This important article first appeared in the journal Base Ball, Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2009. It is reprinted with the kind permission of the publisher, McFarland & Co. Randall Brown majored in American Studies at Wesleyan and is still addicted to history. His discovery of an obscure 1887 interview with William Wheaton, the first umpire, led to an article, “How Baseball Began,” in the 2004 issue of The National Pastime. Brown’s articles on local history have appeared in The Staten Island Historianand the Santa Cruz History Journal, and he recently completed the documentary How Base Ball Was Born, featuring the story of Wheaton and the New York Base Ball Club.
Before the Civil War, the most popular outdoor activity in New York City may have been fighting. The prize ring was popular, but rioting in streets and public squares attracted more participants. In fact, there was little distinction between professional pugilists and gang brawlers. Heavyweights like John Morrissey were also employed as “shoulder-hitters” by political gangs like the Empire Club, run by Captain Isaiah Rynders, a leading Democrat, or the Short Boys of Bill “the Butcher” Poole, hero of the Know-Nothings.
Rynders and his crew delighted in attacking abolitionist gatherings. In May 1850 they showed up in force at an antislavery convention at the Broadway Tabernacle. Speaker Frederick Douglass defused the attack by inviting a racist orator to share the platform. To the argument that Negroes were a kind of ape, Douglass, whose father was probably a slave-owner, responded:
“Captain Rynders, do you think I am a monkey?”
“Oh no,” replied Rynders, “you are half a white man.”
“Then I am half man and half monkey?”
“And half brother to Captain Rynders?”
With the audience “united in laughter and applause,” Douglass spoke his piece. It was a short-lived triumph, however. Threats of mayhem truncated the conference and, several days later, while walking with two white women in Battery Park, Douglass was assaulted.1
A year later, on May 27, 1851, the Elysian Fields in Hoboken was the scene of what the Brooklyn Eagle described as
…one of the most earnest and angry promiscuous fights that has ever occurred in this country. The Germans of this city, with their families, assembled in large numbers in Hoboken, for the celebration of their Maifest. Scarcely two hours had elapsed when they were set upon by a party of rascals called “Short Boys.”
At first the Germans were disposed to avoid a conflict, but finding it impossible to do so, they sallied out against them, and drove them to the Elysian Fields. The Short Boys took refuge in a house kept by one McCarthy, which was attacked by the Germans, and greatly injured. McCarthy, in defense of himself and his house, shot two of the Germans with a double barreled gun, killing them, it is said.2
Fortunately, this incident did not disrupt the plans of the tenants of the Club Room at McCarty’s Colonnade House. The Knickerbocker Base Ball Club had been challenged to play a home-and-home series by the recently formed Washington Club. After a promising start, the Knickerbockers had been, in the words of D. L. Adams, in “pursuit of pleasure under difficulties.” “There was then no rivalry,” he recalled, “as no other club was formed until 1850, and during these five years baseball had a desperate struggle for existence.”3
It happened that the first match, on June 3, was an away game at the Red House Grounds in Harlem. Down 7–3 after two innings, the Knickerbockers rallied to win 21–11. Two weeks later, the clubs met for a thrilling return match at the Elysian Fields, with the home club managing a 22–20 victory. As usual, “an entertainment was given after play at McCarty’s Hotel.”
Since 1844, the waiters at the Colonnade House had been privy to the world of the New York and Knickerbocker Base Ball clubs, had watched their game develop in the neighboring fields, and were a fixture at the convivial dinners when plays and points were reviewed. The Stevens family, like many upper-class New Yorkers, employed colored help. Michael McCarty, born inIreland, employed his countrymen as barkeepers but conformed to the expectations of his gentlemen patrons by hiring black servants (including live-in waiter Jeremiah Jackson).
This link between early baseball and black New Yorkers was soon severed, however. On March 7, 1852, the Brooklyn Eagle reported that “Mr. McCarty of the Elysian Fields Hotel, was accidentally shot and killed by his own act yesterday.” Sarah McCarty, 27 years old with four children under the age of nine, was left in charge. Persuaded to change her hiring policies in the spring, she soon regretted her decision. The Eagle described the July 4 incident in the following terms:
Another fatal affray occurred at the Elysian Fields. It appears that Mrs. McCarthy has of late discharged all her old waiters, who were colored men, and employed white ones, who were principally Irish, in their places; but not being satisfied with them, she discharged them, and recalled the colored ones. This gave great offence to the white waiters; and while four of the colored men were sent on an errand, they were attacked by a large number of white waiters, and one of the white men, named Robert Canton, plunged a knife into the left breast of Williams, who exclaimed as he was falling—“Oh my God, I am a dead man”. He was immediately carried to the hotel, and every attention paid to him by Mrs. McCarthy, but he died in twenty minutes after.4
The following day, the Knickerbocker Base Ball club hired a boat for a field trip. As noted by Charles Peverelly, “The members celebrated the 4th of July, 1852 by proceeding to Bath, L. I., on the 5th of July to enjoy a dinner and a game of ball.”5
Slaves and freemen alike were familiar with variations of the old-fashioned game of base ball from which the New York Game evolved. For most members of either group, leisure time was a rare and valued commodity. In his “Narrative,” Frederick Douglass observed that “the days between Christmas and New Year’s day are allowed as holidays. This time we regarded as our own, and we therefore used or abused it nearly as we pleased.”
To Douglass, writing in 1845, there was something dubious about holiday pastimes. He noted that while “the staid, sober, thinking and industrious ones” found time for constructive activities,
…by far the larger part engaged in such sports and merriments as playing ball, wrestling, running foot-races, fiddling, dancing, and drinking whisky. A slave who would work during the holidays was considered as scarcely deserving them. It was deemed a disgrace not to get drunk at Christmas.”6
In New York City, where slavery had ended in 1827, Sunday was the usual day off. Some attended church while others spent their time playing. To the dismay of the serious-minded, the fields near Madison Square—home of the Gotham Base Ball Club and the St. George Cricket Club—also attracted black ballplayers from Greenwich Village. On October 24, 1840, the editor of the Colored American spoke out on the subject of “Sabbath Intruders”:
We wish to call attention to the practice of the lads of our City, who, in great numbers, are resorting to the suburbs of the city, as high as 25th or 30th street, for the purpose of ball playing. And we wish the parents of our people to look well to their boys, some of who[m], we are informed by a friend, as well as by the Journal of Commerce, have been seen in those sections of the City, on the Sabbath, playing ball.7
Serious matters concerned the elders of Long Island, where slaves had helped establish prosperous farms. The crossroads town of Jamaica, Queens, housed a variety of neighborhoods. In 1853, “a number of colored people” there petitioned the village trustees, “praying that we may be protected by the law from being beaten by a certain body or club of men. If you cannot protect us we must protect ourselves for we cannot be beaten.”
On the outskirts of Brooklyn, part of the Lefferts farm had been purchased in 1838 by stevedore James Weeks, who subdivided the property into lots and sold them to fellow blacks. Education was a primary concern of these residents. One of the first buildings in Weeksville was a school, which doubled as a house of worship on Sundays. Commencement Day at Public School #1 was a big event, celebrated with orations. In February 1856, the schoolhouse burned down. “It is supposed,” commented the Eagle, “to have been set on fire.”8
Many felt it was a duty to help those still in bondage. The Abolitionists actively sought public support. Douglass was the best-known spokesman, but Jacob White, Charles Lenox Remond, Rev. William T. Catto, and others promoted the antislavery cause wherever they found an audience. In Philadelphia, home of the nation’s largest free black population, Robert Purvis, Jacob White, James Needham, and a score of others were actively involved in helping escapees.
When the Fugitive Slave Act allowed posses to track fleeing property to the Canadian border, leaders of the Underground Railroad stationed themselves on the northern edges of New York and Ohio. Douglass, in Rochester, was joined as a conductor by white sympathizers including New Yorkers Gerrit Smith of Peterboro, Thurlow Weed at Albany, John Brown at North Elba, and Hon. Joshua Giddings of Jefferson, Ohio. Congressman Giddings, enjoying his immunity from prosecution, told his colleagues in Washington: “I have seen as many as nine fugitives dining at one time in my house. I fed them. I clothed them, gave them money for their journey, and sent them on their way rejoicing.”9
Giddings believed in mixing work and play. As 19th century biographer G.W. Julian observed:
The summer adjournment of Congress was always the signal at Jefferson for the opening of the base ball season. The game was then played with a soft ball, which was thrown at the player on the run. Being left-handed, Giddings usually took the boys at a disadvantage, as the ball often came where it was not looked for. It was hard to tell which was the more boyish, he or those with whom he played, who generally ranged from 15 to 25 “without distinction as to race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”10
On July 30, 1859, the Anglo-African of New York described one of these games, noting that “the venerable Joshua R. Giddings made the highest score, never missing the ball when it came to him.”11
The initial outbreak of baseball fever began in 1853 when the Knickerbockers answered the challenge of the revived Gotham Club, successors to the Washingtons. The rivalry was a satisfying one. In November a new club, the Eagles, asked for a committee to clarify the 1845 rules. When the work was done, the clubs offered copies to the Spirit of the Times and other sporting papers.
The matches of 1854 showcased baseball brilliantly. The Gothams took the first game of the series 21–16 but lost at Elysian Fields in September. Intended as a tiebreaker, the game on October 26 lasted 12 innings, with each club scoring 12 runs. Spectators came in increasing numbers to see what W. H. Van Cott of the Gothams called “friendly, but spirited trials of skill.”12
The game spread rapidly during the next two years. New clubs—the Excelsior, the Putnam, the Eckford, the Star, the Harmonic, the Baltic, the Empire—occupied fields in Brooklyn, upper Manhattan, and the Elysian Fields. In January 1857, Adamsand the Knickerbockers called for a convention of baseball clubs. “Fourteen separate and independent organizations,” noted the New York Herald, “were represented last evening, and it was stated that others would have been present but for distance, or the impossibility of getting home the same night.”13
A second convention was held in March 1858. The 22 clubs voted “to declare the Convention a permanent organization.” Article 1 of the new constitution established the title “National Association of Base Ball Players.”14
“National indeed!” sniffed the Clipper.
Why the association is a mere local organization. If the real lovers of the beautiful and health-provoking game of base ball wish to see the sport diffuse itself over the country—as Cricket is fast doing—they must cut loose from those parties who wish to arrogate to themselves the right to act for, and dictate to all who participate in the game. These few dictators wish to ape the New York Yacht Club in their feelings of exclusiveness—we presume.15
1. Holland, F. 1891. Frederick Douglass, the Colored Orator (1970 reprint) (p. 182).
2. Brooklyn Eagle:May 27, 1851.
3. Sporting News: Feb. 1896.
4. Brooklyn Eagle: July 5, 1852.
5. Peverelly, C. 1866. Book of American Pastimes (p. 345).
6. Douglass, F. 1845. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1995 reprint) (p. 44).
7. The Colored American: Oct. 24, 1840.
8. Brooklyn Eagle: Feb. 18, 1856.
9. Blackson, C. The Underground Railroad.
10. Julian, G. 1892. Life of Joshua R. Giddings.
11. Weekly Anglo-African: July 30, 1859.
12. Spirit of the Times: Dec. 23, 1854.
13. Ibid.: Jan. 31, 1857.
14. New York Clipper: Apr. 24, 1858.
15. Ibid.: Apr. 3, 1858.
[End of Part 1; part 2 tomorrow!]
This is the sixteenth and final article republished from the Protoball number of Base Ball (Volume 5, Number 1, Spring 201). Thanks to scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture has begun to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) Craig B. Waff, author of the article below, holds a doctorate in the history of science and is the originator and compiler of the Protoball website’s “Games Tabulation,” a detailed directory of all known games of base ball—numbering over 1500 contests—up to 1860.
These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1860.60, reflects that it is the sixtieth Protoball entry for the year 1860.
1860.60 Atlantics and Excelsiors Compete for the “Championship,” July 19, August 9, and August 23, 1860
Craig B. Waff
This match will create unusual interest, as it will decide which Club is entitled to the distinction of being perhaps the “first nine in America.”1—Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 13, 1860
The Atlantics now wear the “belt,” and this contest will be a regular battle for the championship.2—Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 16, 1860
The above quotations were part of the buildup to a series of games in the summer of 1860 that many at the time considered would definitively determine the first true “champion” among the senior clubs in the Greater New York City region. Such a determination would, alas, not come to pass, as will be related later in this essay, but it is perhaps worthwhile to explore how the concept of a champion, or top-ranked, team evolved in the early history of the game.
The idea of designating a “champion” team was not even considered by the earliest ball players in the 1840s and the early 1850s, who envisioned the game as being played primarily for physical exercise. But as the number of formally organized club teams, as well as the number of baseball games played between them, increased greatly in the mid and late 1850s, the urge to declare unilaterally, if somewhat informally and unofficially, one or more teams as top-ranked occasionally became irresistible to club secretaries and independent reporters who sent accounts of games to various daily newspapers and sports weeklies. One of the earliest examples is in an account of the game between the Knickerbockers and the Gothams (both New York teams) played on September 13, 1855, that appeared in the Spirit of the Times weekly. The writer observed that “the Knickerbockers came upon the ground with a determination to maintain the first rank among the ball clubs.”3 Nearly two years later, when the Gothams encountered the Atlantics of Brooklyn, a reporter for the New York Clipper, another sports weekly, argued that “the reputation of both clubs, standing so high among the fraternity, had brought together quite a number of critics and adepts.”4 And in November 1858, when the Atlantics and the Excelsiors of Brooklyn met for the first time, the game was characterized as a “match between the best players of these leading and rival clubs of Brooklyn.”5
By mid–1859, however, after the Atlantics had compiled an unbeaten record for nearly two years (their last game loss had come at the hands of the Gothams on October 30, 1857), expressions regarding their overall dominance in the Greater New York City region became more explicit and universally expressed. A reporter for Porter’s Spirit of the Times, on the occasion of an Atlantic defeat of the Eckfords of Brooklyn in early July, felt compelled to state that “we candidly think that they now stand at the head of the list of ball clubs, no other being able to present as effective a nine as they can.”6 In late August a New York Times reporter similarly remarked that “the Atlantics are now looked upon as the most successful Club of New-York or Brooklyn, they having gone on from one victory to another over a long period.” The reporter attributed this dominance to constant practice and “having played for a great while together.”7
The winning streak of the Atlantics came to a halt on September 8, 1859, when the Eckfords of Brooklyn defeated them 22–16 in the second, or return, game of a three-game match. When the two teams met for a third, or home-and-home, game on October 12 (won by the Atlantics) to determine the match winner, the Porter’s reporter observed that “this game was the chief talk of the city of Brooklyn, and it was evident from the immense gathering that an extraordinary interest was felt in the deciding game for the local championship.”8 This statement possibly marked the first occasion when the term championship was used to describe a match between senior clubs in the Greater New York City region.9 A week later, when the Atlantics narrowly defeated the Stars of Brooklyn, an Eagle reporter similarly remarked that “the champion colors are still held by the Atlantic,” and encouraged the Brooklyn club to “give one of the best New York clubs another chance” to wrest such colors from them.”10
Reporters used the words champion and championship more frequently in 1860, especially in accounts of games involving the Atlantics. When the team played its first match of the year, a return game against the Stars on May 25 that they easily won 30–11, the Eagle reporter remarked that “It is now claimed for the Atlantics that they are the champion club of Brooklyn as they have never been beaten in a series of home and home matches since their organization.”11
The Eagle reporter predicted that “doubtless this title [of “champion”] will soon be contested by some one of our crack clubs.” The Excelsiors stepped forward first, playing the first of a series of home-and-home games against the Atlantics on July 19. As the opening quotations indicate, an Eagle reporter argued that the outcome of the series of Atlantic–Excelsior games would determine at least a local, if not national, “champion,” even though the National Association of Base Ball Players, the only existing organization governing the game, did not recognize such a title. Why such a “champion” distinction might indeed be placed upon the winner was explained by a Clipper reporter: the Atlantics were “known as the champion club in the State, from never having been defeated in any series of matches since their organization,” while the latter was “equally prominent from the result of their tour through the western part of the State, during which they successfully encountered the strongest clubs of Albany, Troy, Buffalo, Rochester, and Newburg[h], playing and winning six matches, and traveling over a thousand miles within ten days, a feat unequalled in the annals of the game.”12 That tour had occurred in early July, and although most of the games were not very competitive (the Excelsiors winning by large margins with a style of play not seen upstate before), they nevertheless gave the Excelsiors plenty of “practice” in preparation for the forthcoming match with the Atlantics.
In contrast, the Atlantics, although winning all of their early 1860 games, were a team that reporters were noticing was currently not as competitive as they had been the previous season.13 This weakening of the competitive fire of the Atlantics may have been partly due to the absence of Folkert Rapelje Boerum, their captain and regular catcher, who had been on an extended trip to Europe since the spring, and to injuries that had been suffered by Matty O’Brien, their pitcher, and at least one other unidentified player.
These circumstances may help to explain the Excelsiors’ overwhelming victory, by a score of 23–4, in the first game of the match. Nevertheless, as the Eagle reminded its readers in reporting the Atlantics’ easy 34–15 victory over the Mutuals on July 30, “The Atlantic Club still holds the champion belt of this city.”14
By the time the Mutuals and Atlantics met again, on August 20, the latter had rekindled their competitive fire. Reporting on their 26–24 victory, Porter’s observed:
The playing of the Atlantics, both in fielding and batting, was that superior character which has won for them, for so many years, the right and title to the Base Ball Championship. In batting, particularly, their playing was of the No. 1 style, and of such a character that the players of few clubs could withstand.15
This closely contested victory, and another one, 15–14, over the Excelsiors in their return game on August 9, set the stage for the highly anticipated home-and-home game between the Atlantics and the Excelsiors. Two days before the game, Porter’s caught the mood of the baseball community in the metropolitan area:
As the time draws near for these clubs to again do battle for the championship, the interest and excitement in the trial waxes warmer and warmer, and in base ball circles it is the absorbing topic of conversation. It is now generally admitted that it will be witnessed by the greatest gathering of spectators ever assembled on any base ball field.16
And indeed it was—estimates of the crowd at the neutral Putnam grounds ranged from 15,000 to 20,000, including, according to the Eagle, delegations from Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Albany, Troy, Buffalo, Rochester, Poughkeepsie, and other cities.17 As expected, it was another closely contested contest—perhaps too close for a crowd that seemed to favor the Atlantics. With the Excelsiors leading 8–6 in the top of the sixth inning, “a desperate party of rowdies, who were determined that the Excelsiors should not win,” became so annoying that Excelsior captain Joe Leggett took his team off the field and thus gave up the opportunity it had to take the “championship” title from the Atlantics.18
Thus what, with some legitimacy, had been billed to be the first true “base ball championship” match (at least among senior amateur clubs in the Greater NYC region) came to an unsatisfactory end, and engendered the first of many 1860s disputes as to which club was champion, stuck throughout the decade within the existing challenge system.
1. “City News and Gossip: Base Ball—The Excelsiors,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle: July 13, 1860, p. 3, col. 2.
2. “City News and Gossip: Base Ball—Atlantic vs. Excelsior—Grand Match of the Season,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle: July 16, 1860, p. 3, col. 2.
3. “Base Ball: Knickerbocker vs. Gotham Club,” Spirit of the Times: Sept. 22, 1855, p. 373, col. 3.
4. “Match between the Gothams and Atlantics,” New York Clipper: Sept. 5, 1857, p. 159.
5. “Out-Door Sports: Base-Ball: Atlantic vs. Excelsior,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Nov. 20, 1858, p. 180, col. 3.
6. “Out-Door Sports: Base-Ball: Eckford vs. Atlantic,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: July 16, 1859, p. 308, col. 3, p. 309, col. 1.
7. “Base Ball: Baltic, of New-York, vs. Atlantic, of Brooklyn,” New-York Times: Aug. 24, 1859, p. 8, col. 3.
8. “Out-Door Sports: Base-Ball: Atlantic vs. Eckford,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Oct. 22, 1859, p. 117, cols. 2–3.
9. The term may have been first used in print in the Greater New York City region a month earlier, however, when an Eagle reporter or correspondent described a forthcoming game between the Enterprise and Oakland junior clubs as a “match … for the championship.” “City News and Gossip: Base Ball,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle: Sept. 10, 1859, p. 3, col. 2.
10. “City News and Gossip: Base Ball—Match between the Atlantic and Star Clubs,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle: Oct. 20, 1859, p. 3, col. 1.
11. “City News and Gossip: Base Ball,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle: May 26, 1860, p. 3, col. 1. This claim was not quite true. The Atlantics and the Empires of New York played a series of three games on November 29, 1855, and July 24 and August 13, 1856, in which neither team, prior to darkness or rain falling, attained the then-required minimum of 21 runs to win. Before playing a fourth game on August 20, 1856 (won by the Empires, 24–14 in 12 innings), the teams agreed that the winner of this game would be declared the match winner as well.
12. “Grand Match of the Season: Excelsior vs. Atlantic,” New York Clipper: July 28, 1860, p. 116.
13. In an account of a game played against the Putnams of Brooklyn on June 29, the Eagle reporter observed that “the Atlantics were far below their proverbial style of play.” The Clipper reporter likewise observed a few weeks later that “this season the general play of the [Atlantics] has not been as good as that of last year, and we have noticed occasionally of late, a perceptible falling off in the ability that has hitherto been characteristic of their play.” Only the Putnam game had been competitive, and thus “a relaxed state of discipline has been induced that has had an unnerving effect.” See “City News and Gossip: Base Ball—Atlantic vs. Putnam,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle: June 30, 1860, p. 3, col. 2; “Excelsior vs. Atlantic: The Match for the Championship,” New York Clipper: July 21, 1860, p. 108.
14. “Base Ball: Atlantic vs. Mutual,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle: July 31, 1860, p. 2, col. 5.
15. “Out-Door Sports: Base-Ball: Atlantic vs. Mutual,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Aug. 28, 1860, p. 420, col. 3, p. 421, col. 1.
16. “Out-Door Sports: Base-Ball: Excelsior vs. Atlantic,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Aug. 21, 1860, p. 408, col. 3.
17. “Base Ball: Atlantic vs. Excelsior,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle: Aug. 22, 1860, p. 3, col. 3.
18. “Grand Base Ball Match: Excelsior vs. Atlantic—Game Drawn Owing to the Riotous Conduct of a Portion of the Spectators,” New York Times: Aug. 24, 1860, p. 8, col. 5.
With this fifteenth of sixteen articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by Robert H. Schaefer, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball. Bob is the author of three articles covering 19th century baseball that have won the McFarland–SABR award for baseball research. The most recent of these was “The Great Base Ball Match of 1858: Base Ball’s First All-Star Game.” His work has appeared in NINE, The National Pastime, and the Baseball Research Journal.
These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1858.2, reflects that it is the second Protoball entry for the year 1858.
1858.2 The Changes Wrought by the Great Base Ball Match of 1858
Robert H. Schaefer
Tuesday last, the day fixed upon for the great match at Base Ball between the Brooklyn and New York players, was as fine a day as the most ardent lover of the game could desire, either for play or for the drive out to witness the match. An immense concourse of people were upon the course before the time announced for commencing the game, and the cry was “still they come!” … Every imaginable kind of vehicle had been enlisted in the service, milk carts and wagons, beer wagons, express wagons, stages, and the most stylish private and public carriages. The Excelsior Club figured in a large stage drawn by fourteen handsomely caparisoned horses; the Eagle Club, of Jersey City, boasted an eight horse team, with a band of music; the Pastime eight horses; the Empire two stages, each drawn by six horse; the Putnams and St. Nicholas, each with four-in-hand, while several other Clubs were represented in a more unpretending, but not less enthusiastic manner.1
The Great Base Ball Match of 1858 paired a picked nine from the city of Brooklyn with a picked nine from the city of New York.2 Just which city threw down the gauntlet has been lost to history, but the captains of the clubs determined that the match—a best-of-three-game series—be played on a neutral site equally accessible by enthusiasts from both cities. Another requirement was that the site be adequately served by public transportation. Those charged with making this decision settled on a horse track called the Fashion Course located in West Flushing between the villages of Newtown and Flushing in what is now Queens.
Fashion Course was accessible by rail, omnibus, and trolley lines, many of which connected with the ferries that linked Brooklyn to Manhattan. It had a grandstand so the spectators could view the match in comfort. A baseball diamond was installed on the track’s infield—the grassy area enclosed by the perimeter of the race course’s interior fence. It was decided to remove the turf covering this area and lay out a diamond on the bare dirt. The dirt had to be leveled and rolled to provide a proper playing surface. Critics observed that it would have been better if the turf had been left in place and rolled to smooth it out.
Stripping the turf and converting the racetrack infield to a diamond required spending money the clubs didn’t have. In addition, there was a rental fee for using the Fashion Course. They had not planned on spending any money and there was no budget for these expenditures. The clubs had to find a method to fund the enterprise. Someone realized that the racecourse was already structured to regulate the admission of patrons explicitly for the purpose of collecting an entrance fee. Therein lay a novel solution to the clubs’ money problem—for the first time, baseball patrons would be charged a fee for the privilege of witnessing a match. If it had not been for the fact that the clubs had to pay for the expenses associated with putting on the match, they would have thrown open the gates and allowed free access to the racecourse.
The picked nine from New York won the honors and bested Brooklyn, two games to one. Attendance figures for each game are unreliable, but most sources agree that, following the first game, attendance was disappointing. But after deducting all expenses the treasury had a surplus of $71.10. It was divided into two equal parts and contributed to the Fire Department’s Widow and Orphans Fund in Brooklyn and New York. Although not planned as a fundraiser, the match was a financial success. The seed had been planted.
The concept of baseball as a commercial venture lay fallow for several years. The enclosed park movement began in 1860 when the Brooklyn Excelsior Club enclosed their grounds for the expressed purpose of keeping out unwanted and rowdy spectators.3 In 1861 William Cammeyer established an enclosed area for winter ice-skating in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. He then sought a yearly source of income and converted his fenced-in pond to a baseball field. Cammeyer’s Union Grounds were completely enclosed with an eight-foot-high fence.4 Seating was provided with a grandstand and a “bleaching boards” section.5 Every effort was expended to create the best possible playing surface. Cammeyer’s labors resulted in a high-class venue. Ball grounds of this caliber did not exist and so Cammeyer had no difficulty in getting three Brooklyn clubs—the Eckford, Putman, and Constellation—to call Union Park their home.
By May 15, 1862, the grounds were complete. Cammeyer arranged for an exhibition game between two nines picked from the three tenant clubs and advertised it widely. He also arranged for pregame entertainment, which was provided by a regimental military band. They struck up “The Star Spangled Banner,” the first known instance of it being played prior to a ballgame.6
Cammeyer did not impose an admission fee for this initial contest, but allowed the curious public to wander in and out and around his new facility without restriction. The Brooklyn Eagle estimated that more than 3,000 people had ambled into Cammeyer’s place. Seating was provided for 2,000 people, with ample room for more people to stand or to seat themselves on the fringe of the playing area.7
The “free show” lasted for just one game as Cammeyer then imposed a 10-cent admission fee. The clubs demanded a portion of this “gate money” and Cammeyer had to accommodate them. By 1867 the Atlantics received 60 percent of the gate money, less expenses.8 Suddenly, clubs had a source of income beyond the meager dues they collected from members. Flush with money, a novel item—a salary for players—was added to the club’s budget.
In the 1850s club membership was required in order to play organized baseball. Formal games were played between the various clubs. Most of the players joined chiefly for manly exercise and social interaction. The fraternal recreation was more important than the outcome of the game. The players were from the middle class and had leisure time to devote to this new form of vigorous exercise. This is reflected in the occupational distribution of the New York–Brooklyn area ballplayers 1855–1860. Melvin Adelman reports that 20.2 percent were professionals, 40.5 percent were low white-collar proprietors, 36.9 percent were skilled craftsman, and only 2.4 percent were unskilled workers.9
Club members paid dues and attended practice on a regular basis. Fines were imposed on those who missed practice, and missing an excessive number of practices was grounds for dismissal. Membership in the club was based as much on social credentials as on ballplaying skill. Indeed, one had to be a gentleman in order to be considered for membership.
Payment for a ballplayer’s services had long been a contentious issue. Direct financial compensation was prohibited by the rules agreed to at the 1858 Convention. Clubs regularly circumvented this ban. A common technique was to provide a “star” player with a job in a business owned by one of the club members. The only duty associated with such a job was to show up on payday.
The rapid expansion of baseball following the Civil War caused a high demand for top ballplayers. The Philadelphia club lured two players from Brooklyn—Alfred Reach and Lipman Pike—each for a handsome salary. Very likely they were the first openly professional ballplayers. With the advent of enclosed ball grounds and the resulting income, a club could afford to pay selected players a substantial wage.
Creating the salaried class of player caused a dramatic change in the clubs. The emphasis of the game had shifted so that winning became all important. The desire to obtain the “best” ballplayers removed all social considerations from the equation. This factor spelled the death of the baseball club as a gentleman’s refuge. Clubs now hired players based exclusively on their athletic ability.
The Union Grounds increased the admission fee to 25 cents for first-class matches in 1867. This move was endorsed as it would keep out the “roughs” who formed a “hooting assemblage that indulged in blasphemy and obscenity.”10 However, no steps were taken to restrict or limit the activity of gamblers, who set up shop in plain sight on the grounds. Failure to control this evil would ultimately contribute to the downfall of the first organization of professional baseball players at the conclusion of the 1875 season.
The financial success of the Union Grounds spawned imitators. The first of these was the Capitoline Grounds,11 located in the Bedford section of Brooklyn, less than two miles from the Union Grounds. The owners of the new ball grounds, Messrs. Weed and Decker, induced the Brooklyn Atlantics to become the resident club by offering them use of their facility free of all charges. May 5, 1864, saw the first match on the Capitoline Grounds. This contest pitted the Atlantics against a nine selected by Henry Chadwick from other Brooklyn Clubs. Chadwick’s nine was roundly defeated by a score of 45–11. The powerful Atlantics underscored their dominance by destroying their next opponent, the Nassau of Princeton, by a score of 42–7.
The enclosed grounds movement provided the financial foundation for the emergence of a new category of club—the professional. Unable to stem this trend, in 1868 the National Association of Base Ball Players elected to permit clubs to pay players for their services. In 1869, led by president Aaron B. Champion and directed by captain Harry Wright, the Cincinnati Red Stockings assembled the first all professional touring team. They played against clubs across the country, taking on all comers. Games played against amateur teams were won by lopsided scores, highlighting the disparity in skill level. For example, the Reds triumphed over a Chicago amateur nine by a score of 56–19, and shortly afterward humiliated the Kekiongas of Fort Wayne 70–1.12
When the still undefeated Cincinnati Red Stockings arrived in Brooklyn on June 14, 1870, to play the Atlantics, the Capitoline Grounds instituted an admission fee of 50 cents. Attendance reports ranged from 9,000 to 20,000. The Brooklyn “cranks” got their money’s worth as the Atlantics carried the day.13 The gate money realized from this match approached $5,000.
A team of amateurs could not compete with a professional one. Little was gained by a professional team playing an amateur one, either in dollars or reputation. The talent gap between them forced the creation of the first organization of professional baseball players in 1871. The face of baseball was forever changed. The Great Base Ball Match of 1858 set in motion a sequence of events that ultimately, after many incremental steps, produced the structure of major league baseball that we know today.
The practice of charging admission and paying players was spurned by the club that had provided the genesis of the sport—the Knickerbockers. Their playing grounds were not amenable to charging admission. This fact mattered not to the Knickerbockers. They were above such practices and continued to play the game for the pure sport of it. By the time the 1870s ended the Knicks were no longer relevant to the development of the game and played no further role in its evolution. All of the important games that paired the best clubs against each other were played in Brooklyn on enclosed grounds—the ones that charged admission. The Elysian Fields, along with the Knicks, had become obsolete.
1. Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Mar. 20, 1858.
2. These two cities were separate and independent political entities up until 1898 when New York City—which up until that date had consisted entirely of the island of Manhattan—annexed the city of Brooklyn along with Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island to form the greater New York metropolitan complex.
3. Pastier, J. 2007. Ball Parks Yesterday and Today (p. 10).
4. The Union Grounds were opened at the height of the War of the Rebellion and patriotic feelings ran high. The choice of its name reflected those feelings.
5. The “bleaching boards” were a seating area consisting of uncovered boards, exposed to the rain and sun. Long-term exposure to the sun bleached the boards, hence the name. By the 20th century the name for this section of the ballparks had morphed into “the bleachers.”
6. This discovery was made by the late Fred Ivor-Campbell.
7. Lowry, P. 2006. Green Cathedrals (p. 34).
8. Adelman, M. 1990. A Sporting Time (p. 159).
9. Ibid., 140.
10. Evolution of the Ball Park (www.suntala.com).
11. Originally known as K. N. Skating Club, its name was changed when it converted to a ball ground. On May 19, 1862, the Brooklyn Eagle reported: “They have changed their name to one that admits of the enjoyment of moral and intellectual as well as physical amusements. Amongst the most favorite of the pastimes of the Romans were the ‘Capitoline Games’ which were held annually in commemoration of the protection of the capitol from the assaults of the Gauls; they were established by Camitlus in honor of Jupiter Capitolonus and also to perpetuate the games founded by Dominitian. From this is derived the name Capitoline….”
12. Rhodes, G., and J. Erardi. The First Boys of Summer (p. 107).
13. The term “crank” (sometimes rendered as “krank”) was the 19th century term equivalent to today’s “fan.”
With this fourteenth of sixteen articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by Craig B. Waff and Larry McCray, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball. Craig holds a doctorate in the history of science, and is the originator and compiler of the Protoball website’s “Games Tabulation,” a detailed directory of all known games of baseball—numbering over 1500 contest—up to 1860. Larry is guest editor of this special number of Base Ball. He 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 serves on the MLB origins committee.
These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1856.4, reflects that it is the fourth Protoball entry for the year 1856.
1856.4 The New York Game in 1856: Poised for National Launch
Craig B. Waff and Larry McCray
In the summer of 1856 … there were fifty-three games in New York and the metropolitan area.1
One senses that Harold Seymour, in the above remark, was moved to highlight the number of games played in 1856 because it showed that, more than a decade after the Knickerbocker Club had codified rules for baseball, the game was actually taking root. Merely two years earlier, the entire known playing season had involved only three Manhattan-based clubs (Knickerbocker, Gotham, and Eagle) and they played a modest sum of seven interclub games at two locations—the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, and grounds near the Red House in Harlem. In comparison, the 53 games then known for 1856 show impressive growth.
The Game on the Field
A recently launched online data compilation, the Protoball Games Tabulation compiled by Craig B. Waff,2 allows us to profile the facts of the 1856 season and the nature of the mid–1850s style of play. The tabulation reflects all of the published accounts of games that had come to light by 2008, when the Protoball Project uploaded version 1.0 of the tables. They profile over 1,500 games reported from 1845 to the Civil War.
For the 1856 season 70 games are listed (including several played by junior clubs and second nines).3 About half were played at either the Elysian Fields or the Red House sites, but the city of Brooklyn had now already bypassed both of their totals, hosting 21 games, with seven other games reported at sites in New Jersey towns and in what is now the Bronx. No game was reported for any Manhattan location south of Harlem. For the season, games involving 26 distinct clubs are displayed, including eleven from Brooklyn and eight from Manhattan. Another five active clubs had formed in New Jersey localities, and two more to the north of Manhattan Island.
At this juncture, baseball seemed more aptly termed the Fall Game than the Summer Game; the season’s first recorded interclub game took place only on July 1. Only half of these games had been played by October 1, and the year’s play concluded with several bracing Thanksgiving Day games. Games were distributed fairly evenly among the days of the work week, except that only two games took place on Mondays. No Sunday play is listed.
The 47 games that were reported as completed contests averaged about 36 total runs—24 runs for the winning club and 12 runs for the loser. This was the last year that games were played to 21 runs, with both teams being assured the same number of complete half-innings to score.4
The length of completed games ranged from two to twelve innings, with an average duration of slightly more than six innings. It is thus interesting that a year later the nine-inning game would be chosen as the official standard; in fact, only about 10 percent of 1856 games had reached nine innings. About one game in every five was suspended, most frequently because of encroaching darkness, and this resulted in a relatively high proportion of drawn games. The earlier sunset experienced in the fall months seems a likely a factor in the proportion of unfinished games.
Notable Historical Trends
Two key developments in 1856 vitally affected baseball’s future. First, the 1856 season marked an abrupt decline in play of the pioneering Knickerbocker Club. Portrayed in newspaper accounts as one of the strongest of all teams early in the season, the 1856 Club had a losing record, and in fact the club stood among the least successful of the eight most active teams. The club may have anticipated this decline: it had, for the first time, required prospective team members to undergo actual tryouts for the 1856 season.5
Off the field, too, the Knickerbockers seem to have lost stature. In the prior offseason, they had tried to head off the growing practice of “revolving”—the movement of the ablest players from weaker club to stronger ones—but failed to induce other clubs to go along.6 Tom Melville suggests that some clubs, at least, declined to comply with some of the playing rules that the Knickerbockers had set down,7 as later modified marginally in 1854 in an agreement with the only other clubs playing then—the Eagle and Gotham clubs. At season’s end, however, there were almost ten times as many clubs playing, and by October 1856 it was suggested, in print, that a new baseball convention was needed to reconsider existing playing rules.8
Two months later, the Knickerbocker Club met and agreed to make a call for a general convocation of clubs. When it took place in January 1857, each of the attending 14 clubs was given three votes to cast, thus instantly democratizing the game. The Knickerbocker Club was not fated to steer the game the way that the Marylebone Cricket Club so long has governed cricket. Some key Knickerbocker proposals were turned down at the meeting, which produced a much more complete code of playing rules. In 1858, the officer slate of the new National Association of Base Ball Players, devoid of Knickerbocker representatives, was dominated by men from the diverse new Brooklyn clubs. Thus the “New York game” was passing out of the hands of New Yorkers (Brooklyn was not to become a borough of New York until 1898).
The second of two 1856 trends was the identification of the New York game with the United States as a nation. What may be the first reference to baseball as a national game had been written in the Knickerbocker Club minutes in August 1855.9 The description of the New York game as being a “national” game in 1855 and 1856 was a stretch; at the time, interclub games in America were to be regularly seen at perhaps no more than eight sites, all in the New York City area.10
But we should perhaps see the term “National Game” less as geographical description and more as aspiration that the United States have its own unique pastime. In 1856 the aspiration was irresistible to many commentators. In mid–August, the New York Clipper pronounced baseball “thoroughly established as an American game, equal, to a certain extent, to the English game of Cricket.”11 Four weeks later, Porter’s Spirit of the Times stated, “This fine American game seems to be progressing in all parts of the United States with new spirit, while in New York and its neighborhood its revival seems to have been taken up almost as a matter of national pride.”12 And in mid–November the same newspaper confessed that “we feel a degree of old Knickerbocker pride, at the continued prevalence of Base Ball as the National game of the region of the Manhattanese of these diggings.”13 By December, aspirants had arrived at the perfect term for the game when a Sunday Mercury correspondent used the now-traditional term “national pastime” for the game.14
Henry Chadwick, baseball’s great promoter/journalist, was later to state, oddly, that “It may be truly said that the year of 1856 was the birth year of the evolution of base ball.”15 Given the 150 years of prior evidence of baseball’s predecessor games that is detailed in this issue of Base Ball, it is hard to know what he was trying to convey with this assertion. Perhaps he wrote “evolution” where he meant to write “diffusion”? By the end of 1856, intramural forms of the New York game had appeared in Trenton to the south, Albany and Newburgh to the north, and Rochester and Chicago to the west.16
The geographical explosion of enthusiasm for the game was clearly under way. During the next season it would reach Detroit, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Princeton, and even Boston. Pastimes that might have competed with baseball, including cricket, wicket, and the regional ball game in the northeast that would be codified a year and a half later as the Massachusetts Game, were not expanding. Much of America was turning to baseball now, and Chadwick was not wrong if he merely meant to suggest that the fuse had been lit in 1856.
1. Seymour, H. 1960. Baseball: The Early Years (p. 24). A list of precisely 53 games, attributed to the (New York) Sunday Mercury, was reprinted in Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Dec. 27, 1856, p. 277.
2. The “Games Tabulation” can be found at: retrosheet.org/Protoball/GamesTab.htm. The 261-page compilation of game summaries for the New York area is found at: retrosheet.org/Protoball/GT.NYC.pdf. Version 1 of the Games Tabulation lists over 1,500 games played through 1860, and includes key details and comments for each.
3. These 70 interclub games, representing only about three games per week over the five-month playing season, must have been supplanted with ubiquitous intra-club games and, perhaps, pick-up games. One reporter observed that “Matches are being made all around us, and games are being played on every available green plot within a ten mile circuit of the city.” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Sept. 13, 1856, p. 28.
4. Games in 1856 where both teams scored 21 or more runs were played on August 15, when the Continental club defeated the Putnam club (two Brooklyn nines) in eight innings by a score of 23–22, and on August 30, when the Knickerbocker and Empire clubs of New York played eight innings to a 21–21 tie.
5. Ryczek, W. 2009. Baseball’s First Inning (p. 48).
6. Gilbert, T. 1995. Elysian Fields (p. 38).
7. Melville, T. 2001. Early Baseball and the Rise of the National League (p. 12).
8. Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Oct. 11, 1856, p. 93, reported that “It is said that a Convention of all the Base Ball Clubs of this city and suburbs will be held this fall, for the purpose of considering whether any and what amendments to the rules and laws governing this game should be made.”
9. Knickerbocker Club Books, Minutes of August 22, 1855, as cited in Ryczek 2009, 242.
10. The eight sites include Hoboken (Elysian Fields), East Newark (near the depot), Jersey City (on a field part way toward Hoboken), Harlem (near the Red House), Morrisania (in the present-day Bronx), East Brooklyn (Wheat Hill), Bedford (Brooklyn: opposite Holder’s), and South Brooklyn (at the foot of Court Street). See data from the Protoball Games Tabulation (ref. 2).
11. New York Clipper: Aug. 16, 1856.
12. Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Sept. 13, 1856, p. 28.
13. “Out Door Sports,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Nov. 15, 1856, p. 176.
14. Letter signed by “A Lover of Base Ball” and dated Dec. 5, 1856, originally published in the (New York) Sunday Mercury, Dec. 7 or 14, 1856, and reprinted in “Base Ball, Cricket, and Skating,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Dec. 20, 1856, p. 260.
15. Chadwick, H. 1904. “On the Evolution of Base Ball,” in Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide (p. 7).
16. The SABR Committee on the Origins of Base Ball sponsors an open database on these and other incursions of the New York game. Early games and early clubs in U.S. localities are compiled at: sabrpedia.org/wiki/Spread_of_baseball_project.
This story originally appeared in the 2011 Official Major League Baseball World Series Program, which is available at mlb.com. Now that the 2011 World Series is over—and it was one of the best in recent memory—permit me to share with you the story of a season finale like no other in baseball’s history. Today we date the modern World Series, between the pennant winners of the American and National Leagues, to 1903. However, students of the game will know that an earlier version of the World Series existed from 1884 to 1890, and that in all other years of professional league play, a champion was declared at the end of the regular season and that was that. (The Temple Cup Series of 1894–1897, held between the league’s top two finishers, did not convey a championship to the winner.)
Major League Baseball dates its inception to 1876, but nearly all of the men who played in the newly formed National League (NL) of that year had played in its predecessor circuit: the National Association of Professional Base Ball Clubs (NA), which operated from 1871 through 1875. In its final four years, the NA’s pennant winner was the Boston Red Stockings, who easily outdistanced the field. But in 1871, baseball’s first pennant race went down to the final day amid improbable and poignant circumstances that will never be equaled.
When the NA was founded in a meeting held at Collier’s Saloon in New York on March 17, 1871, it was ruled that each club would play five games with the other eight and the winner of three games will have won that “championship series.” This was a term designed to separate league contests from the many exhibition games that each club played along the way. The NA “whip pennant” would be awarded to the team winning the most series against the other league teams, not the most games (the rule until 1883) or the top winning percentage (ever since).
Of the nine clubs that paid a ten-dollar fee to enter the new league, three battled for the pennant from the outset: Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Harry Wright’s Boston Red Stockings took their name as well as several key players—including his brother George, the game’s greatest star—from his famous Cincinnati nine, undefeated in 1869 yet disbanded only a year later. Chicago had built its White Stocking club on the Cincinnati model, luring talented players from other clubs with rich offers. For 1871 the club officers would build a new ballpark at Randolph and Michigan on the lakefront‚ of which the New York Clipper opined, “They will have accommodations on their grounds to seat 6‚500 people. With the single exception of being somewhat narrow‚ they will have one of the finest ballparks in the country.” Philadelphia’s venerable Athletic Base Ball Club, founded in 1860 as an amateur organization, had paid their players since the Civil War in a more or less open secret. Despite the loss of third baseman Harry Schafer to the new Boston club, the Athletics reclaimed native son Levi Meyerle, a powerful hitter, from Chicago to take his place.
In this first year of league play, even teams that fell out of the pennant race (or out of the league itself, as with Fort Wayne’s Kekiongas) could point to enduring accomplishments. Troy’s Haymakers finished in the middle of the pack at 13–15 but provided professional baseball’s first Hispanic player in third baseman Esteban Bellán, as well as a Jewish slugger in Lipman Pike, who batted .377 and tied for the league lead in home runs.
Chicago broke from the gate with a rush, winning its first 19 games, including 7 league contests, before losing to the Mutuals in early June before 10,000 spectators at Brooklyn’s Union Grounds. The Athletics’ impressive array of hitters kept pace, taking a game from Troy on June 28 by a score of 49–33; each team scored in all 9 innings. However, on August 30, the Athletics succumbed to the visiting White Stockings by a score of 6–3‚ the club’s lowest run total since it started professional play. Chicago pitcher George “The Charmer” Zettlein held the Athletics to four hits.
On September 11, the White Stockings topped the standings with a record of 17–8, trailed closely by the Athletics at 17–9 and Boston at 15–9. (If these game totals seem low, reflect on the transportation difficulties of the era and each club’s copious scheduling of profitable exhibition contests.) Yet because games won and lost, and the resulting percentage, did not decide the champion, the important fact at this point of the season was that Boston and Chicago had each won three series from other clubs and lost none, while Philadelphia had won three but lost one, to Boston.
As the season wore on, the Athletics were increasingly hobbled by injury. Center fielder John “Count” Sensenderfer—any player who was a favorite of the ladies was invariably nicknamed thus—went out for the year with a knee injury. Second baseman Al Reach—who like Boston’s Al Spalding would go on to create a sporting goods empire—would sit out crucial contests in the final days. Pitcher Dick McBride missed three straight games in September.
Heading into the home stretch, Boston had only six games to play to complete all of its series and by sweeping them would take the championship. But they lost a critical game at Chicago on September 29 that gave the interclub series to the White Stockings. On October 7, Boston rebounded to defeat Troy to claim that series.
On the next day, Sunday, October 8 at about 9:00 p.m., the great Chicago Fire commenced, legendarily when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a kerosene lantern. As it continued to rage on October 9, ultimately killing hundreds and destroying four square miles of the city, the Athletics defeated Troy, 15–3. The White Stockings were still very much in the race, but the conflagration had cost them their ballpark, their equipment and uniforms and, it appeared, their very livelihoods. Certainly they had an awfully rough time, most were broke, and they may have been actually hungry as they made their way from one ballpark to another in search of a payday.
While benefit games were hastily arranged for the citizens of Chicago, and towns all across the nation organized relief committees, no one came forward to aid the White Stockings. Desperate, the Chicago players decided not only to play their scheduled National Association games in the east, but all of the exhibition games that could be hastily arranged. Wearing borrowed uniforms of varying hues and styles, they won often enough; however, they were clobbered in a penultimate game at Troy on October 23, one that might have secured the championship; at one point they had trailed by 15–0.
The weather was bad for the White Stockings’ eastern swing; most of their exhibitions had to be canceled, and the deciding game with the Athletics—scheduled for Brooklyn’s Union Grounds, a neutral site—was postponed several times before finally taking place on October 30. An Athletics win would give them the pennant outright; a Chicago win would throw the race into a disputed tie, with Boston reentering the computation.
Play was called at 3:10 p.m., with Marty Swandell of the Brooklyn Eckfords as the umpire. Because of the wind and damp, only 600 fans occupied the grounds that had welcomed 10,000 in June when the White Stockings had played the Mutuals. Chicago appeared in suits of various origins, ragtag in the extreme. Mike Brannock, a player picked up for this eastern trip to fill in at third base, wore a complete Mutual uniform, except for the belt which was that of the Eckfords. Center fielder Tom Foley was attired in a complete Eckford suit. Zettlein wore a huge shirt with a mammoth “A” on the bib, no doubt from the Brooklyn Atlantics. Shortstop Ed Duffy appeared in a uniform borrowed from the junior Fly Aways. Some Chicago players wore black hats, others were bareheaded.
The Athletics were not without problems of their own. Without the services of Reach, Sensenderfer, and reserve Tom Pratt, they fielded only eight men at first as first baseman Fisler took Reach’s spot at second base and outfielder George Heubel came in to play first base. Hurriedly the veteran Nate Berkenstock, who had not played in a game since 1867, was drafted into service from the audience. Positioned in right field, the 40-year-old former Athletic would make a fine running catch to save a run, and made two other catches without miscue to gain his entry in the baseball encyclopedias as its oldest “rookie” until Satchel Paige.
The Athletics’ batting star was, not surprisingly, Long Levi Meyerle, whose three hits gave him a season-ending batting average of .492, the high-water mark in professional baseball history. But the hero of the game was pitcher Dick McBride. Pitted against Chicago’s ace Zettlein, who allowed only two earned runs himself, McBride took a shutout into the final frame.
Battling to avert a “Chicago”—a blanking synonymous with their city through a famous 9–0 blanking by the Mutuals in 1870—Zettlein sent a hot grounder to Meyerle which he kicked over to shortstop John Radcliff. He picked up the ball and made a try for the putout at first but threw wild, Zettlein making second. Zettlein scored on an out, but that was all the offense Chicago could muster. When Fred Treacey flew out to Berkenstock to end the game, the applause was as much for the plucky fight of Chicago as the championship secured by the Athletics. The impoverished White Stockings played exhibition games into November, losing to the Mutuals in Brooklyn and the Haymakers in Troy, amid poor weather and slim attendance, just so they could earn their train fare home.
Baseball in Chicago, which had been built up with such great expectations and expenditures, would now be mothballed for the next two seasons; when the club returned in 1874 it would do so with a chip on its shoulder. Today we know this White Stocking franchise as the Chicago Cubs.
Boston regrouped to capture the flag in each of the National Association’s following four years, eventually becoming so proficient that fan interest in other cities began to wane. In 1875 the Red Stockings’ astounding proficiency—a season record of 71–8, including a 37–0 mark at home; a 26–game win streak to open the season—may have destroyed the competitive balance required to hold fan interest. But the club continued in the new National League of 1876; they are the lineal forebear of today’s Atlanta Braves.
And what of the champion Athletics of 1871, who began play before the Civil War? They too joined the NL of 1876 but were expelled at season’s end, along with the Mutuals of New York. They bear no relation to later clubs calling themselves the Athletics, either in Philadelphia or Kansas City or Oakland.
Born to DH
In the game that settled the 1871 championship, Levi Samuel Meyerle led his team at bat, going 3-for-5. With one more hit he would have hit .500for the season! He dominated his league as no one would—major or minor—for half a century, driving in 40 runs in 26 games while scoring 45. His .700 slugging percentage would stand until Babe Ruth’s 1920 campaign.
A local lad, Meyerle came to the Athletics in 1869 at age 19, following three years with Philadelphia amateur clubs. A gangly kid at 6’1”—at a time when the average height of an American male was 5’6”—Long Levi was tried at every position on the field, disappointing at each. For the 1871 champions he manned third base with jaw-droppingly awful results: more errors (45) than assists (39), and a fielding percentage of .646.
That may explain why, after one more year with the A’s, he went on to play for a new club each year from 1873 through 1877, despite a lifetime batting average of .356 across the National Association, National League, and a three game swan song in the Union Association of 1884. After many years in the construction trades, Levi Meyerle died in 1921, his passing unnoted in the sports pages.
With this thirteenth of sixteen articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by yours truly, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball.
These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1853.5, reflects that it is the fifth Protoball entry for the year 1853.
1853.5 The Baseball Press Emerges
“BASE BALL AT HOBOKEN: The first friendly game of the season, between the Gotham and Knickerbocker Base Ball Clubs was played on the grounds of the latter on the 5th inst. The game was commenced on Friday the 1st, but owing to the storm had to be postponed, the Knickerbockers making nine aces to two of the Gothams, the following is the score for both days.”
The Knicks won, 21–12, according to an abbreviated box score, which uses “No. of Outs” and not “Hands Lost” in the left-hand column, and “Runs,” not “Aces,” in the right-hand column. Paul Wendt estimates that this is the first certain Knick-rules box score known, and the first since the October 1845 games.1 Henry Chadwick may have been baseball’s most important writer in its early days, but he was not its first. That honor would go to William Cauldwell, who, like Chadwick, was born in 1824. “I can speak as a New York boy from away back,” Cauldwell told the Mills Commission in 1905, “and in an all my experiences I had no knowledge of the prominence of a ball game called ‘rounders.’ I played ball in my native city from the time I was (to use an old time phrase) ‘knee high to a mosquito’ dating back to a period when Fourteenth Street was considered out of town.”2
Cauldwell would have played ball in lower Manhattan, near Crosby Street, for he went to primary school at the “High School for Males,” at No. 36 Crosby near Broome Street. As editor of the weekly Sunday Mercury, Cauldwell made mention of baseball on May 1, 1853, and later that year devoted space to the Knickerbocker–Gotham match of July 5. These were the first press accounts of baseball games since various newspapers covered the three October 1845 contests between clubs from Brooklyn and New York.
As Chadwick was not the first to cover baseball, neither was the New York Clipper. For decades after its debut number of April 30, 1853, the Clipper was never all about baseball, or even primarily so.3 Yet more than any other publication, it may be said to have transformed a boys’ game into the national pastime. To place in context how the Clipper advanced the status of baseball, let’s look at the sporting papers that paved its way.
I suggest that three essential ingredients facilitate the growth of any localized game to national sport. First, gambling. Adults must care about the outcome, and their willingness to place a wager is a reasonable measure of their interest. As a game matures, investors and civic boosters may pool their interests in order to absorb a greater risk, placing their bets on the protracted success of a club or a ball grounds. Second, statistics. Whether merely game scores or primitive box scores, these numerical attachments to prose accounts accord a mantle of importance to the matches—an importance like that of trade or transport or government; in addition, quantifying the game’s constituent parts further fuels the first mover of sport, gambling. Third, publicity. Regular press coverage is a necessary development to waft the enthusiasm exhibited at a single contest, however it may have been fueled, to those only reading about it afterward, often at great distance from the event.
Before baseball came to dominate the sporting scene in the last quarter of the 19th century, these three elements had previously advanced the popularity of other sports: the turf, the ring, sculling, cricket, and the pit (blood sports such as ratting, baiting, cockfighting, and dog-fighting). Whether the crowd drawn by the activity was low or genteel, the ingredients and the progression were similar. American sporting papers, beginning in the 1820s, paved the way for each sport to mature by providing records and prognostications related to events of interest to the sporting set and—underlying it all—the basis of a potential wager.
Despite the nationwide surge of interest during the Jacksonian era in newspapers and magazines touching upon all topics—from politics to religion, from literature to commerce—sporting coverage lagged. Devotees of turf, ring, field, and stream had to await the arrival by packet ship of the weekly Bell’s Life in London, founded in 1822. Three years earlier, Baltimorean John Stuart Skinner had established The American Farmer, the first agricultural journal in this country; in 1823 he replaced it with the monthly American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, which became America’s first enduring sporting paper.
Skinner sought for his new publication an encyclopedic status, but while industrious in collecting material for his magazine, unfortunately he published whatever was sent to him relating to the horse, and just as it was sent. His indifference to fact and straying attentions would continue to plague sporting papers, as the standards of self-promotion and humbuggery were more readily met than those of journalism.
A competitor to Skinner’s magazine arose in 1831.4 Founded by the aptly named William Trotter Porter, the Spirit of the Times was a high-toned weekly of horse literature and southwestern wit. Under his aegis it became a landmark in its approach to sport and, with nationally distributed subscription, a significant part of American periodical history. Porter pitched his paper to “gentlemen of standing, wealth and intelligence, the very Corinthian columns of the community,” rather than the crowd attracted by sensationalistic sheets of the day like The Whip or the Police Gazette (of which outlaw Jesse James was a noteworthy subscriber).5
An early–1830s competitor to Skinner and Porter was the sumptuous (and thus not surprisingly short-lived) New York Sporting Magazine and Annals of the American and English Turf, published by Cadwallader R. Colden with colored aquatints. Colden had written for Skinner’s publication under the pseudonym “An Old Turfman.” His own venture, launched in March 1833, ceased publication a year later, but it presaged the illustrated sporting papers to come.
Spirit of the Times began to cover cricket in 1837 (a match between elevens from Schenectady and Albany). Not until July 9, 1853, however, did it give notice to a baseball match, the one played between the Knickerbocker and Gotham clubs on July 5—the same noted in the fledgling Clipper one week later. Over the next few years, however, the Spirit would cover baseball much more assiduously than the Clipper. For a long time after it launched, the Clipper was seen as a cheap cousin of the flash or racy weeklies rather than as a competitor to Spirit of the Times. In 1853 the Clipper sold for two cents per copy at the city’s newsstands; the Spirit, if available there (it sold primarily via annual subscription), went for six cents per copy.
Although Spirit of the Times attracted a widely dispersed circulation that peaked at 40,000, it struggled to break even, it was said, because of the profligate habits of its proprietor. Porter lost his publication to his former pressman, John Richards, and looked for employment to George Wilkes, who had sold the Police Gazette, which he had co-founded. Wilkes took him under his wing, and started a new sporting paper called Porter’s Spirit of the Times. Porter died in 1858 (his death was reported on the day of the first Fashion Race Course game, July 20), litigation arose, and Wilkes finally withdrew from Porter’s Spirit of the Times and in September 1859 started Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times. For a while there were three sporting papers all claiming to be the original and only legitimate Spirit.6
Frank Queen (1823–1882), who created the Clipper, was born of working-class parents in Philadelphia. Self-educated, he was influenced by Frank Adriance, a cheap-book dealer, to think that a man could make a living by giving the public what it wanted. After arriving in New York in 1850, with Adriance’s help he set up as an operator of newsstands in the Bowery. This experience aided Queen in determining “the material most in popular demand,” which “suggested an opportunity for venturing upon his long cherished project of starting a newspaper of his own.”7
Connecting with well heeled Harrison Trent, who took the position of publisher, Queen launched the Clipper from 150 Fulton Street as a four-page weekly with six columns to the page. After three months the sheet was enlarged and its price was raised to three cents, “to enable us to meet the extra expense attendant upon the enlargement, and to employ additional reporters in the news department. The Clipper will now be enabled to keep the public advised of all movements transpiring in the Sporting and Theatrical world….”7
For some time, boxing and aquatics continued to form the core of the Clipper’s sporting coverage, supplemented by cricket, shooting, rat-baiting, and pedestrianism. In 1854 the paper did assign a reporter to cover yachting, billiards, cricket, and baseball—the expatriate Briton William H. Bray. In 1855 Queen bought Trent out. In 1857 he hired Chadwick to replace Bray. A few other sporting papers appeared in the years before 1865, including the California Spirit of the Times (1854), the Horse Journal (1855), the Philadelphia Police Gazette and Sporting Chronicle (1856), Billiard Cue (1856), Sportsman (1863), and San Francisco’s Our Mazeppa (1864). The Ball Players’ Chronicle and the New England Base Ballist were baseball-only publications in the years after the Civil War. But with only Wilkes’ Spirit offering real competition, the Clipper was beginning to exert dominance.
On April 5, 1868, the paper began its baseball coverage for the season by crowing:
The Clipper, as the leading organ of all legitimate sports, was the first to recognize the game of base ball as a recreation that was destined to be the National Game of America. We fostered the incipient pastime, gave advice to clubs and players, and exerted our widespread influence to perpetuate it as a healthy and harmless amusement.
1. Letter, July 6, 1853, to The Spirit of the Times: July 9, 1853, p. 246, col. 1. Posted to 19CBB by David Block, Sept. 6, 2006. SOT facsimile provided by Craig Waff, Sept. 2008.
2. Jack M. Doyle, Albert Spalding Scrapbooks, BA SCR 42, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, N.Y.
3. This debut number does not survive, but an issue for May 7 bears the number “2.” Perplexingly, the Clipper for May 14 is listed in the page-one masthead as “Vol. I, No. 1.” Yet on page two of this issue the editor writes: “THE CLIPPER./ITS COURSE ONWARD./ITS PROSPECTS BRIGHT./We have now entered upon the third voyage of our Clipper, and bright skies shine upon us, and favoring gales still waft us onward to that point, we desire to reach, the approbation of an indulgent public, and the cheering smiles of kind friends, and well wishers.” Confirming this reconstruction, the Clipper of May 21 is numbered as “Vol. I, No. 4.”
4. Two short-lived predecessors were Annals of the Turf (1826), published by George W. Jeffreys in North Carolina, and the Farmer’s, Mechanic’s, Manufacturer’s and Sportsman’s Magazine, published briefly (March 1826–February 1827) in New York. Betts, J. 1953. “Sporting Journalism in Nineteenth-Century America,” American Quarterly 5.1, 39–56. See also the “Stuntz List”: Stuntz, S. 1941. List of the Agricultural periodicals of the United States and Canada Published during the Century July 1810–July 1910.
5. Porter, Spirit of the Times: May 11, 1835.
6. Wallace, J. 1897. The Horse of America in His Derivation, History and Development (pp. 97 ff.).
7. “Frank Queen and His Contemporaries,” Clipper: Nov. 4, 1882.
With this twelfth of sixteen articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by Randall Brown, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball. The article below, by Larry McCray, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball for which Larry served as guest editor. He is the founder of the invaluable Protoball Project, a website where many of the early game’s top scholars have shared their finds. He is also a panelist on Major League Baseball’s Origins Committee, which I chair.
These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1845.1, reflects that it is the first Protoball entry for the year 1845.
1845.1 The Knickerbocker Rules—and the Long History of the One-Bounce Fielding Rule
If a ball be struck, or tipped, and caught, either flying or on the first bound, it is a hand out.2
The famous Knickerbocker rules of 1845 may not be comprehensive enough to fully define a playable game, and may not even be baseball’s first written rules,3 but they did indeed survive, and they give us the first coherent picture of the roots of the New York game.
At first taken as evidence of the Knickerbocker Club’s knack for inventive genius, the 13 playing rules have recently been freshly reconsidered in an evolutionary context, and their reputation for originality has taken several hits.4 At this point, it appears that only three rules that endure today lack clear precedent in prior safe-haven ballgames.5 These are (1) the tag-out rule, which supplanted the “plugging” of base-runners to put them out6; (2) the characteristic “90-degree” territory defining fair hits; and (3) the three-out inning. The three-strike rule, for example, was already in use in predecessor games—as was the dropped-third strike rule that freed the batter who whiffed to run the bases. (Such familiar modern icons as the nine-inning game, the nine-player team and the ninety-foot basepath came along more than a decade later.)
It seems ironic, when discussing rule innovations, that what may have been early game’s most contentious rule (the issue remained unsettled for four decades) was perhaps actually the most ancient aspect of ballplay. The basic fly rule for putting batters out seems to have been a part of ballplaying since, at least, the earliest accounts of English stoolball and cricket, centuries ago.
What We Know About the Prehistory of the Bound Rule
The Knickerbocker Club’s rule 12, cited above, includes a provision that to baseball fans seems quaint, if not alien, today; a batter could be retired if a fair or foul hit is caught after it bounces once.
There has been, until recently, reasonable speculation that this provision was another Knickerbocker innovation, and why it appeared. Over time, the weight and dimension of the ball had been evolving toward that of the cricket ball, making it heavier—and, reportedly, harder. One might surmise, then, that a fielder’s hands might be better protected from pain and injury if he were afforded the option of letting the ball bounce once, and then to field it once it was “spent.” A closer look, however, reveals some evidence that the one-bounce rule was known even before the New York game took shape.
The bound rule actually has a solid place in ball sports—and not just in the children’s game of jacks and in assorted playground fungo games. It is seen today mostly in tennis and related sports like handball and squash and table tennis, where the objective is to return a ball before it bounces twice, an event that would abruptly add one to the opponent’s score. For many centuries the bound rule has been an essential part of the old form of tennis, played long before modern lawn tennis was invented (keeping the bound rule) in 1873. Very early forms of collegiate football in the United States, and rugby-rules football in England, also included rules that specified what a player could and could not do when catching a ball on the bound.7
But was the bound rule also part of earlier safe-haven ballgames? One baseball pioneer certainly thought so. Describing the rules set for the new Gotham Base Ball Club in 1837, William Wheaton wrote, a half-century later: “We abandoned the old rule of putting out on the first bound and confined it to fly catching.”8 (If true, of course, this means that the Knickerbocker Club had actually decided to reverse the Gotham Club’s decision, and had reverted to the bound rule.) A second pioneer agrees: Knickerbocker mainstay Doc Adams seems to have suggested that one reason that players still liked the bound rule in 1860 was that it was a familiar feature of their boyhood ballgames.9
The direct evidence on broad prior use of a bound rule is suggestive, but it is not overwhelming. We have, as yet, only two contemporary references to its use before 1845. The earliest, found by David Block in a poem on stool-ball published in 1733, seems to imply the fielder’s objective was “To seize the ball before it grounds / Or take it when it first rebounds.”10 The other reference is in a public challenge in June 1841 to play a wicket match near Hartford, Connecticut; it specifies, as the second of four playing rules, “the ball to be fairly caught flying or at the first bound.”11 The standard early surveys of games—including Willughby, Gutsmuths, Strutt, Clarke—do refer to batters being put out by means of caught balls, but none actually defines a “catch” as being made on the fly.
Several other references to pre–1845 use of the bound rule appear in retrospective accounts. Historian Harold Seymour associates the practice with the old-cat games (but does not give a source),12 and a recollection of such games around 1840 in Illinois recalls a one-bounce rule.13 The rule is remembered for ballgames played in the 1820s in New York State, and in 1840 in accounts from Georgia and North Carolina.14 In New England, one account attributes the bound rule to the traditional ballgame called base.15
After the New York game had emerged, the bound rule was employed for wicket in Rochester, town ball in Ohio, and in Philadelphia Town Ball.16 It seems quite plausible that these practices were retained from earlier years, although the post–1845 adoption of the Knickerbocker rule 12 is another possibility. And as late as 1857, the rules of the Olympic Club of Boston listed the feature as a short-handed “scrub” variant of its own (non–New York) game.17 One Indianapolis writer, musing on ancient varieties of ballplaying, wrote that “[b]ecause the fielders were so helpless, it appears that even catches on two bounds were considered outs in games between younger players.”18
So the bound rule certainly was known before 1845. Whether it was the dominant form for “caught out” rules in early safe-haven games is not yet clear. We might speculate about the purposes for specifying bound outs in predecessor games—both to protect the hands of young or inexperienced players, and to extend the effective range of fielders when too few players were available. But in those early days, balls were apparently lighter and softer, and thus hits were shorter and damage to hands was a lesser risk.
The Slow Demise of the Bound Rule19
While it was their own club’s original rule, by the mid–1850s some prominent members of the Knickerbocker Club wanted to eliminate the bound rule. In this cause they were to be joined by the energetic reformer Henry Chadwick, who would call this campaign “one of the toughest I had.”20
In preparation for the 1857 convention that would revamp baseball’s rules, each of 16 New York area clubs were asked to send representatives to meetings to consider draft rules prepared by the Knickerbocker Club, and this draft eliminated bound catches. It was reported that the delegates were “pretty evenly divided” on this provision,21 but a compromise was reached, and unanimity thereby was achieved. The bound rule stayed, but a provision was fashioned as a new inducement for fielders to make fly catches whenever they could22: Although baserunners could still, as before, scamper ahead on all hit balls put in flight, for bound catches, runners could keep the bases they had gained on the play. If those balls were caught on the fly, however, the runners now were returned, with safe passage, to their original bases (the modern tag-up rule was to come later).
Thus began a reform campaign that gained press support but that failed, time after time, at Association rules conventions. Despite derision by Chadwick and others that the bound rule was merely a “boy’s rule,” delegates repeatedly voted to retain it, their majority buoyed by the growing numbers of new and distant clubs that were obviously more comfortable with it.
Meanwhile, more and more of the elite urban clubs—following the lead of the Knickerbockers—adopted the fly rule on their own. The manly game of cricket, using a ball as heavy and hard as a baseball, had no bound rule, a fact not unnoticed by proud cricketers, and this may have been a factor in the conversion. (Even today, cricketers make long fly catches without benefit of fielding gloves, while in baseball and softball, barehanded catches are largely reserved for spectators.)
Eventually, in December 1864, a fly rule for fair hits was voted in, as a one-year experiment for 1865 that stuck. But for foul balls, the bound rule lived on, and for two more decades, fielders outside the lines had the convenient option of grabbing the ball on one bounce.23
1. This essay benefited from several email exchanges with Richard Hershberger in early 2011.
2. Knickerbocker Rule 12.
3. Writing in 1887, William Wheaton recalls writing a set of rules for the Gotham Base Ball Club in 1837. See Protoball entry 1837.1, which carries the Wheaton article.
4. Rule-by-rule reviews of the Knickerbocker playing standards have been presented in: Block, D. 2005. Baseball before We Knew It (pp. 80–93); Thorn, J. 2011. Baseball in the Garden of Eden (pp. 71–77).
5. Whether the balk rule was originated by New York’s pioneer clubs has not been evaluated carefully at this time.
6. Actually, Wheaton wrote that this was “the first step we took” in laying out Gotham Club rules in 1837, eight years earlier. However, a tag rule that replaced plugging is not found in accounts of predecessor games, and may have been a New York modification.
7. See, e.g.: Gems, G., et al. 2008. Sports in American History (p. 138).
8. See Protoball entry 1837.1, which includes the full text of the Wheaton article.
9. Sunday Mercury, 1860. The cited observation was quoted from the report of the NABBP rules committee. Adams is not specifically named as author, but he chaired the committee.
10. Block 2005, 86, 111–118. The poem, “Stool Ball, Or the Easter Diversion,” is a detailed account of a holiday game that involved hitting but no pitching or baserunning.
11. See Protoball entry 1841.10; the original source is the Hartford Daily Courant of June 23, 1841.
12. Seymour, H. 1989. Baseball: The Early Years (p. 7).
13. Jones, A. 1970. Representative Recreation Activities (pp. 100–101).
14. See Protoball entries 1823c.12, 1840.24, and 1840c.33, respectively.
15. See Protoball entry 1750s.3.
16. See, respectively, Protoball entries 1850s.16 and 1850s.20, and Hershberger, R. 2007. “A Reconstruction of Philadelphia Town Ball,” Base Ball 1.2 (pp. 36–37).
17. See Protoball entry 1857.20. Massachusetts Base Ball, formally codified in the following year, specified the fly rule for match play.
18. “Old Baseball,” Indianapolis Sentinel: Apr. 3, 1887; cited in Morris, P. 2010. A Game of Inches (revised ed.) (p. 120).
19. A nuanced and recent overview of the controversy appears in Ryczek, W. 2009. Baseball’s First Inning (pp. 174–178).
20. Chadwick, H. 1868. The Game of Base Ball (p. 11).
21. “Out-door Sports. Base Ball Convention,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Mar. 7, 1857. Section 16 of the 1857 rules contains this provision.
22. There were already two competitive reasons for teams to prefer to try for fly catches. First, a fly catch reduces the time to return the ball to the infield, deterring advancing runners. Second, where playing surfaces were not well manicured, irregular bounces could prove uncatchable on the bound.
23. The shift in the vote may have been affected by the fact that membership in the NABBP had fallen off sharply. The number of member clubs fell from 62 in 1860 to 30 in 1864, according to Charles Peverelly in 1866. See Freyer and Rucker. 2005. Peverelly’s National Game (p. 117).
Apart from family, what seems important to me is play, a more serious activity than work and one that reveals more about who we are or wish to be. Work is performed under duress; play, never. And the work that seems most like play to me is rummaging around in history’s attic, often emerging into the light empty-handed only to discover what was in plain sight all along.
The subject of this post is a man famous long ago and vanished since … only to turn up virtually in my backyard, when I lived in Saugerties, New York, as I long did until a year ago. His name is Frank Pidgeon. He was baseball’s greatest pitcher in the 1850s and the founder of one of its fabled clubs. He was a pioneer shipbuilder whose colleague in the Brooklyn shipyards and lifelong friend was George Steers, the man who built the racing yacht America, for which the America’s Cup is named. Frank Pidgeon went round Cape Horn to California in 1849 to make his mark in the Gold Rush, and came back overland across the Isthmus of Panama. He was an engineer, a painter, a musician, an entrepreneur, an inventor. For the last twenty years of his life he lived in Saugerties, where today no one knows his name.
Frank Pidgeon’s descent from fame to oblivion has been complete, except among a handful of baseball savants. The man who followed him as the greatest pitcher of the age, Jim Creighton, was remembered upon his death with a mighty obelisk in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery. Where was Pidgeon’s monument? A decade ago I received a good-hearted tip that Pidgeon had not only owned a splendid home in the hamlet of Malden, but that he was also buried there, on the Asa Bigelow property that he had purchased in 1860. My three sons and I clambered up and down an ivy-covered hill that contained a vegetation-encrusted above-ground tomb, but it was not Pidgeon’s.
Readying a new book on early baseball rekindled my interest in finding Frank Pidgeon. I realized that I had a better chance of understanding how and where he came to reside in death if I better understood his life. So let me tell you who he was, to the extent I have learned that, and where he is.
Francis Pidgeon was born in the Eleventh Ward of New York on February 11, 1825 to Irish-American parents. As a young man he entered the ship- and yacht-building trades. After his return from California, he married Mary Elizabeth Orr, with whom he was to have six children: Francis Jr, Mary, Annie, Jeannette, John, and Isabelle. (Isabelle died at age seven; Mary Eliza Pidgeon Searing (“A.E.P. Searing”) went on to become an author of children’s books, including the truly delightful When Granny Was a Little Girl (1926).
At about the same time, Frank Pidgeon also secured a patent for “a useful improvement in machinery for making Thimbles,” as reported in The Scientific American of December 13, 1851. (“The improvement consists in the employment of two rollers, of which one is divided transversely to its axis, and in combination with a stationary bar….”) In later years he also invented the only successful steam traction plow ever made.
In 1855 Pidgeon, along with fellow shipbuilders, founded the Eckford Base Ball Club of Brooklyn, one of the legendary early clubs and a national champion. Despite his advanced years (he had passed his thirtieth birthday), he was a great all-around player who captained the nine and played several positions. In the three all-star games of 1858, pitting the best of Brooklyn against the best of Manhattan, he was selected each time and, when he pitched, won the lone game Brooklyn was able to capture. He was a competent second baseman, shortstop, and left fielder, but he won his fame as a pitcher not of the speedy or wild variety that emerged in the 1860s, but as the paragon of “headwork,” changing speeds and arcs while pitching “fairly to the bat,” as was the mandate back then.
Frank Pidgeon was a pure amateur who played baseball for the love of the game. When “revolving”—inexplicable player movements from team to team, no doubt spurred by under-the-table inducements—became a problem, he authored the National Association of Base Ball Players bill against professionalism. He even spoke out against some clubs’ practice of recruiting young players with no visible means of support and then paying them expense money so that they could travel to play ball. “I suppose that you will admit,” Pidgeon wrote to the editor of The Spirit of the Times in 1858, “that a man who does not pay his obligations, and has in his power to do so, is a knave and not fit to be trusted in a game of ball or anything else; and if he has not the money, his time would better [be] spent in earning the same than playing ball—business first, pleasure afterwards.”
In 1860 the aformentioned Jim Creighton became the most prominent player to receive pay for his services, and other sub rosa professionals followed. Pidgeon walked away from the playing field after 1863 and within a year or so took his growing family up the Hudson to make a new home in the Saugerties area. He maintained business offices in Long Island City, where as a contractor he continued to do extensive dock-building and landfill work for the cities of New York and Brooklyn. Pidgeon had accumulated significant wealth through his contracting activities, frequently accepting, in lieu of cash, parcels of land that he had filled. In the 1870 Federal Census the value of his real estate owned is $91,250 (multiply by thirty to get a comparable figure today); his personal property was worth an additional $18,000.
The family had three domestic servants and one farm laborer, and they built a spacious $30,000 home in Malden, depicted in an Edward Jernegan photo in the 1875 photo-monthly, The Pearl. “Paintings by his own hand adorned his parlors,” reported The New York Clipper.
Pidgeon’s eldest son, Frank Jr., joined him in the contracting business by 1870 and married Mary Kiersted, whose fine home on Main Street is today the Saugerties Historical Society. When Frank Jr. poured new concete floors for the old house, he inlaid his signature pigeons in four locations, still visible today. Frank Jr.’s success continued, and he was one of three baseball-buff petitioners whose efforts culminated in the creation of a fine ball diamond at what is now known as Cantine Field.
But Frank Sr.’s unbroken string of successes finally snapped. A Brooklyn commission investigated cost overruns and halting progress on a bridge project to which his crews and leased equipment had been heavily committed. The municipality held up his invoices as creditors pursued him for payment. A five-year pattern of underbidding municipal jobs so as to leave no profit in them, only parcels of land, had dried up his cash on hand and left him vulnerable. In 1881 he was forced to assign his assets for the benefit of creditors and to declare bankruptcy. His business was gone, and so was his fine home. By 1883 he was working for his son’s still thriving contracting business, overseeing construction; in April 1884 he was compelled to leave Saugerties altogether and relocate to a rented home in Harlem.
Let the contemporary accounts tell the rest. The Kingston Daily Leader, whose editor was Pidgeon’s son-in-law John W. Searing, wrote: “SAUGERTIES, June 14. On Friday afternoon the sad intelligence reached here by way of telegram that Francis Pidgeon, formerly of this place, late of Harlem was dead. His son-in-law Howard Gillespy had left him only the evening before in good health and spirit and as the telegram failed to state the cause of death, it was surmised that he had died suddenly of heart disease. This morning however that idea was soon dispelled, when it was learned that while he was walking along the track near High Bridge, a north bound train of the New York Central Railroad struck him and he was instantly killed. He was in that locality superintending a contract made by his son Frank with the Astors to lay out and sewer certain grounds on the Harlem River. [Why a man looking to place sewers would be walking along the tracks is a question that did not require an answer in the subtly polite newspapers of the day, let alone one managed by the family of the deceased.]
“Mr. Pigeon [sic] had resided in this village for about fifteen years, he erected an elegant and costly residence upon the bank of the Hudson river, which was recently sold to John G. Myer of Albany for $15,000, about half its cost…. Of late years his business contracts proved quite disastrous, and although at one time it was supposed that he was quite affluent, yet he died a poor man. His untimely death is generally regretted in this village and vicinity. He was sixty years of age.”
The Kingston Daily Freeman later reported: “The funeral of Mr. Francis Pidgeon took place from the Reformed Church, on Saturday afternoon at 5 o’clock. It was largely attended. The remains were interred in the new village cemetery at the head of Main street. Rev. Dr. Wortman officiated. The remains were not exposed to the view of the assemblage, being so badly disfigured.”
Here was new information. Not buried in Malden after all, but in the village of Saugerties. But where, precisely? A tip took me out to the tiny, picturesque Lutheran Cemetery on Ulster Avenue, with my photographer son Mark ready to click the great discovery. This proved a bum steer. Corrected information received that evening took me to the Mountain View Cemetery next day … but where was Pidgeon to be found? The custodian’s listing appeared to have Frank Jr. but not his illustrious father. And then there it was, right along the path, behind a boulder with a bronze plate emblazoned, “PIDGEON.” Couldn’t miss it, although the previous day we had.
Mark and I wrote a message for Frank Pidgeon on a baseball that we signed and left at his headstone. Safe at home.
With this eleventh of sixteen articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by Randall Brown, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball. Randall Brown specializes in 19th century history and has published articles in Base Ball on early black clubs and the Doubleday-Cooperstown–baseball connection. His important research article on the Wheaton find appeared in National Pastime in 2004.
These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1837.1, reflects that it is the first Protoball entry for the year 1837.
1837.1 The Evolution of the New York Game—The Arbiter’s Tale
We first organized what we called the Gotham Base Ball club … in 1837. Among the members were Dr. John Miller, a popular physician of that day; John Murphy, a well-known hotelkeeper, and James Lee, president of the New York Chamber of Commerce.*
Creation or evolution? Baseball historians have argued a similar question for a century and a half. American invention or grownup English children’s game? The extensive 1887 testimony of William R. Wheaton, the game’s first umpire, provides satisfaction to both sides.
Wheaton turned 23 in the spring of 1837. He was newly married and had been practicing law for a year. According to John M. Ward, “Colonel James Lee, elected an honorary member of the Knickerbocker Club in 1846, said that he had often played the same game when a boy.”1
The members of the club soon swelled beyond the fastidious notions of some of us, and we decided to withdraw and form a new organization we called the Knickerbocker.
The 1887 narrative leaps ahead eight years to the fall of 1845. Wheaton and W. H. Tucker were delegated to draft the rules and bylaws of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. On the occasion of the club’s first game at Elysian Fields, on October 6, Wheaton served as umpire, endorsing the score in the Knickerbocker game book.
The Gothams played a game with the Star Cricket Club of Brooklyn and beat the Englishmen out of sight, of course.
This comment is significant because it links the Gothams of 1837 to the later New York club. The name may have been changed in 1843 when the club moved to Elysian Fields, which also hosted the fledgling New York Cricket Club. On October 21, 1845, the Brooklyn Eagle advised the public of “A Great Match at Base Ball,” between the New York Base Ball Club and the Brooklyn Club. The Morning News of the following day carried details of the game, a 24–4 victory for the former club. Wheaton was listed as one of three umpires, serving in the same capacity in the return match several days later.2
Confirmation is provided by the presence of Miller and Murphy in the lineup against Brooklyn, represented by members of the Union Star Cricket Club. Alexander Cartwright and Daniel Adams, pioneers of the Knickerbocker Club, each reluctantly acknowledged the New York club as a predecessor.3 The same club defeated the Knickerbockers 23–1 in a famous match on June 19, 1846.
We laid out the ground at Madison Square in the form of an accurate diamond, with home plate and sand-bags for bases. You must remember that what is now called Madison Square, opposite the Fifth Avenue Hotel, in the thirties, was out in the country, far from the city limits.
“Base ball” was a popular amusement in New York during the early 19th century. Charles Haswell refers to “the boy of 1816,” noting that “on Saturday afternoon in the fall of the year, a few students would meet in the hollow on the Battery.”4 After city authorities banned ballplaying at the Battery and City Hall Parks in 1817, the game moved up Manhattan Island. An anonymous item in the New York Clipper of October 23, 1880, recalled the days when “Baseball was the favorite game” played on Chatham square.”5 There were games in Greenwich Village in the early 1820s and at Washington Square after it was opened in 1826.
Originally used as a burial ground, the location of the future Madison Square had been part of the “Parade,” nearly 75 acres set aside by city planners as “an area sufficient to maneuver the entire militia of New York.”6 An arsenal was built in 1806 at the junction of Broadway and the Boston Post Road, and, during the War of 1812, the ground served its intended purpose. It is possible that baseball was played there by New York soldiers like James Lee.7
The growing city gradually encroached on the Parade. In 1825, the arsenal was converted into a juvenile detention hall. In 1837, there was still open ground in front of the “House of Refuge.” The opening of Fifth Avenue and the construction of the Harlem Railroad had recently made the neighborhood more accessible. In 1839 two events would interfere with the play of the Gotham club. On May 5, the City Council passed the following ordinance: “No person shall play at ball, quoits, or any other sport or play whatsoever in any public place in the City of New York.”8 Three weeks later, the House of Refuge burned to the ground in a spectacular fire.9 The institution was relocated and the old site was designated as “Madison Square.”
There were, however, still a number of vacant lots and backyards in the neighborhood, and these were occupied by a variety of ballplayers. In 1840, according to a later article in the Clipper, the St. George Cricket Club “mustered as a club upon the grounds of Ralph Burroughs to the rear
of the old House of Refuge.”10 The groundskeeper was Sam Wright, father of baseball pioneers Harry and George. On October 24, 1840, the Colored American called attention “to the practice of the lads of our City, who, in great numbers, are resorting to the suburbs of the city, as high as 25th or 30th street, for the purpose of ball playing.”11
Another informal group came to the area in 1842. Duncan Curry, first president of the Knickerbocker Ball Club, recalled that “for several years it had been our habit to casually assemble on a plot of ground that is now known as 27th street and Fourth avenue, where the Harlem Railroad depot afterward stood. We would take our bats and balls with us and play any sort of a game.”12
According to a clipping in Henry Chadwick’s scrapbook, the Gotham/New York club found a new home across the street.
Speaking of the first base ball club, a friend—the veteran shortstop of the old Eagle club of New York of 1860 recently wrote me from his home in Waterbury Connecticut. “I first saw the game played on the grounds of the old New York Base Ball Club in the forties, on the block bounded by 5th and 6th avenues and 23rd and 24th streets, a district at that time given over to fields.”13
Charles Haswell provided further identification, noting that during the early 1840s “the premises on Fifth Avenue between 23rd and 24th streets were occupied by Corporal Thompson as a well-known and popular way-side house of entertainment.”14
After the Gotham club had been in existence a few months it was found necessary to reduce the rules of the new game to writing. This work fell to my hands, and the code I then formulated is essentially that in use today.
As the version of baseball pioneered by the Gotham/New York and Knickerbocker clubs became popular, contemporary observers realized that it was replacing an earlier game. The Clipper of October 10, 1857, reported on a match between the Liberty Club of New Jersey and “a party of Old Fogies who were in the habit of playing the old fashioned base ball, which as nearly everyone knows, is entirely different from the base ball as now played.”15 The article on Chatham Square included some details of the differences: “Baseball was then a simple pastime, with flat sticks or axe-handles for bats, and yarn balls.”16 Wheaton also mentioned that
in the old game when a man struck out those of his side who happened to be on the bases had to come in and lose that chance of making a run. We changed that and made the rule which holds good now.
The most important innovations incorporated in new rules were the result of a technological advance. In his description of the tools of the game, Charles Haswell touched on the key breakthrough, recalling that: “If a baseball was required, the boy of 1816 founded it with a bit of cork, or, if he were singularly fortunate, with some shreds of India rubber.”17 Primarily used to erase pencil marks, the South American substance provided new bounce to balls and increased distance to hits. There were, however, consequences.
The ball was made with a hard rubber center, tightly wrapped with yarn, and in the hands of a strong-armed man it was a terrible missile, and sometimes had fatal results when it came in contact with a delicate part of the player’s anatomy.
Wheaton and his colleagues decided to impose two new rules. One remains in effect today:
The first step we took in making baseball was to abolish the rule of throwing the ball at the runner and order that it should be thrown to the baseman instead, who had to touch the runner with it before he reached the base.
The second change would shape baseball history for another fifty years. The pitcher was not allowed to throw the ball, giving batters an edge. Wheaton was particularly proud of this feature.
The pitcher really pitched the ball, and underhand throwing was forbidden. Moreover, he pitched the ball so the batsman could strike it and give some work to the fielders.
Not all contemporary ballplayers agreed. After describing a Canadian game “Very Like Baseball” in an 1886 letter to Sporting Life, the writer added:
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. 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 old 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.18
When Wheaton was interviewed in November 1887, the modern “throw as you like” rule, supplemented by a clearly defined strike zone, had recently been enacted, much to the relief of umpires. His disappointment was clearly stated.
Nowadays the game seems to be played almost entirely by the pitcher and catcher. The pitcher sends his ball purposely in a baffling way, so that the batsman half the time can’t get a strike or reach a base.
On balance, however, the “Old Pioneer” was pleased with the results of his work.
When I saw the game between the Unions and Bohemians the other day, I said to myself if some of my old playmates who have been dead forty years could arise and see this game they would declare it was the same old game we used to play in the Elysian Fields, with the exception of the shortstop, the masked catcher, and the uniforms of the players.19
*San Francisco Examiner: Nov. 27, 1887. Note: This quotation and all others from the Wheaton interview are set in bold italic.
1. Ward, Baseball—How to Become a Ball Player.
2. N. Y. Herald: Oct. 21, 1845; Brooklyn Eagle: Oct. 21, 1845; N. Y. Morning News: Oct. 22, 1845.
3. Cartwright letter to Charles DeBost, Barry Halper Collection; Adams in Sporting News: Feb. 29, 1896, p. 3
4. Haswell, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian (p. 81).
5. Clipper: Oct. 23, 1880.
6. Dunshee, As You Pass By (p. 233).
7. See Clipper of Aug. 25, 1860, for report of “a game of base ball” played by veterans of 1812.
8. N. Y. C. By-Laws and Ordinances, May 8, 1839.
9. Rochester Republican: May 27, 1839.
10. Chadwick Scrapbook.
11. The Colored American: Oct. 24, 1840.
12. Spink, The National Game (p. 54).
13. Chadwick Scrapbook.
14. Haswell, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian (p. 365).
15. Clipper: Sept. 29, 1857.
16. Clipper: Oct. 23, 1880.
17. Haswell, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian (p. 77).
18. Sporting Life: May 5, 1886.
19. For details of Union/Bohemian game see S. F. Chronicle: Nov. 5, 1887.
With this tenth of sixteen articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by Richard Hershberger, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball. He has, in a few short years, become a leading fact-finder in our field, as he pursues his personal goal of understanding the social and organizational history of U.S. baseball from the 18th century to 1880. His recent articles in Base Ball include one on Philadelphia Town Ball (2007) and one on baseball and rounders (2009).
These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1831.1, reflects that it is the first Protoball entry for the year 1831.
1831.1 The Olympic Ball Club of Philadelphia
A small distance from the woods, I beheld a party of young men, (the majority of whom I afterwards distinguished to be Market street merchants,) and who styled themselves the “Olympic Club,” a title well answering to its name by the manner in which the party amused themselves in the recreant pleasure of town ball….1
The Olympic Ball Club of Philadelphia was by far the longest-lived baseball club of the amateur era. Its origins go as far back as 1831, when a group of Philadelphians in their twenties gathered to play ball. Two years later they merged with another group, which was loosely organized and went by the name “Olympic.” The combined group kept this name and adopted a formal constitution.2 The Olympics were still playing ball in the 1880s, with the last record of the club as a going concern dating to 1889.
The Olympics crossed the Delaware River to play in Camden, New Jersey. There is a persistent rumor that this was due to blue laws prohibiting ball play in Philadelphia, but there is no evidence for such an ordinance. It is more likely that they were driven by the same imperative that would have New York ballplayers crossing the Hudson River to Hoboken. There was not yet even rudimentary public transportation. Urban growth pushed open fields beyond easy reach of the center city. Camden was a rural village with ample open space, and conveniently accessible by ferry. There they would remain until just before the Civil War, by which time passenger railroads gave access to outlying regions.
The new club had the features that would become the classic model of a baseball club. The early clubs typically were urban organizations composed of young men of the professional and mercantile class. They held sedentary jobs, leading to a desire for exercise. They wished to take their exercise in a social context with their peers. They had the flexibility to make time for the activity, and the financial resources to support it.
The Olympics fit easily within the broad pattern of baseball clubs. But the lingering question remains: Do they really count as a baseball club? Traditional histories consider the Knickerbockers of New York, founded in 1845, the first ballclub, with the Olympics tending to be dismissed as a “town ball” club that did not switch to authentic baseball until 1860.
There is a kernel of truth here. Modern baseball derives from the version that arose in New York City in the late 1830s or 1840s. This “New York game” began to spread outward in the late 1850s. The Olympics switched to the New York game in 1860. But what did they switch from?
Baseball was brought to America from England in colonial times, played as an informal, unorganized game. It was part of our common English cultural heritage. But this is not to say that is was played in a single version, or went by a single name. Versions were local, in the way that informal children’s games even today vary from one locale to the next. It also went by different names, varying by region.3
In New York the game retained the old English name of “base ball.” In Philadelphia it went by a newer name: “town ball.” The origin of this name is unknown. (The common explanation that “town ball” was so called because it was played at town meetings is post hoc speculation with no supporting evidence.) It was the usual term through a wide swath of America, from Pennsylvania west through the Ohio valley and throughout the South. It is entirely likely that the term arose on the eastern seaboard and spread west with white settlement, but there is no direct evidence of this. The earliest citations appear in the late 1830s, appearing within a few years of each other in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Louisiana.4
Another misunderstanding is the common assertion that townball was the ancestor of baseball. This misconception arose in the later 19th century, when old-timers in areas such as the midwest recalled that “town ball” (meaning the old local form of baseball) came before “base ball” (meaning the New York game). This statement of chronological fact was misinterpreted as a statement of genealogy.
There is no direct evidence of the exact rules of the game as the early Olympics played it. The earliest game accounts are from a quarter-century later, when a community of competitive clubs arose in Philadelphia. The basic format would be familiar, with bases laid out in the field; two teams trading places each inning; and one team trying to bat the ball and run around the bases while the other team tried to catch the ball or throw out the runner. (Like most early forms, the technique to put out the runner was to throw the ball at him. Tagging was a development of the New York game.) Other features are less familiar. The six bases, marked by stakes, were about twenty feet apart. Unique among known forms, the batter had to complete the circuit with each hit, rather than stopping at a base to await a later batter.5
With their formal organization, the Olympics took the shape of the classic baseball club. But they came from an older model. Baseball requires sufficient space, a sufficient number of players, and sufficient time to play It. For juveniles, these requirements naturally come together on the school ground. Baseball followed westward white settlement, arriving as soon as population density had risen high enough to support a school. Matters were not so simple for adult play. There was a widespread taboo against playing on Sunday, which was the only frequent opportunity. This left occasional events such as barn-raisings and the calendar of holidays. The Fourth of July was by far the most important warm-weather holiday, and baseball play was a widespread feature of the day.
Sometimes these holiday games were impromptu. Sometimes they were planned in advance. It was an easy step from advance planning to organizing a club for the annual festivity: a bit like Philadelphia’s Mummers clubs today organize for the New Year’s parade. One of the predecessor groups that formed the Olympics was such a club. They had organized to play ball annually on Independence Day. They occasionally played informal games at other times. A few members went to Camden, where they began playing with the regulars there, leading to the merger of 1833.
The club retained something of its holiday origin. They would turn out in force every Fourth of July for ball play, accompanied by their longtime president, attorney William Whitman, reading the Declaration of Independence, the singing of national songs, and “an address delivered for the perpetuation of the Stars and Stripes.”
The Olympics were not the first baseball club, nor were they the most influential. They do, however, hold a unique status as the only club before the Knickerbockers to be well documented. Other early clubs are known only by vague references and reminiscences made long after they had faded away. The Olympics were the only pre–Knickerbocker club to survive into baseball’s heyday. As the club switched to the New York game in 1860, it already was aware of its unique status. It still included some of its original members, who kept its institutional memory, and took care to record its history. In 1866 the club published a pamphlet that included a history of the club and its historical membership roster.
An open question in baseball history is the extent of early clubs. There are clear signs that they existed, but there is little evidence for how common or widespread they were. It is tempting to take this absence of evidence for evidence of absence, so it is instructive to note how much early evidence there is for the Olympics. There is very little. The club pamphlet for 1838 survives in a single extant copy. There is exactly one known newspaper reference prior to 1857.
This is a letter to the editor published in the Philadelphia Public Ledger in 1838, quoted in the epigraph introducing this essay. The writer tells that, desiring a walk in the country, he took the ferry to Camden. While strolling through the woods he came upon a party of young men playing ball. He learned that they were Philadelphians and called themselves the Olympic Club. He was enchanted by them and impressed by the benefits of the exercise, and encouraged his readers to follow the club’s lead. This item is strikingly similar to the note 15 years earlier in New York’s National Advocate (Protoball 1823.1).
This paucity of early documentation shows that even a club indisputably stable and formally organized could barely appear in the contemporary record. This gives credence to the hints and memories of other clubs elsewhere. The mere fact that we know such a club existed is the Olympics’ legacy to early baseball history.
1. Public Ledger (Philadelphia): May 14, 1838.
2. The major source for the early history of the club is the club pamphlet of 1866. Early clubs frequently published pamphlets containing their constitution and bylaws, roster, and playing rules. The Olympics’ 1866 pamphlet includes a historical essay and historical roster. One known copy survives, in the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Center.
3. American baseball received little attention until the 1850s. Generalizations of earlier forms and terminology are derived from a combination of scattered early references, extrapolation backwards from documented events of the 1850s, and reminiscences from later in the century.
4. Respectively: Public Ledger (Philadelphia): May 14, 1838; Indiana Journal (Indianapolis): May 13, 1837; Southern Patriot (Charleston, S.C.): Aug. 31, 1841, quoting the Concordia (Louisiana) Intelligencer.
5. Hershberger, R. 2007. “A Reconstruction of Philadelphia Town Ball,” Base Ball 1.2, 28–43.