The article below, by Tom Altherr, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. His Fall 2011 article “Basepaths and Baselines: The Agricultural and Surveying Contexts of the Emergence of Baseball,” which won the McFarland-SABR Research Award for 2012. It is a bad pun but an accurate statement to call it pathbreaking.
Tom is a history professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver; among his courses is one on baseball history that he has taught since 1991. His article below, like others from the special Protoball issue, appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones at mlb.com. For example, the article below, indexed as 1850.38, reflects that it is the thirty-eighth entry for the year 1850. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
Item 1850.38, Southern Ball-Games: Chermany, Round Cat, Etc.
Thomas L. Altherr
Chumney was similar to baseball,played with two teams, and had batters, pitchers, catchers, and fielders.
Two games with roots in the mid–19th century, both of them pastimes associated with the American South, have come to light only recently: chermany and round cat.
The most common spelling, “chermany,” suggests that there may have been some connection to Germans—that perhaps German immigrants brought the game to Virginia. Diligent searches through many sources about Virginia and other areas of the South, however, have found no connections of chermany to Germans. There were Germans in colonial Virginia onward, but so far there was no mention of a baseball-type game called chermany. Virginia humorist George William Bagby addressed this matter in what is so far the fullest discussion of chermany. Stating the he had purchased a former female academy in Buckingham with plans to convert it to a fiddlers’ college, Bagby revised his goals: “I abandoned the original plan and consecrated the Institute wholly to the instruction of able-bodied young men in the ancient and manly games of ‘Chermany’ and ‘Ant’ny Over.’ The etymology of the former game is obscure. It may have been ‘Germany.’ Though I have never known a Dutchman [i.e., a German] to play it or even be aware of its rules and regulations.”
Whatever the term’s origins, Bagby considered chermany a superior game:
My aim was to supplant the vile pastimes of base-ball and billiards which befell the Commonwealth [of Virginia] as a part of the loathsome legacy bequeathed us by the war. I could not, indeed, believe that these debilitating and abnormal sports would perpetually exclude the time-honored and patriotic game to which Virginians had been accustomed, but my fear was that after the base ball business the awful thing called cricket might follow, and that I could not have borne. Those silly wickets and those absurd bats are to my mind execrable, inexcusable, and unfounded upon reason and common sense.
Indeed, Bagby saw chermany as one of the numerous skills a Virginia boy of his generation had to master around eight years old.
A couple of the sources, however, also referred to a game called chumney, which would lead to a reasonable conclusion that chermany was a variant of chumney or vice versa. In his History of Prince Edward County, Virginia, Herbert Clarence Bradshaw defined chumney thus:
Chumney was similar to baseball, played with two teams, and had batters, pitchers, catchers, and fielders. The pitcher tried to pitch a good ball, and the batter tried to knock the solid rubber ball out of sight. A Runner had to be hit when in motion to down him, and to go around the ring, which was larger than a baseball diamond, twice was a “real accomplishment.”
William Cabell Bruce’s biography of John Randolph of Roanoke provokes additional questions about chumney. Bruce stated that as an adult Randolph enjoyed playing games “then most common” with the local boys, including chumney. While most sources place chermany later, in the 1830s and onward, Randolph was playing chumney in the 1820s. If chumney was an earlier name for the game later termed chermany, then again the game may have had no connection to Germans.
Then where did the name “chumney” come from? None of the older dictionaries consulted lists the term, and a search of British place names did not turn up a locale of that name. There may have been some confusion with “chumley,” which itself is a variant of “Cholmondeley,” the family name of a longtime ruling clan in Cheshire in northwest England. Did a variant of baseball obtain the name in that region and transplant it to Virginia?
The second game under consideration here is round cat. References to this game are few and sporadic, none of them providing conclusive detail. The 1917 Scribner’s story that mentioned chermany also listed round cat, and placed it in the Richmond area in the 1860s. Apparently round cat was thus different from chermany. A listing in an 1892 number of Dialect Notes cited Washington novelist Angelo Hall playing “round-cat” in Georgetown and then compared it to a New England game called scrub, defined as “that form of base ball played when there are too few players to have opposing sides.” An Ohioan named Isaac Fenton King remembered in his autobiography that boys played a variety of ball games including “round cat,” and Virginian E. M. Babb referred to round cat as a Sunday recreation for young males in southern Virginia around 1890. Yet the mode of play remains elusive. One clue may be a description of “round cat” in an 1858 British book, The Playground, but even there the game seems to have been an impromptu mixture of cat games and rounders, employing a wooden cat rather than a ball.
The most sustained references to round cat, however, were in novels of Bernice Kelly Harris. Harris was an eastern North Carolina novelist working in the local color tradition that emerged in the 1930s. Her books seem to have centered in that region of North Carolina and time periods ranged from turn of the century to the 1930s and 1940s.
In Purslane (1939), the first round cat reference occurred: “At first Calvin talked incessantly, following Dele around to take the heavier part of her work, pitching ball to the little round-cat batters on Saturday afternoon. . . .” Earlier in the book, another account of a Sunday baseball game established the image of Calvin as an accomplished baseball player, a home run hitter who played for a minor league team in Alabama. Here mention of round cat suggests that the game was not baseball, but rather a children’s game, an activity that a baseball player would indulge in goofing around.
Two years later in Portulaca (1941), Harris included a short scene in which a few boys played a game of round cat after church. Mostly the episode functioned as mockery of one of the character’s baggy corduroy pants. There were no details about the game, yet the dialogue includes razzing one of the boys about thinking he was Dizzy Dean, which would seem to indicate that the contest imitated baseball and was set in the 1930s.
Sage Quarter (1945) featured the third round cat reference. This one involved a tenant farmer boy named Rough-Dried at school recess playing a ball game with Vic and the other higher-class boys. Vic would allow the new boy to use his bat. But then at one point Vic walked away “to join the boys at round cat.” This sentence injected some confusion about round cat. Was round cat the first game of ball they were playing or a different one? Again there was no information on rules or play other than that round cat employed a bat and ball.
The fourth, and last, round cat usage appeared in Wild Cherry Road (1951). Toward the end of an extended account of a neighborhood baseball team organizing and practicing for an upcoming season, Harris inserted the term round cat into a series of insults the fans threw at an opposing pitcher during a game:
“Better go home and pitch horsehoes!” a wag called from the bleachers.
“Or stick to round cat!” another shouted.
Clearly, whatever round cat was, eastern North Carolinians considered it an inferior version of baseball—a kids’ game for substandard players. For Bernice Kelly Harris, though, round cat seems to have been a common enough, and important enough, childhood game to include it in four novels. Southerners, apparently, with chermany and round cat, had no shortage of baseball-type games.
13. Harris, B. 1951. Wild Cherry Road (p. 172).
The article below, by Patricia Millen, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Ms. Millen is the author of From Pastime to Passion: Baseball and the Civil War (Heritage Books, 2001), the first book on baseball in the war camps. She has written dozens of articles on U.S. history, and is the Executive Director of the Roebling Museum in central New Jersey. Her article, like others from the special Protoball issue, appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones at mlb.com. For example, the article below, indexed as 1863.11, reflects that it is the eleventh entry for the year 1863. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
Item 1863.11, On the Battlefront, the New York Game Takes Hold, 1861–1865
[In April 1863] the Third Corps and Sixth Corps baseball teams met near White Oak Church, Virginia, to play for the championship of the Army of the Potomac.
The soldiers who marched off to fight the American Civil War did so knowing how to play base-running ball games. Whether from a northern city or a southern country plantation, the farmers, merchants, doctors, clerks, sons and grandfathers who enlisted in Union and Confederatearmies grew up with a sporting heritage. The rules of the ball games they played varied slightly by region, but by the 1840s—nearly twenty years before the Civil War began in 1861—they had taken shapes that a 21st century observer wouldrecognize. The game was not dramatically advanced by Northern soldiers moving south during the War, or by the rare exchanges between Union and Confederate soldiers. Instead, baseball during wartime provided respite, amusement and a taste of home to bored, scared, weary soldiers and POWs on both sides of the conflict. The war helped solidify the New York rules as the favorite form of baseball—a progression that began before the first shot of the war was ever fired. Two years after Fort Sumter, it appears, Union soldiers had even formed all-star teams for two of their Corps, and had crowned a championship nine for their entire Army.
We know of the baseball games played by Civil War soldiers from contemporary newspaper accounts, regimental histories, and from diaries and letters written by the soldiers themselves.Few accounts record the game as anything new—rather, most are presented as commonplace. Accounts salvaged are often similar in nature, reflecting the game as a favorite pastime during the War, but altogether ordinary. As E. F. Palmer of the Second Brigade from Montpelier, Vermont noted in his history of the regiment in 1864:
Since the ground has become dry, many are the amusements. After drilling is over, towards evening, the wide level space in front of the camp is crowded with soldiers. Many are playing ball. The most expert choose up, and one is to keep tally; now they strip off coats and sweating and eager as to the result, push on the lively game.
Three hundred eighty-four major battles and campaigns took place during the American Civil War. We can follow the reports of ball games by soldiers in the regions of the country surrounding these principle operations. The majority of all known baseball games took place in the Confederate stronghold of Virginia—where a full third of all key military operations of the war took place. New York and Massachusetts regiments played the most baseball. Although New Jersey regiments represented a much smaller fighting force, the activity of baseball among the Jersey boys was brisk. Reports of ball play by Pennsylvania soldiers tallied fourth behind New Jersey in recorded accounts.
Extant reports of ball play by Confederates are few in comparison to the writings of the victorious north (references to Confederate ball playing account for only 10 percent of recorded play); but they do exist to tell part of the story of Civil War baseball. Virginia and Florida regiments reported the most ball play, although no southern regiment represented a clear majority in the compilation of histories of Confederate baseball. A typical account is that of William Harding, a corporal in theConfederate Army who wrote in 1863, when he was stationed in Georgia, that he “had a fine game of Town ball which gave me good exercise.” Also behind Confederate lines, James Hall of the 24th Alabama observed his men playing baseball “just like school boys” while waiting for General Sherman to advance his army.
For the most part, baseball and town ball were enthusiastically played between men from the same regiments, from the same part of the country and by commonly accepted rules. Baseball games were said to be “all the rage” and camps were “alive” with ball play during the War. George Rolfe from the 134th New York recollected that while in Chattanooga he played men from the Massachusetts 33rd. Accounts show New York, Pennsylvania and other northern regiments played consistently each evening on their drill fields.
The majority of all ball play took place in winter quarters when spring weather approached and soldiers, restless and bored, took to outdoor sport. Ball games were played with regularity while soldiers were sojourned in camp, and in times of rest between battles and marches. The citizen turned solider did not realize that, during his great adventure away from home, a principal enemy would be boredom. A soldier might spend several months at a time without ever firing a gun! A New Jersey soldier recorded in his diary in 1863, “The boredom became unbearable as the winter wore on. Mud everywhere, limiting outside activities . . . during the long days the men played chess, checkers, cards, and, when weather permitted, baseball and other athletic pursuits.”
From November until spring, the grand armies sat idle waiting for passable roads and foraged food. Athletic games of all kinds—quoits, football, foot races—lifted spirits. The importance of sport and physical exercise to the morale of the men was emphasized by the US Sanitary Commission, physicians, and the press. As Julian Chisolm, a Confederate doctor published in 1864, “gymnastic exercise should be encouraged as conductive to health, strength, agility and address.” The “manly game of ball” was recommended as an important addition to a soldier’s physical fitness regime.
Two variations of base ball were played during the War—town ball, and its cousin the Massachusetts game, and the New York game of baseball. Ora Harvey from the 46th Massachusetts wrote in a letter home in 1863: “We play ball pitch quoits the rest of the time. We play the New York ‘Gam’ [sic] most of the time. ‘Mass’ game some . . . .”
Most often, however, the type of ball game was not specified in the writings left behind by northern or southern soldiers. In a recent compilation of more than150 historical accounts of ball play during the four-year war, the game called “base ball” was cited about 70 percent of the time in those records where the type of ball play could be determined. In the majority of accounts, the game played by Northern soldiers was by the New York or Massachusetts rules. It is not surprising that the New York game appears to have been the most commonly played, because of the sheer number of soldiers from New York. When President Abraham Lincoln called for enlistments in 1861, the largest army of Union men—409 regiments—eventually answered the call to serve from the Empire State.
For their part, soldiers were not overly concerned with the rules of play and only a few occurrences call the rules of baseball into question during the war. One Union soldier remarked in his diary that he and the boys in his company from the 26th Pennsylvania regiment did learn to play baseball in a “new way” but that he had already forgotten the different rules. A sergeant from the 62nd New York regiment wrote to the sporting paper The New York Clipper on May 30, 1863, to clarify the rules as he knew them:
That in making a home run in a game of baseball the runner is allowed to run 2′ either side of the bases without touching them. I claim that he is obligated to touch each base as he passes it . . . to play now in N.Y. is to touch the bases in all cases; so that the matter is settled, and the rules can now be interpreted correctly.
A handful of accounts show baseball was played in Yankee and Confederate prison camps during the Civil War. Imprisoned on Johnson’s Island near Sandusky, Ohio, Confederate Lt. William Peel, a farmer, of the 11th Mississippi gave accounts of a head injury suffered by a fellow prisoner while a “party was engaged in a game of baseball” in the prison yard. He wrote of challenges between ball clubs in the prison that lasted for several weeks.
The condition in many of the army prisons, especially for those soldiers held by the Confederate army, was not conducive to outside amusements. By mid-war, the Confederate government had little means to supply food, clothing or shelter to its own army, let alone its prisoners of war.
The most extensive accounts of prison ball play during the war come from Salisbury prison in North Carolina. An old cotton factory was transformed into a Confederate prison camp in 1861 and for a while, prisoners had free rein of the 16-acre yard and ball games were played almost daily. They were recorded in the diaries of several prisoners and in the writings of a Confederate chaplain who resided in Salisbury. “Took a little walk in the evening and watched some officers play ball,” wrote 23-year-old Union doctor Charles Grey, who was captured and sent to the prison in 1862. Referring to some recently transferred prisoners from New Orleans and Alabama, a Rhode Island soldier wrote in 1863, “And to-day the great game of baseball came off between the Orleanists and the Tuscaloosans with apparently as much enjoyment to the Rebs as the Yanks. . . .”
The pleasant memories of games at Salisbury, before conditions at the prison became as notoriously grim as Andersonville, were depicted in a color lithograph publishedin 1863by Sarony, Major and Knapp. The print shows a lively ball game in the park-like setting of the prison grounds at Salisbury, drawn by former prisoner Otto Boetticher, Captain, Company G of the 68th New York. Otto Boetticher was a commercial artist living in New York before the War and spent one summer in Salisbury before being exchanged in September of 1862.
Baseball games were played by northern and southern soldiers when time and energy permitted in hundreds of places during the American Civil War. Baseball gave soldiers a much needed respite from the realities of the War. The majority of ball play took place in winter quarters as spring weather advanced and the New York game proved to be the favorite version of the game played during the war. It continued to progress as America’s favorite pastime as the country began to heal after four long years of hostilities.
1. History. The First National Bank of Scranton, PA (Scranton, 1906), p. 37. This company history describes how the bank’s 1906 president, James A. Linen, had pitched for the winning side in the championship game.
2. Madden, D. 2000. Beyond the Battlefield (p. 99).
3. Ballplaying in Civil War Camps, database: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CW.htm
5. Millen, P. 2001. From Pastime to Passion, Baseball and the Civil War (p. 19).
6. Protoball Chronology: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CivilWar.htm (p. 20).
7. Rolfe, G. 1864. Diary.
8. Protoball Chronology: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CivilWar.htm (p. 24).
9. Chisolm, J. A Manual of Military Surgery, for Use of Surgeons in the Confederate Army (pp. 56–57).
10. Protoball Chronology: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CivilWar.htm (p. 25).
11. Ballplaying in Civil War Camps, database: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CWtrends.htm
12. Crockett, D. 1962. “Sports and Recreational Practices of Union and Confederate Soldiers,” Research Quarterly 32.3, p. 342.
13. New York Clipper: May 30, 1863.
14. “The Games Endures: A Civil War Diary” Humanities 15.4 (1994), p. 18.
15. Sumner, J. 1989. “Baseball at Salisbury Prison Camp,” Baseball History, p. 20.
17. An Album of Civil War Battle Art, 1988, p. 97.
The article below, by Bob Tholkes, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Bob has written articles for SABR publications, writes a lively monthly newsletter covering new research developments for SABR’s Committee on the Origins of Base Ball, and operates a vintage baseball club in Minnesota.
His article, like others from the special Protoball issue, appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones at mlb.com. For example, the article below, indexed as 1860.6, reflects that it is the sixth entry for the year 1860. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
Item 1860.6, The Sunday Mercury Summarizes the 1860 Season
The year 1860 has witnessed a wonderful progress in the popularity of out-door sports in general, and especially of the game of base ball.
At the end of each calendar year before the Civil War, the weekly New York Sunday Mercury, self-described official baseball organ for New York State, published its annual summary of the season. Its editor, William Pierce Cauldwell, was, along with William Bray of the Clipper, mentioned by Henry Chadwick as one of the two journalists covering baseball at the time Chadwick took up the game. It was Cauldwell who suggested that Chadwick be allowed to attend meetings of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) rules committee in 1857. As a member of the group that founded the Union BBC of Morrisania (now part of the Bronx) in 1855, Cauldwell is credited with helping to bring the new game to the area. He continued through the 1860s as a club officer and delegate to the annual conventions of the NABBP. In 1859, 1860, 1861, and 1862 he was a member of the NABBP Standing Committee on Rules and Regulations. The paper’s claim to overarching “biblical” status is evidenced by the reader correspondence that it published regularly. Reports and game accounts were received from as far away as San Francisco, and from remote baseball outposts like Milwaukee, St. Louis, Louisville, and New Orleans. Reader questions about rules and customs, both on and off the field, came from across New York State and northern New Jersey, as well as from Boston, Toronto, and far-off St. Louis.
The Sunday Mercury’s 1860 season summary for the first time did not provide an all-inclusive list of matches played; the list, as Cauldwell proudly noted, had become too long.
Without further ado, Mr. Cauldwell:
The year 1860 has witnessed a wonderful progress in the popularity of out-door sports in general, and especially of the game of base ball. Our columns record the organization of upwards of two hundred new base ball clubs during the year, and also the scores of nearly six hundred matches that were played. The base ball season was characterized by many very pleasing and noticeable features. It was opened on the 17th of May, with a very interesting and well-contested match between the Excelsior and Charter Oak Clubs, of South Brooklyn—in which the latter was victorious by a score of 12 to 11 runs—and was kept up with great vigor until the 29th day of November. We had intended to give a summary of all the matches played during the season ; but our columns will not permit. We have, therefore, selected only the matches of the senior clubs belonging to the National Association, overlooking, from necessity, the hundreds of matches played by junior organizations—some of which, by the way, were quite as interesting as many of those of the senior clubs…
Among the most interesting features of the last season, were the excursions of the Excelsior Club (of South Brooklyn) to Albany, Troy, and Buffalo, and to Philadelphia and Baltimore. . . . Every match played by the Excelsiors on their tours was crowned with great success; and out of all the matches played by that club during the season, two only went against them: the first with the Charter Oak, and the return match with the Atlantic Club.
The Atlantic Club also maintained its prestige of success during the past year. Twice only was it beaten: once by the Excelsior, and once by the Eckford Club. The contests between the Atlantic and Excelsior clubs, as well as that between the Atlantic and Eckford Clubs, were the most interesting matches of the season.
It will be seen that quite a number of tie games were played—the Gotham Club figuring in three or four matches of this kind.
The closest game of the season was that between the Excelsior Club (of south Brooklyn) and the Union (of Morrisania), played on the 7th of September, at Morrisania. The score of the nine innings played was: 7 runs for the Excelsior, and 4 for the Union. It was a beautifully played game.
The first game of base ball ever played in California came off on the 22d of February, 1860, at which early period in the year base ball was also being played in New Orleans almost daily.
At the annual meeting of the National Association, held on the 14th of last March, sixteen new clubs were admitted as members, and eighteen others were admitted at the meeting held on the 12th of December—making in all eighty-eight senior clubs now represented in the National Association of Base Ball Players. As each of these clubs now average from thirty-five to forty members, the total number of ball-players so represented in the Association, may be safely estimated at three thousand. In addition to this large number, there are probably as many as one hundred senior clubs in this city and vicinity, and in the cities throughout the State, which have not yet joined the Association, and which have, perhaps, a membership of not less than three thousand. And if we add to these the not less than two hundred junior clubs of New York, Brooklyn, and vicinity—comprising at least two thousand members—it will be a safe calculation to say, that the game of base ball during the season of 1860 afforded amusement and invigorating exercise to at least TEN THOUSAND ACTIVE MEMBERS of base-ball clubs.
We anticipate a still further increase next year. The passion for healthy out-door exercise is rapidly spreading throughout the country; and in its season there is no game so simple, and yet so interesting and attractive, as that of our National Game of Base Ball.
Perhaps due to reasons of space, Cauldwell under-represents the extent to which the game expanded geographically in 1860, only mentioning the Excelsiors’ tours to western New York State, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, and noting that the game was played in California and New Orleans. The game had spread by the end of the 1860 season to nearly all parts of the United States, and to parts of Canada; the Mercury itself printed reports of the formation of clubs and game accounts from Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Louisville.
Reading the Sunday Mercury’s season summary offers a taste of baseball guides to come, which would similarly fail to dwell on the game’s issues. As an unashamed apologist for the game, Cauldwell did not mention two disturbing trends which advanced in 1860. The Excelsior Club of South Brooklyn, usually considered the champion team of 1860, was considerably propelled in that direction by two new club members, Jim Creighton and George Flanly, transfers from the Star Club, also of Brooklyn. Both were widely rumored to have received certain tangible inducements to transfer, so that they are now considered two of the first, if not the very first, professionals.
The Excelsiors’ championship was not considered clear-cut because their tie-breaking match with the defending champion Atlantic Club, also of Brooklyn, was abandoned by the Excelsiors in the sixth inning, in protest of extensive misbehavior toward both the Excelsiors and the umpire by Atlantic partisans among the spectators. The Excelsiors never played the Atlantics again. Spectator misbehavior, usually blamed on drunks, street urchins and, especially, gamblers, was such a constant problem that Sunday Mercury summaries in 1860 of important games frequently included a comment on the effectiveness of crowd-control measures, a responsibility of the host club.
The 1860 summary is in one sense special: the modern reader knows, while Cauldwell could not, that what lay in store for the coming season of 1861, for which he expressed such high hopes, was not another year of spectacular growth, but diminution in the shadows of Civil War.
1. New York Sunday Mercury: Dec. 30, 1860, p. 6.
2. Thorn, J. “Jim Creighton,” SABR, The Baseball Biography Project, bioproj.sabr.org/bioproj.cfm?a=v&v=l&bid=770&pid=16900
3. New York Sunday Mercury: Aug. 26, 1860, p. 5.
The article below, by William Ryczek, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Bill wrote Baseball’s First Inning: A History of the National Pastime through the Civil War (McFarland, 2009) which is an outstanding study of the evolution of American ballplaying. The book is part of a trilogy, alongside When Johnny Came Sliding Home and Blackguards and Red Stockings, covering baseball up to the early professional era.
His article, like others from the special Protoball issue, appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones at mlb.com. For example, the article below, indexed as 1854.9, reflects that it is the ninth entry for the year 1854. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
Item 1854.9, William Van Cott Writes a Letter to the Sporting Press: December 1854
[T]he game has been thoroughly systematized, and . . . the players have attained a high degree of skill in the game.
In mid-December 1854, members of the Knickerbocker, Gotham, and Eagle Clubs held a dinner at Fijux’s, a restaurant located at 11 Barclay Street in New York. Fijux’s was a favored gathering place for the baseball fraternity, and the Knickerbockers often held meetings there. About forty-five men attended the affair and enjoyed a pleasant evening of food, drink, and conversation. Shortly afterward, William H. Van Cott of the Eagles wrote a letter to the sporting press reporting on the gathering and the state of the game of baseball in New York. Van Cott stated that each club had about thirty members, and informed the public that a number of interesting games among the clubs had taken place the preceding summer and fall. The publication of the letter in the New York Times is, to my knowledge, the first mention of baseball in the venerable journal. Interestingly, the Times’ first report on the sport was triggered by a social event rather than an actual game, indicative of the importance of the social aspect of the new sport. During the early years of club play, postgame speeches, singing, and the dispatch of a tasty “collation” were as important as the game itself.
In hindsight, we see baseball of the mid-1850s as a game in its infancy; yet Van Cott referred to the “old fashioned” version in contrast to the contemporary state of affairs and a game that had been “thoroughly systematized,” stating that players had “attained a high degree of skill in the game.” The nine-inning game, called balls and strikes, and the fly game lay in the future, but in the eyes of the correspondent, baseball of 1854 was at a highly evolved state, light years removed from old cat, rounders, and other early bat-and-ball games.
While baseball had certainly not achieved the level of perfection claimed by Van Cott, the game was clearly at a transition point. In the 1840s, the Knickerbockers had gathered together for informal recreation, not competition. By 1854, with the formation of two more clubs, it was perhaps inevitable that the three organizations would play the game together and equally inevitable that some form of competition would emerge. While Van Cott cited the increasing popularity of the sport, the level of interclub activity was very modest that year, as only five games had been played among the three clubs. The Eagles did not play their first outside game until November 10, and the main purpose of each organization was still to gather regularly for exercise. An interclub game remained a rare event.
The matches were clearly more convivial than competitive—contests described by Van Cott as “friendly but spirited trials of skill.” Yet, the clubs had taken the first baby step toward the competitive game that would eventually be played by the Atlantics, Mutuals, and Eckfords, and then by professional nines fighting for championships in a manner decidedly less friendly and more spirited.
Why did Van Cott write the letter? Possibly it was to recruit more members for the three clubs, though that was unlikely, since membership was rather exclusive and decidedly homogeneous. There were Van Cotts, Winterbottoms, Adamses, and Wadsworths, but there were no Kowlaskis, Ramirezes, or Mazzottas, even though European immigrants comprised a growing segment of New York’s population. Was he trying to encourage the formation of additional clubs, or was he attempting to generate publicity for the existing clubs and players? The Knickerbockers, baseball’s pioneer club, had made virtually no attempt to expand the game they had formalized.
With little effort having been made to attract attention to what club members considered mere recreation, press coverage of the new sport had been minimal. During the 1854 season, the New York Clipper published only a few brief reports and box scores, while in November the Clipper printed an article on “canine sports” that took up more column space than all the baseball reports combined. Cricket received far more attention than baseball in editor Frank Queen’s publication, as well as in the rival Spirit of the Times.
The impetus for Van Cott’s letter was a social event, but the subject matter of his communication was the growing popularity of baseball and the relatively novel development of clubs competing against each other. Cricket clubs played each other and kept score. Horses raced against each other, and dogs ripped each other to shreds, and in each case there was a winner and a loser. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was competitive. For several years, the Knickerbockers engaged in exercise, and while they divided into teams and meticulously kept score, there were no consequences to the outcome. With the formation of the Washington Club, which later morphed into the Gothams, there was opportunity for limited competition, and by 1854 the Knicks had played nine times against the Washington/Gotham club. Now, with the Eagles as a third team, there could be more games, more competition, and more public notice.
Just a few years after the publication of Van Cott’s letter, the game of baseball had grown to an extent the author was unlikely to have imagined. Press coverage expanded dramatically and by the end of the decade covered several columns each week in the Clipper and Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times. Less than a month before the dinner at Fijux’s a number of young men had formed the Jolly Young Bachelors’ Base Ball Club, soon to be known as the Excelsior. The following summer the Atlantics, long held to be the first of the rougher-hewn baseball organizations, took the field for the first time. Within a relatively brief interval the game had changed from one of recreation and exercise to one of friendly competition. It then evolved into one of spirited and sometimes unsportsmanlike rivalry. By 1860, brawls had supplanted dinners as postgame activity.
Those were my initial thoughts on the significance of Van Cott’s letter. As I reread the text, looking for hidden meaning and possible foreshadowing of the future growth of the game, a thought hit me with the force of a rising Jim Creighton fastball to the temple. Was I over-analyzing what might be a very simple, straightforward communication? As students of the origins of baseball, are we trying too hard to find meaningful qualities and intent in casual recreational activities? I am reasonably certain William Van Cott had no idea that, more than 150 years after he penned his letter to the sporting press, it would be the subject of an article in a baseball research journal—or even that there would be such a thing as a baseball research journal. Likewise, members of the Gotham, Eagle, and Knickerbocker clubs played their games without any inkling that we would be examining them in minute detail looking for trends, social implications, and transcendental evolutionary moments.
I once asked an acquaintance with a master’s degree in history why he hadn’t pursued a doctorate. He said he had abandoned academia when the curriculum evolved from the study of history to the analysis of historians and their theories. Baseball historians face an ongoing challenge to maintain focus on the field rather than on our own intellectual abstractions. Our knowledge of the eventual result tempts us to find significance and causation in what may have been merely accident or coincidence. Ex post facto interpretation of events is a risky proposition, and the difficulty of analyzing motive a century and a half after the fact is formidable. Was a change in the configuration of the field an attempt to balance offense and defense or an accommodation to a physical obstacle? Was an alteration in the composition of a club a move toward social leveling or the result of relocation, a personal quarrel, or something equally mundane and insignificant?
The study of early baseball is a fascinating pursuit, in part because of the tantalizing gaps in the tale. The growth of the sport and its assumption of the title of America’s national game were products of the confluence of a myriad of events, both those directly related to the game and societal and historical trends that were merely incidental. It was neither preordained nor inevitable in December 1854 and, had Van Cott penned a similar note about three chess clubs, it would have been relegated to the dustbin of history. But Van Cott wrote of baseball, not chess, and the subsequent explosive growth in the game’s popularity renders his letter an interesting reference to a milepost marking a key turn in the road of baseball’s evolution.
1. Spirit of the Times: Dec. 23, 1854.
First, some background on Mr. Cummings’ perfidious pitch. Historians dispute whether this 120-pound “pony pitcher” deserves more credit as pioneer or publicist, but he is certainly a historical figure to reckon with. And he does have that plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame testifying to his innovation. Others may have established competing claims of authorship, more or less convincing Some went on to pitch in the professional leagues, such as Fred Goldsmith, Phonnie Martin, Bobby Mathews, and Tommy Bond, while collegiate twirlers Ham Avery (Yale) and Joseph Mann (Princeton) had their supporters too. But Candy Cummings’ claim still seems the best, and he rode it—and wrote it, as you’ll see below—into immortality.
Cummings had to deliver his curve underhand, according to the rules of the day, with one foot just inside the front line of a “pitcher’s box,” and the other inside the rear line. The ball had to be released below the waist, and the distance then mandated was only 45 feet. So Cummings could not throw a modern curve—one that breaks downward as well as laterally—and he admittedly had to add a then illegal twist to the wrist, imperceptible to the lone umpire.
A few years before his death in 1924 at age 75, Cummings was asked how he would pitch to the new sensation, Babe Ruth. The first pitch, he said, would be a raise curve close to his hands, followed by a high out curve that that would start close to the plate. Next, a ball that would start two feet off the plate but curve over the plate to the knees.
“I would change the program each time he faced me,” Cummings said. “I’d change the speed of each ball. A free swinger like Ruth goes after a ball that looks good, but you won’t fool him often on the same ball. I’d start the ball the same way every time, but make it go another way.”
Here is William Arthur “Candy” Cummings’ reminiscence from Baseball Magazine in August 1908. The magazine’s editor, Jacob C. Morse, prefaced Cummings’ remarks thus: “To William Arthur Cummings of Athol, Mass., belongs the honor of having discovered—or invented—how to curve a ball. What thirty-eight years ago was considered a work of magic, is now a common practice. The curved ball has completely revolutionized baseball methods. This is the first authentic article ever published on the subject.”
How I Pitched the First Curve
I have often been asked how l first got I the idea of making a ball curve. I will now explain. It is such a simple matter, though, that there is not much explanation.
In the summer of 1863 a number of boys and myself were amusing ourselves by throwing clam shells (the hard shell variety) and watching them sail along through the air, turning now to the right, and now to the left. We became interested in the mechanics of it and experimented for an hour or more.
All of a sudden it came to me that it would be a good joke on the boys if I could make a baseball curve the same way. We had been playing “three-old-cat” and town-ball, and I had been doing the pitching. The joke seemed so good that I made a firm decision that I would try to play it.
I set to work on my theory and practiced every spare moment that I had out of school. I had no one to help me and had to fight it out alone. Time after time I would throw the ball, doubling up into all manner of positions, for I thought that my pose had something to do with it; and then I tried holding the ball in different shapes. Sometimes I thought I had it, and then maybe again in twenty-five tries I could not get the slightest curve. My visionary successes were just enough to tantalize me. Month after month I kept pegging away at my theory.
In 1864 I went to Fulton, New York, to a boarding school, and remained there a year and a half. All that time I kept experimenting with my curved ball. My boyfriends began to laugh at me, and to throw jokes at my theory of making a ball go sideways. I fear that some of them thought it was so preposterous that it was no joke, and that I should be carefully watched over.
I don’t know what made me stick at it. The great wonder to me now is that I did not give up in disgust, for I had not one single word of encouragement in all that time, while my attempts were a standing joke among my friends.
After graduating I went back to my home in Brooklyn, New York, and joined the “Star Juniors,” an amateur team. We were very successful. I was solicited to join as a junior member the Excelsior club, and I accepted the proposition.
In 1867 I, with the Excelsior club, went to Boston, where we played the Lowells, the Tri-Mountains, and Harvard clubs. During these games I kept trying to make the ball curve. It was during the Harvard game [October 7] that I became fully convinced that I had succeeded in doing what all these years I had been striving to do. The batters were missing a lot of balls; I began to watch the flight of the ball through the air, and distinctly saw it curve.
A surge of joy flooded over me that I shall never forget. I felt like shouting out that I had made a ball curve; wanted to tell everybody; it was too good to keep to myself.
But I said not a word, and saw many a batter at that game throw down his stick in disgust. Every time I was successful, I could scarcely keep from dancing from pure joy. The secret was mine.
There was trouble, though, for I could not make it curve when I wanted to. [Cummings lost the game 18-6.] I would grasp it the same, but the ball seemed to do just as it pleased. It would curve all right, but it was very erratic in its choice of places to do so. But still it curved!
The baseball came to have a new meaning to me; it almost seemed to have life.
It took time and hard work for me to master it, but I kept on pegging away until I had fairly good control.
In those days the pitcher’s box was six feet by four, and the ball could be thrown from any part of it; one foot could be at the forward edge of the box, while the other could be stretched back as far as the pitcher liked; but both feet had to be on the ground until the ball was delivered. It is surprising how much speed could be generated under those rules.
It was customary to swing the arm perpendicularly and to deliver the ball at the height of the knee. I still threw this way, but brought in wrist action. I found that the wind had a whole lot to do with the ball curving. With a wind against me I could get all kinds of a curve, but the trouble lay in the fact that the ball was apt not to break until it was past the batter. This was a sore trouble; but I learned not to try to curve a ball very much when the wind was unfavorable.
I have often been asked to give my theory of why a ball curves. Here it is: I give the ball a sharp twist with the middle finger, which causes it to revolve with a swift rotary motion. The air also, for a limited space[,] around it begins to revolve, making a great swirl, until there is enough pressure to force the ball out of true line. When I first began practicing this new legerdemain, the pitchers were not the only ones who were fooled by the ball. The umpire also suffered. I would throw the ball straight at the batter; he would jump back, and then the umpire would call a ball. On this I lost, but when I started the spheroid toward the center of the plate he would call it a strike. When it got to the batter it was too far out, and the batter would not even swing. Then there would be a clash between the umpire and batter.
But my idlest dreams of what a curved ball would do, as I dreamed of them that afternoon while throwing clam shells, have been filled more than a hundred times. At that time I thought of it only as a good way to fool the boys, its real practical significance never entering my mind.
I get a great deal of pleasure now in my old age out of going to games and watching the curves, thinking that it was through my blind efforts that all this was made possible.
The article below, by Beth Hise, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Ms. Hise is a top authority on the commonalities of and contrasts between baseball and cricket. Her 2010 book on the subject is Swinging Away: How Cricket and Baseball Connect (Scala Publishing). A social history museum curator trained at Yale, she curated special exhibits on the two games last year at both the MCC Museum in London and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Her article, like others from the special Protoball issue, appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones at mlb.com. For example, the article below, indexed as 1862.3, reflects that it is the third entry for the year 1862. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
1862.3, American Cricket in the 1860s: Decade of Decline or New Start?
Cricket is essentially an English game; a game in such favour with the English cannot well have much attraction for the American, the disposition of both people being as different as base ball is from cricket.
So proclaimed the Brooklyn Eagle on April 25, 1862. And yet, this same article goes on to preview, in glowing terms, the coming cricket season in Brooklyn: “from the preparations that are being made, and the interest manifested by the members, we have every reason to expect a brilliant season and many interesting matches.” Further, the “cricket clubs have been strengthened by several acquisitions of base ball players, as the latter have by cricketers.” How to explain these contradictory statements? If, as the article asserts, cricket has little attraction for Americans, why go on to outline plans for an active season involving up to seven clubs in Brooklyn alone? And if cricket reflects an English disposition, how is it that this alien game attracted baseball players, and that cricketers took up the apparently completely different American game of baseball? The article simultaneously dooms the sport (the past season was “very dull” with few matches of “no great importance”) and promotes its future (“as the coming season advances, the more promising do matters appear”).
A few weeks earlier, cricket had brought out the same double-speak in the Eagle. Cricket “is not an American game” and will never be “in much vogue” . . . but all the same the season promises “very fair” and “we shall have more to say hereafter through the columns of the Eagle.”
Such sentiments should come as no surprise from the Eagle’s Henry Chadwick, a well known English-born advocate of baseball who never stopped promoting and trying to reform cricket in America. But, such contradictions occur more widely in American press commentary on cricket in the 19th century. Indeed, this ambivalence seems to underline many aspects of the game in America from the 1840s to the 1870s and beyond. Cricket was an excellent game—it was interesting, strategic (scientific) and had many fine features—but as a British game it couldn’t be fully embraced in America without reservations. And it is true that as cricket became established in the 1840s, influential clubs such as the St. George Cricket Club in New York and Philadelphia’s Union Club were deeply Anglocentric. Moreover, many early American cricket clubs were formed by resident Englishmen. But it would be a mistake to conclude that few Americans played the sport or did so only under English influence. Or that by the 1860s cricket was an English-dominated sport of rapidly declining interest to Americans.
The 1860s were in fact a pivotal time for cricket in America, one that reinforced a desire in some quarters to Americanize the game and build bridges between cricket and baseball. At the same time, cricket lost momentum during and after the Civil War, and by the end of the 1860s couldn’t hope to match baseball’s rapid growth and popularity. Yet, paradoxically, the decade set the stage for cricket’s revival in the 1870s as an established, if minor, American sport.
Americans had long been interested in cricket. As early as 1839 New York’s Spirit of the Times asked, “What can be done to naturalise this beautiful game in America?” and press patronage in the 1840s, especially in New York, helped promote cricket as “fashionable” and “much in vogue.” In 1843, the Spirit of the Times insisted that “this invigorating and manly game promises to become exceedingly popular” with new clubs “springing up in all directions.” One was the New York Cricket Club, presided over by the Spirit’s editor, William Porter. This club encouraged more American-born and younger players to play and promoted American control of the organizational structure of the game, an example later emulated in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Newark.
Cricket grew rapidly in America in the 1850s. In 1855, the New York Clipper estimated that there were 5000 match-playing cricketers in all of the United States. By 1859, when 300–400 clubs were active in at least 22 states, the Spirit of the Times estimated 6,000 active cricketers lived within 100 miles of New York City alone, including Philadelphia. And pockets were decidedly American. The first all-American cricket match was played in August 1854 at Hoboken between a New York side, including many students from the Free Academy, and the Newark Club, a strong promoter of American-born players. In Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Cricket Club fielded an American eleven from 1856, and membership in the Young America Cricket Club, formed in 1855, was restricted to American-born players. Exciting all-American matches brought the Philadelphia and Newark clubs together in both competition and in spirit, encouraging the New York Clipper in 1857 to lambast “certain ignorant and prejudiced parties” for insisting that cricket was only played by Englishmen, and to wonder why anyone would object to “making Cricket an American pastime.”
North America was undoubtedly the stronghold of the game outside England at this time, and twelve of the best English professional players, eager “to promote and extend . . . that love for the noble game of Cricket,” made their international debut here in October 1859. American cricket authorities hoped the series of highly anticipated matches would increase cricket’s profile in the face of baseball’s growing popularity. Yet, the English cricketers, all seasoned full-time professionals, were destined only to prove that cricket was, after all, the “great national game of England.” Any hope that the English would “find their equal at Hoboken” was quickly dashed. The great match of the tour saw the Americans, given the then traditional handicap of additional players, in this case 22 against the England eleven, humbled in front of 24,000 spectators over three days at St. George’s ground at Elysian Fields. It was a humiliating loss when it was all over by an innings and 64 runs—the English didn’t even need to bat their second innings because the American batting total was so low. This result was sadly indicative of all the matches the English tourists played on that tour.
There have been many reasons put forward as to why cricket failed to capitalize on its promising start in America in the 1840s and ’50s and “lost out” to baseball as the premier bat and ball sport for the nation. One might presume that the disappointments of this lopsided tour, one of the most widely reported sporting events in antebellum America, might have harmed cricket’s viability. Certainly, the tour did little to captivate sustained popular enthusiasm, but many American cricketers, especially the Philadelphians, relished the opportunity to see and play the world’s best cricketers. The number of clubs and players did increase, including in schools and colleges, and, as only three of the 22 US players at Hoboken were born in America, that loss could be conveniently blamed on the amateur English residents playing against “English professional players, who make a living by it, and never do anything else.”
Throughout the 1860s this distinction between American-born and English-resident players encouraged the idea that it was not cricket per se, but the way the English residents played cricket that was the problem. Henry Chadwick was a prominent critic of their “bad habits,” especially their lack of punctuality in a country where time “is almost literally money.” The 1860s was a decade of shared grounds and shared players when the crossover between cricket and baseball was at its strongest. Chadwick, through the pages of the Brooklyn Eagle, saw this as a positive, declaring in 1862 that “Americans improve the game in one respect, certainly; they blend the intricacies and necessary tardiness of cricket with the alacrity of base ball.” And so a game often “a bore to an American, who could not think of playing a match for two consecutive days,” could be finished up in six or seven hours.
Likewise, Harry Wright, James Creighton, Asa Brainard, John Whiting and Thomas Dakin—all baseball players with strong cricketing backgrounds—founded the American Cricket Club in 1860 to infuse “an American spirit” into the game. According to club president Dakin, they formed to make cricket “popular among Americans, by making it a quicker game.” This short-lived club would be one of many attempts to “reform” cricket to suit the American temperament, and the injection of baseball players into cricket in the 1860s did speed up the game. One match in Long Island in 1860, the “shortest on record,” pitted the Americans of Long Island (including several Atlantic and Excelsior baseball players) against the Americans of Newark. The match commenced at 9 o’clock and took four hours and 50 minutes to play the full two innings. The success of these kinds of matches brought calls for closer affiliations between cricket and baseball clubs, increased opportunities for younger and more novice players, and restrictions on players appearing for multiple clubs. Some players even formed the short-lived American Cricketers’ Convention to try to implement these changes fully.
In 1868, Henry Chadwick was still advocating interclub play—that is between cricket and baseball clubs—to speed up and improve cricket. When Edgar Willsher’s team of English professionals crossed the Atlantic that same year, they found baseball’s exploding popularity meant that cricket no longer enjoyed the same éclat that it did when the first English toured in 1859. A baseball game played between the English cricketers and the Union Base Ball Club of Morrisania brought the biggest crowd to the St. George ground in almost a decade—a situation only mildly alleviated by the pronouncement of the New York Times that the “good old game of cricket has not been entirely given up in New York, and our old citizens still delight in this manly sport.”
So did baseball improve cricket for Americans? A cursory review of match results shows that many two day matches were played in one afternoon, the second innings left for another day that never came around. American cricket clubs had earlier copied English traditions and employed professional players to bowl, coach and look after all aspects of their cricket grounds at a time when baseball was strictly amateur. Now, as baseball took its first steps toward full professionalization, cricket moved in the opposite direction. While the professional All-England players were “hardly ever without a bat or ball in their hands,” the best American players were “unable to spare more than a few leisure hours a week from their offices and ledgers.” A combination of baseball’s influence early in the decade and the realities of amateurism meant that by the 1870s cricket matches were shorter, and, with less time to devote to the game, players did not achieve the highest skill.
Ambivalence and feelings that cricket needed improvement lingered. In 1890, prominent Philadelphian cricketer John Thayer proposed a whole new code of rules that would adopt, among other radical changes, baseball’s “three out, side out” rule with each side retiring after three wickets had fallen. By alternating batting and fielding, with no more than four minutes between “turns,” the game would, he proposed, be more interesting. Players would also spend less time waiting for their turn at bat. Even with Chadwick’s backing, these changes were never seriously implemented.
But that was still decades away and the end of the 1860s was a new beginning of sorts for American cricket after a lull early in that decade. The Clipper’s disappointment in 1862 at the meager attendance at an annual cricket convention should not be taken to mean the decline of the sport was nigh. True, baseball had overtaken it in popularity at home, and the international game had passed it by when the Civil War made a follow-up tour to North America impossible. A professional English cricket team went instead to Australia, launching the nascent beginnings of the international game. But some of American cricket’s brightest moments were still to come. The American Cricketer was launched in 1877 and ran for over fifty years. Competitive leagues, like the Metropolitan District Cricket League of 1890, were formed and the Gentlemen of Philadelphia toured England five times between 1884 and 1908. The decades from 1870 to 1910 are now considered cricket’s golden age in America, with Philadelphia at its heart.
1. “Cricket Season for 1862,” Brooklyn Eagle: Apr. 25, 1862.
2. “The Incoming Base Ball Season,” Brooklyn Eagle: Apr. 7, 1862.
3. The American Cricketer: a Journal Devoted to the Noble Game of Cricket 1.9, p. 34.
4. New York Herald: 1845; “City Intellegence,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle: June 15, 1846.
5. “Cricket in America,” Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle: Dec. 3, 1843.
6. Kirsch, G. 2007. Baseball and Cricket: the Creation of American Team Sports, 1838–72 (p. 21).
7. New York Daily Times: Aug. 11, 1854.
8. New York Clipper: May 16, 1857, reprinted in: Sullivan, D. 1995. Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1825–1908 (p. 25).
9. Lillywhite, F. 1860. The English Cricketers’ Trip to Canada and the United States (pp. v–vi).
10. “News of the Day,” New York Times:Oct. 3, 1859.
11. “The Cricketers,” Chicago Press and Tribune: Sept. 28, 1859.
12. “The International Cricket Match,” New York Times:Oct. 4, 1859; “The Great Cricket Match,” New York Times:Oct. 5, 1859.
13. Melville, T. 1998. The Tented Field: A History of Cricket in America (p. 43).
14. “The ‘International’ Game of Cricket—a Suggestion for a Game of Base Ball,” Chicago Press and Tribune: Oct. 12, 1859.
15. Chadwick, H. 1868. “The Game of Cricket in America,” The American Chronicle and Pastimes of Sports, Feb. 13, 1868.
16. “Cricket Season for 1862,” Brooklyn Eagle: Apr. 25, 1862.
17. Their first match was against the Satellite Club of Williamsburgh on Oct. 18, 1860. The American Club was victorious. See New York Times: Oct. 17, 1860, p. 1, and Oct. 20, 1860, p. 8.
18. New York Times: Oct. 20, 1860.
19. Spirit of the Times quoted in The American Cricketer, p. 45. See also New York Times: Sept. 4 1860.
20. Kirsch, G. 1989. The Creation of American Team Sports: Baseball and Cricket, 1838–72 (p. 106).
21. This was first tried almost by accident, when a snowstorm canceled an All-England cricket match in Rochester in 1859 and the touring English cricketers played a pick-up game of baseball instead. See Lillywhite 1860, 45–46; Rochester Union and Advertiser: Sept. 17, 1859; Rochester Express: Dec. 10, 1859.
22. New York Times: Sept. 3, 1868, and Oct. 21, 1868.
23. “Sporting News,” New York Times:Sept. 15, 1859.
24. Chadwick, H. 1890. “A Revolution in the Cricket Field,” Outing, June 1890, pp. 228–229.
25. New York Clipper: May 24, 1862, quoted in Protoball Cricket Chronology.
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.
For further detail about Adam Ford, see Nancy B. Bouchier and Robert Knight Barney, “A Critical Examination of a Source on Early Ontario Baseball: The Reminiscences of Adam E. Ford,” Journal of Sport History 15 (Spring 1988): 75-87. It is available on the web at: http://www.la84foundation.org/SportsLibrary/JSH/JSH1988/JSH1501/jsh1501e.pdf. Here is the original Ford letter as published in Sporting Life.
VERY LIKE BASE BALL.
A Game of the Long-ago Which Closely Resembled Our Present National Game.
DENVER, Col., April 26–Editor SPORTING LIFE–The 4th of June, 1838, was a holiday in Canada, for the Rebellion of 1837 had been closed by the victory of the Government over the rebels, and the birthday of His Majesty George the Fourth was set apart for general rejoicing. The chief event at the village of Beechville, in the county of Oxford, was a base ball match between the Beechville Club and the Zorras, a club hailing from the townships of Zorra and North Oxford.
The game was played in a nice, smooth pasture field just back of Enoch Burdick’s shops. I well remember a company of Scotch volunteers from Zorra halting as they passed the grounds to take a look at the game. Of the Beechville team I remember seeing Geo. Burdick, Reuben Martin, Adam Karn, Wm. Hutchinson, I. Van Alstine, and, I think, Peter Karn and some others. I remember also that there were in the Zorras “Old Ned” Dolson, Nathaniel McNames, Abel and John Williams, Harry and Daniel Karnand, I think, Wm. Ford and William Dodge. Were it not for taking up too much of your valuable space I could give you the names of many others who were there and incidents to confirm the accuracy of the day and the game. The ball was made of double and twisted woolen yarn, a little smaller than the regulation ball of to day and covered with good, honest calf skin, sewed with waxed ends by Edward McNamee, a shoemaker.
The infield was a square, the base lines of which were twenty-one yards long, on which were placed five bags, thus:
The distance from the thrower to the catcher was eighteen yards; the catcher standing three yards behind the home bye. From the home bye, or “knocker’s” stone, to the first bye was six yards. The club (we had bats in cricket but we never used bats in playing base ball) was generally made of the best cedar, blocked out with an ax and finished on a shaving horse with a drawing knife. A wagon spoke, or any nice straight stick would do.
We had fair and unfair balls. A fair ball was one thrown to the knocker at any height between the bend of his knee and the top of his head, near enough to him to be fairly within reach. All others were unfair. The strategic points for the thrower to aim at was to get it near his elbow or between his club and his ear. When a man struck at a ball it was a strike, and if a man struck at a ball three times and missed it he was out if the ball was caught every time either on the fly or on the first bound. If he struck at the ball and it was not so caught by the catcher that strike did not count. If a struck ball went anywhere within lines drawn straight back between home and the fourth bye, and between home and the first bye extended into the field the striker had to run. If it went outside of that he could not, and every man on the byes must stay where he was until the ball was in the thrower’s hands. Instead of calling foul the call was “no hit.”
There was no rule to compel a man to strike at a ball except the rule of honor, but a man would be dispised and guyed unmercifully if he would not hit at a fair ball. If the knocker hit a ball anywhere he was out if the ball was caught either before it struck the ground or on the first bound. Every struck ball that went within the lines mentioned above was a fair hit; everyone outside of them no-hit, and what you now call a foul tip was called a tick. A tick and a catch will always fetch was the rule given strikers out on foul tips. The same rule applies to forced runs that we have now. The bases were the lines between the byes and a base runner was out if hit by the ball when he was off of his bye. Three men out and the side out. And both sides out constituted a complete inning. The number of innings to be played was always a matter of agreement, but it was generally from 5 to 9 innings, 7 being most frequently played and when no number was agreed upon seven was supposed to be the number. The old plan which Silas Williams and Ned Dolsen (these were gray-headed men then) said was the only right way to play ball, for it was the way they used to play it when they were boys, was to play away until one side made 18 or 21, and the one getting that number first won the game. A tally, of course, was a run. The tallies were always kept by cutting notches on the edge of a stick when the base runners came in. There was no set number of men to be played on each side, but the sides must be equal. The number of men on each side was a matter of agreement when the match was made. I have frequently seen games played with 7 men on each side and I never saw more than 12. They all fielded.
The object in having the first bye so near the home was to get the runners on the base lines so as to have the fun of putting them out or enjoying the mistakes of the fielders when some fleet-footed fellow would dodge the ball and come in home. When I got older I played myself, for the game never died out. I well remember when some fellows down at or near New York got up the game of base ball that had a “pitcher” and “fouls,” etc., and was played with a ball hard as a stick. India rubber had come into use, and they put so much into the balls to make them lively that when the fellow tossed it to you like a girl playing “one o’d cat,” you could knock it so far that the fielders would be chasing it yet, like dogs hunting sheep, after you had gone clear around and scored–your tally. Neil McTaggart, Henry Cruttenden, Gordon Cook, Henry Taylor, James Piper, Almon Burch, Wm. Herrington and others told me of it when I came home from the University. We, with a “lot of good fellows more,” went out and played it one day. The next day we felt as if we had been on an overland trip to the moon. I could give you pages of incidents, but space forbids. One word as to prowess in those early days. I heard Silas Williams tell Jonathan Thornton that old Ned Dolson could catch the ball right away from the front of the club if you didn’t keep him back so far that he couldn’t reach it. I have played from that day to this, and I don’t intend to quit as long as there is another boy on the ground.
Yours, DR. FORD.
Nine Innings, Nine Players, Ninety Feet, and Other Changes: The Recodification of Base Ball Rules in 1857
The article below, by Eric Miklich, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Eric is Historian of the Vintage Base Ball Association and maintains an extensive website on nineteenth century baseball at http://www.19cbaseball.com. There one may view his compendium of baseball rules from 1845–1900. An active vintage-game ballplayer, he maintains a special interest in playing styles and playing fields from 1854–1884.
His article, like others from the special Protoball issue, appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones at mlb.com. For example, the article below, indexed as 1857.1, reflects that it is the first entry for the year 1857. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
1857.1, Nine Innings, Nine Players, Ninety Feet, and Other Changes: The Recodification of Base Ball Rules in 1857
The game shall consist of nine innings to each side. . . . In playing all matches, nine players from each club shall constitute a full field. . . . The bases must be . . . fastened on the four corners of a square whose sides are respectively thirty yards.
Although the Knickerbocker Club had laid down baseball’s earliest surviving rules in 1845, some of the game’s canonical features had not yet appeared as of 13 years later. Only when the rules underwent a fairly thorough revision in 1857 did baseball’s distinguishing dimensions—teams of nine playing nine innings on a field with 90-foot basepaths—enter its list of rules.
The Knickerbocker Club was content to play intramurally for many years, for its primary objectives were exercise and good fellowship, and rival clubs were not to be seen. Its initial list of 14 playing rules—while falling well short of comprehensiveness—sufficed for this period, with one rule added and another modified in 1848. By April 1854, three clubs—the Knickerbocker, the Gotham, and the Eagle—were playing interclub matches, and they added two new rules for those matches, thus introducing the force-play and specifying the size and weight of the baseball itself.
Just two years later, however, the nature of match play had changed materially. The number of clubs had increased nearly ten-fold, and the emphasis was rapidly shifting toward winning, and away from mere fellowship. In this new environment, there was evidently some agitation for a rethinking of the rules. In December 1856 the Knickerbockers publicly invited interested clubs to send three delegates each to a rules convention in early 1857 (16 clubs would be invited and 14 would participate). Knickerbocker Club members then set about proposing a new set of rules for the assembled delegates to consider.
What emerged from this convention looked like a fairly thorough overhaul. The 17 playing rules expanded to 28 rules (plus seven others that related to umpiring and player eligibility), with fewer than half of the 1854 rules remaining essentially unchanged. One scholar estimates that the total volume of text was three times that found in the 1854 rules.
Some major changes and their implications
A close reading identifies over 20 substantive additions to the rulebook in the 1857 version; a few of the more prominent of them are described below. In addition, for modern readers the terminology in the official rules was becoming more familiar. Section 9, for example, defines the results of crossing the plate as “runs,” and the prior terms “counts, or aces” are less conspicuous. “Innings” makes its debut in section 25, and the original term “hand” declines. Section 11 uses the simple term “out” in place of “hand lost.”
Nine Innings. The Knickerbocker draft rules proposed having games end after seven innings (with extra innings if needed), instead of at the end of whatever inning saw one or both clubs reach a score of 21 aces. Convention delegates, however, decided on a nine inning game, with Knickerbocker Louis F. Wadsworth advocating this outcome contrary to his own Club’s recommendation. The rationale for a choice of nine frames was evidently not recorded. We now know that in 1856 the average game (still played to 21 aces) had lasted only about 6 innings, and thus the 1857 convention was defining a game that was to be 50 percent longer. A good many of the 1856 games were suspended due to darkness, and longer contests would arguably make things worse; however, history has certainly proved the nine-inning decision to be both workable and durable.
Nine Players. While earlier rules had not specified the number of players on a team, it is generally believed that a custom had already evolved that match games required nine-player teams. If so, this new rule was simply conforming to de facto standards. (The Knickerbocker Club had voted in 1856 that, for its intramural games, the presence of seven Club members per team was sufficient. If they felt that the number of players and number of innings should be identical, as some suggest, they may have felt bound to recommend seven-inning games to preserve such symmetry. However, there is as yet no known evidence that they proposed seven-player teams to the 1857 convention to match the seven-inning idea.
Ninety Feet (30 yards). The original 1845 rules had prescribed an infield layout that separated the four bases by a little less than 30 “paces.” Only if we knew how clubs actually defined a pace, would we know whether the 1857 rule was a significant change. A three-foot pace would have dictated a baseline of nearly modern length. However, a pace was formally defined as 30 inches in those days, not 36 inches, and if that pace was used, the distance between bases was about 75 feet, and the 1857 rule would extend the distance by 20 percent, and affect rates of scoring. (If the length of a pace was left to the discretion or natural gait of the marker, as some have speculated, the distance will have varied from one match to another and from one marker to another.) It would be natural for the baselines to lengthen, over time, as the weight of balls increased, thus allowing for longer hits and longer throws. But whether they did lengthen in 1857 remains uncertain. In any event, there was apparently no controversy about this provision.
The Ball. The ball specified in section 1 of the new rules was measurably heavier, and its maximum size reduced, compared with the 1854 standards. The maximum circumference was reduced from 11 inches to 10.25 inches. (The laws of cricket at this time called for a maximum circumference of 9 inches for a ball weighing about the same as the baseball.)
Pitching Restriction. The 1854 stipulation was that the ball be “pitched, not thrown.” Section 6 of the new rules read that the ball be “pitched, not jerked or thrown.”
Pitcher Placement. The pitching distance was changed from 15 paces to 15 yards (section 5). The pitcher’s position was defined by a 12-foot line, and he was not restricted as to his point of delivery along that line. A nine-inch circular quoit placed at the center of the 12’ line gave umpires a way to see if pitchers were delivering balls illegally.
Base Advancement on Fly Outs and Bound Outs. The new rule 16 prohibited baserunners from advancing on fly outs, but said that they “shall have the privilege of returning” to their base. For outs effected via one-bounce catches, runners could still advance freely.
The Bat. Section 2 specified that the bat be made of wood and not exceed 2.5 inches in diameter; its length was not restricted.
Substitution. Under section 27, player substitution was disallowed “unless for reason of illness or injury.”
Runner Interference. Runners who intentionally interfered with fielders “shall be declared out.”
Three-Foot Baselines. Runners were to not to evade tags by running more than three feet out of a direct line between bases.
Ground Rules. Clubs are permitted to adopt ground rules particular to their playing areas.
Controversy and failed proposals
The Knickerbocker proposal eliminated the old bound-out rule; a batter was not out unless a fly ball was caught in the air. This change was narrowly voted down, reportedly due to concern about to hand injury to fielders. The fly rule would not be part of base ball until the 1865 season, eight years later. In a compromise adopted unanimously, however, runners were to be prevented from advancing on caught flies, giving fielders a new incentive to attempt catches on the fly. (Another suggested inducement, made in Porter’s Spirit of the Times, was to award the fielding team two outs for a fly catch and one out for a bound catch, while giving the batting team six outs per half inning.)
To help speed up play, Porter’s also endorsed the idea of called strikes to spur overly picky batters. The idea was not accepted, but did enter the rule book the following year.
The Knickerbockers also suggested, in vain, that flat bats be permitted.
Some overall patterns in the new rules and the defeated proposals
Clarity for New Players. Many of the 1857 rule changes appear to have been made in order to help new players and clubs understand details of the game better. A few examples are found in fuller descriptions of the balk (section 6), of fair and foul balls (section 8), what constituted a run (section 9), and of the five distinct the ways that outs are accomplished (sections 11–15.) These improvements must have been particularly valuable for those with little direct access to experienced players for advice.
Closing Revealed Loopholes. Several modifications appear to be intended to limit prior attempts to bend or exploit gaps discovered in the original rules. It was in order to limit such “sharp practices,” one might surmise, that the new section 6 proscribed “jerked” pitches, section 18 introduced the 3-foot baseline, section 21 prevented runners from impeding fielders, section 22 disallowed the use of players’ caps in fielding balls hit in play, and section 35 dictated that clubs that arrived more than 15 minutes late must forfeit the match.
The Shadow of Cricket? Some rules, and proposed rules, appear to be intended to reinforce baseball’s standing as a game suitable for adults. The new inducement to discourage the bound out in section 16 had that character. More generally, one can discern the shadow of cricket—a manly game indeed—behind several of the items that were raised for consideration: the fly rule proposal, the heavier and smaller ball, the notion of using flat bats, the move toward a fixed number of innings, and even in the appointment of a “committee to draft a code of laws” (not “rules”) for baseball.
1. From sections 26, 27, and 3, Rules and Regulations of the Game of Base Ball Adopted by the Base Ball Players of New York, January 1857.
2. See essay 1845.1, Larry McCray, “The Knickerbocker Rules—and the Long History of the One-Bounce Fielding Rule,” http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2011/10/06/the-knickerbocker-rules/.
3. Many essential rules were left implicit. Take one example, of many: say that you are a baserunner at second base, with first base occupied, and the batter hits a low liner to left field. Should you run, or stay at second, go half way to third, or what? The original rules give you no clue, except that if the fielding team manages to get the ball to a fielder touching third base before you can get there, you will be out. Maybe you should stay put: there is no force rule, and the written rules don’t even say you will be sanctioned if you end up sharing a base with the runner from first, if he decides to advance. Clearly something beyond the original 17 rules was required to actually play the game in 1845.
4. The notable changes in 1848 were that only at first base could a runner be retired by a fielder’s throwing the ball to a base before the runner arrived there, and that with two outs, a run could not score if the batter was “caught out.”
5. See Ivor-Campbell, F. “Knickerbocker Base Ball,” Base Ball 1.2, p. 59.
6. Ibid., 60.
7. It remains unclear that “aces” was uniformly or extensively used from 1845–1857; in fact, the Knickerbocker game books, as early as 1846, show “runs,” not aces as the units of scoring. See, e.g., Ivor-Campbell, 57 (illustration).
8. See essay 1856.4.
9. John Thorn, email correspondence, 2009.
10. “Out-Door Sports. Base Ball,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Mar. 7, 1857, p. 5.
The article below, by David Dyte, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. David is a leading authority on early ballplaying in Brooklyn, his adopted home. One of his areas of expertise is the hundreds of Brooklyn playing fields from 1820 to the present, and his expansive website about Brooklyn’s historic ballparks, http://www.brooklynballparks.com, continues to accumulate data on Brooklyn hardball.
His article, like others from the special Protoball issue, appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones at mlb.com. For example, the article below, indexed as 1845.4, reflects that it is the fourth entry for the year 1845. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
1845.4, Base Ball in Brooklyn, 1845 to 1870: The Best There Was
The Base Ball match between eight Brooklyn players, and eight players of New York, came off on Friday [October 10] on the grounds of the Union Star Cricket Club. The Yorkers were singularly unfortunate in scoring but one run in their three innings. Brooklyn scored 22 and of course came off winners.
This short 1845 newspaper account, lacking any of the dramatic flair later brought to baseball writing by the likes of Henry Chadwick, represents the earliest record of an organized baseball game in Brooklyn. The result points to a game by the Knickerbocker Club’s rules, which called for a winning score of 21 runs, and it put Brooklyn ballplayers at the top of the new game at its very dawn.
We know less about earlier local forms of the game, but they had been played in Brooklyn for decades. Late in the century, a former mayor recalled that “I went to school in 1820–1, to one Samuel Seabury, on Hicks street . . . . I also attended Mr. Hunt’s school, over George Smith’s wheelwright shop in Fulton street, opposite High. Foot racing and base ball used to be favorite games in those days.”
Colonel John Oakey, who took his schooling at Erasmus Hall in Flatbush from 1837, recalled the ballplaying there:
Erasmus Hall academy had a fine play ground surrounding it. Here John Oakey and his school fellows played many a game of three base ball. The boys who played were called binders, pitchers, catchers, and outers, and in order to put a boy out it was necessary to strike him with the ball. On one occasion John Oakey threw the ball from the second base and put another boy out. The boy . . . went down in a heap, but instantly sprang to his feet and cried out, “It didn’t hit me; it didn’t hit me.” But John Oakey and all the boys knew better. For a week after that boy had a lame back, but he would never acknowledge that the ball did it.
While Brooklyn and New York sides played twice more in October 1845, records of organized base ball in Brooklyn disappear between these matches and the emergence in 1854 of the Excelsior Club of South Brooklyn, a baseball team organized by the members of the Jolly Young Bachelors social club. With the founding in 1855 of the Eckford Club of Greenpoint, and the Atlantic Club of Bedford, Brooklyn’s triumvirate of great baseball clubs was complete. These teams would dominate baseball for more than a decade.
In fact, by 1856 there were already more interclub games being played in Brooklyn than anywhere else in the New York area, and the “New York Game” had, in one sense, skipped town. (Brooklyn was a separate political entity until 1898.) During the years when baseball became America’s game, it was played best in Brooklyn.
When the National Association of Base Ball Players formed in 1857, the explosive rise of the game in Brooklyn was evident. Nine of the sixteen founding clubs were from that city, and Brooklyn men would soon take a large role in NABBP governance. When the Association first recognized a formal champion in 1859, the Atlantic Club claimed the title, sporting a record for the year of eleven wins against just one loss.
Over the next few years, Brooklyn teams would monopolize competition for the championship, which was passed along to a club that defeated the incumbent champion in a best-of-three match. In 1860, the Excelsiors, having poached the devastating pitching ability of young James Creighton from the Star Club, bid strongly to wrest the title from the Atlantics. On July 19, 1860, the South Brooklyn club hosted the Atlantic and took its signal victory in the first game of the series, 28–4. The Brooklyn Eagle described the spectacle the following day:
For a month or more the Base Ball public has been alive with interest concerning this great match . . . . There could not have been less than five or six thousand persons present. The greatest excitement prevailed, and betting stood at 10 to 8 on the Atlantic Club. The Atlantics were not up to their usual play in any one point, missing balls on the fly and bound, overthrowing and misbatting. The result of the game was an entire disappointment to the large crowd in attendance, judging from their moving away like a solemn funeral procession after the game was over.
On August 9, the Atlantic turned the tables at their own ground, scoring nine runs in the seventh inning and holding on for a 15–14 victory. The Eagle was again enthusiastic: “From one to three o’clock, yesterday afternoon, the avenues leading to the Atlantic ball ground, at Bedford, were thronged with pedestrians, en route to witness the great match at base ball that was to take place between these two clubs, who have no superiors in the country.”  The crowd was far more pleased with the result on this occasion: “The shout that rent the air from the stentorian lungs of the countless friends of the gallant Atlantics was terrific . . . so eager were all to congratulate them on such a victory as they had so manfully achieved.”
The concluding match of the series at the Putnam Grounds on August 23 was to be a disaster. With the Excelsior Club leading 8–6 in the sixth inning, the abusive behavior of the crowd, which again had a decidedly pro-Atlantic tone, became so bad that Excelsior captain Joe Leggett took his team from the field. With the game called off, the Atlantic Club retained the championship, in fact if not in spirit. The two Brooklyn foes would never play each other again.
Some clubs were forced temporarily to disband when the Civil War began, but baseball continued to be a focus of popular attention in Brooklyn. In 1862, William Cammeyer set out to convert his skating pond in Williamsburgh to a summer sports venue, and created the Union Base Ball and Cricket Grounds, the first enclosed baseball park. Rather than charging his tenant clubs rent, as had the owners of other fields, he let them play for free, instead taking ten cents from each spectator as the price of admission.
The Union Grounds proved to be instantly popular, as the Eckford, Putnam, and Constellation Clubs shifted their homes to the new field. The Eckford Club, a working class collection of shipbuilders and dockworkers, hosted the champion Atlantics for three matches at the Union Grounds, splitting the first two. On September 18, the finest day of the Eckford Club, they took the championship with an 8–3 victory.
Even in wartime, the game itself was constantly evolving. Henry Chadwick, a Brooklyn resident whose enthusiastic baseball writing and recordkeeping became the stuff of legend, organized regular prize matches at the beginning of each season. These matches, involving picked nines of players from various teams, would often try out new rules. The long-contested fly rule, which was exhibited in prize matches in Brooklyn in 1864, and had been a feature of regular games involving the Excelsior and Star Clubs as far back as 1859, was finally adopted for general use by the NABBP in December 1864. This rule ended the retirement of hitters by means of one-bounce “catches” in fair territory.
The Atlantic Club regained its title from the Eckford Club in 1864 and was undefeated in 1864–1865. Challenges now began to come from further afield. A visit to Boston in 1865 to play the Tri-Mountain Club on Boston Common seemed to cement the dominance of the champions from Brooklyn—the Atlantics scored 68 runs in the last two innings to cap a 107–16 win.
To the south, however, the Athletic Club in Philadelphia was making noise. The Atlantics finally visited Philadelphia on October 30, 1865. The Eagle reported a huge attendance—“not less than 15,000 spectators present”—at the Athletic Grounds. The Philadelphians would be disappointed, however, as the Atlantic Club finished strongly to win, 21–15. A week later, at the Capitoline Grounds, the Atlantic withstood a late comeback from their Quaker State foes, winning 27–24 to retain the championship.
But now the rest of the baseball world was catching up. The next few years in Brooklyn baseball were a story of gradual decay at the top level. Some of the best players on the top teams bickered over money shared from gate receipts, or left the city completely. The Atlantic Club remained strong, although no longer unbeatable, and retained the championship in 1866 before giving the title up to the Union Club of Morrisania (then in Westchester, now in the Bronx) in 1867. In 1868, the powerful Mutual Club moved from Hoboken to Brooklyn, and claimed the championship.
It was a club from the distant west that heralded the bitter end of Brooklyn’s preeminence in baseball. The Red Stockings of Cincinnati, stocked largely by players from the New York area, were the first club to be incorporated as a for-profit business, and the first openly to employ fully professional players under contract. In 1869, the Red Stockings traveled extensively and won 57 games while losing none. Their efforts vitiated the challenge system for crowning baseball’s champion, as the Cincinnati team chose not to schedule its games that way. The Atlantic Club, which won 40 of 48 games in 1869, finished as official champions for the seventh and last time—but now to general derision.
In 1870, the Red Stockings continued to take all before them, and in June the mighty club brought in an 89-match winning streak to meet the Atlantics, still the pride of Brooklyn. The Eagle was, as always, present with superlatives at hand:
The most remarkable game, in more respects than one, was played upon the Capitoline ground yesterday between the celebrated old Atlantics and the celebrated young Red Stockings. Notwithstanding the energetic protest of the Atlantics, they were compelled to charge fifty cents admission to the ground, and yet from nine to ten thousand people congregated there, and in the hot sun, watched with intense interest the progress of the game. The general impression previous to the game, was that the Atlantics would lose the game . . . . The result therefore was, that the most stubborn game ever played, was finished yesterday on the Capitoline ground.
History records that the Atlantics, by some miracle, scored three runs in the eleventh inning to win 8–7. One editorial was most effusive:
Eleven innings, a total score of fifteen, and that standing just eight to seven, tell a story to professional minds which sends the blood tingling in joy to their toes. It was the greatest game ever played between the greatest clubs that ever played and, as usual, when Brooklyn is pitted against the universe, the universe is number two.
But the incredible victory over the Red Stockings was the last gasp of the era. The universe would soon strike back.
The three great clubs of Brooklyn withered. The Excelsior had already disappeared, and the Atlantic and Eckford Clubs saw their best players leave when the new professional league, the National Association, opened for business in 1871. Brooklyn baseball was no longer the best baseball.
1. New York True Sun, Oct. 13, 1845, p. 2.
2. “School Days Recalled,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct. 22, 1887, page 8.
3. “Sports in Old Brooklyn,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct. 21, 1894, page 21.
4. Data from the Protoball Project’s Games Tabulation, compiled by Craig Waff. See http://retrosheet.org/Protoball/GT.NYC.pdf.
5. “Base Ball—Excelsiors vs Atlantic,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 20, 1860, p. 3.
6. “Base Ball—Grand Match at Bedford,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug. 0, 1860, p. 2.
8. “Our National Game—Atlantic versus Athletic,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct. 31, 1865, p. 2.
9. “The Atlantics Triumphant — A Glorious Victory for Brooklyn—The Local Nine Beat the ‘Picked Nine’ from the West,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 15, 1870, p. 2.
10. “The Atlantic’s Victory,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 15, 1870, p. 2.
The article below, by Larry McCray, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Larry designed and developed the Protoball Project to help researchers and writers locate and refine primary data on the evolution of ballplaying up to 1870. He long served as chair of the SABR Committee on the Origins of Base Ball and is a member of the MLB origins committee and a key participant in Early Baseball Milestones.
His article, like others from the special Protoball issue, appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones at mlb.com. For example, the article below, indexed as 1859.24, reflects that it is the twenty-fourth entry for the year 1859. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
1859.24, State Championship Wicket Game in Connecticut: a Hearty Hurrah for a Doomed Pastime
The most important game [of wicket] ever played in this town was…for the championship of the State. . . . Monday morning the whole town was afoot early and a holiday was practically declared. . . . It is estimated that when the game commenced there were fully 4000 people in and around the grounds . . . thousands stood in the hot sun watching for ten hours the contest that was to decide the supremacy.
The big game took place on an otherwise normal Monday (July 18, 1859) in Bristol, Connecticut, and the home team prevailed, 190–152, over the New Britain visitors. Bristol had issued a statewide challenge to play, and thus considered the match to be a contest for the state title. Fans from Hartford filled a railroad car in a special early morning train from the state capitol. By the time the train reached Bristol, four cars, each trimmed with flags and bunting, were filled with wicket fans, the New Britain players, and a brass band. For fans, the windows of the nearby Congregational Church provided crowded indoor vantage points all day long.
Writing in 1904, Connecticut governor Abiram Chamberlain, whose 26-year-old brother had scored five runs for New Britain in the 1859 contest, recalled the game as arousing interest “fully equal to that of baseball at the present time.” Largely overlooked until recently by sports historians, the American game of wicket appears to have been the dominant safe-haven ballgame in several parts of the United States, right up to the time that the New York form of baseball swept the nation.
Wicket was a batting-and-running game featuring two wickets that were defended by batsmen, and it thus bore an obvious resemblance to cricket. The ball, however, was considerably larger, and apparently softer, than the ball used for cricket and baseball, and the angled wicket club was generally depicted as much heftier than the bats used in those other sports. The wickets were low (only a few inches off the ground) and long—commonly described as five or six feet in length—and placed 25 yards apart. The bowler was required to keep the delivery to a batter very low, so that it struck the ground some minimum number of times before it reached the batting area. Teams commonly comprised up to 30 players; for the Bristol–New Britain game, each side fielded 27 men. Wicket was an all-out-side-out game, most commonly described as lasting three innings, with the side scoring the most runs (sometimes termed “crosses”) emerging as the victor. Baserunning on struck balls was optional, as it is in modern cricket. Retiring runners by means of plugging them with thrown balls is not mentioned in any of the surviving rules or game descriptions.
There are indications that wicket was not a game for wimps. Bowlers were reported to deliver the large ball with impressive speed, and it required strength and agility for a batter to defend a wicket as wide as he was tall. The heavy bats may have been a source of substantial risk, as well. Within 60 days in spring 1863, in fact, two Union soldiers were reported to have died from injuries sustained while playing wicket.
The Protoball Project had, as of 2010, assembled more than 75 references to wicket play in the United States from 1725 through the Civil War years. The earliest of these reports places the game on Boston Common in about 1725, and George Washington was reported to have played wicket during the Revolutionary War. However, most citations of wicket refer to play after 1830, and about half the accounts (as well as all of the lists of rules) refer to play from 1850 to 1860. Thus, the pastime remained strongly rooted until abruptly displaced by the New York form of baseball.
Wicket now appears to have been most warmly embraced in Connecticut (it was sometimes referred to as the Connecticut Game) and western Massachusetts, where annual town vs. town matches were reported. One account reports that the towns declared holidays on such occasions. Local variants of the game seem to have evolved within its western New England range, as it was necessary in some cases for rival teams to stipulate to the particular rules to be used for the big game.
We also have several reports of less formal games being played on university campuses. Yale and Amherst students played games of wicket—including one that pitted one college class against another. The game is also described at Harvard College, in an area where the Massachusetts Game was to emerge, as late as 1854. For pickup games near towns and villages, the use of roadways for informal contests was irresistible—as would be expected with a game featuring a bowled ball—and a few reports center on conflict between players and passing travelers. In New York State, pickup games were not unusual in available town lots, and we have accounts of such games in western New York towns. Accounts of juvenile play were not frequent.
While wicket’s original foothold may have been in western New England (nearly two-thirds of the references are from that area), the game spread westward from there, presumably carried by migrating New Englanders. Wicket was evidently strong in Rochesterand Buffalo, for example, and one Rochester account recalls it as the primary game played in that area before baseball arrived from downstate. We also now have more than 10 pre–Civil War accounts from Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin. There are solitary reports of wicket play in Hawaii and Baltimore, and of a wicket club forming in 1844 in New Orleans, as well.
The original source of American wicket is unclear. Noting the familiar shapes of the wicket and bat, some cricket historians have surmised that the game branched off from some form of cricket very early in America’s history; by 1744, English cricket had already developed the tall, narrow (six-inch) wicket format that we know today. However, there is no record of a pre-1744 variant of early cricket that displays the special traits of American wicket. Absent from the English record, it would seem, are accounts of the large ball, the very wide wicket, and teams numbering as many as 30 players. That leaves us to speculate that whatever the form of the game that arrived from abroad in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, wicket most likely evolved markedly once it had set down American roots.
Once the National Association rules for baseball were distributed nationally, and that game had become the national passion, wicket fell into decline. Of Protoball’s compilation of 150 ballplaying references in Civil War camps, only nine cite wicket as the game that was played; while this sum is greater than that of the known accounts of cricket play, it is far exceeded by accounts of baseball in the war camps. (Most of the military wicket play involved Union regiments recruited from westernMassachusetts, but four reports reflected wicket play among soldiers inWisconsin andMinnesota regiments.) After the war, it is only throwback games of wicket that appear, spottily, and chiefly in the area of Bristol, Connecticut.
Soon enough, wicket was forgotten. Baseball researchers, perhaps, interpreted the term “wicket” as just a mislabeled reference to English cricket, and thus scant attention was accorded to a game that was, in fact, the favorite safe-haven game for large swatches of the new nation in the 1800s. But everybody else had neglected the pastime too. Daniel Genovese, who devotes a full chapter to wicket in his 2004 book on ballplaying in Westfield, Connecticut, worked with many local historians in the area, and reports that none had ever heard of wicket. Genovese’s sad epitaph for wicket: “The point is clear, even among well-respected historians, the game is lost.”
1. Norton, F. 1907. “That Strange Yankee Game, Wicket,” in Bristol Connecticut (p. 295). Originally published in the Hartford Courant in 1904.
2. Ibid., 295–296. The estimation of the crowd of observers, in the absence of admission gates, must have been difficult. An estimate of 4,000 exceeds Bristol’s population of less than 3,500 souls in 1859, so the estimator must have believed that few locals stayed at home that day.
3. Ibid., 296.
4. Palmer, M. 1913. “Diary Entry of Captain Milo E. Palmer, 12th Wisconsin Regiment,” in History of Brown County Wisconsin (p. 216). Paxson, L. 1908. “Paxson Diary,” in Collections of the State Historical Society of North Dakota (part 2, vol. 2) (p. 132). These accounts are summarized as Cases 51 and 57 of the Protoball chronology, “Ballplaying in the Civil War Camps”: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CivilWar.htm
5. See: “Wicket: A Working Chronology,” at retrosheet.org/Protoball/Sub.Wicket.htm. References to wicket play in England are rare, but “wicket” was sometimes used as a term for English cricket, and we know of a few cases in which US players called wicket by the name of cricket.
6. Sewall, S. 1882. “Diary of Samuel Sewall,” in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (vol. 7) (p. 372). Summarized in Protoball entry 1725c.1.
7. Anderson, J., ed. 1896. The Town and City of Waterbury (vol. 3) (pp. 1102–1103). Summarized in Protoball entry 1858.52.
8. Wicket-playing at Yale is summarized in Protoball entries 1818.1 and 1843.4. Wicket at Amherst is summarized in entries 1846.7 and 1846.8. Wicket at Harvard is summarized in entries 1840c.39 and 1854.13.
9. “Baseball Half a Century Ago,” Rochester Union and Advertiser: Mar. 21, 1903. Summarized in Protoball entry 1850s.16.
10. “Ballplaying in the Civil War Camps,” retrosheet.org/Protoball/CivilWar.htm (accessed Oct. 7, 2010).
11. Genovese, D. 2004. “Wicket Ball: The Predecessor to the ‘New York Game,’” in The Old Ball Ground: The Chronological History of Westfield Baseball (pp. 9–25).
12. Ibid., 11.