Inventing Baseball

Inventing Baseball, SABR

Inventing Baseball, SABR

This is the foreword I provided to Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the Nineteenth Century, a book published this week by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). I post it to Our Game for its own interest, but also to suggest that 19th-century baseball will hold considerable fascination for any fan of today’s game. My additional sly motive is to persuade those of you who are not yet SABR members that you consider joining; see

Modern baseball—the very mention of that hideous phrase will curl the lip of any real historian of the game, and ought to bring a sickly silence upon any who would consider a truncated set of great players, great seasons, great moments. And yet “modern baseball” has attained a broad currency among journalists, announcers, even advanced fans, for whom the term may signify different things. Some will hold that modern baseball begins with the turn of the century in 1901, for no other reason than the march of time. Others will say that modern baseball begins with the first World Series in 1903, ignoring the reality of postseason championships played under that and other names since 1884. Some will hold out for 1920, when Babe Ruth came to New York, hit 54 home runs, and single-handedly, in an instant, swept out the deadball era. The socially conscious fan will aver that until Jackie Robinson stepped on a big-league field on April 15, 1947, major league baseball was bush league. Others will point to the first year of expansion, 1961, as the dawn of the modern game.

Among those in this Baseball Babel, however, one truth is held in common: the national pastime of the 19th century was a morass of quaint custom, ill-considered rules, unmatchable records, and unconscionable exclusion. Major League Baseball’s record keepers, when they proclaim new “firsts” or search the archives to find an appealing nugget for broadcast chatter, dismiss the passé century without a moment’s misgiving.

Polo Grounds, Opening Day, April 29, 1886. Photographer Richard Hoe Lawrence

Polo Grounds, Opening Day, April 29, 1886. Photographer Richard Hoe Lawrence

This book, then, stands as something of a corrective. Its title, Inventing Baseball, is in part ironic, as the game was not invented but instead evolved. Yet it is a fine title, because baseball continued to change in so many fascinating ways, from the 1840s on, that an air of invention could be said to have characterized the entire era. Not only was baseball’s rise and flower unsteady and halting, its status as the nation’s game was by no means guaranteed by the creation of what only much later came to be called Major League Baseball. Baseball’s fate hung in the balance as the 20th century dawned, following upon a brutal decade of interleague warfare and suicidal cartel practices, and contemporary observers thought that college football or competitive bicycling might surpass it by the dawn of the new century.

Early baseball, however you define or pinpoint it in the years before 1901, was indeed different from the game we see on the field today, yet there can be no doubt that it was baseball. Players in the big-league parks of the 1880s, packed with thousands of paying spectators, knew they were playing the same game that had been staged for free at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken in the 1840s.

Baseball at the Elysian Fields. Harper's Weekly, 1859.

Baseball at the Elysian Fields. Harper’s Weekly, 1859.

Take a football fan of today to a gridiron contest played by the rules of 1890 and he might fairly say that the game and its equipment were so different from the one he knew that it might not seem to be the same game at all. From the size of the players to the shape of the pigskin bladder, from the ban on passing to the restrictions on substitution to the point values accorded to field goals and touchdowns, football reinvented itself, from a low-scoring game of mass momentum and dangerous formations to one of quick strikes and long gains. The same might be said of basketball at the turn of the century—that with the center jump, lumpy ball, and brutal play at the rim, the low-scoring fracas seemed like football without the padding.

Yet baseball was always baseball, as Bruce Catton noted in American Heritage in 1959:

The neat green field looks greener and cleaner under the lights, the moving players are silhouetted more sharply, and the enduring visual fascination of the game—the immobile pattern of nine men, grouped according to ancient formula and then, suddenly, to the sound of a wooden bat whacking a round ball, breaking into swift ritualized movement, movement so standardized that even the tyro in the bleachers can tell when someone goes off in the wrong direction—this is as it was in the old days. A gaffer from the era of William McKinley, abruptly brought back to the second half of the twentieth century, would find very little in modern life that would not seem new, strange, and rather bewildering, but put in a good grandstand seat back of first base he would see nothing that was not completely familiar.

And that is precisely our point, we several authors of this project, to identify the hundred greatest games before the 20th century, some of them played decades before the idea of league play was even a glimmer in the eye of Harry Wright or William Hulbert. Undertaken by members of the 19th Century Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research, of whom I am proudly one, Inventing Baseball provides the intrepid reader with a peephole into a little known and unfairly neglected period of the game, populated not with old heroes, feats and tales but new ones … or, to paraphrase Satchel Paige—ones that ain’t never been heard of by this generation. Maybe the reader will know King Kelly or Albert Spalding or other men honored today with plaques in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but what of Doc Adams, or Jim Creighton, or Fleet Walker?

June 14, 1870, Reds vs Atlantics

June 14, 1870, Reds vs Atlantics

Until Bobby Thomson hit “the shot heard ’round the world” on October 3, 1951, most veteran baseball observers believed that another game involving Brooklyn—the victory by that city’s Atlantics over the Red Stockings of Cincinnati on June 14, 1870—was the greatest in the game’s history. Where it will rank for the reader as he considers the entire panoply of baseball’s epic contests cannot be guessed, but this writer, who thirty years ago wrote a book titled Baseball’s Ten Greatest Games and was constrained by its publisher from dipping into the 19th century, will find it hard not to include that game in his unconstrained top ten.

Roger Angell wrote an essay for the New Yorker some decades back in which Smokey Joe Wood, hero of the 1912 World Series, sat in the stands watching a dazzling pitching duel between Yale’s Ron Darling and St. John’s Frank Viola. “The Seamless Web” he called his piece, to signify that these three great pitchers, separated by seven decades, belonged to the same fraternity, were made from the same fabric, were part of it. The writers in Inventing Baseball know that Joe Wood was also part of a tradition into which he entered, one that went back to John Clarkson and Hoss Radbourn, to Asa Brainard, Frank Pidgeon and the legendary Creighton. They were heroes all, those who graced the game in its formative years. They lived and labored in a thrilling period of invention. They made the game we love.

And these men deserve to be recalled by all baseball fans of today in their greatest moments, in the glory of our times as well as theirs. To know that Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter are part of a seamless web with Roger Connor and John Ward makes the experience of today’s games richer than merely to compare our stars with those since 1901.

John Clarkson

John Clarkson

Some of the names and games in this book may seem obscure even to knowledgeable enthusiasts (as fans were called before that term was coined in the 1880s), but the story of baseball has been played out on fields other than those of the National League, and by others than those whose playing records may be found in the encyclopedias (because they played “major-league ball” in the years since 1871). The writers/selectors of these hundred games to follow will have their personal favorites, in some measure reflected by their decision to speak for the editor’s assignment of a particular game. But every game reported in this book had numerous advocates and may be commended to your attention.

Editor Bill Felber has charged his crew to select and depict games of historic significance as well as visceral thrills. It would have been easy to choose a hundred cliffhangers, but then we might have overlooked the game that was first to be played before a paid crowd, or the game that for a moment made Fort Wayne the capital of the baseball world, or another in which the forces of good and evil seemed to be pitted against each other (cast in the uniforms of, respectively, Boston and Baltimore) for the National League title of 1897.

I could go on, highlighting more personal favorites or piquant inclusions, but it is time to move on, to read about the first games, or some in the middle, or ones at the end. They are arranged chronologically rather than in any kind of ranking. However, one may dip into this book randomly, as if it were a box of Cracker Jack, and provide oneself with an individualized nonlinear experience.

This is the game we love, we who have compiled this book for you, and the years before 1900 form our favorite period. We may not convince archivists or reporters of Major League Baseball that the early game was as exciting as the one they are covering, but we hope to convince you.

Building a Winning Club in New York: A 1918 Interview with Colonel Jake Ruppert

Colonel Jacob Ruppert in his glory, 1932.

Colonel Jacob Ruppert in his glory, 1932.

What is the importance to Major League Baseball of a successful club in New York? That question has a present-day relevance in the age of revenue sharing, free agency, luxury tax, and cable sports channels. Money may not buy you happiness, but it is certainly an advantage when it comes to building a pennant contender. This eternal verity is on the minds of baseball’s owners today, as it was for Colonel Ruppert, owner of the Yankees. This interview was conducted three years after his purchase of the Yankees–with Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston (known as Captain or Cap)–and two years before he welcomed Babe Ruth into his fold and claimed his first flag. Originally published in Baseball Magazine in May 1918, it offers a fascinating conversation between the Yankees’ magnate and Connie Mack about a possible deal for Joe Bush, Wally Schang, and Amos Strunk. While this article may have little impact on the policies of the Steinbrenner family or Brian Cashman, it is timely because later this month the Colonel will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Those who wish to see the magnate in person may find him in the immense brewing establishment which the Ruppert genius has built in New York City. Through the marble corridor which leads out from the main entrance, past uniformed guards who greet you courteously, you gradually pene­trate through one anteroom to another, as though you sought audience with the late Czar of Russia, when the Romanoffs still controlled one sixth the land surface of the globe. Every­thing is sumptuously neat, though the atmosphere suggests the yeasty fermentation that is continually going on in the monstrous copper cauldrons. You catch a glimpse of these burnished receptacles as you mount the smoothly gliding ele­vator to the office, and your guide informs you (to the grief of our prohibition friends be it said) that from those same caul­drons eight thousand barrels of beer go foaming daily, with a sudsy current of good cheer, to the huge thirsty city which lies all about you.

At last the order is given; you are admitted to the presence of the magnate himself as he sits, in solitary state, in a spa­cious room decorated very simply with massive bronze statu­ary, at a huge desk littered with papers. And it is here, with the distant purring hum of the brewery for an accompaniment, that he unfolds the dreams he has entertained for bear­ing the standards of the American League to victory in the greatest of cities.

Colonel Ruppert is in every sense a man of big business, quick of speech, decisive in his statements, yet courteous and discriminating in his treatment of the men who approach him in a continual stream on a thousand varied errands. “I was always interested in baseball,” he says. “In fact, in my younger years I played it in an amateur way. But up to the time when I became identified with the Yankees I was a strong National League rooter. The Polo Grounds are a feature of the big city quite as much as the Statue of Liberty or Brooklyn Bridge, and the team which has appealed the strongest to the local fans is the Giants, with all their long tradition of pennants won and famous diamond stars.

The Colonel's plaque at Yankee Stadium's Monument Park

The Colonel’s plaque at Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park

“It would be impossible for me to say when the idea of becoming an owner first came to me. Probably it was a grad­ual process. The first time the matter was brought to my atten­tion in a concrete form, however, was when Charles Murphy was selling out his controlling interest in the Chicago Cubs. A gentleman who knew of my fondness for baseball ventured the suggestion that I purchase them. I told him that I had no desire to become an owner of a club in Chicago, or, for that matter, of any club outside of New York. In fact, the Cub transaction did not interest me at all, but it did bring the idea of some day becoming an owner prominently into my mind, and, no doubt, made the later acquisition of the Yankees an easier undertaking than it otherwise would have been.

“The first intimation I had that the Yankees were for sale was through an item to that effect in the newspapers. The idea instantly occurred to me that here was a prospect to be­come interested in a major-league club at home. About the same time, the matter was further impressed upon me by some of my good friends, who wished to see me get into a good thing. Through the papers I learned that Captain Huston was also mentioned as a possible purchaser, and I accordingly arranged a meeting with him. It was the first time I had ever met Captain Huston. We found that we agreed on all important items of the transaction and allowed it to be known that we might be possible purchasers of the franchise.

“The next act in the little drama occurred in a friendly club room where I met Ban Johnson and other members of the American League. We were treated royally by these good friends. I addressed them in an informal way and outlined our attitude. I told them that it seemed to Captain Huston and myself that there wasn’t much of a club to purchase, merely a few individual players of merit and a rather disorganized team. But I stated that we would be interested in acquiring the property, provided the other members of the American League assisted us in the construction of a winning club in New York. I emphasized the fact that we asked no charity, that we were able and willing to pay a liberal cash price for all assistance rendered to us, but that we felt we must depend upon the cooperation of our fellow magnates in building up a powerful club in the greatest city of the world, a club in which their interest would not be an entirely unselfish one since a strong team in New York meant better patronage for every other club in the circuit. My sentiments met with a most hearty approval from all present and I began to think that the lot of the big league owner was a close parallel to the proverbial bed of roses.

“After Captain Huston and myself had actually acquired possession of the Yankees, we were approached by several American League owners. One of them said, ‘I have one of the finest young shortstops in the country. He is yours for only $5,000.’ Another had a star young outfielder he was will­ing to dispose of for the slight consideration of $5,000. Still another had a promising pitcher fresh from the bush leagues who was also ours for the paltry sum of $5,000. And time re­vealed the fact that all these young phenoms were lemons. In fact, the only concrete evidence that the American League would give us its unqualified support finally simmered down to players Wally Pipp and Bunny High, for both of which men we paid the full market price.

“Now it requires no wizard of finance to see that the pres­ence of the New York Giants in the line-up is an immense asset to the National League, and is recognized as such by the remaining club owners. But in the American League there seems to have been an entire lack of any concerted campaign to build up a club in New York which should rival the Giants on an even basis. This is, to my mind, a failure to appreciate facts at their face value, which has cost the American League a lot of prestige, and has caused every club owner in the cir­cuit the loss of valuable revenue. In fact, this attitude of the American League is a thing I have never been able to fathom.

Joe Bush, 1922 Japan Tour

Joe Bush, 1922 Japan Tour

“Let me cite two concrete instances of this attitude. For several years I have had my eye on second baseman Del Pratt of St. Louis. I cannot say that he is a better player than our own Joe Gedeon, but he has played better ball and we wanted him. Well, how did I get him? I paid $15,000 in cash and gave away a number of good players for him. But what can you do? I needed this player, everyone knew I needed him. One thing was certain, I couldn’t come back empty-handed. I had to do something to build up the club after the loss of several valuable men to army service. And I got what I went after, though I had to pay out of all reason for him.

“This is a deal which actually went through. Let me cite another deal which I believe should have gone through, but didn’t. For some time I have had my eyes on pitcher Joe Bush and the outfielder Amos Strunk of the Athletics. Last year I asked Mack if it would be possible to interest him in a deal for these players. He said to me, ‘I have sold my last player.’ ‘All right,’ I said, ‘if you change your mind let me know.’ ‘I will,’ said he.Connie Mack

“Time went on and finally I received word that Mack would be willing to see me and talk things over. He didn’t want to be observed discussing things with me in Philadelphia, because he was afraid some newspaper man would see him and start the story of a sensational trade. Neither, for the matter of that, did he want to come to New York. So he suggested that we meet and talk it over at Trenton. Nobody ever goes to Trenton unless he has important business to negotiate. But I met him at Trenton and we adjourned to a small hotel where we, no doubt, were looked upon as a couple of gunmen discussing a future holdup game. ‘I can’t talk to you about Bush,’ began Mack, ‘because I already have given a certain club an option on Bush. But I can’t say that this club will go through with the option. If they fall down, I will let you know. However, for certain reasons, I have decided to let go of Strunk and Walter Schang and if you want these men I am willing to talk business. I want $25,000 for Schang.’

“ ‘Well, Mack,’ I said, ‘I’m not so particular about Schang. I don’t really need a catcher so much, anyway.’ ‘’Well,’ said Mack, ‘he can certainly hit. But I don’t know as Schang would be the man you need most on your club.’

“ ‘Not at that price,” I told him. ‘But I would make you an offer of $10,000 for Strunk.’

“ ‘I couldn’t consider it,’ said Mack. ‘I couldn’t even think of it. I must get $75,000 for these three men. I will sell them for that figure, but if I had to sell two of them separately, I would want more than $50,000 for them. I wouldn’t agree to let them go for $50,000, but there isn’t any hurry. Think it over and decide what you are willing to do.’

“ ‘I will do that, Mack,’ I said, ‘only be sure to let me know before you go through with this thing with any other club, for I certainly want Strunk and Bush anyway.’

“So we adjourned. Mack went back to Philadelphia, and I took the same train for Washington. But Mack sat in one end of the car, entirely oblivious of my presence at the other end.

“Well, you all know what happened. The Red Sox got Bush and Schang and Strunk in a sensational deal.

“When I made the offer of $10,000 for Strunk I was willing to go higher, and Mack has certainly done enough trading in his day to know that I would go higher. A man seldom makes his highest bid first.

Miller Huggins

Miller Huggins

“Captain Huston and myself have spent over $200,000 in strengthening the Yankees since we purchased the club. We paid $37,500 for Frank Baker; we paid $25,000 for Lee Magee, and we have got rid of a young fortune on other players who couldn’t deliver the goods. And we have had some of the most frightful luck I ever heard of. This may be a common alibi of the loser, but it has the substantiation of fact, in our case at least. For at one time we had no fewer than eleven men on the hospital list. Bill Donovan was the finest fellow in the world and I hated to let him go. But business won’t wait. He had been handicapped by the worst of luck, as I well realized, but after three years we didn’t seem to be advancing very fast and I felt that it was to the best interests of the club to make a change. Prior to that time I sent for Miller Huggins to come to my office and talk things over. I had never met him but I had followed his work and been impressed with his shrewdness in directing the Cardinal club and believed that he would get results with the Yankees. I still contend that my judgment was sound and am perfectly willing to abide by the decision of the season.

“I shall take personal credit for Miller Huggins’s appointment if he succeeds as I believe he will, and I shall also take full blame for his failure if he fails. It is true that he was sug­gested to me by several people as a prospective manager, but so were many other men. I listened to all the advice that was given me, but I had already made up my mind before I tried to secure him to lead my club.

“I do not begrudge the money I have lost so far in trying to build up a winner for the American League in New York. This is one city where the public demands a winner. New Yorkers will pay any reasonable amount for the best, but you can’t palm off inferior goods on them. I have got a lot of excitement out of this magnate business, and no doubt there is much more coming to me before I am through. But it’s all a part of the game and really not so unlike other business ventures, for whatever you consider as an investment has an element of risk and is, to a certain extent, a gamble. Baseball is a little bigger gamble than most, and the stakes are pretty high. But if I can get a winner in New York within the next year or two, I shan’t begrudge a nickel I put into the club, or a lot more that I shall probably send after what has already gone, before I am through.”

Thus briefly and to the point does Jacob Ruppert outline his experiences as a magnate up to date. He has no complaints to offer, no criticism of individuals. But in stating as he does that the establishment of a strong club in New York City is a vital concern of the American League, not merely the labor of an individual magnate, he strikes, to our mind, at the weakest point in the policy of the Amerian League since that organization rose from obscurity to a commanding place in professional baseball. No one can blame Ruppert or his associates. They have spent a fortune for players. But they do not seem to have met with quite that element of helpful coopera­tion which the most enlightened business foresight would warrant. The American League has made very few mistakes. But hasn’t it erred a trifle in its failure to estimate at its true worth the value to the league, as a whole, of a powerful club in the world’s new metropolis, New York City?

Forgotten Boxes, Family, and A Legacy: Recalling Henry Chadwick

Henry Chadwick in an 1880 number of the Clipper.

Henry Chadwick in an 1880 number of the Clipper.

This is a guest column, penned by my longtime friend Fran Henry, whose trove of Henry Chadwick materials I examined with her kind permission more than two decades ago. How did she come by such wonderful stuff? She is a direct descendant of  the man who long before his death in 1908 was called The Father of Baseball. This was not because anyone believed that he invented it–he always credited baseball’s parentage to rounders–but for his hugely successful labors, over half a century, to make baseball America’s national game. In the coming weeks and months Fran will create a special section of MLB’s Memory Lab project. It will create, through first-hand documents and artifacts, a highly personal portrait of a man most of us today know principally by his plaque in Cooperstown, awarded in the year before that institution opened its doors. Let Fran Henry tell of her most recent attic find:

It seems trite to rifle boxes filled decades ago, unearthing items packed even years before that, perhaps before World War II. Do people still possess attics and basements left untouched for so long that no one alive has seen their contents?

Yet I find myself poring through issues of The New York Clipper from the summer of 1892. They had been folded after being clipped of articles. Perhaps the missing columns concern baseball, stories no doubt written by my great-great-grandfather Henry Chadwick four generations ago when he was a journalist of sports, an arbiter of rules, inventor of the box score, and proselytizer of the game. I wonder if my grandmother, who would have been twelve during that summer, might have helped him to cut and to create scrapbooks, as she later helped him to tally scores and to type what he had written.Masthead_Clipper_120276

I discover a hefty pile of the papers, most marked with a blue or red pencil. I find pictures of Henry’s family, his wife and daughter, and then of my grandmother when she looked eager for adventure and a future. Here also are a few pieces of silver. Henry’s wife Jane must have given a ladle to her granddaughter as it was inscribed “To Avis from Granny.” I wonder if she gave it for a graduation, a wedding, a firstborn. It would not have been for my grandmother’s last child, my father, for her Granny had died three years before my father’s birth in 1918.

Looking further I find a cigar box with a label indicating my grandfather gave the contents to Henry in 1907.  I pull out a feather-light carving in wood. Again I wonder what brought this gift to Grandpa Chadwick, as my grandmother always referred to him. In that year, he was 83 and would not live through another.  Another item: a metal engraving of a season pass for a ball park.

The occasion for my discovery in 2013 is cleaning the basement of my parents’ home, a place built by my father in 1949 for his new family. My father, John Chadwick Worden, was Henry’s great grandson. Avicia Mortimer Eldridge Worden, my grandmother, was Henry’s third grandchild. Avis had looked after her grandparents as a young woman and had been born and lived within a mile of her grandparents’ summer home in Sag Harbor, New York.

Father of Baseball, gravesite in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery

Father of Baseball, monument in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery

Combing through boxes in 2013 recalled my distress of years before, in 1980, when I came home to Sag Harbor after my grandmother’s death to help my father clean her small cabin of all that she could not let go of, both treasures and trinkets, in her 98 years. I found my father searching corners and heaving nearly everything into the yard. He had no patience for sorting. This legacy had been a burden to his childhood. He remembered when a teenager in the 1930s his mother paying the storage bills for her family’s belongings while the two of them lacked food for the table. With such deprivation, I could understand his desire to pitch all of it. But I asked him to slow down. I found sheaves of poetry by Henry to his wife Jane, memorabilia from her grandparents’ homes in Brooklyn and Sag Harbor, and a few items of baseball lore. And then too my father must have kept a few of his mother’s boxes untouched, and here they were, shelved and forgotten.

Chadwick's Base Ball Manual, 1889

Chadwick’s Base Ball Manual, 1889

In 1978 when I rescued my grandmother’s treasures from certain destruction, I did so because of stories Grandma told me. Avis had stayed the longest near the family home and she had inherited the personal keepsakes. From her, I knew that her grandfather had given his baseball material to Albert Spalding, who gave it to the New York Public Library for cataloging and safekeeping. I remember her saying that Henry was known as Father of Baseball, but not at the Baseball Hall of Fame, where he was enshrined as a sportswriter with the first inductees in 1938. My grandmother had sown a seed of distrust that the Baseball Hall of Fame would see Henry in a fair historical light. I had held onto my grandmother’s heirlooms for a few decades, not knowing what to do with them.

By 2000 I had constructed my own rough outline of Henry and Jane Chadwick’s life. I sold the collection to a private individual, trusting it would be the kernel of a museum exhibit. Now I wonder what my grandmother had hoped would become of all that she had saved. To be kind to her memory and to her admiration of “Grandpa Chadwick,” I must not box these mementos again and forget them. I must find a way to bring them out of the musty shadows.

–Fran Henry, July 2013

The All-Star Game You Don’t Know

2013 All-Star Game Logo

2013 All-Star Game Logo

This article appears in this year’s All-Star Game Media Guide. In 2013, Citi Field hosts the All-Star Game, the first time the home of the Mets has held this honor since 1964, when the site was a brand-new Shea Stadium. Major League Baseball’s first Midsummer Classic was held in Chicago in 1933 (is there a soul alive who attended it?), yet 75 years before that, there had been another, already forgotten All-Star Game. Its location, within walking distance from Citi Field (see map below), is today unknown to all but a handful of baseball experts.

On July 20, 1858, nearly 10,000 fans gathered there to watch what may have been the most important game in all of baseball history. That is a bold assertion, so let me back it up. In 1858, competitive baseball was barely a decade old. Despite rumors of payments or favors to some key players, baseball was governed by the rules and practices of an amateur association formed only the year before. Although this body called itself the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP), in truth the new game was an exceedingly local affair, little played outside what is today the New York metropolitan area.

Indeed, New York City at that time consisted only of Manhattan. Brooklyn was a separate city, and it as well as the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island were not to be unified as New York City for another 40 years. We cannot identify an individual (like Arch Ward in 1933) whose bright idea it was to set the best (“picked”) nine of New York against the best nine of rival city Brooklyn. But the idea won immediate backing from the NABBP. A neutral site was selected not far from Flushing, at the new Fashion Race Course, where a ballfield was laid out within the enclosed grandstand area. The Fashion Course had been the property of Samuel Willets; fans going to the the 2013 All-Star Game by elevated subway arrive at the Willets Point station.

Great Base Ball Match, from New York Clipper, July 24, 1858.

Great Base Ball Match, from New York Clipper, July 24, 1858.

The match (a series of three games with one each in July, August and, if necessary, September) was to be played for civic bragging rights. Once it became clear that to cover expenses admission would have to be charged—to that point all games could be attended for free—surpluses would be presented to the widows and orphans funds of the fire departments of the two cities.

Today, little is left of the city that was, let alone its favorite game. Shea Stadium and the House That Ruth Built are gone, as are Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, and several other sites of big-league games. A baseball-history tourist in New York walks in four dimensions rather than three, the fourth being that of stories and stats.

The Fashion Course began life as the National Race Course, in 1853. In that year, the Flushing Railroad established a station at what is today’s Corona stop on the Long Island Rail Road, at 45th Street and National Street (named for the original race course, a fact known to few). In 1856, ownership of the race course changed hands and the grounds were renamed for the horse Fashion, who in an intersectional race of 1842 had defeated a horse from the South named, oddly, Boston.

Grand Entrance to the Fashion Race Course, L.I. from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 28, 1856.

Grand Entrance to the Fashion Race Course, L.I. from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 28, 1856.

Then as now, the selection of players was a delicate matter. Several initial picks were not seen after the first game, as the cast of characters changed from game to game. The underdog New York stars–who in a prior exhibition contest had lost to Hoboken’s finest–won the first game by a score of 22-18; among the winners was future Hall of Famer Harry Wright. For the second game, played on August 17th, Brooklyn moved pitcher Matty O’Brien to third base. Frank Pidgeon, the Brooklyn shortstop in game one, became the pitcher, with Dickey Pearce of the Atlantics taking over at short. Brooklyn won easily, 29–8. New York’s pitcher Tom Van Cott, who had thrown 198 pitches in game one, came back to toss 270 in a losing cause. Pidgeon threw 290. (Wide balls would not count against the pitcher until 1864.)

For the third and deciding game, played on September 10th, Brooklyn was the heavy favorite, based on their easy triumph in the second game. Yet New York won handily, 29–18, with the Eagles’ Joe Gelston hitting a leadoff home run that was followed by six more runs before the side was retired. Of Pidgeon’s eventual 436 pitches (!), 87 came in this first inning alone.

Eckfords of Brooklyn,1858; Frank Pidgeon at center, with ball

Eckfords of Brooklyn, 1858; Frank Pidgeon at center, with ball.

Among the firsts in baseball history that the opening Fashion Course game might claim were: first All-Star contest, first paid admission, and first baseball game played in an enclosed park, although the first such grounds designed specifically for baseball would come four years later. In the third (rubber) game of the series, umpire Doc Adams of the Knickerbockers called three men out on non-swinging strikes, the first time that new rule was applied.

The Brooklyn men had not dishonored themselves, but they had not won the match, in which they were favored from the outset, and by stacking their lineup in the final game with six Atlantics and three Eckfords, the selection committee had bred bad blood with other clubs that had contributed players to the first two contests. It was made clear to the Excelsiors in particular that they were not in the same league with their rivals.

Next year, the National Association would ban professionalism. (“No person who receives compensation for his services as a player shall be competent to play in any match.”) The Excelsiors would skirt the rules of the game, however, by adding four outstanding players from the Star club of Brooklyn, most notably Jim Creighton, the greatest player of baseball’s primordial past.

Distance from Fashion Race Course Entrance to Citi Field

Distance from Fashion Race Course Entrance to Citi Field

How do we locate the site of the grandstand entrance of the Fashion Race Course? Streets have been rerouted and names have changed, but the lordly brick entrance to the race course was at 37th Avenue and 103rd Street, 1.5 miles from Citi Field.

Happy July 4, Baseball

Hauling Flag at Ebbets Field 1914. Is that Casey Stengel in the front, second from left?

Hauling flag at Ebbets Field 1914. Is that Casey Stengel in the front, second from left?

“Baseball is the American game,” I wrote in a 1988 book, The Game for All America. This is how I continued: “It has given our people rest and recreation, myths and memories, heroes and history and hope. It has mirrored our society, sometimes propelling it with models for democracy, community, commerce, and common humanity, sometimes lagging behind with equally instructive models of futility and resistance to change. And as our national game, baseball in no small measure defines us as Americans, connecting us with our countrymen across all barriers of generation, class, race, and creed.”

That essay was published again in 1995 as  Our Game, which supplies the title for this blog. It remains in print as an ebook; you can look it up. But as we near our great national holiday,  let’s look back a century ago, to May 17, 1913, when H. Addington Bruce published, in Outlook Magazine, a neglected tribute to baseball and America. Its title is “Baseball and the National Life.”  Serendipitously, it opens with reference to baseball’s first all-star game, played 75 years before the major-league version debuted in 1933. I will have more to say about that next week, as we near the midsummer classic at Citi Field, a mere 1.5 miles from its forebear of 1858.

On July 20, 1858, there was played the first recorded game of baseball to which an admission fee was charged. The opposing teams were made up of care­fully selected players representing New York and Brooklyn; the scene of the game was the old Fashion Race Course on Long Island; and some fifteen hundred people paid $750 to see New York win bv four runs. [The attendance figure was in fact nearly 10,000.--jt]

October 16, 1912, or little more than fifty years later, another New York team, playing in Boston, lost by a single run the last of a series of inter-league games for the title of “World’s Champions.” The newspapers of the country reported the game in the most minute detail, and incidentally announced that the eight games of the series had been attended by more than 250,000 persons, whose admission fees aggregated $490,833, or an average in excess of 30,000 spectators and average receipts of about $60,000 per game. Than these contrasting figures noth­ing could exhibit more impressively the tre­mendous growth in popularity of baseball in the comparatively short interval between the earliest and the latest championship game.

1912 World Series on Playograph, Game 8

1912 World Series on Playograph, Game 8

When, in the late summer of last year, the Boston “Red Sox” returned from a Western tour which virtually assured to them the championship of the American League, it has been estimated that nearly 100,000 people assembled in the streets of Boston to give them a welcome home. And later, when they played the New York “Giants” in the “World’s Series,” the course of every game was followed with the most eager attention not alone by the thousands in grand stand and “bleachers,” but by many, many thou­sands more standing   in   compact masses before the bulletin boards of city news­papers, or in little groups at the telegraph offices of remote and isolated villages. So widespread, in fact, was the interest that the day after the deciding game the newspapers were able to print this astonishing item of news from Washington:

Unprecedented procedure was permitted to­day in the Supreme Court of-the United States, when the Justices, sitting on the bench hearing the Government’s argument in the “bath-tub trust” case, received bulletins, inning by inning, of the “World’s Championship ” baseball game in Boston. The progress of the playing was closely watched by the members of the highest court in the land, especially by Associate Justice Day, who had requested the baseball bulletins during the luncheon recess from 2 to 2:30 p.m. The little slips giving the progress of the play went to him not only during the. luncheon recess, but when the Court resumed its sitting. They were passed along the bench from Justice to Justice.

Veritably baseball is something more than the great American game—it is an American institution having a significant place in the life of the people, and consequently worthy of close and careful analysis.

Fully to grasp its significance, however, it is necessary to study it, in the first place, as merely a game, and seek to determine wherein lie its peculiar qualities of fascination. As a game, as something that is “playable,” it of course must serve the ordinary ends of play. These, according to the best authorities on the physiology and psychology of play, are threefold: the expenditure of surplus nervous energy in a way that will not be harmful to the organism, but, on the contrary, will give needed exercise to growing muscles; the development of traits and abilities that will afterwards aid the player in the serious busi­ness of life; and the attainment of mental rest through pleasurable occupation.

Until recently it has been customary to emphasize one or another of these purposes and motives as affording the sole reason for play. But scientists are beginning to appre­ciate that all of them may be operant in determining the action of the play impulse, one motive being influential in one instance, the second in another, the third in yet another, or all three in combination. As between the three, though, the preparation motive would seem to be uppermost, at all events in the play of childhood and youth, children instinct­ively favoring those games which, although they are completely unconscious of the fact, tend most strongly to form and establish the characteristics that will be most serviceable to them in later years. Or, as stated by Pro­fessor Karl Groos, the first to dwell on this aspect of play:

Play is the agency employed to develop crude powers and prepare them for life’s uses, and from the biological standpoint we can say: From the moment when the intel­lectual development of a species becomes more useful in the struggle for existence than the most perfect instinct, will natural selection favor those individuals in whom the less elaborated faculties have more chance of being worked out by practice under the pro­tection of parents—that is to say, those indi­viduals that play.

Now, in all civilized countries of the mod­ern world, and especially in countries of ad­vanced economic development and of a form of government like that of the United States, success and progress depend chiefly on the presence of certain personal characteristics. Physical fitness, courage, honesty, patience, the spirit of initiative combined with due respect for lawful authority, soundness and quickness of judgment, self-confidence, self-control, cheeriness, fair-mindedness, and appreciation of the importance of social solidarity, of “team play”—these are traits requisite as never before for success in the life of an individual and of a nation. They are traits developed to some extent by all outdoor games played by groups of competi­tors. But it is safe to say that no other game —not even excepting football—develops them as does baseball.

One need attend only a few games, whether played by untrained school-boys or by the most expert professionals, to appreciate the great value of baseball as a developmental agent. Habits of sobriety and self-control are established in the players if only from the necessity of keeping in good condition in order to acquit one’s self creditably and hold a place on the team. Patience, dogged per­sistence, the pluck that refuses to acknowl­edge either weariness or defeat, are essential to the mastery of the fine points of batting, fielding, or pitching—a mastery which in turn brings with it a feeling of self-confidence that eventually will go far in helping its possessor to achieve success off as well as on the “diamond.” It takes courage of a high order to play infield positions, as, for exam­ple, they ought to be played when “stolen bases” are imminent; and, for that matter, it takes courage to “steal” them when the runner knows that he is likely to be “blocked off ” by some courageous infielder of the type of the two Wagners of “Pirate” and “Red Sox” fame.Chief Bender

So, too, courage, and plenty of it, is needed at the bat—courage not simply to face the swiftly moving ball, but to “crowd ” the “plate so as to handicap the pitcher in his efforts to perform successfully and expedi­tiously the work of elimination. I well remember, in connection with the “World’s Series” of 1911, the boldness in this respect displayed by the New York player Snodgrass, when batting against the pitching of the mighty Bender. Time after time Snodgrass stood so close to the “plate” as to draw vehement protests from his opponent, with whom, as an American League partisan, I heartily sympathized. But at the same time I could not withhold some slight measure of admiration for the courage of the batsman, typical of the spirit which, pervading the whole team, had no small share in winning for the “Giants” the National League honors in 1911 and again last year.

As an agent in the development of the “team spirit” baseball is no less notable. The term “sacrifice hit” eloquently expresses one phase of the game which must leave on all playing it an indelible impression of the importance in all affairs of life of unselfish co-operation. The extent, indeed, to which baseball tends to inculcate the lesson of sub­ordination of self for the common good is well shown by a little story I heard not long ago regarding two professional baseball play­ers. One was the short-stop, the other the second baseman, of a “major” league team, and consequently they were required by the duties of their positions to work more closely together than any other members of the team except the pitcher and catcher. One day, the story goes, they had a quarrel so bitter that for the remainder of the season they did hot address a word to each other when off the “diamond.” But, once the umpire had cried “Play ball!” their antagonism was tem­porarily dropped, and they fought the com­mon foe in as complete accord as though they had been the best of friends. Surely a game that can develop such a social con­sciousness—and conscience—is a game of which any nation may be proud, and to which it may well feel indebted.

And, besides aiding powerfully in physical and moral development, baseball is also a splendid mind-builder. The ability to think, and to think quickly, is fostered by the duties of its every position as well as by the com­plicated problems that are constantly arising in its swiftly changing course of events. Time and again games have been won, or the way has been cleared to victory, by the quickness of a player or a manager in appre­ciating the possibilities of a critical situation and planning a definite plan of campaign to meet the emergency. It was thus, to give a single illustration, with the final game of last year’s “World’s Series.”

That game was won by the “Red Sox” by the score of three runs to two, an extra inning being necessary, as the score stood one to one in the ninth. The newspapers next day gave unenviable prominence to two New York fielders, to whose errors in the tenth inning the loss of the game was ascribed. Actually the turning-point came in the seventh inning, when New York led by one run to none for Boston.

Christy Mathewson, 1912

Christy Mathewson, 1912

From the start of the game Mathewson, the premier pitcher of the National League, had been disposing of the “Red Sox” bats­men with all his old-time skill. Bedient, his young rival, had been doing almost equally well, although New York had earned a run off him in the third inning. In Boston’s half of the seventh, with two men out and a man on first base, the manager of the “Red Sox”—who also, as it happened, was the man then on first base—made the move that undoubtedly saved the game for his team. It was Bedient’s turn to bat; but instead Manager Stahl sent to the “plate” a utility outfielder, Henriksen, who until that moment had not once been at bat in the series. Mathewson, utterly in the dark as to his weaknesses as a batsman, tried him with a variety of pitches. One proved so much to his liking that he drove it past third base for a hit that brought in the tying run. Stahl’s judgment, plus Henriksen’s ability to “make good,” had turned impending defeat into possible victory.

So incessant and so varied are the de­mands made on the ball-player’s intelligence that any one who really knows the game will be inclined to indorse unreservedly the pub­lished declaration of that most successful baseball-player and most successful business man, Mr. Albert G. Spalding:

I never struck anything in business that did not seem a simple matter when compared with complications I have faced on the base­ball field. A young man playing baseball gets into the habit of quick thinking in most adverse circumstances and under the most merciless criticism in the world—the criticism from the “bleachers.” If that doesn’t train him, nothing can. Baseball in youth has the effect in later years of making him think and act a little quicker than the other fellow.

To-day this is even more the case than in the days when Mr. Spalding led his Boston and Chicago teams to victory, for with the passage of time the technique of the game has been improved to an extent that makes it more of a developmental agent than it was even ten years ago. Lacking the strength, skill, and experience of the professional player, the school-boy whose efforts are con­fined to the “diamond” of the vacant lot or public park plays the game under precisely the same rules as the professional, and with no less zest and earnestness, and profits cor­respondingly. To be sure, in playing it he does not dream for an instant that he is thereby helping to prepare himself for the important struggles of maturity. He plays it merely because he finds it “good fun”— merely because, in its variety and rapidity of action, in the comparative ease with which its fundamental principles may be learned, and in its essentially co-operative yet com­petitive character, it affords an intensely pleasurable occupation. It is, in truth, a game which makes an irresistible appeal to the instincts of youth precisely because it so admirably meets the principal objects of play—mental rest through enjoyment, exercise for the muscles, the healthy expenditure of surplus nervous energy, and practice and preparation for life’s work.

This, of course, does not explain its popularity with the non-playing American public of mature years, a popularity which seems to many the more surprising and reprehensible in view of the fact that to-day, when baseball games are drawing larger crowds than in all the previous history of the sport, the Nation is burdened to an appalling extent by eco­nomic and social evils. But in reality this phenomenon is neither so unusual nor so ominous as alarmists would have us believe. “Give us games!” was the cry of the Roman populace in time of disaster many centuries ago, and it has since been unconsciously echoed by many another people under the stress of some great crisis.

Baseball itself, it is worth noting, was a’ product of the period of anti-slavery agitation that preceded the crisis of the Civil War, having been invented in 1839 [the belief at that time--jt] , two years after the murder of the abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy, and one year after the burning of Pennsylvania Hall, in Philadelphia, by a mob of pro-slavery sympathizers; and its first rise into favor as a public spectacle was but a year or so before North and South met in their epochal conflict.

What this means is simply an instinctive resort to sport as a method of gaining momentary relief from the strain of an intoler­able burden, and at the same time finding a harmless outlet for pent-up emotions which, unless thus gaining expression, might dis­charge themselves in a dangerous way. It also means, there is reason to believe, a con­tinuance of the play impulse as an aid in the rational and efficient conduct of life. It is no mere coincidence that the great sport-loving peoples of the world—the Americans, the English, the Canadians, and the Austra­lians [another antiquated notion--jt]—have been pre-eminent in the art of achieving progress by peaceful and orderly reform. There have been times, as in the case of the Civil War, when the issues involved have been such as to make abso­lutely necessary the arbitrament of arms. But evolution, not revolution, has been the rule in the development of these nations—these nations which above all others respond to the impulse to play.

Live Oak Polka, 1860

Live Oak Polka, 1860

Baseball, then, from the spectator’s stand­point, is to be regarded as a means of ca­tharsis, or, perhaps better, as a safety-valve. And it performs this service the more readily because of the appeal it makes to the basic instincts, with resultant removal of the inhi­bitions that ordinarily cause tenseness arid restraint. For exactly the same reason it has a democratizing value no less important to the welfare of society than is its value as a developmental and tension-relieving agent. The spectator at a ball game is no longer a statesman, lawyer, broker, doctor, merchant, or artisan, but just a plain every-day man, with a heart full of fraternity and good will to all his fellow-men—except perhaps the um­pire. The oftener he sits in grand stand or “bleachers,” the broader, kindlier, better man and citizen he must tend to become.

Finally, it is to be observed that the mere watching of a game of baseball, as of foot­ball, lacrosse, hockey, or any other game of swift action, has a certain beneficial physical effect. It is a psychological commonplace that pleasurable emotions, especially if they find expression in laughter, shouts, cheers, and other muscle-expanding noises, have a tonic value to the whole bodily system. So that it is quite possible to get exercise vicari­ously, as it were; and the more stimulating the spectacle that excites feelings of happi­ness and enjoyment, the greater will be the resultant good. Most decidedly baseball is a game well designed to render this excellent service.

Like every, virile, vigorous game, it has its defects. But its qualities far outweigh its shortcomings, and it must be accounted a happy day for America when the first players met on the first “diamond” laid out on American soil. The little red school-house has long been extolled as a prime factor in the Republic’s progress. I for one am firmly convinced that the lessons taught in it would have lacked much of their potency had it not been for the reinforcement they received from the lessons learned on the baseball field near by. Long may Uncle Sam play ball!

Obituary, by Ring Lardner

Ring Lardner

Ring Lardner

Ring Lardner published this jocular “obituary” for Christy Mathewson in the Chicago Tribune on July 22, 1916. Lardner’s standing column head in the Trib was the portentous “In the Wake of the News.” The “obituary” appeared alongside an account of Matty’s first game as manager of the Cincinnati Reds, a 6-4 loss in ten innings to the Phillies. Three years later the Black Sox Scandal would sour Lardner on baseball for life, though he would continue to write on the subject, concluding in 1933 with Lose with a Smile. Matty would require a more conventional obituary before that, succumbing on October 7, 1925 to tuberculosis brought on by gas poisoning in a World War I training exercise.

The baseball world was shocked yesterday by the news that Christy Mathewson, one of the game’s greatest expo­nents, had signed to manage the Cincinnati Reds at the age of thirty-seven years, the very prime of life. Mathewson is the seventh prominent baseballist to succumb to this disease in a space of twelve years.

It is the opinion of prominent physicians that “Matty,” as he was fondly known, hastened his own end by taking up golf, which undermines the intellect and, thereby, the general health. Those who were closest to him say that he has never been the same since he first sliced off the tee.

There is no argument for prohibition in the case of the deceased. He was always abstemious. He took the best possible care of himself. Before being bitten by the golf bacillus, his favorite amusements were chess, checkers, poker, and auction bridge, at all of which athletic sports he excelled. He smoked, but never to excess. He usually retired before midnight and was careful as to his victuals.

Christy Mathewson, 1916 Reds

Christy Mathewson, 1916 Reds

Ciristopher Mathewson was bom in New York State or somewhere, in or about 1879. He received a common school education and then entered Bucknell College, where he took a P.P.D. degree, Doctor of Pitching and Punting. He pitched more or less professional ball down in Virginia for a time and his work attracted the attention of major-league scouts and a scout from Cincinnati. Cincinnati acquired him and, the directors of the club taking a hand, traded him to New York for Amos Rusie, which was a regular Cincinnati trade, as Rusie was through.

One of Matty’s first managers at New York was Horace Fogel, who saw at a glance that he could never be a success­ful pitcher and tried to make a first baseman out of him. Unfortunately for many a National League batsman, Horace’s career as manager was brief, brevity being the soul of wit. The next manager of the Giants got a crazy notion in his head that Matty might be able, with careful handling, to become an average pitcher. This manager’s judgment was proven pretty fair, for Matty, with the aid of great support, pitched his team to victory in quite a few games for a matter of six­teen years. Perhaps his greatest achievement was his three shutout victories over the Athletics in the World Series of 1905. If he had been pitching against this year’s Athletics he could have done it left-handed, but it was some trick in those days.

Mathewson had been spending recent winters in California and the climate may have gone to his head.

He leaves a wife and one son, Christopher, Jr.

My eyes are very misty

As I pen these lines to Christy;

O, my heart is full of heaviness today.

May the flowers ne’er wither, Matty,

On your grave at Cincinnati,

Which you’ve chosen for your final fade-away.

215 Montague Street

Plaque at 215 Montague Street

Plaque at 215 Montague Street

I was delighted to speak yesterday at the site of the Brooklyn Dodger offices at 215 Montague Street. Chevrolet sponsored a four-stop baseball tour for media types who would be driven (or themselves drive) an electric-powered Chevy Volt to each site after the starting point of the MLB Fan Cave. Not knowing that I would be speaking outdoors in full sun for the second stop on the trail, I had prepared a 15-minute talk that stayed in my pocket. Sunstroke made for poor public relations, I figured. I winged it, but this is the talk I would have offered. Portions of it are based on an article that Jules Tygiel and I published in SPORT Magazine in June 1988.

It happened right here, on Montague Street. This is where the national pastime at last began to live up to its name.

The team is gone, the building is gone—even the address is gone, as is the bank that presented the plaque—but the echoes linger, and the spirit remains. Here, on August 28, 1945, Jackie Robinson, shortstop of the Kansas City Monarchs, first met Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. After a dramatic, challenging interview that has become the stuff of legend, the two signed an agreement that would begin to remove from baseball its historic stain. Each year Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day on April 15 to mark the anniversary of his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, but here we stand on no less hallowed ground.

Lobby card from "Jackie Robinson Story" depicts the scene on August 28, 1945.

Lobby card from “Jackie Robinson Story” depicts the scene on August 28, 1945.

Today little is left of the city that was, let alone its favorite game. In New York the only constant through four centuries has been relentless, roaring change—hills flattened, ponds filled, streams diverted, buildings demolished, neighborhoods dismantled, all in the name of progress. Shea Stadium and the House That Ruth Built are gone, as are Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, and several other sites of big-league games. A baseball-history tourist in New York must walk in four dimensions rather than three, the fourth being that of memory–aided by stories and statistics and nostalgic collectibles. Because it is harder to collect buildings than baseball cards, however, few edifices remain that might bear mute testimony to the game that was.

Baseball is a game of ghostly presences, always just one step away from revival. MLB’s Fan Cave, the hippest of baseball landmarks (which marked the first stop on today’s tour), sits one block away from the old Grand Central Hotel site, where on February 2, 1876 the National League was founded. Walking distance from where we stand, at the corner of Clinton and Livingston Streets—No. 133—is an improbable survivor of baseball’s earliest days, the clubhouse of the Brooklyn Excelsiors, the most famous team in the land in 1860.

But let’s focus on 215 Montague Street. A ten-story structure, tall for the 19th century, stood here until the 1960s, when it was replaced by a four-story building, since anchored by a succession of banks. The Dodgers’ office was located on the fourth floor. It housed all the executives, major league and minor league, and their staffs. Fans who wanted to purchase advance tickets could buy them here. The Dodgers started using this location in 1938, and when Branch Rickey came along four years later this building would begin to take on national significance, if at first secretly.

Rickey, who had long wished to integrate baseball, knew that St. Louis, where he had been the general manager for decades, was an impossible venue for his great experiment. “St. Louis never permitted Negro patrons in the grandstand,” Rickey once wrote.

Robinson’s appearance here on August 28 was by no means the first step Rickey had taken toward fulfilling his vision of an integrated national pastime. And Rickey knew that Sam Jethroe or Monte Irvin, not Robinson, was the most talented player in the Negro Leagues at that time. So why did Rickey choose him? Strength of character and a collegiate background have been the conventional explanations, but behind the scenes there was more at work.

Jackie Robinson comic book

Jackie Robinson comic book

From the moment he had arrived in Brooklyn in 1942, determined to end baseball’s Jim Crow traditions, Rickey had feared that premature disclosure of his intentions might doom his bold design. No blacks had appeared in the major leagues since 1884. During the ensuing half-century all-black teams and leagues featuring legendary figures like pitcher Satchel Paige and catcher Josh Gibson had performed on the periphery of Organized Baseball. Baseball executives, led by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, had strictly policed the color line, barring blacks from both major and minor leagues. Rickey therefore moved slowly and secretly to explore the issue and cover up his attempts to scout black players during his first three years in Brooklyn. He informed the Dodger owners of his plans but took few others into his confidence.

In the spring of 1945, as Rickey prepared to accelerate his scouting efforts, advocates of integration, emboldened by the recent death of Commissioner Landis, escalated their campaign to desegregate baseball. On April 6, black sportswriter Joe Bostic appeared at the Dodgers’ training camp with Negro League stars Terris McDuffie and Dave “Showboat” Thomas and forced Rickey to hold tryouts for the two players. Ten days later black journalist Wendell Smith engineered an unsuccessful audition with the Red Sox for Robinson and two other black athletes.

In the face of this heightened activity, Rickey created an elaborate smokescreen to obscure his scouting of black players. In May 1945 he announced the formation of a new franchise, the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, and a new Negro League, the United States League. He named fabled Negro Leagues star Oscar Charleston as the club’s manager and undercover scout. Rickey then dispatched his best talent hunters to observe black ballplayers, ostensibly for the Brown Dodgers, but in reality for the Brooklyn National League club.

The popular “frontier” image of Jackie Robinson as a lone gunman facing down a hostile mob has always dominated the story of the integration of baseball. But while Robinson was the linchpin in Branch Rickey’s strategy, in October 1945 Rickey intended to announce the signing of not just Jackie Robinson, but of several other Negro League stars. Political pressure, however, forced Rickey’s hand, thrusting Robinson into the spotlight all alone.

The agreement that Jackie Robinson signed right here on August 28, 1945 was a tightly guarded secret. It bound him to the Brooklyn organization but stipulated that he was to be signed to a player’s contract with the top farm club at Montreal before November 1. Rickey impressed upon Robinson the need to maintain silence. He could tell the momentous news to his family and fiancee, but no one else.

Jackie Robinson as a Kansas City Royal, batting.

Jackie Robinson as a Kansas City Royal, batting.

After his meeting with Rickey, Robinson returned briefly to the Kansas City Monarchs. With the Dodger offer securing his future and the relentless bus trips of the Negro League schedule wearing him down, he left the Monarchs before season’s end and returned home to Pasadena, California. In late September he hooked up with Chet Brewer’s Kansas City Royals, a postseason barnstorming team which toured the Pacific Coast, competing against other Negro League teams and major- and minor-league all-star squads.

Rickey worked with publicist Arthur Mann to pen an article for Look Magazine, timed to release at the time of Robinson’s signing with Montreal. It never ran, but I located it in the Rickey papers at the Library of Congress. “The Negro and Baseball,” as it was titled, departs radically from the common picture of the Robinson legend. “Determined not to be charged with merely nibbling at the problem,” wrote Mann, “Rickey went all out and brought in two more Negro players,” and “consigned them, with Robinson, to the Dodgers’ top farm club, the Montreal Royals.” Mann named pitcher Don Newcombe and, surprisingly, outfielder Sam Jethroe as Robinson’s future teammates. Whether the recruitment of additional blacks had always been Rickey’s intention or whether he had reached his decision after meeting with Robinson in August is unclear. But by late September, when he provided information to Mann for his article, Rickey had clearly decided to bring in other Negro League stars.

At the same time, Rickey decided to postpone publication of the Look article. In a remarkable letter sent from the World Series in Chicago on October 7, Rickey informed Mann:

Robinson with Montreal Royals, 1946

Robinson with Montreal Royals, 1946

We just can’t go now with the article. The thing isn’t dead,-not at all. It is more alive than ever and that is the reason we can’t go with any publicity at this time. There is more involved in the situation than I had contemplated. Other players are in it and it may be that I can’t clear these players until after the December meetings, possibly not until after the first of the year. You must simply sit in the boat….

There is a November 1 deadline on Robinson,-you know that. I am undertaking to extend that date until January 1st so as to give me time to sign plenty of players and make one break on the complete story. Also, quite obviously it might not be good to sign Robinson with other and possibly better players unsigned.

In a mad scramble to sign Robinson before the November 1 deadline and before he departed to the Caribbean for a barnstorming trip, the Montreal Royals secured his signature on a contract on October 23. Newcombe, Campanella, John Wright, and Roy Partlow all joined the Dodger organization the following spring. Jethroe became a victim of the “deliberate speed” of baseball integration and did not reach the majors until 1950.

For Robinson, who had always occupied center stage in Rickey’s thinking, the early announcement intensified the pressures and enhanced the legend. The success or failure of integration rested disproportionately on his capable shoulders. He became the lightning rod for supporter and opponent alike, attracting the responsibility, the scorn and ultimately the acclaim for his historic achievement.

For Rickey the signing was the culmination of a decades-old dream. For Robinson, there would be triumph and tragedy ahead, but his breaking of the color bar started right here.

A New Baseball Discovery

Beloit's Middle College, built 1847

Beloit’s Middle College, built 1847

Baseball fever, catch it. When I am not thinking about the game, it can pop up insistently, reasserting its central position in my life. Let me tell you what happened to me just the other day.

I spent this past weekend in Wisconsin, at a reunion of the Beloit College class of 1968 (as well as many others ranging, in five-year intervals, from 1948 to 2003). I had been invited to give a talk, in the building where I had taken all of the courses that would run through my later life.

I had drafted most of the speech at home but left the finishing touches for my arrival on campus late Thursday afternoon. I checked into the Beloit Inn, tired from my flight to O’Hare and the drive from there to Beloit, just across the Illinois line. I unpacked and within an hour or so had added a few bits, mostly biographical. I figured my fellow Beloiters might wish to know how the mouthy kid they may have remembered came to devote four decades to documenting a children’s game. I wrote this: 

And after my Beloit years—as an English Lit major influenced by such titans of yore as Bink Noll, Bernie Morrissey, and Bob Ray—and a doctoral stint at Washington University in St. Louis, I came back to baseball. Or maybe I had never left it. As the chronically awful New York Mets marched toward an improbable championship in 1969, I found myself increasingly distracted from my dissertation on 17th century poet George Herbert, from which I turned away with more delight than guilt. 

George Herbert, The Temple, 1633

George Herbert, The Temple, 1633

The path was a twisty one, from flipping baseball cards against the stoop in the Bronx in 1953 to serving as MLB’s official historian 60 years later … and yet with the benefit of hindsight I can make it out as practically linear. It is good to be an old boy, continuing to care about so many of the same things that animated one’s youth.

Completing the speech, I thought to have an early dinner, minus the search for exotic cuisine. The hotel shared space with a steak joint (Merrill and Houston’s, named for an iron works founded in 1858) so I walked in—only to have my jaw drop. Perhaps four feet from my face was a gorgeous, seven-foot long, wood-type broadside printed in colors, promoting an upcoming event: the First Wisconsin Base Ball Tournament, commencing at Beloit on September 3, 1867. I knew nothing about this tournament (although I do now, from some rapid newspaper research in neighboring Janesville’s Gazette) and I certainly had not seen this ghostly vestige.

The entry to the restaurant was dim and I could not back away enough to get a clear image with my cellphone camera, but I managed a shot for reference value, at least. I figured I would follow up.

The waitress told me that she thought the poster was an original, on loan from the Beloit Historical Society (BHS), which had provided the nostalgically decorated steakhouse with a few three-dimensional objects as well as scores of photographic facsimiles. I raced through a very good dinner so that I could get back to my room and check the web; I needed to know if the BHS had a physical location and contact information. I located a BHS newsletter—“Confluence,” from Fall 2004—that noted the broadside’s acquisition but provided no particulars.

Beloit Historical Society, Lincoln Center

Beloit Historical Society, Lincoln Center

At noon the following day, as the BHS opened its doors, I called. Dwight Alton—the Facilities Manager and a professional photographer to boot—told me that he was certain the restaurant’s version was a copy and that the Society possessed the only original. It was on display at one of the Society’s buildings—the Lincoln Center, an archive and exhibition space so named because it formerly housed the Lincoln Junior High School. If I wished, I could see the original broadside that afternoon.

Beloit College alumni activities had just begun to percolate, but this choice was easy. The archives were in West Beloit, only a mile and a half from the hotel. Dwight even offered to shoot  a high-resolution image that he would transfer to a thumb drive.

At the door I was greeted not only by Dwight but also by Paul Kerr, the Executive Director. He told me that the broadside had resided undisturbed for a century in the attic of an elderly woman from South Beloit and that it had been there since long before her time. It arrived at the BHS in crumpled and bent form, folded over several times—yet it remained intact. Conservation efforts had restored it to a nearly pristine state, and because the broadside had slumbered in the dark all those years, the colors had seemed to lose none of their vibrancy. Dwight Alton’s photograph appears here courtesy of the Beloit Historical Society, its size and resolution somewhat reduced for the web.

First Annual State Base Ball Tournament, Beloit, Wisconsin 1867. Courtesy Beloit Historical Society.

First Annual State Base Ball Tournament, Beloit, Wisconsin 1867. Courtesy Beloit Historical Society.

Paul asked me if I believed the broadside was important or had monetary value. I assured him of both, and that the artistic value alone would incite appeal. We both recognized, however, that such thoughts were academic, because as a nonprofit organization dating to 1910, the BHS would never test the auction waters with an item of such strong Beloit relevance.

In a way, that’s too bad; I think I have an idea of what price this might fetch and I’ll never have that notion validated. The Society’s acquisition, casually displayed in facsimile for restaurant patrons who rush by it on their way to dinner, is the oldest surviving baseball broadside in existence.

Double Exposure

The Peskin Shot, from The Miracle at Merion

The Peskin Shot, from The Miracle at Merion

Today, as we near the fifth U. S. Open to be held at the Merion Golf Course in Ardmore, PA,  my friend Joe Posnanski published a fine story about the glory that was golfer Ben Hogan and the odd grandeur that was photographer Hy Peskin. (See: The world may know much about Hogan and little about Peskin, but each has been described, by people who ought to know, as the best that ever was in his line of work. I spent some time with Peskin 13 years ago and wrote about those days in 2005, not long after his death. That story appeared in the Woodstock (NY) Times and, thanks to Joe’s interest, reappears here verbatim at Our Game. Trust me, dear reader, there is enough baseball to hold your interest. When I posted this yesterday I had not yet found this treasure: on Facebook for more than two years with a mere 77 views. For hundreds of Peskin baseball images, almost all from the 1950s and in color, go to:

In the evening of January 11, 2000, I drove my rental car into the parking lot of the Holiday Inn in North Miramar, a bedroom community for San Diego. I had flown across the country to spend a week interviewing 84-year-old Hy Peskin for a book about his amazing career in sports photography, mysteriously cut short at its apex 35 years earlier when he abandoned not only his profession but also his name, changing it legally to Brian Blaine Reynolds. He was a legendarily difficult personality, with many admirers but few friends in the sports business. In truth, few people knew what had become of him and most presumed him long since dead.

Upon reaching my room I called the Reynolds household in nearby Murrieta, as I had been requested to do, advising him of my arrival.

“So, you want to get started?” Hy asked in his memorably raspy voice. Not really, I admitted, as I had been in transit for fifteen hours and was exhausted. I assured him I had driving instructions to his home in nearby Murrieta and would be glad see him at 8:00 a.m. sharp. He seemed disappointed but acknowledged that he too might be sharper in the morning.

Half an hour later there was an insistent knock at the door of my hotel room. I opened it to find a round old man in pajamas and bedroom slippers, with an overflowing scrapbook under his arm, who announced in the flamboyant style that would soon become familiar, “I couldn’t wait until morning. I’ve been waiting for you my whole life.” He was accompanied by two young boys wearing yarmulkes and payes, the curling sideburns of the Orthodox Jew. He introduced them as his adopted sons, Preston Blaine Reynolds and Brian Jeremy Reynolds, then turned to me with a stage whisper, “They never heard of Hy Peskin.”

Hy Peskin at Yankee Stadium

Hy Peskin at Yankee Stadium

So began the most memorable week of my professional life. Each morning I would interview Hy from the foot of his bed, where he lay with eyes hooded as he conjured up his past, in the pajamas that were never exchanged for conventional clothing. “You didn’t eat breakfast?” he said to me one day. “Want me to throw something on and we’ll go for an early lunch? In this restaurant that I like. We’ll go informal but we’ll go.” For this occasion he changed into a fresh pair of pajamas but kept the slippers. In the afternoons while Hy napped I would speak with his remarkable former wife Adriana McMinn (Godoy), now reconciled after an intervening marriage that had produced the children. Sometimes Hy and I would extend the interview to a second session, but generally not: he typically went to sleep at 6:00 p.m., right after his dinner.

Who was Hy Peskin? I had known him by the hundreds of photographs I had seen over the years, always distinctive in composition and density of color, always recognizably “a Peskin.” I knew that his challenging angles, unprecedented aerial shots, and unequaled athleticism had redefined his profession. I knew he had worked for Sports Illustrated (where he was the magazine’s first staff photographer), Life, Look, Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and more. What I didn’t know, however, could fill a book.

Hyman Peskin was born in Brooklyn on November 5, 1915 to Russian-born parents Sarah Sokolowsky and Elias Peskowitz (original name Pesachowitz), a tailor who lost his job in the early 1930s. “When I began to sell newspapers,” he told me, “we had been living in an apartment, $27 a month, and my family could hardly pay the rent. When I got them all selling papers, including my father, we moved to a better part of town, the magical Eastern Parkway area. I saved my family with the newspaper selling.”

A Life in the Shadows, the book that never was

A Life in the Shadows, the book that never was

He went to Brooklyn Evening High School for several years and appears not to have graduated. “I hardly ever went to class; I got off into another direction by having met a newspaper photographer, Izzy Kaplan [of the New York Mirror], and helping him at the ball games. First in Brooklyn and then later at the Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium, other events, hoping through him to get a job at his newspaper which in those days paid $12 a week for an office boy. My goal was to be a writer and I thought through him maybe I could get that job. Incredibly I helped him every day, all kinds of events, without pay for three long years … it was 1933, 1934 and 1935. Finally I got the job and after a few months they approved me to transfer to be the office boy in the sports department. Later I left the sports department in great, great frustration because of a run-in with the editor, Dan Parker, and reluctantly asked to be transferred to the picture department, which I knew well but never had real, real interest in. I became the hypo-boy in the photo department, developing the pictures, writing the captions, things like that.”

In 1935 he married his sweetheart Blanche from Erasmus High, “the first girl I ever spoke to,” and became a full-time professional photographer, often shooting the Brooklyn Dodgers. But after enlisting in the Marines in 1943-44, he returned with an itch to experiment in stop-action color photography. Applying to the leading 30 magazines in the country, Peskin found that only Look had any interest and only the Daily Mirror had a job for him, his old one.

“With my great desire to move to higher levels, I scraped together about $10 and bought one box of Kodachrome and arranged with Saint Nicholas Arena that I could shoot a fight there [on May 11, 1945]. The fight happened to be a match between Lou Nova and a guy named Gunnar Barlund. Virtually every newspaper photographer had one camera, the Speed Graphic. Occasionally they would have the big, big long range cameras but day in, day out, they had a Speed Graphic…. You could shoot it from the back curtain or the front shutter, but you had one camera. When you went to a sporting event the limitations were tremendous. But in boxing you were okay, the action was 12 feet away, you could shoot a lot. I mounted on my Graphic not one flash bulb but a unique setup with three flashbulbs so when I pushed the button all three would go. I knew I would have to shoot wide open to capture every bit of light on the film. Although I thought maybe it would work, I never had made any test in that direction.

LOOK, June 25, 1946, Hy Peskin Photograph

LOOK, June 25, 1946, Hy Peskin Photograph

“The speed of the film in those days was 10. I was trying to be so careful with my film that in the entire fight I made only three pictures. But trying to shoot at the right time when the fighters were turned right to me, one guy was bleeding, that side of his face was showing and I tried to shoot at the punch, three times in the entire fight. I sent off the pictures to Eastman Kodak in Rochester, which would take several days for developing, and went back to my work at the Daily Mirror. A few days later, I went to Railway Express, which was only about three blocks down the street from the newspaper, got the box, ran to the window, tore open the box near the window to look at what I had. And my heart jumped out of my mouth: the three pictures each were fantastically clear, sharp, the blood, three of the greatest pictures of my life. All perfect, perfect, perfect. I didn’t go back up the street to the newspaper, I went down about a mile to Look magazine, to the editor that had been interested in me, brought him to the window when I got to his office and said, look here. When he saw reality, action in color, I was hired on the spot for roughly twice the money I ever made. I was no longer a newspaper photographer.”

Peskin went on to shoot hundreds of covers for This Week, Life, Collier’s, and more. Among his personal favorites was the Life cover and photo spread with Jack Kennedy and bride-to-be Jacqueline Bouvier. He shot a beautiful serene portrait of Joe DiMaggio, with “a soft smile that wasn’t Joe DiMaggio at all.” And he shot beautifully composed shots like Ben Hogan’s dramatic 1-iron shot on the 72nd hole of the 1950 U.S. Open in Merion, Pennsylvania, universally acclaimed as the greatest shot in the history of the sport. But what truly set Peskin apart from his peers was his combination of inventiveness and athleticism. Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times testified to his athletic style by writing in 1961:

LIFE, August 1, 1949, DiMaggio by Peskin

LIFE, August 1, 1949, DiMaggio by Peskin

You’ve seen Hy at these things before. He runs more laps than Vladimir Kuts and this is remarkable because Hy only stands about 5’7” and weighs about 195, most of it evenly distributed below the waist. Moreover, he ran his laps under full pack of two Leicas, one Rollei, sacks full of film, a telegraph from the editor, and a note from his wife telling him not to forget to pick up the roast. And Hy was doing all this on only three hot-dogs, a Pepsi and a (double) bag of peanuts. I think Hy’s 72-yard dash across the infield under full equipment was the finest I have ever seen….

What made Hy Peskin run? “Anticipation,” he told me. “Anticipation is the key word in the coverage of all sports. For example, one day I was shooting for Life magazine a game, maybe at Detroit, and I shot as usual when nobody was on base from the first-base side of the batter as he hit, close by. Often times I really endangered my life by edging closer to the baseline to shoot him when it is very possible for a batter to lash one out right at your nose. But I did it often. There was a particular batter, he hit, I shot, as he ran past me towards first I ran past him the opposite way, around home plate towards third base because there had been a runner on first base. As I ran to third, here comes the base runner from first, sliding into third. I got the picture but the fielder dropped the ball and it was rolling away. Now the base runner picked himself up and was running hard past me toward home plate. I wheeled around and ran as hard as I could behind him and got just in time, close enough to home plate, to shoot him sliding into home. I thought it was one of the greatest stunts I had ever pulled. Those pictures appeared in Life.”

Success followed success until the first Ali-Liston championship bout, in Miami in 1964. “I set up everything the previous day like photographers normally would with the lights overhead, camera down below. I tested everything, everything was great.… I came the next morning, the day of the fight and I went to the arena, like an idiot I didn’t recheck my camera–is it hooked right into the lights to be synchronized with my light? I simply took the camera which I had already checked the previous day, put the film in and proceeded to shoot the fight. I was shocked to learn later that I had virtually no pictures because the lens was not tied in any longer to my strobe lamps overhead. Somebody did something deliberately to put me out of business. So I was a strikeout at a very, very important event and I virtually disappeared from Sports Illustrated thereafter.”

Banquet of the Golden Plate, American Academy of Achievement, Dallas, 1965

Banquet of the Golden Plate, American Academy of Achievement, Dallas, 1965

By 1960 or so Hy had turned to entrepreneurial ventures such as the World Series of Sport Fishing with Ted Williams and his BIG idea, the American Academy of Achievement (AAA), formally launched in 1961. As Hy described the basic idea in later years, it was grandiloquently this: “To erect a Mount Olympian Gathering of the Gods of Achievement once a year to meet the greatest young achievers of the country.’” With the aid of his sons Evan, Ron, and Wayne and wife Blanche, the AAA attracted a motley crew of notables, celebrities, ambulatory wallets, strokable egos, and flashes in the pan. High-achieving high-school students would hobnob with the likes of Edward Teller, Brooke Shields, Wayne Newton, Roger Staubach, Jimmy Stewart, Helen Hayes, Stevie Wonder, Ben Feldman (“America’s No. 1 Salesman of 1965”), Col. Harland Sanders (Kentucky Fried Chicken), Helen Keller, Albert A. Morey (“Largest Insurance Brokerage”), Debby Boone, and Jack LaLanne.

Banquet of the Golden Plate, American Academy of Achievement, Dallas, 1965

Banquet of the Golden Plate, American Academy of Achievement, Dallas, 1965

After three publicly successful — but for Peskin’s finances disastrous — Golden Plate banquets in Monterey (“Negro haters and Jew haters”), San Diego, and Oceanside, by 1965 Hy Peskin had reached tether’s end. “A guy came and took away my car for not paying, and I was left on the streets of Oceanside, 20 miles from our home in Escondido, nearly 50 years old. No money, no more photo career because I had lost my assignments from Sports Illustrated. No money from the three Banquets of the Golden Plates that we had, standing ovations for me, but nobody realizing that I’m getting virtually nothing.” He moved the operation to Dallas, where he was able to stay afloat, but he was told there would be no further support from civic leaders.

“I decided to stay and to change my name to eliminate the image of the Jewish photographer from Brooklyn as the leader of the Academy. So I became the only man in the history of the world, the only father named after his children, I took my three sons’ middle names, made a new professional name, Brian Blaine Reynolds, and soon enough the program became successful. But I did leave Dallas, when I felt after a number of years they too wanted to get rid of me so they could steal the program. I packed up my family and went to Philadelphia and the support for the Academy grew and today it’s on a very solid foundation.”

By 1985 Reynolds’s youngest son Wayne took over managing the organization but before the decade was out the senior Reynolds filed lawsuits against his sons, charging they had colluded to take control of the AAA from him. A countersuit exposed Brian Reynolds to up to $3 million in liability. What to do? They were making him out to be crazy, “just because of this pajama thing.” Adriana Reynolds advised her husband to call Ray Charles, a recent AAA honoree. “Ray Charles came as a witness to the five-week-long trial,” Hy told me. “He came in the very last days or so, and in his own words told how he thought so much of me, how I was the Academy and so forth. The jury was very much taken with him and he saved my life. It was a $3 million lawsuit against me. Those people never collected a penny.” The jury instead awarded him damages of $800,000 (later reduced to $200,000), and another jury granted him a monthly pension of $10,000 from the Academy.

Hank Aaron, on deck at Yankee Stadium during 1957 World Series; Peskin

Hank Aaron, on deck at Yankee Stadium during 1957 World Series; Peskin

Wayne Reynolds moved the AAA offices to Washington a few years ago, adding world leaders to the roster of prominent Americans; today the organization is known as simply The Academy of Achievement and its annual event is the International Achievement Summit. In 1999 Wayne and his wife Catherine B. Reynolds were able to make her sizable foundation the principal sponsor of the Academy, which now matches international bigwigs with select graduate students rather than high schoolers.

On June 3, 2005 the Academy held its annual International Achievement Summit in New York at the American Airlines Theater on West 42nd Street. Filing in past gawkers were such high-powered figures as Sally Field, Denzel Washington, Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan, playwright Edward Albee, NBC’s Katie Couric, U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, novelist Tom Wolfe, and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Also on June 3, Catherine Reynolds announced a $10 million gift to NYU for a program in social entrepreneurship. In recent years her foundation had granted $100 million to the Kennedy Center but had seen its offer of $38 million to the Smithsonian refused because the attached string seemed to the curators too binding: the construction of an exhibit honoring Americans who had made great individual achievements, from Abraham Lincoln to Oprah Winfrey. Wayne Reynolds commented to Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes: “I’ve never met people like this [the Smithsonian curators] who said individuals never mattered in history. My whole career, my whole life, Cathy’s whole life is based on: one person can make a difference in America.”

On that same June 3, 2005, Hy Peskin a.k.a. Brian Blaine Reynolds died in Herzliya, Israel. On the homepage of the Academy of Achievement’s website ( one may see the date of founding (1961) but nowhere is there a mention of the man who founded it, the individual who mattered.

A Reconstruction of Philadelphia Town Ball

Olympics of Philadelphia, 1837 Constitution

Olympics of Philadelphia, 1837 Constitution

The previous post, Richard Hershberger’s article on the 1863 “New Marlboro Match Baseball Co.”, elicited this comment from reader Jim Roebuck: “One thing I’ve been trying to figure out – and I’ve read a fair amount about it, but I’m still confused – is the difference between town ball and the Massachusetts Game. Topic for another essay?” To this I replied, “The two are substantially different, but modern-day scribes have been calling all bat & ball games other than the New York Game “town ball” for a long time. This has bred confusion indeed, and prompted Richard Hershberger to tackle the subject in the journal Base Ball in the Fall 2007 number. I’ll run his full article, ‘A Reconstruction of Philadelphia Town Ball,’ in this space soon.”

Here ya go.

A Reconstruction of Philadelphia Town Ball

Richard Hershberger 

Modern baseball is descended from the game played in New York City at the middle of the 19th century. This version, however, was not the only one played in North America. The baseball family extended throughout English-speaking North America, in various versions and under different names, both as children’s games and in formal competitive communities of clubs of adults.

The best documented of these other forms is the game played in New England. There arose in the late 1850s extended communities of clubs in both New England and New York, holding conventions and publishing formal rules.

Smaller communities are known to have existed in various cities including Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Chicago, but none of these published its rules. There is a long tradition of assuming that the game played in these areas was substantially identical to the New England form, but there is little evidence to support this theory. The more conservative belief is that the rules are unrecoverable. A close examination of the evidence reveals, however, that the rules of the game as played in Philadelphia can be reconstructed.

A Brief History of Town Ball in Philadelphia

The American Sunday School Magazine reported in early 1830 that the previous summer a group of 18 adult rope makers met for a game of ball one Sunday afternoon near a Philadelphia orphanage. The matron of the institution remonstrated with them for breaking the Sabbath and invited them into the orphanage to see how the Sabbath was kept there. They heard the orphans sing a hymn, “This day belongs to God alone, He chooses Sunday for his own….” The ballplayers were moved to tears, and sat in perfect silence while hymns were sung, answers from the catechism recited, and verses of scripture repeated. The next Sunday every one of the 18 returned, decently dressed, and witnessed the exercise again. Many returned yet again for a third visit, moved to repent their former ways as Sabbath-breakers. Regardless of the veracity of this tale, it makes clear that the author considered the idea of adults playing ball plausible enough to include it without further explanation. Organized club play appears soon thereafter.

Olympics of Philadelphia clubhouse ca. 1860

Olympics of Philadelphia clubhouse ca. 1860

In 1831 a group of men in their mid-20s made the ferry ride across the Delaware River to Camden, New Jersey, to play town ball on Saturday afternoons.[1] At the same time a club under the name “Olympic” convened to play town ball on the Fourth of July, and occasionally on other days as well. Following the example of the Saturday group, they began practicing on the same ground on Wednesdays. This led to a match game—among the earliest known, but with the results unrecorded. Following this the two groups merged, practicing two days a week as the Olympic Ball Club. They absorbed two other groups of town ball players over the years, probably in the late 1840s and early 1850s, the latter said to be graduates of Philadelphia’s Central High School. They played in Camden into the late 1850s, when they moved across the river to Pennsylvania.

This summary of what is known of town ball play prior to 1857 comes from two documents: the Olympic Ball Club constitutions of 1838 and 1866, the latter including a brief history of the club.[2] It is obvious that town ball play was not confined to the Olympics, but the evidence has not come down to us. A hint of its existence is given by the Honey Run Club of Germantown.

Germantown had been an independent borough in Philadelphia County, about six miles from the City of Philadelphia and most famous as the site of a Revolutionary War battle. The Act of Consolidation of 1854 unified the City and County of Philadelphia, reducing Germantown’s status to a mere neighborhood. It was still separated from the urban center by farmland and retained its distinct character for many years.

The earliest evidence for town ball play in Germantown is a record of a game played in September 1857. Twenty grown men who had been schoolmates gathered and divided into teams. The event had a nostalgic air to it: The lot “presented somewhat the appearance of other days” and “the old ‘schoolmates’ seemed to enjoy each other’s company as ‘in days of yore.’”[3] Clearly town ball was no longer a novelty at that point. It is less clear, however, if adults playing the game was. The only clear peculiarity was that the game was reported in the press, via a letter by the pseudonymous “Sport.”

The next record of the game’s appearance in Germantown dates to November 1859. The Honey Run Town Ball Club, “consisting of twenty practised members,” challenged the other clubs in town for a match on Thanksgiving Day. The Balsch and the Charter Oak clubs declined. The Honey Run met to prepare for an intraclub game, when two delegates from the Marion Club appeared to accept the challenge—to play for a supper. Both clubs set to practicing at every opportunity, and music was engaged for the day of the match, again reported by “Sport.” The game came off splendidly, the Honey Run winning by two runs in an exciting finish that prompted “Sport” to provide what is by far the most complete extant account of a town ball game (see sidebar). The Honey Run later presented their ball giver, the hero of the game’s climax, with a gold ring at a festive dinner.[4]The Honey Run make one more appearance the following spring, on Easter Monday, playing an intraclub match, this time reported by “Saint,” and some members turned up in the Army of the Potomac playing town ball in 1863.[5] There are no further mentions of the Balsch, Charter Oak, or Marion clubs.

There were, then, at least four organized clubs in Germantown, apparently playing mostly intraclub games and going virtually unnoticed by the press. The reports of the Honey Run’s exploits result from the combination of an enthusiastic correspondent and the rise of a New York sporting press willing to publish such reports. Both games of the Honey Run took place on holidays; one of the groups founding the Olympic club had existed specifically to play on the Fourth of July. The evidence suggests, then, that there was a tradition of holiday play in the Philadelphia area that evolved—perhaps due to rising urbanization—into clubs formed to organize this recreational activity. A modern equivalent is the Philadelphia mummer clubs, which put on an annual New Year’s parade. Their activities entailed preparing for, participating in, and recuperating from this one day.

A different tradition also developed in the late 1850s: competitive club play. This new brand of ball club closely resembled the New York clubs. By 1859 there were at least four such clubs, some fielding first and second teams. The Excelsior club was active at least by 1859,[6] while the Camden club organized in 1857;[7] the Athletic club organized May 31, 1859.[8] They, along with the Olympics, were playing match games at least by 1858, with the Olympics and the Camdens playing three that year.[9] Gone was the old habit of absorbing and internalizing competition. In its place evolved a competitive ballplaying community much like that in New York, but about five years behind New York in its development.

This new brand of Philadelphia town ball was not to last long. On Thanksgiving Day of 1858 the newly formed “Penn Tigers Social Base Ball and Quoit Club” played Pennsylvania’s first New York baseball game.[10] Late in the following season they were joined by the Pennsylvanias, the Nonpareils, and the Continentals.[11] The spring of 1860 saw the fad for the New York game take off. By May there were not fewer than 10 clubs, with more added as the season progressed.[12] The first interclub match game was played June 11 by the Equity and the Winona (formerly the Penn Tigers), the Winonas winning 39–11.[13] In September the Excelsior Club of Brooklyn visited Philadelphia, defeating a picked nine 15–4, bringing Philadelphia into the expanding baseball fraternity.[14]

The competitive town ball clubs joined in the transition to the New York game. The Athletics voted in early 1860 to switch, and they never looked back. There is no record of their ever playing town ball again, and they nearly forgot they had ever done so. Within a year, 1860 was being published as their foundation date.[15] The Excelsiors held out, playing only town ball the season of 1860; but by 1861 they too had adopted the New York game.[16] The Camdens are a cipher; there is no sign of them after 1860. A Camden club appeared several years later playing the New York game, but there is no obvious connection between it and the town ball club.

The Olympics in May 1860 also voted to make the switch. They didn’t abandon town ball entirely and immediately, playing a match game with the Excelsiors and scheduling an intrasquad game as late as 1862.[17] In 1864, New York journalist Henry Chadwick claimed that the Olympics “favor [town ball] almost entirely; and but for a few members would not play Base Ball at all.” Chadwick certainly vastly overstated the case. He had recently been accosted by a member of the club and threatened with violence over his reporting, and his assessment of the Olympics was not dispassionate. Nonetheless, for the assertion to be plausible to its readers would require that the Olympics were, at least to some extent, still playing town ball.[18] Unlike the Athletics, they embraced their early history and the prestige of seniority. (The Philadelphia press was always ready to point out that the Olympics were older than the Knickerbockers.) The Olympics lasted nearly another quarter century, but with no reports of them, or anyone else, playing organized town ball.

“Town Ball” and “Base Ball”

It is necessary to undertake a linguistic digression in order to define what is and is not accomplished by describing Philadelphia town ball. The baseball family of games was, in the mid–19th century, widely played in both North America and in Britain. Not yet standardized, there were innumerable local variants. The games also went by various names but, unlike the variant rules, the number of names was small.

In Britain the oldest name was “base ball,” while the game was known as “feeder” in the London region.[19] Both names died out, with “base ball” being included in a list of archaic words.[20] Their place was taken by “rounders.” In New England the term “round ball” was used in early days, but largely disappeared over the first half of the 19th century. Two names prevailed in North America: The old term “base ball” dominated in New England, New York, and the Great Lakes region, while “town ball” prevailed in Pennsylvania and the Ohio River and upper Mississippi valleys.

With more local variant forms than there were names, it is obvious that name and game did not always represent clear 1:1 relationships. Into the 1860s this was considered unremarkable, and the press published remarks such as “Base Ball at Ingersoll…The game played in Canada differs somewhat from the New York game…” and “Town Ball at Evansville, Ind….the rules and regulations for playing the game of town ball vary a great deal.”[21] The two forms that were standardized in the 1850s were both called “base ball,” so they were distinguished as the “New York game” and the “Massachusetts game.”[22] This was unnecessary with regard to regions using “town ball,” with the New York press using the unmodified “base ball” to refer to the New York game.

Ball, Bat and Bishop, Henderson 1947

Ball, Bat and Bishop, Henderson 1947

The New York game came to dominate all others over the 1860s, so local variants in the old “base ball” regions came to be described as “old fashioned base ball.”[23] In later years, people became uncomfortable applying “base ball” to anything other than the New York game. The name “town ball” was adopted retroactively in regions that had never used the term, including renaming the Massachusetts game. Just as it was assumed that “base ball” could mean only one variant, so it was assumed that “town ball” must also apply to just one form. Even as astute an observer as Robert W. Henderson, the first serious student of the early game, wrote in 1947, “A town ball team was fully organized in Philadelphia in 1833 and it continued to be played in New England until 1860, where it was known as ‘The Massachusetts Game.’ ” A purported description of town ball followed this quotation, but it actually described the Massachusetts game.[24] Fallacy is layered atop fallacy.

So the reconstruction of Philadelphia town ball presented here is no more than that—a reconstruction of Philadelphia town ball. It should not be taken as a reconstruction of any other regional form, including any other variant also called “town ball.” There is no evidence to suggest that “town ball” forms were any more or less similar to one another than they were to variants of “base ball” or “rounders.” This reconstruction applies merely to the Philadelphia region, and the Philadelphia region stands out only in that its town ball is unusually well documented and thus particularly well suited for such a project.

Finally, the terms used in this article are the “baseball family” to refer collectively to the related forms of the game, whether locally called “base ball,” “town ball,” or “rounders”; the “New York game” and the “Massachusetts game” are so called, to avoid ambiguity. The game in and around Philadelphia is called “Philadelphia town ball” or, for brevity and when the context is clear, simply “town ball.”


The sources used to reconstruct the rules of Philadelphia town ball fall into three categories, in order of decreasing reliability:

Box scores, in particular of three match games: one between the first teams of the Olympic and Excelsior clubs played July 12, 1860, and two between the second teams of the Excelsior and Camden clubs, played July 9 and July 23, 1860.[25] These are elaborate records, including the fielding records and how the players were put out—information not found in modern baseball box scores. They bespeak sophisticated scorekeeping, and are the most objective source of information we have. Box scores of the New York game had not yet been standardized, and ranged from rudimentary records resembling modern box scores, to extended records with fielding and “how put out” records, much like contemporary cricket boxes and comparable to these three town ball boxes. The more elaborate forms were used for important games, implying that the three town ball games were considered significant at the time.

Contemporary game accounts: The account of the Honey Run Club’s game of Thanksgiving Day 1859 is by far the most complete account extant. There are, however, various shorter, fragmentary descriptions that shed light on certain aspects of the game. Narrative accounts are more subjective than box scores, and require more interpretation, but as contemporary texts written by reporters familiar with the game, they are likely to be accurate.

1884 Olympic Club of Philadelphia

1884 Olympic Club of Philadelphia

Retrospective descriptions: The most important of these is the historical sketch included with the 1866 constitution of the Olympic club, which shares some text with a sketch of the club published in 1861.[26] Reminiscences are inherently suspect, but in 1866 town ball was still a recent memory, with the club retaining members from its town ball days, while in 1861 a description was only barely retrospective. Also notable is a sketch of the Olympic club published in 1884.[27] The Olympics were still a going concern, and the article includes a hint of reference to club records since lost. It is unique for pieces of such a late date in that it does not rely on the 1866 sketch, yet is still consistent with the known facts.

Unifying Assumptions

The previous section emphasized the diversity of the baseball family. Nevertheless, we can still assume a degree of unity amongst the various games.

It is assumed that the competitive Philadelphia town ball clubs played under similar sets of rules. There is no direct evidence for this, but there are no reports of negotiating rules as was sometimes found in other areas. There were conventions among both New York and New England clubs in the 1850s to standardize their rules. There is no hint of a similar convention of Philadelphia clubs in the town ball era. A likelier guess is that the rules of the Olympic Club, as the senior, prestige club, were adopted by the other clubs (in much the same way that the laws of cricket were the club rules of the Marylebone Club in England), or at least that the other clubs adopted field rules with only minor variations. These rules are what this article attempts to reconstruct.

It is also assumed that the noncompetitive clubs such as the Honey Run were playing essentially the same game as the Olympics, although likely in a less formal manner. This is the opposite assumption from that commonly made of the New York game. Modern writers generally acknowledge that some version of the baseball family was long played in New York, but assume that the game the Knickerbockers played as of 1845 was in its essence different from that of earlier generations. The rules of the Knickerbockers have more than their share of peculiarities compared with other members of the baseball family, but there is little direct evidence of the rules under which young New Yorkers were playing in the 1830s. It is not actually known whether the peculiarities of the New York game originated with the Knickerbockers or were inherited by them. That the game of the Olympics was the same as that of the Honey Runs is not provable. Indeed, some of the vocabulary applied to the non-competitive club games is not found in the competitive matches. But unlike pre-Knickerbocker New York baseball, we can compare accounts of competitive and non-competitive Philadelphia town ball and observe that they seem to be similar, and guess from this that the account of the Honey Run’s match can illuminate the Olympic game.

Finally, it is assumed that Philadelphia town ball was a member of the broad baseball family, sharing characteristics of the family. For example, nothing in the accounts of Philadelphia town ball explains what an “inning” is; but since the word is used the same way throughout the baseball family, there is no need to believe that an “inning” in Philadelphia town ball presents any mystery.

The Rules of the Game

The Players: A team consisted of 11 players, unless the clubs agreed to some lower number. A match in 1858 between the Olympics and the Camdens was played with nine on a side.[28] The Germantown games were more variable, as would be expected of the less formal context, with typically 10 or 11 on a side. That 11 was normative, at least among the competitive clubs, is shown by the routine use of “first eleven” and “second eleven” to designate the clubs’ first and second teams. New York clubs used the analogous “first nine” and “second nine,” but the likely source for Philadelphia’s rule was the identical usage—well established by the late 1850s—of first and second elevens of cricket clubs. In November 1859 the Pennsylvania Base Ball Club formed to play the New York game. In their first intraclub game they played 11 on a side, apparently not having carefully studied the New York rules. They realized their mistake, or it was pointed out to them, and by the end of the month they were playing nine on a side.[29]

The only players with assigned positions were the ball giver and the behind, corresponding to the modern pitcher and catcher. It was typical of the baseball family that the other defensive players had no fixed assignments. The New York game abolished the general practice of throwing the ball at the runner and replaced it with tagging the base or runner. This led to the assigning of players to man each base. In other forms there was no need for this, and the players could position themselves as strategy or whim dictated. (A vestige of this can be seen in the modern game, comparing the position of the first basemen with a runner on base versus without.)

The Field: The bases were five stakes arranged in a circle of approximately thirty feet in diameter.  The small size of the playing field is perhaps the most surprising aspect of Philadelphia town ball. The sources on this subject are consistent and clear. The 1861 article on the Olympics noted that some older members retired when the New York game was adopted, since “three hundred and sixty feet, compared with the old town ball circle of eighty feet, was enlarging the sphere of action with a vengeance.” The 1884 account described the circles as “about thirty feet.” A circle 30 feet in diameter has a circumference of about 94 feet. It is likely that the distances were not intended to be precise and, as will be seen, the batter probably did not run the entire circumference anyway.

This is the smallest documented size of any field of the baseball family, with about 19 feet between bases. The Massachusetts game had basepaths of 40–60  feet. In 1828 The Boy’s Own Book by William Clarke described the four-base diamond formation with the bases “placed from twelve to twenty yards asunder.” This is usually interpreted as the length of the basepaths, though the Knickerbocker rules of 1845 defined the size of the diamond as the distance between home and second, and first and third. If the 1828 distance is measured similarly this still results in basepaths more than 25 feet in length. The earliest known rules for baseball, published by Johann Chistoph Friedrich Gutsmuths in 1796, placed the bases 10–15 paces apart, making it the variant closest to Philadelphia town ball.[30]

David Block notes a trend within the baseball family of the field gradually expanding.[31] The Philadelphia town ball field seems to have been a uniquely antique feature retained from the ancestral game.

The use of stakes was one standard option in the baseball family, used in the Massachusetts game and surviving in modern rounders in Britain. The relevant sources agree that stakes were used in Philadelphia. These include the 1884 account, which called them “sticks,” and an 1862 account of the history of the Athletics, which poetically described their switch from town ball to baseball as the adoption of “the bases instead of the stakes.”[32] The account of the Honey Run match mentions flags being placed at the corners. “Corner” is a synonym for base found in some later accounts of early baseball. In 1867 the “Home Run Polka” was published by a Philadelphia publisher, dedicated to the National Base Ball Club of Washington. The Nationals had from their inception played the New York game, but the front page bore a strange illustration of a baseball game—apparently drawn by an artist who had never actually seen the New York game played, and conflating elements of the New York game with older forms. It features stakes misplaced halfway down the basepaths, with small rectangular flags. It is possible the artist recalled these from town ball games. There is no evidence of whether or not they were used by the competitive clubs.

Home Run Polka

Home Run Polka

The arrangement in a circle is unusual but not without precedent. Early forms of baseball had been flexible about the number of bases. Most later forms standardized this at four bases. The Massachusetts game is conventionally characterized as having five bases, but it actually had four stakes and a designated location for the batter. Placing the batter in the familiar location at home base presents obvious practical problems if home base is a stake. So the batter was moved to the first-base side in those forms of baseball using stakes. The 1884 account of Philadelphia town ball states explicitly that there were five stakes. The only other example of five bases so arranged was described in 1855 in the Manual of British Rural Sports. [Editor's note: Richard wrote this article three years before the unearthing of the New Marlboro rules and diagram, with their five bases. See:]

This circular arrangement raises the question of where the batter was placed. Following the pattern of other forms with stakes, he likely was about midway between fifth (or home) and first base. This hypothetical reconstruction also shortens the circumference of the path to run to about 85 feet—close to the 1861 stated distance of 80 feet.

Pitching: There is no direct evidence of where the ball giver stood, but every known form of baseball places him somewhere within the area delineated by the bases. This was so strongly assumed that the Knickerbocker rules of 1845 didn’t bother to mention it. There is no direct evidence concerning whether the ball giver delivered the ball overhand, as in the Massachusetts game, or underhand, as in the New York game, but it was almost certainly underhand.

The Massachusetts game featured a swift delivery, attempting to overpower the batter, while the early New York game featured a soft toss intended merely to put the ball in play. The tiny distance between the ball giver and the batter in Philadelphia town ball seems ill suited for a swift delivery. For the games with full box scores it is readily apparent who the behind was, and on one occasion the behind was singled out for praise for his good fielding. But the identity of the ball giver is usually (and conspicuously) omitted in these accounts. Wyn Stokes, the Honey Run’s ball giver, was the hero of their game against the Marions, but for making the game-ending defensive play, not for his pitching.

Finally, there is once again the negative evidence of silence regarding a possible change in pitching style when the New York game was adopted. This difference was a topic of comment in comparisons between the New York and Massachusetts games, so one would expect the subject to have arisen had there in fact been substantial changes.

This all suggests that the delivery was a slow, underhanded form similar to that of modern slow-pitch softball.

The ball and bat: The 1884 article states that the ball was “much lighter and softer than the ball of the present time.” It also states that the players had to make their own balls and bats, and there indeed is no evidence for commercial manufacture of town ball implements. Under the circumstances, it is likely that the balls varied widely, and were probably quite dead.

Various forms of bat were found in the baseball family. Two-handed round bats were used in both the New York and Massachusetts games, but other forms included one-handed bats (used in modern rounders) and flat bats (like those used in cricket) of various sizes, often described as “paddles.” Once again there is an absence of discussion on the subject, suggesting that the town ball bats were two-handed round bats like those used in the New York and Massachusetts games.

Ending the inning: The inning was ended when every player on the side had been put out. This is one of two common versions in the baseball family, the other being the inning ending when one player was put out. The New York game’s feature of ending the inning after three outs was unique.

Getting out: The three 1860 box scores feature “How Put Out” headings for each out, divided into five categories: Fly, Bound, Behind, No Balls, and Stakes. There also is a section recording each player’s fielding record, listing Fly, Bound, and Behind. Modern baseball scoring rules require that every out be credited to a fielder, but Philadelphia town ball felt no such obligation, suggesting that No Balls and Stakes were not considered fielding accomplishments. Table I below lists the percentage of outs made in each category, while Tables 2 and 3 split these: the July ¡2 game between the first elevens of the Olympics and Excelsiors in Table 2, and the July 9 and July 23 games between the second elevens of the Excelsiors and the Camdens in Table 3, with the differences attributable to the varying skill levels of the first and second elevens.

How Outs Were Made

How Outs Were Made

“Fly” outs are exactly as they are in modern baseball. The fly out is a universal feature of the baseball family, and even extends beyond it to cricket.

“Bound” outs are balls caught on the first bounce. Philadelphia town ball shared this feature with the contemporary New York game.

“Behind” outs are more mysterious. The breakdowns of outs by fielder lead to the unsurprising conclusion that these outs are credited to the behind (i.e. the catcher). In the July 12 game, all but two of the 70 behind outs are credited to the two players identified in the account as the behinds (the other two presumably made during a defensive switch), and the two behinds each made over twice as many outs a the next-most productive fielder. But what, exactly, was a “behind”? The answer may lie in the apparent fact that the behinds are never credited with other sorts of outs (except when the box score indicates a defensive switch). One would expect the behind to be in a position to catch pop flies and, on the bound, balls tipped backwards into the ground. Both of these were common ways for New York–game catchers to make outs. So the “behind” category may have been created for statistical purposes, distinct from fly and bound outs because the behind had so many more opportunities. A reverse analogy of sorts might be found in the way modern baseball scoring has the distinct categories of passed balls and wild pitches, rather than including them simply as errors.

Fly, bound, and behind outs account for more than 90 percent of the recorded outs. The remaining categories played relatively minor roles.

“No Ball” is a somewhat confusing term. It is not found elsewhere in the baseball family, but it occurs in cricket. A cricket “no ball” is a ball bowled beyond the reach of the batsman, and the fielding team is penalized. The Philadelphia town ball “no ball” is detrimental to the batting team, so it clearly is not the cricket “no ball.” More likely, these outs correspond to the modern strikeout. This was an old feature of the baseball family, going back to the 18th century.[32] If the batter swung at and missed three pitches, he was ruled out if the third pitch was caught, but the ball was considered to be in play if the behind failed to catch it. This is the origin of the modern dropped–third strike rule, and the Massachusetts game had a similar rule. With soft deliveries, “no balls” were not a major feature, accounting for about 8 percent of all outs, and only 5 percent in the first elevens’ games.

“Stakes” are probably, if only through the process of elimination, fielded balls thrown at the runner, striking him between bases. This was a widespread feature of the baseball family, often called “soaking” or “plugging” the runner. Abolishing the practice was one of the major innovations of the New York game. Stakes were quite rare in Philadelphia town ball for reasons that will be discussed below, accounting for less than 2 percent of all outs. But as the account of the climax of the Honey Run–Marion match shows, they could be dramatic.

Running the bases: Running the bases on balls in play is a universal feature of the baseball family. Philadelphia town ball has the variant that the batter lacked the option of stopping at a base—every at bat resulted in a home run or an out. The 1884 account is explicit about this: “The striker was compelled to make a complete circuit upon each hit in order to score.” Every other known member of the baseball family allows station-to-station advancement through the bases. This and the small field size are the two striking peculiarities of Philadelphia town ball, and clearly are connected with one another. The entire circuit was shorter than the modern distance from home to first base, and advancing station to station would be a trivial achievement.

Several accounts of Germantown games mention “grannies.” One of them reveals that this is a score, distinguishing between “regular circuits” and “grannies,” with over 10 times as many regular circuits as grannies.[34] The captain of the Honey Run club in their match against the Marions was described as a “granny runner.” A possibility is that grannies were scores which required the runner to dodge an attempted stake, while regular circuits were made on unfielded balls. No account of the competitive club matches mentions grannies or makes any distinction between different types of runs.

The requirement to make a complete circuit on each hit raises the related question of whether the bases served the role of safe havens. This is a general feature—so much so that it sometimes is considered a defining characteristic of the baseball/cricket family. But if the runner must continue running, the safe-haven status seems moot. The Honey Run–Marion account suggests that the bases did retain this function, if only vestigially. In the climactic play of the game, Righter of the Marions hit the ball and before he had reached the third corner (i.e. halfway around the bases), Wyn Stokes of the Honey Runs had the ball in his hands. “This was a critical time…every player was nervous with excitement. The marksman stood still; Righter afraid to move. Wyn’s arm drew back, and with terrific force, catching ‘Marion’ (just making a fine dodge) about three inches above the ancle [sic] bone.” Was the immobility of Righter and Stokes a tactical decision? Should we chalk it up to nerves? Or was it mere dramatic license by the chronicler? Taking it at face value, one possible interpretation is that Stokes didn’t throw immediately because Righter was touching a base, then Righter made a break for the next base, unsuccessfully attempting to dodge the throw. On the other hand, the scene is very cinematic, and possibly fictional. It seems somewhat likelier that the bases were vestigially safe havens, but by then the runner could not linger and allow the fielder with the ball to approach him.

The complete-circuit requirement removes one of the difficulties inherent in all-out innings: what to do when the batter is stranded on a base. In cricket there must always be two men on offense, so while there are 11 men on a side the inning is over after 10 outs. Many versions of the baseball family have special rules for the last man, typically allowing a home run to cancel the previous outs, restarting his side’s inning. Philadelphia town ball had no need for any such rule, there being no mechanism for stranding a runner.

This also raises a question about the batting order. Box scores clearly show a set batting order, but there is no indication whether a successful batter returns immediately to bat, as in cricket, or if the next man in the lineup takes his place, as in the New York game, cycling through the shrinking roster of batters not yet put out. The latter is more consistent with other members of the baseball family, but the former seems a better fit to this version. That said, there is no direct evidence, since no account combines a batting order with the name of the final batter.

A final possible nicety is that the runner was not required to touch the bases as he went by. In 1862 a reporter from the New York Clipper, probably Henry Chadwick, accompanied a group of Brooklyn players to Philadelphia. His report included advice on fine points such as the need to put down chalk lines to delineate the foul lines, and that the Philadelphia players needed to learn to touch the bases.[35] One reason for this requirement is to prevent the runner from cutting corners; but the town ball stakes would clearly define the circle outside of which the player must run. The Clipper’s advice may indicate a vestige of town ball play.

The Umpire: The office of umpire was much less important than in the New York game. The 1838 Olympic constitution assigned this duty to the scorekeeper, who was a club officer, but this obviously would have been inadequate for matches between clubs. The Honey Run–Marion match had two umpires and a referee.[36] Early New York matches followed the same pattern, with an umpire from each club and a neutral third party should the umpires be unable to reach agreement. It soon became apparent that the club appointees were superfluous and a single neutral umpire became standard. Competitive Philadelphia town ball clubs apparently followed the same progression, as the one mention of the office, in one of the Excelsior–Camden matches, named a single man in the role.[37]

There are no descriptions of complaints about the umpire, nor any of the admonishments against this behavior so common in the New York game. The Philadelphia players were not more virtuous: Such descriptions and admonishments appear soon after the New York game was established there. The New York–game umpire was (and is) called upon to make many close judgments, even before the advent of called balls and strikes: Did the ball land foul or fair? Did the ball arrive at the bag first, or the runner? The Philadelphia town ball umpire’s task was less challenging, with the occasional decision on whether a ball was cleanly caught or the rare staking of a runner. This lesser responsibility brought with it fewer complaints.

Ending the game: How to know when the game is over is normally a straightforward question, but there is no obvious answer in this case. There are two common solutions: playing to a fixed score or playing a fixed number of innings. Both are found in the baseball family. The early New York games played in Massachusetts played to a fixed score: 100 and 21 runs, respectively. The New York game switched to the modern nine innings in 1857. Town ball in Cincinnati was played to four innings.[38] Cricket was played by innings: one or two, depending on what the clubs arranged. So either scheme was freely available for Philadelphia town ball, but neither seems to have been applied. Competitive matches came in variously at 11, 12, and 19 innings. The Honey Run–Marion match lasted a mere two innings. The line scores, where available, make clear that extra innings to break a tie were not at issue. Had games been played to a fixed score, however, one would expect it to have been a round number—but this is clearly not the case. Recorded scores include 119–81, 85–75, 80–42, 87–71, and 71–66.[39]

The remaining possibility is that they played for a predetermined period of time. Several accounts of both competitive match games and of Germantown games mention the time of play, consistently running about four hours. The Olympic–Excelsior match of July 12, 1860, ended at 6:30. This is too early to be forced by darkness (even before the advent of daylight savings time), but it is a splendid time to stop for supper. Playing to a fixed ending time is uncharacteristic of the baseball family, but it was the de facto rule even in modern baseball before the advent of lights, and it was not uncommon for teams to agree on an ending time in the days when teams had trains to catch. It is likely that this was the de jure method of ending Philadelphia town ball games.

The Course of Play

The fundamental skills of Philadelphia town ball were identical to those of the early New York game: throw the ball, catch the ball, hit the ball. When the newly formed Mercantile Club lost to the Athletic Club, the Mercantiles ascribed their loss to the Athletics’ experience playing town ball.[40] Based on the evidence at hand, the players’ argument seems entirely plausible. The Olympics were clearly the champion town ball club of Philadelphia, and—following their adoption of the New York game—their title of champion was acknowledged to carry over to the new game.[41] Their play bore this out, and they successfully defended their title for several years.

In strategy, Philadelphia town ball falls short of its relatives. Indeed, it is difficult to see where there is any strategy at all, if we take “strategy” to mean adjusting one’s style of play according to the game situation. In Philadelphia town ball, a “plate appearance” can produce only two possible results: a score (and the right to a subsequent attempt) or an out. There is no possible benefit to be accrued by sacrificing an out, and no partial benefits of getting on base or additional benefits of driving in multiple runs. So there is no reason to bat differently in different strategic situations, and while the fielding team might make adjustments for stronger or weaker batters, this should technically be considered “tactics” rather than “strategy.”

The vast majority of outs were made on fly balls, either caught on the fly or the bound. Unfortunately, there is no record of how most of the runs were made: on uncaught fly balls or on ground balls. The first run of the Honey Run–Marion match was made on a ground ball, but we don’t know if that was common or rare. Given how rare stakes were, it seems that hitting ground balls would be the surest approach. Or perhaps stakes were rare because the fielders played close in, making ground balls dangerous, and batters preferred to hit fly balls. It is a good bet that the ball was dead by modern standards; but one of the vast uncertainties is how dead it was, and, by extension, how far the fielders had to spread out.

The How Put Out box reveals the difference in skill level between the first and the second elevens. The first elevens were twice as likely to catch a ball on the fly, while the second favored catching it on the bound. Journalists discussed the relative merits of the two in the New York game. Much of this discussion was ideological, with fly catches judged more manly, but part of it was pragmatic: On uneven ground the fielder could not count on a true bounce, so a fly catch was, when possible, the more reliable play. Whether for practical or ideological reasons, more skillful players preferred to catch balls on the fly.

Similarly, the second teams had more trouble putting the bat on the ball, being twice as likely to be put out on a “no ball.” But even with the second elevens these represented only 10 percent of all outs. This is low by modern standards, but comparable to strikeouts in contemporary New York games, as can be seen in the extended box score for a New York game between the Olympic and Hamilton clubs, with the clubs combining for five strikeouts.[42]

The Honey Run–Marion match took approximately the same time as the competitive matches, and the final score was similar; yet it lasted only two innings, compared with the 11 or so innings of the competitive matches. There are two aspects that require explanation: why the scoring per inning was so much higher in the Honey Run–Marion match, and why the innings took so much longer to complete.

The likely explanation for the high scoring per inning is that the fundamental skill of batting (in a slow-pitch era) was easier than the fundamental skill of fielding (in an era long before fielder’s gloves). Henry Chadwick long held, in the New York game, that a low score—indicative of skillful fielding—was the true measure of a well played game. This is often regarded today as quaint ideology, and Chadwick undoubtedly held on to the idea long past the time when the game was more about pitching and hitting than fielding. But in the earlier era, the capability of amateur players reliably to catch a ball could not be assumed.

As to the length of an inning, the competitive matches maintained a furious rate of activity. The Olympic–Excelsior game had 240 outs in 11 innings (two short of the expected 242 because the Olympics played the first inning shorthanded) and 158 runs, for a total of 398 game events (defining a “game event” as either a run or an out) in the recorded four and a quarter hours, or a game event approximately every 38 seconds. This is not counting unhit balls and not taking into account the time taken to exchange places between half innings. The Honey Runs and the Marions, being more social than competitive, may simply have played the game at a leisurely pace.

The sum of the evidence strongly suggests that the competitive matches were played more skillfully and more aggressively and, simply put, more happened.


The Massachusetts game is frequently taken as being representative of the baseball family as a whole, which is assumed to be largely uniform. The New York game in turn is assumed to be an outgrowth of this, with certain innovations.

The one idea to take away from this reconstruction of Philadelphia town ball, apart from any interest the rules themselves might hold, is that the baseball family was more variable than is typically imagined. The basic framework was of a bat-and-ball game with bases arranged in a polygon. Within this framework there were various options (e.g. bound outs) and room for unique features (e.g. the absence of station-to-station running in Philadelphia town ball, or three-out innings in the New York game).

With the Massachusetts and New York games and Philadelphia town ball differing so much from one another, it is reasonable to assume that the myriad lesser-known forms were similarly varied. Before the New York game came to displace the other variants, the game was anything but homogeneous. It was a motley, with the New York game being only one form among many.


1. Compare this with the later practice of New York clubs playing in Hoboken. The reasons were the same: Urban development overran convenient playing grounds in the cities but mass transit systems had not yet arisen; it was easier to take the ferry to less-developed New Jersey than to make a road trip.

2. The 1838 constitution is [was] available at The only known extant copy of the 1866 pamphlet is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.

3. New York Clipper: Sept. 19, 1857.

4. New York Clipper: Nov. 12, 1859; Dec. 3, 1859; Dec. 17, 1859.

5. Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times: Apr. 28, 1860; New York Clipper: Nov. 14, 1863; Nov. 28, 1863.

6. Fitzgerald’s City Item (Philadelphia), October 22, 1859, included them in a list of local “ball clubs.”

7. New York Clipper: Aug. 21, 1858: a letter from the secretary states the club had been organized “about a year.”

8. New York Clipper: May 10, 1862. The traditional date for the founding of the Athletics is April 7, 1860. This in fact is the date when the club voted to adopt the New York game. Their origin as a town ball club is discussed in the Clipper article. They are also included in the list in Fitzgerald’s City Item, Oct. 22, 1859.

9. New York Clipper: May 29, 1858; June 19, 1858; July 3, 1858.

10. New York Clipper: Nov. 27, 1858.

11. New York Clipper: Nov. 26, 1859; Dec. 24, 1859.

12. The Morning Pennsylvanian (Philadelphia): May 28, 1860; New York Clipper: May 19, 1860.

13. New York Clipper: June 30, 1860. The first match game in Philadelphia is often incorrectly identified as that of June 26 between the Equity and the Pennsylvania clubs.

14. New York Clipper: Oct. 6, 1860.

15. Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times: Feb. 9, 1861.

16. The Morning Pennsylvanian (Philadelphia): May 28, 1860; New York Clipper: Oct. 19, 1861.

17. Philadelphia Inquirer: May 21, 1862.

18. Brooklyn Eagle: Aug. 6, 1864; Aug. 3, 1864.

19. The oldest known attested use of “base-ball” is from 1744; see: Block, D. 2005. Baseball Before We Knew It. Lincoln, Neb. (p. 178). For “feeder,” see ibid., p. 138.

20. Halliwell, J. 1847. Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs, and Ancient Customs. London (p. 146). 

21. New York Clipper: Aug. 11, 1860; June 9, 1860.

22. The New York game is conventionally said to originate with the Knickerbocker Club rules of 1845, but it was the meeting of the Knickerbockers and three other clubs in 1854 that produced a standard set of rules for interclub match play.

23. Astifan, P., and L. McCray, “‘Old Fashioned Base Ball’ in Western New York, 1825–1860” (forthcoming).

24. Henderson, R. 2001. Ball, Bat and Bishop. Chicago/Urbana (p. 151).

25. New York Clipper: Aug. 4, 1860; Aug. 11, 1860.

26. Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times: Mar. 2, 1861.

27. The Sporting Life: Dec. 31, 1884.

28. New York Clipper: May 29, 1858.

29. The Morning Pennsylvanian (Philadelphia): Nov. 11, 1859; Nov. 28, 1859.

30. Block 2005, 279–280.

31. Ibid., 81–82.

32. New York Clipper: May 10, 1862.

33. Block 2005, 276.

34. New York Clipper: Sept. 19, 1857.

35. New York Clipper: July 12, 1862.

36. Sunday Dispatch (Philadelphia): Nov. 20, 1859.

37. The Press (Philadelphia): July 12, 1860.

38. This is consistent with contemporary accounts, such as that from the New York Clipper, August 21, 1858, reporting a game by the Excelsior Club of Cincinnati of four innings.

39. New York Clipper: May 29, 1858; June 19, 1858; Aug. 4, 1860; Aug. 11, 1860.

40. The Morning Pennsylvanian (Philadelphia): Aug. 2, 1860.

41. Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times: Mar. 2, 1861.

42. The Press (Philadelphia): Nov. 8, 1860.


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