The New York Base Ball Club (a.k.a. Washington BBC, Gotham BBC)
This essay first appeared in a wonderfully valuable book, Base Ball Founders: The Clubs, Players and Cities of the Northeast That Established the Game. Published by McFarland in 2013, it was edited by Peter Morris, Bill Ryczek, Jan Finkel, Leonard Levin, and Richard Malatzky–friends and colleagues all. This is one of my three contributions to that volume.
Recent study has revealed the claim of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York to pioneer status, as well as that of Alexander Cartwright to be the game’s inventor, to be suspect if not altogether baseless. I have taken up the latter claim at length in Baseball in the Garden of Eden and will not do so here, except to reiterate my view that baseball was not invented but instead evolved. All the same, however, it had many fathers—prime among them William Rufus Wheaton, Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams, and Louis F. Wadsworth—each of whom may be credited with specific innovations that were previously credited to Cartwright.
Adams played ball as early as 1839, the year he came to New York after earning his M.D. at Harvard. As he declared to an interviewer in 1896, when he was 81:
I was always interested in athletics while in college and afterward and soon after going to New York I began to play base ball just for exercise, with a number of other young medical men. Before that [i.e., before 1839] there had been a club called the New York Base Ball Club, but it had no very definite organization and did not last long. Some of the younger members of that club got together and formed the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, September 24, 1845 [actually September 23]…. About a month after the organization of this club, several of us medical fellows joined it, myself among the number.
Wheaton testified to an interviewer in 1887, when he was 73, that he had written the rules for that New York Base Ball Club in 1837. And Wadsworth, who in 1857 gave to baseball the key features of nine innings and nine men to the side, began to play baseball with the Gotham Club, successor to the New Yorks, in 1852 or 1853.
While the Knickerbocker was the most enduringly influential of the baseball clubs that sprang up prior to the Civil War, it was not the first to play the game, or the first to be organized, or the first to play a “match game” (one contested be tween two distinct clubs), or the first to play by written rules that we might regard as governing the “New York Game.” This regional variant, in which we may detect the seeds of baseball as we know it today, was distinct from the Massachusetts or New England Game, also called round ball or, with justice, simply “base ball,” a descriptive name that applies, in my view, to all games of bat and ball with bases that are run in the round—and thus not only to the New York Game but also to the versions played in Massachusetts, Philadelphia, and elsewhere.
If the Knickerbockers were not the first to play the New York Game, what clubs preceded them? Perhaps it was the Gymnastics and the Sons of Diagoras, clubs associated with Columbia College who played a game of “Bace” in 1805, which the former won by a score of 41–34. Perhaps it was the unnamed clubs that contested at Jones’ Retreat in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1823. It may have been the men of the Eagle Ball Club, organized in 1840 to play by rules similar if not identical to those of the KBBC. Or it may have been the Magnolia Ball Club or the New York Club, each of which played baseball among themselves at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken in the autumn of 1843 and, like Doc Adams’ medical fellows, had played in New York City before then.
So, it must be said, had many other men who would become Knickerbockers. They were playing ball at Madison Square and Murray Hill in the early 1840s. Charles A. Peverelly, in his Book of American Pastimes (1866), wrote:
At a preliminary meeting, it was suggested that as it was apparent they would soon be driven from Murray Hill, some suitable place should be obtained in New Jersey, where their stay could be permanent; accordingly, a day or two afterwards, enough to make a game assembled at Barclay street ferry, crossed over, marched up the road, prospecting for ground on each side, until they reached the Elysian Fields, where they “settled.” Thus it occurred that a party of gentlemen formed an organization, combining together health, recreation, and social enjoyment, which was the nucleus of the now great American game of Base Ball so popular in all parts of the United States, than which there is none more manly or more health-giving.
The Knickerbocker party of course did not wander about northern New Jersey looking for a place to play. They had been preceded by other clubs, both baseball and cricket, in selecting the Elysian Fields; proprietor Edwin Augustus Stevens (in conjunction with his brothers) had already donated the use of his grounds to the New York Cricket Club and the New York Yacht Club, and had offered liberal lease terms to the Magnolia and New York baseball clubs.
In this support of sport, Stevens was of course encouraging traffic to the Elysian Fields: he controlled the ferries as well as the resort, which included the Beacon Course, a horse-racing track opened in 1834. By encouraging play (and gambling) on his turf and along his waters he created a longstanding model for “traction magnates” to own baseball clubs. Of less interest to scholars have been the naming precedents from clubs in sports that captured the public fancy earlier than baseball, but these provide archaeological hints at how baseball developed within pre-established models.
Both the Knickerbocker and New York names were attached to boating clubs in the early years of the century. Rowing was America’s first modern sport, in that competitions were marked by record- keeping, prizes, and wagers, yet also provided spectator interest for those with no pecuniary interest. The first boat club to be organized in the United States was named the Knickerbocker, in 1811. As reported in the New-York Mirror of July 15, 1837, by boating veteran “Jacob Faithful,” who borrowed his nom de plume from an 1834 novel by Frederick Marryat:
This club suffered a suspension during the war [that of 1812], and for many years subsequently the boat which bore its name was hung up in the New-York Museum, as a model of the finest race-boat ever launched in this port. Subsequent attempts to revive the association fell through; and though many exertions to form new ones were made, yet the first effort that succeeded in establishing the clubs upon their present footing—viz., building their own boats, wearing a regular uniform, and observing rigid navy discipline, was made in the year 1830, by the owners of the barge Sea- drift, a club consisting of one hundred persons, which could boast of one no less distinguished in aquatick and sporting matters than Robert L. Stevens for its first president, with Ogden Hoffman, Charles L. Livingston, Robert Emmet, John Stevens, and other good men and true for his successors. To this club the rudder of the old Knickerbocker was bequeathed, with the archives thereto pertaining: nor was anything spared by the members, during the first years of their existence as a club, to give spirit to its doings.
Baseball historians, take note. Jacob Faithful was attempting to counter a recent assertion in the New York Evening Star that the Wave Club had been the first “to introduce the amusement.” The new organization of 1830 referenced above was named the “New York Boat Club.” The Knickerbocker Boat Club—whose very existence had already, by 1837, been cast into oblivion—did not disappear immediately after the War of 1812. It was still conducting boat races and theatrical benefits in 1820. For its celebrated race of November 1820 against the British-born boat builder John Chambers’ American Star, the Knickerbocker Club’s John Baptis built a replacement for his dry-docked Knickerbocker rowboat of 1811 and called it the New York. The New York was characterized in the press as “having the real Knickerbocker [i.e., American] stamp.”
Boat racing was nothing short of a craze in the 1820s and ’30s, as recalled by Colonel Thomas Picton in Spirit of the Times, July 7, 1883:
After them [the New York and American Star] came the Atalanta, manned by dry-goods clerks; the Seadrift, by bakers; the Neptune, by Fulton Market butchers; the Fairy, by law students; the Columbia and the Halcyon, by city collegians; the Water Witch, by engine runners; the Red Rover, by Ninth Ward firemen, and so on to the end of a miraculous chapter, utterly exhausting the catalogue of seagods, nereids and hamadryads, deified in pagan mythology. Boat-builders toiled night and day in the production of racing novelties, and one fair of the American Institute, appropriately held at Castle Garden, was almost entirely consecrated to specimens of their art, painted in all the colors of the rainbow, and in others, emanating from overtaxed imaginations, any man inventing a previously-unknown hue being tolerably certain of immediate canonization.
To my eyes, the boating craze, with its attachment of clubs to specific occupations and classes, parallels intriguingly the baseball craze of the 1850s and ’60s.
The New York Cricket Club that has come down in history was organized at McCarty’s Hotel (the Colonnade) in Hoboken on October 11, 1843, as an American- based answer to the St. George Cricket Club, which filled its playing ranks with English nationals. The first 12 members of the NYCC were drawn from the staff of William T. Porter’s Spirit of the Times, with elected members coming from the sporting set that swirled about that weekly journal, including Edward Clark, a lawyer; William Tylee Ranney, a celebrated painter who lived in Hoboken; and James F. Cuppaidge, an accountant who played as “Cuyp the bowler.” Some have speculated on a connection between the New York Cricket Club and the New York Base Ball Club, founded in the same year, but firm evidence has not yet emerged. Picton, the NYCC secretary, wrote in the Clipper: “The New York, with commendable foresight … established their grounds at Hoboken, to the rear of the Elysian Fields. For a couple of years they played upon a section of the domain of Mr. Edwin A. Stevens but subsequently they removed to a more spacious and accessible locality [the Fox Hill Cricket Ground], just beyond the upper end of the old race track [the Beacon, which closed after the 1845 season].”
The NYCC continued until 1873, but it had stood on the shoulders of earlier cricket clubs bearing the same name. A club of that name had formed in 1837, the same year as the Gotham or New York Base Ball Club, as referenced in the Wheaton reminiscences below. In 1838 it played a match with the Long Island Cricket Club for $500. One year later it played an anniversary match at its grounds on 42nd Street, near the Bloomingdale Road (today’s Broadway). Coexisting with the St. George Cricket Club for a while, ultimately the NYCC merged with it under the latter’s name, a move that inspired Porter to a nationalistic response in 1843.
According to Chadwick, a “New York Cricket Club” had been founded in 1808 at the Old Shakespeare in Nassau Street; it lasted but one year. But another one predated that by at least six years, meeting at the Bunch of Grapes, at No. 11 Nassau (corner of Cedar and Pine) in 1802. A bit of newspaper digging for this essay has revealed an even earlier New York Cricket Club, going back to 1788.
A New York Sporting Club for the preservation of game within city limits had been created in 1806. Members of the Hoboken Turtle Club—New York’s first club, founded at Fraunces Tavern at the corner of Broad and Pearl streets in 1796—were called to order in June 1820 for “Spoon Exercise.” In sum, the notion of a New York Club devoted to baseball did not arise from nothing.
Accordingly, a series of questions confronts us. If baseball was played by organized clubs prior to the Knickerbockers, which of these might lay fair claim to being the true first—that is, first to organize, first to draft rules for play, and first not only to play a match game but also to endure long enough to influence the game’s development? Reflect that the Knickerbockers are credited with playing the first match game, on June 19, 1846 … yet history has not accorded an equivalent laurel to their opponents, the New Yorks, who defeated the “pioneers” by a score of 23–1. If the Knicks could not defeat them on the field, however, they were more successful in eradicating them from the historical record, dismissing the victors as unfairly advantaged “cricketers” or, even worse, “disorganized,” a slap at any purposeful aggregation in the rising age of system.
Peverelly offered this capsule portrait of the New York Nine: “It appears that this was not an organized club, but merely a party of gentlemen who played together frequently, and styled themselves the New York Club.” Henry Chadwick, who may have fed Peverelly his line, had written in the Beadle Guide in 1860,”we shall not be far wrong if we award to the [Knickerbockers] the honor of being the pioneer of the present game of Base Ball.”
In fact, the New York Club not only preceded the Knickerbocker in every innovation cited above, but was also its progenitor. The process by which they became two separate clubs may not have been an altogether amicable split. The understanding of veteran baseball players at the turn of the 20th century was exceedingly hazy as to who had been a Knickerbocker and who a member of the New Yorks. A widely syndicated article by Albert G. Spalding (it appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal on April 1, 1905) announced the formation of an investigative body to examine the origins of baseball; this has come to be known as the Mills Commission. (This article was read by Abner Graves, who responded to the editor of the newspaper and lifted Abner Doubleday to inventor status.) Extracting from the materials he had received from Chadwick, Spalding named 11 men as Knickerbocker Base Ball Club founders, including: “Colonel James Lee, Dr. Ransom, Abraham Tucker, James Fisher, W. Vail, Alexander J. Cartwright, William R. Wheaton, Duncan F. Curry, E. R. Dupignac, Jr., William H. Tucker, and Daniel L. Adams.” The first four of these played with the New York or Gotham club, as did Wheaton and Tucker. The last named, Adams, did not join the Knickerbocker until one month after its founding.
Known as the New York or Gotham or Washington from the 1830s through the 1860s, these clubs were lineally the same, and appear to have gone by several names at the same time. The murky relationship between the original Gothams of 1837, the Washingtons, the New Yorks, the Knickerbockers, and the later Gothams may be summarized below.
Because they regarded themselves as the first organized club, the Gotham Club was also called the Washington. A matter of custom, this practice was said to denote that they were, like the father of our country, first. Another explanation, personally alluring but not yet proved, is that the Gotham’s alternative name referred to its origins with the influential merchant class—mostly butchers and produce brokers—of Washington Market, founded in 1812. Some of these men organized in 1818 as New York City’s first target company (for archery and riflery), which they named the Washington Market Chowder Club. It survived all the way through the Mexican War into the next decade. The Tribune reported on November 29, 1850:
Washington Market Chowder Club. A company bearing the above name, composed, we understand of the butchers of Washington Market, passed our office yesterday morning on a target excursion, accompanied by Dodsworth’s Band. They were very numerous, and fine looking body of men. And it would be indeed surprising that any company composed of butchers should be anything else than fine looking; that occupation embraces the most robust and hardy men in the city.
Many in the meat trade went on to become political wheeler-dealers and sporting men (not sportsmen), from Bill “the Butcher” Poole—whose father had been a Washington Market butcher before him, with his stand occupying the same place—to James McCloud, the butcher and pool-seller who facilitated the Louisville game-fixing scandal of 1877.
The weekly New York Illustrated offered a colorful capsule of the Washington Market in 1870:
Flour, meal, butter, eggs, cheese, meats, poultry, fish, cram the tall warehouses and rude sheds, teeming at the water’s edge, to their fullest capacity. Fruit-famed, vegetable-renowned Jersey pours four-fifths of its products into this lap of distributive commerce; the river- hugging counties above contribute their share, and car- loads come trundling in from the West to feed this perpetually hungry maw of the Empire City. The concentration of this great and stirring trade is to be met with at Washington Market. This vast wooden structure, with its numerous outbuildings and sheds, is an irregular and unsightly one, but presents a most novel and interesting scene within and without. The sheds are mainly devoted to smaller stands and smaller sales. Women with baskets of fish and tubs of tripe on their heads, lusty butcher-boys lugging halves and quarters of beef or mutton into their carts, pedlars of every description, etc., tend to amuse and bewilder at the same time. Some of the produce dealers and brokers, who occupy the little box-like shanties facing the market from the river, do a business almost as large as any of the neighboring merchants boasting their five-story warehouses.
At some point in the early 1840s the Gotham club was renamed the New York Ball Club, retaining most if not all of its Gotham members. The New Yorks then spun off the Knickerbockers, as Wheaton relates in the 1887 interview offered verbatim below. The Gotham, meanwhile, continued to play ball among themselves from 1845 to 1849, just as the Knickerbocker and Eagle clubs appear to have done. In 1850 those Gotham and New York members who had not attached to the Knickerbockers in Hoboken reconstituted themselves as, yet again, the Washingtons, playing at the Red House Grounds (“a most comfortable ‘asylum for distressed husbands,’” offered Spirit of the Times) at Second Avenue and 105th Street in New York.
In 1851 this Washington Base Ball Club challenged the Knickerbockers to match games that have been preserved in the historical record. In 1852 the club reverted to its old name of Gothams, “consolidating with” the Washingtons.
1. For a full discussion of these three individuals, see the present writer’s Baseball in the Garden of Eden (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).
2. His degree from Yale is reported in an untitled article in the Connecticut Courant, August 24, 1835, 3. His medical degree is reported in “Harvard University,” The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, September 26, 1838, 127. His work as an attending physician in New York is reported in “New York Dispensary,” The New-York Spectator, February 27, 1840, 1.
3. “Dr. D. L. Adams; Memoirs of the Father of Base Ball; He Resides in New Haven and Retains an Interest in the Game,” The Sporting News, February 29, 1896, 3.
4. “How Baseball Began: A Member of the Gotham Club of Fifty Years Ago Tells About It,” anonymous journalist interviews William Rufus Wheaton, San Francisco Examiner, November 27, 1887, 14.
5. “City Intelligence,” New York Herald, March 2, 1857, 8; Thorn, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, 51–53.
6. New-York Evening Post, April 13, 1805, 3.
7. National Advocate, April 25, 1823, 2.
8. Thorn, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, 80–81.
9. Charles A. Peverelly, The Book of American Pastimes (New York: Published by the Author, 1866), 340.
10. Col. Thomas Picton, “Among the Cricketers,” Fun and Fancy in Old New York: Reminiscences of a Man About Town, ed.William L. Slout (San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press, 2007), 140.
11. New-York Mirror, July 15, 1837, 23.
14. Commercial Advertiser [from New-York Gazette of that morning], November 13, 1820, 2.
15. Cuyp Obituary, New York Herald, July 13, 1871. Also Picton, “The New York Cricket Club,” Fun and Fancy in Old New York, 133–143.
16. Picton, “Among the Cricketers,” Fun and Fancy in Old New York, 140.
17. Spirit of the Times, March 16, 1844, 37.
18. New-York Gazette, March 3, 1803.
19. New-York Morning Post, September 19, 1788. Also New-York Daily Gazette, April 20, 1789.
20. American Citizen, March 7, 1806.
21. Peverelly, The Book of American Pastimes, 342–343.
22. Henry Chadwick, Beadle’s Dime Base-Ball Player: A Compendium of the Game, etc. (New York: Irwin P. Beadle and Co., 1860), 6.
23. “The Military Spirit in New York. The Target Companies on Thanksgiving Day,” New York Weekly Herald, December 14, 1850, 397; also The Subterranean, October 25, 1845, 2.
24. New York Illustrated (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1870), 40–41.
25. Peverelly, The Book of American Pastimes, 346.
[Second part, of three, tomorrow.]