Blood and Base Ball, Part 3

Blood and Base Ball, Part 3

Randall Brown

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 Historian and 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. Part 2 of this article ran yesterday and may be linked directly at:

When the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, the effort was redoubled. Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts, a longtime Abolitionist, won permission to raise a regiment in his state. As there were relatively few blacks in the state, the rolls were opened up to volunteers from all quarters. Recruits from Philadelphia shipped out in small squads under cover of night to avoid incidents.

Douglass volunteered to raise at least one company of men from the state of New York. The first to sign up was his son Charles, then 18, and Charles’ brother Lewis soon joined him. For two months the famous orator stumped the state, picking up new soldiers in railroad strongholds like Buffalo, Albany, Little Falls, and Canajoharie. By the end of April he had sent more than a hundred men to Boston.

On May 28, Douglass traveled to Boston to see his children march off to war. Lewis had been promoted to sergeant-major, while Charles served as an orderly to Colonel Robert Shaw and his fellow officers.31

As Lee’s Confederates headed for the Maryland border that June, “a company of colored men” appeared at the City Arsenal in Philadelphia and applied for guns and uniforms. They were fitted out without question and sent to Harrisburg, but were sent home by the governor. A week later, at the insistence of the federal government, the unit was finally mustered.

A circular was issued by community leaders. It read in part:

This is our golden moment. The Government of the United States calls for every able-bodied colored man to enter the army for the three years’ service, and join in fighting the battles of Liberty and the Union. A new era is open to us. For generations we have suffered under the horrors of slavery, outrage, and wrong. If we love our country, if we love our families, our children, our homes, we must strike now while the country calls.

Joining Douglass in signing the call were James Needham, Rev. William T. Catto, and Jacob C. White; the names of younger men appeared as well: O. V. Catto, I. D. Cliff, J. C. White Jr., Jesse Glasgow.

During July 1863 the Civil War was fought north of the Mason–Dixon line. After three incredibly bloody days at Gettysburg, Lee’s army retreated to Virginia, pursued by the exhausted victors. From the 13th to the 16th, New York City was the scene of intense street fighting as antiwar mobs looted, burned, and lynched. On Staten Island, home of Francis Shaw, father of the 54th Massachusetts Colonel, word spread that a mob was coming “to make war on Extreme Republicans. …As the story spread, it took the shape that every Republican and every rich man must suffer, and every Negro must die.”32

Many fled to the woods, swamps, and hills, but others fought. Snipers defended the narrow streets of Greenwich Village and the downtown offices of the Tribune. Victims of the deadly violence along the Brooklyn waterfront and in Williamsburgh found a refuge in Weeksville, where heavily armed patrols guarded the streets.

On the morning of July 18, in South Carolina, the 54th Massachusetts assaulted Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold in Charleston harbor. Lewis Douglass was with the vanguard that reached the parapet of the fort and somehow survived the hail of fire that killed Colonel Shaw and drove back the charge.

Despite the presence of soldiers, violence persisted in New York and Brooklyn. Cricket, clearly a pastime of the idle rich, was targeted in Brooklyn. “Early in the morning of July 23,” reported the Clipper, “the club house of the Satellite Cricket Club was set on fire by some unknown person and destroyed.” It was the opinion of the editor that “the incendiary should be bowled out with a cricket ball in his corpse.”33

There were arguments against enlistment in the Colored Troops. The pay was unequal, the officers were white, and, if taken prisoner, the soldier might be shot immediately or sold into slavery. As the summer unfolded, however, more and more young men were convinced to take up arms. Thirteen-year-old Simpson Younger signed on as a drummer with the 27th Colored Infantry. Frank Stewart joined the 14th Rhode Island Infantry, earning a promotion to sergeant before the war’s end. In New York and Brooklyn, a whole regiment, 1,000 strong, was raised. “Eight months ago,” the Times observed in March 1864, “the African race in this City were literally hunted down like wild beasts, now they marched in solid platoons.”34

For many years Emancipation Day—the anniversary of the end of slavery in the British West Indies—had been the equivalent of a national holiday for black Americans. As one woman explained to a reporter from the Eagle, “You have the 4th of July, we have the 1st of August.” From all parts of the greater New York region, people flocked to Brooklyn’s Myrtle Park to hear orations, dance to band music, eat, and drink. It was also an occasion for sports. “A little further on,” the correspondent noted, “a baseball game was being played between some picked darkies of Brooklyn and Williamsburgh.”35

When Frederick Douglass met Abraham Lincoln in the summer of 1863 to report on the progress and problems of his recruiting efforts, he was pleasantly surprised. The President listened sympathetically and spoke frankly, without “airs.” A year later, he decided to bring a personal concern to Lincoln’s attention.

As a boy, Charles Douglass had survived a bout of typhoid fever, and the conditions of military life had again compromised his health. He had missed the assault on Fort Wagner due to illness, before transferring from the 54th Infantry to a cavalry unit. Most of his time in the service had been spent guarding prisoners at a Maryland camp, not far from his father’s plantation birthplace.

“Now Mr. President,” wrote the worried parent on August 29, 1864,

I hope I shall not presume too much upon your kindness—but I have a very great favor to ask—that you will cause my son Charles, 1st Sergeant of Company I, 5th Massachusetts, colored cavalry (dismounted) to be discharged. He is now sick. He was the first colored volunteer from the State of New York—he was but 18 when he enlisted and has been in the service 18 months. If your Excellency can confer this favor, you will lay me under great obligation.36

The request was promptly granted.

Baseball was more popular than ever in the summer of 1865. The recognized champions of the game were the Brooklyn clubs—the Excelsiors, Atlantics, and Eckfords. This was partly a matter of improved playing grounds. During the war several skating ponds had been drained and converted into enclosed ball fields. The Union and Capitoline Grounds not only accommodated more spectators than the Elysian Fields; the owners could also charge admission. Although professionals were officially banned, a share of the gate money helped the more successful clubs recruit new talent.

The Unknowns, the Monitors, and the Unique club of Williamsburgh were in the field that season, but little trace of their activities can be found in the papers of the day. Ball games were played on Emancipation Day, when, the Eagle admitted, “20,000 colored gathered in two suburban Brooklyn parks.”37

The local attitude was embodied by Hooley’s Minstrels, housed in a theater near the Brooklyn ball fields. Their specialty was a burlesque baseball game between the “Atlantics” and their current challenger. Star “Cool” White played the umpire, mimicking the style of Henry “Salt Chad” Chadwick. Like other professionals with afternoons off, the actors formed a baseball club and, on September 18, took on the Wood’s Minstrel nine at the Capitoline Grounds. “On account of the well known opposition to colored ball players,” the Eagle informed the public, “the nines will appear in white faces, returning to cork in the evening.”38

Baseball fever had spread down the eastern seaboard. The roster of 202 clubs in the National Association of Base Ball Players included 48 from Pennsylvania and 26 from New Jersey, as well as the National Club of Washington DC, which played on a field behind the White House.

The old townball clubs of Philadelphia—the Olympic and Athletic—had converted to the New York game, encouraged by a visit from the Excelsiors of Brooklyn in 1860. The Athletics had returned the favor during the war, challenging the Brooklyn clubs on their home turf.

The fight to end slavery became, for some, a struggle for civil rights—voting, education, equal accommodations. In Philadelphia, one “colored citizen” held a sit-in on a streetcar. “The conductor,” according to the New York Times, “ran the car off the track, detached the horses, and left the colored man to occupy the car all by himself. The matter created quite a sensation in the neighborhood where the car is standing, and crowds of sympathizers flocked around the colored man.”39

Some young people preferred to leaven their politics with social activities. Sporting events—once associated with occasional celebrations—had by now become an established institution in their own right. In Rochester, Frank Stewart and Charles Douglass organized the Unexpected Club, which challenged local rivals, including a club from the resort town of Niagara Falls.40

Like the first baseball clubs, the Bachelors of Albany and the Excelsior Club of Philadelphia enjoyed banquets and balls when not practicing in the field. At first, these respectable events received more coverage from the Christian Recorder than the ballgames themselves: “Jan. 27, 1866. A ball was given on Thanksgiving evening by the Bachelor Base Ball Club at Bleecker Hall—a great credit to the President, James C. Matthews and associates. It was their first effort and will undoubtedly be repeated.”41

With practice came confidence and a desire for tests of skill. On June 30, the clubs of Philadelphia were advised that:

The Bachelor’s Base Ball club of this Albany, comprising some of our best and most enterprising young townsmen, is making extensive arrangements to visit New York, Baltimore, and your city this Fall for the purpose of achieving a more perfect union between these cities in social games of the beautiful and manly sport of Base Ball.42

In Brooklyn, the Eagle carried on as usual. “The darkies are holding high festival today in the parks in this vicinity,” reported the paper of August 1, 1866. A highlight of the event at Myrtle Park was the presentation of “a silver cup to the Van Delken base ball club, the winners of a game played during the afternoon with a picked nine.” There was another rare mention of a colored club on September 8, when an item noted that “the Unknown Base Ball Club has changed their name to the Mutual Base Ball Club.”43

Some observers had been pleased to learn that former Confederates had formed baseball clubs of their own, hoping that Reconstruction would lead to healthy competition between Northern and Southern clubs. As it turned out, in September 1866, various gentlemen in Virginia expressed their political opinion by refusing challenges from pro-Union clubs. In response to the snub, a correspondent of the Clipper offered the following remarks:

Base Ball in Black. Among the clubs of Pennsylvania are the Monrovia Club, of Harrisburg, and the Shaw Club, of Carlisle, both composed of respectable colored men, who purpose playing a grand match together for the State championship of the colored clubs next month. There are several clubs in this state, also, composed of colored men, and they play a very good game. Now, as the Richmond and Old Dominion Clubs have declined to meet the Union Club, of Richmond, (an organization composed of loyal Southerners and Northerners), it has been suggested that a more suitable match might be arranged by pitting one of our colored nines against the flower of the Richmond and Old Dominion Clubs, providing the “boys in black” interpose no obstacle. What say the parties interested?44


31. Quarles 1968, 177–178.

32. Diary of William Oliffe: Harbor Ghosts, “The Civil War on Staten Island.”

33. New York Clipper: Aug. 1, 1863.

34. Frazier 2004, 81; Rochester Union and Advertiser: Sept. 14, 1871; New York Times: Mar. 6, 1864.

35. Brooklyn Eagle: Aug. 2, 1864.

36. McFeely, W. 1991. Frederick Douglass (p. 230).

37. Brooklyn Eagle: Aug. 2, 1865.

38. Ibid.: Sept. 18, 1865.

39. New York Times: May 18, 1865.

40. Astifan 2000, 8.

41. Christian Recorder: Jan. 27, 1866.

42. Ibid.: June 30, 1866.

43. Brooklyn Eagle: Aug. 1, 1866; Sept. 8, 1866.

44. New York Clipper: Oct. 13, 1866.

 [End of Part 3; part 4 tomorrow!]



Pingback: Blood and Base Ball, Part 4 « Our Game

Did Mr. Brown ever get the roster for the Unknowns? I have the 1858 and 1859 years. James Brunson

Pingback: A Few Dozen Prominent Baseball Milestones « Our Game

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