Baseball as a National Religion

In 2008while working on Baseball in the Garden of Eden, I found this wonderful essay tucked away in my files. I am pleased to share it with you now, on the chance that it is unfamiliar. Philosopher Morris R. Cohen published it in The Dial,Vol. 67, p. 57 (July 26, 1919). In baseball’s boom decade of the 1910s, highbrow pundits and philosophers marvel at baseball’s democratic blessings. Baseball was second only to death as a leveler,” wrote essayist Allen Sangree for Everybody’s Magazine in 1907, ten years before World War I would level American youth more literally. Even after the carnage, in July 1919, Cohen, whom Bertrand Russell called “the most significant philosopher in the United States,” could still write a glowing paean to the game.

IN THE WORLD’S HISTORY baseball is a new game: hence new to song and story and uncelebrated in the fine arts of painting, sculpture, and music. Now, as Ruskin has pointed out, people generally do not see beauty or majesty except when it has been first revealed to them in pictures or other works of art. This is peculiarly true of the people who call themselves educated. No one who prides himself on being familiar with Greek and Roman architecture and the classic masters of painting would for a moment admit that there could be any beauty in a modern skyscraper. Yet when two thousand years hence some Antarctic scholar comes to describe our civilization, he will mention as our distinctive contribution to art our beautiful office buildings, and perhaps offer in support of his thesis colored plates of some of the ruins of those temples of commerce. And when he comes to speak of America’s contribution to religion, will he not mention baseball? Do not be shocked, gentle or learned reader! I know full well that baseball is a boy’s game, and a professional sport, and that a properly cultured, serious person always feels like apologizing for attending a baseball game instead of a Strauss concert or a lecture on the customs of the Fiji Islanders. But I still maintain that, by all the canons of our modern books on comparative religion, baseball is a religion, and the only one that is not sectarian but national.

The essence of religious experience, so we are told, is the “redemption from the limitations of our petty individual lives and the mystic unity with a larger life of which we are a part.” And is not this precisely what the baseball devotee or fanatic, if you please, experiences when he watches the team representing his city battling with another? Is there any other experience in modern life in which multitudes of men so completely and intensely lose their individual selves in the larger life which they call their city? Careful students of Greek civilization do not hesitate to speak of the religious value of the Greek drama. When the auditor identifies himself with the action on the stage–Aristotle tells us–his feelings of fear and pity undergo a kind of purification (catharsis). But in baseball the identification has even more of the religious quality, since we are absorbed not only in the action of the visible actors but more deeply in the fate of the mystic unities which we call the contending cities. To be sure, there may be people who go to a baseball game to see some particular star, just as there are people who go to church to hear a particular minister preach; but these are phenomena in the circumference of the religious life. There are also blasé persons who do not care who wins so long as they can see what they call a good game–just as there are people who go to mass because they admire the vestments or intoning of the priest–but this only illustrates the pathology of the religious life. The truly religious devotee has his soul directed to the final outcome; and every one of the extraordinarily rich multiplicity of movements of the baseball game acquires its significance because of its bearing on that outcome. Instead of purifying only fear and pity, baseball exercises and purifies all of our emotions, cultivating hope and courage when we are behind, resignation when we are beaten, fairness for the other team when we are ahead, charity for the umpire, and above all the zest for combat and conquest.

When my revered friend and teacher William James wrote an essay on “A Moral Equivalent for War,” I suggested to him that baseball already embodied all the moral value of war, so far as war had any moral value. He listened sympathetically and was amused, but he did not take me seriously enough. All great men have their limitations, and William James’s were due to the fact that he lived in Cambridge, a city which, in spite of the fact that it has a population of 100,000 souls (including the professors), is not represented in any baseball league that can be detected without a microscope.

Imagine what will happen to the martial spirit in Germany if baseball is introduced there–if any Social Democrat can ask any Herr von Somebody, “What’s the score?” Suppose that in an exciting ninth-inning rally, when the home team ties the score, Captain Schmidt punches Captain Miller or breaks his helmet. Will the latter challenge him to a duel? He will not. Rather will he hug him frenziedly or pummel him joyfully at the next moment when the winning run comes across the home plate. And after the game, what need of further strife? When Jones of Philadelphia meets Brown of New York there may be a slight touch of condescension on one side, or a hidden strain of envy on the other side, but they take each other’s arm in fraternal fashion, for they have settled their differences in an open, regulated combat on a fair field. And if one of us has some sore regrets over an unfortunate error which lost the game, there is always the consolation that we have had our inning, and though we have lost there is another game or season coming. And what more can a reasonable man expect in this imperfect world than an open chance to do his best in a free and fair fight?

Every religion has its martyrs; and the greatest of all martyrdoms is to make oneself ridiculous and to be laughed at by the heathen. But whatever the danger, I am ready to urge the claims of international baseball as capable of arousing far more national religious fervor than the more monotonous game of armaments and war. Those who fear “the deadly monotony of a universal reign of peace” can convince themselves of the thrilling and exciting character of baseball by watching the behavior of crowds not only at the games but also at the baseball score-boards miles away. National rivalries and aspirations could find their intensest expression in a close international pennant race, and yet such rivalry would not be incompatible with the establishment of the true Church Universal in which all men would feel their brotherhood in the Infinite Game.

Sam Rice

Burrowing around the archives of the Baseball Hall of Fame many years ago I came across an envelope marked: “Not to be opened till after the death of Sam Rice. [signed] Paul S. Kerr [longtime Hall of Fame official].” Oh, if that doesn’t set your heart a-racing, you don’t love baseball history

A baseball controversy settled from beyond the grave–this is surely one of the oddest letters in the Hall’s collection. In the eighth inning of Game 3 of the 1925 World Series, in Washington, the Senators held a 4-3 lead over the Pirates. But with two outs, Pirates catcher Earl Smith slugged a ball into deep right center. Right fielder Edgar Charles Sam” Rice ran for it, leapt, and tumbled into the temporary bleachers. He didn’t reappear for at least ten seconds, but he held the ball for all to see. Umpire Cy Rigler called Smith out; the Pirates went bonkers. How could anyone tell whether Rice had caught the ball? A fan could have handed it to him.

The play might have remained controversial had the Pirates not won the Series anyway. Forty years later Sam Rice decided to set the record straight. He composed this letter on July 27, 1965, during Induction Weekend in Cooperstown, and gave it to Kerr, at that time the Hall’s president, with instructions that it not be opened until after his death. Rice had been inducted into the Hall in 1963 for his twenty years of stellar play, nineteen of them with Washington. When Sam met his Maker on October 13, 1974, the controversy could be settled at last. What follows is a verbatim transcription:

It was a cold and windy day. The right field bleachers were crowded with people in overcoats and wrapped in blankets, the ball was a line drive headed for the bleachers towards right center. I turned slightly to my right and had the ball in view all the way, going at top speed, and about 15 feet from bleachers jumped as high as I could and back handed and the ball hit the center of pocket in glove (I had a death grip on it). I hit the ground about 5 feet from a barrier about 4 feet high in front of bleacher with all the brakes on but couldn’t stop so my feet hit the barrier about a foot from top and I toppled over on my stomach into first row of bleachers. I hit my adams apple on something which sort of knocked me out for a few seconds but Earl McNeely arrived about that time and grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me out. I remember trotting back towards the infield still carrying the ball for about half way and then tossed it towards the pitchers mound. (How I have wished many times that I had kept it.)

At no time did I lose possession of the ball.

“Sam” Rice

P.S. After this was announced at the dinner last night I approached Bill McKechnie (one of the finest men I have ever known in Baseball) and I said Bill, you were the Mgr of Pittsburgh at that time, what do you think will be in the letter. His answer was, Sam there was never any doubt in my mind but what you caught the ball. I thanked him as much as to say you were right.

Rice, curiously to observers in today’s milestone-obsessed age, retired at 44 with 2,987 hits. He didn’t see any great value in hanging on to get number 3,000. In later years he was often asked why he retired so close to the magic number. “You must remember,” he’d explain, “there wasn’t much emphasis on three thousand hits when I quit. And to tell the truth, I didn’t know how many hits I had.” Expanding upon that thought he said, “A couple of years after I quit, [Senators owner] Clark Griffith … asked me if I’d care to have a comeback with the Senators and pick up those 13 hits. But I was out of shape, and didn’t want to go through all that would have been necessary to make the effort. Nowadays, with radio and television announcers spouting records every time a player comes to bat, I would have known about my hits and probably would have stayed to make 3,000 of them.”

So when Derek Jeter attained his 3,000th hit last season, he awakened the ghosts of Cap Anson, Nap Lajoie, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Eddie Collins, and Tris Speaker. Rice could have been next in line, before Paul Waner. But his name was on no one’s lips, for want of 13 hits.

The Most Important Game in Baseball History?

Was this game truly more important than that of April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson first set foot on a major league field? No, not when you take into account the resonant social and cultural issues of that event. One might look to other games too–the introduction of night ball, for instance, or the first game played by Knickerbocker rules, or Carlton Fisk’s home run in Game Six of the 1975 World Series. and so on. But this is my choice. If you think it’s a poor one, I’ll count on you to let me know! 

After the famous tour of the Brooklyn Excelsiors in 1860, which took them as far north as Canada and as far south as Baltimore, the outbreak of war had quashed any thought of new junkets. Then in baseball’s boom year of 1867 the Washington Nationals, a club that had formed prior to the war, announced that it would take a trip unlike any thus far attempted. Their notice published in the Clipper read:

The famous Washington club will start upon their proposed Western trip on the 10th [of July], visiting and playing friendly games with the leading clubs of Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Chicago, reaching the latter place on the 24th. . . .

The Washington club was in fact not yet famous, but wished to become so. They had played only five match games in 1865, when they had welcomed clubs from Philadelphia and Brooklyn to play on the lot behind newly installed President Andrew Johnson’s White House.

Although the 1866 Nationals won ten games against five defeats, they were by no means a club to rank alongside the Atlantics, Athletics, Mutuals, or the champion Unions of Morrisania. Those Unions were led by handsome young George Wright, the coming hero of the age, whose older brother Harry had played with the Knickerbockers in the 1850s and had lately reverted to the role of a cricket professional, in Cincinnati.

In 1867 the Nationals strengthened themselves with additional recruits, giving each a patronage government job, and somehow persuaded Wright to join them too. Although the players were nominal amateurs, there can be no doubt of their uniformly professional status. The club president listed Wright’s place of employment as 238 Pennsylvania Avenue, at that time an open field and even today a parking lot.

During the three weeks of their Western tour the Nationals made a show of maintaining their amateur status by refusing payments of any kind, even declining reimbursement for travel expenses; these, of course, were covered by their employers, who had graciously permitted them to abandon the desks at which they had seldom been seen anyway. The aim of the National Club directors in going out on tour was not pecuniary gain but social éclat and pride of place: the Western farmers had been getting a bit chesty about their brand of baseball and, it was thought back East, needed a slap of reality at the hands of an experienced ball club.

The Nationals prepared for their trip with easy triumphs over local cupcakes until they journeyed to Cincinnati to play the Red Stockings on July 15, in a battle of two unbeaten nines. George Wright’s older brother Harry had left New York for the Queen City of the West in March 1865 to serve as the professional instructor and bowler of its Union Cricket Club. It may have seemed to him that as there was no real money to be made from baseball, and the distant cricket club was offering him $1200 annual salary, he might as well return to the trade of his father, Sam Wright, the formidable cricket professional of the celebrated St. George club.

By the summer of 1866 the Cincinnati Base Ball Club formed, and Harry Wright was enticed to be its pitcher. To devote his full attention to the new national game for 1867 the baseball club’s directors, many of them holding office in common with the cricket club, offered him the same salary he was already receiving to switch sports. The other players were local amateurs, including some doing double duty as cricketers, and they did not take the field until the end of September.

Leading up to their match with the Nationals, the 1867 edition of the Cincinnati Base Ball Club—already popularly named “Red Stockings” for the innovation of hiking their pants, better to display their manly calves in carmine hose, while all other players still wore long trousers—had drubbed four local clubs. But Harry’s expected pleasure in playing against his brother’s club soon was dashed: after initially holding their own against the Nationals, tied at 6–6 into the fourth inning, the Reds ultimately were humiliated by a count of 53–10. Although this would be their only loss of the year, it came against their only opponent from outside the tri-state area, and so a lesson was there to be drawn. At the end of the season the Red Stocking directors instructed Harry to follow the Nationals’ model and begin recruiting professionals from distant places. The upshot, of course, was the brazenly professional Red Stockings of 1869, undefeated against all comers from coast to coast.

After crushing the Red Stockings and four other patsies, the Nationals headed for Chicago for highly anticipated games against that city’s best, the Excelsiors and Atlantics, named in emulation of Brooklyn’s finest clubs. The Forest Citys of Rockford had already played the Excelsiors twice that year, losing narrowly each time—the scores were 45–41 and 28–25—and thus ceded the state championship. All the same, the Rockford boys were given the consolation prize of an invitation to Chicago to play what amounted to a warmup game against the Nationals on Thursday the 25th at Dexter Park. On the following Saturday the Nationals would defeat Rockford’s nemesis, the Excelsiors, by a score of 49–4 (not a typo); on Monday the Washington nine would trounce the Atlantics by 78–17.

Facing a frightful outcome, the “corn crackers” of Rockford were led by novice pitcher Albert Spalding, not yet seventeen years of age. Four decades later he recalled:

I experienced a severe case of stage fright when I found myself in the pitcher’s box, facing such renowned players as George Wright, [Frank] Norton, [Harry] Berthrong, [George] Fox, and others of the visiting team…. A great lump arose in my throat, and my heart beat so like a trip-hammer that I imagined it could be heard by everyone on the grounds. I knew, also, that every player on the Rockford nine had an idea that their kid pitcher would surely become rattled and go to pieces as soon as the strong batters of the Nationals had opportunity to fall upon his delivery….

There were several interesting plays in the game, as noted in the contemporary press. In the third inning Al Barker of Rockford “went to his base on a ball which dropped from the bat.” Sounds like a bunt, doesn’t it? Yet the “baby hit” is thought today to have been invented by Tom Barlow some years later (Tommy is equally famous as baseball’s first drug addict, hooked on morphine in 1874). In the sixth inning George Wright “took the bat and by a splendid stroke to center field made a home run.” As Spalding recalled,

…the Forest Citys had by this time gotten pretty well settled and their stage-fright had disappeared, yet none of us even then had the remotest idea that we were destined to win the game over such a famous antagonist. The thought or suggestion of such a thing at that stage would probably have thrown us into another mental spasm.

At this psychological moment, Col. Frank Jones, President of the National Club, rushed up to George Wright, who was about to take his position at the bat, and said, in a louder voice possibly than he intended:

“Do you know, George, that this is the seventh innings and we are six runs behind? You must discard your heavy bat and take a lighter one; for to lose this game would be to make our whole trip a failure.” Col. Jones’ excited manner plainly indicated his anxiety.

This incident inspired the Rockfords with confidence and determination, and for the first time we began to realize that victory was not only possible, but probable, and the playing of our whole team from that time forward was brilliant.

The eighth inning produced a double play, still rare in these days before the glove: “Wright struck and went to first base. Fox followed and knocked a ball to Spalding, who threw it to Addy on 2b, and Addy immediately sent it to 1st, thus putting out Wright and Fox. This was very finely done.” Rockford and Spalding held their six-run lead, emerging victorious by a score of 29–23.

There had been upsets before in baseball’s brief history, but never one on this scale. Immediately it was alleged that the Nationals had tanked the game so as to narrow the odds for their coming contest against the Atlantics. When the Nationals won that game handily to close out their tour, the cries of fraud regarding the Rockford contest only grew louder. No one could have known that several of the Forest City lads would one day become nationally prominent players—particularly Spalding and infielder Ross Barnes.

The Nationals broke up after the season, but even in defeat their Steinbrennerian squadron had supplied the model for how baseball might succeed as America’s game. The club had brought together the best talent from distant places, and playing skill rather than local celebrity would be the path to victory ever after. Cincinnati began importing stars in 1868, and one year later took the Washington Nationals model to its logical conclusion—an all-star team.

While it is often written that the Red Stockings of 1869 were the first professional club, we have seen this not to be so. Every member of the 1867 Nationals was paid to play. That they lost to Rockford, a club that had been defeated by the Excelsiors, whom the Nationals went on to drub mercilessly, points to one of the game’s glories, routinely on exhibit every day.

You just don’t know who’s going to win.

The Charm of the Game

Today we think of baseball as an anachronism, a last vestige of America’s agrarian paradise—an idyllic game that takes us back to a more innocent time. But baseball as we might recognize it originated in New York City, not rural Cooperstown, and in truth it was an exercise in nostalgia from the beginning. Alexander Cartwright and his Knickerbockers began play in Madison Square in 1842, and the city’s northward progress soon compelled them to move uptown to Murray Hill.

When the grounds there were also threatened by the march of industry, the Knicks ferried across the Hudson River to the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, a landscaped retreat of picnic grounds and scenic vistas that was designed by its proprietors to relieve New Yorkers of city air and city care. In other words, the purpose of baseball’s primal park was the same as that of New York’s Central Park or, much later, Boston’s Fenway Park—to give an increasingly urban populace a park within the city, a place reminiscent of the idealized farms that had sent all these lads to the metropolis in pursuit of work.

Thus the attraction of the game in its earliest days was first the novelty and exhilaration of play; second the opportunity for deskbound city clerks to expend surplus energy in a sylvan setting, freed from the tyranny of the clock; and third, to harmonize with an American golden age that was almost entirely legendary.

Simple charms, simple pleasures. In the late 1860s, advancing skills led to heightened appetites for victory, which led to hot pursuit of the game’s gifted players, which inevitably led to sub rosa payments and, by 1870, rampant professionalism. (Doesn’t that chain reaction put one in mind of college football or basketball?) The gentlemanly players of baseball’s first generation retreated from the field, shaking their heads in dismay at how greed had perverted the “grand old game”—now barely 20 years old—and probably ruined it forever.

Sound familiar? It should—the same dire and premature announcements of the demise of the game have been issued ever since, spurred by free-agent signings, long-term contracts, no-trade provisions, strikes and lockouts, integration, night ball, rival leagues, ad infinitum. The only conclusions a calm head might draw from this recurring cycle of disdain for the present and glorification of the past are that (a) things aren’t what they used to be and never were; (b) accurate assessment of a present predicament is impossible, for it requires perspective; and (c) no matter what the owners or players or rules makers or fans do, they can’t kill baseball. All three conclusions are correct. In baseball, the distinction between amateur and professional is not clear-cut: an amateur may play for devotion to the game (amat being the Latin for “he loves”), but a professional does not play for pursuit of gain alone; he plays for love, too.

Oh, don’t you remember the game of base-ball we saw twenty years ago played,

When contests were true, and the sight free to all, and home-runs in plenty were made?

When we lay on the grass, and with thrills of delight, watched the ball squarely pitched at the bat,

And easily hit, and then mount out of sight along with our cheers and our hat?

And then, while the fielders raced after the ball, the men on the bases flew round,

And came in together. four batters in all. Ah! That was the old game renowned.

Now salaried pitchers, who throw the ball curved at padded and masked catchers lame         

And gate-money music and seats all reserved is all that is left of the game.

Oh, give us the glorious matches of old, when love of true sport made them great,

And not this new-fashioned affair always sold for the boodle they take at the gate.

                                                                                             –H.C. Dodge

That doomsday ditty was published in 1886.

This is an excerpt from “Baseball: Our Game,” First Digital Edition ISBN: 978-0-9848629-1-7 Copyright © 2011 by John Thorn. All Rights Reserved. Publisher: Thinker Media, Inc. It is available for 99 cents on the Nook; Kindle; iTunes, iPad, and other Apple devices.

Not in the Cards

Now in St. Louis they will know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall. I’d love to turn you on … to the very first player move of this magnitude. There have been several, in which an all-time great relocates at the height of his career, leaving the hometown fans in despair. One thinks of Babe Ruth going from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees in 1920; or Jimmie Foxx going to the Red Sox in Connie Mack’s fire sale of 1935; or Rogers Hornsby or Barry Bonds, Nap Lajoie or King Kelly. Among pitchers a quick spin of the mental wheel offers up Cy Young, John Clarkson, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez.

Fans like to think that before free agency, the best players stayed with one club for life. In fact, players have always moved around at about the same frequency—although in recent times the relocation of a superstar has most often been at his election rather than the club’s. From 1883, when the reserve clause came into the game, until 1974, when free agency kicked in, a player’s obligation to provide his services to his club endured in perpetuity. The club, for many decades, could dismiss him with ten days’ notice.

But at the dawn of Major League Baseball, before the advent of the reserve clause, player contracts ran for the length of the playing schedule only, excepting the highly unusual multiyear deal. At season’s end, all players were free agents and could sign on with whichever club they pleased. Some owners, seeking to gain an edge, offered contracts in midseason that, after mutual signatures, they mothballed and then postdated. Players sometimes signed with one club in this fashion but, knowing that the deal was secret because it was out of bounds, proceeded to sign with another club after the season if it offered better terms.

In 1874 the Chicago White Stockings of the National Association (NA) were nervous that their star shortstop, Davy Force, would desert them at season’s end, as he had left three other clubs in the previous three autumns. In September, they signed him to a renewal contract for 1875, knowing that, because the season was still in progress, NA rules rendered the contract invalid. Chicago signed Force to another contract in November, but the organization blundered by backdating the contract to September, thus voiding it once again. In December, the Philadelphia Athletics offered Force a contract, and he signed it. The NA governing council, led by a an officer of the Athletics, upheld Force’s deal to play in Philly.

William Hulbert, the Chicago club president, seethed at the injustice, feeling that an anti-Western bias by the older clubs of the East was at the root of all his worries. Albert Sopalding star pitcher with Boston at the time and future sporting-goods kingpin, wrote in America’s National Game (1911):

It was borne to him one day that the reason why Chicago, whose phenomenal achievements on other lines were attracting the wonder of all the world, could make no better showing on the diamond was because the East was in league against her; that certain Base Ball magnates in the Atlantic States were in control of the game; were manipulating things to the detriment of Chicago and all Western cities; that if the Chicago Club signed an exceptionally strong player he was sure to be stolen from her; that contracts had no force, because the fellows down East would and did offer players increased salaries and date new contracts back to suit their own ends.

Within a few months, Hulbert proceeded to give the Easterners, who had rustled his prize shortstop, a taste of their own medicine. He not only raided Boston for Spalding but also snatched Ross Barnes, who would bat .364 in his final season with Boston; Deacon White, who would hit for an average of .367; and Cal McVey, who would bat .355. From the hated Philadelphia Athletics Hulbert took another Western boy and perhaps the top prize, Adrian Constantine Anson, then known as “Baby,” not yet “Cap” or “Pop.”

When word leaked in the summer of 1875 that Chicago had stripped Boston of its stars for the following season, a columnist for the Worcester Spy wrote of Boston’s loss: “Like Rachel weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted because the famous baseball nine, the perennial champion, the city’s most cherished possession, has been captured by Chicago.”

This is about how St. Louis feels today.

But Hulbert had real cause for worry. His club’s contracts had been signed yet again in midseason, so the NA could invalidate them and even, perhaps, expel Chicago for gross misconduct. Then, he came up with a truly big idea. “Spalding,” he said to his eventual ally in revolution, “I have a new scheme. Let us anticipate the Eastern cusses and organize a new association before the March [1876] meeting, and then see who does the expelling.”

And thus was founded, on February 2, 1876, the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, the beginning of what today we call Major League Baseball.

Blood and Base Ball, Part 5

Blood and Base Ball, Part 5

Randall Brown

This important article first appeared in the journal Base Ball, Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2009. It is reprinted with the kind permission of the publisher, McFarland & Co. Randall Brown majored in American Studies at Wesleyan and is still addicted to history. His discovery of an obscure 1887 interview with William Wheaton, the first umpire, led to an article, “How Baseball Began,” in the 2004 issue of The National Pastime. Brown’s articles on local history have appeared in The Staten Island Historian and the Santa Cruz History Journal, and he recently completed the documentary How Base Ball Was Born, featuring the story of Wheaton and the New York Base Ball Club. Part 4 of this article commenced yesterday and may be linked directly at:

Charles Douglass kept his father current on events in Washington by letter. In the early months of 1868, it became apparent that the political tide was overwhelming the President. “The city is in the wildest excitement in consequence of Johnson’s last drunk,” he wrote home to his father in February. “Before you receive this, Johnson will be impeached.” His prediction was sound, but the trial in the Senate resulted in acquittal by one vote.58

In April, the President’s home state boasted a new nine. The Clipper was advised that: “The Cumberland Base Ball club of Nashville, Tenn., challenges any club, black or white, to play them for the championship of the county.” The National Game continued to attract ballplayers of all political parties. In New York, the Ku Klux Klan Club of Oneida challenged the Rough and Readys of Clinton for $200 and the local championship, losing 38–21. In Little Falls, another Rough and Ready club held a social hop to kick off its season.59

Upstate New York had become a hotbed of black baseball clubs. The Unexpected of Rochester, Invincible of Buffalo, Lincoln of Niagara Falls, and Bachelors of Albany were joined by clubs from Little Falls, Utica, Troy, and Canajoharie. As various clubs claimed local championships, the demand grew for intraregional competition. “This morning,” the Utica Daily Observer reported in the spring of 1869, “two colored base ball clubs left Utica to engage in a tournament among colored clubs at Little Falls. The nines are the Fearless and Riversides. Into no manner of sport do the boys enter with more zest than the National Game.”60

The Fearless nine took away the prize and continued to win recognition that summer. As the Utica paper proudly commented,

The club is well disciplined, and it is fully entitled to the colored base ball championship of the State. Evidence of their skill and ability has been left in matches they have won east and west of us. On the 3rd of August last they played the Rapids of Niagara Falls. The match took place at Medina, and the Fearless Club won by the score of 18 to 3. August 5th they played the Invincibles, of Buffalo, and the score stood: Fearless 88, Invincibles 18.61

In early September, there was another showdown. The Observer gleefully recorded another Fearless victory on the 10th:

Hast heard of the Heavy Hitters? From Canajoharie they come; colored boys are they, strong of limb and fleet of foot, ambitious youths, who aspire to win and keep the name of dusky base ball champions. Undaunted were the Hittites, and full of fire, the Fearless ones stood, furious for the fray. Then waxed the combat fierce; then heavy was the hitting, and thick and fast the Fearless ones did fly from base to base. And so the battle ended not until the innings fifth, and then because of falling rain, the hits became less heavy, the Fearless ones grew faint, the ball felt flabby—the jig was up, the dog was dead. Score 24 to 7. 

Last evening the Canajoharie boys were entertained by the Fearless Club. Refreshments were served and dancing was indulged in until the peeping of the dawn.62

For the politically savvy clubs of Philadelphia and Washington DC, the aspirations went beyond “colored championships.” On September 5, the front page of the New York Times featured the following item:

Novel Game in Philadelphia. A Negro Club in the Field. The White Club Victorious.                             

The Pythian Base Ball Club, after challenging a number of white clubs of this city, who refused to play, succeeded in getting an acceptance from the Olympic, which Club defeated them by a score of 44 to 23. The novelty of the affair drew an immense crowd of people, it being the first game played between a white and colored club.63

Founded as a townball club in 1831–1833, the Olympic Club had been eclipsed by the Athletics but had remained competitive in local circles. Hayhurst and his club had apparently turned down the challenge, although the game was held on their grounds. The umpire, Colonel Fitzgerald, a founder of the Athletic Club, lent his prestige to the affair. Following the match, he offered the Pythians a game with the nine from his newspaper, the “City Items.”

On August 28, the Clipper spoke positively of the integration of baseball:

White vs. Colored Clubs. The prejudices of race are rapidly disappearing. A week or two ago we chronicled a game between the Pythian and Olympics clubs of Philadelphia. The affair was a great success, financially and otherwise. On the 19th the Pythians encountered the City Item Club, of the Quaker City, and defeated them by a score of 27 to 17. In Washington, on the 20th, the Olympics of that city, were announced to play the Alerts, a colored club. The Unique Club, of Williamsburgh, composed of colored gentlemen, is anxious to get on a match with the Pythians. What say the Quakerdelphians?64

The Olympics of Washington were ranked with the nation’s best clubs. Big-time baseball was becoming a business, spurred by the fully salaried Red Stockings of Cincinnati. Founded as an amateur club in 1867 by Abraham G. Mills, the Olympic nine had improved by adding quality players like catcher Fergy Malone and shortstop Bob Reach (brother of Athletics star Al Reach), to a roster that included infielder Davy Force and outfielder Nick Young. The Red Stockings had mastered the Olympics on several occasions, but the Washington nine had taken the local championship away from the Nationals and surprised the visiting Mutuals of New York. Returning home after a close match with the Athletics in Philadelphia, Young, who also served as club secretary, responded positively to the invitation of the Alerts.

“White vs. Black,” headlined the Clipper on October 2.

The Alert club of Washington, D. C., backed by some of the public men of this city, challenged the Olympic club to a series of games. The first game was played on the National grounds, Sept. 20th, in the presence of a large assembly of both sexes and colors, and quite a number of prominent government officials. The game was a success in all respects. From the manner of handling the ball, before the game, it was thought that the Alerts would give the Olympics close work, but in a game of seven innings, the colored gentlemen were beaten by a heavy score. They could not hit Leech, five of them striking out.65

In the spirit of fair play, the Olympics agreed to try their skill against Washington’s other “colored champions.” The Clipper chronicled this game on October 23:

On the 12th, the Olympics, of Washington D. C. accepted the invitation of the Mutual Club to play a friendly game of ball. The Olympics were short four of their nine on account of the elections, and had but two men in their regular position. Their play was of the muffin kind, dropping no less than seven fly balls. The Mutuals fielded well and batted heavily, but lost the game by not playing steadily. Score 24 to 15.66

In Ohio, the Forest Citys of Cleveland, another first-rate club, challenged the limits of National Association policies by agreeing to play a match with the Resolute Club of Oberlin. The visiting club was composed primarily of students from the town’s unapologetically radical college, including its star pitcher, Simpson Younger, class of 1870. In a rain-shortened match, pitcher Al Pratt, catcher Jim “Deacon” White, and other probable professionals defeated the amateurs 17–2. “The popular traditions in regard to Oberlin were sustained,” observed the Clipper’s correspondent, “the pitcher of the Resolutes being one of those whose forefathers came from ‘Afric’s sunny fountains.’ He ‘fought nobly,’ however, his play being inferior to none on the nine.”

The election of President Grant, accomplished with the assistance of black voters, convinced the Republican party to push for universal male suffrage. The requisite constitutional amendment was ratified in the spring of 1870. The good news was welcomed with an outburst of sports.

…the Fearless Base Ball Club, of Utica, the acknowledged colored champions of the State, are again in the field as fearless as ever. On Thursday of the coming week, the colored residents of Geneva will unite in a celebration of the ratification of the XVth Amendment. One of the features of the joyful demonstration will be a new trial for the championship of the State between colored nines from Utica, Canandaigua, Geneva, Lockport, and Rochester. The Utica men, as the present champions, will be expected to retain all the well-earned laurels of the past. If defeat awaits them, they will at least “die hard.”67

In July, there was another tournament at Little Falls, where the Fearless Club contended with the Wide Awakes of Johnstown for a silver-mounted bat. The prize bat was placed among the other trophies of the Fearless Club after a 45–36 victory.68

In Washington, Charles Douglass had switched his allegiance to the Mutuals. His fluid script and political connections earned him the position of club secretary and he was soon corresponding with baseballists in Rochester and vicinity. Having heard of the Fearless Club and the Heavy Hitters, the “Colored Mutes” decided to take a summer trip to upstate New York.

At the beginning of August, the Utica Express advised its readers that: “The colored gentlemen composing the Mutual Base Ball Club, and hailing from Washington took a farewell promenade on Pennsylvania avenue the other day, and stretched their sable pinions for a Northern flight.”69

The tourists stopped for matches in towns known as Underground Railroad stations, soundly defeating clubs in Lockport and Niagara Falls. In Buffalo they were challenged by a picked nine of white players and emerged victorious.

For Charles Douglass, the visit to Rochester was also a homecoming; the Mutuals were welcomed heartily. After another victory over a picked nine, they looked ahead to a battle with the Fearless club. In its coverage of the occasion, the Utica paper plugged its favorite nine:

At Rochester the club was entertained by Fred. Douglass. A son of the gifted colored orator is a member of the Mutual nine. Therefore Fred extended a cordial greeting, and after feasting the lads, admonished them concerning the mettle of the Utica crowd. Douglass, Jr., by the way, is the President of the visiting Club, and the senior Douglass was anxious that his son Charles should flank the enemy at all points.

The Mutuals then headed for Canajoharie, where they beat the Heavy Hitters, then proceeded to Troy where the Hannibals were added to the list of vanquished foes. In his report to the sporting press, Douglass summed up by noting that “the members speak in the highest terms of their treatment on the tour,” regretting only that “they were compelled to decline several games for want of time, one of them with the Clinton, of Lansingburg.”70

As the season of 1870 concluded, it was apparent that progress had been made.    The Clipper informed its viewers of a struggle for “the Colored Championship of Illinois” between the Blue Stockings of Chicago and a club from Rockford. The nines were evenly matched, trading victories at home before the Blues captured the prize at the Rockford fair grounds, home of the professional Forest Citys, by the score of 28–21.71 That October, there was also news of a friendly “White vs. Black” contest in Massachusetts reported by the Clipper, in which the white Resolutes played the black Resolutes , with the victor to become the sole club entitled to the name.

During the 1871 preseason, organized baseball was reorganized. The success of the Cincinnati Red Stockings inspired their opponents to imitate their hiring practices as well as their “knickerbocker” trousers and colored stockings. The arguments of traditionalists were cut short when elite clubs, including the Philadelphia Athletics, New York Mutuals, Forest Citys of Cleveland, and Washington Olympics, formed the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, seceding from the old amateur Association. The increasingly businesslike sport enjoyed an improved quality of play, but, at the same time, it became more exclusive.

After mastering local opponents, the Pythian and Mutuals met again in August. The first match, played on the Athletic grounds in Philadelphia, went to the home nine, 20–15. Charles Douglass took on the job of pitcher in the return match. The Washington club rallied for three runs in the bottom of the ninth, but failed to overcome what the Clipper called “some very loose play” in the sixth inning, winding up on the short end of a 17–16 final score. In the interim, the Mutuals also played host to the Hannibals of Troy, posting a 48–20 win.72

Black baseball lost two of its pioneers during the final months of the season. In September, Charles Douglass and other friends mourned the passing of Frank Stewart, at the age of 33, after a long bout with consumption. In his obituary, the Rochester Unionand Advertiser commented: “He was considered the best general ball player in the State, and but for his color would have commanded a high salary from the best club in the country. He was a general favorite, and held in high esteem by all classes of citizens.”73

Octavius Catto was not in the Pythian lineup that summer. The busy educator was a prime mover in the effort to follow up the victory of the 15th Amendment by registering newly eligible voters. Blacks in northern cities had generally been disenfranchised by property restrictions, and Democratic bosses like Tweed in New York and McMullin in Philadelphia knew that the party of Lincoln would be the beneficiaries of the new rules. Fearing loss of control, they did not hesitate to stir up racial animosity.

October 13 was Election Day in Philadelphia. Squads of shoulder-hitters, abetted by some of the local police, appeared at the polls. Under the headlines “Bloody Election Riot. The Negro Voters Assailed in Philadelphia. Democratic Police Sympathize with the Mob,” the staunchly Republican New York Times had this to say regarding the day’s events.

The trouble first commenced between white and colored men in the immediate vicinity of Squire McMullin’s headquarters. A shower of paving stones was fired into this assemblage, and directly the fight commenced. While the fight in Lombard street continued, a number of colored men, armed with muskets, came out an alley just below Seventh street and charged upon a squad of Police officers, who were backed by a host of supporters, and, being beaten back, retreated into a tavern, taking up their position at the second story windows. From these they fired a volley, which was spiritedly returned. The riot is attributable by those who watched its origin, to the ill treatment of colored voters at more or less all the polls in the Fourth and Fifth wards.

Catto, a major in the Colored Brigade of the Pennsylvania National Guard, had reported to the Armory when he learned of the fighting. General Wagner, commander of the unit, told the press: “It was while in the act of obeying an order he had received as a soldier that murder met him.” Before calling out his men to suppress the riot, Catto had returned home “to obtain his equipments,” including ammunition for the pistol he had just been issued. “While upon his own door step,” the General continued, “he was ruthlessly assaulted with a bludgeon, knocked down and mortally wounded by pistol shots through the heart.”74

The prime suspect was a Democratic ward-heeler named Frank Kelly. There were rumors that Catto, “a great lover of women,” had been “seen to frequent a certain Ice Cream saloon with one of the fair ones, and that Frank Kelly was snubbed by her on account of Catto’s flirtations.” The accused killer escaped capture until 1876, when he was spotted intimidating voters in Cincinnati. Brought back to Philadelphia, he was acquitted by a jury of his peers.75

In his oration on the death of the “Colored Martyr,” as summarized by the Times, Reverend Henry H. Garnett

compared the rioters in Philadelphia to the Kuklux of the South. He said all color distinction must be done away with. Octavius V. Catto was sleeping in death, but the principles for which he died still live and are growing. He was slain because like many of his race, he would not affiliate with corrupt politicians.76

Catto also received a Sportsman’s tribute, mentioned in the “Death’s Doings” column of the Clipper. There was, however, no reference to the Pythian Base Ball Club.77 


58. New York Clipper: Dec. 21, 1867.

59. McFeely 1991, 261.

60. Utica Daily Observer: May 1868.

61. Ibid.: May 1869.

62. Ibid.: Sept. 10, 1868.

63. New York Times: Sept. 5, 1869.

64. New York Clipper: Aug. 28, 1869.

65. Ibid.: Oct. 2, 1869.

66. Ibid.: Oct. 23, 1869.

67. Utica Daily Observer: May 5, 1870.

68. Ibid.: July 22, 1870.

69. Ibid.: Aug. 24, 1870.

70. New York Clipper: Sept. 10, 1870.

71. Ibid.: Sept. 2, 1970; Oct. 15, 1870.

72. Ibid.: July 8, 1871; Aug. 19, 1871; Sept. 2, 1871.

73. Rochester Union and Advertiser: Sept. 14, 1871.

74. New York Times: Oct. 13, 1871.

75. Griffen, H. 1878. The Trial of Frank Kelly for the Assassination and Murder of Octavius V. Catto.

76. New York Times: Oct. 30, 1871.

77. New York Clipper: Oct. 28, 1871.

Blood and Base Ball, Part 4

Blood and Base Ball, Part 4

Randall Brown

This important article first appeared in the journal Base Ball, Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2009. It is reprinted with the kind permission of the publisher, McFarland & Co. Randall Brown majored in American Studies at Wesleyan and is still addicted to history. His discovery of an obscure 1887 interview with William Wheaton, the first umpire, led to an article, “How Baseball Began,” in the 2004 issue of The National Pastime. Brown’s articles on local history have appeared in The Staten Island Historian and the Santa Cruz History Journal, and he recently completed the documentary How Base Ball Was Born, featuring the story of Wheaton and the New York Base Ball Club. Part 3 of this article commenced yesterday and may be linked directly at:

During the summer of 1866, a club was formed by Octavius Catto, Jacob White Jr., and others. Catto, now the principal of the boys half of the Institute for Colored Youth, hosted the first practices at the school. The team soon found a home at the Pythian Hall, adopting the name of the fraternal organization.

At first, the Pythians played in nearby Camden, New Jersey, to avoid trouble in the Irish neighborhood near the local ball fields; but by the end of the season, they were able to hold matches at the local Parade Grounds. When the touring Bachelors visited on October 3, they schooled the newer club severely, winning 70–15.45

The election of 1866 turned the tide in favor of the Radical Republicans, who won control of the Congress thanks to black voters in the South, where former rebels were disenfranchised. For Charles Douglass, the change resulted in a job as a clerk in the Freedman’s Bureau in Washington.

The Excelsior Base Ball Club of Philadelphia inaugurated its 1867 season with a fundraising concert. “The music, both vocal and instrumental, was of a high order,” commented the Christian Recorder, “and all the artists acquitted themselves finely. A beautiful silk flag and 12 caps were presented to Mr. James Needham Jr. by the young ladies of Philadelphia.”46

On June 21, the Pythian club traveled to South Camden to meet the L’Overtures. Catto played second as the Philadelphians romped to a 62–7 fifth-inning lead before the admirers of the Haitian general surrendered the prize ball.47

In Pennsylvania, New York, and Washington DC, baseball clubs contended for various “colored championships.” The Monrovia and Shaw clubs once again battled for bragging rights, while the Bachelors of Albany traveled to Utica to take on the Fearless nine. “The Albanians,” admitted the local paper, “beat their Utica competitors badly.”48

The sporting papers that summer were enthusiastic about the tour of the (white) Nationals of Washington, orchestrated to take on the clubs in Ohio and points west. Like the Mutuals of New York, sponsored by “Boss” Tweed, the politically connected leaders of the club offered patronage jobs to entice players. It is likely that Charles Douglass spent more time at a desk than shortstop/treasury clerk George Wright, but he too found time to play. Frank Stewart was in Washington that summer and, as they had in Rochester, Stewart and Douglass helped organize a baseball club, known as the Alerts. Stewart was a particularly skillful player, hitting three home runs in a match with the Monumentals.49

Like Charles Remond Douglass, named for an antislavery activist, Octavius Catto and Jacob White Jr. had been reared in political households. Seeing an opportunity to gain positive publicity by playing the National Game, the Pythians agreed to take on two Washington clubs, the Alerts and the Mutuals, in home-and-home series. Friendly members of the mainstream Athletic club helped facilitate the plan.

The idea caught the attention of the public and press. “Fred. Douglass Sees a Colored Game,” reported the Clipper in July. 

The announcement that the Pythian, of Philadelphia, would play the Alert, of Washington, D. C. (both colored organizations) on the 15th inst., attracted quite a concourse of spectators on the grounds of the Athletic. The game progressed finely until the beginning of the fifth innings, when a heavy shower of rain set in, compelling the umpire, Mr. E. H. Hayhurst, of the Athletic, to call the game. The score stood at the end of the fourth innings: Alert 21, Pythian 16. Mr. Frederick Douglass was present and viewed the game from the reporters’ stand. His son is a member of the Alert.”50

The home nine was less successful in its second encounter, losing to the Mutual club by one run, 44–43. The Philadelphians returned the visits in August, triumphing over both Washington clubs.51

The Nationals returned to face the New York Mutuals and top-notch nines. Like the Atlantics of Brooklyn and the Gothams of New York, the Mutuals were strongly anti-Republican. They took advantage of their trip to the national capital to make a statement of their own. On August 27, the press was advised that:

The Mutual Ball Club of New York yesterday elected President Johnson as a member. The President, upon the presentation of the badge of the club, accepted the honor, commending base ball as a moral and national game. Subsequently the Mutuals beat the Nationals by 24 runs. The President, Secretary Seward, and many Government officials and some 5000 spectators witnessed the game.52

At the beginning of October, the Philadelphia Excelsiors embarked on a tour of the North. The Black baseballists of Brooklyn had temporarily found a home at the Satellite Grounds (formerly used by the burned-out cricket club mentioned above). Located near the popular Union Grounds, the venue had failed to bring in crowds and the management was open to experiment. One of Brooklyn’s premier players, John Grum, volunteered as umpire for the matches. Regrettably, the offer was not agreeable to all parties.

The October 3 match between the Philadelphians and the Uniques received thorough, if not flattering, coverage. Chadwick’s Ball Players’ Chronicle described the Excelsior Club as “the principal colored organization,” noting that the visitors had brought their “band of music and a large crowd of Philadelphia friends” and “a reputation as skilful experts on a par with that of the Athletic Club.” The Uniques, “a party of colored ball players familiar to the patrons of the Fulton Market,” were seen as “second-rate exponents,” but the contest was a lively one.

The Excelsiors took the lead at the start, and maintained it all the way through, the close of the sixth innings securing them in the van by the totals of 37 to 24. In the seventh innings, however, the Brooklyn players pulled up considerably, but, not finishing the innings before it became dark, the game was decided by the close of the sixth.53

According to the Clipper,

…the affair was decidedly unique, and afforded considerable merriment to several hundred of the “white trash” of New York and Brooklyn. The game was a “Comedy of Errors” from beginning to end, and the decisions of the umpire—a gentlemanly party from the Bachelor Club, of Albany—exceeded anything ever witnessed on the ball field. At 6 ½ o’clock, while the Brooklyn club was at the bat, with every prospect of winning the game, the Excelsiors, profiting by the example set them by their white brethren, declared that it was too dark to continue the game, and the umpire called it and awarded the ball to the Philadelphians.54

The Excelsiors left for Albany and a match with the Bachelors, returning a week later to play the Monitor Club. This time the laurels went to Brooklyn, as the Monitors “avenged their brethren by a handsome victory,” 32–18. “After the match,” the Chronicle noted, “the club marched to the ferry, headed by a band of music, and followed by a large and enthusiastic crowd.”55 

It seemed that “the colored element in the fraternity” was winning the acceptance and, occasionally, the respect of baseball audiences. The Pythians decided that the time was right to seek official recognition. The Pennsylvania State Association of Base Ball Players, a subsidiary of the national organization, held a convention in Harrisburg in the middle of October.

Although the famous Athletics, led by Hayhurst, their president, had agreed to sponsor the application of the Pythians, it soon became apparent that the idea was unpopular with most of the delegates. As Pythian secretary Jacob White Jr. later reported:

Whilst the Committee on Credentials were making up their report, the delegates clustered together in small groups to discuss what action should be taken. Sec. Domer stated although he, Mr. Hayhurst, and the President were in favor of our acceptance, still the majority of the delegates were opposed to it, and they would advise me to withdraw my application, as they thought it were better for us to withdraw than to have it on record that we were black balled.

Instructed to “fight if there was a chance,” White finally relented, as “there seemed no chance for any thing but being black balled.”

Your delegate feels bound to state that all the delegates seemed disposed to show their sympathy and respect for our club by showing him every possible courtesy and kindness.  While at dinner Messrs Hayhurst and Rogers and others invited him to attend the base ball match that was to be played that afternoon in company with them.

The rest of the Pythian club visited Harrisburg the following week, besting the local Monrovians 59–27.

On October 31, the Chronicle continued its coverage of “the championship of colored clubs,” this time between the Uniques and Monitors for the honors in Brooklyn.

This match has been the theme of comment for some time in colored circles. The play exhibited on both sides was very creditable at first, but afterwards the Uniques failed to play up their mark, and did some very bad muffing. The Monitors outplayed them at all points, but especially in batting, which, in the latter part of the match, they did in terrific style. The Monitors began to draw away from their opponents, who became demoralized, and their contest ceased, although play continued.56

The National Association of Base Ball Players met in Philadelphia for the first time that December. Mr. Arthur Pue Gorman, of the Nationals, presided. 

When the roll was called each prominent club was applauded. The Athletics, Quaker Citys, Keystones, Nationals, Mutuals, Atlantics, Unions, and other well-known clubs received an ovation, also the delegates from Oregon and Omaha. The report of the Nominating Committee in which they decided not to admit clubs with colored delegates, was adopted.57


45. Casway, J. 2007. “Octavius Catto and the Pythians of Philadephia,” Pennsylvania Legacies 7.1.

46. Christian Recorder: June 1, 1867.

47. Ball Players’ Chronicle: July 4, 1867.

48. Utica Morning Herald: Nov. 3, 1867.

49. Astifan 2000, 8.

50. New York Clipper: July 13, 1867.

51. Casway 2007.

52. Utica Morning Herald: Aug. 27, 1867.

53. Ball Players’ Chronicle: Oct. 10, 1867.

54. New York Clipper: Oct. 19, 1867.

55. Ball Players’ Chronicle: Oct. 17, 1867.

56. Ibid.: Oct. 31, 1867.

57. “Report of Delegate to President and Members of Pythian Club. Dec. 18, 1867.”

[End of Part 4; concluding part 5 tomorrow!]

Blood and Base Ball, Part 3

Blood and Base Ball, Part 3

Randall Brown

This important article first appeared in the journal Base Ball, Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2009. It is reprinted with the kind permission of the publisher, McFarland & Co. Randall Brown majored in American Studies at Wesleyan and is still addicted to history. His discovery of an obscure 1887 interview with William Wheaton, the first umpire, led to an article, “How Baseball Began,” in the 2004 issue of The National Pastime. Brown’s articles on local history have appeared in The Staten Island Historian and the Santa Cruz History Journal, and he recently completed the documentary How Base Ball Was Born, featuring the story of Wheaton and the New York Base Ball Club. Part 2 of this article ran yesterday and may be linked directly at:

When the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, the effort was redoubled. Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts, a longtime Abolitionist, won permission to raise a regiment in his state. As there were relatively few blacks in the state, the rolls were opened up to volunteers from all quarters. Recruits from Philadelphia shipped out in small squads under cover of night to avoid incidents.

Douglass volunteered to raise at least one company of men from the state of New York. The first to sign up was his son Charles, then 18, and Charles’ brother Lewis soon joined him. For two months the famous orator stumped the state, picking up new soldiers in railroad strongholds like Buffalo, Albany, Little Falls, and Canajoharie. By the end of April he had sent more than a hundred men to Boston.

On May 28, Douglass traveled to Boston to see his children march off to war. Lewis had been promoted to sergeant-major, while Charles served as an orderly to Colonel Robert Shaw and his fellow officers.31

As Lee’s Confederates headed for the Maryland border that June, “a company of colored men” appeared at the City Arsenal in Philadelphia and applied for guns and uniforms. They were fitted out without question and sent to Harrisburg, but were sent home by the governor. A week later, at the insistence of the federal government, the unit was finally mustered.

A circular was issued by community leaders. It read in part:

This is our golden moment. The Government of the United States calls for every able-bodied colored man to enter the army for the three years’ service, and join in fighting the battles of Liberty and the Union. A new era is open to us. For generations we have suffered under the horrors of slavery, outrage, and wrong. If we love our country, if we love our families, our children, our homes, we must strike now while the country calls.

Joining Douglass in signing the call were James Needham, Rev. William T. Catto, and Jacob C. White; the names of younger men appeared as well: O. V. Catto, I. D. Cliff, J. C. White Jr., Jesse Glasgow.

During July 1863 the Civil War was fought north of the Mason–Dixon line. After three incredibly bloody days at Gettysburg, Lee’s army retreated to Virginia, pursued by the exhausted victors. From the 13th to the 16th, New York City was the scene of intense street fighting as antiwar mobs looted, burned, and lynched. On Staten Island, home of Francis Shaw, father of the 54th Massachusetts Colonel, word spread that a mob was coming “to make war on Extreme Republicans. …As the story spread, it took the shape that every Republican and every rich man must suffer, and every Negro must die.”32

Many fled to the woods, swamps, and hills, but others fought. Snipers defended the narrow streets of Greenwich Village and the downtown offices of the Tribune. Victims of the deadly violence along the Brooklyn waterfront and in Williamsburgh found a refuge in Weeksville, where heavily armed patrols guarded the streets.

On the morning of July 18, in South Carolina, the 54th Massachusetts assaulted Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold in Charleston harbor. Lewis Douglass was with the vanguard that reached the parapet of the fort and somehow survived the hail of fire that killed Colonel Shaw and drove back the charge.

Despite the presence of soldiers, violence persisted in New York and Brooklyn. Cricket, clearly a pastime of the idle rich, was targeted in Brooklyn. “Early in the morning of July 23,” reported the Clipper, “the club house of the Satellite Cricket Club was set on fire by some unknown person and destroyed.” It was the opinion of the editor that “the incendiary should be bowled out with a cricket ball in his corpse.”33

There were arguments against enlistment in the Colored Troops. The pay was unequal, the officers were white, and, if taken prisoner, the soldier might be shot immediately or sold into slavery. As the summer unfolded, however, more and more young men were convinced to take up arms. Thirteen-year-old Simpson Younger signed on as a drummer with the 27th Colored Infantry. Frank Stewart joined the 14th Rhode Island Infantry, earning a promotion to sergeant before the war’s end. In New York and Brooklyn, a whole regiment, 1,000 strong, was raised. “Eight months ago,” the Times observed in March 1864, “the African race in this City were literally hunted down like wild beasts, now they marched in solid platoons.”34

For many years Emancipation Day—the anniversary of the end of slavery in the British West Indies—had been the equivalent of a national holiday for black Americans. As one woman explained to a reporter from the Eagle, “You have the 4th of July, we have the 1st of August.” From all parts of the greater New York region, people flocked to Brooklyn’s Myrtle Park to hear orations, dance to band music, eat, and drink. It was also an occasion for sports. “A little further on,” the correspondent noted, “a baseball game was being played between some picked darkies of Brooklyn and Williamsburgh.”35

When Frederick Douglass met Abraham Lincoln in the summer of 1863 to report on the progress and problems of his recruiting efforts, he was pleasantly surprised. The President listened sympathetically and spoke frankly, without “airs.” A year later, he decided to bring a personal concern to Lincoln’s attention.

As a boy, Charles Douglass had survived a bout of typhoid fever, and the conditions of military life had again compromised his health. He had missed the assault on Fort Wagner due to illness, before transferring from the 54th Infantry to a cavalry unit. Most of his time in the service had been spent guarding prisoners at a Maryland camp, not far from his father’s plantation birthplace.

“Now Mr. President,” wrote the worried parent on August 29, 1864,

I hope I shall not presume too much upon your kindness—but I have a very great favor to ask—that you will cause my son Charles, 1st Sergeant of Company I, 5th Massachusetts, colored cavalry (dismounted) to be discharged. He is now sick. He was the first colored volunteer from the State of New York—he was but 18 when he enlisted and has been in the service 18 months. If your Excellency can confer this favor, you will lay me under great obligation.36

The request was promptly granted.

Baseball was more popular than ever in the summer of 1865. The recognized champions of the game were the Brooklyn clubs—the Excelsiors, Atlantics, and Eckfords. This was partly a matter of improved playing grounds. During the war several skating ponds had been drained and converted into enclosed ball fields. The Union and Capitoline Grounds not only accommodated more spectators than the Elysian Fields; the owners could also charge admission. Although professionals were officially banned, a share of the gate money helped the more successful clubs recruit new talent.

The Unknowns, the Monitors, and the Unique club of Williamsburgh were in the field that season, but little trace of their activities can be found in the papers of the day. Ball games were played on Emancipation Day, when, the Eagle admitted, “20,000 colored gathered in two suburban Brooklyn parks.”37

The local attitude was embodied by Hooley’s Minstrels, housed in a theater near the Brooklyn ball fields. Their specialty was a burlesque baseball game between the “Atlantics” and their current challenger. Star “Cool” White played the umpire, mimicking the style of Henry “Salt Chad” Chadwick. Like other professionals with afternoons off, the actors formed a baseball club and, on September 18, took on the Wood’s Minstrel nine at the Capitoline Grounds. “On account of the well known opposition to colored ball players,” the Eagle informed the public, “the nines will appear in white faces, returning to cork in the evening.”38

Baseball fever had spread down the eastern seaboard. The roster of 202 clubs in the National Association of Base Ball Players included 48 from Pennsylvania and 26 from New Jersey, as well as the National Club of Washington DC, which played on a field behind the White House.

The old townball clubs of Philadelphia—the Olympic and Athletic—had converted to the New York game, encouraged by a visit from the Excelsiors of Brooklyn in 1860. The Athletics had returned the favor during the war, challenging the Brooklyn clubs on their home turf.

The fight to end slavery became, for some, a struggle for civil rights—voting, education, equal accommodations. In Philadelphia, one “colored citizen” held a sit-in on a streetcar. “The conductor,” according to the New York Times, “ran the car off the track, detached the horses, and left the colored man to occupy the car all by himself. The matter created quite a sensation in the neighborhood where the car is standing, and crowds of sympathizers flocked around the colored man.”39

Some young people preferred to leaven their politics with social activities. Sporting events—once associated with occasional celebrations—had by now become an established institution in their own right. In Rochester, Frank Stewart and Charles Douglass organized the Unexpected Club, which challenged local rivals, including a club from the resort town of Niagara Falls.40

Like the first baseball clubs, the Bachelors of Albany and the Excelsior Club of Philadelphia enjoyed banquets and balls when not practicing in the field. At first, these respectable events received more coverage from the Christian Recorder than the ballgames themselves: “Jan. 27, 1866. A ball was given on Thanksgiving evening by the Bachelor Base Ball Club at Bleecker Hall—a great credit to the President, James C. Matthews and associates. It was their first effort and will undoubtedly be repeated.”41

With practice came confidence and a desire for tests of skill. On June 30, the clubs of Philadelphia were advised that:

The Bachelor’s Base Ball club of this Albany, comprising some of our best and most enterprising young townsmen, is making extensive arrangements to visit New York, Baltimore, and your city this Fall for the purpose of achieving a more perfect union between these cities in social games of the beautiful and manly sport of Base Ball.42

In Brooklyn, the Eagle carried on as usual. “The darkies are holding high festival today in the parks in this vicinity,” reported the paper of August 1, 1866. A highlight of the event at Myrtle Park was the presentation of “a silver cup to the Van Delken base ball club, the winners of a game played during the afternoon with a picked nine.” There was another rare mention of a colored club on September 8, when an item noted that “the Unknown Base Ball Club has changed their name to the Mutual Base Ball Club.”43

Some observers had been pleased to learn that former Confederates had formed baseball clubs of their own, hoping that Reconstruction would lead to healthy competition between Northern and Southern clubs. As it turned out, in September 1866, various gentlemen in Virginia expressed their political opinion by refusing challenges from pro-Union clubs. In response to the snub, a correspondent of the Clipper offered the following remarks:

Base Ball in Black. Among the clubs of Pennsylvania are the Monrovia Club, of Harrisburg, and the Shaw Club, of Carlisle, both composed of respectable colored men, who purpose playing a grand match together for the State championship of the colored clubs next month. There are several clubs in this state, also, composed of colored men, and they play a very good game. Now, as the Richmond and Old Dominion Clubs have declined to meet the Union Club, of Richmond, (an organization composed of loyal Southerners and Northerners), it has been suggested that a more suitable match might be arranged by pitting one of our colored nines against the flower of the Richmond and Old Dominion Clubs, providing the “boys in black” interpose no obstacle. What say the parties interested?44


31. Quarles 1968, 177–178.

32. Diary of William Oliffe: Harbor Ghosts, “The Civil War on Staten Island.”

33. New York Clipper: Aug. 1, 1863.

34. Frazier 2004, 81; Rochester Union and Advertiser: Sept. 14, 1871; New York Times: Mar. 6, 1864.

35. Brooklyn Eagle: Aug. 2, 1864.

36. McFeely, W. 1991. Frederick Douglass (p. 230).

37. Brooklyn Eagle: Aug. 2, 1865.

38. Ibid.: Sept. 18, 1865.

39. New York Times: May 18, 1865.

40. Astifan 2000, 8.

41. Christian Recorder: Jan. 27, 1866.

42. Ibid.: June 30, 1866.

43. Brooklyn Eagle: Aug. 1, 1866; Sept. 8, 1866.

44. New York Clipper: Oct. 13, 1866.

 [End of Part 3; part 4 tomorrow!]


Blood and Base Ball, Part 2

Blood and Base Ball, Part 2

Randall Brown

This important article first appeared in the journal Base Ball, Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2009. It is reprinted with the kind permission of the publisher, McFarland & Co. Randall Brown majored in American Studies at Wesleyan and is still addicted to history. His discovery of an obscure 1887 interview with William Wheaton, the first umpire, led to an article, “How Baseball Began,” in the 2004 issue of The National Pastime. Brown’s articles on local history have appeared in The Staten Island Historian and the Santa Cruz History Journal, and he recently completed the documentary How Base Ball Was Born, featuring the story of Wheaton and the New York Base Ball Club. Part 1 of this article commenced yesterday and may be linked directly at:

In July 1858, the clubs of the National Association of Base Ball Players decided to promote the game by sponsoring a “Grand Base Ball Demonstration,” with the best New York players pitted against the elite of the Brooklyn clubs. The press release announced:

It was resolved to play a grand match on the Fashion Race Course, it being a neutral ground, and sufficiently large. No intoxicating liquors or gambling will be allowed. A nominal charge of 10 cents and fee of 20 cents for 1 horse and 40 for two horse vehicles to be collected. Surplus funds will be equally divided by New York and Brooklyn clubs and by them presented to the widows and orphans funds of the Fire Departments of the two cities.16

The demonstration was a grand success:

At an early hour, the roads leading to the Fashion Course exhibited unusual signs of animation, vehicles of every conceivable description being called into requisition to convey the thousands of spectators to the scene of contest. Many of the Base Ball Clubs had chartered large omnibuses, which were decorated in various ways. Pedestrians could be seen in hundreds and thousands making their way to the battle ground.17

Contingents from the nearby villages of Weeksville and Jamaica were most likely among those walking to the event. Separate accommodations for “colored” passengers on the streetcars and railroad were scarce even on less busy days.

Although the match went to the New York nine, it created a demand for more baseball in Brooklyn. In early August, while negotiations were underway for a rematch, notice of another new club was received by the Clipper and the Eagle. “A Base Ball Club,” noted the latter, “was organized Monday 9th inst. under the title of ‘Unknown Base Ball Club’, with the election of the following officers: Benjamin C. Poole, President, Silas Wright, V.P., J. Nelson Edgar, secretary, John Poole Jr., treasurer.” The Clipper also noted that the members would meet for practice three times a week, from 4:00–8:00 a.m. The club’s address was in the city itself, but the players were mostly residents of Weeksville.18

The various clubs relied on their corresponding secretaries to arrange matches and to keep the press aware of their activities. The April 1859 election of Silas Wright and other officers of the Unknown Club was duly noted in the Eagle, but the rest of the season was marked by silence from the various local papers and sporting journals. Had they learned that Wright, a weigher of grain, and his teammates were “men of color”?19

What if the Unknown Club had wanted to participate in the baseball convention held that spring at Cooper Institute? To join the National Association, a club was required “to present a written application, signed by its President and Secretary, setting forth the name, date of organization, days and place of playing, names of its officers and delegates, and the number of members composing it, which shall be immediately submitted to the Committee on Nominations.” The three-man committee was given the power to blackball applicants and used it freely in the early years.

When the Anglo-African, published by the Hamilton brothers, arrived on the scene in July 1859, the Unknown Club was developing a rivalry with the Henson Club of Jamaica, named for its founder, waiter Robert Henson. On November 15, the Abolitionist paper reported on a match between the two clubs in Jamaica, apparently the second of a home-and-home series, “which resulted in another victory for the Hensons.”21

Like the gentlemen of the Knickerbockers and Gothams, the Queens nine decided to celebrate their victory in style:

It was the intention of the club to give a ball but the prejudice is so strong here at present against colored people that they were denied the use of the hall for that purpose, but after obtaining it (for a banquet) some 2 or 3 young Anglo-Africans bent on having some fun for their money commenced whistling the Tiger Polker and availing themselves of the music, some of the gentlemen took partners and danced till the music ceased for want of an extra pair of bellows to keep it going.

Another club from Williamsburgh, known as the Union Club, challenged the Unknowns during the 1860 season. The two Brooklyn clubs traveled to the Elysian Fields in New Jersey to play their match, an 11–0 triumph for the Unknowns.22

The death of the editor of the weekly Anglo-African led to further obscurity for the Unknowns and Hensons, but they were soon joined by several similar clubs, including the Hamiltons of Newark and the Monitors.

It was not until October 17, 1862, that a reporter from the Brooklyn Eagle sent out to cover a postponed match in Bedford filed a story entitled: “A New Sensation in Base Ball Circles. Sambo as Ballplayer and Dinah as Emulator. Unknown of Weeksville vs. Monitor of Brooklyn.” 

Our reporter noticed a crowd assembled on the grounds in the vicinity of the Yukaton Skating Pond, and found a match in progress between the Unknown and Monitor Clubs, both of African descent. Quite a large assemblage encircled the contestants, who were every one as black as the ace of spades. Among the assemblage, we noticed several old and well-known players, who seemed to enjoy the game more heartily than if they had been the players themselves. The dusky contestants enjoyed the game hugely, and to use a common phrase, they “did the thing genteely”. It would have done Beecher, Greeley, or any other of the luminaries of the radical Republican party good to have been present. The playing was quite spirited, and fate decreed a victory for the Unknowns.23

The parents of the first free generation provided education with a vengeance, knowing its value from experience. Having been told by his master that “reading would make him unfit for a slave,” Frederick Douglass taught himself to read on the sly. William T. Catto, born in South Carolina, was allowed to read the Bible and to acquire sufficient mathematical skill to practice the trade of millwright. After buying his release, he studied theology and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. Even slave-owner Charles Lee Younger, of Jackson County, Missouri, saw the need to secure liberty with education.

Born in Virginia in 1783, Younger fathered 18 acknowledged children by four women. He married the first two then left the second for a mistress. His last son and daughter resulted from an affair with his mulatto slave, Elizabeth. Having promised to emancipate his lover and her children, he called a lawyer to his deathbed to add a clause providing generously for their upbringing. Son Simpson and daughter Catherine were to live in a free state and, at the age of 12, be sent “to a college of high grade, at which they may receive a classical education.” Despite the objections of his second wife and first mistress, the will was upheld and his former property took up residence in Oberlin, Ohio.24

Reverend Catto left the South about 1840 with his wife and infant son, Octavius. The family settled in Philadelphia, where Catto, an inspiring speaker, became active in the antislavery fight. Like fellow conspirators Robert Purvis, Jacob White, and James Needham, he enrolled his son in the recently established Institute for Colored Youth. Housed in new brick buildings in the heart of the city, the Institute offered one high school and one preparatory school for each sex. Although some graduates pursued degrees in medicine or law, over half of the students became teachers. After graduation, prize pupil Octavius Catto was asked to return as an instructor.25

The Institute for Colored Youth agreed with the Clipper’s opinion that “it would be an addition to every school if each had a cricket or base ball club attached to it as in England.” During Catto’s school days (1854–1858), the sport of choice, as it was for most ballplaying Philadelphians before 1860, was cricket. The wealthy, half-Scottish Purvis family, benefactors of the ICY, were fond of the British pastime, a younger member having played with the local Pythian Cricket Club.26

As his five children—two girls and three boys—grew up in Rochester, Frederick Douglass tried various approaches to schooling. Finding the local colored facilities inadequate, he enrolled his daughter in boarding school, only to learn that she was being taught separately. Private tutors provided a temporary solution while he worked to integrate the city’s public schools. The campaign was successful in 1857, too late to fully benefit 17-year-old Louis and Frederick Jr., a year younger, who were apprentice printers at his newspaper office, but just in time for Charles at age 12. It is likely that he learned baseball as a high school student.

Rochester had been home to baseball clubs since the 1820s, and by the mid-1850s the city’s players were enthusiastically adopting the modern New York game. The elite Live Oak and Flour City clubs even played winter matches on the ice. Printers from the various local papers, idle during afternoon hours, challenged each other on the diamond. There were several old-style private clubs, whose members competed with each other. Frederick Douglass Jr. joined the integrated Charter Oak Juniors, serving as the club’s secretary. In 1859, Charles became a member along with Frank Stewart, a friend of his brother.27

The Douglass brothers were enlisted in the Underground Railroad at early ages. When fugitives arrived at the family home, the boys carried notes to those responsible for the next leg of their journeys to Canada. In December 1856, John Brown, a longtime friend of their father, came to visit. He stayed for the rest of the winter, insisting on paying rent, while he developed plans for a slave uprising. Frederick Douglass stated that he was usually too busy to listen, but his sons were fascinated by the veteran Abolitionist’s tales of fighting in Kansas and his idea of attacking slaveholders from strongholds in the Appalachians.

Brown was ready to act in the fall of 1859. During the months of preparation he stopped in Rochester from time to time, where Charles acted as a courier for the various conspirators. Just before the attack, Frederick Douglass met with his old friend at a hideout near the Maryland border. Abandoning his idea of mountain forts, Brown had fixed on seizing the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. To Douglass, the idea was suicidal and he said so, before heading back to Philadelphia.

When the raid failed, Frederick Douglass was warned that Brown had dropped his name to authorities (as well as that of Joshua Giddings). A sympathetic telegrapher held up an arrest warrant while he took the first train out of Philadelphia, fleeing through Hoboken to avoid New York City, stopping briefly at home before conducting himself to Canada.28

During the first two years of the Civil War, Douglass spoke out in favor of arming his people. He denounced those who “claimed in one breath that Negroes won’t fight, and in the next that if you arm them, they’ll become dangerous.”29

Philadelphians had personal experience in the matter. In 1859, a local colored militia unit had won permission to carry weapons, only to have them taken away “in consequence of the Harper’s Ferry affair.”30


16. Brooklyn Eagle: July 10, 1858.

17. New York Clipper: July 24, 1858.

18. Ibid.: Aug. 18, 1858; Brooklyn Eagle: Aug. 17, 1858.

19. Brooklyn Eagle: Apr. 12, 1859; 1860 US Census, Kings County N.Y. 9th Ward.

20. New York Times: Mar. 10, 1859; New York Clipper: Apr. 1859.

21. Weekly Anglo-African: Nov. 15, 1859.

22. Dixon and Hannigan. 1992. The Negro Baseball Leagues: A Photographic History.

23. Brooklyn Eagle: Oct. 17, 1862.

24. Frazier, H. 2004. Runaway and Freed Missouri Slaves and Those Who Helped Them (pp. 80–81).

25. Address by O. Catto, “Our Alma Mater,” May 10, 1864.

26. New York Clipper: Nov. 21, 1857.

27. Astifan, P. 2000. “Base Ball in the 19th Century, Part Two,” Rochester History (p. 7).

28. Chicago Defender: Dec. 4, 1920. Quarles, B. 1968. Frederick Douglass (p. 173).

29. Quarles 1968, 177–178.

30. Brooklyn Eagle: Oct. 22, 1859.

[End of Part 2; part 3 tomorrow!]

Blood and Base Ball

Blood and Base Ball

Randall Brown

This important article first appeared in the journal Base Ball, Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2009. It is reprinted with the kind permission of the publisher, McFarland & Co. Randall Brown majored in American Studies at Wesleyan and is still addicted to history. His discovery of an obscure 1887 interview with William Wheaton, the first umpire, led to an article, “How Baseball Began,” in the 2004 issue of The National Pastime. Brown’s articles on local history have appeared in The Staten Island Historianand the Santa Cruz History Journal, and he recently completed the documentary How Base Ball Was Born, featuring the story of Wheaton and the New York Base Ball Club.

Before the Civil War, the most popular outdoor activity in New York City may have been fighting. The prize ring was popular, but rioting in streets and public squares attracted more participants. In fact, there was little distinction between professional pugilists and gang brawlers. Heavyweights like John Morrissey were also employed as “shoulder-hitters” by political gangs like the Empire Club, run by Captain Isaiah Rynders, a leading Democrat, or the Short Boys of Bill “the Butcher” Poole, hero of the Know-Nothings.

Rynders and his crew delighted in attacking abolitionist gatherings. In May 1850 they showed up in force at an antislavery convention at the Broadway Tabernacle. Speaker Frederick Douglass defused the attack by inviting a racist orator to share the platform. To the argument that Negroes were a kind of ape, Douglass, whose father was probably a slave-owner, responded:

“Captain Rynders, do you think I am a monkey?”

“Oh no,” replied Rynders, “you are half a white man.”

“Then I am half man and half monkey?”


“And half brother to Captain Rynders?”

With the audience “united in laughter and applause,” Douglass spoke his piece. It was a short-lived triumph, however. Threats of mayhem truncated the conference and, several days later, while walking with two white women in Battery Park, Douglass was assaulted.1

A year later, on May 27, 1851, the Elysian Fields in Hoboken was the scene of what the Brooklyn Eagle described as

…one of the most earnest and angry promiscuous fights that has ever occurred in this country. The Germans of this city, with their families, assembled in large numbers in Hoboken, for the celebration of their Maifest. Scarcely two hours had elapsed when they were set upon by a party of rascals called “Short Boys.” 

At first the Germans were disposed to avoid a conflict, but finding it impossible to do so, they sallied out against them, and drove them to the Elysian Fields. The Short Boys took refuge in a house kept by one McCarthy, which was attacked by the Germans, and greatly injured. McCarthy, in defense of himself and his house, shot two of the Germans with a double barreled gun, killing them, it is said.2

Fortunately, this incident did not disrupt the plans of the tenants of the Club Room at McCarty’s Colonnade House. The Knickerbocker Base Ball Club had been challenged to play a home-and-home series by the recently formed Washington Club. After a promising start, the Knickerbockers had been, in the words of D. L. Adams, in “pursuit of pleasure under difficulties.” “There was then no rivalry,” he recalled, “as no other club was formed until 1850, and during these five years baseball had a desperate struggle for existence.”3

It happened that the first match, on June 3, was an away game at the Red House Grounds in Harlem. Down 7–3 after two innings, the Knickerbockers rallied to win 21–11. Two weeks later, the clubs met for a thrilling return match at the Elysian Fields, with the home club managing a 22–20 victory. As usual, “an entertainment was given after play at McCarty’s Hotel.”

Since 1844, the waiters at the Colonnade House had been privy to the world of the New York and Knickerbocker Base Ball clubs, had watched their game develop in the neighboring fields, and were a fixture at the convivial dinners when plays and points were reviewed. The Stevens family, like many upper-class New Yorkers, employed colored help. Michael McCarty, born inIreland, employed his countrymen as barkeepers but conformed to the expectations of his gentlemen patrons by hiring black servants (including live-in waiter Jeremiah Jackson).

This link between early baseball and black New Yorkers was soon severed, however. On March 7, 1852, the Brooklyn Eagle reported that “Mr. McCarty of the Elysian Fields Hotel, was accidentally shot and killed by his own act yesterday.” Sarah McCarty, 27 years old with four children under the age of nine, was left in charge. Persuaded to change her hiring policies in the spring, she soon regretted her decision. The Eagle described the July 4 incident in the following terms:

Another fatal affray occurred at the Elysian Fields. It appears that Mrs. McCarthy has of late discharged all her old waiters, who were colored men, and employed white ones, who were principally Irish, in their places; but not being satisfied with them, she discharged them, and recalled the colored ones. This gave great offence to the white waiters; and while four of the colored men were sent on an errand, they were attacked by a large number of white waiters, and one of the white men, named Robert Canton, plunged a knife into the left breast of Williams, who exclaimed as he was falling—“Oh my God, I am a dead man”. He was immediately carried to the hotel, and every attention paid to him by Mrs. McCarthy, but he died in twenty minutes after.4

The following day, the Knickerbocker Base Ball club hired a boat for a field trip. As noted by Charles Peverelly, “The members celebrated the 4th of July, 1852 by proceeding to Bath, L. I., on the 5th of July to enjoy a dinner and a game of ball.”5

Slaves and freemen alike were familiar with variations of the old-fashioned game of base ball from which the New York Game evolved. For most members of either group, leisure time was a rare and valued commodity. In his “Narrative,” Frederick Douglass observed that “the days between Christmas and New Year’s day are allowed as holidays. This time we regarded as our own, and we therefore used or abused it nearly as we pleased.”

To Douglass, writing in 1845, there was something dubious about holiday pastimes. He noted that while “the staid, sober, thinking and industrious ones” found time for constructive activities,

…by far the larger part engaged in such sports and merriments as playing ball, wrestling, running foot-races, fiddling, dancing, and drinking whisky. A slave who would work during the holidays was considered as scarcely deserving them. It was deemed a disgrace not to get drunk at Christmas.”6

In New York City, where slavery had ended in 1827, Sunday was the usual day off. Some attended church while others spent their time playing. To the dismay of the serious-minded, the fields near Madison Square—home of the Gotham Base Ball Club and the St. George Cricket Club—also attracted black ballplayers from Greenwich Village. On October 24, 1840, the editor of the Colored American spoke out on the subject of “Sabbath Intruders”:

We wish to call attention to the practice of the lads of our City, who, in great numbers, are resorting to the suburbs of the city, as high as 25th or 30th street, for the purpose of ball playing. And we wish the parents of our people to look well to their boys, some of who[m], we are informed by a friend, as well as by the Journal of Commerce, have been seen in those sections of the City, on the Sabbath, playing ball.7

Serious matters concerned the elders of Long Island, where slaves had helped establish prosperous farms. The crossroads town of Jamaica, Queens, housed a variety of neighborhoods. In 1853, “a number of colored people” there petitioned the village trustees, “praying that we may be protected by the law from being beaten by a certain body or club of men. If you cannot protect us we must protect ourselves for we cannot be beaten.”

On the outskirts of Brooklyn, part of the Lefferts farm had been purchased in 1838 by stevedore James Weeks, who subdivided the property into lots and sold them to fellow blacks. Education was a primary concern of these residents. One of the first buildings in Weeksville was a school, which doubled as a house of worship on Sundays. Commencement Day at Public School #1 was a big event, celebrated with orations. In February 1856, the schoolhouse burned down. “It is supposed,” commented the Eagle, “to have been set on fire.”8

Many felt it was a duty to help those still in bondage. The Abolitionists actively sought public support. Douglass was the best-known spokesman, but Jacob White, Charles Lenox Remond, Rev. William T. Catto, and others promoted the antislavery cause wherever they found an audience. In Philadelphia, home of the nation’s largest free black population, Robert Purvis, Jacob White, James Needham, and a score of others were actively involved in helping escapees.

When the Fugitive Slave Act allowed posses to track fleeing property to the Canadian border, leaders of the Underground Railroad stationed themselves on the northern edges of New York and Ohio. Douglass, in Rochester, was joined as a conductor by white sympathizers including New Yorkers Gerrit Smith of Peterboro, Thurlow Weed at Albany, John Brown at North Elba, and Hon. Joshua Giddings of Jefferson, Ohio. Congressman Giddings, enjoying his immunity from prosecution, told his colleagues in Washington: “I have seen as many as nine fugitives dining at one time in my house. I fed them. I clothed them, gave them money for their journey, and sent them on their way rejoicing.”9

Giddings believed in mixing work and play. As 19th century biographer G.W. Julian observed:

The summer adjournment of Congress was always the signal at Jefferson for the opening of the base ball season. The game was then played with a soft ball, which was thrown at the player on the run. Being left-handed, Giddings usually took the boys at a disadvantage, as the ball often came where it was not looked for. It was hard to tell which was the more boyish, he or those with whom he played, who generally ranged from 15 to 25 “without distinction as to race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”10

On July 30, 1859, the Anglo-African of New York described one of these games, noting that “the venerable Joshua R. Giddings made the highest score, never missing the ball when it came to him.”11

The initial outbreak of baseball fever began in 1853 when the Knickerbockers answered the challenge of the revived Gotham Club, successors to the Washingtons. The rivalry was a satisfying one. In November a new club, the Eagles, asked for a committee to clarify the 1845 rules. When the work was done, the clubs offered copies to the Spirit of the Times and other sporting papers.

The matches of 1854 showcased baseball brilliantly. The Gothams took the first game of the series 21–16 but lost at Elysian Fields in September. Intended as a tiebreaker, the game on October 26 lasted 12 innings, with each club scoring 12 runs. Spectators came in increasing numbers to see what W. H. Van Cott of the Gothams called “friendly, but spirited trials of skill.”12

The game spread rapidly during the next two years. New clubs—the Excelsior, the Putnam, the Eckford, the Star, the Harmonic, the Baltic, the Empire—occupied fields in Brooklyn, upper Manhattan, and the Elysian Fields. In January 1857, Adamsand the Knickerbockers called for a convention of baseball clubs. “Fourteen separate and independent organizations,” noted the New York Herald, “were represented last evening, and it was stated that others would have been present but for distance, or the impossibility of getting home the same night.”13

A second convention was held in March 1858. The 22 clubs voted “to declare the Convention a permanent organization.” Article 1 of the new constitution established the title “National Association of Base Ball Players.”14

“National indeed!” sniffed the Clipper.

Why the association is a mere local organization. If the real lovers of the beautiful and health-provoking game of base ball wish to see the sport diffuse itself over the country—as Cricket is fast doing—they must cut loose from those parties who wish to arrogate to themselves the right to act for, and dictate to all who participate in the game. These few dictators wish to ape the New York Yacht Club in their feelings of exclusiveness—we presume.15


1. Holland, F. 1891. Frederick Douglass, the Colored Orator (1970 reprint) (p. 182).

2. Brooklyn Eagle:May 27, 1851.

3. Sporting News: Feb. 1896.

4. Brooklyn Eagle: July 5, 1852.

5. Peverelly, C. 1866. Book of American Pastimes (p. 345).

6. Douglass, F. 1845. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1995 reprint) (p. 44).

7. The Colored American: Oct. 24, 1840.

8. Brooklyn Eagle: Feb. 18, 1856.

9. Blackson, C. The Underground Railroad.

10. Julian, G. 1892. Life of Joshua R. Giddings.

11. Weekly Anglo-African: July 30, 1859.

12. Spirit of the Times: Dec. 23, 1854.

13. Ibid.: Jan. 31, 1857.

14. New York Clipper: Apr. 24, 1858.

15. Ibid.: Apr. 3, 1858.

[End of Part 1; part 2 tomorrow!]


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