December 2011

Too Late to Reach Home Plate

I think today is a fine day to reprise this story, originally published in the Woodstock Times of June 2, 2005. The epilogue, long desired but distant, may now be written. The grave of James Whyte Davis, unmarked since his death in 1899, now bears a fine stone with his self-authored epitaph. The walkup to the ceremony, held on Saturday, May 14, 2016 at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, is well described here: Credit for the event may be shared by many, but first kudos go to SABR’s Ralph Carhart and Green-Wood’s historian, Jeff Richman.

James Whyte Davis's Grave — at Green-Wood Cemetery. Photo by Roger Ratzenberger.

James Whyte Davis’s Grave — at Green-Wood Cemetery. Photo by Roger Ratzenberger.

In 2005 on eBay an unusual item came up for sale: a trophy presentation of a silver baseball and miniature bats that had been given to James Whyte Davis in 1875 to commemorate 25 years’ play with the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. The award presentation took place at a banquet following baseball’s first old-timers’ game, between the Knicks of 1850 (“Veterans,” including founding father Daniel Lucius Adams, who played catcher) and those of 1860 (“Youngs,” for whom Davis pitched).

The Davis trophy

The Davis trophy

The recipient’s name is engraved on each of the bats and the ball reads: “Presented to James Whyte Davis on the Twenty Fifth Anniversary of his election as a member of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club by his fellow members. 1850 Sept. 26 1875. Never ‘Too Late.’” Davis had been such an ardent and energetic player that his vehement protests at being excluded from play when he showed up a few minutes after the appointed time won him the twin nicknames of “The Fiend” and “Too Late.”

After nine days in which no one met the opening ask of $49,999.99, three bidders stepped up to the plate in the last three hours and the trophy was knocked down at $76,118.99. The seller’s representative was Global Garage Sale of Winooski, Vermont, whose other eBay offerings at that moment include a gold Parker pen/pencil set, a Casio electronic cash register, and a John Deere lawn tractor. In the words of the Vermont reps, “The seller discovered the trophy in the attic of her husband’s uncle in New Jersey after the uncle passed away in 1977. He was in his 80s at the time, and had been a huge baseball fan. She doesn’t have any other information other than that he was a big fan and grew up in the area in the early 1900s. She has had it in storage ever since, but wants someone to own it who truly appreciates the history of baseball and the significance of this piece.” The winning bidder was not identified, but I hope he or she reads this story.

Who was James Whyte Davis? Famous in his day but forgotten in ours, he comes into view for those who rummage around in early baseball history, exchanging scraps of data and delighting over a new find — a birth or death date, next of kin, a trail of addresses. One perhaps unlikely comrade of mine in such spelunking is Peter J. Nash, author of Baseball Legends of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery (Arcadia), a book that details how some of the 200 or so baseball pioneers, among them James Whyte Davis, came to this final resting place. To those of you who are hiphop fans, you may know Peter as the onetime Prime Minister Pete Nice of Third Bass. Those in the baseball memorabilia field may know him too.

Trophy case, top

Trophy case, top

Davis was born in New York on March 2, 1826 to John and Harriet Davis, both from Connecticut. Drifting away from his father’s trade as shipmaster and sometime liquor merchant, James became a broker successively of fruit, produce, general merchandise, and, finally, stock certificates. Like so many of the early ballplayers, he belonged to a volunteer fire company, in his case the Oceana No. 36. He married Maria Harwood of Maryland, with whom he had two sons and a daughter, though Maria left him a widower at a young age. These are the prosaic details. His life was wrapped up in baseball, as in death he would come to be.

On the 27th of August, 1855, a month shy of its ten-year anniversary, the Knickerbockers unfurled their first banner from the flagstaff over the clubhouse at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, New Jersey. Designed by Davis, the triangular pennant, with a blue “K” in a white circle surmounting one red and one blue horizontal panel, flew over the Knickerbocker clubhouse for the last time at this 1875 celebration, “worn to ribbons by long service,” reported the New York Sun. Afterward, it was draped over Davis’s dresser until his death. His long devotion to baseball and involvement in its defining moments made him a key participant in some monumental disputes.

Doc Adams, left; Davis, right; 1862

In an 1856 Knickerbocker meeting Louis F. Wadsworth, along with Adams and others, backed a motion to permit outsiders to join in with Knicks in their intrasquad games at the Elysian Fields if fewer than 18 Knicks were present. Original Knickerbocker president Duncan F. Curry counter-moved that if 14 Knickerbockers were available, the game should admit no outsiders and be played shorthanded. The Curry forces (which included Davis) prevailed, 13–11. This vote came at a time when baseball was played to 21 runs, and the rules as yet specified no number of innings. The Davis/Curry faction next recommended that a seven-inning game become the new standard. In a twisty tale of intrigue at the first convention of the New York area clubs, Wadsworth, defeated within his own Knickerbocker ranks, convinced the other clubs to go with nine men and nine innings. A pariah among his clubmen, Wadsworth resigned and resumed his former affiliation with the Gothams. The Knickerbockers began their long fade from the top ranks of competition.

National Association convention ticket, 1867

In another enduring controversy, Davis was, with Walter T. Avery, a delegate to the 1867 convention of the National Association of Amateur Base Ball Players. With two other individuals of the nominating committee, he responded to the petition for membership of the Pythians of Philadelphia, an all-black organization, by rejecting any club “composed of persons of color, or any portion of them …  and [the committee] unanimously report against the admission of any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.” In seeking to keep out of the Convention the discussion of any subject having a political bearing, the game’s color line had been drawn. The committee further proclaimed, “If colored clubs were admitted there would be in all probability some division of feeling, whereas, by excluding them no injury could result to anyone.”

So Davis came down on the wrong side of history in two major battles. The  Knickerbockers, an anachronism by the time of the Civil War, somehow endured until 1882, two years after Davis finally ceased to play. He entered the following decade as a widower, living in want in a Manhattan apartment building. On March 17, 1894, the New York Sun printed his letter of July 27, 1893 to Edward B. Talcott, a principal owner of the New York Giants:

My good friend,

Referring to our conversation on Baseball I now comply with your request to write you a letter on the subject then proposed by me and which you so readily and kindly offered to take charge of, after my death, namely, to procure subscriptions to place a Headstone on my grave.

My wish is that Baseball players be invited to subscribe Ten Cents each and no matter how small a sum is collected, it will be sufficient to place an oak board with an inscription on my resting place, but whatever it may be, I would like it as durable as possible without any ornamentation—simply something that “he who runs may read.”…

All relations and immediate friends are well informed that I desire to be buried in my baseball suit, and wrapped in the original flag of the old Knickerbockers 1845, now festooned over my bureau and for the past eighteen years and interred with the least possible cost.

New York Sun, March 17, 1894

New York Sun, March 17, 1894

I suggest the following inscription in wood or in stone:

Wrapped in the Original Flag

Of the

Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of N.Y.,

Here lies the body of

James Whyte Davis,

A member for thirty years.

He was not “Too Late,”

Reaching the “Home Plate.”

Born March 2, 1826.

Died ______ [he would die February 15, 1899]

I should be pleased to show you my Glass case containing the trophies of my Silver Wedding with the Old Knickerbockers in 1875 and which I intend to bequeath to you, should you so desire as a mark of appreciation of the kindly act which you have undertaken to perform. Kindly acknowledge receipt of this.

And I am Yours sincerely and thankfully,

James Whyte Davis.

Creighton monument, original state

Perhaps it is through the Talcott family that the Davis trophy came to reside with the Vermont-based eBay seller. (Or, in a thought that has only now occurred to me, perhaps it came by way of the estate of Davis’s only son, Wade B. Davis, who died in Portland, Maine in 1917.) The dismaying thing is that in the end no dimes were collected for Davis’s headstone, and he lies in the sod at Green-Wood in an unmarked grave. Even his cemetery records have his middle name wrong (“White”) because whoever scribbled the burial transit slip didn’t care. Maybe the owner of the Silver Wedding trophies could throw a dime toward a fund to place a marker at Section 135, Lot 30010. Maybe a baseball organization or benefactor might be persuaded to chip in, too.

Peter Nash wrote to me about the Green-Wood Historic Fund and its “Saved in Time” program. “All contributions regarding player memorials go to the Historic Fund with ‘Elysian Fields Monument Trust’ [the organization that Nash founded] noted on the check memo. We have already fully restored the [Henry] Chadwick monument and the [Jim] Creighton monument’s restoration is underway. (The missing ball at its apex is to be replaced)…. Perhaps JWD’s initial wish of ‘a ten cent subscription’ could be fullfilled in true ‘Too Late’ fashion by our present day MLB players.”

I have sent in my check.

Baseball as a National Religion

In 2008while working on Baseball in the Garden of Eden, I found this wonderful essay tucked away in my files. I am pleased to share it with you now, on the chance that it is unfamiliar. Philosopher Morris R. Cohen published it in The Dial,Vol. 67, p. 57 (July 26, 1919). In baseball’s boom decade of the 1910s, highbrow pundits and philosophers marvel at baseball’s democratic blessings. Baseball was second only to death as a leveler,” wrote essayist Allen Sangree for Everybody’s Magazine in 1907, ten years before World War I would level American youth more literally. Even after the carnage, in July 1919, Cohen, whom Bertrand Russell called “the most significant philosopher in the United States,” could still write a glowing paean to the game.

IN THE WORLD’S HISTORY baseball is a new game: hence new to song and story and uncelebrated in the fine arts of painting, sculpture, and music. Now, as Ruskin has pointed out, people generally do not see beauty or majesty except when it has been first revealed to them in pictures or other works of art. This is peculiarly true of the people who call themselves educated. No one who prides himself on being familiar with Greek and Roman architecture and the classic masters of painting would for a moment admit that there could be any beauty in a modern skyscraper. Yet when two thousand years hence some Antarctic scholar comes to describe our civilization, he will mention as our distinctive contribution to art our beautiful office buildings, and perhaps offer in support of his thesis colored plates of some of the ruins of those temples of commerce. And when he comes to speak of America’s contribution to religion, will he not mention baseball? Do not be shocked, gentle or learned reader! I know full well that baseball is a boy’s game, and a professional sport, and that a properly cultured, serious person always feels like apologizing for attending a baseball game instead of a Strauss concert or a lecture on the customs of the Fiji Islanders. But I still maintain that, by all the canons of our modern books on comparative religion, baseball is a religion, and the only one that is not sectarian but national.

The essence of religious experience, so we are told, is the “redemption from the limitations of our petty individual lives and the mystic unity with a larger life of which we are a part.” And is not this precisely what the baseball devotee or fanatic, if you please, experiences when he watches the team representing his city battling with another? Is there any other experience in modern life in which multitudes of men so completely and intensely lose their individual selves in the larger life which they call their city? Careful students of Greek civilization do not hesitate to speak of the religious value of the Greek drama. When the auditor identifies himself with the action on the stage–Aristotle tells us–his feelings of fear and pity undergo a kind of purification (catharsis). But in baseball the identification has even more of the religious quality, since we are absorbed not only in the action of the visible actors but more deeply in the fate of the mystic unities which we call the contending cities. To be sure, there may be people who go to a baseball game to see some particular star, just as there are people who go to church to hear a particular minister preach; but these are phenomena in the circumference of the religious life. There are also blasé persons who do not care who wins so long as they can see what they call a good game–just as there are people who go to mass because they admire the vestments or intoning of the priest–but this only illustrates the pathology of the religious life. The truly religious devotee has his soul directed to the final outcome; and every one of the extraordinarily rich multiplicity of movements of the baseball game acquires its significance because of its bearing on that outcome. Instead of purifying only fear and pity, baseball exercises and purifies all of our emotions, cultivating hope and courage when we are behind, resignation when we are beaten, fairness for the other team when we are ahead, charity for the umpire, and above all the zest for combat and conquest.

When my revered friend and teacher William James wrote an essay on “A Moral Equivalent for War,” I suggested to him that baseball already embodied all the moral value of war, so far as war had any moral value. He listened sympathetically and was amused, but he did not take me seriously enough. All great men have their limitations, and William James’s were due to the fact that he lived in Cambridge, a city which, in spite of the fact that it has a population of 100,000 souls (including the professors), is not represented in any baseball league that can be detected without a microscope.

Imagine what will happen to the martial spirit in Germany if baseball is introduced there–if any Social Democrat can ask any Herr von Somebody, “What’s the score?” Suppose that in an exciting ninth-inning rally, when the home team ties the score, Captain Schmidt punches Captain Miller or breaks his helmet. Will the latter challenge him to a duel? He will not. Rather will he hug him frenziedly or pummel him joyfully at the next moment when the winning run comes across the home plate. And after the game, what need of further strife? When Jones of Philadelphia meets Brown of New York there may be a slight touch of condescension on one side, or a hidden strain of envy on the other side, but they take each other’s arm in fraternal fashion, for they have settled their differences in an open, regulated combat on a fair field. And if one of us has some sore regrets over an unfortunate error which lost the game, there is always the consolation that we have had our inning, and though we have lost there is another game or season coming. And what more can a reasonable man expect in this imperfect world than an open chance to do his best in a free and fair fight?

Every religion has its martyrs; and the greatest of all martyrdoms is to make oneself ridiculous and to be laughed at by the heathen. But whatever the danger, I am ready to urge the claims of international baseball as capable of arousing far more national religious fervor than the more monotonous game of armaments and war. Those who fear “the deadly monotony of a universal reign of peace” can convince themselves of the thrilling and exciting character of baseball by watching the behavior of crowds not only at the games but also at the baseball score-boards miles away. National rivalries and aspirations could find their intensest expression in a close international pennant race, and yet such rivalry would not be incompatible with the establishment of the true Church Universal in which all men would feel their brotherhood in the Infinite Game.

Sam Rice

Burrowing around the archives of the Baseball Hall of Fame many years ago I came across an envelope marked: “Not to be opened till after the death of Sam Rice. [signed] Paul S. Kerr [longtime Hall of Fame official].” Oh, if that doesn’t set your heart a-racing, you don’t love baseball history

A baseball controversy settled from beyond the grave–this is surely one of the oddest letters in the Hall’s collection. In the eighth inning of Game 3 of the 1925 World Series, in Washington, the Senators held a 4-3 lead over the Pirates. But with two outs, Pirates catcher Earl Smith slugged a ball into deep right center. Right fielder Edgar Charles Sam” Rice ran for it, leapt, and tumbled into the temporary bleachers. He didn’t reappear for at least ten seconds, but he held the ball for all to see. Umpire Cy Rigler called Smith out; the Pirates went bonkers. How could anyone tell whether Rice had caught the ball? A fan could have handed it to him.

The play might have remained controversial had the Pirates not won the Series anyway. Forty years later Sam Rice decided to set the record straight. He composed this letter on July 27, 1965, during Induction Weekend in Cooperstown, and gave it to Kerr, at that time the Hall’s president, with instructions that it not be opened until after his death. Rice had been inducted into the Hall in 1963 for his twenty years of stellar play, nineteen of them with Washington. When Sam met his Maker on October 13, 1974, the controversy could be settled at last. What follows is a verbatim transcription:

It was a cold and windy day. The right field bleachers were crowded with people in overcoats and wrapped in blankets, the ball was a line drive headed for the bleachers towards right center. I turned slightly to my right and had the ball in view all the way, going at top speed, and about 15 feet from bleachers jumped as high as I could and back handed and the ball hit the center of pocket in glove (I had a death grip on it). I hit the ground about 5 feet from a barrier about 4 feet high in front of bleacher with all the brakes on but couldn’t stop so my feet hit the barrier about a foot from top and I toppled over on my stomach into first row of bleachers. I hit my adams apple on something which sort of knocked me out for a few seconds but Earl McNeely arrived about that time and grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me out. I remember trotting back towards the infield still carrying the ball for about half way and then tossed it towards the pitchers mound. (How I have wished many times that I had kept it.)

At no time did I lose possession of the ball.

“Sam” Rice

P.S. After this was announced at the dinner last night I approached Bill McKechnie (one of the finest men I have ever known in Baseball) and I said Bill, you were the Mgr of Pittsburgh at that time, what do you think will be in the letter. His answer was, Sam there was never any doubt in my mind but what you caught the ball. I thanked him as much as to say you were right.

Rice, curiously to observers in today’s milestone-obsessed age, retired at 44 with 2,987 hits. He didn’t see any great value in hanging on to get number 3,000. In later years he was often asked why he retired so close to the magic number. “You must remember,” he’d explain, “there wasn’t much emphasis on three thousand hits when I quit. And to tell the truth, I didn’t know how many hits I had.” Expanding upon that thought he said, “A couple of years after I quit, [Senators owner] Clark Griffith … asked me if I’d care to have a comeback with the Senators and pick up those 13 hits. But I was out of shape, and didn’t want to go through all that would have been necessary to make the effort. Nowadays, with radio and television announcers spouting records every time a player comes to bat, I would have known about my hits and probably would have stayed to make 3,000 of them.”

So when Derek Jeter attained his 3,000th hit last season, he awakened the ghosts of Cap Anson, Nap Lajoie, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Eddie Collins, and Tris Speaker. Rice could have been next in line, before Paul Waner. But his name was on no one’s lips, for want of 13 hits.

The Most Important Game in Baseball History?

Was this game truly more important than that of April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson first set foot on a major league field? No, not when you take into account the resonant social and cultural issues of that event. One might look to other games too–the introduction of night ball, for instance, or the first game played by Knickerbocker rules, or Carlton Fisk’s home run in Game Six of the 1975 World Series. and so on. But this is my choice. If you think it’s a poor one, I’ll count on you to let me know! 

After the famous tour of the Brooklyn Excelsiors in 1860, which took them as far north as Canada and as far south as Baltimore, the outbreak of war had quashed any thought of new junkets. Then in baseball’s boom year of 1867 the Washington Nationals, a club that had formed prior to the war, announced that it would take a trip unlike any thus far attempted. Their notice published in the Clipper read:

The famous Washington club will start upon their proposed Western trip on the 10th [of July], visiting and playing friendly games with the leading clubs of Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Chicago, reaching the latter place on the 24th. . . .

The Washington club was in fact not yet famous, but wished to become so. They had played only five match games in 1865, when they had welcomed clubs from Philadelphia and Brooklyn to play on the lot behind newly installed President Andrew Johnson’s White House.

Although the 1866 Nationals won ten games against five defeats, they were by no means a club to rank alongside the Atlantics, Athletics, Mutuals, or the champion Unions of Morrisania. Those Unions were led by handsome young George Wright, the coming hero of the age, whose older brother Harry had played with the Knickerbockers in the 1850s and had lately reverted to the role of a cricket professional, in Cincinnati.

In 1867 the Nationals strengthened themselves with additional recruits, giving each a patronage government job, and somehow persuaded Wright to join them too. Although the players were nominal amateurs, there can be no doubt of their uniformly professional status. The club president listed Wright’s place of employment as 238 Pennsylvania Avenue, at that time an open field and even today a parking lot.

During the three weeks of their Western tour the Nationals made a show of maintaining their amateur status by refusing payments of any kind, even declining reimbursement for travel expenses; these, of course, were covered by their employers, who had graciously permitted them to abandon the desks at which they had seldom been seen anyway. The aim of the National Club directors in going out on tour was not pecuniary gain but social éclat and pride of place: the Western farmers had been getting a bit chesty about their brand of baseball and, it was thought back East, needed a slap of reality at the hands of an experienced ball club.

The Nationals prepared for their trip with easy triumphs over local cupcakes until they journeyed to Cincinnati to play the Red Stockings on July 15, in a battle of two unbeaten nines. George Wright’s older brother Harry had left New York for the Queen City of the West in March 1865 to serve as the professional instructor and bowler of its Union Cricket Club. It may have seemed to him that as there was no real money to be made from baseball, and the distant cricket club was offering him $1200 annual salary, he might as well return to the trade of his father, Sam Wright, the formidable cricket professional of the celebrated St. George club.

By the summer of 1866 the Cincinnati Base Ball Club formed, and Harry Wright was enticed to be its pitcher. To devote his full attention to the new national game for 1867 the baseball club’s directors, many of them holding office in common with the cricket club, offered him the same salary he was already receiving to switch sports. The other players were local amateurs, including some doing double duty as cricketers, and they did not take the field until the end of September.

Leading up to their match with the Nationals, the 1867 edition of the Cincinnati Base Ball Club—already popularly named “Red Stockings” for the innovation of hiking their pants, better to display their manly calves in carmine hose, while all other players still wore long trousers—had drubbed four local clubs. But Harry’s expected pleasure in playing against his brother’s club soon was dashed: after initially holding their own against the Nationals, tied at 6–6 into the fourth inning, the Reds ultimately were humiliated by a count of 53–10. Although this would be their only loss of the year, it came against their only opponent from outside the tri-state area, and so a lesson was there to be drawn. At the end of the season the Red Stocking directors instructed Harry to follow the Nationals’ model and begin recruiting professionals from distant places. The upshot, of course, was the brazenly professional Red Stockings of 1869, undefeated against all comers from coast to coast.

After crushing the Red Stockings and four other patsies, the Nationals headed for Chicago for highly anticipated games against that city’s best, the Excelsiors and Atlantics, named in emulation of Brooklyn’s finest clubs. The Forest Citys of Rockford had already played the Excelsiors twice that year, losing narrowly each time—the scores were 45–41 and 28–25—and thus ceded the state championship. All the same, the Rockford boys were given the consolation prize of an invitation to Chicago to play what amounted to a warmup game against the Nationals on Thursday the 25th at Dexter Park. On the following Saturday the Nationals would defeat Rockford’s nemesis, the Excelsiors, by a score of 49–4 (not a typo); on Monday the Washington nine would trounce the Atlantics by 78–17.

Facing a frightful outcome, the “corn crackers” of Rockford were led by novice pitcher Albert Spalding, not yet seventeen years of age. Four decades later he recalled:

I experienced a severe case of stage fright when I found myself in the pitcher’s box, facing such renowned players as George Wright, [Frank] Norton, [Harry] Berthrong, [George] Fox, and others of the visiting team…. A great lump arose in my throat, and my heart beat so like a trip-hammer that I imagined it could be heard by everyone on the grounds. I knew, also, that every player on the Rockford nine had an idea that their kid pitcher would surely become rattled and go to pieces as soon as the strong batters of the Nationals had opportunity to fall upon his delivery….

There were several interesting plays in the game, as noted in the contemporary press. In the third inning Al Barker of Rockford “went to his base on a ball which dropped from the bat.” Sounds like a bunt, doesn’t it? Yet the “baby hit” is thought today to have been invented by Tom Barlow some years later (Tommy is equally famous as baseball’s first drug addict, hooked on morphine in 1874). In the sixth inning George Wright “took the bat and by a splendid stroke to center field made a home run.” As Spalding recalled,

…the Forest Citys had by this time gotten pretty well settled and their stage-fright had disappeared, yet none of us even then had the remotest idea that we were destined to win the game over such a famous antagonist. The thought or suggestion of such a thing at that stage would probably have thrown us into another mental spasm.

At this psychological moment, Col. Frank Jones, President of the National Club, rushed up to George Wright, who was about to take his position at the bat, and said, in a louder voice possibly than he intended:

“Do you know, George, that this is the seventh innings and we are six runs behind? You must discard your heavy bat and take a lighter one; for to lose this game would be to make our whole trip a failure.” Col. Jones’ excited manner plainly indicated his anxiety.

This incident inspired the Rockfords with confidence and determination, and for the first time we began to realize that victory was not only possible, but probable, and the playing of our whole team from that time forward was brilliant.

The eighth inning produced a double play, still rare in these days before the glove: “Wright struck and went to first base. Fox followed and knocked a ball to Spalding, who threw it to Addy on 2b, and Addy immediately sent it to 1st, thus putting out Wright and Fox. This was very finely done.” Rockford and Spalding held their six-run lead, emerging victorious by a score of 29–23.

There had been upsets before in baseball’s brief history, but never one on this scale. Immediately it was alleged that the Nationals had tanked the game so as to narrow the odds for their coming contest against the Atlantics. When the Nationals won that game handily to close out their tour, the cries of fraud regarding the Rockford contest only grew louder. No one could have known that several of the Forest City lads would one day become nationally prominent players—particularly Spalding and infielder Ross Barnes.

The Nationals broke up after the season, but even in defeat their Steinbrennerian squadron had supplied the model for how baseball might succeed as America’s game. The club had brought together the best talent from distant places, and playing skill rather than local celebrity would be the path to victory ever after. Cincinnati began importing stars in 1868, and one year later took the Washington Nationals model to its logical conclusion—an all-star team.

While it is often written that the Red Stockings of 1869 were the first professional club, we have seen this not to be so. Every member of the 1867 Nationals was paid to play. That they lost to Rockford, a club that had been defeated by the Excelsiors, whom the Nationals went on to drub mercilessly, points to one of the game’s glories, routinely on exhibit every day.

You just don’t know who’s going to win.

The Charm of the Game

Today we think of baseball as an anachronism, a last vestige of America’s agrarian paradise—an idyllic game that takes us back to a more innocent time. But baseball as we might recognize it originated in New York City, not rural Cooperstown, and in truth it was an exercise in nostalgia from the beginning. Alexander Cartwright and his Knickerbockers began play in Madison Square in 1842, and the city’s northward progress soon compelled them to move uptown to Murray Hill.

When the grounds there were also threatened by the march of industry, the Knicks ferried across the Hudson River to the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, a landscaped retreat of picnic grounds and scenic vistas that was designed by its proprietors to relieve New Yorkers of city air and city care. In other words, the purpose of baseball’s primal park was the same as that of New York’s Central Park or, much later, Boston’s Fenway Park—to give an increasingly urban populace a park within the city, a place reminiscent of the idealized farms that had sent all these lads to the metropolis in pursuit of work.

Thus the attraction of the game in its earliest days was first the novelty and exhilaration of play; second the opportunity for deskbound city clerks to expend surplus energy in a sylvan setting, freed from the tyranny of the clock; and third, to harmonize with an American golden age that was almost entirely legendary.

Simple charms, simple pleasures. In the late 1860s, advancing skills led to heightened appetites for victory, which led to hot pursuit of the game’s gifted players, which inevitably led to sub rosa payments and, by 1870, rampant professionalism. (Doesn’t that chain reaction put one in mind of college football or basketball?) The gentlemanly players of baseball’s first generation retreated from the field, shaking their heads in dismay at how greed had perverted the “grand old game”—now barely 20 years old—and probably ruined it forever.

Sound familiar? It should—the same dire and premature announcements of the demise of the game have been issued ever since, spurred by free-agent signings, long-term contracts, no-trade provisions, strikes and lockouts, integration, night ball, rival leagues, ad infinitum. The only conclusions a calm head might draw from this recurring cycle of disdain for the present and glorification of the past are that (a) things aren’t what they used to be and never were; (b) accurate assessment of a present predicament is impossible, for it requires perspective; and (c) no matter what the owners or players or rules makers or fans do, they can’t kill baseball. All three conclusions are correct. In baseball, the distinction between amateur and professional is not clear-cut: an amateur may play for devotion to the game (amat being the Latin for “he loves”), but a professional does not play for pursuit of gain alone; he plays for love, too.

Oh, don’t you remember the game of base-ball we saw twenty years ago played,

When contests were true, and the sight free to all, and home-runs in plenty were made?

When we lay on the grass, and with thrills of delight, watched the ball squarely pitched at the bat,

And easily hit, and then mount out of sight along with our cheers and our hat?

And then, while the fielders raced after the ball, the men on the bases flew round,

And came in together. four batters in all. Ah! That was the old game renowned.

Now salaried pitchers, who throw the ball curved at padded and masked catchers lame         

And gate-money music and seats all reserved is all that is left of the game.

Oh, give us the glorious matches of old, when love of true sport made them great,

And not this new-fashioned affair always sold for the boodle they take at the gate.

                                                                                             –H.C. Dodge

That doomsday ditty was published in 1886.

This is an excerpt from “Baseball: Our Game,” First Digital Edition ISBN: 978-0-9848629-1-7 Copyright © 2011 by John Thorn. All Rights Reserved. Publisher: Thinker Media, Inc. It is available for 99 cents on the Nook; Kindle; iTunes, iPad, and other Apple devices.

Not in the Cards

Now in St. Louis they will know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall. I’d love to turn you on … to the very first player move of this magnitude. There have been several, in which an all-time great relocates at the height of his career, leaving the hometown fans in despair. One thinks of Babe Ruth going from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees in 1920; or Jimmie Foxx going to the Red Sox in Connie Mack’s fire sale of 1935; or Rogers Hornsby or Barry Bonds, Nap Lajoie or King Kelly. Among pitchers a quick spin of the mental wheel offers up Cy Young, John Clarkson, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez.

Fans like to think that before free agency, the best players stayed with one club for life. In fact, players have always moved around at about the same frequency—although in recent times the relocation of a superstar has most often been at his election rather than the club’s. From 1883, when the reserve clause came into the game, until 1974, when free agency kicked in, a player’s obligation to provide his services to his club endured in perpetuity. The club, for many decades, could dismiss him with ten days’ notice.

But at the dawn of Major League Baseball, before the advent of the reserve clause, player contracts ran for the length of the playing schedule only, excepting the highly unusual multiyear deal. At season’s end, all players were free agents and could sign on with whichever club they pleased. Some owners, seeking to gain an edge, offered contracts in midseason that, after mutual signatures, they mothballed and then postdated. Players sometimes signed with one club in this fashion but, knowing that the deal was secret because it was out of bounds, proceeded to sign with another club after the season if it offered better terms.

In 1874 the Chicago White Stockings of the National Association (NA) were nervous that their star shortstop, Davy Force, would desert them at season’s end, as he had left three other clubs in the previous three autumns. In September, they signed him to a renewal contract for 1875, knowing that, because the season was still in progress, NA rules rendered the contract invalid. Chicago signed Force to another contract in November, but the organization blundered by backdating the contract to September, thus voiding it once again. In December, the Philadelphia Athletics offered Force a contract, and he signed it. The NA governing council, led by a an officer of the Athletics, upheld Force’s deal to play in Philly.

William Hulbert, the Chicago club president, seethed at the injustice, feeling that an anti-Western bias by the older clubs of the East was at the root of all his worries. Albert Sopalding star pitcher with Boston at the time and future sporting-goods kingpin, wrote in America’s National Game (1911):

It was borne to him one day that the reason why Chicago, whose phenomenal achievements on other lines were attracting the wonder of all the world, could make no better showing on the diamond was because the East was in league against her; that certain Base Ball magnates in the Atlantic States were in control of the game; were manipulating things to the detriment of Chicago and all Western cities; that if the Chicago Club signed an exceptionally strong player he was sure to be stolen from her; that contracts had no force, because the fellows down East would and did offer players increased salaries and date new contracts back to suit their own ends.

Within a few months, Hulbert proceeded to give the Easterners, who had rustled his prize shortstop, a taste of their own medicine. He not only raided Boston for Spalding but also snatched Ross Barnes, who would bat .364 in his final season with Boston; Deacon White, who would hit for an average of .367; and Cal McVey, who would bat .355. From the hated Philadelphia Athletics Hulbert took another Western boy and perhaps the top prize, Adrian Constantine Anson, then known as “Baby,” not yet “Cap” or “Pop.”

When word leaked in the summer of 1875 that Chicago had stripped Boston of its stars for the following season, a columnist for the Worcester Spy wrote of Boston’s loss: “Like Rachel weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted because the famous baseball nine, the perennial champion, the city’s most cherished possession, has been captured by Chicago.”

This is about how St. Louis feels today.

But Hulbert had real cause for worry. His club’s contracts had been signed yet again in midseason, so the NA could invalidate them and even, perhaps, expel Chicago for gross misconduct. Then, he came up with a truly big idea. “Spalding,” he said to his eventual ally in revolution, “I have a new scheme. Let us anticipate the Eastern cusses and organize a new association before the March [1876] meeting, and then see who does the expelling.”

And thus was founded, on February 2, 1876, the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, the beginning of what today we call Major League Baseball.

Blood and Base Ball, Part 5

Blood and Base Ball, Part 5

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 4 of this article commenced yesterday and may be linked directly at:

Charles Douglass kept his father current on events in Washington by letter. In the early months of 1868, it became apparent that the political tide was overwhelming the President. “The city is in the wildest excitement in consequence of Johnson’s last drunk,” he wrote home to his father in February. “Before you receive this, Johnson will be impeached.” His prediction was sound, but the trial in the Senate resulted in acquittal by one vote.58

In April, the President’s home state boasted a new nine. The Clipper was advised that: “The Cumberland Base Ball club of Nashville, Tenn., challenges any club, black or white, to play them for the championship of the county.” The National Game continued to attract ballplayers of all political parties. In New York, the Ku Klux Klan Club of Oneida challenged the Rough and Readys of Clinton for $200 and the local championship, losing 38–21. In Little Falls, another Rough and Ready club held a social hop to kick off its season.59

Upstate New York had become a hotbed of black baseball clubs. The Unexpected of Rochester, Invincible of Buffalo, Lincoln of Niagara Falls, and Bachelors of Albany were joined by clubs from Little Falls, Utica, Troy, and Canajoharie. As various clubs claimed local championships, the demand grew for intraregional competition. “This morning,” the Utica Daily Observer reported in the spring of 1869, “two colored base ball clubs left Utica to engage in a tournament among colored clubs at Little Falls. The nines are the Fearless and Riversides. Into no manner of sport do the boys enter with more zest than the National Game.”60

The Fearless nine took away the prize and continued to win recognition that summer. As the Utica paper proudly commented,

The club is well disciplined, and it is fully entitled to the colored base ball championship of the State. Evidence of their skill and ability has been left in matches they have won east and west of us. On the 3rd of August last they played the Rapids of Niagara Falls. The match took place at Medina, and the Fearless Club won by the score of 18 to 3. August 5th they played the Invincibles, of Buffalo, and the score stood: Fearless 88, Invincibles 18.61

In early September, there was another showdown. The Observer gleefully recorded another Fearless victory on the 10th:

Hast heard of the Heavy Hitters? From Canajoharie they come; colored boys are they, strong of limb and fleet of foot, ambitious youths, who aspire to win and keep the name of dusky base ball champions. Undaunted were the Hittites, and full of fire, the Fearless ones stood, furious for the fray. Then waxed the combat fierce; then heavy was the hitting, and thick and fast the Fearless ones did fly from base to base. And so the battle ended not until the innings fifth, and then because of falling rain, the hits became less heavy, the Fearless ones grew faint, the ball felt flabby—the jig was up, the dog was dead. Score 24 to 7. 

Last evening the Canajoharie boys were entertained by the Fearless Club. Refreshments were served and dancing was indulged in until the peeping of the dawn.62

For the politically savvy clubs of Philadelphia and Washington DC, the aspirations went beyond “colored championships.” On September 5, the front page of the New York Times featured the following item:

Novel Game in Philadelphia. A Negro Club in the Field. The White Club Victorious.                             

The Pythian Base Ball Club, after challenging a number of white clubs of this city, who refused to play, succeeded in getting an acceptance from the Olympic, which Club defeated them by a score of 44 to 23. The novelty of the affair drew an immense crowd of people, it being the first game played between a white and colored club.63

Founded as a townball club in 1831–1833, the Olympic Club had been eclipsed by the Athletics but had remained competitive in local circles. Hayhurst and his club had apparently turned down the challenge, although the game was held on their grounds. The umpire, Colonel Fitzgerald, a founder of the Athletic Club, lent his prestige to the affair. Following the match, he offered the Pythians a game with the nine from his newspaper, the “City Items.”

On August 28, the Clipper spoke positively of the integration of baseball:

White vs. Colored Clubs. The prejudices of race are rapidly disappearing. A week or two ago we chronicled a game between the Pythian and Olympics clubs of Philadelphia. The affair was a great success, financially and otherwise. On the 19th the Pythians encountered the City Item Club, of the Quaker City, and defeated them by a score of 27 to 17. In Washington, on the 20th, the Olympics of that city, were announced to play the Alerts, a colored club. The Unique Club, of Williamsburgh, composed of colored gentlemen, is anxious to get on a match with the Pythians. What say the Quakerdelphians?64

The Olympics of Washington were ranked with the nation’s best clubs. Big-time baseball was becoming a business, spurred by the fully salaried Red Stockings of Cincinnati. Founded as an amateur club in 1867 by Abraham G. Mills, the Olympic nine had improved by adding quality players like catcher Fergy Malone and shortstop Bob Reach (brother of Athletics star Al Reach), to a roster that included infielder Davy Force and outfielder Nick Young. The Red Stockings had mastered the Olympics on several occasions, but the Washington nine had taken the local championship away from the Nationals and surprised the visiting Mutuals of New York. Returning home after a close match with the Athletics in Philadelphia, Young, who also served as club secretary, responded positively to the invitation of the Alerts.

“White vs. Black,” headlined the Clipper on October 2.

The Alert club of Washington, D. C., backed by some of the public men of this city, challenged the Olympic club to a series of games. The first game was played on the National grounds, Sept. 20th, in the presence of a large assembly of both sexes and colors, and quite a number of prominent government officials. The game was a success in all respects. From the manner of handling the ball, before the game, it was thought that the Alerts would give the Olympics close work, but in a game of seven innings, the colored gentlemen were beaten by a heavy score. They could not hit Leech, five of them striking out.65

In the spirit of fair play, the Olympics agreed to try their skill against Washington’s other “colored champions.” The Clipper chronicled this game on October 23:

On the 12th, the Olympics, of Washington D. C. accepted the invitation of the Mutual Club to play a friendly game of ball. The Olympics were short four of their nine on account of the elections, and had but two men in their regular position. Their play was of the muffin kind, dropping no less than seven fly balls. The Mutuals fielded well and batted heavily, but lost the game by not playing steadily. Score 24 to 15.66

In Ohio, the Forest Citys of Cleveland, another first-rate club, challenged the limits of National Association policies by agreeing to play a match with the Resolute Club of Oberlin. The visiting club was composed primarily of students from the town’s unapologetically radical college, including its star pitcher, Simpson Younger, class of 1870. In a rain-shortened match, pitcher Al Pratt, catcher Jim “Deacon” White, and other probable professionals defeated the amateurs 17–2. “The popular traditions in regard to Oberlin were sustained,” observed the Clipper’s correspondent, “the pitcher of the Resolutes being one of those whose forefathers came from ‘Afric’s sunny fountains.’ He ‘fought nobly,’ however, his play being inferior to none on the nine.”

The election of President Grant, accomplished with the assistance of black voters, convinced the Republican party to push for universal male suffrage. The requisite constitutional amendment was ratified in the spring of 1870. The good news was welcomed with an outburst of sports.

…the Fearless Base Ball Club, of Utica, the acknowledged colored champions of the State, are again in the field as fearless as ever. On Thursday of the coming week, the colored residents of Geneva will unite in a celebration of the ratification of the XVth Amendment. One of the features of the joyful demonstration will be a new trial for the championship of the State between colored nines from Utica, Canandaigua, Geneva, Lockport, and Rochester. The Utica men, as the present champions, will be expected to retain all the well-earned laurels of the past. If defeat awaits them, they will at least “die hard.”67

In July, there was another tournament at Little Falls, where the Fearless Club contended with the Wide Awakes of Johnstown for a silver-mounted bat. The prize bat was placed among the other trophies of the Fearless Club after a 45–36 victory.68

In Washington, Charles Douglass had switched his allegiance to the Mutuals. His fluid script and political connections earned him the position of club secretary and he was soon corresponding with baseballists in Rochester and vicinity. Having heard of the Fearless Club and the Heavy Hitters, the “Colored Mutes” decided to take a summer trip to upstate New York.

At the beginning of August, the Utica Express advised its readers that: “The colored gentlemen composing the Mutual Base Ball Club, and hailing from Washington took a farewell promenade on Pennsylvania avenue the other day, and stretched their sable pinions for a Northern flight.”69

The tourists stopped for matches in towns known as Underground Railroad stations, soundly defeating clubs in Lockport and Niagara Falls. In Buffalo they were challenged by a picked nine of white players and emerged victorious.

For Charles Douglass, the visit to Rochester was also a homecoming; the Mutuals were welcomed heartily. After another victory over a picked nine, they looked ahead to a battle with the Fearless club. In its coverage of the occasion, the Utica paper plugged its favorite nine:

At Rochester the club was entertained by Fred. Douglass. A son of the gifted colored orator is a member of the Mutual nine. Therefore Fred extended a cordial greeting, and after feasting the lads, admonished them concerning the mettle of the Utica crowd. Douglass, Jr., by the way, is the President of the visiting Club, and the senior Douglass was anxious that his son Charles should flank the enemy at all points.

The Mutuals then headed for Canajoharie, where they beat the Heavy Hitters, then proceeded to Troy where the Hannibals were added to the list of vanquished foes. In his report to the sporting press, Douglass summed up by noting that “the members speak in the highest terms of their treatment on the tour,” regretting only that “they were compelled to decline several games for want of time, one of them with the Clinton, of Lansingburg.”70

As the season of 1870 concluded, it was apparent that progress had been made.    The Clipper informed its viewers of a struggle for “the Colored Championship of Illinois” between the Blue Stockings of Chicago and a club from Rockford. The nines were evenly matched, trading victories at home before the Blues captured the prize at the Rockford fair grounds, home of the professional Forest Citys, by the score of 28–21.71 That October, there was also news of a friendly “White vs. Black” contest in Massachusetts reported by the Clipper, in which the white Resolutes played the black Resolutes , with the victor to become the sole club entitled to the name.

During the 1871 preseason, organized baseball was reorganized. The success of the Cincinnati Red Stockings inspired their opponents to imitate their hiring practices as well as their “knickerbocker” trousers and colored stockings. The arguments of traditionalists were cut short when elite clubs, including the Philadelphia Athletics, New York Mutuals, Forest Citys of Cleveland, and Washington Olympics, formed the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, seceding from the old amateur Association. The increasingly businesslike sport enjoyed an improved quality of play, but, at the same time, it became more exclusive.

After mastering local opponents, the Pythian and Mutuals met again in August. The first match, played on the Athletic grounds in Philadelphia, went to the home nine, 20–15. Charles Douglass took on the job of pitcher in the return match. The Washington club rallied for three runs in the bottom of the ninth, but failed to overcome what the Clipper called “some very loose play” in the sixth inning, winding up on the short end of a 17–16 final score. In the interim, the Mutuals also played host to the Hannibals of Troy, posting a 48–20 win.72

Black baseball lost two of its pioneers during the final months of the season. In September, Charles Douglass and other friends mourned the passing of Frank Stewart, at the age of 33, after a long bout with consumption. In his obituary, the Rochester Unionand Advertiser commented: “He was considered the best general ball player in the State, and but for his color would have commanded a high salary from the best club in the country. He was a general favorite, and held in high esteem by all classes of citizens.”73

Octavius Catto was not in the Pythian lineup that summer. The busy educator was a prime mover in the effort to follow up the victory of the 15th Amendment by registering newly eligible voters. Blacks in northern cities had generally been disenfranchised by property restrictions, and Democratic bosses like Tweed in New York and McMullin in Philadelphia knew that the party of Lincoln would be the beneficiaries of the new rules. Fearing loss of control, they did not hesitate to stir up racial animosity.

October 13 was Election Day in Philadelphia. Squads of shoulder-hitters, abetted by some of the local police, appeared at the polls. Under the headlines “Bloody Election Riot. The Negro Voters Assailed in Philadelphia. Democratic Police Sympathize with the Mob,” the staunchly Republican New York Times had this to say regarding the day’s events.

The trouble first commenced between white and colored men in the immediate vicinity of Squire McMullin’s headquarters. A shower of paving stones was fired into this assemblage, and directly the fight commenced. While the fight in Lombard street continued, a number of colored men, armed with muskets, came out an alley just below Seventh street and charged upon a squad of Police officers, who were backed by a host of supporters, and, being beaten back, retreated into a tavern, taking up their position at the second story windows. From these they fired a volley, which was spiritedly returned. The riot is attributable by those who watched its origin, to the ill treatment of colored voters at more or less all the polls in the Fourth and Fifth wards.

Catto, a major in the Colored Brigade of the Pennsylvania National Guard, had reported to the Armory when he learned of the fighting. General Wagner, commander of the unit, told the press: “It was while in the act of obeying an order he had received as a soldier that murder met him.” Before calling out his men to suppress the riot, Catto had returned home “to obtain his equipments,” including ammunition for the pistol he had just been issued. “While upon his own door step,” the General continued, “he was ruthlessly assaulted with a bludgeon, knocked down and mortally wounded by pistol shots through the heart.”74

The prime suspect was a Democratic ward-heeler named Frank Kelly. There were rumors that Catto, “a great lover of women,” had been “seen to frequent a certain Ice Cream saloon with one of the fair ones, and that Frank Kelly was snubbed by her on account of Catto’s flirtations.” The accused killer escaped capture until 1876, when he was spotted intimidating voters in Cincinnati. Brought back to Philadelphia, he was acquitted by a jury of his peers.75

In his oration on the death of the “Colored Martyr,” as summarized by the Times, Reverend Henry H. Garnett

compared the rioters in Philadelphia to the Kuklux of the South. He said all color distinction must be done away with. Octavius V. Catto was sleeping in death, but the principles for which he died still live and are growing. He was slain because like many of his race, he would not affiliate with corrupt politicians.76

Catto also received a Sportsman’s tribute, mentioned in the “Death’s Doings” column of the Clipper. There was, however, no reference to the Pythian Base Ball Club.77 


58. New York Clipper: Dec. 21, 1867.

59. McFeely 1991, 261.

60. Utica Daily Observer: May 1868.

61. Ibid.: May 1869.

62. Ibid.: Sept. 10, 1868.

63. New York Times: Sept. 5, 1869.

64. New York Clipper: Aug. 28, 1869.

65. Ibid.: Oct. 2, 1869.

66. Ibid.: Oct. 23, 1869.

67. Utica Daily Observer: May 5, 1870.

68. Ibid.: July 22, 1870.

69. Ibid.: Aug. 24, 1870.

70. New York Clipper: Sept. 10, 1870.

71. Ibid.: Sept. 2, 1970; Oct. 15, 1870.

72. Ibid.: July 8, 1871; Aug. 19, 1871; Sept. 2, 1871.

73. Rochester Union and Advertiser: Sept. 14, 1871.

74. New York Times: Oct. 13, 1871.

75. Griffen, H. 1878. The Trial of Frank Kelly for the Assassination and Murder of Octavius V. Catto.

76. New York Times: Oct. 30, 1871.

77. New York Clipper: Oct. 28, 1871.

Blood and Base Ball, Part 4

Blood and Base Ball, Part 4

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 3 of this article commenced yesterday and may be linked directly at:

jacob-white_cropDuring the summer of 1866, a club was formed by Octavius Catto, Jacob White Jr., and others. Catto, now the principal of the boys half of the Institute for Colored Youth, hosted the first practices at the school. The team soon found a home at the Pythian Hall, adopting the name of the fraternal organization.

At first, the Pythians played in nearby Camden, New Jersey, to avoid trouble in the Irish neighborhood near the local ball fields; but by the end of the season, they were able to hold matches at the local Parade Grounds. When the touring Bachelors visited on October 3, they schooled the newer club severely, winning 70–15.45

The election of 1866 turned the tide in favor of the Radical Republicans, who won control of the Congress thanks to black voters in the South, where former rebels were disenfranchised. For Charles Douglass, the change resulted in a job as a clerk in the Freedman’s Bureau in Washington.

The Excelsior Base Ball Club of Philadelphia inaugurated its 1867 season with a fundraising concert. “The music, both vocal and instrumental, was of a high order,” commented the Christian Recorder, “and all the artists acquitted themselves finely. A beautiful silk flag and 12 caps were presented to Mr. James Needham Jr. by the young ladies of Philadelphia.”46

On June 21, the Pythian club traveled to South Camden to meet the L’Overtures. Catto played second as the Philadelphians romped to a 62–7 fifth-inning lead before the admirers of the Haitian general surrendered the prize ball.47

In Pennsylvania, New York, and Washington DC, baseball clubs contended for various “colored championships.” The Monrovia and Shaw clubs once again battled for bragging rights, while the Bachelors of Albany traveled to Utica to take on the Fearless nine. “The Albanians,” admitted the local paper, “beat their Utica competitors badly.”48

The sporting papers that summer were enthusiastic about the tour of the (white) Nationals of Washington, orchestrated to take on the clubs in Ohio and points west. Like the Mutuals of New York, sponsored by “Boss” Tweed, the politically connected leaders of the club offered patronage jobs to entice players. It is likely that Charles Douglass spent more time at a desk than shortstop/treasury clerk George Wright, but he too found time to play. Frank Stewart was in Washington that summer and, as they had in Rochester, Stewart and Douglass helped organize a baseball club, known as the Alerts. Stewart was a particularly skillful player, hitting three home runs in a match with the Monumentals.49

Like Charles Remond Douglass, named for an antislavery activist, Octavius Catto and Jacob White Jr. had been reared in political households. Seeing an opportunity to gain positive publicity by playing the National Game, the Pythians agreed to take on two Washington clubs, the Alerts and the Mutuals, in home-and-home series. Friendly members of the mainstream Athletic club helped facilitate the plan.

The idea caught the attention of the public and press. “Fred. Douglass Sees a Colored Game,” reported the Clipper in July. 

The announcement that the Pythian, of Philadelphia, would play the Alert, of Washington, D. C. (both colored organizations) on the 15th inst., attracted quite a concourse of spectators on the grounds of the Athletic. The game progressed finely until the beginning of the fifth innings, when a heavy shower of rain set in, compelling the umpire, Mr. E. H. Hayhurst, of the Athletic, to call the game. The score stood at the end of the fourth innings: Alert 21, Pythian 16. Mr. Frederick Douglass was present and viewed the game from the reporters’ stand. His son is a member of the Alert.”50

The home nine was less successful in its second encounter, losing to the Mutual club by one run, 44–43. The Philadelphians returned the visits in August, triumphing over both Washington clubs.51

The Nationals returned to face the New York Mutuals and top-notch nines. Like the Atlantics of Brooklyn and the Gothams of New York, the Mutuals were strongly anti-Republican. They took advantage of their trip to the national capital to make a statement of their own. On August 27, the press was advised that:

The Mutual Ball Club of New York yesterday elected President Johnson as a member. The President, upon the presentation of the badge of the club, accepted the honor, commending base ball as a moral and national game. Subsequently the Mutuals beat the Nationals by 24 runs. The President, Secretary Seward, and many Government officials and some 5000 spectators witnessed the game.52

At the beginning of October, the Philadelphia Excelsiors embarked on a tour of the North. The Black baseballists of Brooklyn had temporarily found a home at the Satellite Grounds (formerly used by the burned-out cricket club mentioned above). Located near the popular Union Grounds, the venue had failed to bring in crowds and the management was open to experiment. One of Brooklyn’s premier players, John Grum, volunteered as umpire for the matches. Regrettably, the offer was not agreeable to all parties.

The October 3 match between the Philadelphians and the Uniques received thorough, if not flattering, coverage. Chadwick’s Ball Players’ Chronicle described the Excelsior Club as “the principal colored organization,” noting that the visitors had brought their “band of music and a large crowd of Philadelphia friends” and “a reputation as skilful experts on a par with that of the Athletic Club.” The Uniques, “a party of colored ball players familiar to the patrons of the Fulton Market,” were seen as “second-rate exponents,” but the contest was a lively one.

The Excelsiors took the lead at the start, and maintained it all the way through, the close of the sixth innings securing them in the van by the totals of 37 to 24. In the seventh innings, however, the Brooklyn players pulled up considerably, but, not finishing the innings before it became dark, the game was decided by the close of the sixth.53

According to the Clipper,

…the affair was decidedly unique, and afforded considerable merriment to several hundred of the “white trash” of New York and Brooklyn. The game was a “Comedy of Errors” from beginning to end, and the decisions of the umpire—a gentlemanly party from the Bachelor Club, of Albany—exceeded anything ever witnessed on the ball field. At 6 ½ o’clock, while the Brooklyn club was at the bat, with every prospect of winning the game, the Excelsiors, profiting by the example set them by their white brethren, declared that it was too dark to continue the game, and the umpire called it and awarded the ball to the Philadelphians.54

The Excelsiors left for Albany and a match with the Bachelors, returning a week later to play the Monitor Club. This time the laurels went to Brooklyn, as the Monitors “avenged their brethren by a handsome victory,” 32–18. “After the match,” the Chronicle noted, “the club marched to the ferry, headed by a band of music, and followed by a large and enthusiastic crowd.”55 

It seemed that “the colored element in the fraternity” was winning the acceptance and, occasionally, the respect of baseball audiences. The Pythians decided that the time was right to seek official recognition. The Pennsylvania State Association of Base Ball Players, a subsidiary of the national organization, held a convention in Harrisburg in the middle of October.

Although the famous Athletics, led by Hayhurst, their president, had agreed to sponsor the application of the Pythians, it soon became apparent that the idea was unpopular with most of the delegates. As Pythian secretary Jacob White Jr. later reported:

Whilst the Committee on Credentials were making up their report, the delegates clustered together in small groups to discuss what action should be taken. Sec. Domer stated although he, Mr. Hayhurst, and the President were in favor of our acceptance, still the majority of the delegates were opposed to it, and they would advise me to withdraw my application, as they thought it were better for us to withdraw than to have it on record that we were black balled.

Instructed to “fight if there was a chance,” White finally relented, as “there seemed no chance for any thing but being black balled.”

Your delegate feels bound to state that all the delegates seemed disposed to show their sympathy and respect for our club by showing him every possible courtesy and kindness.  While at dinner Messrs Hayhurst and Rogers and others invited him to attend the base ball match that was to be played that afternoon in company with them.

The rest of the Pythian club visited Harrisburg the following week, besting the local Monrovians 59–27.

On October 31, the Chronicle continued its coverage of “the championship of colored clubs,” this time between the Uniques and Monitors for the honors in Brooklyn.

This match has been the theme of comment for some time in colored circles. The play exhibited on both sides was very creditable at first, but afterwards the Uniques failed to play up their mark, and did some very bad muffing. The Monitors outplayed them at all points, but especially in batting, which, in the latter part of the match, they did in terrific style. The Monitors began to draw away from their opponents, who became demoralized, and their contest ceased, although play continued.56

The National Association of Base Ball Players met in Philadelphia for the first time that December. Mr. Arthur Pue Gorman, of the Nationals, presided. 

When the roll was called each prominent club was applauded. The Athletics, Quaker Citys, Keystones, Nationals, Mutuals, Atlantics, Unions, and other well-known clubs received an ovation, also the delegates from Oregon and Omaha. The report of the Nominating Committee in which they decided not to admit clubs with colored delegates, was adopted.57


45. Casway, J. 2007. “Octavius Catto and the Pythians of Philadephia,” Pennsylvania Legacies 7.1.

46. Christian Recorder: June 1, 1867.

47. Ball Players’ Chronicle: July 4, 1867.

48. Utica Morning Herald: Nov. 3, 1867.

49. Astifan 2000, 8.

50. New York Clipper: July 13, 1867.

51. Casway 2007.

52. Utica Morning Herald: Aug. 27, 1867.

53. Ball Players’ Chronicle: Oct. 10, 1867.

54. New York Clipper: Oct. 19, 1867.

55. Ball Players’ Chronicle: Oct. 17, 1867.

56. Ibid.: Oct. 31, 1867.

57. “Report of Delegate to President and Members of Pythian Club. Dec. 18, 1867.”

[End of Part 4; concluding part 5 tomorrow!]