Magnolia Ball Club Predates Knickerbocker
With this last of the articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period that appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball., a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. The article below, by yours truly, is a truncated version of a story told in my 2011 book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden.
This and the other articles from Base Ball appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones; for example, the article below, indexed as 1843.6, reflects that it is the sixth entry for the year 1853.
Item 1843.6, Magnolia Ball Club Predates Knickerbocker
NEW YORK MAGNOLIA BALL CLUB – Vive la Knickerbocker. – A meeting of the members of the above club will take place this (Thursday) afternoon, 2nd instant, at the Elysian Fields, Hoboken [N.J.]. It is earnestly requested that every member will be present, willing and eager to do his duty. Play will commence precisely as one o’clock. Chowder at 4 o’clock.
Among the organized groups that played baseball before the Knickerbockers were the Gotham, New York, Eagle, Brooklyn, Olympic, and Magnolia clubs. The last named came into view only recently, as a ball club composed not of white-collar sorts with shorter workdays and gentlemanly airs but sporting-life characters, from ward heelers to billiard-room operators and bigamists. Why did the game’s earliest writers forget to include this club in its histories? One might venture to guess that the Magnolias were too unseemly a bunch to have been covered by a fig leaf, so they were simply written out of the Genesis story.
In 2007, rummaging through the classified advertisement section of the New York Herald of November 2, 1843, looking for who knows what, I was astonished to find a notice for a baseball club unrecorded in the annals of the game. Moreover, the notice made clear that this city-based club played its games across the North River at the Elysian Fields, almost two full years before the formation of the “pioneer” Knickerbockers and their lease of playing grounds at Hoboken. That diminutive ad, which also ran in the New York Sun, read in full:
NEW YORK MAGNOLIA BALL CLUB – Vive la Knickerbocker. – A meeting of the members of the above club will take place this (Thursday) afternoon, 2nd instant, at the Elysian Fields, Hoboken. It is earnestly requested that every member will be present, willing and eager to do his duty. Play will commence precisely at one o’clock. Chowder at 4 o’clock.
JOHN McKIBBIN, Jr., President.
JOSEPH CARLISLE, Vice President
ANDREW LESTER, Sec.
The coding at the bottom signaled that the ad was to appear one time only (1t), with that occasion being game day, November 2 (n2). While this may strike modern eyes as a late month for a baseball game, the baseball season of this era typically ran to the very end of November, in part because August, with its fevers and contagions, was regarded as unsuitable for exertion. The mention of chowder signaled the almost sacramental union of those assembled, their like minds symbolized by their partaking of food from a single pot. The chowder was a fixture of political rallies, too; the city’s first target company (archery or rifle), arising from the butcher stalls at the west-side Washington Market, was the Washington Market Chowder Club of 1818. “Chowder was the national soup,” wrote Herbert Asbury, “and in those times chowder was to be more eaten than drunk, for it was not the anaemic liquid which now sloshes so despairingly in restaurant bowls, but a thick and substantial mixture, compounded of eels, fish, clams, lobster, chicken, duck, and all kinds of tempting ingredients. No social function was complete without a great dish of chowder….”
Of the officers named in the ad, the Irish-born president, 29-year-old John McKibbin Jr., was a U.S. inspector—a patronage position perhaps obtained through the good offices of his father, who in an aldermanic stroke of fortune in 1835 had been named the city’s first Superintendent of Pavements. Seven years after calling the Magnolia Ball Club to muster and chowder, the younger McKibbin found himself a resident of Sing Sing, convicted of bigamy.
The vice president and actual leader of the club, Joseph Carlisle, was the 26-year-old proprietor of the Magnolia Lunch and Saloon at 74 Chambers Street, corner of Broadway, offering “the best of Wines, Liquors, Segars, and every other requisite.” Why was this northern eatery named for a flower symbolic of the South? Perhaps to signal to the sporting crowd that this was a “full-service” house of the sort pleasing to Southerners in New York on business, and to the gamblers who left New Orleans after it banned gambling in 1835. The Magnolia Lunch advertised in New Orleans as well as in New York.
In the rampant sporting culture of the day, Carlisle was an up-and-comer who went on to run, in addition to the Magnolia Lunch, the Fountain at 167 Walker Street near the Bowery, the Ivy Green in Hoboken, and an unnamed sporting house at 89 Centre Street opposite the Tombs, the city’s Egyptianate prison, where all the while he double-dipped as a jailer. The Magnolia Ball Club secretary, Andrew Lester, was a 27-year-old billiard-room proprietor and Tammany Democrat, linked with Isaiah Rynders’ Empire Club, the pugilistic arm of the party (which gave its name to the Empire Base Ball Club in 1854), enforcing discipline on the rank and file and striking fear into undecided voters.
All three Magnolia officers had impeccable working-class, sporting, ruffian, and political associations of the sort that historians have until now presumed to emerge only with the unruly Brooklyn clubs of the mid-1850s, notably the Atlantics. Indeed, the Magnolia Ball Club was precisely the sort of poison for which the gentlemanly Knickerbocker Base Ball Club was created as an antidote…two years later.
As soon as I saw the Magnolia Ball Club ad in the Herald I recalled that some months earlier, historian David Block had pointed me to a puzzling image, one he thought might be suitable to illustrate a scholarly journal article on town ball. Offered as Lot 1600 in a Leland’s auction of December 2002, the item was described as a
signed copper plate engraving of the quality of paper money. The card itself is a heavy stock with a silver mirror finish. This invitation to the “1st Annual Ball of the Magnolia Ball Club” measures 5 x 3.25 [inches]. The image is magnificent. It shows the plantation like Magnolia Club with its main building and a yacht flying the “M” flag. …Magnolia is an area in southern New Jersey and the site of many stately plantations not unlike the one graphically illustrated we see pictured here.
In a Eureka moment, I realized that I knew for certain what that plantation-like building was. It was the Colonnade, at the Elysian Fields, also known as the Colonnade Hotel or McCarty’s Hotel, whose proprietor provided the Knickerbockers and other clubs of the 1840s with many a lavish dinner, either after their exertions on the ball field or in a season-ending banquet.
Engraver William Fairthorne may have been a member of the Magnolia Ball Club; we are unlikely ever to know. The verisimilitude of his art might make one think so; he was, as far as may be claimed at this writing, the first man ever to have depicted men playing ball; and if we may judge by the textual record of the early game, he appears to have gotten things largely right. (Of course the vignette could not display all the features of the game, and thus does not address plugging, or the existence of foul ground.)
The auction-house description erred in calling the Magnolia card an invitation. It was in fact, as further digging in the Herald revealed, a ticket—providing admission to a ball that would be held on February 8, 1844. It cost a dollar and, given its enamel-coated card stock and its commissioned rather than stock imagery, was intended to be saved as a memento of the event. The baseball scene on the card reveals three bases with stakes, eight men in the field, a pitcher with an underarm delivery, possibly base-stealing, and a top-hatted waiter bearing a tray of refreshments from the Colonnade. Some of the members of the “in” side are arrayed behind a long table; others are seated upon it. The pitcher delivers the ball. A runner heads from first to second base. This is, from all appearances, the original Knickerbocker game, and that of the New York Base Ball Club, and that of the Gothams of the 1830s (shortstop was a position not manned until 1849–1850).
This ticket is the first depiction of men playing baseball in America, and it may also be, depending upon one’s taxonomic convictions, the first baseball card. It is also the earliest visual artifact of the New York Game of baseball. But the greater significance of the card is the new understanding that its underlying story affords of how baseball really began in New York, what spin the workingman’s culture of that day may have imparted to baseball’s growth, and why the story may have been kept under wraps all these years.
1. Associated with this ball club is an engraved invitation to its first annual ball, which has the first depiction of men playing baseball, and shows underhand pitching and stakes for bases. New York Herald (classified ads section): Nov. 2, 1843. For much more on the find and its implications: thornpricks.blogspot.com/2007/11/really-good-find-more-magnolia-blossoms.html.
2. Asbury, H. 1930. Ye Olde Fire Laddies (p. 103).Thornton, R. 1912. An American Glossary: Being an Attempt to Illustrate Certain Americanisms, Etc. (Vol. 1) (p. 173). As to the Washington Market Chowder Club, see “The Military Spirit in New York—The Target Companies on Thanksgiving Day,” New York Weekly Herald: Dec. 14, 1850, p. 397; also, The Subterranean: Oct. 25, 1845, p. 2 (“Three different parties of whole-souled fellows are going to express their gratitude to Heaven for its manifold blessings, to-morrow, by playing ball and eating chowder.”).
3. 1850 Federal census and Subterranean: Dec. 20, 1845; classified ad for 1845 Holiday Ball of the “Original Empire Club,” at Tammany Hall, Tuesday, Dec. 30.
4. When Carlisle and partner Silas Chickering purchased the saloon in 1842 they advertised this fact, suggestively, in the New Orleans Daily Picayune of July 16: “New York Advertisement. MAGNOLIA LUNCH. CHICKERING & CARLISLE beg leave to inform their New Orleans and other friends that they have purchased that old and favorite resort of Southerners, The Magnolia Lunch, on the corner of Chambers street and Broadway, where they will be always ready to furnish them with every delicacy which the New York market affords. N.B. handsomely furnished private rooms for parties.”
6. Classified advertisement, Feb. 6–8, 1844, New York Herald. The addescribes the actual event for which the Magnolia card provided admission. It read: “THE FIRST ANNUAL BALLof the New York Magnolia Ball Club will take place at National Hall, Canal st. on Friday evening, Feb. 9th, inst. The Club pledge themselves that no expense or exertions shall be spared to render this (their first) Ball worthy the patronage of their friends. The Ball Room will be splendidly decorated with the insignia of the Club. Brown’s celebrated Band is engaged for the occasion. Tickets $1, to be had of the undersigned, and at the bar of National Hall. JOSEPH CARLISLE, Chairman. PETER H. GRAHAM, Secretary. f6 4t*cc.” That Carlisle would be the ball’s chairman comes as no surprise, but the new name appearing above, that of Peter H. Graham, may point to a fresh area of inquiry. Speeding eight years forward, we come across three notices in the Herald about the reorganization of the Unionist Whigs, no longer known as the Knickerbockers. Silas Chickering, Carlisle’s partner in the Magnolia Lunch, is cited as a former president of the group and the two secretaries are Peter H. Graham and…Louis F. Wadsworth, the formidable first baseman and mysterious outcast from the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club.