November 28th, 2011
This important article first appeared in the journal Base Ball, Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2009. It is reprinted with the kind permission of the publisher, McFarland & Co. Randall Brown majored in American Studies at Wesleyan and is still addicted to history. His discovery of an obscure 1887 interview with William Wheaton, the first umpire, led to an article, “How Baseball Began,” in the 2004 issue of The National Pastime. Brown’s articles on local history have appeared in The Staten Island Historianand the Santa Cruz History Journal, and he recently completed the documentary How Base Ball Was Born, featuring the story of Wheaton and the New York Base Ball Club.
Before the Civil War, the most popular outdoor activity in New York City may have been fighting. The prize ring was popular, but rioting in streets and public squares attracted more participants. In fact, there was little distinction between professional pugilists and gang brawlers. Heavyweights like John Morrissey were also employed as “shoulder-hitters” by political gangs like the Empire Club, run by Captain Isaiah Rynders, a leading Democrat, or the Short Boys of Bill “the Butcher” Poole, hero of the Know-Nothings.
Rynders and his crew delighted in attacking abolitionist gatherings. In May 1850 they showed up in force at an antislavery convention at the Broadway Tabernacle. Speaker Frederick Douglass defused the attack by inviting a racist orator to share the platform. To the argument that Negroes were a kind of ape, Douglass, whose father was probably a slave-owner, responded:
“Captain Rynders, do you think I am a monkey?”
“Oh no,” replied Rynders, “you are half a white man.”
“Then I am half man and half monkey?”
“And half brother to Captain Rynders?”
With the audience “united in laughter and applause,” Douglass spoke his piece. It was a short-lived triumph, however. Threats of mayhem truncated the conference and, several days later, while walking with two white women in Battery Park, Douglass was assaulted.1
A year later, on May 27, 1851, the Elysian Fields in Hoboken was the scene of what the Brooklyn Eagle described as
…one of the most earnest and angry promiscuous fights that has ever occurred in this country. The Germans of this city, with their families, assembled in large numbers in Hoboken, for the celebration of their Maifest. Scarcely two hours had elapsed when they were set upon by a party of rascals called “Short Boys.”
At first the Germans were disposed to avoid a conflict, but finding it impossible to do so, they sallied out against them, and drove them to the Elysian Fields. The Short Boys took refuge in a house kept by one McCarthy, which was attacked by the Germans, and greatly injured. McCarthy, in defense of himself and his house, shot two of the Germans with a double barreled gun, killing them, it is said.2
Fortunately, this incident did not disrupt the plans of the tenants of the Club Room at McCarty’s Colonnade House. The Knickerbocker Base Ball Club had been challenged to play a home-and-home series by the recently formed Washington Club. After a promising start, the Knickerbockers had been, in the words of D. L. Adams, in “pursuit of pleasure under difficulties.” “There was then no rivalry,” he recalled, “as no other club was formed until 1850, and during these five years baseball had a desperate struggle for existence.”3
It happened that the first match, on June 3, was an away game at the Red House Grounds in Harlem. Down 7–3 after two innings, the Knickerbockers rallied to win 21–11. Two weeks later, the clubs met for a thrilling return match at the Elysian Fields, with the home club managing a 22–20 victory. As usual, “an entertainment was given after play at McCarty’s Hotel.”
Since 1844, the waiters at the Colonnade House had been privy to the world of the New York and Knickerbocker Base Ball clubs, had watched their game develop in the neighboring fields, and were a fixture at the convivial dinners when plays and points were reviewed. The Stevens family, like many upper-class New Yorkers, employed colored help. Michael McCarty, born inIreland, employed his countrymen as barkeepers but conformed to the expectations of his gentlemen patrons by hiring black servants (including live-in waiter Jeremiah Jackson).
This link between early baseball and black New Yorkers was soon severed, however. On March 7, 1852, the Brooklyn Eagle reported that “Mr. McCarty of the Elysian Fields Hotel, was accidentally shot and killed by his own act yesterday.” Sarah McCarty, 27 years old with four children under the age of nine, was left in charge. Persuaded to change her hiring policies in the spring, she soon regretted her decision. The Eagle described the July 4 incident in the following terms:
Another fatal affray occurred at the Elysian Fields. It appears that Mrs. McCarthy has of late discharged all her old waiters, who were colored men, and employed white ones, who were principally Irish, in their places; but not being satisfied with them, she discharged them, and recalled the colored ones. This gave great offence to the white waiters; and while four of the colored men were sent on an errand, they were attacked by a large number of white waiters, and one of the white men, named Robert Canton, plunged a knife into the left breast of Williams, who exclaimed as he was falling—“Oh my God, I am a dead man”. He was immediately carried to the hotel, and every attention paid to him by Mrs. McCarthy, but he died in twenty minutes after.4
The following day, the Knickerbocker Base Ball club hired a boat for a field trip. As noted by Charles Peverelly, “The members celebrated the 4th of July, 1852 by proceeding to Bath, L. I., on the 5th of July to enjoy a dinner and a game of ball.”5
Slaves and freemen alike were familiar with variations of the old-fashioned game of base ball from which the New York Game evolved. For most members of either group, leisure time was a rare and valued commodity. In his “Narrative,” Frederick Douglass observed that “the days between Christmas and New Year’s day are allowed as holidays. This time we regarded as our own, and we therefore used or abused it nearly as we pleased.”
To Douglass, writing in 1845, there was something dubious about holiday pastimes. He noted that while “the staid, sober, thinking and industrious ones” found time for constructive activities,
…by far the larger part engaged in such sports and merriments as playing ball, wrestling, running foot-races, fiddling, dancing, and drinking whisky. A slave who would work during the holidays was considered as scarcely deserving them. It was deemed a disgrace not to get drunk at Christmas.”6
In New York City, where slavery had ended in 1827, Sunday was the usual day off. Some attended church while others spent their time playing. To the dismay of the serious-minded, the fields near Madison Square—home of the Gotham Base Ball Club and the St. George Cricket Club—also attracted black ballplayers from Greenwich Village. On October 24, 1840, the editor of the Colored American spoke out on the subject of “Sabbath Intruders”:
We wish to call 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. And we wish the parents of our people to look well to their boys, some of who[m], we are informed by a friend, as well as by the Journal of Commerce, have been seen in those sections of the City, on the Sabbath, playing ball.7
Serious matters concerned the elders of Long Island, where slaves had helped establish prosperous farms. The crossroads town of Jamaica, Queens, housed a variety of neighborhoods. In 1853, “a number of colored people” there petitioned the village trustees, “praying that we may be protected by the law from being beaten by a certain body or club of men. If you cannot protect us we must protect ourselves for we cannot be beaten.”
On the outskirts of Brooklyn, part of the Lefferts farm had been purchased in 1838 by stevedore James Weeks, who subdivided the property into lots and sold them to fellow blacks. Education was a primary concern of these residents. One of the first buildings in Weeksville was a school, which doubled as a house of worship on Sundays. Commencement Day at Public School #1 was a big event, celebrated with orations. In February 1856, the schoolhouse burned down. “It is supposed,” commented the Eagle, “to have been set on fire.”8
Many felt it was a duty to help those still in bondage. The Abolitionists actively sought public support. Douglass was the best-known spokesman, but Jacob White, Charles Lenox Remond, Rev. William T. Catto, and others promoted the antislavery cause wherever they found an audience. In Philadelphia, home of the nation’s largest free black population, Robert Purvis, Jacob White, James Needham, and a score of others were actively involved in helping escapees.
When the Fugitive Slave Act allowed posses to track fleeing property to the Canadian border, leaders of the Underground Railroad stationed themselves on the northern edges of New York and Ohio. Douglass, in Rochester, was joined as a conductor by white sympathizers including New Yorkers Gerrit Smith of Peterboro, Thurlow Weed at Albany, John Brown at North Elba, and Hon. Joshua Giddings of Jefferson, Ohio. Congressman Giddings, enjoying his immunity from prosecution, told his colleagues in Washington: “I have seen as many as nine fugitives dining at one time in my house. I fed them. I clothed them, gave them money for their journey, and sent them on their way rejoicing.”9
Giddings believed in mixing work and play. As 19th century biographer G.W. Julian observed:
The summer adjournment of Congress was always the signal at Jefferson for the opening of the base ball season. The game was then played with a soft ball, which was thrown at the player on the run. Being left-handed, Giddings usually took the boys at a disadvantage, as the ball often came where it was not looked for. It was hard to tell which was the more boyish, he or those with whom he played, who generally ranged from 15 to 25 “without distinction as to race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”10
On July 30, 1859, the Anglo-African of New York described one of these games, noting that “the venerable Joshua R. Giddings made the highest score, never missing the ball when it came to him.”11
The initial outbreak of baseball fever began in 1853 when the Knickerbockers answered the challenge of the revived Gotham Club, successors to the Washingtons. The rivalry was a satisfying one. In November a new club, the Eagles, asked for a committee to clarify the 1845 rules. When the work was done, the clubs offered copies to the Spirit of the Times and other sporting papers.
The matches of 1854 showcased baseball brilliantly. The Gothams took the first game of the series 21–16 but lost at Elysian Fields in September. Intended as a tiebreaker, the game on October 26 lasted 12 innings, with each club scoring 12 runs. Spectators came in increasing numbers to see what W. H. Van Cott of the Gothams called “friendly, but spirited trials of skill.”12
The game spread rapidly during the next two years. New clubs—the Excelsior, the Putnam, the Eckford, the Star, the Harmonic, the Baltic, the Empire—occupied fields in Brooklyn, upper Manhattan, and the Elysian Fields. In January 1857, Adamsand the Knickerbockers called for a convention of baseball clubs. “Fourteen separate and independent organizations,” noted the New York Herald, “were represented last evening, and it was stated that others would have been present but for distance, or the impossibility of getting home the same night.”13
A second convention was held in March 1858. The 22 clubs voted “to declare the Convention a permanent organization.” Article 1 of the new constitution established the title “National Association of Base Ball Players.”14
“National indeed!” sniffed the Clipper.
Why the association is a mere local organization. If the real lovers of the beautiful and health-provoking game of base ball wish to see the sport diffuse itself over the country—as Cricket is fast doing—they must cut loose from those parties who wish to arrogate to themselves the right to act for, and dictate to all who participate in the game. These few dictators wish to ape the New York Yacht Club in their feelings of exclusiveness—we presume.15
1. Holland, F. 1891. Frederick Douglass, the Colored Orator (1970 reprint) (p. 182).
2. Brooklyn Eagle:May 27, 1851.
3. Sporting News: Feb. 1896.
4. Brooklyn Eagle: July 5, 1852.
5. Peverelly, C. 1866. Book of American Pastimes (p. 345).
6. Douglass, F. 1845. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1995 reprint) (p. 44).
7. The Colored American: Oct. 24, 1840.
8. Brooklyn Eagle: Feb. 18, 1856.
9. Blackson, C. The Underground Railroad.
10. Julian, G. 1892. Life of Joshua R. Giddings.
11. Weekly Anglo-African: July 30, 1859.
12. Spirit of the Times: Dec. 23, 1854.
13. Ibid.: Jan. 31, 1857.
14. New York Clipper: Apr. 24, 1858.
15. Ibid.: Apr. 3, 1858.
[End of Part 1; part 2 tomorrow!]