July 22nd, 2013

The Tiger Base Ball Club: A Mystery Solved

Tiger Base Ball Club, belt plate

Tiger Base Ball Club, belt plate

This is a guest column, penned by my friend and colleague, Richard Hershberger, who thinks and writes inventively about the early game. His recent articles in the journal Base Ball include one on Philadelphia Town Ball (2007), one on baseball and rounders (2009), “The New Marlboro.’ Match Base Ball Co.” of 1863, and two on, respectively, baseball in New York in 1821 and Philadelphia in 1831.

The annual convention of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) met on the evening of March 27, 1859. There were delegates from twenty-one of the twenty-five member clubs, as well as from nineteen clubs applying for membership. Among the applicants was the Tiger Club, and therein lies a minor mystery of baseball history.[1]

Many clubs from this era are obscure today. Even specialists in early baseball history are unlikely to be conversant with the details of the Tiger club’s fellow applicants such as the Katydid or Esculapian clubs. But while these clubs are obscure, they aren’t mysterious. One could comb through newspaper accounts easily enough and find such details as where these clubs played and who were their officers, and find accounts of matches played against other clubs.

The Tigers, by contrast, are a cipher. There was, until recently, no known record of their existence apart from their membership in the NABBP. Not even their home city was known.

Tiger Leap Polka; H. B. Dodworth, New York, 1862

Tiger Leap Polka; H. B. Dodworth, New York, 1862

Furthermore, their name is unusual. The taxonomy of antebellum baseball club names is fantastically varied, but animal names are largely absent. In modern sports it is common to name teams after animals, particularly species holding traits a team might wish to emulate. This is a later pattern. The only prominent early club named after an animal was the Eagle Club of New York, and this was most likely chosen for its patriotic associations. So while “Tiger” is an unremarkable team name today, it is very unusual for 1859.

The mystery of the Tigers was solved when I examined the New York Sunday Mercury for 1858. The Sunday Mercury was one of the most important baseball newspapers before the Civil War. It is largely overlooked today, probably because the issues are scattered among various libraries. Researcher Robert Tholkes and I have undertaken to gather these scattered issues.  (Unfortunately, the years 1855-1857 appear to be entirely lost.)

The issue for September 5, 1858 includes a brief notice solving the mystery of the Tiger Base Ball Club:

The members of the Light Guard have organized a new club, entitled the “Tiger Base Ball Club,” and will play at the Red House grounds, Harlem. Their dress consists of red pants, white shirt, with black patent leather body belt, and white cap trimmed with red cord.

The Light Guards were an example of the characteristic 19th century phenomenon of private military volunteerism. Vestiges of this remain today with formations such as the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry. The Light Guard survives as part of the Old Guard of the City of New York.

Hewitt's Quick Step, 1827.

Hewitt’s Quick Step, 1827.

The Light Guard was founded in 1827 as an independent company of the New York militia. The militia was reorganized in the 1850s, eliminating independent companies, instead requiring them to be part of regiments. The Light Guard first joined the 55th Regiment, which had been formed by French-American immigrants. It initially had six “French” and four “American” companies, including the Light Guard.[2] This arrangement was short-lived, as the 55th soon reorganized as a fully French formation. The Light Guard needed to find a new regiment. In August of 1858 they voted unanimously to join the 71st Regiment, the “American Guard,” of the New York State Militia as Company A. This marriage of convenience would not be entirely happy.

The 71st Regiment was organized in 1850 with ties to the nativist “Know Nothing Party.” Their service included the riot of 1857 between the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys. The 71st was called out to assisting in putting down the riot, during which they captured an eight pound howitzer.[3]

There were several sources of discontent between the 71st and its new Company A. The regiment retained its suspicion of foreigners. The Light Guard’s recent association with a French-American regiment did little to endear it. A rumor spread that the Light Guard included several members of foreign birth, resulting in a protest meeting by the other companies.[4]

The regiment is put in a better light by its regarding itself as a “working” unit, with the ambition “to excel all others in their drill and efficiency as a military body,” while the Light Guards had a reputation more as a social company, being “too fond of pleasure trips, balls and dinner parties.” They might not have been placated by the advice that “We hope our friends of the 71st will not act hastily in the matter, but remember, in the first place, the ‘Light Guard’ is composed of gentlemen in every sense of that term, and when on parade, good soldiers.”[5]

This concern was not baseless. The Light Guard’s soirees and outings and visits with other socially elite units were widely reported in the newspapers. Furthermore, the Light Guard never really tried to fit in with the rest of the regiment. They continued their tradition of company balls, always emphasizing the name “Light Guard” and overlooking their regimental affiliation. They also retained their own uniform: and a resplendent uniform it was, with epaulettes and sash and bearskin shako.

Light Guard ball, 1860

Light Guard ball, 1860

In the event, the regiment was called to three month duty in 1861, and fought at First Bull Run. While this was a rout of the Union forces, the 71st as part of Burnside’s Brigade reportedly performed its duty well.[6] They mustered in for a second three month term in 1862, when they were deployed as part of the defenses of Washington, and again for 30 days as part of the emergency response to Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania, where they skirmished with Confederate forces.[7]

That an organization such as the Light Guards might form a baseball club in 1858 is seemingly unremarkable. New York City was in the grip of baseball fever. All sorts of organizations were branching out into baseball.  Ball clubs were formed by everything from volunteer fire companies to literary societies. A militia company would seem to fit right in, but this is not the case. Baseball would be a frequent camp recreation during the war, but no other militia company is known to have organized a baseball club before the war. The Light Guard, in forming a baseball club, found another way to set itself apart from other companies, and it stayed aloof by not playing match games with other clubs, instead restricting itself to intramural play.

As for the “Tiger” name, this mystery is also explained. This was a common nickname among militia guard companies, including the New York Light Guards. While it was not a normal name for a baseball club, it was a natural choice for the Light Guards.

It is not known how long the Tiger Base Ball Club lasted. Clearly it was a going concern into 1859, but the only mention after that is as a member of the NABBP in 1860, where it is among the clubs not voting whether to adopt the fly game rule.[8] It is not clear if it sent a delegate. There is no record of the Light Guards playing baseball while in the active army, or of the Tiger Club after the war.  While no longer a mystery, they remain the most obscure member of the NABBP.

1. New York Sunday Mercury March 13, 1859.

2. www.appliedvb.com/NY40th/FRENCH.html

3. Undated article from the New York Express, quoted in Lowen, George Edward, ed., History of the 71 st Regiment, N.G., N.Y. pp. 32-41; The Veterans Association 71 st Regiment, N.G.N.Y. 1919.

4. Ibid. p. 66.

5. Ibid. pp. 59-60, quoting the New York Express August 25, 1858 and New York Atlas August 29, 1858.

6. Reports of Col. Ambrose E. Burnside, http://www.civilwarhome.com/burside1stmanassas.htm

7. www.civilwarintheeast.com/USA/NY/NY071RSMI.php

8. New York Sunday Mercury March 18, 1860.