November 19th, 2012

Thurlow Weed and the Growth of Baseball in Rochester, New York

The article below, by Priscilla Astifan, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Priscilla is the leading authority on early ballplaying in Rochester, NY. She has published a five-part series on the subject in the Rochester Historical Quarterly, and has co-authored a Base Ball article on predecessor games in Western New York. She is currently working on a full monograph on the story of baseball’s rise in the Rochester area.

Her 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 1825.1, reflects that it is the first entry for the year 1825. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.

Item 1825.1, Thurlow Weed and the Growth of Baseball in Rochester, New York

Priscilla Astifan

Though an industrious, and busy place, its citizens found leisure for rational and healthy recreation. A base-ball club, numbering nearly fifty members, met every afternoon during the ball playing season. Though the members of the club embraced persons between eighteen and forty, it attracted the young and the old. The ball-ground, containing some eight or ten acres, known as Mumford’s Meadow, by the side of the river above the falls, is now a compact part of the city.–The Autobiography of Thurlow Weed

When I first wrote about 19th century Rochester baseball nearly twenty years ago, the 1825 team recalled by local newspaper editor Thurlow Weed was considered proof that Abner Doubleday did not suddenly invent the game in a Cooperstown meadow in 1839. Twenty years later, many more discoveries illuminate the mysteries of the early game. Yet, the evolution ofbRochesterbbaseball continues to make important contributions to our knowledge of the early game.

Thurlow Weed, who later became a significant 19th-century American politician, mentioned the club in his 1883 autobiography, published one year after his death at 85. Weed listed the club’s best players as attorneys Addison Gardner and Frederick Whittelsey, businessmen James K. Livingston, Samuel L. Selden, and Thomas Kempshall, Drs. George Marvin, Frederick Backus, and A.G. Smith, and others.[1]

Urged to seek his fortune here by his friend Addison Gardner, Weed and his wife and family moved to Rochester from the Syracuse area in November 1822. Born in a poor family and largely self-taught, Weed had worked at a wide variety of menial tasks, including his voluntary service in the War of 1812, since the age of eight. More recently his work as a journeyman printer and occasional newspaper editor had enabled him to develop his skills and to make significant friends in a number of New York state communities, including Cooperstown. There, according to baseball historian Randall Brown, Weed worked on a rival newspaper of Ulysses Doubleday, father of Abner.[2] He also met his wife, Catherine.

Weed’s “Rochesterville,” which quickly became the nation’s first inland boomtown after the completion of the Erie Canal one year after his arrival, would have afforded the prosperity and leisure to enable a group of adult men to seek exercise through regular play of a favorite game of their school days. Weed gave no description of the game. But novelist Samuel Hopkins Adams referred to the same club in his 1855 Grandfather Stories, which recounted tales that had captivated him and his four cousins after his family moved to Rochester when he was five years old.[3] According to Hopkins Adams, his grandfather Myron Adams, a graduate of Hamilton College and a retired farmer, was a member of the Weed club in 1827. Through his grandfather’s reflective comments and criticisms during a Rochester Hop Bitters game, Hopkins Adams included a description of the Weed game.[4] Whether Hopkins Adams, age 84 when he wrote Grandfather Tales, actually used a description given by his grandfather and/or received assistance from contemporary baseball historians Will Irwin and Robert Henderson remains unknown.[5] Clearly his details resemble those of the varied games of old-fashioned baseball, similar to the Massachusetts game, brought to the Rochester region from New England or the eastern seaboard and played in the War of 1812.[6] Hopkins Adams described 12–14 players on a side; a stationary pitcher, catcher, and basemen; mobile outfielders; and outs made by plugging the runner or catching the batted ball. During a July 1955 Cooperstown terrace party, given to honor his recently published book, Hopkins Adams responded to his book’s conflict with the Cooperstown origin story by quoting from an 1839 Rochester newspaper account.[7]

Only one mention of Rochester baseball has yet been discovered in Rochester newspapers before May 4, 1857, when the Rochester Union and Advertiser reported that boys were arrested for playing the game and breaking the Sabbath.[8] A March 20, 1837, feature in the Rochester Republican laments the lost springtime of the writer’s youth and the excitement of a “game at base, foot, or wicket ball.”[9]

On June 28, 1841, however, the Republican announced that the Amateur Wicket Ball Players, of the nearby town of Chili, proposed a match with 20 players per club and a three-inning game on July 15.[10] A letter published in The National Police Gazette in 1846 suggests that wicket was then played daily in Rochester.[11] A July 22, 1858, Advertiser account of a citizen’s ball play mentioned that the majority preferred wicket.[12] Lastly, a 1903 Rochester Post Express memoir claimed that “wickets” was the immediate predecessor of baseball in Rochester and “the boys who excelled at that became the best baseball players.”[13]

Organized New York baseball may have quietly arrived in Rochester as early as 1855.[14] In May 1858, however, it came with a fervor. Four senior clubs (21 and over)—the Flour City, University (of Rochester), Live Oak, and Genesee Valley—were organized that month and others increasingly followed. On October 29 the Advertiser dramatically presumed “there are nearly a thousand, ranging in caliber from the two-and-a half foot urchin to the big six-footer.[15]

Between 1858 and 1861, as many as three Rochester newspapers continued to chronicle the city’s enthusiastic response to organized baseball, which involved senior, junior, and neighborhood clubs that wholeheartedly accepted the new game. The press faithfully reported their activities, including the  first local championships and intercity matches. Also included were Rochester’s contributions of the nation’s first two pieces of published baseball music, games on ice skates, and a pre-presidential-election game. Increasingly detailed box scores and colorful reporting showcased Rochester baseball’s first pitching duels, while three innovative local pitchers bent the rules and contributed to the game’s evolution from an offensive to a defensive sport. Local newspapers also detailed Rochester’s significant response to the visiting Brooklyn Excelsiors during the first tour in national baseball history in 1860.

The Civil War limited the local game from 1861–1864, but it by no means eliminated it. TheRochesterpress published numerous accounts of local and regional games involving younger players and others who remained home or returned on furlough. High school and grade school games were published as well as a significant number of camp games. Best of all, perhaps, Rochester newspapers continued to record the conflicts and trials of the evolving game and the public’s response.

In 1868, as the local game grew increasingly scientific, specialized, and commercial, inching ever closer to the city’s first fully professional team in 1877, Thurlow Weed club member Judge Addison Gardner may well have lamented the loss of the less formal and more inclusive game of earlier days. On August 19, Gardner invited Rochester men from a wide variety of occupations to his farm for a recreational game of baseball and an ample picnic hosted by his family. From this pleasant afternoon emerged the Birds and Worms, a popular club that continued to wear their “grotesque and gaudy” uniforms to entertain the public at a number of charity fundraising games with intentionally fumbled plays, humorous antics, and a band that accompanied their hilarious actions.[16]

Today, the Rochester Red Wings, Triple-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, play baseball at Frontier Field in downtown Rochester, a mere parking lot away from Brown Square, where Rochester baseball pioneers played the first National Association games in 1858, and a 10-minute walk from the site of Mumford’s Meadow, where Rochester baseball began nearly two hundred years ago.[17]

Notes

1. Weed, T. 1883. Life of Thurlow Weed (p. 203).

2. Brown, R. 2010. “Doubleday Diamonds: or, Digging Up Graves,” Base Ball 4.1.

3. Kennedy, S. Samuel Hopkins Adams and the Business of Writing (pp. 6–8).

4. The Hop Bitters were a professional Rochester baseball club from 1879–1880. Hopkins, A. Grandfather Stories, Baseball in Mumford’s Pasture Lot (pp. 134–135). Henderson, R. Ball Bat and Bishop: the Origin of Ball Games (with an introduction by Will Irwin). Irwin, who was a friend of Hopkins Adams, wrote a series of features for Collier’s magazine in 1909, entitled “Baseball; an Historical Sketch.”

6. Astifan, P., and L. McCray. “Old Fashioned Base Ball in Western New York, 1825–1860,” Base Ball 2.2.

7. Oneonta Star: July 9, 1955.

8. Rochester Union and Advertiser: May 4, 1857.

9. Rochester Republican: Mar. 21, 1837. Randall Brown recently discovered this and graciously shared it.

10. Rochester Republican: June 28, 1841.

11. See “Wicket: a Working Chronology,” at: retrosheet.org/Protoball/Sub. Wicket.htm (accessed December 21, 2010).

12. Rochester Union and Advertiser: July 22, 1858.

13. Rochester Post Express: Mar. 24, 1903 (“Baseball Half a Century Ago”).

14. Ibid.

15. Rochester Union and Advertiser: Oct. 29, 1858.

16. Rochester Express: Aug. 20, 1868. Astifan, P. 2000. “Baseball in the 19th Century, Part Two,” Rochester History (p. 20).

17. Territo, J. “Mumford’s Meadow,” unpublished essay by local vintage ballplayer at Genesee Country Village and Museum.

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