New York Mansion Converted to Venue Suitable for Ballplaying: An Early Sighting of Baseball Clubs?
The article below, by Richard Hershberger, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Richard has, in a few short years, become a leading fact-finder in our field, as he pursues his personal goal of understanding the social and organizational history of U.S. baseball from the 18th century to 1880. His recent articles in Base Ball include one on Philadelphia Town Ball (2007) and one on baseball and rounders (2009).
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 1821.5, reflects that it is the fifth entry for the year 1821. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934
Item 1821.5, New York Mansion Converted to Venue Suitable for Ballplaying: An Early Sighting of Baseball Clubs?
The grounds of Kensington House are spacious and well adapted to the playing of the noble game of cricket, base, trap-ball, quoits and other amusements; and all the apparatus necessary for the above games will be furnished to clubs and parties.
In June 1821, an ad ran in some New York papers announcing that “William Niblo has taken the superb mansion formerly known as Mount Vernon, which he has furnished in a handsome style for the reception of boarders and visitors.” The mansion, now open as Kensington House, accommodated dinners and tea parties and clubs . . . and, notably, ballplaying as noted above.
This mention of ballplaying is, however, deceptive: seemingly simple and straightforward, yet pregnant with implications about who was playing early baseball and on what occasions.
Early baseball played by adults presents the problem of when they had the opportunity. Accounts typically place it on special communal occasions such as barn raisings or annual holidays. There is little doubt but that these account for most adult play, but the advertisement for the Kensington House shows another opportunity: at resorts.
Kensington House was situated on what had once been the estate of Colonel William Stephens Smith, the son-in-law of President John Adams. It was located on Manhattan about two hundred yards from the East River. The site is now 60th Street, near the west end of the Queensboro Bridge. The former carriage house of the estate survives on 61st Street as the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden. The subject of the advertisement seems to have been the estate mansion, which burnt down in 1826.
In 1821 this was a country retreat several miles north of the edge of development. The mansion was set up as a resort for day trips. The advertisement suggested a ride up Third Avenue, but it was also accessible by boat. The proprietor also arranged a coach holding up to 14 passengers at 25 cents each to make the trip twice daily from Pine Street, in what is now the Wall Street financial district.
The resort was intended for the moneyed classes, promising that “dinner and tea parties, clubs and societies, can be furnished with all the delicacies of the season, at a short notice,” with private rooms fitted up for “select family and friendly parties.” Completing the parties were “Wines and Liquors . . . of the choicest quality.”
This advertisement is of interest to baseball history because of the promise of spacious grounds suitable for various games and the provision of the necessary equipment. But was baseball one of these games? The actual reference is to “the noble game of cricket, base, trap-ball, quoits and other amusements.” Early citations of “base” sometimes mean baseball, but not always. They can also refer to prisoner’s base, a form of tag unrelated to baseball. In this case, however, we can be confident that “base” does indeed refer to baseball. It is sandwiched between two other games involving a bat and ball: a natural fit for baseball, but odd for prisoner’s base. More definitively, prisoner’s base does not require any equipment, which would make the promise of its provision superfluous.
We can also be confident that this was not merely a diversion for the visitors’ children. Cricket and quoits (a form of ring toss) were well established adult activities. John Marshall, the Chief Justice of the United States at the time, is known to have been an active quoits player. It would be odd to place a children’s diversion in such a list.
This item is strikingly similar to Protoball 1822.3, which is an advertisement in Philadelphia’s Saturday Evening Post for a similar establishment on the west bank of the Schuylkill River, in what is now west Philadelphia. This too was a resort destination situated in the countryside within day-trip distance of the city. Along with the promise of good food and drink, it offered “accommodation for quoit and cricket and other ball clubs.” Clearly Kensington House was not an isolated phenomenon.
We can conclude then that in the early 1820s, men of some means, sufficient to undertake the time and expense of a day trip at countryside resort, sought recreation. Ballplaying, including baseball, was a suitable and desirable activity for such occasions.
An even more intriguing hint is that the equipment for these amusements was offered to “clubs and parties.” In 1823 a group of young men playing baseball stated that they were “an organized association.” The obvious interpretation is that they were a club organized to play baseball, making them the earliest known such organization. Might the mention here of “clubs and parties” be a hint of yet earlier baseball clubs? Perhaps, but this is not at all clear. The establishment was generally open for “clubs and societies.” It could well be that a club organized for some other purpose might choose from time to time to indulge in a game of baseball as a part of an outing. This would also explain why they would need to have equipment furnished, since presumably a baseball club would have already possessed the necessary apparatus. This Philadelphia counterpart, with its invitation to “quoit and cricket and other ball clubs,” is a stronger candidate.
The Kensington House also hints at the future relationship between baseball and the stage. The same specialty newspapers reported on both. As baseball grew as a spectacle for paying customers, it was often promoted by theatrical managers. Baseball and the theater complemented one another as summer and winter occupations, in much the way that in some parts of the country today one can find combination bicycle and ski shops.
This relationship would come much later than 1821, but it is foreshadowed by the identity of the Kensington House’s proprietor, William Niblo. He was an Irish immigrant known in 1821 principally as the owner of a popular coffee house, the Bank Coffee House. It was the terminus of the passenger coach running to Kensington House, and also served as ticket office. Niblo’s later fame stems from the 1830s, when he opened a theater, Niblo’s Garden. He went on to be a leading theatrical manager for some twenty years.
The Kensington House enterprise seems not to have been a commercial success. The transportation network was not up to the task. For example, a great celebration was planned for the Fourth of July. The coach was insufficient for the expected turnout, so Niblo engaged a steamboat to bring patrons from the Fulton Street wharf. The boat was damaged before the occasion and was laid up for repairs until late in the evening of the Fourth. A “grand military parade” in September, with two regiments of artillery marching to an encampment at the Kensington House, was more successful, perhaps because the principals did not require transport. In any event, the venture drops out of sight after 1821. In 1823 the coach was part of a stage line running to Manhattanville, near the modern site of Columbia University (and two miles from Yankee Stadium). The mansion was occupied as a school when it burned down in 1826.
Although the Kensington House was not successful, baseball continued as a resort activity. It was, for instance, spotted at Cape Island, New Jersey (modern Cape May), in 1840 (Protoball 1840.16). The tradition continues to this day.
1. The New-York Evening Post: June 1821.
2. The New-York Evening Post: June 4, 1821.
4. Mott, H. 1916. “Dyde’s Tavern,” Americana 11.4, 416–426.
5. Altherr, T. 2009. “Base Is Not Always Baseball: Prisoner’s Base from the 13th to the 20th Centuries,” Base Ball 3.1(p. 74).
6. See accompanying essay by George Thompson (Item 1823.1, this issue).
7. “An Old New-Yorker Dead,” New York Times: Aug. 22, 1878.
8. Mott 1916.