Atlantics and Excelsiors Compete for the “Championship,” 1860

This is the sixteenth and final article republished from the Protoball number of Base Ball (Volume 5, Number 1, Spring 201). Thanks to scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture has begun 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.) Craig B. Waff, author of the article below, 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 base ball—numbering over 1500 contests—up to 1860.

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 1860.60, reflects that it is the sixtieth Protoball entry for the year 1860.

1860.60 Atlantics and Excelsiors Compete for the “Championship,” July 19, August 9, and August 23, 1860

Craig B. Waff

This match will create unusual interest, as it will decide which Club is entitled to the distinction of being perhaps the “first nine in America.”1—Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 13, 1860

The Atlantics now wear the “belt,” and this contest will be a regular battle for the championship.2—Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 16, 1860

The above quotations were part of the buildup to a series of games in the summer of 1860 that many at the time considered would definitively determine the first true “champion” among the senior clubs in the Greater New York City region. Such a determination would, alas, not come to pass, as will be related later in this essay, but it is perhaps worthwhile to explore how the concept of a champion, or top-ranked, team evolved in the early history of the game.

The idea of designating a “champion” team was not even considered by the earliest ball players in the 1840s and the early 1850s, who envisioned the game as being played primarily for physical exercise. But as the number of formally organized club teams, as well as the number of baseball games played between them, increased greatly in the mid and late 1850s, the urge to declare unilaterally, if somewhat informally and unofficially, one or more teams as top-ranked occasionally became irresistible to club secretaries and independent reporters who sent accounts of games to various daily newspapers and sports weeklies. One of the earliest examples is in an account of the game between the Knickerbockers and the Gothams (both New York teams) played on September 13, 1855, that appeared in the Spirit of the Times weekly. The writer observed that “the Knickerbockers came upon the ground with a determination to maintain the first rank among the ball clubs.”3 Nearly two years later, when the Gothams encountered the Atlantics of Brooklyn, a reporter for the New York Clipper, another sports weekly, argued that “the reputation of both clubs, standing so high among the fraternity, had brought together quite a number of critics and adepts.”4 And in November 1858, when the Atlantics and the Excelsiors of Brooklyn met for the first time, the game was characterized as a “match between the best players of these leading and rival clubs of Brooklyn.”5

By mid–1859, however, after the Atlantics had compiled an unbeaten record for nearly two years (their last game loss had come at the hands of the Gothams on October 30, 1857), expressions regarding their overall dominance in the Greater New York City region became more explicit and universally expressed. A reporter for Porter’s Spirit of the Times, on the occasion of an Atlantic defeat of the Eckfords of Brooklyn in early July, felt compelled to state that “we candidly think that they now stand at the head of the list of ball clubs, no other being able to present as effective a nine as they can.”6 In late August a New York Times reporter similarly remarked that “the Atlantics are now looked upon as the most successful Club of New-York or Brooklyn, they having gone on from one victory to another over a long period.” The reporter attributed this dominance to constant practice and “having played for a great while together.”7

The winning streak of the Atlantics came to a halt on September 8, 1859, when the Eckfords of Brooklyn defeated them 22–16 in the second, or return, game of a three-game match. When the two teams met for a third, or home-and-home, game on October 12 (won by the Atlantics) to determine the match winner, the Porter’s reporter observed that “this game was the chief talk of the city of Brooklyn, and it was evident from the immense gathering that an extraordinary interest was felt in the deciding game for the local championship.”8 This statement possibly marked the first occasion when the term championship was used to describe a match between senior clubs in the Greater New York City region.9 A week later, when the Atlantics narrowly defeated the Stars of Brooklyn, an Eagle reporter similarly remarked that “the champion colors are still held by the Atlantic,” and encouraged the Brooklyn club to “give one of the best New York clubs another chance” to wrest such colors from them.”10

Reporters used the words champion and championship more frequently in 1860, especially in accounts of games involving the Atlantics. When the team played its first match of the year, a return game against the Stars on May 25 that they easily won 30–11, the Eagle reporter remarked that “It is now claimed for the Atlantics that they are the champion club of Brooklyn as they have never been beaten in a series of home and home matches since their organization.”11

The Eagle reporter predicted that “doubtless this title [of “champion”] will soon be contested by some one of our crack clubs.” The Excelsiors stepped forward first, playing the first of a series of home-and-home games against the Atlantics on July 19. As the opening quotations indicate, an Eagle reporter argued that the outcome of the series of Atlantic–Excelsior games would determine at least a local, if not national, “champion,” even though the National Association of Base Ball Players, the only existing organization governing the game, did not recognize such a title. Why such a “champion” distinction might indeed be placed upon the winner was explained by a Clipper reporter: the Atlantics were “known as the champion club in the State, from never having been defeated in any series of matches since their organization,” while the latter was “equally prominent from the result of their tour through the western part of the State, during which they successfully encountered the strongest clubs of Albany, Troy, Buffalo, Rochester, and Newburg[h], playing and winning six matches, and traveling over a thousand miles within ten days, a feat unequalled in the annals of the game.”12 That tour had occurred in early July, and although most of the games were not very competitive (the Excelsiors winning by large margins with a style of play not seen upstate before), they nevertheless gave the Excelsiors plenty of “practice” in preparation for the forthcoming match with the Atlantics.

In contrast, the Atlantics, although winning all of their early 1860 games, were a team that reporters were noticing was currently not as competitive as they had been the previous season.13 This weakening of the competitive fire of the Atlantics may have been partly due to the absence of Folkert Rapelje Boerum, their captain and regular catcher, who had been on an extended trip to Europe since the spring, and to injuries that had been suffered by Matty O’Brien, their pitcher, and at least one other unidentified player.

These circumstances may help to explain the Excelsiors’ overwhelming victory, by a score of 23–4, in the first game of the match. Nevertheless, as the Eagle reminded its readers in reporting the Atlantics’ easy 34–15 victory over the Mutuals on July 30, “The Atlantic Club still holds the champion belt of this city.”14

By the time the Mutuals and Atlantics met again, on August 20, the latter had rekindled their competitive fire. Reporting on their 26–24 victory, Porter’s observed:

The playing of the Atlantics, both in fielding and batting, was that superior character which has won for them, for so many years, the right and title to the Base Ball Championship. In batting, particularly, their playing was of the No. 1 style, and of such a character that the players of few clubs could withstand.15

This closely contested victory, and another one, 15–14, over the Excelsiors in their return game on August 9, set the stage for the highly anticipated home-and-home game between the Atlantics and the Excelsiors. Two days before the game, Porter’s caught the mood of the baseball community in the metropolitan area:

As the time draws near for these clubs to again do battle for the championship, the interest and excitement in the trial waxes warmer and warmer, and in base ball circles it is the absorbing topic of conversation. It is now generally admitted that it will be witnessed by the greatest gathering of spectators ever assembled on any base ball field.16

And indeed it was—estimates of the crowd at the neutral Putnam grounds ranged from 15,000 to 20,000, including, according to the Eagle, delegations from Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Albany, Troy, Buffalo, Rochester, Poughkeepsie, and other cities.17 As expected, it was another closely contested contest—perhaps too close for a crowd that seemed to favor the Atlantics. With the Excelsiors leading 8–6 in the top of the sixth inning, “a desperate party of rowdies, who were determined that the Excelsiors should not win,” became so annoying that Excelsior captain Joe Leggett took his team off the field and thus gave up the opportunity it had to take the “championship” title from the Atlantics.18

Thus what, with some legitimacy, had been billed to be the first true “base ball championship” match (at least among senior amateur clubs in the Greater NYC region) came to an unsatisfactory end, and engendered the first of many 1860s disputes as to which club was champion, stuck throughout the decade within the existing challenge system.

 

Notes

1. “City News and Gossip: Base Ball—The Excelsiors,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle: July 13, 1860, p. 3, col. 2.

2. “City News and Gossip: Base Ball—Atlantic vs. Excelsior—Grand Match of the Season,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle: July 16, 1860, p. 3, col. 2.

3. “Base Ball: Knickerbocker vs. Gotham Club,” Spirit of the Times: Sept. 22, 1855, p. 373, col. 3.

4. “Match between the Gothams and Atlantics,” New York Clipper: Sept. 5, 1857, p. 159.

5. “Out-Door Sports: Base-Ball: Atlantic vs. Excelsior,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Nov. 20, 1858, p. 180, col. 3.

6. “Out-Door Sports: Base-Ball: Eckford vs. Atlantic,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: July 16, 1859, p. 308, col. 3, p. 309, col. 1.

7. “Base Ball: Baltic, of New-York, vs. Atlantic, of Brooklyn,” New-York Times: Aug. 24, 1859, p. 8, col. 3.

8. “Out-Door Sports: Base-Ball: Atlantic vs. Eckford,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Oct. 22, 1859, p. 117, cols. 2–3.

9. The term may have been first used in print in the Greater New York City region a month earlier, however, when an Eagle reporter or correspondent described a forthcoming game between the Enterprise and Oakland junior clubs as a “match … for the championship.” “City News and Gossip: Base Ball,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle: Sept. 10, 1859, p. 3, col. 2.

10. “City News and Gossip: Base Ball—Match between the Atlantic and Star Clubs,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle: Oct. 20, 1859, p. 3, col. 1.

11. “City News and Gossip: Base Ball,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle: May 26, 1860, p. 3, col. 1. This claim was not quite true. The Atlantics and the Empires of New York played a series of three games on November 29, 1855, and July 24 and August 13, 1856, in which neither team, prior to darkness or rain falling, attained the then-required minimum of 21 runs to win. Before playing a fourth game on August 20, 1856 (won by the Empires, 24–14 in 12 innings), the teams agreed that the winner of this game would be declared the match winner as well.

12. “Grand Match of the Season: Excelsior vs. Atlantic,” New York Clipper: July 28, 1860, p. 116.

13. In an account of a game played against the Putnams of Brooklyn on June 29, the Eagle reporter observed that “the Atlantics were far below their proverbial style of play.” The Clipper reporter likewise observed a few weeks later that “this season the general play of the [Atlantics] has not been as good as that of last year, and we have noticed occasionally of late, a perceptible falling off in the ability that has hitherto been characteristic of their play.” Only the Putnam game had been competitive, and thus “a relaxed state of discipline has been induced that has had an unnerving effect.” See “City News and Gossip: Base Ball—Atlantic vs. Putnam,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle: June 30, 1860, p. 3, col. 2; “Excelsior vs. Atlantic: The Match for the Championship,” New York Clipper: July 21, 1860, p. 108.

14. “Base Ball: Atlantic vs. Mutual,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle: July 31, 1860, p. 2, col. 5.

15. “Out-Door Sports: Base-Ball: Atlantic vs. Mutual,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Aug. 28, 1860, p. 420, col. 3, p. 421, col. 1.

16. “Out-Door Sports: Base-Ball: Excelsior vs. Atlantic,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Aug. 21, 1860, p. 408, col. 3.

17. “Base Ball: Atlantic vs. Excelsior,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle: Aug. 22, 1860, p. 3, col. 3.

18. “Grand Base Ball Match: Excelsior vs. Atlantic—Game Drawn Owing to the Riotous Conduct of a Portion of the Spectators,” New York Times: Aug. 24, 1860, p. 8, col. 5.

2 Comments

This entire series, which I first read in the journal “Base Ball:..” and then re-read here has been chuck full of interesting and valuable information. I found that re-reading the on-line posting reinforced what I first read in the journal, a positive experience. Nicely done.

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