May 2013

A Reconstruction of Philadelphia Town Ball

Olympics of Philadelphia, 1837 Constitution

Olympics of Philadelphia, 1837 Constitution

The previous post, Richard Hershberger’s article on the 1863 “New Marlboro Match Baseball Co.”, elicited this comment from reader Jim Roebuck: “One thing I’ve been trying to figure out – and I’ve read a fair amount about it, but I’m still confused – is the difference between town ball and the Massachusetts Game. Topic for another essay?” To this I replied, “The two are substantially different, but modern-day scribes have been calling all bat & ball games other than the New York Game “town ball” for a long time. This has bred confusion indeed, and prompted Richard Hershberger to tackle the subject in the journal Base Ball in the Fall 2007 number. I’ll run his full article, ‘A Reconstruction of Philadelphia Town Ball,’ in this space soon.”

Here ya go.

A Reconstruction of Philadelphia Town Ball

Richard Hershberger 

Modern baseball is descended from the game played in New York City at the middle of the 19th century. This version, however, was not the only one played in North America. The baseball family extended throughout English-speaking North America, in various versions and under different names, both as children’s games and in formal competitive communities of clubs of adults.

The best documented of these other forms is the game played in New England. There arose in the late 1850s extended communities of clubs in both New England and New York, holding conventions and publishing formal rules.

Smaller communities are known to have existed in various cities including Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Chicago, but none of these published its rules. There is a long tradition of assuming that the game played in these areas was substantially identical to the New England form, but there is little evidence to support this theory. The more conservative belief is that the rules are unrecoverable. A close examination of the evidence reveals, however, that the rules of the game as played in Philadelphia can be reconstructed.

A Brief History of Town Ball in Philadelphia

The American Sunday School Magazine reported in early 1830 that the previous summer a group of 18 adult rope makers met for a game of ball one Sunday afternoon near a Philadelphia orphanage. The matron of the institution remonstrated with them for breaking the Sabbath and invited them into the orphanage to see how the Sabbath was kept there. They heard the orphans sing a hymn, “This day belongs to God alone, He chooses Sunday for his own….” The ballplayers were moved to tears, and sat in perfect silence while hymns were sung, answers from the catechism recited, and verses of scripture repeated. The next Sunday every one of the 18 returned, decently dressed, and witnessed the exercise again. Many returned yet again for a third visit, moved to repent their former ways as Sabbath-breakers. Regardless of the veracity of this tale, it makes clear that the author considered the idea of adults playing ball plausible enough to include it without further explanation. Organized club play appears soon thereafter.

Olympics of Philadelphia clubhouse ca. 1860

Olympics of Philadelphia clubhouse ca. 1860

In 1831 a group of men in their mid-20s made the ferry ride across the Delaware River to Camden, New Jersey, to play town ball on Saturday afternoons.[1] At the same time a club under the name “Olympic” convened to play town ball on the Fourth of July, and occasionally on other days as well. Following the example of the Saturday group, they began practicing on the same ground on Wednesdays. This led to a match game—among the earliest known, but with the results unrecorded. Following this the two groups merged, practicing two days a week as the Olympic Ball Club. They absorbed two other groups of town ball players over the years, probably in the late 1840s and early 1850s, the latter said to be graduates of Philadelphia’s Central High School. They played in Camden into the late 1850s, when they moved across the river to Pennsylvania.

This summary of what is known of town ball play prior to 1857 comes from two documents: the Olympic Ball Club constitutions of 1838 and 1866, the latter including a brief history of the club.[2] It is obvious that town ball play was not confined to the Olympics, but the evidence has not come down to us. A hint of its existence is given by the Honey Run Club of Germantown.

Germantown had been an independent borough in Philadelphia County, about six miles from the City of Philadelphia and most famous as the site of a Revolutionary War battle. The Act of Consolidation of 1854 unified the City and County of Philadelphia, reducing Germantown’s status to a mere neighborhood. It was still separated from the urban center by farmland and retained its distinct character for many years.

The earliest evidence for town ball play in Germantown is a record of a game played in September 1857. Twenty grown men who had been schoolmates gathered and divided into teams. The event had a nostalgic air to it: The lot “presented somewhat the appearance of other days” and “the old ‘schoolmates’ seemed to enjoy each other’s company as ‘in days of yore.’”[3] Clearly town ball was no longer a novelty at that point. It is less clear, however, if adults playing the game was. The only clear peculiarity was that the game was reported in the press, via a letter by the pseudonymous “Sport.”

The next record of the game’s appearance in Germantown dates to November 1859. The Honey Run Town Ball Club, “consisting of twenty practised members,” challenged the other clubs in town for a match on Thanksgiving Day. The Balsch and the Charter Oak clubs declined. The Honey Run met to prepare for an intraclub game, when two delegates from the Marion Club appeared to accept the challenge—to play for a supper. Both clubs set to practicing at every opportunity, and music was engaged for the day of the match, again reported by “Sport.” The game came off splendidly, the Honey Run winning by two runs in an exciting finish that prompted “Sport” to provide what is by far the most complete extant account of a town ball game (see sidebar). The Honey Run later presented their ball giver, the hero of the game’s climax, with a gold ring at a festive dinner.[4]The Honey Run make one more appearance the following spring, on Easter Monday, playing an intraclub match, this time reported by “Saint,” and some members turned up in the Army of the Potomac playing town ball in 1863.[5] There are no further mentions of the Balsch, Charter Oak, or Marion clubs.

There were, then, at least four organized clubs in Germantown, apparently playing mostly intraclub games and going virtually unnoticed by the press. The reports of the Honey Run’s exploits result from the combination of an enthusiastic correspondent and the rise of a New York sporting press willing to publish such reports. Both games of the Honey Run took place on holidays; one of the groups founding the Olympic club had existed specifically to play on the Fourth of July. The evidence suggests, then, that there was a tradition of holiday play in the Philadelphia area that evolved—perhaps due to rising urbanization—into clubs formed to organize this recreational activity. A modern equivalent is the Philadelphia mummer clubs, which put on an annual New Year’s parade. Their activities entailed preparing for, participating in, and recuperating from this one day.

A different tradition also developed in the late 1850s: competitive club play. This new brand of ball club closely resembled the New York clubs. By 1859 there were at least four such clubs, some fielding first and second teams. The Excelsior club was active at least by 1859,[6] while the Camden club organized in 1857;[7] the Athletic club organized May 31, 1859.[8] They, along with the Olympics, were playing match games at least by 1858, with the Olympics and the Camdens playing three that year.[9] Gone was the old habit of absorbing and internalizing competition. In its place evolved a competitive ballplaying community much like that in New York, but about five years behind New York in its development.

This new brand of Philadelphia town ball was not to last long. On Thanksgiving Day of 1858 the newly formed “Penn Tigers Social Base Ball and Quoit Club” played Pennsylvania’s first New York baseball game.[10] Late in the following season they were joined by the Pennsylvanias, the Nonpareils, and the Continentals.[11] The spring of 1860 saw the fad for the New York game take off. By May there were not fewer than 10 clubs, with more added as the season progressed.[12] The first interclub match game was played June 11 by the Equity and the Winona (formerly the Penn Tigers), the Winonas winning 39–11.[13] In September the Excelsior Club of Brooklyn visited Philadelphia, defeating a picked nine 15–4, bringing Philadelphia into the expanding baseball fraternity.[14]

The competitive town ball clubs joined in the transition to the New York game. The Athletics voted in early 1860 to switch, and they never looked back. There is no record of their ever playing town ball again, and they nearly forgot they had ever done so. Within a year, 1860 was being published as their foundation date.[15] The Excelsiors held out, playing only town ball the season of 1860; but by 1861 they too had adopted the New York game.[16] The Camdens are a cipher; there is no sign of them after 1860. A Camden club appeared several years later playing the New York game, but there is no obvious connection between it and the town ball club.

The Olympics in May 1860 also voted to make the switch. They didn’t abandon town ball entirely and immediately, playing a match game with the Excelsiors and scheduling an intrasquad game as late as 1862.[17] In 1864, New York journalist Henry Chadwick claimed that the Olympics “favor [town ball] almost entirely; and but for a few members would not play Base Ball at all.” Chadwick certainly vastly overstated the case. He had recently been accosted by a member of the club and threatened with violence over his reporting, and his assessment of the Olympics was not dispassionate. Nonetheless, for the assertion to be plausible to its readers would require that the Olympics were, at least to some extent, still playing town ball.[18] Unlike the Athletics, they embraced their early history and the prestige of seniority. (The Philadelphia press was always ready to point out that the Olympics were older than the Knickerbockers.) The Olympics lasted nearly another quarter century, but with no reports of them, or anyone else, playing organized town ball.

“Town Ball” and “Base Ball”

It is necessary to undertake a linguistic digression in order to define what is and is not accomplished by describing Philadelphia town ball. The baseball family of games was, in the mid–19th century, widely played in both North America and in Britain. Not yet standardized, there were innumerable local variants. The games also went by various names but, unlike the variant rules, the number of names was small.

In Britain the oldest name was “base ball,” while the game was known as “feeder” in the London region.[19] Both names died out, with “base ball” being included in a list of archaic words.[20] Their place was taken by “rounders.” In New England the term “round ball” was used in early days, but largely disappeared over the first half of the 19th century. Two names prevailed in North America: The old term “base ball” dominated in New England, New York, and the Great Lakes region, while “town ball” prevailed in Pennsylvania and the Ohio River and upper Mississippi valleys.

With more local variant forms than there were names, it is obvious that name and game did not always represent clear 1:1 relationships. Into the 1860s this was considered unremarkable, and the press published remarks such as “Base Ball at Ingersoll…The game played in Canada differs somewhat from the New York game…” and “Town Ball at Evansville, Ind….the rules and regulations for playing the game of town ball vary a great deal.”[21] The two forms that were standardized in the 1850s were both called “base ball,” so they were distinguished as the “New York game” and the “Massachusetts game.”[22] This was unnecessary with regard to regions using “town ball,” with the New York press using the unmodified “base ball” to refer to the New York game.

Ball, Bat and Bishop, Henderson 1947

Ball, Bat and Bishop, Henderson 1947

The New York game came to dominate all others over the 1860s, so local variants in the old “base ball” regions came to be described as “old fashioned base ball.”[23] In later years, people became uncomfortable applying “base ball” to anything other than the New York game. The name “town ball” was adopted retroactively in regions that had never used the term, including renaming the Massachusetts game. Just as it was assumed that “base ball” could mean only one variant, so it was assumed that “town ball” must also apply to just one form. Even as astute an observer as Robert W. Henderson, the first serious student of the early game, wrote in 1947, “A town ball team was fully organized in Philadelphia in 1833 and it continued to be played in New England until 1860, where it was known as ‘The Massachusetts Game.’ ” A purported description of town ball followed this quotation, but it actually described the Massachusetts game.[24] Fallacy is layered atop fallacy.

So the reconstruction of Philadelphia town ball presented here is no more than that—a reconstruction of Philadelphia town ball. It should not be taken as a reconstruction of any other regional form, including any other variant also called “town ball.” There is no evidence to suggest that “town ball” forms were any more or less similar to one another than they were to variants of “base ball” or “rounders.” This reconstruction applies merely to the Philadelphia region, and the Philadelphia region stands out only in that its town ball is unusually well documented and thus particularly well suited for such a project.

Finally, the terms used in this article are the “baseball family” to refer collectively to the related forms of the game, whether locally called “base ball,” “town ball,” or “rounders”; the “New York game” and the “Massachusetts game” are so called, to avoid ambiguity. The game in and around Philadelphia is called “Philadelphia town ball” or, for brevity and when the context is clear, simply “town ball.”


The sources used to reconstruct the rules of Philadelphia town ball fall into three categories, in order of decreasing reliability:

Box scores, in particular of three match games: one between the first teams of the Olympic and Excelsior clubs played July 12, 1860, and two between the second teams of the Excelsior and Camden clubs, played July 9 and July 23, 1860.[25] These are elaborate records, including the fielding records and how the players were put out—information not found in modern baseball box scores. They bespeak sophisticated scorekeeping, and are the most objective source of information we have. Box scores of the New York game had not yet been standardized, and ranged from rudimentary records resembling modern box scores, to extended records with fielding and “how put out” records, much like contemporary cricket boxes and comparable to these three town ball boxes. The more elaborate forms were used for important games, implying that the three town ball games were considered significant at the time.

Contemporary game accounts: The account of the Honey Run Club’s game of Thanksgiving Day 1859 is by far the most complete account extant. There are, however, various shorter, fragmentary descriptions that shed light on certain aspects of the game. Narrative accounts are more subjective than box scores, and require more interpretation, but as contemporary texts written by reporters familiar with the game, they are likely to be accurate.

1884 Olympic Club of Philadelphia

1884 Olympic Club of Philadelphia

Retrospective descriptions: The most important of these is the historical sketch included with the 1866 constitution of the Olympic club, which shares some text with a sketch of the club published in 1861.[26] Reminiscences are inherently suspect, but in 1866 town ball was still a recent memory, with the club retaining members from its town ball days, while in 1861 a description was only barely retrospective. Also notable is a sketch of the Olympic club published in 1884.[27] The Olympics were still a going concern, and the article includes a hint of reference to club records since lost. It is unique for pieces of such a late date in that it does not rely on the 1866 sketch, yet is still consistent with the known facts.

Unifying Assumptions

The previous section emphasized the diversity of the baseball family. Nevertheless, we can still assume a degree of unity amongst the various games.

It is assumed that the competitive Philadelphia town ball clubs played under similar sets of rules. There is no direct evidence for this, but there are no reports of negotiating rules as was sometimes found in other areas. There were conventions among both New York and New England clubs in the 1850s to standardize their rules. There is no hint of a similar convention of Philadelphia clubs in the town ball era. A likelier guess is that the rules of the Olympic Club, as the senior, prestige club, were adopted by the other clubs (in much the same way that the laws of cricket were the club rules of the Marylebone Club in England), or at least that the other clubs adopted field rules with only minor variations. These rules are what this article attempts to reconstruct.

It is also assumed that the noncompetitive clubs such as the Honey Run were playing essentially the same game as the Olympics, although likely in a less formal manner. This is the opposite assumption from that commonly made of the New York game. Modern writers generally acknowledge that some version of the baseball family was long played in New York, but assume that the game the Knickerbockers played as of 1845 was in its essence different from that of earlier generations. The rules of the Knickerbockers have more than their share of peculiarities compared with other members of the baseball family, but there is little direct evidence of the rules under which young New Yorkers were playing in the 1830s. It is not actually known whether the peculiarities of the New York game originated with the Knickerbockers or were inherited by them. That the game of the Olympics was the same as that of the Honey Runs is not provable. Indeed, some of the vocabulary applied to the non-competitive club games is not found in the competitive matches. But unlike pre-Knickerbocker New York baseball, we can compare accounts of competitive and non-competitive Philadelphia town ball and observe that they seem to be similar, and guess from this that the account of the Honey Run’s match can illuminate the Olympic game.

Finally, it is assumed that Philadelphia town ball was a member of the broad baseball family, sharing characteristics of the family. For example, nothing in the accounts of Philadelphia town ball explains what an “inning” is; but since the word is used the same way throughout the baseball family, there is no need to believe that an “inning” in Philadelphia town ball presents any mystery.

The Rules of the Game

The Players: A team consisted of 11 players, unless the clubs agreed to some lower number. A match in 1858 between the Olympics and the Camdens was played with nine on a side.[28] The Germantown games were more variable, as would be expected of the less formal context, with typically 10 or 11 on a side. That 11 was normative, at least among the competitive clubs, is shown by the routine use of “first eleven” and “second eleven” to designate the clubs’ first and second teams. New York clubs used the analogous “first nine” and “second nine,” but the likely source for Philadelphia’s rule was the identical usage—well established by the late 1850s—of first and second elevens of cricket clubs. In November 1859 the Pennsylvania Base Ball Club formed to play the New York game. In their first intraclub game they played 11 on a side, apparently not having carefully studied the New York rules. They realized their mistake, or it was pointed out to them, and by the end of the month they were playing nine on a side.[29]

The only players with assigned positions were the ball giver and the behind, corresponding to the modern pitcher and catcher. It was typical of the baseball family that the other defensive players had no fixed assignments. The New York game abolished the general practice of throwing the ball at the runner and replaced it with tagging the base or runner. This led to the assigning of players to man each base. In other forms there was no need for this, and the players could position themselves as strategy or whim dictated. (A vestige of this can be seen in the modern game, comparing the position of the first basemen with a runner on base versus without.)

The Field: The bases were five stakes arranged in a circle of approximately thirty feet in diameter.  The small size of the playing field is perhaps the most surprising aspect of Philadelphia town ball. The sources on this subject are consistent and clear. The 1861 article on the Olympics noted that some older members retired when the New York game was adopted, since “three hundred and sixty feet, compared with the old town ball circle of eighty feet, was enlarging the sphere of action with a vengeance.” The 1884 account described the circles as “about thirty feet.” A circle 30 feet in diameter has a circumference of about 94 feet. It is likely that the distances were not intended to be precise and, as will be seen, the batter probably did not run the entire circumference anyway.

This is the smallest documented size of any field of the baseball family, with about 19 feet between bases. The Massachusetts game had basepaths of 40–60  feet. In 1828 The Boy’s Own Book by William Clarke described the four-base diamond formation with the bases “placed from twelve to twenty yards asunder.” This is usually interpreted as the length of the basepaths, though the Knickerbocker rules of 1845 defined the size of the diamond as the distance between home and second, and first and third. If the 1828 distance is measured similarly this still results in basepaths more than 25 feet in length. The earliest known rules for baseball, published by Johann Chistoph Friedrich Gutsmuths in 1796, placed the bases 10–15 paces apart, making it the variant closest to Philadelphia town ball.[30]

David Block notes a trend within the baseball family of the field gradually expanding.[31] The Philadelphia town ball field seems to have been a uniquely antique feature retained from the ancestral game.

The use of stakes was one standard option in the baseball family, used in the Massachusetts game and surviving in modern rounders in Britain. The relevant sources agree that stakes were used in Philadelphia. These include the 1884 account, which called them “sticks,” and an 1862 account of the history of the Athletics, which poetically described their switch from town ball to baseball as the adoption of “the bases instead of the stakes.”[32] The account of the Honey Run match mentions flags being placed at the corners. “Corner” is a synonym for base found in some later accounts of early baseball. In 1867 the “Home Run Polka” was published by a Philadelphia publisher, dedicated to the National Base Ball Club of Washington. The Nationals had from their inception played the New York game, but the front page bore a strange illustration of a baseball game—apparently drawn by an artist who had never actually seen the New York game played, and conflating elements of the New York game with older forms. It features stakes misplaced halfway down the basepaths, with small rectangular flags. It is possible the artist recalled these from town ball games. There is no evidence of whether or not they were used by the competitive clubs.

Home Run Polka

Home Run Polka

The arrangement in a circle is unusual but not without precedent. Early forms of baseball had been flexible about the number of bases. Most later forms standardized this at four bases. The Massachusetts game is conventionally characterized as having five bases, but it actually had four stakes and a designated location for the batter. Placing the batter in the familiar location at home base presents obvious practical problems if home base is a stake. So the batter was moved to the first-base side in those forms of baseball using stakes. The 1884 account of Philadelphia town ball states explicitly that there were five stakes. The only other example of five bases so arranged was described in 1855 in the Manual of British Rural Sports. [Editor’s note: Richard wrote this article three years before the unearthing of the New Marlboro rules and diagram, with their five bases. See:]

This circular arrangement raises the question of where the batter was placed. Following the pattern of other forms with stakes, he likely was about midway between fifth (or home) and first base. This hypothetical reconstruction also shortens the circumference of the path to run to about 85 feet—close to the 1861 stated distance of 80 feet.

Pitching: There is no direct evidence of where the ball giver stood, but every known form of baseball places him somewhere within the area delineated by the bases. This was so strongly assumed that the Knickerbocker rules of 1845 didn’t bother to mention it. There is no direct evidence concerning whether the ball giver delivered the ball overhand, as in the Massachusetts game, or underhand, as in the New York game, but it was almost certainly underhand.

The Massachusetts game featured a swift delivery, attempting to overpower the batter, while the early New York game featured a soft toss intended merely to put the ball in play. The tiny distance between the ball giver and the batter in Philadelphia town ball seems ill suited for a swift delivery. For the games with full box scores it is readily apparent who the behind was, and on one occasion the behind was singled out for praise for his good fielding. But the identity of the ball giver is usually (and conspicuously) omitted in these accounts. Wyn Stokes, the Honey Run’s ball giver, was the hero of their game against the Marions, but for making the game-ending defensive play, not for his pitching.

Finally, there is once again the negative evidence of silence regarding a possible change in pitching style when the New York game was adopted. This difference was a topic of comment in comparisons between the New York and Massachusetts games, so one would expect the subject to have arisen had there in fact been substantial changes.

This all suggests that the delivery was a slow, underhanded form similar to that of modern slow-pitch softball.

The ball and bat: The 1884 article states that the ball was “much lighter and softer than the ball of the present time.” It also states that the players had to make their own balls and bats, and there indeed is no evidence for commercial manufacture of town ball implements. Under the circumstances, it is likely that the balls varied widely, and were probably quite dead.

Various forms of bat were found in the baseball family. Two-handed round bats were used in both the New York and Massachusetts games, but other forms included one-handed bats (used in modern rounders) and flat bats (like those used in cricket) of various sizes, often described as “paddles.” Once again there is an absence of discussion on the subject, suggesting that the town ball bats were two-handed round bats like those used in the New York and Massachusetts games.

Ending the inning: The inning was ended when every player on the side had been put out. This is one of two common versions in the baseball family, the other being the inning ending when one player was put out. The New York game’s feature of ending the inning after three outs was unique.

Getting out: The three 1860 box scores feature “How Put Out” headings for each out, divided into five categories: Fly, Bound, Behind, No Balls, and Stakes. There also is a section recording each player’s fielding record, listing Fly, Bound, and Behind. Modern baseball scoring rules require that every out be credited to a fielder, but Philadelphia town ball felt no such obligation, suggesting that No Balls and Stakes were not considered fielding accomplishments. Table I below lists the percentage of outs made in each category, while Tables 2 and 3 split these: the July ¡2 game between the first elevens of the Olympics and Excelsiors in Table 2, and the July 9 and July 23 games between the second elevens of the Excelsiors and the Camdens in Table 3, with the differences attributable to the varying skill levels of the first and second elevens.

How Outs Were Made

How Outs Were Made

“Fly” outs are exactly as they are in modern baseball. The fly out is a universal feature of the baseball family, and even extends beyond it to cricket.

“Bound” outs are balls caught on the first bounce. Philadelphia town ball shared this feature with the contemporary New York game.

“Behind” outs are more mysterious. The breakdowns of outs by fielder lead to the unsurprising conclusion that these outs are credited to the behind (i.e. the catcher). In the July 12 game, all but two of the 70 behind outs are credited to the two players identified in the account as the behinds (the other two presumably made during a defensive switch), and the two behinds each made over twice as many outs a the next-most productive fielder. But what, exactly, was a “behind”? The answer may lie in the apparent fact that the behinds are never credited with other sorts of outs (except when the box score indicates a defensive switch). One would expect the behind to be in a position to catch pop flies and, on the bound, balls tipped backwards into the ground. Both of these were common ways for New York–game catchers to make outs. So the “behind” category may have been created for statistical purposes, distinct from fly and bound outs because the behind had so many more opportunities. A reverse analogy of sorts might be found in the way modern baseball scoring has the distinct categories of passed balls and wild pitches, rather than including them simply as errors.

Fly, bound, and behind outs account for more than 90 percent of the recorded outs. The remaining categories played relatively minor roles.

“No Ball” is a somewhat confusing term. It is not found elsewhere in the baseball family, but it occurs in cricket. A cricket “no ball” is a ball bowled beyond the reach of the batsman, and the fielding team is penalized. The Philadelphia town ball “no ball” is detrimental to the batting team, so it clearly is not the cricket “no ball.” More likely, these outs correspond to the modern strikeout. This was an old feature of the baseball family, going back to the 18th century.[32] If the batter swung at and missed three pitches, he was ruled out if the third pitch was caught, but the ball was considered to be in play if the behind failed to catch it. This is the origin of the modern dropped–third strike rule, and the Massachusetts game had a similar rule. With soft deliveries, “no balls” were not a major feature, accounting for about 8 percent of all outs, and only 5 percent in the first elevens’ games.

“Stakes” are probably, if only through the process of elimination, fielded balls thrown at the runner, striking him between bases. This was a widespread feature of the baseball family, often called “soaking” or “plugging” the runner. Abolishing the practice was one of the major innovations of the New York game. Stakes were quite rare in Philadelphia town ball for reasons that will be discussed below, accounting for less than 2 percent of all outs. But as the account of the climax of the Honey Run–Marion match shows, they could be dramatic.

Running the bases: Running the bases on balls in play is a universal feature of the baseball family. Philadelphia town ball has the variant that the batter lacked the option of stopping at a base—every at bat resulted in a home run or an out. The 1884 account is explicit about this: “The striker was compelled to make a complete circuit upon each hit in order to score.” Every other known member of the baseball family allows station-to-station advancement through the bases. This and the small field size are the two striking peculiarities of Philadelphia town ball, and clearly are connected with one another. The entire circuit was shorter than the modern distance from home to first base, and advancing station to station would be a trivial achievement.

Several accounts of Germantown games mention “grannies.” One of them reveals that this is a score, distinguishing between “regular circuits” and “grannies,” with over 10 times as many regular circuits as grannies.[34] The captain of the Honey Run club in their match against the Marions was described as a “granny runner.” A possibility is that grannies were scores which required the runner to dodge an attempted stake, while regular circuits were made on unfielded balls. No account of the competitive club matches mentions grannies or makes any distinction between different types of runs.

The requirement to make a complete circuit on each hit raises the related question of whether the bases served the role of safe havens. This is a general feature—so much so that it sometimes is considered a defining characteristic of the baseball/cricket family. But if the runner must continue running, the safe-haven status seems moot. The Honey Run–Marion account suggests that the bases did retain this function, if only vestigially. In the climactic play of the game, Righter of the Marions hit the ball and before he had reached the third corner (i.e. halfway around the bases), Wyn Stokes of the Honey Runs had the ball in his hands. “This was a critical time…every player was nervous with excitement. The marksman stood still; Righter afraid to move. Wyn’s arm drew back, and with terrific force, catching ‘Marion’ (just making a fine dodge) about three inches above the ancle [sic] bone.” Was the immobility of Righter and Stokes a tactical decision? Should we chalk it up to nerves? Or was it mere dramatic license by the chronicler? Taking it at face value, one possible interpretation is that Stokes didn’t throw immediately because Righter was touching a base, then Righter made a break for the next base, unsuccessfully attempting to dodge the throw. On the other hand, the scene is very cinematic, and possibly fictional. It seems somewhat likelier that the bases were vestigially safe havens, but by then the runner could not linger and allow the fielder with the ball to approach him.

The complete-circuit requirement removes one of the difficulties inherent in all-out innings: what to do when the batter is stranded on a base. In cricket there must always be two men on offense, so while there are 11 men on a side the inning is over after 10 outs. Many versions of the baseball family have special rules for the last man, typically allowing a home run to cancel the previous outs, restarting his side’s inning. Philadelphia town ball had no need for any such rule, there being no mechanism for stranding a runner.

This also raises a question about the batting order. Box scores clearly show a set batting order, but there is no indication whether a successful batter returns immediately to bat, as in cricket, or if the next man in the lineup takes his place, as in the New York game, cycling through the shrinking roster of batters not yet put out. The latter is more consistent with other members of the baseball family, but the former seems a better fit to this version. That said, there is no direct evidence, since no account combines a batting order with the name of the final batter.

A final possible nicety is that the runner was not required to touch the bases as he went by. In 1862 a reporter from the New York Clipper, probably Henry Chadwick, accompanied a group of Brooklyn players to Philadelphia. His report included advice on fine points such as the need to put down chalk lines to delineate the foul lines, and that the Philadelphia players needed to learn to touch the bases.[35] One reason for this requirement is to prevent the runner from cutting corners; but the town ball stakes would clearly define the circle outside of which the player must run. The Clipper’s advice may indicate a vestige of town ball play.

The Umpire: The office of umpire was much less important than in the New York game. The 1838 Olympic constitution assigned this duty to the scorekeeper, who was a club officer, but this obviously would have been inadequate for matches between clubs. The Honey Run–Marion match had two umpires and a referee.[36] Early New York matches followed the same pattern, with an umpire from each club and a neutral third party should the umpires be unable to reach agreement. It soon became apparent that the club appointees were superfluous and a single neutral umpire became standard. Competitive Philadelphia town ball clubs apparently followed the same progression, as the one mention of the office, in one of the Excelsior–Camden matches, named a single man in the role.[37]

There are no descriptions of complaints about the umpire, nor any of the admonishments against this behavior so common in the New York game. The Philadelphia players were not more virtuous: Such descriptions and admonishments appear soon after the New York game was established there. The New York–game umpire was (and is) called upon to make many close judgments, even before the advent of called balls and strikes: Did the ball land foul or fair? Did the ball arrive at the bag first, or the runner? The Philadelphia town ball umpire’s task was less challenging, with the occasional decision on whether a ball was cleanly caught or the rare staking of a runner. This lesser responsibility brought with it fewer complaints.

Ending the game: How to know when the game is over is normally a straightforward question, but there is no obvious answer in this case. There are two common solutions: playing to a fixed score or playing a fixed number of innings. Both are found in the baseball family. The early New York games played in Massachusetts played to a fixed score: 100 and 21 runs, respectively. The New York game switched to the modern nine innings in 1857. Town ball in Cincinnati was played to four innings.[38] Cricket was played by innings: one or two, depending on what the clubs arranged. So either scheme was freely available for Philadelphia town ball, but neither seems to have been applied. Competitive matches came in variously at 11, 12, and 19 innings. The Honey Run–Marion match lasted a mere two innings. The line scores, where available, make clear that extra innings to break a tie were not at issue. Had games been played to a fixed score, however, one would expect it to have been a round number—but this is clearly not the case. Recorded scores include 119–81, 85–75, 80–42, 87–71, and 71–66.[39]

The remaining possibility is that they played for a predetermined period of time. Several accounts of both competitive match games and of Germantown games mention the time of play, consistently running about four hours. The Olympic–Excelsior match of July 12, 1860, ended at 6:30. This is too early to be forced by darkness (even before the advent of daylight savings time), but it is a splendid time to stop for supper. Playing to a fixed ending time is uncharacteristic of the baseball family, but it was the de facto rule even in modern baseball before the advent of lights, and it was not uncommon for teams to agree on an ending time in the days when teams had trains to catch. It is likely that this was the de jure method of ending Philadelphia town ball games.

The Course of Play

The fundamental skills of Philadelphia town ball were identical to those of the early New York game: throw the ball, catch the ball, hit the ball. When the newly formed Mercantile Club lost to the Athletic Club, the Mercantiles ascribed their loss to the Athletics’ experience playing town ball.[40] Based on the evidence at hand, the players’ argument seems entirely plausible. The Olympics were clearly the champion town ball club of Philadelphia, and—following their adoption of the New York game—their title of champion was acknowledged to carry over to the new game.[41] Their play bore this out, and they successfully defended their title for several years.

In strategy, Philadelphia town ball falls short of its relatives. Indeed, it is difficult to see where there is any strategy at all, if we take “strategy” to mean adjusting one’s style of play according to the game situation. In Philadelphia town ball, a “plate appearance” can produce only two possible results: a score (and the right to a subsequent attempt) or an out. There is no possible benefit to be accrued by sacrificing an out, and no partial benefits of getting on base or additional benefits of driving in multiple runs. So there is no reason to bat differently in different strategic situations, and while the fielding team might make adjustments for stronger or weaker batters, this should technically be considered “tactics” rather than “strategy.”

The vast majority of outs were made on fly balls, either caught on the fly or the bound. Unfortunately, there is no record of how most of the runs were made: on uncaught fly balls or on ground balls. The first run of the Honey Run–Marion match was made on a ground ball, but we don’t know if that was common or rare. Given how rare stakes were, it seems that hitting ground balls would be the surest approach. Or perhaps stakes were rare because the fielders played close in, making ground balls dangerous, and batters preferred to hit fly balls. It is a good bet that the ball was dead by modern standards; but one of the vast uncertainties is how dead it was, and, by extension, how far the fielders had to spread out.

The How Put Out box reveals the difference in skill level between the first and the second elevens. The first elevens were twice as likely to catch a ball on the fly, while the second favored catching it on the bound. Journalists discussed the relative merits of the two in the New York game. Much of this discussion was ideological, with fly catches judged more manly, but part of it was pragmatic: On uneven ground the fielder could not count on a true bounce, so a fly catch was, when possible, the more reliable play. Whether for practical or ideological reasons, more skillful players preferred to catch balls on the fly.

Similarly, the second teams had more trouble putting the bat on the ball, being twice as likely to be put out on a “no ball.” But even with the second elevens these represented only 10 percent of all outs. This is low by modern standards, but comparable to strikeouts in contemporary New York games, as can be seen in the extended box score for a New York game between the Olympic and Hamilton clubs, with the clubs combining for five strikeouts.[42]

The Honey Run–Marion match took approximately the same time as the competitive matches, and the final score was similar; yet it lasted only two innings, compared with the 11 or so innings of the competitive matches. There are two aspects that require explanation: why the scoring per inning was so much higher in the Honey Run–Marion match, and why the innings took so much longer to complete.

The likely explanation for the high scoring per inning is that the fundamental skill of batting (in a slow-pitch era) was easier than the fundamental skill of fielding (in an era long before fielder’s gloves). Henry Chadwick long held, in the New York game, that a low score—indicative of skillful fielding—was the true measure of a well played game. This is often regarded today as quaint ideology, and Chadwick undoubtedly held on to the idea long past the time when the game was more about pitching and hitting than fielding. But in the earlier era, the capability of amateur players reliably to catch a ball could not be assumed.

As to the length of an inning, the competitive matches maintained a furious rate of activity. The Olympic–Excelsior game had 240 outs in 11 innings (two short of the expected 242 because the Olympics played the first inning shorthanded) and 158 runs, for a total of 398 game events (defining a “game event” as either a run or an out) in the recorded four and a quarter hours, or a game event approximately every 38 seconds. This is not counting unhit balls and not taking into account the time taken to exchange places between half innings. The Honey Runs and the Marions, being more social than competitive, may simply have played the game at a leisurely pace.

The sum of the evidence strongly suggests that the competitive matches were played more skillfully and more aggressively and, simply put, more happened.


The Massachusetts game is frequently taken as being representative of the baseball family as a whole, which is assumed to be largely uniform. The New York game in turn is assumed to be an outgrowth of this, with certain innovations.

The one idea to take away from this reconstruction of Philadelphia town ball, apart from any interest the rules themselves might hold, is that the baseball family was more variable than is typically imagined. The basic framework was of a bat-and-ball game with bases arranged in a polygon. Within this framework there were various options (e.g. bound outs) and room for unique features (e.g. the absence of station-to-station running in Philadelphia town ball, or three-out innings in the New York game).

With the Massachusetts and New York games and Philadelphia town ball differing so much from one another, it is reasonable to assume that the myriad lesser-known forms were similarly varied. Before the New York game came to displace the other variants, the game was anything but homogeneous. It was a motley, with the New York game being only one form among many.


1. Compare this with the later practice of New York clubs playing in Hoboken. The reasons were the same: Urban development overran convenient playing grounds in the cities but mass transit systems had not yet arisen; it was easier to take the ferry to less-developed New Jersey than to make a road trip.

2. The 1838 constitution is [was] available at The only known extant copy of the 1866 pamphlet is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.

3. New York Clipper: Sept. 19, 1857.

4. New York Clipper: Nov. 12, 1859; Dec. 3, 1859; Dec. 17, 1859.

5. Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times: Apr. 28, 1860; New York Clipper: Nov. 14, 1863; Nov. 28, 1863.

6. Fitzgerald’s City Item (Philadelphia), October 22, 1859, included them in a list of local “ball clubs.”

7. New York Clipper: Aug. 21, 1858: a letter from the secretary states the club had been organized “about a year.”

8. New York Clipper: May 10, 1862. The traditional date for the founding of the Athletics is April 7, 1860. This in fact is the date when the club voted to adopt the New York game. Their origin as a town ball club is discussed in the Clipper article. They are also included in the list in Fitzgerald’s City Item, Oct. 22, 1859.

9. New York Clipper: May 29, 1858; June 19, 1858; July 3, 1858.

10. New York Clipper: Nov. 27, 1858.

11. New York Clipper: Nov. 26, 1859; Dec. 24, 1859.

12. The Morning Pennsylvanian (Philadelphia): May 28, 1860; New York Clipper: May 19, 1860.

13. New York Clipper: June 30, 1860. The first match game in Philadelphia is often incorrectly identified as that of June 26 between the Equity and the Pennsylvania clubs.

14. New York Clipper: Oct. 6, 1860.

15. Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times: Feb. 9, 1861.

16. The Morning Pennsylvanian (Philadelphia): May 28, 1860; New York Clipper: Oct. 19, 1861.

17. Philadelphia Inquirer: May 21, 1862.

18. Brooklyn Eagle: Aug. 6, 1864; Aug. 3, 1864.

19. The oldest known attested use of “base-ball” is from 1744; see: Block, D. 2005. Baseball Before We Knew It. Lincoln, Neb. (p. 178). For “feeder,” see ibid., p. 138.

20. Halliwell, J. 1847. Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs, and Ancient Customs. London (p. 146). 

21. New York Clipper: Aug. 11, 1860; June 9, 1860.

22. The New York game is conventionally said to originate with the Knickerbocker Club rules of 1845, but it was the meeting of the Knickerbockers and three other clubs in 1854 that produced a standard set of rules for interclub match play.

23. Astifan, P., and L. McCray, “‘Old Fashioned Base Ball’ in Western New York, 1825–1860” (forthcoming).

24. Henderson, R. 2001. Ball, Bat and Bishop. Chicago/Urbana (p. 151).

25. New York Clipper: Aug. 4, 1860; Aug. 11, 1860.

26. Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times: Mar. 2, 1861.

27. The Sporting Life: Dec. 31, 1884.

28. New York Clipper: May 29, 1858.

29. The Morning Pennsylvanian (Philadelphia): Nov. 11, 1859; Nov. 28, 1859.

30. Block 2005, 279–280.

31. Ibid., 81–82.

32. New York Clipper: May 10, 1862.

33. Block 2005, 276.

34. New York Clipper: Sept. 19, 1857.

35. New York Clipper: July 12, 1862.

36. Sunday Dispatch (Philadelphia): Nov. 20, 1859.

37. The Press (Philadelphia): July 12, 1860.

38. This is consistent with contemporary accounts, such as that from the New York Clipper, August 21, 1858, reporting a game by the Excelsior Club of Cincinnati of four innings.

39. New York Clipper: May 29, 1858; June 19, 1858; Aug. 4, 1860; Aug. 11, 1860.

40. The Morning Pennsylvanian (Philadelphia): Aug. 2, 1860.

41. Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times: Mar. 2, 1861.

42. The Press (Philadelphia): Nov. 8, 1860.

“The New Marlboro.’ Match Base Ball Co.” of 1863

The South Berkshire Institute of New Marlborough, MA, locus of the “New Marlboro game.”

The South Berkshire Institute of New Marlborough, MA, locus of the “New Marlboro game.”

The article below, by Richard Hershberger, appeared in print in the Spring 2010 number of the journal Base Ball. Richard lives and works in Maryland. He has, in a few short years, become a leading fact-finder in our field, as he pursues his personal goal of understanding the social and organizational history of U.S. baseball from the 18th century to 1880. His recent articles in Base Ball include one on Philadelphia Town Ball (2007), one on baseball and rounders (2009), and two on, respectively, baseball in New York in 1821 and Philadelphia in 1831.

A recent serendipitous discovery has brought to light a previously unknown club playing a previously unknown form of baseball in early 1860s western Massachusetts, including the rules and a diagram of the playing field.

These were obtained by Shawn England, a collector of “early baseball anything,” in fall 2008. He found on eBay a diagram showing a peculiar baseball field, and purchased it for $150. The seller later offered him additional related documents, which he purchased for $50. The collection was reported by the seller to be from the estate of one Carrington Phelps of Colebrook, Connecticut, who had been a student at the South Berkshire Institute in New Marlborough, Massachusetts, in the 1860s. Mr. England then began to research what it was he had bought. This search eventually led him to John Thorn, who directed him to me. He also contacted Jon Swann of the editorial team of the New Marlborough 5 Village News, who provided information about the local history.

The documents include portions of an autograph album signed by students at the South Berkshire Institute. This contains 46 signatures, some of which include epigrams and some with dates in December 1863. Also among the documents are a single sheet (17.5 by 8 inches) titled “Rules and Regulations of the New Marlboro.’ Match Base Ball Co.”[1] The sheet lists 10 rules and was signed by a committee with four signatures. Finally, the documents include a 15.5 by 10 inch sheet, folded lengthwise, depicting a diagram of the playing field and signed by the same committee.

New Marlborough is a town in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, about 26 miles south of Pittsfield. Pittsfield is the site of the earliest known purely American use of the term “baseball,” showing the deep ballplaying tradition of the region. The South Berkshire Institute was a coeducational preparatory school founded in 1856 and closed in 1883.

The four signatory committee members are Charles J. Townsend, Willis I. Taft, William L. Camp, and David I. Bushnell. Of these, two can be positively identified.

William Lewis Camp, in addition to being a committee member, provided a particularly florid autograph. It is the opinion of Shawn England that Camp created all three documents, based on decorative scrollwork signed in one place with the initials W.L.C. Born in Michigan in 1846, at age six Camp was adopted by a relative, Moses Camp, head of a major mercantile firm in Litchfield County, Connecticut. He was sent to be educated at the South Berkshire Institute, before returning to Connecticut as a store clerk. He went on to become a member of the firm and a bulwark of the community.[2]

New Marlboro autographs

New Marlboro autographs

David Ives Bushnell was born 1846 in Sheffield, Massachusetts. The story told later was that he was expelled for carrying a calf into the belfry, tying it there to out-sound the bell with its bellowing. His father gave him $25 and sent him to make his way in the world. He eventually obtained a position as a clerk in St. Louis with the Northern Packet Line, and later became a prosperous grain merchant and amateur archaeologist. He died a millionaire.[3]

Charles J. Townsend is not as easily identified. A Charles J. Townsend was a corporal in the Forty-Ninth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, a nine months regiment, volunteering from Monterey, which lay immediately to the north of New Marlborough. The regiment served in Louisiana before being mustered out September 1, 1863. This might be the same person, returning to school after his service, but this is uncertain.

This is a small sampling, but it shows the classic pattern for baseball clubs of this era. They typically consisted of young professionals and members of the mercantile class. The New Marlboro club is the junior, academic version of this, except for the remarkable fact that they codified their own version of the game.

Baseball in 1863

Baseball, in its premodern state, was played across Anglophone North America in innumerable regional versions and called by various names, the most important being “base ball,” “town ball,” and “round ball.”

This began to change in the mid–1850s, as the version played in and around New York City began to spread. By the start of the Civil War, the “New York Game” was played in major cities across the country.

The New York Game had several competitors. Cricket was an older, established, and prestigious game. The version of baseball played in and around Boston, known as the “Massachusetts Game,” spread into upstate New York. Some regional versions developed local centers of competition, most notably in Philadelphia and Cincinnati, and many others were played by isolated organized clubs.

This changed almost immediately after the end of the Civil War. Cricket went into a long decline through the remainder of the century. The Massachusetts Game and the Philadelphia version were in decline even before the war began. Cincinnati and northern Kentucky were the last holdouts, with clubs competing in the local game through the 1866 season. These premodern forms of baseball would be relegated to the playground, the backwoods, and exercises in nostalgia.

The students of the South Berkshire Institute in 1863 were bucking the trend, rejecting both the up-and-coming New York Game from their west and its chief competitor to their east. As will be seen, the rules show signs that they knew of the New York Game, which was played in Pittsfield since at least 1859.[4] Their studied decision to favor their local version and their awareness of the broader trend might explain why they decided to formalize their activity.

Sources on Early Baseball Rules

There are four broad categories of sources on how early baseball was played: books of games, personal reminiscences, contemporary accounts, and formal sets of rules. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

The earliest information we have comes from books of children’s games. These have the advantage of being fairly complete descriptions. Their major disadvantage is a lack of chronological and geographical context, since they often copy earlier works published in other locations. It is hard to judge how accurately they described (or influenced) actual practice or where and when this practice actually took place. Other categories of sources show that the game varied widely, so books of games with their homogenized descriptions need be regarded with care.

Chapbook, Playing Ball

Chapbook, Playing Ball

Reminiscences avoid these problems, typically being descriptions of the game when the author was a boy. Often the author can be identified, narrowing the description to a specific time and place. However, they are also often very incomplete, focusing on one or two specific points that differ from the modern game (a typical example being the practice of throwing the ball at a baserunner). And of course any account written decades after the fact must be read with an eye to the vagaries of memory.

Contemporary accounts can be presumed to be largely accurate, but are almost always very incomplete. (Imagine trying to deduce the rules of modern baseball by reading a newspaper sports page.) Occasionally there are enough different accounts that can be combined effectively with reminiscences to reconstruct a version, but this is rare.

Formal rules would seem to be the gold standard, but even they require qualification. They were not intended to be comprehensive, but rather to clarify points of possible contention. For example, the oldest version of the New York rules do not specify the pitcher’s location. Additionally, there can be little assurance that the rules outlined were consistently followed in practice. The early New York rules had the two sides playing to 21 runs, but we know from the Knickerbocker club books that the vast majority of their games ran to considerably higher scores. The 21 rule seems to have been applied to special occasions such as match games against other clubs, but this is not explicit.

The biggest limitation on formal rule sets is that they are extraordinarily rare. Prior to the New Marlboro finding, there were only two known sets: the Knickerbocker Club rules of 1845 (as published in 1848) and versions derived from this (i.e., the New York Game) and the Olympic Club of Boston rules published in 1857 and derived versions (i.e., the Massachusetts Game).

The New Marlboro Rules

There are 10 numbered rules. They follow the typical pattern in that they are incomplete, intended to resolve specific points that might be subject to confusion or variation in the informal game. Widely understood aspects not needing clarification were not addressed. The New Marlboro Club’s rules are scanty but, when combined with the broader context of early baseball, they give many clues to how they played the game:

First: The choice of choosing the first player shall be decided by the throwing up of the bat between the chooser’s [sic].
Second: The side which shall have the first innings shall be decided as in Rule First.
Third: The chooser’s [sic] on either side shall by this Act be required to strike first.

The need for a system of choosing sides shows that the rules were intended for internal club use, rather than for match games against other clubs. The method of choosing shows that they were using a round bat, probably two-handed. Other options in early baseball included flat bats (sometimes characterized as “paddles”) and/or one-handed bats. Areas which used flat bats often had an equivalent system of determining priority, but one party would spit on the bat and toss it in the air. The other party could call “wet” or “dry,” like calling “heads” or “tails” in a coin toss. Round bats were certainly used in New York and Boston.

The requirement that the chooser must strike (i.e., bat) first was likely designed to prevent him from striking last, which, as will be seen, was a particularly advantageous position.

The use of the plural form “innings” was old-fashioned by 1863 in baseball, but had been common earlier and is still standard in cricket.

Fourth: There shall not be any person at or around the stakes when the striker is making his round.
Fifth: The thrower must stand at the point designated for him when throwing the ball to the striker.
Sixth: The striker must when striking stand within the circle designated for him.
Seventh: If the thrower or catcher desire to throw the ball at any person in the game running his round he must stand within his circle.

The stipulation of the pitcher and catcher having designated areas (shown on the diagram of the playing field) seems obvious today, but, as has been already noted, this was not inevitable in early versions. The reason in this case is shown by the fourth rule, which is unique to the New Marlboro rules. The runner was put out by a fielder throwing the ball at him and hitting him while between bases. This was the most common form, and it is made clear by the seventh rule.

The modern rule of tagging the runner or his destination base was one of the distinctive features of the New York Game. A secondary effect of the New York rule was that some of the fielders positioned themselves at the bases, while in other versions of baseball they usually spread themselves strategically in order to catch the batted ball. (The modern “shift” applied to some pull hitters is a throwback to this older strategy.) This seems to have suggested a new strategy to the New Marlboro players of having fielders position themselves near the bases—not to tag the runner or base but to act as relay men, receiving the ball from an outfielder and in turn having an easy shot at the runner. The club drafted rules prohibiting this unsporting strategy.

New Marlboro Rules

New Marlboro Rules

The use of the word “thrower” indicates that the pitching was overhand. Underhand pitching was more common at the time, and was used in the New York Game. “Pitcher” is a holdover from that time, as to pitch an object was to toss it underhand, as in the modern sense of “pitching” horseshoes. An overhand delivery was a variant characteristic of the Northeast, attested in New England, upstate New York, and Canada, so its use in New Marlboro is expected. That the player was called the “thrower” makes this explicit.

Eighth: If the thrower and catcher pass the ball 3 times between themselves while the last striker is making his round he is by this Act out.
Ninth: The last striker can choose another person to take his place after he has been around 5 times, by which he himself is out for that game.

Most early versions had the inning end when the entire lineup had been put out. (The Massachusetts Game was unusual in ending the inning with the first out.) This required provision for the last batter to avoid his being left on base: not put out, but with no way to be batted home. The eighth and ninth rules show that in this version the final batter attempted a series of what we now call home runs. The pitcher and catcher were given a special method of putting him out, either in addition to or in place of the usual methods. The batter’s chance of success was enough that a special provision was made lest he be winded. That this puts him out for the “game” rather than the “innings” suggests that one inning constituted a full game, though this does not eliminate the possibility of a series of games.

Tenth: There must be two persons chosen as judges, one from each side, to decide any difficulty that may arise. The players are to abide by their decisions.

The necessity of the umpire was apparent from an early date. The scheme of having each team appoint one was a common solution, but it raised the question of what to do when they disagreed with each other. The solution in the New York Game was a third, neutral party to act as referee when the umpires could not come to agreement. The two club appointees were later abandoned as superfluous. The New Marlboro rules show an early stage of this progression.

Finally, there is the diagram of the playing field. This is the real prize, as many descriptions of early forms are vague about the base layout and distances between them. This diagram shows a basepath of 120 feet. (The runner probably did not have to return to his original position, but completed his run at the final base.) This is smaller than the modern field, but about average for earlier forms. The use of stakes for bases, rather than the bags favored in New York, was widespread.

What the diagram does not show is foul lines. Foul territory was a peculiarity of the New York Game, perhaps introduced to accommodate limited playing space. The more common practice was that a ball hit in any direction was in play.

The New Marlboro Rules in Perspective

The New Marlboro rules are not the Massachusetts Game. They are not radically different from the Massachusetts Game, sharing regional characteristics such as overhand pitching, but they have clear differences, the most important being the unique playing field and all-out innings. The mere fact that the New Marlboro club was not playing the Massachusetts Game is perhaps the most significant finding.

The Massachusetts Game holds a peculiar place in baseball history. It was the only competitor to the New York Game whose rules were published and never entirely forgotten. Because of this, it was drafted to serve as all things to all people. Any form of baseball obviously not the New York Game is often assumed to be the Massachusetts Game, if only because of a failure to consider other possibilities. The Massachusetts Game has been assumed to be both the universal form played throughout the country before the New York Game arose, and (contradictorily) to have spread across the country concurrently with the New York Game, locking the two in an epic struggle for the hearts of ballplayers.

The New Marlboro playing field features several unique curiosities, including its five stakes plus striker’s point.

The New Marlboro playing field features several unique curiosities, including its five stakes plus striker’s point.

This notion has been wearing thin in recent years, as more is learned about premodern baseball. The games played in Philadelphia and Cincinnati bear no strong resemblance to the Massachusetts Game. Many reports that have been taken by modern writers to refer to the Massachusetts Game in various far-flung locales actually say nothing of the sort, referring rather to “town ball” or “old fashioned base ball.” The idea that the Massachusetts Game represents the primeval state of baseball has not been supported by the evidence. On the other hand, there are some signs of expansionism. Clear examples of its play are to be found as far west as Erie, Pennsylvania.[5] Counter to this, there are also examples of baseball games in western New York that are neither the New York nor the Massachusetts Games.[6] While the Massachusetts Game did expand from its home territory, this expansion was modest and short lived.[7]

The question remains: How extensive was this home territory? Reports of games tend to be inconclusive, often providing only the final score. A game to 100 runs is a feature of the formal 1858 Dedham rules, but that was a late development. An 1857 match, for example, between the Olympic and the Bay State Clubs of Boston, played on the Boston Commons, consisted of the best two out of three games, each game played to 25 runs.[8] Such matches required negotiation of the terms. The Dedham rules were formalized in part to remove this obstacle, but it cannot be assumed that the 100 run rule was universally accepted.

Occasionally details are given that hint at the form of the game. A match in Colebrook, Connecticut (10 miles from New Marlborough), in 1859 started late and ended after only two innings, with the score tied at 59 runs.[9] This result would be odd in the formal Massachusetts Game, with its one-out innings, suggesting that the region retained all-out innings, the Dedham rules notwithstanding. The New Marlboro rules confirm this suspicion in as much detail as one could reasonably ask.

The conclusion is that the Massachusetts Game, in its strict sense, was actually the game of Boston and its environs. The game in the surrounding regions was similar in some respects, such as overhand pitching and similar dimensions, but not so similar as to be indistinguishable.

Finally, the New Marlboro rules show resistance to the encroachments of outside standards. Not everyone welcomed these “scientific” versions. With these rules we see this resistance in freeze frame, with the club responding to new strategies typical of the New York Game and trying to maintain the old ways.

The attempt was in vain. The time of the old game was already passing. With the end of the Civil War the New York Game would complete its rise to dominance. Two decades later a game played under the Massachusetts rules was a curiosity. The judgment of a reporter was that the game “furnishes amusement for two or three innings, and then becomes monotonous.”[10] Local versions such as the New Marlboro rules would not be remembered even as a curiosity.


1. The orthography of “New Marlboro’” probably indicates that this spelling was regarded as an abbreviation of “New Marlborough.” The shorter spelling of names ending in “-borough” was common in the 19th century. “Co.” presumably is short for “Company,” which is an unusual construction in the context of baseball. It parallels similar constructions used by organizations such as volunteer fire companies.

2. Spalding, J. 1891. Illustrated Popular Biography of Connecticut (p. 300).

3. D. I. Bushnell papers, Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis; unidentified newspaper clipping hand dated May 29, 1921, Necrology Scrapbook, Vol. C, Missouri Historical Society.

4. Several local games using the New York rules are reported in the Pittsfield Sun in 1859.

5. Erie Observer, June 15, 1865, reporting on a match game ending in a tie at 56 tallies, with “no prospect of finishing the 100 points before dark.” Playing to 100 is characteristic of the Massachusetts Game in it most formal version.

6. E.g., a report in the Buffalo Morning Express ( July 10, 1860) with 15 men on a side, three-out innings, and a final score of 60–42 in 12 innings.

7. The Erie Observer of July 26, 1866, reports on a match between the “nines” of two clubs—a clear indication of the New York Game. All later reports of matches are of the New York Game.

8. Spirit of the Times, May 30, 1857.

9. Pittsfield Sun, Sept. 29, 1859.

10. Worcester Daily Spy, Oct. 17, 1879.

Pittsfield 1791 and Beachville 1838

Beachville, Ontario

Beachville, Ontario

Not two hours ago, reader Brian Dawe posted this interesting comment about Adam Ford and the game he recalled playing in Beachville, Ontario on June 4, 1838.  The article he references may be viewed at: Be sure to read other reader comments, including one by my esteemed colleague David Block. I introduced the Beachville article thus, and repeat it here to supply a bit of context to Ford’s report, which may be read verbatim. “In a letter to Sporting Life, published  May 5, 1886, Dr. Adam Enoch Ford recalled a ball game he had witnessed nearly fifty years earlier on June 4, 1838, in Beechville, Ontario, Canada, ‘which closely resembled our present national game.’ Recalling events that may or may not have transpired when the author was seven years old, Ford’s letter is eerily reminiscent of Abner Graves’ missive to the Mills Commission in 1905, in which he recalled witnessing Abner Doubleday inventing the game of baseball when the inventor was twenty and he was five. In a further coincidence, both Ford and Graves resided in Denver at the time they wrote their letters. Both endured disgrace in their lifetimes: Graves murdered his second wife and ended his days in an asylum; Ford was driven from Ontario by a murder inquest, a relationship with a woman who was not his wife, and a dependence on alcohol and drugs which, in 1906, brought him to his end.” 

I will add that I played a role in rediscovering the 1791 Pittsfield Prohibition. At one time I believed that baseball may have arisen in North America from a “Housatonic Valley Triangle” whose points were Pittsfield, Cooperstown, and New York City. I now believe that baseball was played in North America as early as the 1730s, in south central Massachusetts.

And now from Brian Dawe:

The Burdick family referred to in Dr. Ford’s story came to the Beachville area in Canada in the late 1790s – James and Phoebe and their eight children, ranging in age from 10 years to 30 years. They were originally from Lanesborough, Massachusetts, which is the town next to Pittsfield in Berkshire County that is famous for the 1791 bylaw forbidding baseball games near the town meeting house, for fear its windows might be broken by flying balls. Amongst other things, James Burdick was a Baptist preacher and spoke out in favour of the British cause, which got him into trouble with the local Committee of Safety during the Revolution, and he was fined, disarmed and confined to his farm. By the time he brought his wife and family (four sons, four daughters) to Canada, the oldest children were married with families of their own, so there was quite a Lanesborough influx to the Beachville area in that period. The extended Burdick family included the Williams and Dolson families named in Dr. Ford’s story.

It shouldn’t be any surprise that there is such an early record of a baseball game in Beachville, because around the same time, these and a number of other Berkshire families had come to the same neighbourhood in Ontario, ninety miles west of Niagara, to what was then known as the Township of Oxford-on-the-Thames, a wilderness tract of 64,000 acres. Points of origin for the others included the towns of Great Barrington, New Marlborough and Mount Washington, also all in Berkshire County. They and the Burdick clan all had come under the leadership of Major Thomas Ingersoll of Great Barrington, who was authorized by the government of the province to assign lands in the township to those he considered suitable to form the new settlement. The Town of Ingersoll, Ontario is named after him. It is three miles down the Thames River from Beachville.

Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

All the communities in that part of Ontario have always been very keen about baseball, and there’s no question it is a cradle for the growth of the game in Canada. The first Canadian Base Ball Championship was organized there in the 1860s, with teams competing to take possession of a Silver Ball trophy that was created by fans of the game in Woodstock, the county town five miles up the Thames River from Beachville. The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame is located a bit to the north of Beachville, in a town founded by two of Thomas Ingersoll’s sons, known as St. Marys, Ontario, on another branch of the Thames River.

A festival to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the game described by Dr. Ford is taking place over the next two weekends (May 24-25, and June 1-2) in a meadow that forms part of the grounds of the Beachville Museum. Details can be found on its website at There will be vintage base ball matches for all ages in the course of the festival. Everyone welcome! Still a few game slots available if anyone wants to help form up additional teams. The Beachville Cornstalks have been organized to defend home turf, and already have matches on the program with the London Tecumsehs and the Woodstock Actives, two well-known vintage clubs that have been playing matches in vintage tournaments for decades.

It is a stimulating proposition that baseball may have reached Beachville via Lanesborough/Pittsfield. I invite interested readers to weigh in via the comment feature below. A story about baseball in New Marlborough, MA, mentioned above, may also be relevant reading. I will post that tomorrow.

The Knickerbockers: San Francisco’s First Base Ball Team? Part Two

William R. Wheaton

William R. Wheaton

The following text continues and concludes the article commenced yesterday at:

William R. Wheaton

The next New York Knickerbocker to arrive in San Francisco was William Rufus Wheaton, who has the distinction of being one of the founders of the New York Base Ball club and who umpired the first recorded Knickerbocker game. He left New York on February 1, 1849, aboard the Strafford, a vessel that he and about a hundred other men had purchased as a joint venture and filled with merchandise for the California gold fields. He disembarked in San Francisco August 30, 1849.

Of his arrival Wheaton wrote, “I came ashore at Clarke’s Point, and found some friends who gave me the privilege of lying on the floor of their office, which I accepted, and went and bought a mattress and some blankets.”[15]

Wheaton also wrote that when it was learned that he was an attorney, he was immediately waylaid and guaranteed a hundred thousand dollars a year if he would settle in San Francisco and practice his profession. He accepted several cases, trying one, and referred the rest to other attorneys.

Fifteen days after arriving in San Francisco, Wheaton and others in his party continued on to Sacramento, about ninety miles away. By early 1850, after abandoning placer mining, Wheaton started a successful wholesale grocery business in Sacramento with Alonzo Hamilton—Hamilton & Wheaton.

Edward A. Ebbets

Edward A. Ebbetts arrived in San Francisco aboard the Panama on April 22, 1850, too late to be called a ’49er. He was also a latecomer with the New York Knickerbockers, first appearing in a Knickerbocker game on September 25, 1846. He played 10 documented games that season and 24 games the following year.

Edward was preceded to San Francisco by his younger brother, Arthur, who would accumulate vast wealth and fame in his adopted city. Edward’s stay was briefer and less dramatic. (Coincidentally, Arthur Ebbetts voyaged to San Francisco aboard the Pacific, the same vessel that brought Alfred Cartwright, Alexander Cartwright’s brother, to this city.) The Ebbetts brothers, along with Benjamin F. Lowe, established Ebbetts & Co., Commission Merchants at 60 California Street.

Edward Ebbetts was a guest at William Eddy’s home on New Year’s Day 1851, and was one of the “gentlemen” (as reported in the Alta, January 4, 1851) appointed to call a meeting for the organization of the Knickerbocker Association.

At the Knickerbocker meeting of January 6, 1851, he was elected a member of the Association’s Finance Committee.

Walter Avery

Walter T. Avery was the last New York Knickerbocker to arrive in California, reaching San Francisco on June 6, 1850, aboard the steamer Columbus, 114 days out of New York.[16]  The California census of 1852 lists Walter T. Avery of New York as a merchant in San JoaquinCounty. The 1852 Stockton City Directory lists W.T. Avery as a partner in the firm of Avery and Hewlett, Wholesale Dealers in Groceries, Dry Goods and Produce, located at the corner of Main and Hunter Streets in Stockton. H.H. Hewlett and Avery operated the Stockton store, but they also had a branch operation in San Francisco overseen by John C. Hewlett. Stockton, about eighty miles from San Francisco, was an inland shipping center and jumping-off point for the southern mines.

Walter Titus Avery

Walter Titus Avery

Avery’s first appearance with the New York Knickerbockers was on April 14, 1846, when he played on Alexander Cartwright’s team, scoring seven runs in a 55–33 rout. Avery was also one of the New York Knickerbockers who played against the New York nine on June 19, 1846.

Although the journal that Alexander Cartwright kept of his cross-country trek was not useful in determining his activities while in California, it does contain some extremely valuable information. At the back of the journal is a listing of names and addresses. One of the names in Cartwright’s “address book” is: Walter Avery care of DeWitt & Harrison, San Francisco. [17]

William H. Tucker

Yet another New York Knickerbocker to be found in San Francisco is William H. Tucker. In the Knickerbockers’ first recorded game of October 6, 1845, Tucker, playing on Cartwright’s team, scored three of his team’s eight runs in a losing effort.

Of the Knickerbockers’ 14 recorded games in 1845, William Tucker appeared in 10. One game in which he did not participate was on October 24. This may be due to the fact that another baseball game was being contested that day in Brooklyn—the second game of the two-game New York–Brooklyn series. In both games a player identified as “Tucker” played for the New York Team.[18]

In 1846 William Tucker played in 35 of the Knickerbockers’ 50 recorded games. On June 19, 1846, when the Knickerbockers faced the New York team, “Tucker” showed his true allegiance by playing for the Knickerbockers.

When the Knickerbockers’ game book began recording players’ positions in 1847, Tucker is listed as pitcher, “behind” (i.e. catcher), and second base. During 1847 and 1848 Tucker appeared in 42 of the Knickerbockers’ 86 games. From the inception of the club’s game books, Tucker appeared in 87 of 150 games through the end of the 1848 season.

The opening game of the 1849 season was played without Tucker—the first opening game that he missed. He also missed the rest of the 1849 season along with the entire 1850 season as well. Finally, on May 1, 1851, seven games into the 1851 season, and 86 games since his last recorded appearance as a New York Knickerbocker, Tucker is listed as playing “behind” with his New York teammates.

Where did William H. Tucker go for two-plus seasons?

From 1845 through 1853 Tucker is recorded in the New York City Directory as residing at 56 East Broadway. Also residing at that address was Abraham Tucker. Abraham had been listed at the address as far back as 1842. Both Tuckers gave their occupations as tobacconists.

This uninterrupted directory listing might lead one to conclude that Tucker was still living in New York but simply not playing any baseball. However, while William Wheaton and the DeWitts were indisputably in California, they continued to be listed in the New York City directory also. Additionally, on March 9, 1849, the New York Herald published a list of passengers aboard the steamship Falcon bound for California via the Isthmus Route. Among the listed passengers was “Tucker,” no first name.This could be anybody surnamed Tucker; but Alexander Cartwright’s journal/address book lists: Wm. H. Tucker 271 Montgomery st. upstairs, San Francisco, Cal.[19]

Tucker reappeared in New York in the spring of 1851. To arrive in New York on or before May 1, he could have been in San Francisco as late as mid-March 1851.

Charles Case

The preceding six gentlemen—New York Knickerbockers all—were undeniably baseball players from New York. Charles Ludlow Case was not a New York Knickerbocker, but he probably was a baseball player from New York. In the two baseball games between the New York and Brooklyn teams contested on October 21 and 24, 1845, the players were listed by last name only.[20] Playing both games for the New York team was “Case.” On June 19, 1846, “Case” also played for the New York team against the Knickerbockers.[21]

June 19, 1846 Game with Charles Case

June 19, 1846 Game with Charles Case

Charles Case arrived in San Francisco on February 27, 1849, aboard the bark Jesurum from New York. Together with Charles L. Heiser and others, he established Case, Heiser & Co. Commission Merchants at 60 Sansome Street. This was on the same street as DeWitt & Harrison.

According to the 1852 California census, Charles Case was born in 1818, making him four years younger than William Wheaton and Walter Avery; three years younger than Theodore DeWitt; three years older than Edward Ebbetts; two years older than Peter DeWitt and Alex Cartwright; and the same age as Frank Turk and Alfred DeWitt. In other words, neither too young nor too old to play baseball.

At the initial meeting of the San Francisco Knickerbockers, Charles Case was elected to the Finance Committee.

Summing Up

The DeWitt brothers (Alfred, Peter Jr., Theodore, and Henry), Frank Turk, William Wheaton, Edward Ebbetts, Walter Avery, William Tucker, and Charles Case were all in or near San Francisco between 1849 and 1851. But did they know of each other? Did their paths cross?

•  Frank Turk was a high-profile public figure and a participant in a sensational public trial. He was also a politician who successfully ran for public office. Clearly he was the most visible and most reachable of the New York Knickerbockers.

•  Alfred DeWitt was a jury member on the first of the three trials prosecuted by Frank Turk.[22] Therefore the paths of Turk and DeWitt had definitely crossed. Additionally, DeWitt & Harrison was one of the largest businesses in San Francisco at the time.[23] Further, Alfred DeWitt, being a partner of Henry Harrison—who successfully ran for public office twice—would have gained some reflected notoriety from his partner’s campaigning and successes. Alfred’s brothers, Peter Jr., Henry, and Theodore, were also active in its operation, and would also have received some of the reflected notoriety. As was the case with Frank Turk, the DeWitts were well known and easily reachable.

•  According to Alexander Cartwright’s journal/address book, Walter Avery and Alfred DeWitt had a direct channel of communication.

•  Charles Case’s business was on the same street as Alfred DeWitt’s. Both men were commission merchants and definitely would have known of each other. Further, on July 30, 1850, in a letter written to his mother in New York, Peter DeWitt Jr. referred to “Mr. Case.” Since no other “Case” was listed in the San Francisco directory for 1850, presumably this is a reference to Charles Case. Alfred DeWitt wrote in his journal that when he left New York for California he was accompanied to the brig Belfast by, among others, Mr. H.A. Heiser. Might this have been a relative of Charles Heiser, Case’s business partner at Case, Heiser & Co. in San Francisco? On a voyage from New York to San Francisco in 1850, Alfred DeWitt wrote that he was traveling with his wife and “Mrs. Heiser.” Might this have been the wife of Charles Heiser of Case, Heiser & Co.?

•  When William Wheaton arrived in San Francisco in 1849 he wrote, “I came ashore at Clarke’s Point, and found some friends who gave me the privilege of lying on the floor of their office, which I accepted, and went and bought a mattress and some blankets.” DeWitt & Harrison was adjacent to Clarke’s Point. Was Wheaton referring to Alfred DeWitt? Even if Wheaton didn’t sleep on the floor of DeWitt & Harrison, he could not have missed seeing their building at Clarke’s Point. Bear in mind that word of Alfred DeWitt’s arrival in San Francisco had reached New York weeks and even months before other New York Knickerbockers left for the gold fields.

•  Edward Ebbetts’ presence at William Eddy’s New Year’s gathering is a matter of historic record, having been noted in the San Francisco newspapers of the day. Additionally, he was at the first meeting of the Knickerbocker Association and was elected, along with Charles Case, to the Finance Committee. The 1851–52 San Francisco City Directory lists Ebbetts as a member of the Sansome Hook and Ladder Company No. 3, along with Alfred DeWitt and C. L. Case. This volunteer firefighting company was organized on June 14, 1850.

•  The DeWitts, Edward Ebbetts, Charles Case, Walter Avery, and William Wheaton were all engaged in the same type of enterprise—wholesale merchandising. To be successful in this business, one must advertise, advertise, advertise. The DeWitts and Case carried on their business on the same San Francisco street while the Ebbetts brothers were only a couple of blocks away. Wheaton and Avery, although in two different cities, would necessarily have to make periodic business trips to San Francisco. Avery & Hewlett had a branch store in San Francisco, providing Walter Avery an opportunity and a reason to come to the city. It is documented that Wheaton in fact did visit San Francisco.[24] It goes without saying that it would have been almost impossible for these businessmen not to have had some personal knowledge of and commercial dealings with one another.

•  That leaves only William Tucker. His residence at 271 Montgomery Street was easy walking distance to DeWitt & Harrison, Case, Heiser & Company, and Ebbetts & Co. Since his address was known to Cartwright, it seems unlikely that Tucker would journey to the other side of the continent only to hide from his close friends and teammates—both Knickerbocker and New York Team—from back home. If Cartwright knew his address, the others in San Francisco must have known it.

Looking Toward Portsmouth Square (a.k.a. the Plaza), San Francisco 1851

Looking Toward Portsmouth Square (a.k.a. the Plaza), San Francisco 1851

Frank Turk, Edward Ebbetts and Charles Case were elected to office at the initial Knickerbocker Association meeting. On January 3, 1851, Alfred DeWitt was in Panama en route to San Francisco following a visit to New York. He would have missed the first Knickerbocker meeting, but could have easily been in San Francisco for the subsequent meetings and the games of February and March.

Nonetheless, brothers Peter Jr., Theodore, and Henry (now 22 years of age) were in San Francisco at the time. Coming from a prestigious family both in New York and San Francisco, and knowing the social and business value of association, it is highly likely that the other DeWitt brothers would have responded to the opportunity to expand and solidify their social and professional contacts in their adopted hometown by answering the Knickerbocker call.

It is even more likely, given the cachet of the DeWitts, that they were guests of Mr. Eddy on New Year’s Day.

Consider: Six definite baseball players,[25] along with another highly probable baseball player from New York, were in or near San Francisco in early 1851. In various manners and at various times they crossed each other’s paths. Then a special social gathering is called. Perhaps for the first time since their arrival in California, these former ballplayers (or at least most of them) are together at the same time in a relaxed, convivial atmosphere.

After the agenda is concluded, these men—business associates or competitors in San Francisco; friends, teammates, or rivals in New York—socialize and nostalgically recall the “good old days” back in their distant hometown. Somebody wistfully mentions the baseball games played and won and lost at Murray Hill, the Parade Ground, Brooklyn, and the Elysian Fields several years in the past and three thousand miles distant.

One can easily visualize the pipe and cigar smoke drifting hazily around the meeting room, mingling with the fond memories, the boasting, and the colored recollections of these erstwhile ballplayers. These men, still only in their thirties, settle into comfortable chairs and soon the gentlemanly talk flows as smoothly as the brandy and whiskey that evening.

Inevitably somebody makes a fateful suggestion. Or throws down a friendly gauntlet.  A line is drawn. It is too much to resist. It cannot be ignored.

The call goes out: PLAY BALL.

Less than a month after the first San Francisco Knickerbocker Association meeting, baseball is being played in the Plaza.

The intervening time was probably needed to make personal and business arrangements; obtain or manufacture the baseball equipment that, naturally, was not readily available in San Francisco in 1851; and, if necessary, get the word to Sacramento and Stockton for Wheaton and Avery to get themselves to San Francisc0.[26]

In January and February 1851, we have six former New York Knickerbockers and another baseball player from New York in or near San Francisco. Was it just a coincidence that four weeks after that first Knickerbocker Association meeting on January 6, and a mere four days after the January 30 meeting, baseball is being played in the Plaza?

Portsmouth Square ca.1855, East Side

Portsmouth Square ca.1855, East Side

Granted, coincidence is not causation. It is conceivable that a troupe of inebriated Argonauts spontaneously tumbled and stumbled out of the many drinking establishments and gambling parlors surrounding the Plaza and, using shovel- and ax-handles as bats, and god knows what as a ball, played something resembling baseball for wagers of pinches of gold dust or shots of whiskey.

Was the Alta writer being ironic or not in his use of the term “gentlemen”?

If a game book was kept, it is now gone forever. But we have the California Courier’s abbreviated description of that opening day:

SPORTS ON THE PLAZA:  The Plaza has at last been turned to some account by our citizens. Yesterday quite a crowd collected upon it, to take part in and witness a game of ball, many taking a hand.

The Original 7—DeWitt, Turk, Wheaton, Tucker, Case, Avery, Ebbetts—the Magnificent 7 Knickerbockers, clearly weren’t the only players on February 3. They were, however, the catalyst and nucleus of that game that history forgot.

The games in the Plaza wouldn’t have looked anything like the affair at Center’s Bridge nine years later, or the New York Knickerbocker games of four or five years earlier. These first games in the Plaza would have been strictly for fun with no arguments, disputes, fines, or threats of forfeit. Following the baseball rules of the day—Knickerbocker rules, of course—the game would have resembled slow-pitch softball instead of its modern-day descendant.  By custom the teams would have retired to a gala postgame dinner where both sides, along with family and friends, would grandly and graciously toast each other.

Two days later the Alta reported:

BASE-BALL:  This is becoming quite popular among our sporting gentry, who have an exercise upon the Plaza nearly every day.

Did the Knickerbockers return to the Plaza?

On March 1 the Daily Herald took up the narrative: “Numbers of boys and grown men daily amuse themselves by playing ball upon [the Plaza].”

Certainly not the Knickerbockers any more.

Readers of the March 25 edition of the Alta would find this final chapter of baseball’s first season in San Francisco:

There the boys play at ball, some of them using expressions towards their companions neither flattering, innocent, nor commendable. Men, too, children of a larger growth, do the same things.

Absolutely not men “to the manor born.”

In seven weeks the descriptions of the early baseball players evolved from “sporting gentlemen” to “boys and men using unflattering language. The spread of baseball in San Francisco was a rapid and complete process.

Turk, Wheaton, Ebbetts, DeWitt, Avery, Tucker, Case.

We’ll never be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that these men really did take up bat and ball in that winter of 1851. But—we do know for certain that San Francisco’s baseball Genesis was 1851, not 1860, and our Garden of Eden was not Center’s Bridge, but Portsmouth Square.

SF Committee of Vigilance

SF Committee of Vigilance

Soon serious business would wrench these men away from their cherished pastime. By March, San Francisco’s social fabric was unraveling and civil authority was on the brink of collapse. Robberies, murders, and assaults plagued the city as never before. Arson-set fires threatened sections of the city. In response, citizens would band together to protect lives, order, and property. Members of the San Francisco Knickerbockers would become members of the Vigilance Committee.

Ultimately the Plaza—San Francisco’s first ball field—would be the scene of the first of four public hangings carried out by the Vigilance Committee. It would be September before order was restored in the city and the Vigilance Committee of 1851 disbanded.

If these men were indeed the ones to participate in the first recorded baseball games in San Francisco, within five years all but one of them had left the city, taking their memories and mementos of the contests in the Plaza with them. By May 1851, William Tucker was once again playing baseball in New York. In 1856 Charles Case returned to his native state where he died the following year. Walter Avery also returned to New York where he lived into the next century. Sometime in the 1850s Frank Turk relocated to Washington, DC, where he lived until returning to San Francisco in 1879. He died in poverty at the city’s almshouse in 1887. DeWitt & Harrison did not survive the 1850s. Alfred left San Francisco for New York on April 8, 1853.[27] Edward Ebbetts was back in New York in 1855. He passed away in 1909, the longest-lived of these bicoastal Knickerbockers.

Of all the old New York Knickerbockers, only William Wheaton remained in California for the remainder of his life, passing away in Oakland on September 11, 1888, at the age of 74. The November 27, 1887, edition of the San Francisco Examiner printed an article “How Baseball Began.” Although not named in the article, the narrator—“a well known lawyer and politician, now living in Oakland”—was clearly William Wheaton. Disappointingly, his baseball recollections were limited to New York. 

In May and June two great fires swept through San Francisco, burning first 20 blocks of buildings and then another 15 blocks in the area surrounding the Plaza.

Thus as a result of fire or relocation, if any records were kept of the baseball games in the Plaza, there is no trace of them other than the brief newspaper accounts of February and March 1851. By default, then, the records kept by John Durkee erroneously credit 18 men with playing San Francisco’s first game of baseball nine years after it had been documented that, if only for a brief time, the game was a regular feature of the Plaza.

Why baseball disappeared until 1860 after reappearing in January 1852 is fodder for another historical exploration.

DeWitt, Turk, Wheaton, Ebbetts, Avery, Tucker, Case.

Rather than crediting “a few members of the Eagle Club of New York” with bringing baseball to San Francisco in 1859, as the Pacific Base Ball Guide of 1867 would have us do, shouldn’t we acknowledge other men from New York for bringing baseball to San Francisco in 1851 instead? Although there are no bats or balls bearing their fingerprints, linking them to those prehistoric games of 1851, there are no better candidates than these men from New York who came to California seeking gold, but left behind something much more valuable.


15. Wheaton, W. “Statement of Facts on Early California History,” Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, BANC MSS C-D171.

16. Avery’s obituary in the New York Times (June 11, 1904, p. 9 col. 6) reads in part: “Mr. Avery was one of the original gold seekers who went to California in 1849 [sic], and was the last living member of the original Knickerbocker Baseball Club.”

17. This is a list of 22 names of people in New York and California ranging from ship captains to Knickerbocker teammates who remained in New York. If there is any order to the listing of the names, it is not obvious. Avery’s listing is the 21st of 22 names.

18. Sullivan, D., ed. 1995. Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball 1825–1908. Lincoln, Neb. (pp. 12–13). William Wheaton was one of the umpires at this game.

19. Tucker’s listing is the 16th of the 22 names.

20. Sullivan 1995, 12–13.

21. Peterson 1973, 76.

22. Alta: Aug. 2, 1849, p. 1 col. 3.

23. DeWitt & Harrison was such a prominent and prosperous business that it was a target of an elaborate robbery plot by Sam Whittaker, who was eventually hanged by the 1851 Vigilance Committee: Williams, M., ed. 1910. Papers of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1851. Berkeley (p. 256).

24. Wheaton was in San Francisco on May 31 and October 31, 1850. Kibbey, M. 2000. J. Horace Culver’s SACRAMENTO CITY DIRECTORY FOR THE YEAR 1851, with a History of Sacramento to 1851, Biographical Sketches, and Information Appendices (pp. 161, 163).

25. Which DeWitt played with the New York Knickerbockers is largely a moot point. By 1851 any or all of the four DeWitt brothers are “suspects” as San Francisco baseball players, including the youngest, Henry, who was by then 22 years old.

26. By 1851 a fleet of steamships carrying mail, cargo, and passengers between San Francisco and the inland ports of Sacramento and Stockton made regularly scheduled round trips every other day.

27. The last San Francisco City Directory listing for DeWitt & Harrison appeared in 1854. However, in 1856 the business of DeWitt, Kittle & Company was established, listing 189 and 191 Sansome Street, San Francisco, and 92 Wall, N.Y. The 1856 New York City directory lists Alfred DeWitt “mer. 92 Wall”. The city directory listings for DeWitt, Kittle & Co. continued through 1871, after which time the DeWitt name is no longer associated with San Francisco.


The Knickerbockers: San Francisco’s First Base Ball Team?

The garden spot of baseball in the golden west, Portsmouth Square in San Francisco, January 1851

The garden spot of baseball in the golden west, Portsmouth Square in San Francisco, January 1851

This brilliant essay by Angus Macfarlane–now presented at Our Game in two parts–ran in the first number of the journal Base Ball, back in Spring 2007. It is not too much to say that it thoroughly rewrites the standard story of how baseball came to California, who first played it, and where. As the author notes, “On Washington’s Birthday, 1860, the San Francisco Base Ball Club faced the Red Rovers at a now long-forgotten site then known as Center’s Bridge. Local baseball historians consider this event, reported only in the Spirit of the Times, the beginning of San Francisco baseball history. Yet in 1851 the daily newspapers reported that base ball was being played in the Plaza, San Francisco’s central square. Over a seven-week period, three daily journals made five separate references to baseball activity, though no player names or game accounts were published. Who were these nameless, faceless men who reportedly played baseball nearly a decade before the match at Center’s Bridge?  Is it possible, more than 150 years after the fact, to identify these ‘prehistoric’ baseball players, or are San Francisco’s pioneers of the diamond condemned to spend eternity in anonymity?  The hard evidence is missing, but clues and compelling circumstantial evidence from 1851 point to surprising suspects—men who had the means, the motive, the opportunity and the intent to play baseball in San Francisco in 1851.”

Angus Macfarlane lives in San Francisco, where he worked for almost 30 years as a juvenile probation officer. Recently retired, he has discovered the joys and challenges of researching the general history of his hometown as well as San Francisco’s sports history. He is working on a series of articles on the history of San Francisco horse race tracks. His recently completed article, “Baseball Goes East: The 1876 San Francisco Centennials’ Magical Mystery Tour,” will appear in Base Ball this fall.

On September 23, 1931, prior to a Mission Reds–Hollywood Stars Pacific Coast League baseball game, an Old-Timers Day was celebrated at San Francisco’s brand new Seals Stadium. The 40 honorees were divided into two teams recalling the old California League of the 1880s: the Pioneers and the Haverleys. Appropriately, at least four of the old timers had either been members of those two venerable teams, or of the Greenwood and Morans, another California League team of that bygone era.

Almost half a century before the Seals Stadium nostalgia-fest, a similar baseball reunion was held at Recreation Grounds at 25th and Folsom Streets. The date was Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1882, and the occasion was the commemoration of, as written in the next day’s San Francisco Chronicle, “the twenty-second anniversary of the introduction of baseball on the Pacific Coast.”

As in 1931, the 21 veterans of the Eagle, Pacific, Liberty, and Empire Base Ball Clubs of the 1860s and 1870s were divided into two teams: the Eagles and the Pacifics. These two teams, long and bitter rivals, had very deep roots in San Francisco baseball history. A half dozen of these baseball veterans had had the singular honor of representing their clubs in a series of games against the legendary Cincinnati Red Stockings when they visited San Francisco 13 years earlier.

San Francisco Pacifics, ca.  1869

San Francisco Pacifics, ca. 1869

The arrival of the Red Stockings in San Francisco on September 23, 1869, was an unprecedented event: An “eastern” baseball club came to play the city’s best nines. Not just any eastern club—this was the legendary Cincinnati Red Stockings, the sport’s first openly professional team. While San Francisco’s best base ball clubs were no threat to the Red Stockings’ 45-game winning streak, the city looked forward to the prospect of an entertaining six-game display of baseball expertise at Recreation Grounds, San Francisco’s premier sporting venue.

The local newspapers fawned over the arrival of the team that had created such a furor back east. On September 24, the San Francisco Bulletin printed an article summarizing the city’s history of baseball. It began:

The first appearance of baseball on this coast, according to records in charge of Mr. [John] Durkee, one of the pioneer baseball players on this coast and an enthusiast in the game, was 1859. The Eagle Club was organized in November, 1859, and the first game of baseball according to New York rules occurred at Center’s Bridge February 22, 1860 between the Eagles and Red Rovers.

The article related the well known tale of the contentious game that stood at 33-all after nine innings, and the Red Rovers’ refusal to continue play, complaining that the pitching of Eagle J. C. Willock was illegal. Finding no fault with Willock’s delivery, the umpire declared the game a forfeit and awarded the victory to the Eagles.

Three of the 1882 honorees had participated in that landmark game at Center’s Bridge on Washington’s Birthday in 1860: John Fisher, J. Kerrigan, and John Durkee, the keeper of San Francisco’s baseball records. Durkee played center field, batted eighth in the Eagle lineup, and scored three of his team’s thirty-three runs in that momentous game.

From Seymour Church, Base Ball: George Wright and the Golden Gate

From Seymour Church, Base Ball: George Wright and the Golden Gate

In 1867, two years before the Cincinnati Red Stockings put San Francisco on the baseball map, it was written in the Pacific Base Ball Guide, published by the Pacific Base Ball Convention of California, the state’s governing body for baseball:

Previous to the year 1859, the game of base ball as it was then played in the east, was unknown on this Coast, but in that year a few members of the Eagle Club, of New York, organized a club in this city and styled themselves the San Franciscans.[1]

Since at least 1869 Durkee’s records have been the undisputed foundation and mortar of almost 150 years of San Francisco baseball history. Although they were undoubtedly lost in the fire of 1906, other documents based on those records did survive, supporting and validating to this day the contention that baseball’s Genesis in San Francisco was 1860 and that the Garden of Eden was Center’s Bridge.

However, there is one serious drawback to relying on those records: They do not account for contemporary newspaper reports of baseball being played in San Francisco in 1851 and 1852.

On February 4, 1851, the San Francisco Alta California (Alta) reported on the baseball equivalent of “In the beginning …”:

SPORT—A game of base ball was played upon the Plaza yesterday afternoon by a number of the sporting gentlemen about town.

A clear discrepancy thus emerges between recorded baseball history—the 1851 and 1852 newspaper accounts of baseball in San Francisco—and the accepted baseball history based on John Durkee’s records. Between the Alta’s initial mention on February 4, 1851, and its final item on March 25, three newspapers made five reports of baseball activity in the Plaza, also known as Portsmouth Square.[2] Unfortunately, none of the reports provides any details, such as names of players or outcomes of games, begging the provocative question: Who were those men playing baseball in 1851? The names, positions, and performances of the San Francisco Base Ball Club[3] and Red Rovers who met at Center’s Bridge, on the other hand, are recorded for posterity in the first box score of a baseball game played in California.[4]

Daily Alta, February 4, 1851

Daily Alta, February 4, 1851

A sometimes insurmountable handicap in seriously researching any aspect of early San Francisco history is the absence of primary sources. Not only did the 1906 earthquake and fire destroy so much material relating to nineteenth-century San Francisco, but in the early-to-mid-1850s, periodic “Great Fires” swept through the highly combustible city, destroying many of the wood and canvas structures, along with their contents: the personal letters, diaries, books, albums, family heirlooms, business records and documents, association minutes, mementos, and memorabilia that could answer so many historical questions and solve so many mysteries. Tragically, these sources are lost forever, reduced to ash or rubble, leaving at best secondary sources or, in many instances, only circumstantial evidence upon which to reconstruct history.

Unlike the paper trail that leads to and from John Durkee’s records, including a primitive box score immortalizing the 18 men at Center’s Bridge, there is no paper trail per se that can help us to identify San Francisco’s first baseball players. The hard evidence—the smoking gun as it were—has gone up in smoke or has been reduced to charred debris. Fortunately relevant historical evidence has survived, and, along with compelling circumstantial evidence, the forgotten and overlooked historical dots can be connected. And perhaps the early baseball players, or at least likely “suspects,” can be named.

* * *

On January 1, 1851, Mr. William M. Eddy, the Surveyor of the City of San Francisco, hosted a gathering at his home for his friends to welcome in the New Year. Hailing from New York as Mr. Eddy did, it was not surprising that many of his guests were also from the Empire State. In fact, Eddy’s home was crowded with so many transplanted New Yorkers that it was suggested that an association for New Yorkers in California be formed.[5] 

Accordingly, on January 4, 1851, a notice appeared in the San Francisco newspapers inviting all New Yorkers in San Francisco to attend a meeting on January 6, 1851, for the purpose of forming a Knickerbocker Association. At that gathering a constitution was framed and officers were elected.

Unfortunately, the membership rolls of the Knickerbocker Association are among the items lost forever. Though the names of the association’s rank and file will never be known, the names of the officers elected at the first meeting were printed in the local newspapers.

On January 23 the Knickerbockers met again, deciding that “none but those who were to the ‘manor born’ could be considered as real genuine Knickerbockers.” In other words, riff-raff need not apply.

On January 30 the Knickerbockers met once more. Four days later, and a mere four weeks after the formation of the Knickerbocker Association, baseball was being played in the Plaza.

If we allow ourselves a small step of faith in surmising that the “gentlemen,” as characterized in the Alta’s first report of the games, were indeed gentlemen, and knowing that the San Francisco Knickerbocker Association restricted its membership exclusively to gentlemen, then we have the beginnings of an interesting theory.

Alta Office, Shew's Daguerreian Saloon, 1851

Alta Office, Shew’s Daguerreian Saloon, 1851

After that small step of faith, we can look at hard evidence that suggests that these baseball players may have been more than just members of a newly formed gentleman’s club. It is entirely possible that San Francisco’s first baseball players were men who had more than just the means, the motive, and the opportunity to play baseball in 1851. Additionally, and most importantly, they also had the intent to play baseball in 1851 … because these men had played the game many times before.

It is possible that these baseball pioneers were more than just members of the San Francisco Knickerbockers; they may also have been members of the New York Knickerbockers—the New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club transplanted to California. The Knickerbockers of interest are the DeWitt brothers, Frank Turk, William Wheaton, Charles Case, William Tucker, Edward Ebbetts, and Walter Avery.

Listed below—roughly in the order of their arrival in San Francisco—are brief profiles of New York’s baseball Knickerbockers who can be placed in or around San Francisco in January and February of 1851, and who are worthy of scrutiny as likely “suspects” of being the “sporting gentlemen” playing baseball in the Plaza that first baseball season in California.

Clan DeWitt

Without any substantiation, baseball historian Harold Peterson identifies Peter DeWitt Jr. as the DeWitt family representative on the New York Knickerbockers.[6] A “DeWitt” did play in the club’s first recorded game on October 6, 1845, on the same side as Alexander Cartwright. However, since no first name or initial for “DeWitt” is recorded in the Knickerbocker game book,[7] it is just as likely that “DeWitt” might also have been either Peter’s older brother Alfred or younger brother Theodore.

The DeWitt family of New York City consisted of Peter Sr. (a wealthy attorney), his wife Jenat, and their children. Between 1808 and 1835 ten sons and two daughters were born to the parents. Our focus is on four of the sons: Alfred (born February 15, 1818); Peter Jr. (born February 12, 1820); Theodore (born November 19, 1821); and Henry (born June 25, 1828).

DeWitt and Harrison, Daily Alta, January 15, 1853

DeWitt and Harrison, Daily Alta, January 15, 1853

Alfred DeWitt, according to his journal and letters that he wrote,[8] left New York on April 6, 1848, aboard the Belfast, arriving in San Francisco on September 22 of that year. Alfred and his business partner, Henry A. Harrison, had purchased the Belfast in New York and filled its cargo hold with merchandise with the intention of establishing a business in San Francisco.[9] Upon their arrival, the two men set up DeWitt & Harrison on the west side of Sansome Street between Broadway and Pacific, near the Broadway Pier at what was then known as Clarke’s Point. Their first advertisement appeared in the September 30, 1848, edition of the weekly Californian, announcing

NEW GOODS.  DE WITT & HARRISON will open on Monday next, a large and general assortment of New Goods, just received per brig Belfast, from New York, which they offer to sell at wholesale at the ship wharf, foot of Broadway.

In addition to the paid advertisement, readers of the Californian also found this editorial comment on the arrival of DeWitt’s ship:

Town property is rapidly increasing in value. We have been credibly informed that as soon as the “Belfast” was seen lying at the wharf foot of Broadway, and discharging her cargo, goods fell 25 per cent and real estate rose from 50 to 100 percent. The vacant lot on the corner of Montgomery and Washington streets [four blocks from where the Belfast was docked] was offered the day previous for $5,000 and the next day sold readily at $10,000.

Needless to say, DeWitt & Harrison soon became one of the largest businesses in San Francisco.[10]

In June 1849, Alfred’s 21-year-old brother Henry arrived in San Francisco. The next month Alfred’s wife, Margaret, joined her husband. In 1850 Henry and Alfred were joined by brothers Peter Jr., who arrived in May, and finally Theodore, who came ashore in October.

Frank Turk

Another New York Knickerbocker to arrive in San Francisco was Frank Turk. His club debut was on October 17, 1845, the club’s third recorded game, when he scored three runs for his winning team. He missed the historic match game against the New York team on June 19, 1846, but was part of the subsequent mixed-team free-for-all “fun-game” which followed later that day.

Turk Street, San Francisco

Turk Street, San Francisco

In early 1849, while still a New York City resident, 30-year-old Frank Turk (for whom San Francisco’s Turk Street is named) was appointed Assistant Post Master of San Francisco. Turk’s journey to California involved a crossing of Mexico to Mazatlan, where he secured passage to San Francisco aboard the U.S. Revenue Cutter Edith. He disembarked in San Francisco on May 29, 1849. Traveling with Turk was John W. Geary (memorialized today by Geary Street), who had been appointed San Francisco’s Post Master.

Seeing an opportunity to make money from the influx of Argonauts, Turk resigned his government position shortly after arrival and began a law practice. By July 10, 1849, he was advertising in the Alta “Frank Turk: Attorney At Law, Parker House.” (The Parker House was on Kearny Street facing the Plaza.)

Turk achieved local notoriety a week later when he was appointed to be one of the public prosecutors of a group of men who had been victimizing and terrorizing San Francisco since February. Known as the “Hounds,” or “Regulators,” these men were charged with riot, attempted murder, robbery, and conspiracy stemming from an attack on a Chilean settlement near Clarke’s Point on July 15 and 16. After a weeklong series of highly public and publicized trials that held the city’s undivided attention, nearly all of the accused men were found guilty.

On August 1, 1849, while the trials were still in progress, Turk was elected “Second Alcalde” of San Francisco, a Mexican title equivalent to Vice Mayor. His former Post Office boss, John Geary, was elected Alcalde, or Mayor.

On January, 6, 1851, Turk was elected to the Committee on By Laws for the San Francisco Knickerbockers.

Brothers Cartwright

The next traveling New York Knickerbockers to arrive in San Francisco were the Cartwright brothers, Alexander and Alfred. (Neither one is a “suspect,” but Alexander provides some very valuable clues, to be discussed later.) Alfred was the first to depart, sailing from New York City on January 29, 1849, aboard the Pacific. On March 1, 1849, Alexander left New York for Independence, Missouri, where, on April 9, 1849, the wagons of the Newark Overland Company were camped in a field outside Independence, preparing to set off on the overland route for California. 

Traveling on foot and horseback, Alexander reached California on July 4, while Alfred didn’t arrive until August 5. Although Alexander kept a journal of his cross-country trek, it stops weeks before his arrival in California, and provides no information on his activities in this state.[11]

In an interview given by Alexander decades later, he said that he abandoned the idea of prospecting and proceeded down the Sacramento River to San Francisco to meet his brother. Thus, by late July Alexander was probably on his way to San Francisco to meet Alfred.

Cartwright, Pioneers Life Membership, 1875

Cartwright, Pioneers Life Membership, 1875

Arriving in San Francisco after almost five months without any contact with his family, the first orders of business of any traveler—overland or seafaring—would be to check for mail from home;[12] to send word back to his family that he had arrived safely; to seek out any known friends, relatives, or acquaintances in San Francisco; and finally, if meeting somebody, to check on the status of California-bound ships.

A person that Alexander Cartwright was certain to seek out directly was Alfred DeWitt. By January 1, 1849, DeWitt’s family in New York City had received word of Alfred’s arrival in San Francisco. Thus, by the time that Alfred Cartwright was leaving New York at the end of January, he (as well as Alexander) would know that DeWitt was in San Francisco.

The Cartwright and DeWitt families enjoyed a rather special relationship that transcended the game of baseball. The Cartwright family bible records that the first child born to Alexander and Eliza Ann Cartwright was born on May 3, 1843, at 11 St. Mark’s Place, New York City.[13] “11 St. Mark’s Place” was the home of Peter DeWitt Sr., his wife, Jenat, and their many adult-aged children. The Cartwrights named their newborn DeWitt Robinson Cartwright. Indeed, Cartwright may have spent his days in San Francisco as a guest of Alfred DeWitt and his wife, Margaret.

While in San Francisco in the latter part of July or early August, Cartwright would have learned of Frank Turk’s new profession, his prosecution of the Hounds/Regulators, and his election to public office. On August 5, Alfred’s ship arrived and the Cartwright brothers were reunited. Ten days later, an ailing Alexander Cartwright left San Francisco for Hawaii, where he would permanently settle. He would return to San Francisco two more times on business.[14]

Second and concluding part tomorrow! []


1. Church, S. 1974. Baseball: The History, Statistics and Romance of the American National Game (reprint of 1902 publication) (p. 42).

2. The other newspaper accounts of baseball in the Plaza are: California Courier: Feb. 4, 1851:  “SPORTS ON THE PLAZA—The Plaza has at last been turned to some account by our citizens. Yesterday quite a crowd collected upon it, to take part in and witness a game of ball, many taking a hand. We are much better pleased at it than to witness the crowds in the gambling saloons which surround the square. Such sports are manly and healthful, and if not profitable, are at least innocent, and have not the pernicious tendency which attends the gambling saloon.”

      San Francisco Alta California (Alta): Feb. 6, 1851:  “BASE-BALL—This is becoming quite popular among our sporting gentry, who have an exercise upon the plaza nearly every day. This is certainly better amusement than “bucking” and if no windows or heads are broken will prove much more profitable.

San Francisco Herald: Mar. 1, 1851:  “THE PLAZA—…Numbers of boys and grown men daily amuse themselves by playing ball upon it—this is certainly an innocent recreation, but occasionally the ball strikes a horse passing, to the great annoyance of the driver.”

      Alta: Mar. 25, 1851:  “THE CORRAL—…There the boys play at ball, some of them using expressions towards their companions expressions neither flattering, innocent nor commendable. Men, too, children of a larger growth, do the same things…”

      Alta: Jan. 14, 1852:  “PUBLIC PLAY GROUND—For the last two or three evenings the Plaza has been filled with full grown persons engaged very industrially in the game known as ‘town ball.’ The amusement is very innocent and healthful, and the place peculiarly adapted for that purpose. A number of loafers are regularly perched upon the railings that extend around the Plaza, and whilst discussing the financial prospects of the country and the state of the weather, they employ their leisure moments by whittling off the tops of the posts. The scenes are extremely interesting and amusing.”

3. On March 17, 1860, the California Spirit of the Times and Fireman’s Journal reported: “CHANGE OF NAME: The San Francisco Base Ball Club have changed their name to that of Eagle, and by that will hereafter be known.”

4. California Spirit of the Times and Fireman’s Journal: March 3, 1860.

5. See: Lotchin, R. 1974. San Francisco 1846–1856: From Hamlet to City. Lincoln, Neb. (p. 104): “The largest number of ‘native’ migrants to San Francisco came from the mid-Atlantic States, and New England respectively. New York provided the greatest contribution, followed by Massachusetts.”

6. Peterson, H. 1973. The Man Who Invented Baseball. New York (p. 72).

7. All references to New York Knickerbocker games are based on the contents of the Knickerbocker Baseball Club of New York Gamebooks. October 6, 1845–1856, in the Albert Spalding Baseball Collection at the New York Public Library.

8. Letters and journals referred to are located at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley: DeWitt Family Papers, File Banc Mss 73/163 Box 3. This is a collection of 124 letters written by Alfred DeWitt as well as his brothers, Peter Jr., Henry, and Theodore, and Alfred’s wife, Margaret. The contents of the letters are not very enlightening for the purpose of this paper. However, the dates of the letters do provide timeline information on the whereabouts of the letter writer.

9. The California Society of Pioneers incorrectly lists DeWitt’s and Harrison’s arrivals in California as being overland from Independence, Missouri.

10. According to the Annals of San Francisco (first published in 1855), until the establishment of regular banks in San Francisco, people deposited their money and valuables with the mercantile houses having safes, including DeWitt & Harrison (p. 512).

11. Cartwright Journal, MS  DOC 55, Bishop Museum Archives, BishopMuseum, Honolulu, Hawaii.

12. See: Stillman, J. 1874. “Seeking the Golden Fleece,” Overland Monthly, March 1874, p. 254; and Browne, L. 1969. J. Ross Browne: His Letters, Journals and Writings (pp. 120–121), for first-hand accounts of the excitement and anxiety experienced by recent arrivals in San Francisco in 1849 awaiting mail from home.

13. Daughters of the American Revolution, 1950. California Family Bibles, vol. 8 (pp. 166–167). (Sutro Library, San Francisco, California, call number: E 202.5 C15 V5 v.8 c.1)

14. Alexander Cartwright came to San Francisco aboard the Pacific on May 21, 1850, and returned to Hawaii aboard the Samuel Russell, arriving in Hawaii July 2, 1850. He returned to San Francisco aboard the Zoe on April 22, 1852, departing aboard the Isabella on July 2, 1852, arriving in Honolulu July 22, 1852.

Tim Murnane: Heart of the Game

Tim Murnane

Tim Murnane

Two images accompanying this article neatly frame Tim Murnane’s story, even though they were photographed only nine years apart in his six-decade life in baseball. In the first photograph — a rollicking “Old Timers’ Day” at Peddock’s Island in Boston Harbor on August 12, 1908 — Murnane was at the pinnacle of his career. Striking a dapper pose in waistcoat, cravat, and boutonniere, the longtime baseball columnist of the Boston Globe reunited with some of the men with whom he had played ball in the 1870s. In the other photograph, taken on September 27, 1917, he is present in name only at the “Murnane Benefit Game,” with the proceeds designated for his widow; the defending champion Boston Red Sox, behind star lefthander Babe Ruth, shut out an all-star team led by Connie Mack.

But chronology is God’s way of telling a story, so why don’t we begin this portrait at the beginning, on June 4, 1851, when Timothy Hayes Murnan was born in Naugatuck, New Haven County, Connecticut. An obituary notice in the Naugatuck Daily News placed his birth in Tipperary County, Ireland, but when Murnan applied for a passport in 1874, he had sworn that he was born in Naugatuck. At some point after that he commenced to spell his name as Murnane, and he will be thus referenced below.

1871 Osceola of Stratford with O'Rourke; Murnane had played with the club in 1869-70.

1871 Osceola of Stratford with O’Rourke; Murnane had played with the club in 1869-70.

He began his baseball career as catcher for the Osceola of Stratford Club, in 1869, a formidable nine that two years later would feature “Orator” Jim O’Rourke, future Hall of Famer, on its state champion squad. By that time, however, Murnane was off in Georgia, having been recruited by the Savannahs, a barnstorming professional team. When he returned to the state of his birth with his Southern teammates in the summer of 1871, he played so well that he was engaged by the Mansfield Club of Middletown, which would play the following season in what was then the big league, the National Association (NA). The club’s backers also signed Orator Jim, almost a year older than Handsome Tim.

The major-league Mansfields enjoyed only a brief run of 23 games before disbanding, but both Stratford alumni landed on their feet. O’Rourke, who had batted .307, was signed by the Boston Red Stockings, who would top the NA for the three remaining years of its existence. Murnane, who had played first base for Middletown and batted .359, was snapped up by the Athletics. The two Nutmeggers reunited not only when Boston played Philadelphia but also in England, when in 1874 the two clubs conducted baseball’s first overseas tour. A speedy and nimble baserunner, Murnane perpetrated a legendary stunt in a game at Boston on June 14, 1873, when he escaped an otherwise unavoidable out by jumping clean over second baseman Andy Leonard, who was stooping to tag him.

Murnane with 1874 AthleticsIn 1875 Murnane transferred his allegiance to the Philadelphia White Stockings, also known as the Pearls, and when that team vanished along with the entire NA structure, he joined O’Rourke on Harry Wright’s Boston club in the new National League (NL) for the centennial year of 1876. There he remained for two seasons before seeing an opportunity in Providence, where a new NL franchise was launched for the 1878 campaign. But Murnane’s hitting dropped off badly; while O’Rourke was to remain a big-league star for another dozen years, for Murnane the end was suddenly in sight. In 1879 he began the season with the Capital City Club, of Albany, New York, which was thereafter transferred to Rochester, in a crumbling league.

In 1880 Murnane called it quits and went into business, including, over the ensuing years, opening a saloon and billiard hall in Boston and serving a stint as publisher of The Boston Referee, a sporting paper devoted to baseball, polo and other sports. It was short lived, but it testified to the printer’s ink in Murnane’s blood. He contributed baseball items to the New York Clipper and other papers and began to develop a following, for he wrote the way he spoke — like a ballplayer. In an age of Victorian reserve, restraint, and moralizing (exemplified in the writing of Henry Chadwick), this was an innovation. Murnane was the first former ballplayer to become a professional writer.

The rare Boston Referee, 1887

The rare Boston Referee, 1887

All the same, stitching together a living with a variety of entrepreneurial ventures held no special charm for a young man with baseball still on his mind. When Henry V. Lucas organized the Union Association (UA) as a major league in 1884 and George Wright capitalized the Boston entry, Murnane took a minority position and agreed not only to be the club’s on-field manager but also to play first base. He performed the former task better than he did the latter, but it didn’t matter, as the UA did not return for a second season. Murnane drifted off to play a few more games for a club in Jersey City, then called it quits again, this time for good.

In 1886 Murnane was engaged, together with John J. Drohan, to do baseball work as a staffer for the Globe. When Drohan soon left, Murnane was given full charge, rising to head the entire sports department for a generation. And he died in harness, filing a story just one hour before suffering a massive heart attack in the lobby of the Shubert Theater on February 7, 1917. When he died at age 65 he was not only the voice of baseball in Boston; his opinionated style had become a national institution. Along the way Murnane had also served as president, secretary, and treasurer of the New England League and Eastern League. He had acted, too, as an “ivory hunter,” directing to the big leagues such talented youngsters as Tommy McCarthy, Hugh Duffy, Cannonball Crane, Mike Slattery, Dupee Shaw, John Irwin, and many others who, as it turned out, would join him for the Peddock’s Island fest.

Peddocks Island 1908

Peddock’s Island 1908

Back then you could only get to the island by boat; today you can board a water taxi or even land a helicopter, but unlike a hundred years ago, no one goes there to have a good time anymore. The Conservation Department rangers operate a visitors’ center in the summer and lovers of unspoiled beauty put up with the absence of such amenities as power and water to experience wilderness in sight of the metropolis. But this is not fun; it is a trial. Bordering Hingham Bay, the 134 acres of Peddock’s Island encompass four forested hills which include the moldering Fort Andrews Reservation and scores of turn-of-the-century summer cottages in varying states of decay. But read below how glowingly Baseball Magazine described the Old Timers’ Day in this now forlorn spot in its November 1908 issue; Old Tim, by then known as the Silver King for his flowing white hair, must have been in his glory, surrounded by former teammates and adversaries like Tommy Bond, Jack Manning, and Paul Hornung; once-young colts he had brought to the bigs like McCarthy and Shaw; brothers of the inkwell like Jacob C. Morse and Sam Crane, and Royal Rooter fixtures Mike Regan and “Nuf Ced” McGreevey.

They were privileged, indeed, who attended the Old Timers’ Day at Peddock’s Island in Boston Harbor this year. It occurred on Wednesday, August 12, an open day in the local major league schedule. Peddock’s Island was selected because it is the home of “Honest” John Irwin, a former professional ball player, of the famous Irwin family, fathered, as it were, by the veteran Arthur Irwin, who has been in touch with baseball this season as the scout of the New York club of the American League. Mine host Irwin always has on hand that which cheers the inner man, and he was kept busier than ever in his life before.

The photograph that was taken to memorize the occasion shows full well the character of the assemblage. Never before was such an array seen. The veterans of veterans were Arthur Cummings, the first man to develop the curve ball; “Dicky” Pearce, the greatest shortstop of his day, in his seventy-third year, and alas! it proved to be the last Old Timers’ Day that he will attend, for he caught a severe cold as the result of the outing, and soon afterwards passed away. [Chadwick had left this earth the same way earlier that year, catching cold on Opening Day in Brooklyn and dying soon after.]

Sam Crane, a crack second baseman in his day, and now one of the cleverest of writers on the game, came on especially to attend the gathering, and said he had the time of his life.

Murnane's pamphlet for Spalding Series

Murnane’s pamphlet for Spalding Series

Some of the greatest lights of baseball were there — Tom Bond, without a superior in the seventies; Tom McCarthy, never beaten in his palmy days as fielder, run getter, base-runner and batsman; John Morrill, one of the cleverest all-round players that ever lived, and a splendid athlete today, although golf is his dearest love; Joe Hornung, a great outfielder with a record of eleven putouts and one assist, while a member of the Boston club; George Wood, long connected with the game as an outfielder, a fine player and hard hitter; Miah Murray, who played with Toronto, Providence and Washington, and for years umpired the games at dear old Harvard; Charley Farrell, one of the cleverest catchers that ever donned a protector or wore a mask; “Dupee” Shaw, a crack lefthander and widely sought years ago; “Connie” Murphy, of the old Brooklyn Players’ League team, and a team in himself; “Jack” Manning, prominent in the earliest days of professional baseball; “Tim” Murnane, brought up with the veteran “Jim” O’Rourke in good old Connecticut, always in and for the game; “Billy” Hawes, one of the most gentlemanly exponents of the good old game; Charley Ganzel, of Detroit, Boston and Philadelphia….

The weather was perfect, the game lasted nine full innings and was heartily enjoyed by all present, Old Boston winning from the opposing team 5 to 3.

That same two-run margin obtained on September 27, 1917, when Nuf Ced’s beloved Boston Americans squared off against a team whose outfield included Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Joe Jackson. Actress Fanny Brice helped sell programs. Former heavyweight champ John L. Sullivan coached third base for the Red Sox. In pregame field events, Ruth won the fungo-hitting contest with a drive of 402 feet‚ while Joe Jackson had the longest throw at an impressive 396’ 8”. Ray Chapman, whose own date with death was not far off, circled the bases in 14 seconds flat to win a loving cup.

Murnane Benefit Game 1917

Murnane Benefit Game 1917

The All-Star infield consisted of Stuffy McInnis at first, Ray Chapman at second, Buck Weaver at third, and Rabbit Maranville, borrowed from the Boston Nationals, at shortstop. The All-Star pitchers were Urban Shocker, Howard Ehmke, and Walter Johnson. The thrilling contest was scoreless after seven, but with two out in the top of the eighth, Jack Barry and Dick Hoblitzel singled off Johnson, and then Duffy Lewis drove both men home with a triple to right-center. That proved to be all the scoring, as the Sox held on to win, 2–0. The real winners, however, were the widowed Mrs. Murnane and her four children, as well as two daughters from the writer’s first marriage. They collected $14,000. Boston’s owners donated the use of Fenway Park as well as all the proceeds.

As to Tim Murnane, whose name does not come up often these days, his standing remained high even in death. In the offseason following the 1939 campaign, a rookie named Ted Williams was named the team’s MVP — he received the Tim Murnane Award. In 1946 the Baseball Hall of Fame established a Roll of Honor and named Murnane one of 12 writers to be memorialized. And in 1978 he was selected as recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for excellence in baseball journalism, along with Dick Young … another sportswriter who was said to be the most influential of his time.

Baseball Magazine

Baseball Magazine, August 1908

Baseball Magazine, August 1908

In the golden age of magazines, the period 1880-1920, the newsstands were bedecked with general-interest and literary publications: the weeklies included such fare as The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Frank Leslie’s Popular Magazine, and Harper’s; the monthlies boasted, among others, Atlantic, Munsey’s, McClure’s Magazine, and Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. Competition for rack space was fierce, as was the competition for the eye (and pocketbook) of the browser; the fees that top writers routinely received in 1920 exceed those available today, when the dollar buys so much less; and artists whose work graced magazine covers, like James Montgomery Flagg, Edward Penfield, Maxfield Parrish, and J. C. Leyendecker, became truly wealthy.

Baseball Magazine, May 1908

Baseball Magazine, May 1908

But first-class cover art had never been viewed as a necessary competitive edge for an all-sports publication until the advent of Baseball Magazine. In December 1907 veteran Boston sportswriter Jacob Morse issued a prospectus on behalf of The Baseball Magazine Company for the creation of a new, deluxe, all-baseball monthly the likes of which had never before been contemplated. Its articles would run as long as interest held, sometimes to 10,000 words; its writers would be the best the sport had to offer; and the eye appeal of the covers would compete on the newsstand with the best general-interest publications, not to mention the specialty monthlies. Morse had written Sphere and Ash, a history of the game, back in 1888 and had even managed the Boston Union Association club in 1884.

Baseball Magazine, October 1913

Baseball Magazine, October 1913

Through its first decade or so, Baseball Magazine proved an artistic and commercial success, reaching six-figure circulations that would make a modern magazine publisher envious. Here are some particularly grand examples of the painterly elegance that was the publication’s trademark at the time. By the 1920s the covers had turned rather dull in aesthetic terms–red borders around a player photograph. This heralded not only the cost cutting that characterized the magazine industry as a whole, at the dawn of the new age of radio, but also a growing perception that on the newsstand and throughout the sports/entertainment industry, it was stars, not sensibility, that sold. More’s the pity for the culture, perhaps, but in sports as in theater, the play’s the thing, and so are the players.