Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Mar. 20, 1858.
2. These two cities were separate and independent political entities up until 1898 when New York City—which up until that date had consisted entirely of the island of Manhattan—annexed the city of Brooklyn along with Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island to form the greater New York metropolitan complex.
3. Pastier, J. 2007. Ball Parks Yesterday and Today (p. 10).
4. The Union Grounds were opened at the height of the War of the Rebellion and patriotic feelings ran high. The choice of its name reflected those feelings.
5. The “bleaching boards” were a seating area consisting of uncovered boards, exposed to the rain and sun. Long-term exposure to the sun bleached the boards, hence the name. By the 20th century the name for this section of the ballparks had morphed into “the bleachers.”
6. This discovery was made by the late Fred Ivor-Campbell.
7. Lowry, P. 2006. Green Cathedrals (p. 34).
8. Adelman, M. 1990. A Sporting Time (p. 159).
9. Ibid., 140.
10. Evolution of the Ball Park (www.suntala.com).
11. Originally known as K. N. Skating Club, its name was changed when it converted to a ball ground. On May 19, 1862, the Brooklyn Eagle reported: “They have changed their name to one that admits of the enjoyment of moral and intellectual as well as physical amusements. Amongst the most favorite of the pastimes of the Romans were the ‘Capitoline Games’ which were held annually in commemoration of the protection of the capitol from the assaults of the Gauls; they were established by Camitlus in honor of Jupiter Capitolonus and also to perpetuate the games founded by Dominitian. From this is derived the name Capitoline….”
12. Rhodes, G., and J. Erardi. The First Boys of Summer (p. 107).
13. The term “crank” (sometimes rendered as “krank”) was the 19th century term equivalent to today’s “fan.”

3 Comments

One of my most cherished items, I have the New York Times blurb for this game, framed :) thanks for expanding upon a great day in baseball history.

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