April 10th, 2013
The Unions of Morrisania were a celebrated early team, of interest for such players as George Wright, shortstop par excellence; Doug Birdsall, who went on to play professionally with George for Boston in the National Association; and Charlie Pabor, longtime pitcher and outfielder with the most inexplicable of all baseball nicknames: “The Old Woman in the Red Cap.” [Let me make an attempt: the red cap was common headgear in the French Revolution for women, who carried knitting bags under these caps; the Unions wore puffy red caps; Pabor, baseball's first lefthanded pitcher of note, may have been viewed as a revolutionary. That's my story, anyway, and I'm sticking to it. His batterymate Birdsall, by the way, was known as "The Old Man."]
But I digress. Shown above is the 1866 group that brought honor to Morrisania and laid the ground for the next year’s national champions, despite the defection of Wright to the Washington Nationals. This carte de visite is the basis of the gloriously painted photograph that reposed in the archives of the Baseball Hall of Fame for generations but now, after painstaking restoration, is available for viewing in the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.
Where is Morrisania, anyway? It’s a neighborhood in today’s South Bronx. In 1874, the area was annexed to New York City (then consisting only of Manhattan) as part of the Twenty-Third Ward. In former times, however, it was a part of the lower Bronx, which ran north to Eighth Street, now 165th Street, and south to Harlem Bridge. How do I know that? Well, I’m not 150 years old. I discovered in the annals of the Library of Congress an interview that a WPA worker conducted on August 18, 1938, with an old resident of Morrisania, Mr. T. Emery Sutton, of 430 East 160th Street in the Bronx. Mr. Sutton speaks to us today of Morrisania in the 1860s with an offhand specificity that no modern writer could hope to equal.
The Unions, as the team was called, played their games at the Triangle, on a lot behind Fisher’s coal yard, at what is now 163rd street. About 1868 or 1869 they moved to Tremont and Arthur avenues, and there built the first enclosed baseball grounds. The first game played was for the championship between the Unions and the Brooklyn Mutuals [known as the New York Mutuals to historians today, they in fact played their home games in Brooklyn]. The home team won. The price of admission was 25 cents; and I had the distinction of taking in the very first quarter. Ed. Wright was the cashier; I was only a boy at the time. There was no grand stand, only board seats.
The great baseball leagues had not yet been organized, and the only prize awarded a winning club was the ball with which the game had been played. We used to silver these balls and keep them as trophies. They were kept in a large case in Louis Comb’s establishment, Morrisania Hall. Thomas E. Sutton was the first president, and Henry J. Ford the first vice-president of the Union Baseball Club.
Our team made trips through the country, as do the big league teams today. Funds to defray expenses were donated by the townspeople, each one of them subscribing according to his inclination, and financial ability. The players used to be gone for two or three weeks at a time. Among the members of the Union team were C. Payne, D. Bickett, A. Abrams, B. Hourigan, T. Beals, and the great George Wright whose brother afterwards managed the Athletics [brother Harry managed the Boston team, not the Athletics of Philadelphia] when the leagues were organized.
“T. Beals,” by the way, was Tommy Beals, who–like the above mentioned Union members Pabor, Birdsall, and Wright, as well as Al Martin–went on to play in the first professional league and thus is immortalized with complete statistical lines dating to 1871 and beyond. Beals and Wright were such close friends that the latter named a son after him: Beals Wright (1879-1961), who like his father George and his uncle Harry made it to the Hall of Fame … the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Elected in 1956, Beals won gold medals in singles and doubles at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, and the U.S. Championship the following year.