November 2012

The Drawing of the Color Line, 1867

African Americans had played baseball near Madison Square in the 1840s and by 1859, they had formed three clubs in the Brooklyn area: the Unknown of Weeksville, the Henson of Jamaica, and the Monitor of Brooklyn; these would be followed by the Uniques and the Union, both of Williamsburgh. In Rochester, in 1859, Frederick Douglass Jr., son of the great abolitionist orator, played baseball with the integrated Charter Oak Juniors. A somewhat later all-black club in Albany was the Bachelors; the Excelsior, the Pythian, and L’Overture formed in Philadelphia. When young Douglass moved to Washington, he helped to form another baseball club, the Alerts.

In July 1867, the Pythians agreed to take on two Washington clubs, the Alerts and the Mutuals, in home-and-home series. The white Athletics offered their grounds for the Philadelphia matches and were broadly supportive of the Pythians. “Fred. Douglass Sees a Colored Game,” reported the Clipper on July 13:

The announcement that the Pythian, of Philadelphia, would play the Alert, of Washington, D. C. (both colored organizations) on the 15th inst., attracted quite a concourse of spectators on the grounds of the Athletic. The game progressed finely until the beginning of the fifth innings, when a heavy shower of rain set in, compelling the umpire, Mr. E. H. Hayhurst, of the Athletic, to call the game. The score stood at the end of the fourth innings: Alert 21, Pythian 16. Mr. Frederick Douglass was present and viewed the game from the reporters’ stand. His son is a member of the Alert.

The 1867 season was a triumph, as African-American clubs proliferated and on October 25 the Uniques and Monitors, both Brooklyn clubs, met in a contest for the “championship of colored clubs.” The Pythians felt confident that their club could gain official recognition from the Pennsylvania State Association of Base Ball Players, a subsidiary of the National Association, at a convention in Harrisburg in the middle of October. The Athletics agreed to sponsor their application. As Pythian secretary Jacob White Jr. later reported:

Whilst the Committee on Credentials were making up their report, the delegates clustered together in small groups to discuss what action should be taken. Sec. Domer stated although he, Mr. Hayhurst, and the President were in favor of our acceptance, still the majority of the delegates were opposed to it, and they would advise me to withdraw my application, as they thought it were better for us to withdraw than to have it on record that we were black balled.

Instructed to “fight if there was a chance,” White finally relented, as “there seemed no chance for any thing but being black balled.” The Pythian Club then tried to gain admission to the National Association at the annual meeting held in Philadelphia at the Chestnut Street Theater on December 11 and 12. The Ball Players’ Chronicle of December 19, 1867 commented that the report of the Nominating Committee, through its acting chairman, Mr. James Whyte Davis of the Knickerbockers, recommended the exclusion of African-American clubs from representation in the Association:

After the roll call the reading of the minutes of the last Convention came up in order; but as they included all the reports of the committees, the reading was, on motion, dispensed with.  The reports of officers being next in order, the Recording Secretary reported verbally that he had attended to a voluminous correspondence on subjects appertaining to his office, and had written 379 letters in reply during the year.  The subject of the order by the President changing Rule 10, last season, then came up.  The President made an explanation of the case, stating that he had been convinced, by representations made to him by the chairman of the Committee on Rules, that the rule as printed was erroneous, and he had therefore ordered its correction.  A long and rather personal discussion was about to ensue, when the Convention, taking the same view of it that the President did, by a majority vote, decided to close the discussion.  This done with, the report of the Nominating Committee, through the acting chairman, Mr. James W. Davis, was presented, the feature of it being the recommendation to exclude colored clubs from representation in the Association, the object being to keep out of the Convention the discussion of any subject having a political bearing, as this undoubtedly had.  The following is the REPORT OF THE NOMINATING COMMITTEE.

To the National Association of Base Ball Players:

The Nominating Committee beg leave respectfully to report:

First–That eight State Associations, representing 237 clubs, have applied for admission, and your committee recommend they be elected members, waiving such irregularities as are named in schedule No. 1 attached to this report.

Second–That they have elected eight clubs probationary members, according to Art. III, sec. 5 of the Constitution, and report favorably upon their election by the Convention, waiving such irregularities as are noted in schedule No. 2.

Third–That they report favorably upon the admission of twenty-eight clubs whose applications are correct as named in schedule No. 3.

Fourth–That they recommend the admission of eight clubs whose applications are more or less irregular, particulars of which can be found in schedule No. 4.

Fifth–That they find two memoranda received from the Recording Secretary (no doubt intended as applications from the Excelsior of Philadelphia and Crescent of —–), which are too informal to be noticed by your committee.

Sixth–Your committee would beg to add, that it has been quite impossible for them to ascertain the condition, character, and standing of all the clubs, in different parts of the country, as required by the Constitution, and can only assume that the applications made are based upon good faith.  It is not presumed by your committee that any club who have applied are composed of persons of color, or any portion of them; and the recommendations of your committee in this report are based upon this view, and they unanimously report against the admission of any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.

/S/Wm. H. Bell, M.D., Jas. Whyte Davis, Wm. E. Sinn; Philadelphia, Dec. 11, 1867.

In seeking to keep out of the convention the discussion of any subject having a political bearing, the game’s color line had been drawn. The committee further proclaimed, “If colored clubs were admitted there would be in all probability some division of feeling, whereas, by excluding them no injury could result to anyone.”

The 1870 New York State Base Ball Association meetings added a final insult: The rules for admission of new clubs were amended so as to bar clubs composed of gentlemen of color, which prompted the Clipper to write, “we would suggest that the colored clubs of New York and Philadelphia at once take measures to organize a National Association of their own.”

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: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.

Item 1858.46, Diffusion of the New York Game in Maryland

Marty Payne

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3] 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.”[4] 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.”[5]

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11]

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.[12] 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

_____

Air—Ham Fat

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…[13]

Notes

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.

Southern Ball-Games: Chermany, Round Cat, Etc.

The article below, by Tom Altherr, appeared in print in a  special issue of the journal Base Ball.  His Fall 2011 article “Basepaths and Baselines: The Agricultural and Surveying Contexts of the Emergence of Baseball,” which won the McFarland-SABR Research Award for 2012. It is a bad pun but an accurate statement to call it pathbreaking.

Tom is a history professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver; among his courses is one on baseball history that he has taught since 1991. His article below, 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 1850.38, reflects that it is the  thirty-eighth entry for the year 1850. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.

Item 1850.38, Southern Ball-Games: Chermany, Round Cat, Etc.

Thomas L. Altherr

Chumney was similar to baseball,played with two teams, and had batters, pitchers, catchers, and fielders.[1]

Two games with roots in the mid–19th century, both of them pastimes associated with the American South, have come to light only recently: chermany and round cat.

Chermany/chumney

The most common spelling, “chermany,” suggests that there may have been some connection to Germans—that perhaps German immigrants brought the game to Virginia. Diligent searches through many sources about Virginia and other areas of the South, however, have found no connections of chermany to Germans. There were Germans in colonial Virginia onward, but so far there was no mention of a baseball-type game called chermany. Virginia humorist George William Bagby addressed this matter in what is so far the fullest discussion of chermany. Stating the he had purchased a former female academy in Buckingham with plans to convert it to a fiddlers’ college, Bagby revised his goals: “I abandoned the original plan and consecrated the Institute wholly to the instruction of able-bodied young men in the ancient and manly games of ‘Chermany’ and ‘Ant’ny Over.’ The etymology of the former game is obscure. It may have been ‘Germany.’ Though I have never known a Dutchman [i.e., a German] to play it or even be aware of its rules and regulations.”

Whatever the term’s origins, Bagby considered chermany a superior game:

My aim was to supplant the vile pastimes of base-ball and billiards which befell the Commonwealth [of Virginia] as a part of the loathsome legacy bequeathed us by the war. I could not, indeed, believe that these debilitating and abnormal sports would perpetually exclude the time-honored and patriotic game to which Virginians had been accustomed, but my fear was that after the base ball business the awful thing called cricket might follow, and that I could not have borne. Those silly wickets and those absurd bats are to my mind execrable, inexcusable, and unfounded upon reason and common sense.[2] 

Indeed, Bagby saw chermany as one of the numerous skills a Virginia boy of his generation had to master around eight years old.[3]

A couple of the sources, however, also referred to a game called chumney, which would lead to a reasonable conclusion that chermany was a variant of chumney or vice versa. In his History of Prince Edward County, Virginia, Herbert Clarence Bradshaw defined chumney thus:

Chumney was similar to baseball, played with two teams, and had batters, pitchers, catchers, and fielders. The pitcher tried to pitch a good ball, and the batter tried to knock the solid rubber ball out of sight. A Runner had to be hit when in motion to down him, and to go around the ring, which was larger than a baseball diamond, twice was a “real accomplishment.”[4]

William Cabell Bruce’s biography of John Randolph of Roanoke provokes additional questions about chumney. Bruce stated that as an adult Randolph enjoyed playing games “then most common” with the local boys, including chumney.[5] While most sources place chermany later, in the 1830s and onward, Randolph was playing chumney in the 1820s. If chumney was an earlier name for the game later termed chermany, then again the game may have had no connection to Germans.

Then where did the name “chumney” come from? None of the older dictionaries consulted lists the term, and a search of British place names did not turn up a locale of that name. There may have been some confusion with “chumley,” which itself is a variant of “Cholmondeley,” the family name of a longtime ruling clan in Cheshire in northwest England. Did a variant of baseball obtain the name in that region and transplant it to Virginia?

Round cat

The second game under consideration here is round cat. References to this game are few and sporadic, none of them providing conclusive detail. The 1917 Scribner’s story that mentioned chermany also listed round cat, and placed it in the Richmond area in the 1860s. Apparently round cat was thus different from chermany.[6] A listing in an 1892 number of Dialect Notes cited Washington novelist Angelo Hall playing “round-cat” in Georgetown and then compared it to a New England game called scrub, defined as “that form of base ball played when there are too few players to have opposing sides.”[7] An Ohioan named Isaac Fenton King remembered in his autobiography that boys played a variety of ball games including “round cat,” and Virginian E. M. Babb referred to round cat as a Sunday recreation for young males in southern Virginia around 1890.[8] Yet the mode of play remains elusive. One clue may be a description of “round cat” in an 1858 British book, The Playground, but even there the game seems to have been an impromptu mixture of cat games and rounders, employing a wooden cat rather than a ball.[9]

The most sustained references to round cat, however, were in novels of Bernice Kelly Harris. Harris was an eastern North Carolina novelist working in the local color tradition that emerged in the 1930s. Her books seem to have centered in that region of North Carolina and time periods ranged from turn of the century to the 1930s and 1940s.

In Purslane (1939), the first round cat reference occurred: “At first Calvin talked incessantly, following Dele around to take the heavier part of her work, pitching ball to the little round-cat batters on Saturday afternoon. . . .”[10] Earlier in the book, another account of a Sunday baseball game established the image of Calvin as an accomplished baseball player, a home run hitter who played for a minor league team in Alabama. Here mention of round cat suggests that the game was not baseball, but rather a children’s game, an activity that a baseball player would indulge in goofing around.

Two years later in Portulaca (1941), Harris included a short scene in which a few boys played a game of round cat after church. Mostly the episode functioned as mockery of one of the character’s baggy corduroy pants. There were no details about the game, yet the dialogue includes razzing one of the boys about thinking he was Dizzy Dean, which would seem to indicate that the contest imitated baseball and was set in the 1930s.[11]

Sage Quarter (1945) featured the third round cat reference. This one involved a tenant farmer boy named Rough-Dried at school recess playing a ball game with Vic and the other higher-class boys. Vic would allow the new boy to use his bat. But then at one point Vic walked away “to join the boys at round cat.”[12] This sentence injected some confusion about round cat. Was round cat the first game of ball they were playing or a different one? Again there was no information on rules or play other than that round cat employed a bat and ball.

The fourth, and last, round cat usage appeared in Wild Cherry Road (1951). Toward the end of an extended account of a neighborhood baseball team organizing and practicing for an upcoming season, Harris inserted the term round cat into a series of insults the fans threw at an opposing pitcher during a game:

“Better go home and pitch horsehoes!” a wag called from the bleachers.

“Or stick to round cat!” another shouted.[13]

Clearly, whatever round cat was, eastern North Carolinians considered it an inferior version of baseball—a kids’ game for substandard players. For Bernice Kelly Harris, though, round cat seems to have been a common enough, and important enough, childhood game to include it in four novels. Southerners, apparently, with chermany and round cat, had no shortage of baseball-type games.

Notes
1. Bradshaw, H. 1955. History of Prince Edward County, Virginia from its Earliest Settlements through its Establishment in 1745 to its Bicentennial Year (p. 38).
2. Adams, M. 1874. What I Did with My Fifty Millions (p. 43).
3. Bagby, G. 1910. The Old Virginia Gentleman and Other Sketches (p. 49).
4. Bradshaw 1955.
5. Bruce, W. 1970. John Randolph of Roanoke 1773–1833 (p. 469).
6. Gordon, A. 1917. “His Father’s Flag,” Scribner’s Magazine 62.4 (p. 443).
7. “Additions and Corrections to Words Previously Mentioned,” in American Dialect Society, Dialect Notes, Part IV (1892) (p. 214).
8. See: McCray, L. 2009. “Introducing Round Cat,” Originals: Newsletter of the Origins Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research 2.10 (p. 1).
9. Forrest, G. 1858. The Playground; or, The Boy’s Book of Games (pp. 208–211).
10. Harris, B. 1939. Purslane (p. 232).
11. Harris, B. 1941. Portulaca (p. 158).
12. Harris, B. 1945. Sage Quarter (p. 16).

13. Harris, B. 1951. Wild Cherry Road (p. 172).

On the Battlefront, the New York Game Takes Hold, 1861-1865

The article below, by Patricia Millen, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball.  Ms. Millen is the author of From Pastime to Passion: Baseball and the Civil War (Heritage Books, 2001), the first book on baseball in the war camps. She has written dozens of articles on U.S. history, and is the Executive Director of the Roebling Museum in central New Jersey. 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 1863.11, reflects that it is the eleventh entry for the year 1863. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.

Item 1863.11, On the Battlefront, the New York Game Takes Hold, 1861–1865

Patricia Millen

[In April 1863] the Third Corps and Sixth Corps baseball teams met near White Oak Church, Virginia, to play for the championship of the Army of the Potomac.[1]

The soldiers who marched off to fight the American Civil War did so knowing how to play base-running ball games. Whether from a northern city or a southern country plantation, the farmers, merchants, doctors, clerks, sons and grandfathers who enlisted in Union and Confederatearmies grew up with a sporting heritage. The rules of the ball games they played varied slightly by region, but by the 1840s—nearly twenty years before the Civil War began in 1861—they had taken shapes that a 21st century observer wouldrecognize. The game was not dramatically advanced by Northern soldiers moving south during the War, or by the rare exchanges between Union and Confederate soldiers. Instead, baseball during wartime provided respite, amusement and a taste of home to bored, scared, weary soldiers and POWs on both sides of the conflict. The war helped solidify the New York rules as the favorite form of baseball—a progression that began before the first shot of the war was ever fired. Two years after Fort Sumter, it appears, Union soldiers had even formed all-star teams for two of their Corps, and had crowned a championship nine for their entire Army.

We know of the baseball games played by Civil War soldiers from contemporary newspaper accounts, regimental histories, and from diaries and letters written by the soldiers themselves.Few accounts record the game as anything new—rather, most are presented as commonplace. Accounts salvaged are often similar in nature, reflecting the game as a favorite pastime during the War, but altogether ordinary. As E. F. Palmer of the Second Brigade from Montpelier, Vermont noted in his history of the regiment in 1864:

Since the ground has become dry, many are the amusements. After drilling is over, towards evening, the wide level space in front of the camp is crowded with soldiers. Many are playing ball. The most expert choose up, and one is to keep tally; now they strip off coats and sweating and eager as to the result, push on the lively game.[2]

Three hundred eighty-four major battles and campaigns took place during the American Civil War. We can follow the reports of ball games by soldiers in the regions of the country surrounding these principle operations. The majority of all known baseball games took place in the Confederate stronghold of Virginia—where a full third of all key military operations of the war took place. New York and Massachusetts regiments played the most baseball. Although New Jersey regiments represented a much smaller fighting force, the activity of baseball among the Jersey boys was brisk. Reports of ball play by Pennsylvania soldiers tallied fourth behind New Jersey in recorded accounts.[3]

Extant reports of ball play by Confederates are few in comparison to the writings of the victorious north (references to Confederate ball playing account for only 10 percent of recorded play);[4] but they do exist to tell part of the story of Civil War baseball. Virginia and Florida regiments reported the most ball play, although no southern regiment represented a clear majority in the compilation of histories of Confederate baseball. A typical account is that of William Harding, a corporal in theConfederate Army who wrote in 1863, when he was stationed in Georgia, that he “had a fine game of Town ball which gave me good exercise.” Also behind Confederate lines, James Hall of the 24th Alabama observed his men playing baseball “just like school boys” while waiting for General Sherman to advance his army.[5]  

For the most part, baseball and town ball were enthusiastically played between men from the same regiments, from the same part of the country and by commonly accepted rules. Baseball games were said to be “all the rage” and camps were “alive” with ball play during the War.[6] George Rolfe from the 134th New York recollected that while in Chattanooga he played men from the Massachusetts 33rd. Accounts show New York, Pennsylvania and other northern regiments played consistently each evening on their drill fields.[7]

The majority of all ball play took place in winter quarters when spring weather approached and soldiers, restless and bored, took to outdoor sport. Ball games were played with regularity while soldiers were sojourned in camp, and in times of rest between battles and marches. The citizen turned solider did not realize that, during his great adventure away from home, a principal enemy would be boredom. A soldier might spend several months at a time without ever firing a gun! A New Jersey soldier recorded in his diary in 1863, “The boredom became unbearable as the winter wore on. Mud everywhere, limiting outside activities . . . during the long days the men played chess, checkers, cards, and, when weather permitted, baseball and other athletic pursuits.”[8]

From November until spring, the grand armies sat idle waiting for passable roads and foraged food. Athletic games of all kinds—quoits, football, foot races—lifted spirits. The importance of sport and physical exercise to the morale of the men was emphasized by the US Sanitary Commission, physicians, and the press. As Julian Chisolm, a Confederate doctor published in 1864, “gymnastic exercise should be encouraged as conductive to health, strength, agility and address.” The “manly game of ball” was recommended as an important addition to a soldier’s physical fitness regime.[9]

Two variations of base ball were played during the War—town ball, and its cousin the Massachusetts game, and the New York game of baseball. Ora Harvey from the 46th Massachusetts wrote in a letter home in 1863: “We play ball pitch quoits the rest of the time. We play the New York ‘Gam’ [sic] most of the time. ‘Mass’ game some . . . .”[10]

Most often, however, the type of ball game was not specified in the writings left behind by northern or southern soldiers. In a recent compilation of more than150 historical accounts of ball play during the four-year war, the game called “base ball” was cited about 70 percent of the time in those records where the type of ball play could be determined. In the majority of accounts, the game played by Northern soldiers was by the New York or Massachusetts rules.[11] It is not surprising that the New York game appears to have been the most commonly played, because of the sheer number of soldiers from New York. When President Abraham Lincoln called for enlistments in 1861, the largest army of Union men—409 regiments—eventually answered the call to serve from the Empire State.

For their part, soldiers were not overly concerned with the rules of play and only a few occurrences call the rules of baseball into question during the war. One Union soldier remarked in his diary that he and the boys in his company from the 26th Pennsylvania regiment did learn to play baseball in a “new way” but that he had already forgotten the different rules.[12] A sergeant from the 62nd New York regiment wrote to the sporting paper The New York Clipper on May 30, 1863, to clarify the rules as he knew them:

That in making a home run in a game of baseball the runner is allowed to run 2′ either side of the bases without touching them. I claim that he is obligated to touch each base as he passes it . . . to play now in N.Y. is to touch the bases in all cases; so that the matter is settled, and the rules can now be interpreted correctly.[13]

A handful of accounts show baseball was played in Yankee and Confederate prison camps during the Civil War. Imprisoned on Johnson’s Island near Sandusky, Ohio, Confederate Lt. William Peel, a farmer, of the 11th Mississippi gave accounts of a head injury suffered by a fellow prisoner while a “party was engaged in a game of baseball” in the prison yard. He wrote of challenges between ball clubs in the prison that lasted for several weeks.[14]

The condition in many of the army prisons, especially for those soldiers held by the Confederate army, was not conducive to outside amusements. By mid-war, the Confederate government had little means to supply food, clothing or shelter to its own army, let alone its prisoners of war.

The most extensive accounts of prison ball play during the war come from Salisbury prison in North Carolina. An old cotton factory was transformed into a Confederate prison camp in 1861 and for a while, prisoners had free rein of the 16-acre yard and ball games were played almost daily. They were recorded in the diaries of several prisoners and in the writings of a Confederate chaplain who resided in Salisbury. “Took a little walk in the evening and watched some officers play ball,” wrote 23-year-old Union doctor Charles Grey, who was captured and sent to the prison in 1862.[15] Referring to some recently transferred prisoners from New Orleans and Alabama, a Rhode Island soldier wrote in 1863, “And to-day the great game of baseball came off between the Orleanists and the Tuscaloosans with apparently as much enjoyment to the Rebs as the Yanks. . . .”[16]

The pleasant memories of games at Salisbury, before conditions at the prison became as notoriously grim as Andersonville, were depicted in a color lithograph publishedin 1863by Sarony, Major and Knapp. The print shows a lively ball game in the park-like setting of the prison grounds at Salisbury, drawn by former prisoner Otto Boetticher, Captain, Company G of the 68th New York. Otto Boetticher was a commercial artist living in New York before the War and spent one summer in Salisbury before being exchanged in September of 1862.[17]

Baseball games were played by northern and southern soldiers when time and energy permitted in hundreds of places during the American Civil War. Baseball gave soldiers a much needed respite from the realities of the War. The majority of ball play took place in winter quarters as spring weather advanced and the New York game proved to be the favorite version of the game played during the war. It continued to progress as America’s favorite pastime as the country began to heal after four long years of hostilities.


      1. History. The First National Bank of Scranton, PA (Scranton, 1906), p. 37. This company history describes how the bank’s 1906 president, James A. Linen, had pitched for the winning side in the championship game.

      2. Madden, D. 2000. Beyond the Battlefield (p. 99).

      3. Ballplaying in Civil War Camps, database: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CW.htm

      4. Ibid.

      5. Millen, P. 2001. From Pastime to Passion, Baseball and the Civil War (p. 19).

      6. Protoball Chronology: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CivilWar.htm (p. 20).

      7. Rolfe, G. 1864. Diary.

      8. Protoball Chronology: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CivilWar.htm (p. 24).

      9. Chisolm, J. A Manual of Military Surgery, for Use of Surgeons in the Confederate Army (pp. 56–57).

     10. Protoball Chronology: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CivilWar.htm (p. 25).

     11. Ballplaying in Civil War Camps, database: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CWtrends.htm

     12. Crockett, D. 1962. “Sports and Recreational Practices of Union and Confederate Soldiers,” Research Quarterly 32.3, p. 342.

     13. New York Clipper: May 30, 1863.

     14. “The Games Endures: A Civil War Diary” Humanities 15.4 (1994), p. 18.

     15. Sumner, J. 1989. “Baseball at Salisbury Prison Camp,” Baseball History, p. 20.

     16. Ibid.

     17. An Album of Civil War Battle Art, 1988, p. 97.

The Sunday Mercury Summarizes the 1860 Season

The article below, by Bob Tholkes, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Bob has written articles for SABR publications, writes a lively monthly newsletter covering new research developments for SABR’s Committee on the Origins of Base Ball, and operates a vintage baseball club in Minnesota.

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 1860.6, reflects that it is the sixth entry for the year 1860. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.

Item 1860.6, The Sunday Mercury Summarizes the 1860 Season

Bob Tholkes

The year 1860 has witnessed a wonderful progress in the popularity of out-door sports in general, and especially of the game of base ball.[1]

At the end of each calendar year before the Civil War, the weekly New York Sunday Mercury, self-described official baseball organ for New York State, published its annual summary of the season. Its editor, William Pierce Cauldwell, was, along with William Bray of the Clipper, mentioned by Henry Chadwick as one of the two journalists covering baseball at the time Chadwick took up the game. It was Cauldwell who suggested that Chadwick be allowed to attend meetings of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) rules committee in 1857. As a member of the group that founded the Union BBC of Morrisania (now part of the Bronx) in 1855, Cauldwell is credited with helping to bring the new game to the area. He continued through the 1860s as a club officer and delegate to the annual conventions of the NABBP. In 1859, 1860, 1861, and 1862 he was a member of the NABBP Standing Committee on Rules and Regulations. The paper’s claim to overarching “biblical” status is evidenced by the reader correspondence that it published regularly. Reports and game accounts were received from as far away as San Francisco, and from remote baseball outposts like Milwaukee, St. Louis, Louisville, and New Orleans. Reader questions about rules and customs, both on and off the field, came from across New York State and northern New Jersey, as well as from Boston, Toronto, and far-off St. Louis.

The Sunday Mercury’s 1860 season summary for the first time did not provide an all-inclusive list of matches played; the list, as Cauldwell proudly noted, had become too long.

Without further ado, Mr. Cauldwell:

New York Sunday Mercury, December 30, 1860, page 6:

The year 1860 has witnessed a wonderful progress in the popularity of out-door sports in general, and especially of the game of base ball. Our columns record the organization of upwards of two hundred new base ball clubs during the year, and also the scores of nearly six hundred matches that were played. The base ball season was characterized by many very pleasing and noticeable features. It was opened on the 17th of May, with a very interesting and well-contested match between the Excelsior and Charter Oak Clubs, of South Brooklyn—in which the latter was victorious by a score of 12 to 11 runs—and was kept up with great vigor until the 29th day of November. We had intended to give a summary of all the matches played during the season ; but our columns will not permit. We have, therefore, selected only the matches of the senior clubs belonging to the National Association, overlooking, from necessity, the hundreds of matches played by junior organizations—some of which, by the way, were quite as interesting as many of those of the senior clubs…

Among the most interesting features of the last season, were the excursions of the Excelsior Club (of South Brooklyn) to Albany, Troy, and Buffalo, and to Philadelphia and Baltimore. . . . Every match played by the Excelsiors on their tours was crowned with great success; and out of all the matches played by that club during the season, two only went against them: the first with the Charter Oak, and the return match with the Atlantic Club.

The Atlantic Club also maintained its prestige of success during the past year. Twice only was it beaten: once by the Excelsior, and once by the Eckford Club. The contests between the Atlantic and Excelsior clubs, as well as that between the Atlantic and Eckford Clubs, were the most interesting matches of the season.

It will be seen that quite a number of tie games were played—the Gotham Club figuring in three or four matches of this kind.

The closest game of the season was that between the Excelsior Club (of south Brooklyn) and the Union (of Morrisania), played on the 7th of September, at Morrisania. The score of the nine innings played was: 7 runs for the Excelsior, and 4 for the Union. It was a beautifully played game.

The first game of base ball ever played in California came off on the 22d of February, 1860, at which early period in the year base ball was also being played in New Orleans almost daily.

A young man named S. B. English, belonging to the Marion Club of this city, while engaged in a match with his club in Norfolk, Virginia, on the 2d of May last, died on the field.

At the annual meeting of the National Association, held on the 14th of last March, sixteen new clubs were admitted as members, and eighteen others were admitted at the meeting held on the 12th of December—making in all eighty-eight senior clubs now represented in the National Association of Base Ball Players. As each of these clubs now average from thirty-five to forty members, the total number of ball-players so represented in the Association, may be safely estimated at three thousand. In addition to this large number, there are probably as many as one hundred senior clubs in this city and vicinity, and in the cities throughout the State, which have not yet joined the Association, and which have, perhaps, a membership of not less than three thousand. And if we add to these the not less than two hundred junior clubs of New York, Brooklyn, and vicinity—comprising at least two thousand members—it will be a safe calculation to say, that the game of base ball during the season of 1860 afforded amusement and invigorating exercise to at least TEN THOUSAND ACTIVE MEMBERS of base-ball clubs.

We anticipate a still further increase next year. The passion for healthy out-door exercise is rapidly spreading throughout the country; and in its season there is no game so simple, and yet so interesting and attractive, as that of our National Game of Base Ball.                   

Perhaps due to reasons of space, Cauldwell under-represents the extent to which the game expanded geographically in 1860, only mentioning the Excelsiors’ tours to western New York State, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, and noting that the game was played in California and New Orleans. The game had spread by the end of the 1860 season to nearly all parts of the United States, and to parts of Canada; the Mercury itself printed reports of the formation of clubs and game accounts from Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Louisville.

Reading the Sunday Mercury’s season summary offers a taste of baseball guides to come, which would similarly fail to dwell on the game’s issues. As an unashamed apologist for the game, Cauldwell did not mention two disturbing trends which advanced in 1860. The Excelsior Club of South Brooklyn, usually considered the champion team of 1860, was considerably propelled in that direction by two new club members, Jim Creighton and George Flanly, transfers from the Star Club, also of Brooklyn. Both were widely rumored to have received certain tangible inducements to transfer, so that they are now considered two of the first, if not the very first, professionals.[2]

The Excelsiors’ championship was not considered clear-cut because their tie-breaking match with the defending champion Atlantic Club, also of Brooklyn, was abandoned by the Excelsiors in the sixth inning, in protest of extensive misbehavior toward both the Excelsiors and the umpire by Atlantic partisans among the spectators.[3] The Excelsiors never played the Atlantics again. Spectator misbehavior, usually blamed on drunks, street urchins and, especially, gamblers, was such a constant problem that Sunday Mercury summaries in 1860 of important games frequently included a comment on the effectiveness of crowd-control measures, a responsibility of the host club.

The 1860 summary is in one sense special: the modern reader knows, while Cauldwell could not, that what lay in store for the coming season of 1861, for which he expressed such high hopes, was not another year of spectacular growth, but diminution in the shadows of Civil War.

1. New York Sunday Mercury: Dec. 30, 1860, p. 6.

2. Thorn, J. “Jim Creighton,” SABR, The Baseball Biography Project, bioproj.sabr.org/bioproj.cfm?a=v&v=l&bid=770&pid=16900

3. New York Sunday Mercury: Aug. 26, 1860, p. 5.

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

William Ryczek 

[T]he game has been thoroughly systematized, and  . . . the players have attained a high degree of skill in the game.[1]

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.

Notes

1. Spirit of the Times: Dec. 23, 1854.

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