December 26th, 2012

Did African American Slaves Play Baseball?

The Colored Volunteers, Song Sheet by C.Magnus, NY

The Colored Volunteers, Song Sheet by C.Magnus, NY

As we near the date of issuance of Major League Baseball’s Origins Committee report, capping nearly two years of digging and gathering, we have, it appears, come a bit closer to answering the question posed in the title of this post. Master sleuths of early ball play have provided us with references to ball play by African Americans in bondage, but without clear evidence as to whether baseball was one of the games they played. Randall Brown and Dale Somers offered instances of antebellum baseball play by freedmen; Tom Altherr uncovered early citations for slave ball play. But only recently has a report emerged, at last, of slaves playing baseball—and it was not in the South, but in New York State in about 1820.

First, some background. In the most recent issue of the journal Base Ball, Bruce Allardice published a fine article on the prevalence of baseball in the South prior to the Civil War, supplying a nice corrective to the hoary myth that Northern soldiers introduced their Confederate counterparts to the game. As to African Americans in the South, Allardice offered:

According to Dale Somers [in The Rise of Sports in New Orleans, 1850–1900, citing the New Orleans Picayune of Dec. 21, 1869], black employees of the elite Pickwick and Boston Clubs of New Orleans formed baseball teams in the late 1860s, and took as team names the names of the social clubs they worked for. The Pickwick played the (white) Lone Star club in late 1869, perhaps the first interracial game in Southern baseball history. These and other teams played regularly throughout the 1870s and 1880s, often against white teams. Blacks in Atlanta had already formed a club in 1867. A newspaper reported that the “negroes of Atlanta” had formed a club “dressed in red pants and sky-blue jackets.” In Houston, Texas, in 1868 a “colored” team, the oddly named Six Shooter Jims, challenged other “colored” teams in Texas to match games.

Thanks largely to Tom Altherr, the Early Baseball Milestones section of MLB’s Memory Lab site ( contains citations of African American ballplay as early as 1773: “We present as a growing Evil, the frequent assembling of Negroes in the Town [Beaufort, SC] on Sundays, and playing games of Trap-ball and Fives, which is not taken proper notice of by Magistrates, Constables, and other Parish Officers.” Tom Gilbert and Altherr noted that in the North-Carolina Minerva  of March 11, 1797, a punishment of 15 lashes was specified for “negroes, that shall make a noise or assemble in a riotous manner in any of the streets [of Fayetteville] on the Sabbath day; or that may be seen playing ball on that day.”

In the 1850s schoolteacher Emily Burke observed, in Pleasure and Pain: Reminiscences of Georgia in the 1840s:

The slaves had finished the tasks that had been assigned to them in the morning and were now enjoying holiday recreations. Some were trundling the hoop, some were playing ball, some were dancing at the sound of the fiddle . . . In this manner the Sabbath is usually spent on a Southern plantation.

We have this, from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (Boston, 1845):

Life of Frederick Douglass, title page

Life of Frederick Douglass, title page

My term of actual service to Mr. Edward Covey ended on Christmas Day, 1833. The days between Christmas and New Year’s Day are allowed as holidays, and accordingly we were not required to perform any labor more than to feed and take care of the stock. This time we regarded as our own, by the grace of our masters, and we therefore used or abused it nearly as we pleased. Those of us who had families at a distance were generally allowed to spend the whole six days in their society. This time, however, was spent in various ways. The sober, staid, thinking, and industrious of our number would employ themselves in making corn brooms, mats, horse collars, and baskets; and another class of us would spend the time in hunting opossums, hares, and coons. But by far the larger part engaged in such sports and merriments as ball playing, wrestling, running foot races, fiddling, dancing, and drinking whiskey: and this latter mode of spending the time was by far the most agreeable to the feelings of our masters. A slave who would work during the holidays was considered by our masters as scarcely deserving them. It was deemed a disgrace not to get drunk at Christmas.

Randall Brown, in Blood and Base Ball (, provided proof of freedmen in Brooklyn forming baseball clubs as early as 1858, with the pioneer “Unknown Base Ball Club” contesting with the Henson Club of Jamaica in the following year.

Rochester Colored Baseball Asylum

Rochester Colored Asylum

Despite these wonderful finds, however, we still had nothing connecting slaves with a game that they—or we, as students of the early game—could term baseball. By this we mean, simply, a game of bat and ball played with bases that must be traversed in the round to score a run. The existence of foul territory, the number of outs to the inning, the number of men to the side—these are all niceties of the evolving game but they do not define it. Baseball was played at Princeton College in 1786, at Pittsfield, MA in 1791, in New York City in 1823, in Philadelphia in 1831—no matter that the playing rules associated with each of these dates are largely unknown and are certain to have differed.

Last year Randall Brown shared with me a fantastic bit of news that I might have been expected to have found first, inasmuch as the source was the Daily Freeman, an extant paper of Kingston, NY, my residence until just two years ago. Not only did the Freeman, in its issue of August 19, 1881, reference early African American baseball (New York was, in 1827, one of the last of the Northern states to abolish slavery), but at a site just a stone’s throw from my offices. The headline read:

A Colored Resident. Henry Rosecranse Columbus, Jr. Some Incidents in the Life of an Old Resident of Kingston. Born a Slave, He Lives to Become Wealthy and an Example to His Race.

This fellow was born in 1804, according to the Freeman; or 1801, according to the Federal Census. While I will offer up, in my next post, a bit more about African Americans’ ball play and their largely vanished Spring holiday of Pinkster (the Monday after Whitsunday), here is the startling interview:

Few men perhaps in their station of life have been more widely known in this county than Henry Rosecranse Columbus Jr., the colored barber of John street. Mr. Rosecranse was born a slave in the year 1804, in the Kingston Hotel building on Crown street, then known as the “Coffee House,” the proprietor of which was Levi Johnston, and he has proved himself during his life to be one of the best examples to the colored men who have lived during the present century, and he has a record for honesty and uprightness in dealing that few men can boast of. He has shown that a man even of a humble station of life can win his way by steady application to his trade and attending to his own business, and become the owner of lands and money in “goodly quantity.”

Boxing champion John Morrissey

Boxing champion John Morrissey

His barber shop on John street is little changed from what it was nearly half a century ago, and the furniture and pictures smack of times long gone by. Ancient portraits of battles of the Mexican war and the revolution hang upon the wall; quaint pictures of New York city are seen, and General Scott stands with soldierly bearing by the side of his horse in a big frame, while John Morrissey hangs over the doorway as he appeared when he was a young man and fought with Sullivan. An engraving of Samsonville as it appeared when owned by General Samson in his prosperous days, with High Point in close proximity, can also be seen. In one part of the room is an old advertisement of charges, made undoubtedly when the shop was in its palmy days.

Mr. Rosecranse only keeps his shop open nowadays in order to have something to occupy his time so he will not get rusty. A few old customers still visit him and talk over old days, while he is taking off an itching beard or trimming down a shaggy coat of hair, but there are men in prosperous condition living in other counties, and some in the far West, who, whenever they visit the city always call on Mr. Rosecranse to shake hands with him and bring again to recollection circumstances that transpired forty or fifty years ago, and find out how this man or that woman is, whether dead or living, and in what circumstances they might have been, for Mr. Rosecranse carries a sort of statistical record in his head of half the families of the county, and in genealogy, he is considered equal to the big family Bible.

Mr. Rosecranse’s father was Thomas Rosecranse, and he was named after him, while the “Columbus” was added as a sort of affix to denote that he was once a servant of the Tappen family, one of whom bore that name. The mother of Mr. Rosecranse was a slave of the mother of Peter Masten, and was afterwards bought by George Tappen. She lived for years with one of the most aristocratic families in Kingston, and in her day waited upon many great men, among them being “Matty” Van Buren, as he was familiarly called, who often came here visiting.

Corner of Wall Street and John Street, Kingston, NY. Barber shop would have been to left.

Corner of Wall Street and John Street, Kingston, NY. Barber shop would have been to left.

When a boy Mr. Rosecranse worked for Levi Johnson, who then kept the hotel on Crown street, and went with him to New York city when he moved there. Returning in a couple of years, he worked for Jonathan Ostrander, father of James E. Ostrander, who lived in the old stone house on Green street, now known as the Industrial Home.

Soon after this Mr. Rosecranse started to learn his trade of barbering with Thomas Harley, a colored man, a famous barber in his day, father of Hanson G. Harley, who now runs the barber shop on Fair street. Thomas Harley at that time had a shop in the hotel known as the Folter place, afterward called the Ulster County House, and which stood on the site of the present Argus building. In two years he had learned the trade sufficiently to accept a position as barber and waiter with Pardee, then proprietor of the present Kingston Hotel on Crown street.

Reporter—“When did you take your position at Pardee’s?

Mr. Rosecranse—“Well, it was at the time of the big snow storm, you remember that, don’t you?”  The reporter said, “O, no, I guess not; I have no recollection of that time.”  Mr. Rosecranse continued, saying, “It was over forty years ago. It was a big snow storm, the biggest we ever had. The streets were blocked with snow so the men had to be called out to break the way, and I remember helping shovel the snow away from the house of the lady who afterwards married William H. Romeyn, Esq.

Mr. Rosecranse inquired of the reporter if he remembered the accident that happened while firing cannon on the death of Governor Clinton [in 1812].

Reporter—“Yes, I have heard of it, but give us the circumstances.”

George Clinton Monument, Old Dutch Church, Kingston NY

George Clinton Monument, Old Dutch Church, Kingston NY

“There was several of them firing the cannon; one held his finger over the vent, and while Henry Ray was ramming in the charge and Gilbert Dillon and Jesse Hamilton were near to him, the man who held the vent must have taken his finger off, for it went off, and it blew Ray all to pieces, so we had to look around and pick his bones up. Gilbert Dillon was lamed for life, and Jesse Hamilton was cut across the face and carries the scar to this day.”  The accident occurred on Wall street opposite the Young property.

Mr. Rosecranse evidently believes in the good times of a half a century ago. He said, “We used to have a great deal better time than that you do now. We didn’t have a big city with lamps and curb stones and paved walks, and had to go round through the mud, but we had more holidays. There was the Pinkster holiday, the Great Holiday for the colored men. They used to meet at Black Horse Tavern (the building still stands on the lower end of Wall street) and shoot for turkeys. Then the colored men raced horses on Peter Sharpe’s lane. They used to come a great many of them with horses of their bosses, and run them. (This lane was where Albany avenue now runs, and the race ground was from Kiefer’s to the lane that runs in to the house of William M. Hayes). The bosses used to come and bet on the horses, and they had a great deal of fun. After the races they used to play ball for egg nog.”

Reporter—“Was it base ball as now played?”

Mr. Rosecranse—“Something like it, only the ball wasn’t near so hard, and we used to have much more fun playing.” He further said a great game of those days was wicket.

He remembered general training days, and was full of anecdotes of the officers and others who were prominent on such occasions. He said they used to train sometimes in one place and sometimes another, and the different regiments wore different uniforms, each having its own particular colored uniform.

Mr. Rosecranse during his life has worked steadily at his trade, and has amassed quite a fortune, owning a number of buildings on John street, besides other evidences of wealth. He is hale and hearty, carrying his three score and seventeen years so lightly that another twenty years seemingly would hardly make him appear older than other men at sixty.