Not two hours ago, reader Brian Dawe posted this interesting comment about Adam Ford and the game he recalled playing in Beachville, Ontario on June 4, 1838. The article he references may be viewed at: http://goo.gl/CRkhI. Be sure to read other reader comments, including one by my esteemed colleague David Block. I introduced the Beachville article thus, and repeat it here to supply a bit of context to Ford’s report, which may be read verbatim. “In a letter to Sporting Life, published May 5, 1886, Dr. Adam Enoch Ford recalled a ball game he had witnessed nearly fifty years earlier on June 4, 1838, in Beechville, Ontario, Canada, ‘which closely resembled our present national game.’ Recalling events that may or may not have transpired when the author was seven years old, Ford’s letter is eerily reminiscent of Abner Graves’ missive to the Mills Commission in 1905, in which he recalled witnessing Abner Doubleday inventing the game of baseball when the inventor was twenty and he was five. In a further coincidence, both Ford and Graves resided in Denver at the time they wrote their letters. Both endured disgrace in their lifetimes: Graves murdered his second wife and ended his days in an asylum; Ford was driven from Ontario by a murder inquest, a relationship with a woman who was not his wife, and a dependence on alcohol and drugs which, in 1906, brought him to his end.”
I will add that I played a role in rediscovering the 1791 Pittsfield Prohibition. At one time I believed that baseball may have arisen in North America from a “Housatonic Valley Triangle” whose points were Pittsfield, Cooperstown, and New York City. I now believe that baseball was played in North America as early as the 1730s, in south central Massachusetts.
And now from Brian Dawe:
The Burdick family referred to in Dr. Ford’s story came to the Beachville area in Canada in the late 1790s – James and Phoebe and their eight children, ranging in age from 10 years to 30 years. They were originally from Lanesborough, Massachusetts, which is the town next to Pittsfield in Berkshire County that is famous for the 1791 bylaw forbidding baseball games near the town meeting house, for fear its windows might be broken by flying balls. Amongst other things, James Burdick was a Baptist preacher and spoke out in favour of the British cause, which got him into trouble with the local Committee of Safety during the Revolution, and he was fined, disarmed and confined to his farm. By the time he brought his wife and family (four sons, four daughters) to Canada, the oldest children were married with families of their own, so there was quite a Lanesborough influx to the Beachville area in that period. The extended Burdick family included the Williams and Dolson families named in Dr. Ford’s story.
It shouldn’t be any surprise that there is such an early record of a baseball game in Beachville, because around the same time, these and a number of other Berkshire families had come to the same neighbourhood in Ontario, ninety miles west of Niagara, to what was then known as the Township of Oxford-on-the-Thames, a wilderness tract of 64,000 acres. Points of origin for the others included the towns of Great Barrington, New Marlborough and Mount Washington, also all in Berkshire County. They and the Burdick clan all had come under the leadership of Major Thomas Ingersoll of Great Barrington, who was authorized by the government of the province to assign lands in the township to those he considered suitable to form the new settlement. The Town of Ingersoll, Ontario is named after him. It is three miles down the Thames River from Beachville.
All the communities in that part of Ontario have always been very keen about baseball, and there’s no question it is a cradle for the growth of the game in Canada. The first Canadian Base Ball Championship was organized there in the 1860s, with teams competing to take possession of a Silver Ball trophy that was created by fans of the game in Woodstock, the county town five miles up the Thames River from Beachville. The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame is located a bit to the north of Beachville, in a town founded by two of Thomas Ingersoll’s sons, known as St. Marys, Ontario, on another branch of the Thames River.
A festival to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the game described by Dr. Ford is taking place over the next two weekends (May 24-25, and June 1-2) in a meadow that forms part of the grounds of the Beachville Museum. Details can be found on its website at http://www.beachvilledistrictmuseum.ca/. There will be vintage base ball matches for all ages in the course of the festival. Everyone welcome! Still a few game slots available if anyone wants to help form up additional teams. The Beachville Cornstalks have been organized to defend home turf, and already have matches on the program with the London Tecumsehs and the Woodstock Actives, two well-known vintage clubs that have been playing matches in vintage tournaments for decades.
It is a stimulating proposition that baseball may have reached Beachville via Lanesborough/Pittsfield. I invite interested readers to weigh in via the comment feature below. A story about baseball in New Marlborough, MA, mentioned above, may also be relevant reading. I will post that tomorrow.
The following text continues and concludes the article commenced yesterday at: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2013/05/14/the-knickerbockers-san-franciscos-first-base-ball-team/
William R. Wheaton
The next New York Knickerbocker to arrive in San Francisco was William Rufus Wheaton, who has the distinction of being one of the founders of the New York Base Ball club and who umpired the first recorded Knickerbocker game. He left New York on February 1, 1849, aboard the Strafford, a vessel that he and about a hundred other men had purchased as a joint venture and filled with merchandise for the California gold fields. He disembarked in San Francisco August 30, 1849.
Of his arrival Wheaton wrote, “I came ashore at Clarke’s Point, and found some friends who gave me the privilege of lying on the floor of their office, which I accepted, and went and bought a mattress and some blankets.”
Wheaton also wrote that when it was learned that he was an attorney, he was immediately waylaid and guaranteed a hundred thousand dollars a year if he would settle in San Francisco and practice his profession. He accepted several cases, trying one, and referred the rest to other attorneys.
Fifteen days after arriving in San Francisco, Wheaton and others in his party continued on to Sacramento, about ninety miles away. By early 1850, after abandoning placer mining, Wheaton started a successful wholesale grocery business in Sacramento with Alonzo Hamilton—Hamilton & Wheaton.
Edward A. Ebbets
Edward A. Ebbetts arrived in San Francisco aboard the Panama on April 22, 1850, too late to be called a ’49er. He was also a latecomer with the New York Knickerbockers, first appearing in a Knickerbocker game on September 25, 1846. He played 10 documented games that season and 24 games the following year.
Edward was preceded to San Francisco by his younger brother, Arthur, who would accumulate vast wealth and fame in his adopted city. Edward’s stay was briefer and less dramatic. (Coincidentally, Arthur Ebbetts voyaged to San Francisco aboard the Pacific, the same vessel that brought Alfred Cartwright, Alexander Cartwright’s brother, to this city.) The Ebbetts brothers, along with Benjamin F. Lowe, established Ebbetts & Co., Commission Merchants at 60 California Street.
Edward Ebbetts was a guest at William Eddy’s home on New Year’s Day 1851, and was one of the “gentlemen” (as reported in the Alta, January 4, 1851) appointed to call a meeting for the organization of the Knickerbocker Association.
At the Knickerbocker meeting of January 6, 1851, he was elected a member of the Association’s Finance Committee.
Walter T. Avery was the last New York Knickerbocker to arrive in California, reaching San Francisco on June 6, 1850, aboard the steamer Columbus, 114 days out of New York. The California census of 1852 lists Walter T. Avery of New York as a merchant in San JoaquinCounty. The 1852 Stockton City Directory lists W.T. Avery as a partner in the firm of Avery and Hewlett, Wholesale Dealers in Groceries, Dry Goods and Produce, located at the corner of Main and Hunter Streets in Stockton. H.H. Hewlett and Avery operated the Stockton store, but they also had a branch operation in San Francisco overseen by John C. Hewlett. Stockton, about eighty miles from San Francisco, was an inland shipping center and jumping-off point for the southern mines.
Avery’s first appearance with the New York Knickerbockers was on April 14, 1846, when he played on Alexander Cartwright’s team, scoring seven runs in a 55–33 rout. Avery was also one of the New York Knickerbockers who played against the New York nine on June 19, 1846.
Although the journal that Alexander Cartwright kept of his cross-country trek was not useful in determining his activities while in California, it does contain some extremely valuable information. At the back of the journal is a listing of names and addresses. One of the names in Cartwright’s “address book” is: Walter Avery care of DeWitt & Harrison, San Francisco. 
William H. Tucker
Yet another New York Knickerbocker to be found in San Francisco is William H. Tucker. In the Knickerbockers’ first recorded game of October 6, 1845, Tucker, playing on Cartwright’s team, scored three of his team’s eight runs in a losing effort.
Of the Knickerbockers’ 14 recorded games in 1845, William Tucker appeared in 10. One game in which he did not participate was on October 24. This may be due to the fact that another baseball game was being contested that day in Brooklyn—the second game of the two-game New York–Brooklyn series. In both games a player identified as “Tucker” played for the New York Team.
In 1846 William Tucker played in 35 of the Knickerbockers’ 50 recorded games. On June 19, 1846, when the Knickerbockers faced the New York team, “Tucker” showed his true allegiance by playing for the Knickerbockers.
When the Knickerbockers’ game book began recording players’ positions in 1847, Tucker is listed as pitcher, “behind” (i.e. catcher), and second base. During 1847 and 1848 Tucker appeared in 42 of the Knickerbockers’ 86 games. From the inception of the club’s game books, Tucker appeared in 87 of 150 games through the end of the 1848 season.
The opening game of the 1849 season was played without Tucker—the first opening game that he missed. He also missed the rest of the 1849 season along with the entire 1850 season as well. Finally, on May 1, 1851, seven games into the 1851 season, and 86 games since his last recorded appearance as a New York Knickerbocker, Tucker is listed as playing “behind” with his New York teammates.
Where did William H. Tucker go for two-plus seasons?
From 1845 through 1853 Tucker is recorded in the New York City Directory as residing at 56 East Broadway. Also residing at that address was Abraham Tucker. Abraham had been listed at the address as far back as 1842. Both Tuckers gave their occupations as tobacconists.
This uninterrupted directory listing might lead one to conclude that Tucker was still living in New York but simply not playing any baseball. However, while William Wheaton and the DeWitts were indisputably in California, they continued to be listed in the New York City directory also. Additionally, on March 9, 1849, the New York Herald published a list of passengers aboard the steamship Falcon bound for California via the Isthmus Route. Among the listed passengers was “Tucker,” no first name.This could be anybody surnamed Tucker; but Alexander Cartwright’s journal/address book lists: Wm. H. Tucker 271 Montgomery st. upstairs, San Francisco, Cal.
Tucker reappeared in New York in the spring of 1851. To arrive in New York on or before May 1, he could have been in San Francisco as late as mid-March 1851.
The preceding six gentlemen—New York Knickerbockers all—were undeniably baseball players from New York. Charles Ludlow Case was not a New York Knickerbocker, but he probably was a baseball player from New York. In the two baseball games between the New York and Brooklyn teams contested on October 21 and 24, 1845, the players were listed by last name only. Playing both games for the New York team was “Case.” On June 19, 1846, “Case” also played for the New York team against the Knickerbockers.
Charles Case arrived in San Francisco on February 27, 1849, aboard the bark Jesurum from New York. Together with Charles L. Heiser and others, he established Case, Heiser & Co. Commission Merchants at 60 Sansome Street. This was on the same street as DeWitt & Harrison.
According to the 1852 California census, Charles Case was born in 1818, making him four years younger than William Wheaton and Walter Avery; three years younger than Theodore DeWitt; three years older than Edward Ebbetts; two years older than Peter DeWitt and Alex Cartwright; and the same age as Frank Turk and Alfred DeWitt. In other words, neither too young nor too old to play baseball.
At the initial meeting of the San Francisco Knickerbockers, Charles Case was elected to the Finance Committee.
The DeWitt brothers (Alfred, Peter Jr., Theodore, and Henry), Frank Turk, William Wheaton, Edward Ebbetts, Walter Avery, William Tucker, and Charles Case were all in or near San Francisco between 1849 and 1851. But did they know of each other? Did their paths cross?
• Frank Turk was a high-profile public figure and a participant in a sensational public trial. He was also a politician who successfully ran for public office. Clearly he was the most visible and most reachable of the New York Knickerbockers.
• Alfred DeWitt was a jury member on the first of the three trials prosecuted by Frank Turk. Therefore the paths of Turk and DeWitt had definitely crossed. Additionally, DeWitt & Harrison was one of the largest businesses in San Francisco at the time. Further, Alfred DeWitt, being a partner of Henry Harrison—who successfully ran for public office twice—would have gained some reflected notoriety from his partner’s campaigning and successes. Alfred’s brothers, Peter Jr., Henry, and Theodore, were also active in its operation, and would also have received some of the reflected notoriety. As was the case with Frank Turk, the DeWitts were well known and easily reachable.
• According to Alexander Cartwright’s journal/address book, Walter Avery and Alfred DeWitt had a direct channel of communication.
• Charles Case’s business was on the same street as Alfred DeWitt’s. Both men were commission merchants and definitely would have known of each other. Further, on July 30, 1850, in a letter written to his mother in New York, Peter DeWitt Jr. referred to “Mr. Case.” Since no other “Case” was listed in the San Francisco directory for 1850, presumably this is a reference to Charles Case. Alfred DeWitt wrote in his journal that when he left New York for California he was accompanied to the brig Belfast by, among others, Mr. H.A. Heiser. Might this have been a relative of Charles Heiser, Case’s business partner at Case, Heiser & Co. in San Francisco? On a voyage from New York to San Francisco in 1850, Alfred DeWitt wrote that he was traveling with his wife and “Mrs. Heiser.” Might this have been the wife of Charles Heiser of Case, Heiser & Co.?
• When William Wheaton arrived in San Francisco in 1849 he wrote, “I came ashore at Clarke’s Point, and found some friends who gave me the privilege of lying on the floor of their office, which I accepted, and went and bought a mattress and some blankets.” DeWitt & Harrison was adjacent to Clarke’s Point. Was Wheaton referring to Alfred DeWitt? Even if Wheaton didn’t sleep on the floor of DeWitt & Harrison, he could not have missed seeing their building at Clarke’s Point. Bear in mind that word of Alfred DeWitt’s arrival in San Francisco had reached New York weeks and even months before other New York Knickerbockers left for the gold fields.
• Edward Ebbetts’ presence at William Eddy’s New Year’s gathering is a matter of historic record, having been noted in the San Francisco newspapers of the day. Additionally, he was at the first meeting of the Knickerbocker Association and was elected, along with Charles Case, to the Finance Committee. The 1851–52 San Francisco City Directory lists Ebbetts as a member of the Sansome Hook and Ladder Company No. 3, along with Alfred DeWitt and C. L. Case. This volunteer firefighting company was organized on June 14, 1850.
• The DeWitts, Edward Ebbetts, Charles Case, Walter Avery, and William Wheaton were all engaged in the same type of enterprise—wholesale merchandising. To be successful in this business, one must advertise, advertise, advertise. The DeWitts and Case carried on their business on the same San Francisco street while the Ebbetts brothers were only a couple of blocks away. Wheaton and Avery, although in two different cities, would necessarily have to make periodic business trips to San Francisco. Avery & Hewlett had a branch store in San Francisco, providing Walter Avery an opportunity and a reason to come to the city. It is documented that Wheaton in fact did visit San Francisco. It goes without saying that it would have been almost impossible for these businessmen not to have had some personal knowledge of and commercial dealings with one another.
• That leaves only William Tucker. His residence at 271 Montgomery Street was easy walking distance to DeWitt & Harrison, Case, Heiser & Company, and Ebbetts & Co. Since his address was known to Cartwright, it seems unlikely that Tucker would journey to the other side of the continent only to hide from his close friends and teammates—both Knickerbocker and New York Team—from back home. If Cartwright knew his address, the others in San Francisco must have known it.
Frank Turk, Edward Ebbetts and Charles Case were elected to office at the initial Knickerbocker Association meeting. On January 3, 1851, Alfred DeWitt was in Panama en route to San Francisco following a visit to New York. He would have missed the first Knickerbocker meeting, but could have easily been in San Francisco for the subsequent meetings and the games of February and March.
Nonetheless, brothers Peter Jr., Theodore, and Henry (now 22 years of age) were in San Francisco at the time. Coming from a prestigious family both in New York and San Francisco, and knowing the social and business value of association, it is highly likely that the other DeWitt brothers would have responded to the opportunity to expand and solidify their social and professional contacts in their adopted hometown by answering the Knickerbocker call.
It is even more likely, given the cachet of the DeWitts, that they were guests of Mr. Eddy on New Year’s Day.
Consider: Six definite baseball players, along with another highly probable baseball player from New York, were in or near San Francisco in early 1851. In various manners and at various times they crossed each other’s paths. Then a special social gathering is called. Perhaps for the first time since their arrival in California, these former ballplayers (or at least most of them) are together at the same time in a relaxed, convivial atmosphere.
After the agenda is concluded, these men—business associates or competitors in San Francisco; friends, teammates, or rivals in New York—socialize and nostalgically recall the “good old days” back in their distant hometown. Somebody wistfully mentions the baseball games played and won and lost at Murray Hill, the Parade Ground, Brooklyn, and the Elysian Fields several years in the past and three thousand miles distant.
One can easily visualize the pipe and cigar smoke drifting hazily around the meeting room, mingling with the fond memories, the boasting, and the colored recollections of these erstwhile ballplayers. These men, still only in their thirties, settle into comfortable chairs and soon the gentlemanly talk flows as smoothly as the brandy and whiskey that evening.
Inevitably somebody makes a fateful suggestion. Or throws down a friendly gauntlet. A line is drawn. It is too much to resist. It cannot be ignored.
The call goes out: PLAY BALL.
Less than a month after the first San Francisco Knickerbocker Association meeting, baseball is being played in the Plaza.
The intervening time was probably needed to make personal and business arrangements; obtain or manufacture the baseball equipment that, naturally, was not readily available in San Francisco in 1851; and, if necessary, get the word to Sacramento and Stockton for Wheaton and Avery to get themselves to San Francisc0.
In January and February 1851, we have six former New York Knickerbockers and another baseball player from New York in or near San Francisco. Was it just a coincidence that four weeks after that first Knickerbocker Association meeting on January 6, and a mere four days after the January 30 meeting, baseball is being played in the Plaza?
Granted, coincidence is not causation. It is conceivable that a troupe of inebriated Argonauts spontaneously tumbled and stumbled out of the many drinking establishments and gambling parlors surrounding the Plaza and, using shovel- and ax-handles as bats, and god knows what as a ball, played something resembling baseball for wagers of pinches of gold dust or shots of whiskey.
Was the Alta writer being ironic or not in his use of the term “gentlemen”?
If a game book was kept, it is now gone forever. But we have the California Courier’s abbreviated description of that opening day:
SPORTS ON THE PLAZA: The Plaza has at last been turned to some account by our citizens. Yesterday quite a crowd collected upon it, to take part in and witness a game of ball, many taking a hand.
The Original 7—DeWitt, Turk, Wheaton, Tucker, Case, Avery, Ebbetts—the Magnificent 7 Knickerbockers, clearly weren’t the only players on February 3. They were, however, the catalyst and nucleus of that game that history forgot.
The games in the Plaza wouldn’t have looked anything like the affair at Center’s Bridge nine years later, or the New York Knickerbocker games of four or five years earlier. These first games in the Plaza would have been strictly for fun with no arguments, disputes, fines, or threats of forfeit. Following the baseball rules of the day—Knickerbocker rules, of course—the game would have resembled slow-pitch softball instead of its modern-day descendant. By custom the teams would have retired to a gala postgame dinner where both sides, along with family and friends, would grandly and graciously toast each other.
Two days later the Alta reported:
BASE-BALL: This is becoming quite popular among our sporting gentry, who have an exercise upon the Plaza nearly every day.
Did the Knickerbockers return to the Plaza?
On March 1 the Daily Herald took up the narrative: “Numbers of boys and grown men daily amuse themselves by playing ball upon [the Plaza].”
Certainly not the Knickerbockers any more.
Readers of the March 25 edition of the Alta would find this final chapter of baseball’s first season in San Francisco:
There the boys play at ball, some of them using expressions towards their companions neither flattering, innocent, nor commendable. Men, too, children of a larger growth, do the same things.
Absolutely not men “to the manor born.”
In seven weeks the descriptions of the early baseball players evolved from “sporting gentlemen” to “boys and men using unflattering language.” The spread of baseball in San Francisco was a rapid and complete process.
Turk, Wheaton, Ebbetts, DeWitt, Avery, Tucker, Case.
We’ll never be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that these men really did take up bat and ball in that winter of 1851. But—we do know for certain that San Francisco’s baseball Genesis was 1851, not 1860, and our Garden of Eden was not Center’s Bridge, but Portsmouth Square.
Soon serious business would wrench these men away from their cherished pastime. By March, San Francisco’s social fabric was unraveling and civil authority was on the brink of collapse. Robberies, murders, and assaults plagued the city as never before. Arson-set fires threatened sections of the city. In response, citizens would band together to protect lives, order, and property. Members of the San Francisco Knickerbockers would become members of the Vigilance Committee.
Ultimately the Plaza—San Francisco’s first ball field—would be the scene of the first of four public hangings carried out by the Vigilance Committee. It would be September before order was restored in the city and the Vigilance Committee of 1851 disbanded.
If these men were indeed the ones to participate in the first recorded baseball games in San Francisco, within five years all but one of them had left the city, taking their memories and mementos of the contests in the Plaza with them. By May 1851, William Tucker was once again playing baseball in New York. In 1856 Charles Case returned to his native state where he died the following year. Walter Avery also returned to New York where he lived into the next century. Sometime in the 1850s Frank Turk relocated to Washington, DC, where he lived until returning to San Francisco in 1879. He died in poverty at the city’s almshouse in 1887. DeWitt & Harrison did not survive the 1850s. Alfred left San Francisco for New York on April 8, 1853. Edward Ebbetts was back in New York in 1855. He passed away in 1909, the longest-lived of these bicoastal Knickerbockers.
Of all the old New York Knickerbockers, only William Wheaton remained in California for the remainder of his life, passing away in Oakland on September 11, 1888, at the age of 74. The November 27, 1887, edition of the San Francisco Examiner printed an article “How Baseball Began.” Although not named in the article, the narrator—“a well known lawyer and politician, now living in Oakland”—was clearly William Wheaton. Disappointingly, his baseball recollections were limited to New York.
In May and June two great fires swept through San Francisco, burning first 20 blocks of buildings and then another 15 blocks in the area surrounding the Plaza.
Thus as a result of fire or relocation, if any records were kept of the baseball games in the Plaza, there is no trace of them other than the brief newspaper accounts of February and March 1851. By default, then, the records kept by John Durkee erroneously credit 18 men with playing San Francisco’s first game of baseball nine years after it had been documented that, if only for a brief time, the game was a regular feature of the Plaza.
Why baseball disappeared until 1860 after reappearing in January 1852 is fodder for another historical exploration.
DeWitt, Turk, Wheaton, Ebbetts, Avery, Tucker, Case.
Rather than crediting “a few members of the Eagle Club of New York” with bringing baseball to San Francisco in 1859, as the Pacific Base Ball Guide of 1867 would have us do, shouldn’t we acknowledge other men from New York for bringing baseball to San Francisco in 1851 instead? Although there are no bats or balls bearing their fingerprints, linking them to those prehistoric games of 1851, there are no better candidates than these men from New York who came to California seeking gold, but left behind something much more valuable.
15. Wheaton, W. “Statement of Facts on Early California History,” Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, BANC MSS C-D171.
16. Avery’s obituary in the New York Times (June 11, 1904, p. 9 col. 6) reads in part: “Mr. Avery was one of the original gold seekers who went to California in 1849 [sic], and was the last living member of the original Knickerbocker Baseball Club.”
17. This is a list of 22 names of people in New York and California ranging from ship captains to Knickerbocker teammates who remained in New York. If there is any order to the listing of the names, it is not obvious. Avery’s listing is the 21st of 22 names.
18. Sullivan, D., ed. 1995. Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball 1825–1908. Lincoln, Neb. (pp. 12–13). William Wheaton was one of the umpires at this game.
19. Tucker’s listing is the 16th of the 22 names.
20. Sullivan 1995, 12–13.
21. Peterson 1973, 76.
22. Alta: Aug. 2, 1849, p. 1 col. 3.
23. DeWitt & Harrison was such a prominent and prosperous business that it was a target of an elaborate robbery plot by Sam Whittaker, who was eventually hanged by the 1851 Vigilance Committee: Williams, M., ed. 1910. Papers of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1851. Berkeley (p. 256).
24. Wheaton was in San Francisco on May 31 and October 31, 1850. Kibbey, M. 2000. J. Horace Culver’s SACRAMENTO CITY DIRECTORY FOR THE YEAR 1851, with a History of Sacramento to 1851, Biographical Sketches, and Information Appendices (pp. 161, 163).
25. Which DeWitt played with the New York Knickerbockers is largely a moot point. By 1851 any or all of the four DeWitt brothers are “suspects” as San Francisco baseball players, including the youngest, Henry, who was by then 22 years old.
26. By 1851 a fleet of steamships carrying mail, cargo, and passengers between San Francisco and the inland ports of Sacramento and Stockton made regularly scheduled round trips every other day.
27. The last San Francisco City Directory listing for DeWitt & Harrison appeared in 1854. However, in 1856 the business of DeWitt, Kittle & Company was established, listing 189 and 191 Sansome Street, San Francisco, and 92 Wall, N.Y. The 1856 New York City directory lists Alfred DeWitt “mer. 92 Wall”. The city directory listings for DeWitt, Kittle & Co. continued through 1871, after which time the DeWitt name is no longer associated with San Francisco.
This brilliant essay by Angus Macfarlane–now presented at Our Game in two parts–ran in the first number of the journal Base Ball, back in Spring 2007. It is not too much to say that it thoroughly rewrites the standard story of how baseball came to California, who first played it, and where. As the author notes, “On Washington’s Birthday, 1860, the San Francisco Base Ball Club faced the Red Rovers at a now long-forgotten site then known as Center’s Bridge. Local baseball historians consider this event, reported only in the Spirit of the Times, the beginning of San Francisco baseball history. Yet in 1851 the daily newspapers reported that base ball was being played in the Plaza, San Francisco’s central square. Over a seven-week period, three daily journals made five separate references to baseball activity, though no player names or game accounts were published. Who were these nameless, faceless men who reportedly played baseball nearly a decade before the match at Center’s Bridge? Is it possible, more than 150 years after the fact, to identify these ‘prehistoric’ baseball players, or are San Francisco’s pioneers of the diamond condemned to spend eternity in anonymity? The hard evidence is missing, but clues and compelling circumstantial evidence from 1851 point to surprising suspects—men who had the means, the motive, the opportunity and the intent to play baseball in San Francisco in 1851.”
Angus Macfarlane lives in San Francisco, where he worked for almost 30 years as a juvenile probation officer. Recently retired, he has discovered the joys and challenges of researching the general history of his hometown as well as San Francisco’s sports history. He is working on a series of articles on the history of San Francisco horse race tracks. His recently completed article, “Baseball Goes East: The 1876 San Francisco Centennials’ Magical Mystery Tour,” will appear in Base Ball this fall.
On September 23, 1931, prior to a Mission Reds–Hollywood Stars Pacific Coast League baseball game, an Old-Timers Day was celebrated at San Francisco’s brand new Seals Stadium. The 40 honorees were divided into two teams recalling the old California League of the 1880s: the Pioneers and the Haverleys. Appropriately, at least four of the old timers had either been members of those two venerable teams, or of the Greenwood and Morans, another California League team of that bygone era.
Almost half a century before the Seals Stadium nostalgia-fest, a similar baseball reunion was held at Recreation Grounds at 25th and Folsom Streets. The date was Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1882, and the occasion was the commemoration of, as written in the next day’s San Francisco Chronicle, “the twenty-second anniversary of the introduction of baseball on the Pacific Coast.”
As in 1931, the 21 veterans of the Eagle, Pacific, Liberty, and Empire Base Ball Clubs of the 1860s and 1870s were divided into two teams: the Eagles and the Pacifics. These two teams, long and bitter rivals, had very deep roots in San Francisco baseball history. A half dozen of these baseball veterans had had the singular honor of representing their clubs in a series of games against the legendary Cincinnati Red Stockings when they visited San Francisco 13 years earlier.
The arrival of the Red Stockings in San Francisco on September 23, 1869, was an unprecedented event: An “eastern” baseball club came to play the city’s best nines. Not just any eastern club—this was the legendary Cincinnati Red Stockings, the sport’s first openly professional team. While San Francisco’s best base ball clubs were no threat to the Red Stockings’ 45-game winning streak, the city looked forward to the prospect of an entertaining six-game display of baseball expertise at Recreation Grounds, San Francisco’s premier sporting venue.
The local newspapers fawned over the arrival of the team that had created such a furor back east. On September 24, the San Francisco Bulletin printed an article summarizing the city’s history of baseball. It began:
The first appearance of baseball on this coast, according to records in charge of Mr. [John] Durkee, one of the pioneer baseball players on this coast and an enthusiast in the game, was 1859. The Eagle Club was organized in November, 1859, and the first game of baseball according to New York rules occurred at Center’s Bridge February 22, 1860 between the Eagles and Red Rovers.
The article related the well known tale of the contentious game that stood at 33-all after nine innings, and the Red Rovers’ refusal to continue play, complaining that the pitching of Eagle J. C. Willock was illegal. Finding no fault with Willock’s delivery, the umpire declared the game a forfeit and awarded the victory to the Eagles.
Three of the 1882 honorees had participated in that landmark game at Center’s Bridge on Washington’s Birthday in 1860: John Fisher, J. Kerrigan, and John Durkee, the keeper of San Francisco’s baseball records. Durkee played center field, batted eighth in the Eagle lineup, and scored three of his team’s thirty-three runs in that momentous game.
In 1867, two years before the Cincinnati Red Stockings put San Francisco on the baseball map, it was written in the Pacific Base Ball Guide, published by the Pacific Base Ball Convention of California, the state’s governing body for baseball:
Previous to the year 1859, the game of base ball as it was then played in the east, was unknown on this Coast, but in that year a few members of the Eagle Club, of New York, organized a club in this city and styled themselves the San Franciscans.
Since at least 1869 Durkee’s records have been the undisputed foundation and mortar of almost 150 years of San Francisco baseball history. Although they were undoubtedly lost in the fire of 1906, other documents based on those records did survive, supporting and validating to this day the contention that baseball’s Genesis in San Francisco was 1860 and that the Garden of Eden was Center’s Bridge.
However, there is one serious drawback to relying on those records: They do not account for contemporary newspaper reports of baseball being played in San Francisco in 1851 and 1852.
On February 4, 1851, the San Francisco Alta California (Alta) reported on the baseball equivalent of “In the beginning …”:
SPORT—A game of base ball was played upon the Plaza yesterday afternoon by a number of the sporting gentlemen about town.
A clear discrepancy thus emerges between recorded baseball history—the 1851 and 1852 newspaper accounts of baseball in San Francisco—and the accepted baseball history based on John Durkee’s records. Between the Alta’s initial mention on February 4, 1851, and its final item on March 25, three newspapers made five reports of baseball activity in the Plaza, also known as Portsmouth Square. Unfortunately, none of the reports provides any details, such as names of players or outcomes of games, begging the provocative question: Who were those men playing baseball in 1851? The names, positions, and performances of the San Francisco Base Ball Club and Red Rovers who met at Center’s Bridge, on the other hand, are recorded for posterity in the first box score of a baseball game played in California.
A sometimes insurmountable handicap in seriously researching any aspect of early San Francisco history is the absence of primary sources. Not only did the 1906 earthquake and fire destroy so much material relating to nineteenth-century San Francisco, but in the early-to-mid-1850s, periodic “Great Fires” swept through the highly combustible city, destroying many of the wood and canvas structures, along with their contents: the personal letters, diaries, books, albums, family heirlooms, business records and documents, association minutes, mementos, and memorabilia that could answer so many historical questions and solve so many mysteries. Tragically, these sources are lost forever, reduced to ash or rubble, leaving at best secondary sources or, in many instances, only circumstantial evidence upon which to reconstruct history.
Unlike the paper trail that leads to and from John Durkee’s records, including a primitive box score immortalizing the 18 men at Center’s Bridge, there is no paper trail per se that can help us to identify San Francisco’s first baseball players. The hard evidence—the smoking gun as it were—has gone up in smoke or has been reduced to charred debris. Fortunately relevant historical evidence has survived, and, along with compelling circumstantial evidence, the forgotten and overlooked historical dots can be connected. And perhaps the early baseball players, or at least likely “suspects,” can be named.
* * *
On January 1, 1851, Mr. William M. Eddy, the Surveyor of the City of San Francisco, hosted a gathering at his home for his friends to welcome in the New Year. Hailing from New York as Mr. Eddy did, it was not surprising that many of his guests were also from the Empire State. In fact, Eddy’s home was crowded with so many transplanted New Yorkers that it was suggested that an association for New Yorkers in California be formed.
Accordingly, on January 4, 1851, a notice appeared in the San Francisco newspapers inviting all New Yorkers in San Francisco to attend a meeting on January 6, 1851, for the purpose of forming a Knickerbocker Association. At that gathering a constitution was framed and officers were elected.
Unfortunately, the membership rolls of the Knickerbocker Association are among the items lost forever. Though the names of the association’s rank and file will never be known, the names of the officers elected at the first meeting were printed in the local newspapers.
On January 23 the Knickerbockers met again, deciding that “none but those who were to the ‘manor born’ could be considered as real genuine Knickerbockers.” In other words, riff-raff need not apply.
On January 30 the Knickerbockers met once more. Four days later, and a mere four weeks after the formation of the Knickerbocker Association, baseball was being played in the Plaza.
If we allow ourselves a small step of faith in surmising that the “gentlemen,” as characterized in the Alta’s first report of the games, were indeed gentlemen, and knowing that the San Francisco Knickerbocker Association restricted its membership exclusively to gentlemen, then we have the beginnings of an interesting theory.
After that small step of faith, we can look at hard evidence that suggests that these baseball players may have been more than just members of a newly formed gentleman’s club. It is entirely possible that San Francisco’s first baseball players were men who had more than just the means, the motive, and the opportunity to play baseball in 1851. Additionally, and most importantly, they also had the intent to play baseball in 1851 … because these men had played the game many times before.
It is possible that these baseball pioneers were more than just members of the San Francisco Knickerbockers; they may also have been members of the New York Knickerbockers—the New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club transplanted to California. The Knickerbockers of interest are the DeWitt brothers, Frank Turk, William Wheaton, Charles Case, William Tucker, Edward Ebbetts, and Walter Avery.
Listed below—roughly in the order of their arrival in San Francisco—are brief profiles of New York’s baseball Knickerbockers who can be placed in or around San Francisco in January and February of 1851, and who are worthy of scrutiny as likely “suspects” of being the “sporting gentlemen” playing baseball in the Plaza that first baseball season in California.
Without any substantiation, baseball historian Harold Peterson identifies Peter DeWitt Jr. as the DeWitt family representative on the New York Knickerbockers. A “DeWitt” did play in the club’s first recorded game on October 6, 1845, on the same side as Alexander Cartwright. However, since no first name or initial for “DeWitt” is recorded in the Knickerbocker game book, it is just as likely that “DeWitt” might also have been either Peter’s older brother Alfred or younger brother Theodore.
The DeWitt family of New York City consisted of Peter Sr. (a wealthy attorney), his wife Jenat, and their children. Between 1808 and 1835 ten sons and two daughters were born to the parents. Our focus is on four of the sons: Alfred (born February 15, 1818); Peter Jr. (born February 12, 1820); Theodore (born November 19, 1821); and Henry (born June 25, 1828).
Alfred DeWitt, according to his journal and letters that he wrote, left New York on April 6, 1848, aboard the Belfast, arriving in San Francisco on September 22 of that year. Alfred and his business partner, Henry A. Harrison, had purchased the Belfast in New York and filled its cargo hold with merchandise with the intention of establishing a business in San Francisco. Upon their arrival, the two men set up DeWitt & Harrison on the west side of Sansome Street between Broadway and Pacific, near the Broadway Pier at what was then known as Clarke’s Point. Their first advertisement appeared in the September 30, 1848, edition of the weekly Californian, announcing
NEW GOODS. DE WITT & HARRISON will open on Monday next, a large and general assortment of New Goods, just received per brig Belfast, from New York, which they offer to sell at wholesale at the ship wharf, foot of Broadway.
In addition to the paid advertisement, readers of the Californian also found this editorial comment on the arrival of DeWitt’s ship:
Town property is rapidly increasing in value. We have been credibly informed that as soon as the “Belfast” was seen lying at the wharf foot of Broadway, and discharging her cargo, goods fell 25 per cent and real estate rose from 50 to 100 percent. The vacant lot on the corner of Montgomery and Washington streets [four blocks from where the Belfast was docked] was offered the day previous for $5,000 and the next day sold readily at $10,000.
Needless to say, DeWitt & Harrison soon became one of the largest businesses in San Francisco.
In June 1849, Alfred’s 21-year-old brother Henry arrived in San Francisco. The next month Alfred’s wife, Margaret, joined her husband. In 1850 Henry and Alfred were joined by brothers Peter Jr., who arrived in May, and finally Theodore, who came ashore in October.
Another New York Knickerbocker to arrive in San Francisco was Frank Turk. His club debut was on October 17, 1845, the club’s third recorded game, when he scored three runs for his winning team. He missed the historic match game against the New York team on June 19, 1846, but was part of the subsequent mixed-team free-for-all “fun-game” which followed later that day.
In early 1849, while still a New York City resident, 30-year-old Frank Turk (for whom San Francisco’s Turk Street is named) was appointed Assistant Post Master of San Francisco. Turk’s journey to California involved a crossing of Mexico to Mazatlan, where he secured passage to San Francisco aboard the U.S. Revenue Cutter Edith. He disembarked in San Francisco on May 29, 1849. Traveling with Turk was John W. Geary (memorialized today by Geary Street), who had been appointed San Francisco’s Post Master.
Seeing an opportunity to make money from the influx of Argonauts, Turk resigned his government position shortly after arrival and began a law practice. By July 10, 1849, he was advertising in the Alta “Frank Turk: Attorney At Law, Parker House.” (The Parker House was on Kearny Street facing the Plaza.)
Turk achieved local notoriety a week later when he was appointed to be one of the public prosecutors of a group of men who had been victimizing and terrorizing San Francisco since February. Known as the “Hounds,” or “Regulators,” these men were charged with riot, attempted murder, robbery, and conspiracy stemming from an attack on a Chilean settlement near Clarke’s Point on July 15 and 16. After a weeklong series of highly public and publicized trials that held the city’s undivided attention, nearly all of the accused men were found guilty.
On August 1, 1849, while the trials were still in progress, Turk was elected “Second Alcalde” of San Francisco, a Mexican title equivalent to Vice Mayor. His former Post Office boss, John Geary, was elected Alcalde, or Mayor.
On January, 6, 1851, Turk was elected to the Committee on By Laws for the San Francisco Knickerbockers.
The next traveling New York Knickerbockers to arrive in San Francisco were the Cartwright brothers, Alexander and Alfred. (Neither one is a “suspect,” but Alexander provides some very valuable clues, to be discussed later.) Alfred was the first to depart, sailing from New York City on January 29, 1849, aboard the Pacific. On March 1, 1849, Alexander left New York for Independence, Missouri, where, on April 9, 1849, the wagons of the Newark Overland Company were camped in a field outside Independence, preparing to set off on the overland route for California.
Traveling on foot and horseback, Alexander reached California on July 4, while Alfred didn’t arrive until August 5. Although Alexander kept a journal of his cross-country trek, it stops weeks before his arrival in California, and provides no information on his activities in this state.
In an interview given by Alexander decades later, he said that he abandoned the idea of prospecting and proceeded down the Sacramento River to San Francisco to meet his brother. Thus, by late July Alexander was probably on his way to San Francisco to meet Alfred.
Arriving in San Francisco after almost five months without any contact with his family, the first orders of business of any traveler—overland or seafaring—would be to check for mail from home; to send word back to his family that he had arrived safely; to seek out any known friends, relatives, or acquaintances in San Francisco; and finally, if meeting somebody, to check on the status of California-bound ships.
A person that Alexander Cartwright was certain to seek out directly was Alfred DeWitt. By January 1, 1849, DeWitt’s family in New York City had received word of Alfred’s arrival in San Francisco. Thus, by the time that Alfred Cartwright was leaving New York at the end of January, he (as well as Alexander) would know that DeWitt was in San Francisco.
The Cartwright and DeWitt families enjoyed a rather special relationship that transcended the game of baseball. The Cartwright family bible records that the first child born to Alexander and Eliza Ann Cartwright was born on May 3, 1843, at 11 St. Mark’s Place, New York City. “11 St. Mark’s Place” was the home of Peter DeWitt Sr., his wife, Jenat, and their many adult-aged children. The Cartwrights named their newborn DeWitt Robinson Cartwright. Indeed, Cartwright may have spent his days in San Francisco as a guest of Alfred DeWitt and his wife, Margaret.
While in San Francisco in the latter part of July or early August, Cartwright would have learned of Frank Turk’s new profession, his prosecution of the Hounds/Regulators, and his election to public office. On August 5, Alfred’s ship arrived and the Cartwright brothers were reunited. Ten days later, an ailing Alexander Cartwright left San Francisco for Hawaii, where he would permanently settle. He would return to San Francisco two more times on business.
Second and concluding part tomorrow!
1. Church, S. 1974. Baseball: The History, Statistics and Romance of the American National Game (reprint of 1902 publication) (p. 42).
2. The other newspaper accounts of baseball in the Plaza are: California Courier: Feb. 4, 1851: “SPORTS ON THE PLAZA—The Plaza has at last been turned to some account by our citizens. Yesterday quite a crowd collected upon it, to take part in and witness a game of ball, many taking a hand. We are much better pleased at it than to witness the crowds in the gambling saloons which surround the square. Such sports are manly and healthful, and if not profitable, are at least innocent, and have not the pernicious tendency which attends the gambling saloon.”
San Francisco Alta California (Alta): Feb. 6, 1851: “BASE-BALL—This is becoming quite popular among our sporting gentry, who have an exercise upon the plaza nearly every day. This is certainly better amusement than “bucking” and if no windows or heads are broken will prove much more profitable.”
San Francisco Herald: Mar. 1, 1851: “THE PLAZA—…Numbers of boys and grown men daily amuse themselves by playing ball upon it—this is certainly an innocent recreation, but occasionally the ball strikes a horse passing, to the great annoyance of the driver.”
Alta: Mar. 25, 1851: “THE CORRAL—…There the boys play at ball, some of them using expressions towards their companions expressions neither flattering, innocent nor commendable. Men, too, children of a larger growth, do the same things…”
Alta: Jan. 14, 1852: “PUBLIC PLAY GROUND—For the last two or three evenings the Plaza has been filled with full grown persons engaged very industrially in the game known as ‘town ball.’ The amusement is very innocent and healthful, and the place peculiarly adapted for that purpose. A number of loafers are regularly perched upon the railings that extend around the Plaza, and whilst discussing the financial prospects of the country and the state of the weather, they employ their leisure moments by whittling off the tops of the posts. The scenes are extremely interesting and amusing.”
3. On March 17, 1860, the California Spirit of the Times and Fireman’s Journal reported: “CHANGE OF NAME: The San Francisco Base Ball Club have changed their name to that of Eagle, and by that will hereafter be known.”
4. California Spirit of the Times and Fireman’s Journal: March 3, 1860.
5. See: Lotchin, R. 1974. San Francisco 1846–1856: From Hamlet to City. Lincoln, Neb. (p. 104): “The largest number of ‘native’ migrants to San Francisco came from the mid-Atlantic States, and New England respectively. New York provided the greatest contribution, followed by Massachusetts.”
6. Peterson, H. 1973. The Man Who Invented Baseball. New York (p. 72).
7. All references to New York Knickerbocker games are based on the contents of the Knickerbocker Baseball Club of New York Gamebooks. October 6, 1845–1856, in the Albert Spalding Baseball Collection at the New York Public Library.
8. Letters and journals referred to are located at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley: DeWitt Family Papers, File Banc Mss 73/163 Box 3. This is a collection of 124 letters written by Alfred DeWitt as well as his brothers, Peter Jr., Henry, and Theodore, and Alfred’s wife, Margaret. The contents of the letters are not very enlightening for the purpose of this paper. However, the dates of the letters do provide timeline information on the whereabouts of the letter writer.
9. The California Society of Pioneers incorrectly lists DeWitt’s and Harrison’s arrivals in California as being overland from Independence, Missouri.
10. According to the Annals of San Francisco (first published in 1855), until the establishment of regular banks in San Francisco, people deposited their money and valuables with the mercantile houses having safes, including DeWitt & Harrison (p. 512).
11. Cartwright Journal, MS DOC 55, Bishop Museum Archives, BishopMuseum, Honolulu, Hawaii.
12. See: Stillman, J. 1874. “Seeking the Golden Fleece,” Overland Monthly, March 1874, p. 254; and Browne, L. 1969. J. Ross Browne: His Letters, Journals and Writings (pp. 120–121), for first-hand accounts of the excitement and anxiety experienced by recent arrivals in San Francisco in 1849 awaiting mail from home.
13. Daughters of the American Revolution, 1950. California Family Bibles, vol. 8 (pp. 166–167). (Sutro Library, San Francisco, California, call number: E 202.5 C15 V5 v.8 c.1)
14. Alexander Cartwright came to San Francisco aboard the Pacific on May 21, 1850, and returned to Hawaii aboard the Samuel Russell, arriving in Hawaii July 2, 1850. He returned to San Francisco aboard the Zoe on April 22, 1852, departing aboard the Isabella on July 2, 1852, arriving in Honolulu July 22, 1852.
Two images accompanying this article neatly frame Tim Murnane’s story, even though they were photographed only nine years apart in his six-decade life in baseball. In the first photograph — a rollicking “Old Timers’ Day” at Peddock’s Island in Boston Harbor on August 12, 1908 — Murnane was at the pinnacle of his career. Striking a dapper pose in waistcoat, cravat, and boutonniere, the longtime baseball columnist of the Boston Globe reunited with some of the men with whom he had played ball in the 1870s. In the other photograph, taken on September 27, 1917, he is present in name only at the “Murnane Benefit Game,” with the proceeds designated for his widow; the defending champion Boston Red Sox, behind star lefthander Babe Ruth, shut out an all-star team led by Connie Mack.
But chronology is God’s way of telling a story, so why don’t we begin this portrait at the beginning, on June 4, 1851, when Timothy Hayes Murnan was born in Naugatuck, New Haven County, Connecticut. An obituary notice in the Naugatuck Daily News placed his birth in Tipperary County, Ireland, but when Murnan applied for a passport in 1874, he had sworn that he was born in Naugatuck. At some point after that he commenced to spell his name as Murnane, and he will be thus referenced below.
He began his baseball career as catcher for the Osceola of Stratford Club, in 1869, a formidable nine that two years later would feature “Orator” Jim O’Rourke, future Hall of Famer, on its state champion squad. By that time, however, Murnane was off in Georgia, having been recruited by the Savannahs, a barnstorming professional team. When he returned to the state of his birth with his Southern teammates in the summer of 1871, he played so well that he was engaged by the Mansfield Club of Middletown, which would play the following season in what was then the big league, the National Association (NA). The club’s backers also signed Orator Jim, almost a year older than Handsome Tim.
The major-league Mansfields enjoyed only a brief run of 23 games before disbanding, but both Stratford alumni landed on their feet. O’Rourke, who had batted .307, was signed by the Boston Red Stockings, who would top the NA for the three remaining years of its existence. Murnane, who had played first base for Middletown and batted .359, was snapped up by the Athletics. The two Nutmeggers reunited not only when Boston played Philadelphia but also in England, when in 1874 the two clubs conducted baseball’s first overseas tour. A speedy and nimble baserunner, Murnane perpetrated a legendary stunt in a game at Boston on June 14, 1873, when he escaped an otherwise unavoidable out by jumping clean over second baseman Andy Leonard, who was stooping to tag him.
In 1875 Murnane transferred his allegiance to the Philadelphia White Stockings, also known as the Pearls, and when that team vanished along with the entire NA structure, he joined O’Rourke on Harry Wright’s Boston club in the new National League (NL) for the centennial year of 1876. There he remained for two seasons before seeing an opportunity in Providence, where a new NL franchise was launched for the 1878 campaign. But Murnane’s hitting dropped off badly; while O’Rourke was to remain a big-league star for another dozen years, for Murnane the end was suddenly in sight. In 1879 he began the season with the Capital City Club, of Albany, New York, which was thereafter transferred to Rochester, in a crumbling league.
In 1880 Murnane called it quits and went into business, including, over the ensuing years, opening a saloon and billiard hall in Boston and serving a stint as publisher of The Boston Referee, a sporting paper devoted to baseball, polo and other sports. It was short lived, but it testified to the printer’s ink in Murnane’s blood. He contributed baseball items to the New York Clipper and other papers and began to develop a following, for he wrote the way he spoke — like a ballplayer. In an age of Victorian reserve, restraint, and moralizing (exemplified in the writing of Henry Chadwick), this was an innovation. Murnane was the first former ballplayer to become a professional writer.
All the same, stitching together a living with a variety of entrepreneurial ventures held no special charm for a young man with baseball still on his mind. When Henry V. Lucas organized the Union Association (UA) as a major league in 1884 and George Wright capitalized the Boston entry, Murnane took a minority position and agreed not only to be the club’s on-field manager but also to play first base. He performed the former task better than he did the latter, but it didn’t matter, as the UA did not return for a second season. Murnane drifted off to play a few more games for a club in Jersey City, then called it quits again, this time for good.
In 1886 Murnane was engaged, together with John J. Drohan, to do baseball work as a staffer for the Globe. When Drohan soon left, Murnane was given full charge, rising to head the entire sports department for a generation. And he died in harness, filing a story just one hour before suffering a massive heart attack in the lobby of the Shubert Theater on February 7, 1917. When he died at age 65 he was not only the voice of baseball in Boston; his opinionated style had become a national institution. Along the way Murnane had also served as president, secretary, and treasurer of the New England League and Eastern League. He had acted, too, as an “ivory hunter,” directing to the big leagues such talented youngsters as Tommy McCarthy, Hugh Duffy, Cannonball Crane, Mike Slattery, Dupee Shaw, John Irwin, and many others who, as it turned out, would join him for the Peddock’s Island fest.
Back then you could only get to the island by boat; today you can board a water taxi or even land a helicopter, but unlike a hundred years ago, no one goes there to have a good time anymore. The Conservation Department rangers operate a visitors’ center in the summer and lovers of unspoiled beauty put up with the absence of such amenities as power and water to experience wilderness in sight of the metropolis. But this is not fun; it is a trial. Bordering Hingham Bay, the 134 acres of Peddock’s Island encompass four forested hills which include the moldering Fort Andrews Reservation and scores of turn-of-the-century summer cottages in varying states of decay. But read below how glowingly Baseball Magazine described the Old Timers’ Day in this now forlorn spot in its November 1908 issue; Old Tim, by then known as the Silver King for his flowing white hair, must have been in his glory, surrounded by former teammates and adversaries like Tommy Bond, Jack Manning, and Paul Hornung; once-young colts he had brought to the bigs like McCarthy and Shaw; brothers of the inkwell like Jacob C. Morse and Sam Crane, and Royal Rooter fixtures Mike Regan and “Nuf Ced” McGreevey.
They were privileged, indeed, who attended the Old Timers’ Day at Peddock’s Island in Boston Harbor this year. It occurred on Wednesday, August 12, an open day in the local major league schedule. Peddock’s Island was selected because it is the home of “Honest” John Irwin, a former professional ball player, of the famous Irwin family, fathered, as it were, by the veteran Arthur Irwin, who has been in touch with baseball this season as the scout of the New York club of the American League. Mine host Irwin always has on hand that which cheers the inner man, and he was kept busier than ever in his life before.
The photograph that was taken to memorize the occasion shows full well the character of the assemblage. Never before was such an array seen. The veterans of veterans were Arthur Cummings, the first man to develop the curve ball; “Dicky” Pearce, the greatest shortstop of his day, in his seventy-third year, and alas! it proved to be the last Old Timers’ Day that he will attend, for he caught a severe cold as the result of the outing, and soon afterwards passed away. [Chadwick had left this earth the same way earlier that year, catching cold on Opening Day in Brooklyn and dying soon after.]
Sam Crane, a crack second baseman in his day, and now one of the cleverest of writers on the game, came on especially to attend the gathering, and said he had the time of his life.
Some of the greatest lights of baseball were there — Tom Bond, without a superior in the seventies; Tom McCarthy, never beaten in his palmy days as fielder, run getter, base-runner and batsman; John Morrill, one of the cleverest all-round players that ever lived, and a splendid athlete today, although golf is his dearest love; Joe Hornung, a great outfielder with a record of eleven putouts and one assist, while a member of the Boston club; George Wood, long connected with the game as an outfielder, a fine player and hard hitter; Miah Murray, who played with Toronto, Providence and Washington, and for years umpired the games at dear old Harvard; Charley Farrell, one of the cleverest catchers that ever donned a protector or wore a mask; “Dupee” Shaw, a crack lefthander and widely sought years ago; “Connie” Murphy, of the old Brooklyn Players’ League team, and a team in himself; “Jack” Manning, prominent in the earliest days of professional baseball; “Tim” Murnane, brought up with the veteran “Jim” O’Rourke in good old Connecticut, always in and for the game; “Billy” Hawes, one of the most gentlemanly exponents of the good old game; Charley Ganzel, of Detroit, Boston and Philadelphia….
The weather was perfect, the game lasted nine full innings and was heartily enjoyed by all present, Old Boston winning from the opposing team 5 to 3.
That same two-run margin obtained on September 27, 1917, when Nuf Ced’s beloved Boston Americans squared off against a team whose outfield included Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Joe Jackson. Actress Fanny Brice helped sell programs. Former heavyweight champ John L. Sullivan coached third base for the Red Sox. In pregame field events, Ruth won the fungo-hitting contest with a drive of 402 feet‚ while Joe Jackson had the longest throw at an impressive 396’ 8”. Ray Chapman, whose own date with death was not far off, circled the bases in 14 seconds flat to win a loving cup.
The All-Star infield consisted of Stuffy McInnis at first, Ray Chapman at second, Buck Weaver at third, and Rabbit Maranville, borrowed from the Boston Nationals, at shortstop. The All-Star pitchers were Urban Shocker, Howard Ehmke, and Walter Johnson. The thrilling contest was scoreless after seven, but with two out in the top of the eighth, Jack Barry and Dick Hoblitzel singled off Johnson, and then Duffy Lewis drove both men home with a triple to right-center. That proved to be all the scoring, as the Sox held on to win, 2–0. The real winners, however, were the widowed Mrs. Murnane and her four children, as well as two daughters from the writer’s first marriage. They collected $14,000. Boston’s owners donated the use of Fenway Park as well as all the proceeds.
As to Tim Murnane, whose name does not come up often these days, his standing remained high even in death. In the offseason following the 1939 campaign, a rookie named Ted Williams was named the team’s MVP — he received the Tim Murnane Award. In 1946 the Baseball Hall of Fame established a Roll of Honor and named Murnane one of 12 writers to be memorialized. And in 1978 he was selected as recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for excellence in baseball journalism, along with Dick Young … another sportswriter who was said to be the most influential of his time.
In the golden age of magazines, the period 1880-1920, the newsstands were bedecked with general-interest and literary publications: the weeklies included such fare as The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Frank Leslie’s Popular Magazine, and Harper’s; the monthlies boasted, among others, Atlantic, Munsey’s, McClure’s Magazine, and Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. Competition for rack space was fierce, as was the competition for the eye (and pocketbook) of the browser; the fees that top writers routinely received in 1920 exceed those available today, when the dollar buys so much less; and artists whose work graced magazine covers, like James Montgomery Flagg, Edward Penfield, Maxfield Parrish, and J. C. Leyendecker, became truly wealthy.
But first-class cover art had never been viewed as a necessary competitive edge for an all-sports publication until the advent of Baseball Magazine. In December 1907 veteran Boston sportswriter Jacob Morse issued a prospectus on behalf of The Baseball Magazine Company for the creation of a new, deluxe, all-baseball monthly the likes of which had never before been contemplated. Its articles would run as long as interest held, sometimes to 10,000 words; its writers would be the best the sport had to offer; and the eye appeal of the covers would compete on the newsstand with the best general-interest publications, not to mention the specialty monthlies. Morse had written Sphere and Ash, a history of the game, back in 1888 and had even managed the Boston Union Association club in 1884.
Through its first decade or so, Baseball Magazine proved an artistic and commercial success, reaching six-figure circulations that would make a modern magazine publisher envious. Here are some particularly grand examples of the painterly elegance that was the publication’s trademark at the time. By the 1920s the covers had turned rather dull in aesthetic terms–red borders around a player photograph. This heralded not only the cost cutting that characterized the magazine industry as a whole, at the dawn of the new age of radio, but also a growing perception that on the newsstand and throughout the sports/entertainment industry, it was stars, not sensibility, that sold. More’s the pity for the culture, perhaps, but in sports as in theater, the play’s the thing, and so are the players.
In yesterday’s post I spoke about King Kelly as a rough and ready player of the old school. Here’s another in that vein. Imagine a combination of the pugnacity and tenacity of Pete Rose, the speed and acrobatic ability of Ozzie Smith, and the audacity and loquacity of Deion Sanders. Now put a handlebar mustache on the player, transport him back to the four-time league champion St. Louis Browns of the 1880s, and call him Arlie Latham.
Although other players sported better stats and better dispositions, Latham came to the ballpark to beat you. He was a speedster (in 1888 he totaled 129 steals), but he stole most of his bases through daring and disregard for his body, belly-flopping for the bag and reaching out a hand, or barreling into the base, kicking up a dust storm and kicking over the baseman. He was also something of a clown and thus a fan favorite. In a game in 1882 he scored the winning run by turning a somersault over the catcher and landing on the plate. He was famous for profanely badgering the opposition and hectoring his own players, thus earning him the enmity of both and the nickname “The Freshest Man on Earth.” His private life was as tumultuous as that on the field: his first wife attempted suicide, and his second wife divorced him, charging “perversion, assault, desertion, and infidelity.” Perhaps there was more in the complaint.
In 1909 John McGraw, who had played against Latham in the 1890s and knew how he could disrupt the opposing pitcher’s concentration, hired him as baseball’s first full-time coach (Arlie had coached part-time with Cincinnati in 1900). From his box at first base, Latham would dance around, enrage the pitcher, steal signs from the catcher, and lead the fans in cheers and jeers. More constructively, perhaps, he also instructed the Giants in the art of base stealing. In 1909, incredibly, one of the Giants’ 234 stolen bases belonged to Latham himself, who at age forty-nine was activated for four games in September. When Arlie grew too old to play or coach, he stayed on with the Giants as a press-box attendant, and he remained with the Giants in an official capacity until his dying day. His baseball career spanned an incredible seventy-six years.
Buck Ewing and King Kelly were quite a pair, though they never played on the same club. Ewing was Cincinnati’s hometown hero who made his mark in the big leagues with Troy; Michael Joseph Kelly left his birthplace of Troy to become the toast (alas, too frequently, for he drank his way out of the league) of Cincinnati and several other venues, notably Chicago and Boston. Ewing was a catcher who in later years played increasingly at other positions; Kelly began as an outfielder but wound up catching nearly as many games as he played in the garden. Ewing was a model citizen and the model for all right-thinking individuals; Kelly was a reprobate and perhaps an idol for the rest of us.
They were different in all these regards, Kelly and Ewing, but they had this in common: ordinary speed on the basepaths but cleverness and breathtaking daring. “Ewing’s Famous Slide” was the title of a popular litho of the day, memorializing an apocryphal tale of his announced intent (and ultimate success) in stealing home after he had already stolen second base and third.
Ewing was born in rural Ohio in 1859, played his first professional ball with the aptly named Buckeyes, and returned to Ohio to play with and manage the Reds in the 1890s. In fact, in a story little noted today, he’d returned there in 1883, when the Troy franchise collapsed. Suddenly finding himself without a home, Ewing signed with the Cincinnati Reds of the American Association. However, the great Harmony Conference (also known as the Tripartite Agreement) of the National League, the Northwestern League, and the American Association yielded a settlement by which Ewing (and fellow Trojans Mickey Welch and Pete Gillespie) were turned over to the newly formed New York Gothams. (New York’s National League team was known as the Gothams until manager Jim Mutrie, some years hence, exclaimed that his brawny lads were “Giants.”) Ewing scored more than a run per game and played at second, short, third, and the outfield when the catching grind wore him down.
He became a legend for his audacity, pluck, and field generalship. Intangibles went a long way with fans and sportswriters back then, more so than today when stats seem to be the sole measure of the man. But Ewing could hit: once he led in homers, another time in triples, and he hit as high as .344. He could throw: the snap throw to second from a crouch position started with Buck Ewing, not Pudge Rodriguez. And he could run, too, stealing 53 bases in the Giants’ championship year of 1888.
So how great was he, really? Twenty years after his last game, veteran sportswriters compared him to Cobb and Wagner and pronounced him their peer. And when the Hall of Fame was opened in 1939, Buck Ewing, long gone but still revered in all his hometowns, became its first catcher.
Kelly’s sliding wizardry was more scientific. He developed the hook slide, whereby he encouraged his opponent to try to tag the front leg that was away from the base while his back leg landed him safe. His exploits were celebrated not only in a Harper’s Weekly print from his Chicago White Stocking days but also in a Tin Pan Alley tune, “Slide, Kelly, Slide,” that gently mocked his vanity: “Slide, Kelly, slide! Your running’s a disgrace! Slide, Kelly, slide! Stay there, hold your base!”
Kelly was the first baseball star to milk his fame for all it was worth. Product endorsements, personality licensing, theatrical appearances, Kelly pioneered them all. With Play Ball: Stories of the Diamond Ball Field, he launched what has become a staple of baseball literature, the celebrity biography. Published by Emery & Hughes of Boston, this forty-six-page booklet (ghosted by Jack Drohan of the Boston Globe) is highly entertaining if not demonstrably factual. The stories about Kelly are legion, and like the ones attaching to Rube Waddell, that other great mythic figure of early baseball, if they’re not true, well, they ought to have been. History is more than the mere recitation of fact. Scrupulous fact checkers may successfully repudiate this story or that one, but they can’t attach feet of clay to Kelly’s idol because he did such a good job of that himself, drinking himself to death before he reached the age of 37.
There are a hundred great stories about the King, but let me share with you this almost certainly fictitious classic, a story that’s so often told and so illustrative of his genius that it’s better than merely true. Once, in the days when a substitution took effect upon a captain’s announcing it, an opposing batsman lifted a low foul ball toward the Boston dugout, where Kelly was taking a day off to recover from a bruise of the day before or the booze of the night before. Kelly saw his catcher would never get there in time, so he leapt from the bench, shouted, “Kelly now catching for Boston!” and snagged the fly. Not surprisingly, the rules makers changed things not long after that. No matter–rules were not made to constrain a King.
Sober or not, he was the best player in baseball in the mid-1880s. But Kelly’s high-living, fun-loving lifestyle had him in constant hot water with his Chicago manager, Cap Anson. When Kelly was sold to Boston in 1887, at the height of his career, it was for $10,000, the largest amount of money ever paid for a ballplayer. The medal given him by his Boston fans in that year was for his 84 stolen bases, the most on the club and the third best total in the league.
Out of baseball after a few games with New York in 1893, he sought a new career on the boards. He was on his way to Boston to perform Casey at the Bat at the Palace Theater in November 1894 when he was stricken with pneumonia. As they carried his stretcher into the hospital, it is said, the attendants tripped and dumped Kelly on the floor. “That’s me last slide,” he said. A few days later the “$10,000 Beauty” died.
The Unions of Morrisania were a celebrated early team, of interest for such players as George Wright, shortstop par excellence; Dave Birdsall, who went on to play professionally with George for Boston in the National Association; and Charlie Pabor, longtime pitcher and outfielder with the most inexplicable of all baseball nicknames: “The Old Woman in the Red Cap.” [Let me make an attempt: the red cap was common headgear in the French Revolution for women, who carried knitting bags under these caps; the Unions wore puffy red caps; Pabor, baseball’s first lefthanded pitcher of note, may have been viewed as a revolutionary. That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it. His batterymate Birdsall, by the way, was known as “The Old Man.”]
But I digress. Shown above is the 1866 group that brought honor to Morrisania and laid the ground for the next year’s national champions, despite the defection of Wright to the Washington Nationals. This carte de visite is the basis of the gloriously painted photograph that reposed in the archives of the Baseball Hall of Fame for generations but now, after painstaking restoration, is available for viewing in the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.
Where is Morrisania, anyway? It’s a neighborhood in today’s South Bronx. In 1874, the area was annexed to New York City (then consisting only of Manhattan) as part of the Twenty-Third Ward. In former times, however, it was a part of the lower Bronx, which ran north to Eighth Street, now 165th Street, and south to Harlem Bridge. How do I know that? Well, I’m not 150 years old. I discovered in the annals of the Library of Congress an interview that a WPA worker conducted on August 18, 1938, with an old resident of Morrisania, Mr. T. Emery Sutton, of 430 East 160th Street in the Bronx. Mr. Sutton speaks to us today of Morrisania in the 1860s with an offhand specificity that no modern writer could hope to equal.
The Unions, as the team was called, played their games at the Triangle, on a lot behind Fisher’s coal yard, at what is now 163rd street. About 1868 or 1869 they moved to Tremont and Arthur avenues, and there built the first enclosed baseball grounds. The first game played was for the championship between the Unions and the Brooklyn Mutuals [known as the New York Mutuals to historians today, they in fact played their home games in Brooklyn]. The home team won. The price of admission was 25 cents; and I had the distinction of taking in the very first quarter. Ed. Wright was the cashier; I was only a boy at the time. There was no grand stand, only board seats.
The great baseball leagues had not yet been organized, and the only prize awarded a winning club was the ball with which the game had been played. We used to silver these balls and keep them as trophies. They were kept in a large case in Louis Comb’s establishment, Morrisania Hall. Thomas E. Sutton was the first president, and Henry J. Ford the first vice-president of the Union Baseball Club.
Our team made trips through the country, as do the big league teams today. Funds to defray expenses were donated by the townspeople, each one of them subscribing according to his inclination, and financial ability. The players used to be gone for two or three weeks at a time. Among the members of the Union team were C. Payne, D. Bickett, A. Abrams, B. Hourigan, T. Beals, and the great George Wright whose brother afterwards managed the Athletics [brother Harry managed the Boston team, not the Athletics of Philadelphia] when the leagues were organized.
“T. Beals,” by the way, was Tommy Beals, who–like the above mentioned Union members Pabor, Birdsall, and Wright, as well as Al Martin–went on to play in the first professional league and thus is immortalized with complete statistical lines dating to 1871 and beyond. Beals and Wright were such close friends that the latter named a son after him: Beals Wright (1879-1961), who like his father George and his uncle Harry made it to the Hall of Fame … the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Elected in 1956, Beals won gold medals in singles and doubles at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, and the U.S. Championship the following year.
My old friend–and by old I refer both to the duration of our friendship as well to his nonagenarian status–Ray Robinson has written a new book(let). It has been published more or less to coincide with Opening Day, that national celebration of hope. My hope is that one day, when I grow up, I can be like him.
As an impressionable lad I read Ray’s stories at SPORT Magazine and his annual paperback volumes, published under the rubric Baseball Stars. Ray’s role in my eventual career path is uncertain, but it couldn’ta hoit. I read his later, more substantial biographies of Lou Gehrig and Christy Mathewson when I was already hardboiled as a sportswriter and was equally impressed.
The new opus is Peanuts, Popcorn & American Presidents. It is available as an ebook, as described by its publisher here: http://www.nowandthenreader.com/peanuts-popcorn-american-presidents/. Let me offer a snippet to whet your appetite.
“Reagan never lost his affection for baseball and truly adored his annual presidential role of throwing out the opening-day ball. His form and style were proof of his athletic ability. He also watched his share of baseball on television. On the September night in 1985 when Cincinnati’s Pete Rose smacked a single in the first inning at Riverfront Stadium to break Ty Cobb’s all-time hit mark of 4,191, President Reagan was well aware of what was going on. As soon as the game ended, and while the Reds players celebrated the occasion at home plate, the president put through a congratulatory phone call to Rose.
“In his soft, low-key salesman’s voice, Reagan told Pete: ‘You’ve set the most enduring record in sports history. Your reputation and legacy will live for a long time.’
“Even at such an overwhelming moment, Pete was not at a loss for words. ‘Thank you, Mr. President, for taking time from your busy schedule,’ he said. ‘And you missed a good game!'”
A recent discussion thread on the listserv of SABR’s Nineteenth Century Baseball group focused interestingly (to me, anyhow) on the odd sport of baseball on roller skates, an 1880s fad that followed upon the 1860s passion for baseball on ice. Priscilla Astifan of Rochester wrote: “I only found the one reference to baseball on roller skates so far, but a review of the Early Newspaper Index indicates polo games at the roller skating rinks in Rochester also. I naturally assumed that the game was not played on horseback although one star attraction at a Rochester rink was Dolly the Roller Skating Horse. Anyway, I have since learned of the variants of polo, even canoe, and auto polo which surprised me most.” At this my whiskers tingled, as I recalled that some years back I had first learned about pushball and its automobile version, about which more below.
Novelty baseball games flourished in the 1880s, as did the professional game throughout the land. The National League, founded in 1876, was followed in short order by three rivals: the American Association (1882), the Union Association (1884) and the Players League (1890). Play-for-pay variants were particularly prominent in Philadelphia; ethnic teams, “colored” male and female ball teams, Native-American nines, crippled clubs, and so on. John Lang, a white barber from Philadelphia who had “temporarily deserted lather and razor” to organize pioneer black baseball clubs such as the Orion, found his true métier in New York with his Chinese teams. In Chester, Pennsylvania, Lang also created a fetching nine of “colored girl” professional players whom he named the Dolly Vardens after the fluffily and colorfully costumed lass in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge. Fat men contested with lean men in “Jumbos vs. Shadows” matches, just as married vs. single games had been common in the amateur era. Of the players of the Snorkey Club of Philadelphia (named for the one-armed hero of the drama Under the Gaslight), one had an arm off at the shoulder, another had a paralyzed arm, the rest were minus a hand; their opponents in a game of May 23, 1883, were the Hoppers, who were all one-legged or on crutches. In a reminder to modern readers of the brutality of the industrial age in America, both sides were said to consist wholly of former employees of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1885, two clubs of the New York State League, Binghamton and Rochester, played on roller skates at the Pioneer Rink in the former city (it was these contests that informed last week’s discussion on the listserv.) In 1887, George Hancock of Chicago invented indoor baseball as a winter sport; it survives as today’s softball.
I knew that hockey was the ancient game of shinny transplanted onto ice, that baseball had evolved through bat and ball games dating back to the banks of the Nile, that football was a game even more ancient. But I had always believed that James Naismith was the lone true “inventor” of a major sport, when he nailed peach baskets at opposite ends of the overhead track at a gymnasium in Springfield, Massachusetts on December 15, 1891. As a physical-education instructor he felt that his students needed a vigorous indoor game for the winter months, and so — boing! — basketball.
Only a few years back, however, I learned that the idea for the game of basketball did not alight on Naismith’s pate in a Eureka moment. An Associated Press story about a 2006 auction of his recently unearthed relics indicated that he had been inspired to invent basketball by recalling a game he had played as a boy in Canada — “Duck on a Rock,” a medieval game of rock-throwing and tag. More interestingly to me, it reported also that before coming up with basketball he had invented other games in that winter of 1891: “He tried to adapt lacrosse and football to be played inside. He even introduced his students to a slew of invented games like Hylo Ball, Scruggy Ball and Association Football. None of them took.”
Hylo Ball? Scruggy Ball? These innovations had been lost to history until then. For an opening bid of $10,000 at Heritage Auction Galleries (the hammer price proved much higher), one might purchase Naismith’s crudely typed rules for these heretofore hidden bypaths of basketball.
Too rich for my taste, as just one week earlier I had purchased much more modestly an Open Sesame to a whole lost world of sport: auto pushball, a variant game deriving from pushball, itself very nearly as strange and obscure. The original game of pushball had been invented by Moses G. Crane of Newton, Massachusetts in 1894, barely before the age of the automobile and only three years after Naismith’s brainstorm. But I get ahead of myself.
I was on my way out of an antique shop on Catskill’s Main Street that has long been a favorite haunt when I spotted a cardboard poster depicting three 1930s hot rods maneuvering around a huge ball. There wasn’t much left of it — mice had had their way with it — so the proprietor, who said the placard had come from a barn in nearby Coxsackie, let me have it for $8.00.
Bringing it home and prowling the internet, I was able to reconstruct the wording as:
B. WARD BEAM’S New 1933
10 OTHER THRILLERS!
B. Ward Beam and Company were probably entertaining crowds at the Greene County Fair, but I guessed that an “International Congress of Dare-Devils” was not designed to be a local phenomenon. It turned out that Beam was a thrill-show racer and entrepreneur even more important historically than the names that may have greater resonance today—Barney Oldfield, Aut Swenson, Earl “Lucky” Teter and his Hell Drivers, the Jimmy Lynch Death Dodgers, Jack Kochman’s Champion Hell Drivers, Joie Chitwood’s Chevy Thunder Show. All that Beam did was to invent the auto thrill show, when he launched his Congress of Dare-Devils in Toledo, Ohio, in 1923. Soon he was playing county and state fairs in Michigan, Indiana, and parts west. The Chicago Tribune of February 18, 1925 reported that “Country people will not attend an agricultural exhibit unless they are assured of plenty of entertainment…. Auto push-ball is a new form of amusement offered that is meeting with favor.”
Did Beam invent auto pushball as well as the auto thrill show? Almost certainly not, as the Washington Post of May 9, 1922 features an image of auto pushball — the only other one I have come across besides my poster — at San Francisco, and Beam appears not to have taken his show to California. “The latest sport to be inaugurated on the Pacific Coast is auto pushball. In it one gets many a thrill, for it is more exciting and hazardous than polo. Six autos are needed to play the game, three of them constituting a team. The same rushes apply that are used in polo. The game originated in San Francisco.”
Beam’s troupe may have been in Davenport, Iowa for a “motor rodeo” on Memorial Day in 1926, when, according to the Davenport Democrat and Leader, “the champion Canadian and American push ball teams are slated to play their [tie-breaking] thirty-first game on the 1926 championship schedule.” Surely this was Barnumesque promotion to inflate interest as much hot air filled the Spalding-Goodyear ball used for the occasion. Auto pushball was just one of many attractions, from motorcycle racers to aerial acrobats, and was tame entertainment when contrasted with the staples of the Beam show: demolition derbies, leaping buses, flaming barriers, and sundry death-defying stunts.
The August 6, 1931 Amherst (NY) Bee contained this telling advertisement: “Wanted: Single man, not over 25 years, to drive automobile in head-on collision with another car at the Albion Fairgrounds in connection with the Congress of Daredevils on August 19. Must crash with another car at 40 mph and give unconditional release in case of injury or death. Name your lowest price. Write B. Ward Beam, Albion, N.Y.”
His traveling shows continued into the 1950s but biographical data about B. Ward Beam has proved hard to come by. From his 1917 draft card I learned that he was born November 18, 1892, had a wife and two children as of that time, and was a student at an aviation school in Celina, Ohio. His Social Security data indicates that he died in September 1979 (no precise date given) in Goshen, New York.
Even after his thrill-show days were done (he played the Orange County Fair in the late 1940s and early 1950s), he continued to book acts for county fairs through the Ward Beam Agency in Goshen as late as 1973. And there the trail ended, though I would certainly like to hear from any reader who knows more about this fascinating auto-race pioneer.
Pushball’s pioneer, Moses G. Crane, is known today instead as an inventor and manufacturer of the fire alarm box. What bit of whimsy drove him, as a member of the Newton Athletic Association in 1894, to devise the game of pushball is beyond my reconstruction. However, he did not live to see its rapid progress in the first decade of the next century, as he committed suicide on July 7, 1898 in Newton.
Photographs survive of teams grappling with the six-foot-diameter leather-covered ball weighing 50 to 100 pounds, reminiscent of the giant breast chasing Woody Allen through the fields in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. There is even a 1903 documentary short, produced in England but distributed in the U.S. as well, described in the catalogs as “A splendid and most interesting picture of a new game by two teams using a ball 6 feet in diameter. Taken at the Crystal Palace, London.” The game depicted in the film had been played in the previous October; a game two months earlier at Headingley had been between two eight-man squads representing England and America.
Such a grand international setting … and not even a decade after its first media splash, when pushball was played between the halves of a Harvard-Brown football game played at Soldiers Field in Cambridge. The Boston Globe of October 20, 1895 reported: “It was very amusing yesterday to see the large ball rolled from side to side. Now and then a man got under the ball, and sometimes the ball was raised way above the heads of the men. The players got into very amusing attitudes…. every one who saw the exhibition was highly entertained….” The student newspaper of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in its report of the game that day, added, “Although the game is said to be conducted on carefully studied scientific principles, the first impression on the spectators was irresistibly comical.”
Adding to the comic effect, in 1902 pushball was played on horseback in Berlin and at Durland’s Riding Academy in New York, where basketball on horseback had also made its debut that year. In the following year pushball was played for laughs at Madison Square Garden. At some universities the game replaced class rush as the favored ritual clash between freshmen and sophomores. An Iowa City postcard from 1909 depicted a riotous pushball contest on “Farmers Day.”
The Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1911, however, played it straight when describing pushball as a “game played by two sides on a field usually 140 yds. long and 50 yds. wide, with a ball 6 ft. in diameter and 50 lb in weight. The sides usually number eleven each, there being five forwards, two left-wings, two right-wings and two goal. The goals consist of two upright posts 18 ft. high and 20 ft. apart with a crossbar 7 ft. from the ground. The game lasts for two periods with an intermission. Pushing the ball under the bar counts 5 points; lifting or throwing it over the bar counts 8. A touchdown behind goal for safety counts 2 to the attacking side.”
Oddly, pushball continued to flourish into the 1940s in military training environments. In 1916, on the eve of America’s entry into World War I, a British short film depicting pushball offers a title card that reads: “Yale students engaged in an exciting game of push ball. This game has been recommended as being particularly suitable for soldiers who have lost their sight at the front.” U.S. Marines in training played it in 1918 at Camp Lewis, American Lake, Washington and in the 1940s at Parris Island, South Carolina.
Revived in Australia in 1971 as “sogball,” the game featured a vinyl-covered ball that punctured within minutes. The game was described by one of the organizers of the intravarsity contests as the “stupidest occupation possible, involving the greatest number of participants.”
All the same, it sure looked like fun, which is more than can be said of many of our sports. Requiescat in pace, pushball.