The First Intercollegiate Ball Game, 1859
I’m in Nashville this week for Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings, but wanted to toss at least one post up before my return home and the resumption of a regular schedule. Seeing so many fresh faces at the job fair I thought about their high hopes upon their recent graduations from college.
A baseball match between Amherst and Williams, at a neutral site in Pittsfield, Massachusetts on July 1, 1859, is the first collegiate baseball game. It was played on a lot in front of the Young Ladies Institute by Massachusetts Game rules, which is by no means a disqualifier, as that game was indeed baseball. The first collegiate ball game under New York rules occurred several months later on November 3, when the Rose Hill Baseball Club of Fordham, which was then called St. John’s, defeated St. Francis Xavier preparatory school, 33-11.
A surviving broadside, an “extra edition” of the “Amherst Express,” gave more or less equal treatment to the game of baseball on July and chess on the following day: “Muscle and Mind.” The Pittsfield Sun of July 7, 1859 reported:
THE BALL AND CHESS GAMES BETWEEN THE STUDENTS OF AMHERST AND WILLIAMS COLLEGES–The match games of Ball and Chess between Amherst and Williams Colleges, which had been talked about for some time, came off in this town last week–the Ball game on Friday and the Chess game on Saturday. The weather on Friday being delightful, a large number of ladies and gentlemen were gathered on the grounds, east of the Maplewood Institute, to witness the exciting affair. From Amherst there were present but few students except the players and chess champions, the authorities of the College not having granted a holiday to the students generally, but from Williams, where the Faculty were more liberal, nearly all the students were in attendance, and some of them were accompanied by ladies from Williamstown. The field when the friendly contest took place, reminded us of what “General Training” was in vogue. The game commenced at about 11 A.M., and was not concluded until past 3 P.M.
The players were as follows:–On the part of Williams–H.S. Anderson, Captain; Players, H.F.C. Nichols, R.E. Beecher, John E. Bush, J.H. Knox, S.W. Pratt, 2d., A.J. Quick, B.F. Hastings, J.L. Mitchell, C.E. Simmons, G.P. Blagden, H.B. Fitch, G.A. Parker; Umpire, C.R. Taft.
On the part of Amherst–J.F. Claflin, Captain; Players, E.W. Pierce, S.J. Storrs, F.E. Tower, M.B. Cushman, J.A. Evans, E.M. Fenn, H.D. Hyde (thrower–one of the best we have ever seen), J.A. Leach, II., H.C. Roome, H. Gridley, J.L. Pratt, P. Thompson; Umpire, L.R. Smith; Recorder of Score, A. Maddock.
William R. Plunkett, Esq., President of the Pittsfield Club, was chosen arbiter or referee, and it is somewhat remarkable, that his services were required to decide every point, the Umpires not being able to agree upon any question proposed for their decision.
It is due to the students of Williams to say, that previous to the reception of the challenge from Amherst, there was no organized Ball club at that institution, while at Amherst there has long been a famous Club.
Amherst had the first innings, and 25 rounds were played and recorded. The results of each player and each club appear in the following table; the Amherst players winning a victory with a score twice that of their rivals [73 to 32]….
At the close of the contest the Pittsfield Base Ball Club gave a dinner to the two College Clubs at the U.S. Hotel, Mr. Henton having provided an excellent Dinner for the occasion. Toasts and speeches followed the repast, and all who participated had “a glorious time,” as we are assured.
The match game of Chess was played on Saturday, and occupied from 9 A.M. to 3 P.M., resulting in the triumph of Amherst. At the 49th move Williams resigned, and Amherst was pronounced the winner. A large number of amateurs were present in an adjoining room.
The names of the Amherst players were–Messrs. J.F. Claflin, A. Maddock and A.G. Biscoe; Umpire, F.A. Williams. Williams–Messrs. E.E.K. Royce, E.S. Bowsterr, Henry Anstice; Umpire, E.B. Parsons. Referee, Geo. B. Hunt of Canaan, Ct.
A centennial reenactment of this game took place in May 1959, and a sesquicentennial game was played in May 2009. Here is a detailed account of the contest by Lauriston Bullard in Baseball Magazine from 1915:
THE score was: Amherst, 73, and Williams, 32. The game was played at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, July 1, 1859. There were 26 innings. When the winning team got back to their college town they found that their fellow-students had tired of waiting and gone to bed without learning the result of the contest. But they speedily climbed out of bed again; they rang bells and built bonfires, and spent a good part of the night cheering the victorious players. The next day when the team came home they were driven through the streets and made the target of congratulatory speeches on the campus by the members of the faculty. A large banner was borne before them with the score and the balls which had been used in the game.
Those balls are now hanging in the Amherst College trophy room, with this inscription: ”The veritable balls used in the first game of intercollegiate baseball ever played, July 1, 1859. Amherst vs. Williams, won by Amherst.”
But why is not the score included in the inscription? Is it possible that a total of 105 runs in four hours of ball playing is not held to be quite creditable these days? Such a score would not look well, surely, in a Harvard-Yale or a Williams-Amherst game to-day, nor in a game between two teams of knickerbockered youngsters from the primary schools.
Baseball was an infant game 50 years ago, if these players were not infants. Queer balls they were that figured in that game. Each team furnished one. The Williams ball was about seven inches in circumference; it weighed about two ounces, and it was covered with leather of a light color, so that the batters might have no difficulty in seeing it. The Amherst ball was a little heavier, but a trifle smaller; it was made by a North Brookfield man, and was considered a work of art.
There were 13 men on a side, also, in that game. The challenge was sent by Amherst some weeks in advance of the date finally adopted for the match. The rules were adopted after rather prolonged negotiations between representatives of the two colleges. These delegates met for conference, and at last adjusted their debatable questions by mail. It was settled that each party should use its own ball, that the ball must always be caught on the fly, and that the limit of the game should be understood to be 65 runs by one party or the other. It seems to have been a contest whose limit was to be the time required for one college to get that large number of runs, not a stipulated number of innings.
But neither college had a regular ball team in those days. The men who did the playing were “chosen by ballot from the students at large.” Nothing was known of the present trying-out system, by which a team is selected by a coach and a baseball committee, nor was there any daily practice in the colleges half a century ago. One strange fact is that all Williams College, including the faculty, was present at Pittsfield to see the game, while Amherst sent only the players and substitutes—17 men in all. Pittsfield had a baseball club at that time and a baseball ground and when the hour for the game, which was 11 o’clock in the morning, arrived all Williamstown seemed to be there, old men and young, girls and their mothers and grandmothers, the proprietors of female schools and their
pupils, and they stood five and six deep all around the big field. There was no such thing as rooting in that primitive era, but there was as much enthusiasm to the square inch as ever gets loose at a big game in this advanced age.
The teams are said to have presented what would be an amusing spectacle today. There was a little attempt at likeness of dress. The Williams men were dressed in a sort of uniform and wore belts with the college name. But the Amherst fellows were distinguished only
by a blue ribbon worn on the breast.
This is the order in which the teams batted that day[at left, below]. Amherst’s “thrower”—so they called the pitcher—was Hyde, and there were stories afloat on the field that he “was a professional blacksmith who had been hired for the occasion.” One bystander is reported to have said that he must have been a strong-armed blacksmith, for “nobody else could possibly throw for three and a half hours as this man did.”
Amherst went to bat first. At the end of the second round the score stood 9 to 1 in favor of Williams. The Williams spectators yelled and clapped and cheered somewhat after the style of the present-day concerted college yell. Amherst fought desperately and evened things up at the end of the third round. When the fourth was finished Amherst was ahead and stayed in the lead throughout the remainder of that long game. How long a game it must have been one can understand when he figures out the number of hair-raising innings a first-class club might reel off in almost four hours of steady playing nowadays. The spectators were keyed to high tension through the whole of that time, although it is said that Amherst was the better in all departments of the game. Every man played as if the reputation of the college rested on his work. There was no kicking, every decision of the umpires being accepted without protest.
There were some queer rules and terms in that historic game. A man could be put out between bases by spotting him with the ball. The batter could knock the ball in any direction, so there were “side strikes” and “back knocks.” No gloves were worn and, of course, there were no masks or chest protectors.
The great thing that counted for Amherst is said to have been the perfect discipline of the team. It seems that every Amherst player had bound himself to obey every command of the captain, whatever the result might be. It is stated that the Amherst captain governed his men with great skill and that his team made only six errors. The Amherst catching was good, for no balls “were allowed to pass the catcher which were within reach and very few were allowed to drop which he touched. He missed but one ticked ball in the whole game, which was a remarkable feat when the striking was as quick and strong as that of Williams.”
Of the Amherst men who had part in that game there are now living but two besides their umpire. Marshal Cushman is in Washington in the Patent Office. F. E. Tower is a clergyman in Poughkeepsie, N. Y. The umpire, L. R. Smith, was at one time an Alabama judge and later a United States senator. Amherst’s pitcher was for a long time a Boston lawyer and became an influential benefactor and trustee of his college. The captain, J. T. Claflin, was once president of Tougaloo University.