Base Ball in Brooklyn, 1845 to 1870: The Best There Was
The article below, by David Dyte, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. David is a leading authority on early ballplaying in Brooklyn, his adopted home. One of his areas of expertise is the hundreds of Brooklyn playing fields from 1820 to the present, and his expansive website about Brooklyn’s historic ballparks, http://www.brooklynballparks.com, continues to accumulate data on Brooklyn hardball.
His article, like others from the special Protoball issue, appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones at mlb.com. For example, the article below, indexed as 1845.4, reflects that it is the fourth entry for the year 1845. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
1845.4, Base Ball in Brooklyn, 1845 to 1870: The Best There Was
The Base Ball match between eight Brooklyn players, and eight players of New York, came off on Friday [October 10] on the grounds of the Union Star Cricket Club. The Yorkers were singularly unfortunate in scoring but one run in their three innings. Brooklyn scored 22 and of course came off winners.
This short 1845 newspaper account, lacking any of the dramatic flair later brought to baseball writing by the likes of Henry Chadwick, represents the earliest record of an organized baseball game in Brooklyn. The result points to a game by the Knickerbocker Club’s rules, which called for a winning score of 21 runs, and it put Brooklyn ballplayers at the top of the new game at its very dawn.
We know less about earlier local forms of the game, but they had been played in Brooklyn for decades. Late in the century, a former mayor recalled that “I went to school in 1820–1, to one Samuel Seabury, on Hicks street . . . . I also attended Mr. Hunt’s school, over George Smith’s wheelwright shop in Fulton street, opposite High. Foot racing and base ball used to be favorite games in those days.”
Colonel John Oakey, who took his schooling at Erasmus Hall in Flatbush from 1837, recalled the ballplaying there:
Erasmus Hall academy had a fine play ground surrounding it. Here John Oakey and his school fellows played many a game of three base ball. The boys who played were called binders, pitchers, catchers, and outers, and in order to put a boy out it was necessary to strike him with the ball. On one occasion John Oakey threw the ball from the second base and put another boy out. The boy . . . went down in a heap, but instantly sprang to his feet and cried out, “It didn’t hit me; it didn’t hit me.” But John Oakey and all the boys knew better. For a week after that boy had a lame back, but he would never acknowledge that the ball did it.
While Brooklyn and New York sides played twice more in October 1845, records of organized base ball in Brooklyn disappear between these matches and the emergence in 1854 of the Excelsior Club of South Brooklyn, a baseball team organized by the members of the Jolly Young Bachelors social club. With the founding in 1855 of the Eckford Club of Greenpoint, and the Atlantic Club of Bedford, Brooklyn’s triumvirate of great baseball clubs was complete. These teams would dominate baseball for more than a decade.
In fact, by 1856 there were already more interclub games being played in Brooklyn than anywhere else in the New York area, and the “New York Game” had, in one sense, skipped town. (Brooklyn was a separate political entity until 1898.) During the years when baseball became America’s game, it was played best in Brooklyn.
When the National Association of Base Ball Players formed in 1857, the explosive rise of the game in Brooklyn was evident. Nine of the sixteen founding clubs were from that city, and Brooklyn men would soon take a large role in NABBP governance. When the Association first recognized a formal champion in 1859, the Atlantic Club claimed the title, sporting a record for the year of eleven wins against just one loss.
Over the next few years, Brooklyn teams would monopolize competition for the championship, which was passed along to a club that defeated the incumbent champion in a best-of-three match. In 1860, the Excelsiors, having poached the devastating pitching ability of young James Creighton from the Star Club, bid strongly to wrest the title from the Atlantics. On July 19, 1860, the South Brooklyn club hosted the Atlantic and took its signal victory in the first game of the series, 28–4. The Brooklyn Eagle described the spectacle the following day:
For a month or more the Base Ball public has been alive with interest concerning this great match . . . . There could not have been less than five or six thousand persons present. The greatest excitement prevailed, and betting stood at 10 to 8 on the Atlantic Club. The Atlantics were not up to their usual play in any one point, missing balls on the fly and bound, overthrowing and misbatting. The result of the game was an entire disappointment to the large crowd in attendance, judging from their moving away like a solemn funeral procession after the game was over.
On August 9, the Atlantic turned the tables at their own ground, scoring nine runs in the seventh inning and holding on for a 15–14 victory. The Eagle was again enthusiastic: “From one to three o’clock, yesterday afternoon, the avenues leading to the Atlantic ball ground, at Bedford, were thronged with pedestrians, en route to witness the great match at base ball that was to take place between these two clubs, who have no superiors in the country.”  The crowd was far more pleased with the result on this occasion: “The shout that rent the air from the stentorian lungs of the countless friends of the gallant Atlantics was terrific . . . so eager were all to congratulate them on such a victory as they had so manfully achieved.”
The concluding match of the series at the Putnam Grounds on August 23 was to be a disaster. With the Excelsior Club leading 8–6 in the sixth inning, the abusive behavior of the crowd, which again had a decidedly pro-Atlantic tone, became so bad that Excelsior captain Joe Leggett took his team from the field. With the game called off, the Atlantic Club retained the championship, in fact if not in spirit. The two Brooklyn foes would never play each other again.
Some clubs were forced temporarily to disband when the Civil War began, but baseball continued to be a focus of popular attention in Brooklyn. In 1862, William Cammeyer set out to convert his skating pond in Williamsburgh to a summer sports venue, and created the Union Base Ball and Cricket Grounds, the first enclosed baseball park. Rather than charging his tenant clubs rent, as had the owners of other fields, he let them play for free, instead taking ten cents from each spectator as the price of admission.
The Union Grounds proved to be instantly popular, as the Eckford, Putnam, and Constellation Clubs shifted their homes to the new field. The Eckford Club, a working class collection of shipbuilders and dockworkers, hosted the champion Atlantics for three matches at the Union Grounds, splitting the first two. On September 18, the finest day of the Eckford Club, they took the championship with an 8–3 victory.
Even in wartime, the game itself was constantly evolving. Henry Chadwick, a Brooklyn resident whose enthusiastic baseball writing and recordkeeping became the stuff of legend, organized regular prize matches at the beginning of each season. These matches, involving picked nines of players from various teams, would often try out new rules. The long-contested fly rule, which was exhibited in prize matches in Brooklyn in 1864, and had been a feature of regular games involving the Excelsior and Star Clubs as far back as 1859, was finally adopted for general use by the NABBP in December 1864. This rule ended the retirement of hitters by means of one-bounce “catches” in fair territory.
The Atlantic Club regained its title from the Eckford Club in 1864 and was undefeated in 1864–1865. Challenges now began to come from further afield. A visit to Boston in 1865 to play the Tri-Mountain Club on Boston Common seemed to cement the dominance of the champions from Brooklyn—the Atlantics scored 68 runs in the last two innings to cap a 107–16 win.
To the south, however, the Athletic Club in Philadelphia was making noise. The Atlantics finally visited Philadelphia on October 30, 1865. The Eagle reported a huge attendance—“not less than 15,000 spectators present”—at the Athletic Grounds. The Philadelphians would be disappointed, however, as the Atlantic Club finished strongly to win, 21–15. A week later, at the Capitoline Grounds, the Atlantic withstood a late comeback from their Quaker State foes, winning 27–24 to retain the championship.
But now the rest of the baseball world was catching up. The next few years in Brooklyn baseball were a story of gradual decay at the top level. Some of the best players on the top teams bickered over money shared from gate receipts, or left the city completely. The Atlantic Club remained strong, although no longer unbeatable, and retained the championship in 1866 before giving the title up to the Union Club of Morrisania (then in Westchester, now in the Bronx) in 1867. In 1868, the powerful Mutual Club moved from Hoboken to Brooklyn, and claimed the championship.
It was a club from the distant west that heralded the bitter end of Brooklyn’s preeminence in baseball. The Red Stockings of Cincinnati, stocked largely by players from the New York area, were the first club to be incorporated as a for-profit business, and the first openly to employ fully professional players under contract. In 1869, the Red Stockings traveled extensively and won 57 games while losing none. Their efforts vitiated the challenge system for crowning baseball’s champion, as the Cincinnati team chose not to schedule its games that way. The Atlantic Club, which won 40 of 48 games in 1869, finished as official champions for the seventh and last time—but now to general derision.
In 1870, the Red Stockings continued to take all before them, and in June the mighty club brought in an 89-match winning streak to meet the Atlantics, still the pride of Brooklyn. The Eagle was, as always, present with superlatives at hand:
The most remarkable game, in more respects than one, was played upon the Capitoline ground yesterday between the celebrated old Atlantics and the celebrated young Red Stockings. Notwithstanding the energetic protest of the Atlantics, they were compelled to charge fifty cents admission to the ground, and yet from nine to ten thousand people congregated there, and in the hot sun, watched with intense interest the progress of the game. The general impression previous to the game, was that the Atlantics would lose the game . . . . The result therefore was, that the most stubborn game ever played, was finished yesterday on the Capitoline ground.
History records that the Atlantics, by some miracle, scored three runs in the eleventh inning to win 8–7. One editorial was most effusive:
Eleven innings, a total score of fifteen, and that standing just eight to seven, tell a story to professional minds which sends the blood tingling in joy to their toes. It was the greatest game ever played between the greatest clubs that ever played and, as usual, when Brooklyn is pitted against the universe, the universe is number two.
But the incredible victory over the Red Stockings was the last gasp of the era. The universe would soon strike back.
The three great clubs of Brooklyn withered. The Excelsior had already disappeared, and the Atlantic and Eckford Clubs saw their best players leave when the new professional league, the National Association, opened for business in 1871. Brooklyn baseball was no longer the best baseball.
1. New York True Sun, Oct. 13, 1845, p. 2.
2. “School Days Recalled,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct. 22, 1887, page 8.
3. “Sports in Old Brooklyn,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct. 21, 1894, page 21.
4. Data from the Protoball Project’s Games Tabulation, compiled by Craig Waff. See http://retrosheet.org/Protoball/GT.NYC.pdf.
5. “Base Ball—Excelsiors vs Atlantic,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 20, 1860, p. 3.
6. “Base Ball—Grand Match at Bedford,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug. 0, 1860, p. 2.
8. “Our National Game—Atlantic versus Athletic,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct. 31, 1865, p. 2.
9. “The Atlantics Triumphant — A Glorious Victory for Brooklyn—The Local Nine Beat the ‘Picked Nine’ from the West,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 15, 1870, p. 2.
10. “The Atlantic’s Victory,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 15, 1870, p. 2.