Strangest of All Baseball Attractions!
In 1883-1884 the craze for all things baseball spawned not only a new professional league (the Union Association) and the World Series (Providence Grays against the New York Mets) and night baseball (at Fort Wayne, Indiana), but also a proliferation of eccentric nines matched in what were called “novelty games.” There was an all-Chinese nine (the John Lang team), a “Colored Girl” team from Chester, Pennsylvania, called the Dolly Vardens; the fat man’s team, the Jumbos, who played against the lean men, the Shadows. The most distinctive games of the season matched the Snorkey Club of Philadelphia (named for the crippled hero of the famous melodrama Under the Gaslight), whose players each lacked an arm or a hand, against the Hoppers of Washington–all one-legged or on crutches. Not a pretty picture, for sure, but certainly poignant and a mirror of that brutal age: most of the crippled players on both teams had been railroad workers.
Fat vs. lean, married vs. single, old vs. young–any combination a promoter might dream up could be counted upon to draw a crowd, at least for a season. Exhibitions of women’s baseball had generally taken the form of Blondes versus Brunettes, with varying geographic modifiers applied to each. These pulchritudinous nines typically used a smaller than regulation ball made only of yarn, played the game on a fifty-foot diamond, and barnstormed their way through a legion of appreciative “bald-headed men,” a code name in theatrical circles for voyeurists of a certain age who liked to sit in the first row.
The great Svengali of women’s baseball exhibitions was Sylvester F. Wilson (one of many names he went by, though he was born Christian Wilson). The Brooklyn Eagle called him “the abductor of girls on base ball pretexts.” Although he proclaimed that none of his players came from the stage and that his exhibitions were of the highest class and virtue, he had been arrested in New York for kidnapping a sixteen-year-old girl from her home in Binghamton. The Kansas City Star, commenting on the five-year sentence meted out to Wilson in 1891, wrote, “He has been arrested more than 100 times and for various crimes, and Secretary Jenkins of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children says he has ruined more young girls than any man living.”
On September 2, 1880, two baseball teams composed of employees of Boston department stores—Jordan Marsh and R. H . White—groped their way to a 16–16 tie under dim artificial lights at Nantasket Beach, Massachusetts. The experiment was repeated on June 2, 1883, with little more to recommend it, in a game between the Northwestern League squads of Quincy, Illinois, and Fort Wayne, Indiana, at the home of the latter.
Fort Wayne was also the home of George J. E. Mayer and his wife, Lizzie (later to become the mistress and, ultimately, second wife of Albert G. Spalding). In 1888, he was on the road with two teams of Chinese players. “In their practice-work,” reported the Chicago Inter-Ocean, “they showed that they were catching on with a wonderful celerity. When one of the men made a hit, the others all yelled at him in a most sidesplitting manner.” The Brooklyn Eagle added that “Speculation as to the relative merits of the two teams has been rife, and many a good dollar has been wagered by the Mongolians [Chinese] on their favorites. The betting last night was $4 to $3 on the Chicagos, and if the San Franciscos win there will be wailing and weeping in many Celestial laundries.”
Novelty games were particularly prominent in Philadelphia; ethnic teams, “colored” male and female ball teams, Native-American nines, crippled clubs, and so on. John Lang, a white barber from Philadelphia who had “temporarily deserted lather and razor” to organize pioneer black baseball clubs such as the Orion, found his true métier in New York with his Chinese teams. In Chester, Pennsylvania, Lang also created a fetching nine of “colored girl” professional players whom he named the Dolly Vardens after the fluffily and colorfully costumed lass in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge. Lang’s Dolly Vardens, created in the 1880s, are sometimes confused with several Philadelphia-area all-male clubs bearing that name as early as 1867.
The bearded barnstormers of the House of David were devised as a money-making promotion for the House of David or Branch Davidian colony at Benton Harbor, Michigan, around 1910. They were disciples of Benjamin Purnell, an Ohio farmer who in 1903 had a vision in which he was proclaimed the Sixth Son of the House of David, with a mission to unite the Lost Tribes of Israel before Judgment Day. He and his fellow colonists swore off sex, smoking, drinking, and shaving.
Once on the baseball field, however, the only thing that was hidebound was the baseball itself. The House of David men were indeed “Fast and Clever Players,” as a broadside indicated, renowned especially for their Harlem Globetrotter-like pepper games [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7IGp0gC-Pw]. And they were not averse to welcoming an occasional ringer like Babe Ruth or Pepper Martin.