William Van Cott Writes a Letter to the Sporting Press: December 1854
The article below, by William Ryczek, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Bill wrote Baseball’s First Inning: A History of the National Pastime through the Civil War (McFarland, 2009) which is an outstanding study of the evolution of American ballplaying. The book is part of a trilogy, alongside When Johnny Came Sliding Home and Blackguards and Red Stockings, covering baseball up to the early professional era.
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 1854.9, reflects that it is the ninth entry for the year 1854. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
Item 1854.9, William Van Cott Writes a Letter to the Sporting Press: December 1854
[T]he game has been thoroughly systematized, and . . . the players have attained a high degree of skill in the game.
In mid-December 1854, members of the Knickerbocker, Gotham, and Eagle Clubs held a dinner at Fijux’s, a restaurant located at 11 Barclay Street in New York. Fijux’s was a favored gathering place for the baseball fraternity, and the Knickerbockers often held meetings there. About forty-five men attended the affair and enjoyed a pleasant evening of food, drink, and conversation. Shortly afterward, William H. Van Cott of the Eagles wrote a letter to the sporting press reporting on the gathering and the state of the game of baseball in New York. Van Cott stated that each club had about thirty members, and informed the public that a number of interesting games among the clubs had taken place the preceding summer and fall. The publication of the letter in the New York Times is, to my knowledge, the first mention of baseball in the venerable journal. Interestingly, the Times’ first report on the sport was triggered by a social event rather than an actual game, indicative of the importance of the social aspect of the new sport. During the early years of club play, postgame speeches, singing, and the dispatch of a tasty “collation” were as important as the game itself.
In hindsight, we see baseball of the mid-1850s as a game in its infancy; yet Van Cott referred to the “old fashioned” version in contrast to the contemporary state of affairs and a game that had been “thoroughly systematized,” stating that players had “attained a high degree of skill in the game.” The nine-inning game, called balls and strikes, and the fly game lay in the future, but in the eyes of the correspondent, baseball of 1854 was at a highly evolved state, light years removed from old cat, rounders, and other early bat-and-ball games.
While baseball had certainly not achieved the level of perfection claimed by Van Cott, the game was clearly at a transition point. In the 1840s, the Knickerbockers had gathered together for informal recreation, not competition. By 1854, with the formation of two more clubs, it was perhaps inevitable that the three organizations would play the game together and equally inevitable that some form of competition would emerge. While Van Cott cited the increasing popularity of the sport, the level of interclub activity was very modest that year, as only five games had been played among the three clubs. The Eagles did not play their first outside game until November 10, and the main purpose of each organization was still to gather regularly for exercise. An interclub game remained a rare event.
The matches were clearly more convivial than competitive—contests described by Van Cott as “friendly but spirited trials of skill.” Yet, the clubs had taken the first baby step toward the competitive game that would eventually be played by the Atlantics, Mutuals, and Eckfords, and then by professional nines fighting for championships in a manner decidedly less friendly and more spirited.
Why did Van Cott write the letter? Possibly it was to recruit more members for the three clubs, though that was unlikely, since membership was rather exclusive and decidedly homogeneous. There were Van Cotts, Winterbottoms, Adamses, and Wadsworths, but there were no Kowlaskis, Ramirezes, or Mazzottas, even though European immigrants comprised a growing segment of New York’s population. Was he trying to encourage the formation of additional clubs, or was he attempting to generate publicity for the existing clubs and players? The Knickerbockers, baseball’s pioneer club, had made virtually no attempt to expand the game they had formalized.
With little effort having been made to attract attention to what club members considered mere recreation, press coverage of the new sport had been minimal. During the 1854 season, the New York Clipper published only a few brief reports and box scores, while in November the Clipper printed an article on “canine sports” that took up more column space than all the baseball reports combined. Cricket received far more attention than baseball in editor Frank Queen’s publication, as well as in the rival Spirit of the Times.
The impetus for Van Cott’s letter was a social event, but the subject matter of his communication was the growing popularity of baseball and the relatively novel development of clubs competing against each other. Cricket clubs played each other and kept score. Horses raced against each other, and dogs ripped each other to shreds, and in each case there was a winner and a loser. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was competitive. For several years, the Knickerbockers engaged in exercise, and while they divided into teams and meticulously kept score, there were no consequences to the outcome. With the formation of the Washington Club, which later morphed into the Gothams, there was opportunity for limited competition, and by 1854 the Knicks had played nine times against the Washington/Gotham club. Now, with the Eagles as a third team, there could be more games, more competition, and more public notice.
Just a few years after the publication of Van Cott’s letter, the game of baseball had grown to an extent the author was unlikely to have imagined. Press coverage expanded dramatically and by the end of the decade covered several columns each week in the Clipper and Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times. Less than a month before the dinner at Fijux’s a number of young men had formed the Jolly Young Bachelors’ Base Ball Club, soon to be known as the Excelsior. The following summer the Atlantics, long held to be the first of the rougher-hewn baseball organizations, took the field for the first time. Within a relatively brief interval the game had changed from one of recreation and exercise to one of friendly competition. It then evolved into one of spirited and sometimes unsportsmanlike rivalry. By 1860, brawls had supplanted dinners as postgame activity.
Those were my initial thoughts on the significance of Van Cott’s letter. As I reread the text, looking for hidden meaning and possible foreshadowing of the future growth of the game, a thought hit me with the force of a rising Jim Creighton fastball to the temple. Was I over-analyzing what might be a very simple, straightforward communication? As students of the origins of baseball, are we trying too hard to find meaningful qualities and intent in casual recreational activities? I am reasonably certain William Van Cott had no idea that, more than 150 years after he penned his letter to the sporting press, it would be the subject of an article in a baseball research journal—or even that there would be such a thing as a baseball research journal. Likewise, members of the Gotham, Eagle, and Knickerbocker clubs played their games without any inkling that we would be examining them in minute detail looking for trends, social implications, and transcendental evolutionary moments.
I once asked an acquaintance with a master’s degree in history why he hadn’t pursued a doctorate. He said he had abandoned academia when the curriculum evolved from the study of history to the analysis of historians and their theories. Baseball historians face an ongoing challenge to maintain focus on the field rather than on our own intellectual abstractions. Our knowledge of the eventual result tempts us to find significance and causation in what may have been merely accident or coincidence. Ex post facto interpretation of events is a risky proposition, and the difficulty of analyzing motive a century and a half after the fact is formidable. Was a change in the configuration of the field an attempt to balance offense and defense or an accommodation to a physical obstacle? Was an alteration in the composition of a club a move toward social leveling or the result of relocation, a personal quarrel, or something equally mundane and insignificant?
The study of early baseball is a fascinating pursuit, in part because of the tantalizing gaps in the tale. The growth of the sport and its assumption of the title of America’s national game were products of the confluence of a myriad of events, both those directly related to the game and societal and historical trends that were merely incidental. It was neither preordained nor inevitable in December 1854 and, had Van Cott penned a similar note about three chess clubs, it would have been relegated to the dustbin of history. But Van Cott wrote of baseball, not chess, and the subsequent explosive growth in the game’s popularity renders his letter an interesting reference to a milepost marking a key turn in the road of baseball’s evolution.
1. Spirit of the Times: Dec. 23, 1854.