July 2012

Early Baseball in Boston, Part 2

This story by “Tri-Mountain” ran in the Boston Journal of February 27, 1905. It continues the story commenced in this space yesterday. Of particular interest, I think, is the detailed use of a glove in a baseball game in 1858—far earlier than the histories cite. In July of 1862 the Excelsior team of New York [actually Brooklyn, a separate city until becoming a part of “Greater New York” in the consolidation of 1898], the crack team of the country at that time, made a trip to Boston, and on the 10th of the month had a game with the Bowdoin club. On the next day the visitors played with a picked nine of five Lowells and four Tri-Mountains, in which they were victorious over the Boston players by a score of 39 to 13, the four Tri-Mountains scoring 7 of the 13 runs. Home runs—Excelsior, 3; Bostons, Chandler, Lovett, Miller.

Previous to this time our pitchers had taken two steps in delivering the ball, and would follow it half way to the striker, but Mr. [Jim] Creighton of the Excelsiors did not move from his position. He took a step with his left foot, but kept his right in place. Mr. [Joe] Leggett, his catcher, caught on a bound except when a man was on third base, and then he went up behind the bat.

In 1865 the Atlantic Club of Brooklyn came to Boston, and on September 25 won a game from the Lowell club by 30 to 10. About 3000 people witnessed this contest, and seats were provided for ladies. On September 26 the Atlantics won from the Tri-Mountains by 107 to 17. On the 27th the Harvard boys took their turn and scored 22 against 58 for the Atlantics. Home runs—Atlantics, 2; Mr. Parker of Harvard, 3. In these games Mr. [Frank] Norton of the Atlantics caught up behind the bat when there was a man on any base, and on a bound when the bases were free. Mr. [Tom?—check] Pratt did not move either foot from the ground in pitching. It was said that he could pitch ninety-five balls through a barrel and the other five of the hundred would touch the barrel. He afterward joined the Tri-Mountains.

History of Silver Ball.

In May of 1866 Mr. Lowell and his partner, Mr. Brett, at a meeting of the Junior Association at the Parker House, presented a silver ball to be played for by junior clubs only. The first game for this ball took place on May 24 between the Clifton club, to whom the ball had been awarded, and the Independent club, the latter winning, 69 to 32.

Mr. Moses E. Chandler also presented to the Junior Association a full set of equipment comprising a silver mounted bat, bases, foul ball posts with flags, and a champion streamer. The juniors were now well provided with everything to make their games as interesting as could be and they showed their appreciation of it.

In 1867 there was a tournament at the New England Association, in which thirty-nine clubs were represented. Mr. Chandler presented a silver mounted bat as a prize for the winning club, which was captured by the Tri-Mountains, who won, it is said, every game in which they participated. The bat is composed of pieces of wood from the John Hancock house on Benson [check—Beacon?]street, the Lincoln cabin, the old Boston elm, the apple tree under which Gen. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, and the battleships Kearsarge and Alabama. The silver belt on the bat is inscribed:

First prize, Tournament of New England Association, 1867.

Won by the Tri-Mountain Base-Ball Club.

 It is in a box of black walnut burl. Inlaid on the cover is a bat, ball, cap and foul ball post with flag, and on each end is a base, inlaid. [This bat sold at auction on July 17, 1996 for $37,400. According to the auctioneer, the bat came from a western Maine home where it had been under a bed. The consignor, who took a couple of years to decide to part with the bat, was no relation to Moses E. Chandler. The trophy bat had been given to her great-uncle, who apparently was a caretaker of Chandler in his declining years. The bat is depicted in the cover of the sheet music for “The Baseball Quadrille” at the head of Part 1 of this article.]

Although the old Massachusetts game had many interesting facts in connection with it, the story of the national game seemed to call for the most attention, and that is why it was presented first.

Olympic Club Formed.

Previous to the year 1854 the game of bat and ball was played in a “scrub” way, and there were too many differences of opinion on rules to allow the game to proceed smoothly; but in that year the Olympic Ball Club was organized by twelve young men of Boston. They elected officers and adopted a set of rules for playing the game. This club was the first in New England, and the rules were of much assistance in playing and prevented many disputes. Their first game was with the Elm Tree Club in 1855, but the new club soon disappeared. There were a number of young men, principally cartmen from the vicinity of Pearl street, who styled themselves the Green Mountain Boys, but we did not recognize them as an organization. They furnished much merriment to bystanders from their disregard of rules, which was inexcusable, to say the least. We remember of their playing with some clubs.

The word base was not used at that time, the infield being shown by bounds, or byes: it was probably introduced to designate the game from other games of ball and on account of the bounds being changed to a firmer base.

To draw crowds at the Worcester fair, it was the custom to offer a prize of $500 to be competed for by two leading ball clubs, but these contests frequently ended in disputes.

The Olympic club was the most popular club in this section and was classed as the champion. They had games in the morning before breakfast, in the afternoon and on holidays and drew crowds of admirers. All went well until the year 1858, when on May 31 a country club having invited the Olympics to play a match game, came to Boston for that purpose. Every kind of preparation had been made to receive the visitors; the ground had been roped off, strong stakes four feet high had been placed in the ground for bounds, and new bats and balls provided; but there was a delay in commencing the game.

The visiting club had brought some things never seen before. The rules of the convention specified the size and weight of the ball and that it should be covered with leather, but the actual component parts of the ball inside the cover were not mentioned.

The Bullet-Ball.

It was understood that balls for this game were to be made of rubber and yarn, but in the absence of this particular mention the visitors produced a ball of minimum weight made of yarn wound as loosely as possible over a bullet to secure the proper size, and insisted on using it. The bats provided by the home club were of little use with such a ball, but the guests had been equal to all contingencies and brought flat sticks, not for striking the ball to the foreground, but to touch it merely and direct it from its course to the rear. Heavy gloves had to be used with such a ball, for bare hands could not hold it and it would twist more fingers and do more injury than the ball of the national game.

Gloves had not been seen in play before, neither were gloves used in the national game in old amateur times.

The immense company of spectators did not see the game that they were accustomed to, and many left the grounds disappointed, declaring it a fizzle. That the bullet ball was made for the occasion and for points was evident. Whenever this game was afterward mentioned in the presence of anyone who took part in it, there was a show of fingers as “relics” of that game.

After the game the Olympics entertained their guests and escorted them to the depot the next day, but that was the last of the bullet ball, it was never heard of again.

Mr. Gill and Mr. Arnold of the Tri-Mountain club were in the twelve who formed the Olympic club in 1854. Mr. Gill and Mr. Chandler of the Tri-Mountain and Mr. Forbush and Mr. Crosby of the Bowdoin club were in the bullet ball game. Mr. Chandler still survives.

Part 3 tomorrow!

Early Baseball in Boston

On Monday, February 20, 1905, The Boston Journal commenced a three-part story on the introduction of the “National Game”—i.e, the New York version—to Massachusetts in the late 1850s.  The author, identified only as Tri-Mountain but perhaps James D’Wolfe Lovett, was, in the words of the newspaper’s editor, “a member of Boston’s first baseball club and a player who in the ’50s and ’60s had a reputation more than local.” As I related in my previous post, “The Game That Got Away,” the triumph of the Gotham Game meant the rapid disappearance of the many vibrant versions of baseball that had flourished not only in New England but also in Pennsylvania and the Western Territory—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and other (then) frontier outposts. Baseball was played in the South, too before the Civil War, but afterwards its several regional variants were likewise vanquished by the “National Game.” 

As in its 1905 appearance, this article will run in three segments. Of particular interest below, perhaps is the fate of the celebrated silver ball over which Boston’s clubs contested fiercely in the 1860s. Note that the New York Game is treated first though clearly it arose second. As “Tri-Mountain” notes in the following segment: “Although the old Massachusetts game had many interesting facts in connection with it, the story of the national game seemed to call for the most attention, and that is why it was presented first.” Now, on to Part 1! 

A pleasing story might be told about baseball in Boston if one could be found who was clever at it, but the only merit the writer claims is that he remembers it for more than half a century and participated in it from the early ’50s up to the entrance of professional clubs into the sport.

In the spring of 1856 Edward G. Saltzman of the Gotham club of New York came to Boston. [ Saltzman was something of a Johnny Appleseed, next bringing the New York Game to Savannah in 1867.] Associated with him were Augustus P. Margot and Richard Busteed of Brooklyn. These three gentlemen with two or three more began to play a game, which with the implements used seemed very strange to us. Mr. Saltzman was the prime mover in this game, and was afterward called the father of the game in New England. Mr. Margot laid out the first baseball diamond on the Common. The Tri-Mountain club was organized June 16, 1857, with Mr. Saltzman as president; vice president, J. Busteed; secretary, J. Edward Burtt; treasurer, B. Frank Guild [this was Benjamin Franklin Guild of the Boston Society’s Golden Ball, which prompted the previous entry in this space]; game keeper, J. G. Donaldson; judge, Charles Taylor. The game was not popular at that time, but the newcomers continued to play it.

In 1858 the Portland club challenged the Tri-Mountain and three games followed: the first on Boston Common, September 9, was won by the visitors: Portland 47, Tri-Mountain 42. Mr. Saltzman, who was change pitcher and catcher with Mr. Guild for the Tri-Mountains, did not play in this game. The time occupied was three hours and each side scored one home run. Capt. Crowell of Portland sent a ball into the sky (there were no clouds) and it seemed as if it would not return to earth. The captain fainted, but it was later in the game, and it was said to be from the heat. Everything went off charmingly. The Boston people, although obliged to accept defeat, were pleased with the new game. The evening was spent in jollification around the board at the Cummings House.

Slid for His Base.

On June 28, 1859, these two clubs were together again on Bramhall hill, in Portland before a large assemblage of people to witness a game that they had not seen before. The result was in Boston’s favor—Tri-Mountains, 21; Portlands 11. Mr. Saltzman was catcher for the Boston Club. It was in this game that Mr. Chandler introduced his original feature of diving at a base, which produced an uproar of laughter, and won for him a cane. The cane is a Malacca joint, with an octagon head made from a large Mexican coin and is engraved as follows: “Presented to M. E. Chandler from R. A. Nicholas of the Tri-Mountain Baseball Club, June 28, 1859, Runs, 5; H.L. 1” (H.L. means hands lost or outs). [This cane turned up in Maine in 1996 and was put up for auction, along with the trophy bat with engraved silver banding that read “First Prize Tournament of New England Association, 1867, Won by Tri-Mountain Base Ball Club of Boston.” More on this tomorrow!]

The Boston club was handsomely entertained at Cape Cottage the next day.

On November 8, 1859, the third game was played on the Common in the presence of an immense gathering of interested ones, to see whether victory should perch on the pole of the parent club or go to Portland. The home club won—Tri-Mountains 33; Portland, 20. The ball of the first game was gilded and lettered and sent to the Portland club. The balls used in the other two games are in the hands of the boy who made them and who also made balls for the Boston clubs, some of which were used in the later New York games.

In the year 1858, by the efforts and enterprise of Mr. John A. Lowell, the Bowdoin Square Base Ball Club was formed from young men located at the Bachi House on the square, the name being afterward changed by leaving out the word square; they played mixed games with the Tri-Mountains before breakfast and on afternoons. On May 25, 1859, in a match game, the Tri-Mountains won 23 to 11, but on October 15 the Bowdoins were victors over their teachers, 32 to 26.

In the early sixties Mr. Lowell formed a club from the High and Latin school boys, who adopted the name of the founder. A few years later, this club defeated the Tri-Mountains 37 to 1, but it must be clear that the conditions were very much strained, a little more so than when Harvard took a game from the Lowells, 21 to 4. The Bowdoin and Lowell clubs were later merged into one under the name of the latter.

The Harvard Crimson says: “It is said that baseball was introduced in Harvard in 1862 by two enthusiastic freshmen, Frank Wright and George A. Flagg of the ’66 class; in the autumn of 1863 the incoming freshmen pressed the sophomores so closely that on October 12, 1864, the University club was formed, and in the spring of 1865 the University nine was determined upon.” Harvard’s first match game was with Brown University at Providence on June 17, 1863, Harvard winning 29 to 17. The first match game of Harvard University nine was in June, 1865, defeating Tri-Mountain 59 to 32.

A Silver Ball.

In 1864 Mr. Lowell presented to the New England Baseball Association a silver ball as a trophy to arouse more interest in the game, and the first contest for it was on September 27, when the Tri-Mountains won it from the Osceola Club of Portland, 53 to 18. The Lowell club then won it from the Tri-Mountains, 33 to 18. Three country clubs failed to take it from the Lowells. The Harvard club won four silver ball games from the Lowells and Lowell won three from Harvard. On August 24, 1867, Harvard surrendered the silver ball to the Lowell club and forfeited a game of ball on account of the challenge coming in vacation time, when they could not call their fellows together. It was an unjust rule of amateur times that permitted a forfeited ball to be marked with a score of 9 to 0.

It had now come Tri-Mountain’s turn again, and the statement was made in meeting. “We can take the silver ball and we ought to challenge for it”; the challenge was sent and a series of three games played, the first at Riverside Park in Cambridge on September 24, 1867, resulting in Lowell’s favor, 20 to 16. The second game was on the Common September 23, and the Tri-Mountains were the victors, 40 to 35, in eight innings. At the close of the fourth the score stood 18 to 9 in Lowell’s favor, but in the fifth the old fellows started off in a rattling way, 8 to 1, 7 to 3, 7 to 9, 9 to 4. On September 28, 1867, the fifteenth silver ball contest and the last game for that beautiful trophy, was played on the Common before an immense crowd. The Tri-Mountains took a lead of 5 to 1 in the first and the nine innings finished Tri-Mountains, 42; Lowells, 22; the only failure to count [register a run] being by the Lowells in the ninth. The time of the game was 3 hours, 15 minutes. Home runs—Tri-Mountains, 2. Passed balls—Tri-Mountain, 12; Lowell, 25. Umpire—Mr. N. S. Smith of the Harvard Club.

The national game was now at its height among amateurs and up to this time the Tri-Mountains had not taken a game from Harvard, and as the college players had not lost the silver ball in competition a great game was looked for, but at the opening of the last series a request had been made that the silver ball should be retired; it had been knocked about in thought and feeling as much as the game ball had been over the field. The Tri-Mountains reluctantly surrendered it to the committee of the association, who decided to melt it and put the proceeds into the association funds. The committee therefore met at Mr. Margot’s office, and there Mr. Saltzman swung the sledge hammer that forever retired the silver ball.

Mr. Margot then and there put it into a crucible and melted it and it sold for about $16. The metal was then bought again and small balls were made of it and presented to members of the different clubs. It was about regulation size, hollow and about an eighth of an inch in thickness. The names of the different clubs which contested for it, with the scores of the games, were engraved upon it.

To be continued tomorrow. 


The Game That Got Away

Long before the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry, an early variant of baseball known as the “Massachusetts Game” was edged out by the so-called New York rules. What happened? That was the editor’s tease that ran above my story when it ran in the Boston Globe in 2005. I remain convinced that this long vanished game of baseball was as good, if not better than, the one that vanquished it.

Rainey Tisdale, Collections Manager of the Bostonian Society, was perplexed. In the days before the reigning champion Red Sox were to open their 2005 season, her riffle through the archives had revealed an ancient baseball painted gold and mysteriously inscribed:

Won, Oct. 29, 1858.

H.L. 1, Runs 13.

The ball had been preserved in an 1855-patent-model cylindrical presentation box topped with a handwritten label bearing the scrawled initials “B.F.G.” and “Prize Ball 1858.” The Society’s records indicated that a Miss Helen Guild had donated the ball in 1953, and that it had been connected somehow with Boston’s Tri-Mountain Base Ball Club.

These were the facts, too loosely strung to form a story, let alone to understand why this relic had been saved. Seeking more information about the Tri-Mountains, the cryptic “B.F.G.”, and the meaning of the golden globe, Ms. Tisdale contacted a research librarian at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, who referred her to me. I had recently won fleeting fame for the discovery of a bylaw residing in the city records of Pittsfield that gave unequivocal proof that baseball had been played there in 1791, long before Abner Doubleday’s supposed invention of the game in Cooperstown in 1839.

Not many study baseball as if it held the secret to the universe, and nearly all of us who do so belong to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR, some 6,000 members worldwide) and, as a subset of SABR, the nineteenth-century research committee (about 750 members). We take pleasure and occasionally pride in knowing things that all baseball fans knew more than a century ago but few know today.

For instance, I knew the Tri-Mountain was important historically because in 1857 it became the first club in New England to abandon “round ball,” also known as the Massachusetts Game—the region’s traditional version of baseball played since the 18th century—in favor of the New York variant pioneered by the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. By this act of perspicacity (or treachery), the Tri-Mounts helped to ensure that by the end of the Civil War teams everywhere played the New York Game which, despite constant tinkering with the rules into the first decade of the next century, is essentially the game we play today.

Some of the details on the ball were obvious to one who elects to live among ghosts, while others required a bit of digging.

“H.L.” was an abbreviation for “hands lost,” what we today call outs. As for “B.F.G,” in a fat folder in my file cabinet labeled “Massachusetts Game,” I quickly came upon an account of a September 9, 1858 Tri-Mount game, the first ever played by two distinct clubs employing the New York rules, that gave the name of the catcher as B.F. Guild. Further research revealed this to be one Benjamin Franklin Guild, who would go on to become a successful editor and columnist. (Guild’s brother Curtis became the Bostonian Society’s first president while his nephew—also named Curtis—was governor of the Commonwealth from 1906 to 1909.) Helen Guild, the ball’s donor, was B.F. Guild’s daughter.

And as for the game commemorated on the trophy, Joanne Hulbert, a baseball expert from Holliston, provided me with a Boston Herald account from October 30, 1858 relating that the contest of the previous day had been an intramural one, between the first and second nines, played under New York rules but requiring that balls be caught on the fly rather than on one bound, as the overly cautious New Yorkers allowed. With no need to list teams on the ball, all else that need be mentioned was Guild’s game-best performance of 13 runs scored.

Those answers satisfied Ms. Tisdale well enough. All the same, the improbable survival of this golden ball, marking the incursion of the New York Game into New England, gaudily summoned up other, larger mysteries, unsolved to this day. Why had Guild and his Tri-Mountains rebelled against the Massachusetts Game? Why had the pride of New England been vanquished so swiftly and utterly by its New York rival? What further secrets might lie along this road not taken as to how baseball developed?

* * *

Until a flurry of debate on SABR’s nineteenth-century listserv, baseball experts had been content to accept traditional notions that the Massachusetts Game had vanished owing to its curious rules (especially “soaking,” the practice of retiring a runner by throwing the ball at him when he was between bases) or simply its echoes of boyish fun.

Yet, Larry McCray of Lexington—at that time in the early stages of his Protoball database of ancient baseball findings—wrote: “One fact that impresses me is that the Boston crowd seemed to defer to the new game without that much of a fight. Still, it is ironic that [New York’s] palpably less manly’ game took over. No plugging, no fly rule, no overhand pitching.”

Meanwhile, David Ball of Cincinnati suggested the game disappeared as a result of “some combination of the cultural dominance of New York; local differences in attitudes toward leisure activities in general and the playing of ball games by grown men; and what I think is probably a relatively small but quite possibly crucial head start in formal organization of the New York game.”

I agreed with both views, adding that there is no overestimating Americans’ love and fear of organization, then as now. And finally—had the obvious eluded us all this time?—New York may have won out because of a skillful publicity campaign in which its game of baseball, held up as a paragon of manliness, was in fact easier for un-athletic clerks to play. For men who would be gentlemen, it was more important to comport themselves well than to play well. In sport as in war, perhaps, the first casualty is truth.

So, just what was the Massachusetts Game of baseball at its evolutionary pinnacle of 1858? In this version of baseball, played on a square with 60-foot basepaths, the striker stood at a point equidistant between the first and fourth bases. He would attempt to hit a ball thrown overhand from the midpoint of the square, a distance of 30 feet. However, because there was no foul territory, he might deliberately tick the ball behind him or employ backhanded or slide batting techniques to deflect the ball away from the stationed defenders.

A side might number 10 to 14, though 11 was the most common contingent, and several fielders would be stationed in what modern eyes would view as “foul ground,” including at least two “scouts” behind the striker. Three misses and the batsman was out, but if he struck the ball he would fly around the bases (four-foot-tall stakes, actually) until he himself was struck by a fielder’s throw or halted his homeward course by holding to his base. The ball was small and light and there is no record of anyone suffering injury (except to pride) from being “soaked.” A catch for an out had to be made on the fly, not on the first bound, a practice those New York sissies continued to permit until 1864. One man out, side out.

Victory required the scoring of 100 runs, or sometimes by agreement a lesser number. This—not the circular field of play (thus the old name of “round ball”), not the indignity of soaking—has most often been identified as the asteroid that extinguished the dinosaur. In October 1858, the same month as our golden-globe game, the Bay State club of Boston met the Bunker Hill club of Charlestown and after some hours of play adjourned with the score 77–56. A report of the game, writes Joanne Hulbert, stated that the teams “did not think the game would be finished until 1859 … which kinda gives a different perspective to ‘wait until next year.’ A similar problem [would arise] at the 1860 championship game at Worcester. The teams never reached a score of 100 tallies and the game went on for days, until their lease ran out on the Agricultural Grounds.”

In truth, when 10 baseball clubs convened at Dedham on May 13, 1858 to standardize the Massachusetts Game playing rules, they were daubing rouge on a corpse. The New York rules had been standardized at a convention the previous year, and a hopefully titled ‘‘National Association of Base Ball Players” had been formed to play what was still a provincial game, scarcely played outside the metropolitan area. At the Dedham conclave, B.F. Guild stood up and declared that the Tri-Mountain “would be obliged to withdraw from the Association,” as reported in the Boston Journal, “as the Rules and Regulations submitted by the Committee, and favorable to a majority of the Association, could not be accepted by their club, as they preferred to play the New York Game.”

It was not long before the rest of the country did too. By 1865 Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times, the nation’s leading sporting journal, declared:

The National Association or ‘New-York game’ is now almost universally adopted by the Clubs all over the country; and the Massachusetts, and still more ancient style of playing familiar to any school-boy, called ‘town ball,’ will soon become obsolete. No lover of the pastime can regret this, as the New-York mode is superior and more attractive in every way; and better calculated to perpetuate and render our national game ‘an institution’ with both young and old America.

* * *

The game that was left behind, however, was in many ways the superior version, for both players and spectators. Because first base was so easy to reach (one had only to hit the ball and then run 30 feet without being “soaked”), the real action came between the other bases. Smart fielding and relays of long hits turned seeming extra-base hits into astonishingly easy outs. Because the rules contained no provision that a runner must stay within the baselines, he might run into the outfield to elude a fielder attempting to plunk the ball between his ribs. A striker might turn 180 degrees as the pitch was coming to him and whack the ball as far behind him as he might have hit it ahead. There were so many tricks that skilled players might employ that I soon came to believe—through personal experience as a frock-coated, stovepipe-hatted arbiter at vintage-Massachusetts-style contests in the 1980s and ‘90s—that New England’s Game had suffered a cruel fate indeed.

Sadly, even today’s Vintage Base Ball Association has gone over entirely to the New York Game, with most games played by late 1860s rules and a goodly number played by the rules and equipment of the 1880s. Déjà vû all over again, and I think it has disappeared this time for the very same reasons as in the 1860s: the New York game is easier to play and does not so readily expose spindly or puffy young men to ridicule.

Why did the Massachusetts adherents give up without a whimper? We know more about how the dinosaurs became extinct than we know about this.

In the end it was almost certainly no single rule of the Massachusetts Game that did it in, for impractical provisions may always be changed. Its failure to retain market share may be chalked up to the game’s unabashedly rural quality at a time of increasing urbanization, and in some measure may reflect the increasing dominance of New York among American cities.

All that the Massachusetts Game had going for it was joy. The New York Game, on the other hand, gave promise of utility, of somehow becoming ‘‘our cricket,” affording Young Americans suffering from England Envy a national game all their own. The New York propagandists artfully blurred the line between the playful and the useful, convincing the credulous in New England that their venerable game was less gentlemanly and seemly—less manly, in its day a richly layered word that had more to do with decorum and bearing than with plebeian notions of bravery, such as being soaked and not whimpering.

With victory in the 2004 League Championship Series, capped by a World Series crown, Boston at last gave New York a good soaking. Maybe the years the Red Sox spent in the wilderness had been not so much the Curse of the Bambino as the Curse of the Bamboozled. New England gave up on a damned fine game.