Diffusion of the New York Game in Maryland
The article below, by Marty Payne, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Marty investigates baseball and American culture in Maryland, and has published articles in Base Ball, in The National Pastime and other several other SABR publications, and in the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball. He was a keynote speaker at the Vintage Base Ball Association meeting in 2008.
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 1858. 46, reflects that it is the forty-sixth entry for the year 1858. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see:
Item 1858.46, Diffusion of the New York Game in Maryland
Mr. Beam [a Baltimore grocer, who watched an Excelsior Club game in New York] became so much enthused, that on his return to Baltimore City…it resulted in the organization of the Excelsior B. B. Club.
By the 1850s railroads were quickly connecting major cities along the east coast and points westward. New York City was a major port city in the country, and the home of a particular version of baseball that seemed to appeal to the generation embracing steam transportation and the commercial and social changes it was effecting.
Henry B. Polhemus was a representative for the Baltimore Woodberry Mills located in Brooklyn and an outfielder for the Brooklyn Excelsiors. George Beam was a Baltimore grocer, whose New York business associate was fellow wholesale grocer and Excelsior catcher Joseph Leggett. Many consider the Excelsior the best team, and Leggett the best catcher of that era. It was while on one of his trips back to New York that Leggett invited Beam to one of his games. Excited, the young Beam was determined that Baltimore would not go long without baseball.
In 1858 Beam found enough young men in Baltimore who shared his enthusiasm, formed a team, and named them the Excelsior in emulation of the club that had inspired him. Beam was named captain and would pitch. Polhemus was brought in to teach the New York version of ball playing and it was determined that the Baltimore club would meet twice a week for games. It seemed the Baltimore Excelsior remained the only known exponent of New York base ball in Baltimore for a time, choosing up sides among membership for their games.
However, this new version of ball was spreading quickly. The Waverlys and the Maryland Club were formed in 1860, and by 1861 the Baltimore Base Ball Convention was formed, with 38 teams registering from the metropolitan area. But baseball activity was not relegated to inner city competition. Arthur Pue Gorman was a native of Baltimore, and later become a U.S. senator for Maryland. As a 21-year-old federal employee he had formed the Nationals of Washington and in 1860 he invited the Baltimore Excelsior to play on the “white lot” south of the presidential mansion. The game was played June 6, 1860, and the Excelsior prevailed 40–24 in one of the earliest intercity contests.
The Brooklyn Excelsiors embarked on a tour of the east that same year. Starting in upstate New York, they then ventured south to Philadelphia and Baltimore. In an effort to be competitive, Beam padded his lineup with players from the Waverlys and the Continentals of Baltimore. On September 22, 1860, some five thousand enthusiasts turned out to watch the Brooklyn Excelsiors handily defeat their Baltimore namesakes, 51–6.
In 1861 the Excelsior of Baltimore merged with the rival Waverlys to form the Pastime. The onset of the Civil War may have slowed baseball activities, but the game did continue. Maryland being a border state, many teams were composed of both Southern and Northern sympathizers, yet according to William Ridgely Griffith, political inclinations were not carried on to the playing field. While the war may have impeded immediate activities, it can be argued that it prepared the way for baseball’s future growth. It has been a conventional if not altogether satisfying proposal that the war brought young men from all over the country into massive camps, and that the New York Game was subsequently spread throughout the country when the soldiers returned to their homes.
It may be proffered that an important factor in baseball’s future was the war’s impact on transportation. The American Civil War was the first conflict in which the strategic and tactical delivery of supplies and troops by railroads and steamboats so heavily influenced the outcome of hostilities. Railroads were expanded and new ones built. Gauge and stock were standardized while management and scheduling were refined. Baseball spread to the metropolitan centers via the railroad prior to the war. After the conflict, both the track and the game spread to every city, town, and hamlet they could reach.
There is evidence that the New York game was being played on the rural Eastern Shore of Maryland by 1865. The Wissahickons and Ozenies were playing out of Chestertown, and several teams were active in the Cecil County area by 1866. Yet no mention of baseball has been found in local newspapers until it appears as a raging fad during the 1867 season. And when the old-timers recalled the beginning of baseball in the region, they were specific to that year. In an article in the Wicomico News in 1903 an anonymous observer noted that on the southern peninsula baseball came “soon after the unpleasantness between the states,” and was said to replace the many “o’cat games.” And at an 1893 banquet of old-timers in the northern town of Chestertown, H. Rickey remembered “that the young men of Chestertown first abandoned cricket and adopted base-ball as the leading sport in 1867.”
George Gratton owned the Baltimore Base Ball Emporium, and sold bats, balls, and uniforms to the members of the Baltimore Base Ball convention. But he was not satisfied with this limited market. In the Fall of 1866 he sent his salesman out on the expanding railroad network to sell the game—and his product. Local newspapers on the Eastern Shore of Maryland report the completion of four railways that connected port towns on the Chesapeake Bay with the New York–Norfolk Railroad which ran through Delaware and connected New York and Philadelphia with points south by the Cape Charles ferry at the tip of the peninsula. Improvements in boiler engines had enhanced steamboat travel as well. When this new market opened up to Gratton’s salesmen it was probably no coincidence that the following announcement appeared in the Easton Gazette on September 29, 1866:
The young men of Easton and its vicinity favorable to the organization of a Base Ball Club in this place will please meet at the Court House on Saturday, the 29th inst. at 10 o’clock A.M. The object of the formation of this club will be to improve physically its members and to give social standing and representation in the Base Ball Association of Baltimore.
When the Baltimore Base Ball Association met in the spring of 1867, the 33 participants (fewer than the prewar total of 38 in 1861) included clubs from outside the Baltimore metropolitan area for the first time. Western representatives included teams from Cumberland and Frederick. The Eastern Shore was represented by the Chesterfield of Queen Anne, Dorchester of Milton, the Avalanche of Cecil, and the Excelsior of Sudlersville. But not all teams sought or gained standing in the Association. The Fair Play of Easton formed early that spring and decided to play every Wednesday and Saturday in the field behind Dr. Earle’s residence on the edge of town. Like the Excelsior in Baltimore in 1858, sides were chosen from amongst the club. But this staid approach to the game was quickly being eclipsed by the more experienced participants on the northern shore who were already playing in match games.
The first evidence of base ball being played on the peninsula is from the Kent News. There is no narrative or account of the game. The box score stands alone, recording outs and runs, fly balls and home runs, umpire and scorers. It would appear that people knew enough about baseball that the box score itself was considered enough to portray the events of the game to its fans. Most of the contests of 1867 were designated as “social games.” In an Easton Journal account of a social game with the Choptank of Trappe, it was noted that the game was well attended by the ladies and gentlemen of the community, and dinner was provided by the hosting Fair Play of Easton at the Talbot House, where postgame speeches were given. A trip to a neighboring town was still relatively rare and costly, and most communities made an effort to put their best foot forward when a steamboat or train pulled in into town loaded with a visiting team, family, friends, fans, and maybe a brass band. Dinner usually preceded the game. This might be at local establishment, or the homes of the hosts were opened to the visitors. A comprehensive survey of newspapers indicates that these social amenities were still prevalent well into the 1870s, and there were still expectations of some kind of hospitality as late as the professional teams of the early 1900s.
“Match games” were those played for a designated prize. On these rural teams it might be for a bat or ball, prized possessions of early baseball clubs, or a trophy, or a declared championship. The first recorded match game was between the Wissahiccon of Washington College and the Kent Club of Galena on May 25, 1867. This event took place on Dr. Taymine’s field just outside of Galena, and it was portrayed as the championship of Kent County. It was noted that Kent players Duffy and Dyer “made their bases by the ingenious mode of slipping in to them into the teeth of the basemen.” The older and stronger Kent mounted a comeback and were surprised when the Wissahiccons invoked a rule which allowed them to call the game after the conclusion of the seventh inning, hanging on for a 36–35 victory.
As the 1867 season progressed, most teams in the area were traveling town to town partaking in social and match games. By September even the Fair Play—who were now boasting, “we are not altogether behind the time in Talbot”—embarked on their own series of match games with clubs from Trappe and St. Michaels. Within a few months the idea that baseball was played by private clubs was being supplanted by the notion that a team represented a town in a competitive rather than a social enterprise. After the 1867 season, the distinction between social and match games quickly faded. An expectation of hospitality and good sportsmanship would remain, but competition between towns rather than clubs would soon be the driving force of baseball. The game may have diffused by foot, hoof, canal, and wagon wheel, but what took it beyond a fad to a cultural mainstay was that it inspired young men to test their skills against those of others. The continuing improvements in transportation expanded these opportunities. Perhaps some insight of that fever season of 1867 can be found in this bit of doggerel:
BASE BALL ON THE BRAIN
At length the war cry’s hushed and still,
And peaceful are the signs,
The cannon’s roar affrights us not—
“All quiet on the lines!”
No more the fearful charge we brave—
For raids we look in vain,
But still excitement we must have,
And we’ve base ball on the brain!
Base ball, base ball
Base ball on the brain;
But still excitement we must have,
And we’ve base ball on the brain…
1. Baltimore’s early years in baseball are recorded in: Griffith, W. 1897. Amateur Baseball in Maryland: 1858–1871, and summarized in: Bready, J. 1998. Baseball in Baltimore: The First 100 Years; Bready, J. 1958. The Home Team: A Full Century of Baseball in Baltimore; 1859–1959; Bready, J. 1992. “Nineteenth-Century Baltimore Baseball,” Maryland Historical Magazine, Summer, 127–144. See also: Tuohey, G. 1906. “The Story of Baseball,” The Scrap Book, Vol. 1, (p. 442). Tuohey pushes back the year to 1857. Tuohey was an amateur player from New York c. 1879. Griffith was an actual participant in Baltimore events. The author has deemed Griffith the more reliable source.
2. Newspaper accounts of the game include, “Local Matters: A Gala Day Among Base-Ball Men; Arrival of Excelsior club of Brooklyn; Match Game and dinner at Guy’s,” Baltimore Sun: Sept. 24, 1860, p. 1, col. 6; “Grand Base Ball Match at Baltimore: Excelsior of Brooklyn vs. Excelsior of Baltimore,” New York Clipper: Sept. 1860. From Waff, C., The Games Tabulation, Protoball Website.
3. Information on baseball in Cecil County is from: DeScocio, C. 1995. “Cecil County Plays Ball,” The Bulletin of the Historical Society of Cecil County, Spring, pp. 1, 4–5. The allusion to baseball in Chestertown prior to 1867 is found in: Usilton, F. History of Kent County (p. 291).
4. From an anonymous account of the history of baseball in Salisbury, Md. in the “Gossip of the Diamond,” Wicomoco News:July 30, 1903. It is unfortunate that the writer did not provide a more detailed description of the local rules of these games or relate if any others were played.
5. “The Base-Ball Diamond,” Chestertown Transcript:June 22, 1893. There is a temptation to try to find similarities in protoball games for geographic regions. Here are two towns approximately 85 miles distant seemingly participating in distinct versions of bat-and-ball games prior to the diffusion of the New York Game. That the memories of these two old-timers made it to print does not preclude the possibility that more than one form of baseball was played in either town.
6. Griffith 1897, 49.
7. Ibid., 50.
8. “The Young Men…”, Easton Gazette:Apr. 6, 1867; “Base Ball,“ Easton Journal:Apr. 11, 1867.
9. “Base Ball,” Kent News:Apr. 6, 1867.
10. “Base Ball,” Easton Journal:Sept. 12, 1867.
11. “Communicated,” Kent News:June 1, 1867.
12. “Base Ball,” Easton Journal:Sept. 26, 1867.
13. “Base Ball on the Brain,” Easton Gazette:Sept. 28, 1867.