Results tagged ‘ origins ’
With this thirteenth of sixteen articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by yours truly, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball.
These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1853.5, reflects that it is the fifth Protoball entry for the year 1853.
1853.5 The Baseball Press Emerges
“BASE BALL AT HOBOKEN: The first friendly game of the season, between the Gotham and Knickerbocker Base Ball Clubs was played on the grounds of the latter on the 5th inst. The game was commenced on Friday the 1st, but owing to the storm had to be postponed, the Knickerbockers making nine aces to two of the Gothams, the following is the score for both days.”
The Knicks won, 21–12, according to an abbreviated box score, which uses “No. of Outs” and not “Hands Lost” in the left-hand column, and “Runs,” not “Aces,” in the right-hand column. Paul Wendt estimates that this is the first certain Knick-rules box score known, and the first since the October 1845 games.1 Henry Chadwick may have been baseball’s most important writer in its early days, but he was not its first. That honor would go to William Cauldwell, who, like Chadwick, was born in 1824. “I can speak as a New York boy from away back,” Cauldwell told the Mills Commission in 1905, “and in an all my experiences I had no knowledge of the prominence of a ball game called ‘rounders.’ I played ball in my native city from the time I was (to use an old time phrase) ‘knee high to a mosquito’ dating back to a period when Fourteenth Street was considered out of town.”2
Cauldwell would have played ball in lower Manhattan, near Crosby Street, for he went to primary school at the “High School for Males,” at No. 36 Crosby near Broome Street. As editor of the weekly Sunday Mercury, Cauldwell made mention of baseball on May 1, 1853, and later that year devoted space to the Knickerbocker–Gotham match of July 5. These were the first press accounts of baseball games since various newspapers covered the three October 1845 contests between clubs from Brooklyn and New York.
As Chadwick was not the first to cover baseball, neither was the New York Clipper. For decades after its debut number of April 30, 1853, the Clipper was never all about baseball, or even primarily so.3 Yet more than any other publication, it may be said to have transformed a boys’ game into the national pastime. To place in context how the Clipper advanced the status of baseball, let’s look at the sporting papers that paved its way.
I suggest that three essential ingredients facilitate the growth of any localized game to national sport. First, gambling. Adults must care about the outcome, and their willingness to place a wager is a reasonable measure of their interest. As a game matures, investors and civic boosters may pool their interests in order to absorb a greater risk, placing their bets on the protracted success of a club or a ball grounds. Second, statistics. Whether merely game scores or primitive box scores, these numerical attachments to prose accounts accord a mantle of importance to the matches—an importance like that of trade or transport or government; in addition, quantifying the game’s constituent parts further fuels the first mover of sport, gambling. Third, publicity. Regular press coverage is a necessary development to waft the enthusiasm exhibited at a single contest, however it may have been fueled, to those only reading about it afterward, often at great distance from the event.
Before baseball came to dominate the sporting scene in the last quarter of the 19th century, these three elements had previously advanced the popularity of other sports: the turf, the ring, sculling, cricket, and the pit (blood sports such as ratting, baiting, cockfighting, and dog-fighting). Whether the crowd drawn by the activity was low or genteel, the ingredients and the progression were similar. American sporting papers, beginning in the 1820s, paved the way for each sport to mature by providing records and prognostications related to events of interest to the sporting set and—underlying it all—the basis of a potential wager.
Despite the nationwide surge of interest during the Jacksonian era in newspapers and magazines touching upon all topics—from politics to religion, from literature to commerce—sporting coverage lagged. Devotees of turf, ring, field, and stream had to await the arrival by packet ship of the weekly Bell’s Life in London, founded in 1822. Three years earlier, Baltimorean John Stuart Skinner had established The American Farmer, the first agricultural journal in this country; in 1823 he replaced it with the monthly American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, which became America’s first enduring sporting paper.
Skinner sought for his new publication an encyclopedic status, but while industrious in collecting material for his magazine, unfortunately he published whatever was sent to him relating to the horse, and just as it was sent. His indifference to fact and straying attentions would continue to plague sporting papers, as the standards of self-promotion and humbuggery were more readily met than those of journalism.
A competitor to Skinner’s magazine arose in 1831.4 Founded by the aptly named William Trotter Porter, the Spirit of the Times was a high-toned weekly of horse literature and southwestern wit. Under his aegis it became a landmark in its approach to sport and, with nationally distributed subscription, a significant part of American periodical history. Porter pitched his paper to “gentlemen of standing, wealth and intelligence, the very Corinthian columns of the community,” rather than the crowd attracted by sensationalistic sheets of the day like The Whip or the Police Gazette (of which outlaw Jesse James was a noteworthy subscriber).5
An early–1830s competitor to Skinner and Porter was the sumptuous (and thus not surprisingly short-lived) New York Sporting Magazine and Annals of the American and English Turf, published by Cadwallader R. Colden with colored aquatints. Colden had written for Skinner’s publication under the pseudonym “An Old Turfman.” His own venture, launched in March 1833, ceased publication a year later, but it presaged the illustrated sporting papers to come.
Spirit of the Times began to cover cricket in 1837 (a match between elevens from Schenectady and Albany). Not until July 9, 1853, however, did it give notice to a baseball match, the one played between the Knickerbocker and Gotham clubs on July 5—the same noted in the fledgling Clipper one week later. Over the next few years, however, the Spirit would cover baseball much more assiduously than the Clipper. For a long time after it launched, the Clipper was seen as a cheap cousin of the flash or racy weeklies rather than as a competitor to Spirit of the Times. In 1853 the Clipper sold for two cents per copy at the city’s newsstands; the Spirit, if available there (it sold primarily via annual subscription), went for six cents per copy.
Although Spirit of the Times attracted a widely dispersed circulation that peaked at 40,000, it struggled to break even, it was said, because of the profligate habits of its proprietor. Porter lost his publication to his former pressman, John Richards, and looked for employment to George Wilkes, who had sold the Police Gazette, which he had co-founded. Wilkes took him under his wing, and started a new sporting paper called Porter’s Spirit of the Times. Porter died in 1858 (his death was reported on the day of the first Fashion Race Course game, July 20), litigation arose, and Wilkes finally withdrew from Porter’s Spirit of the Times and in September 1859 started Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times. For a while there were three sporting papers all claiming to be the original and only legitimate Spirit.6
Frank Queen (1823–1882), who created the Clipper, was born of working-class parents in Philadelphia. Self-educated, he was influenced by Frank Adriance, a cheap-book dealer, to think that a man could make a living by giving the public what it wanted. After arriving in New York in 1850, with Adriance’s help he set up as an operator of newsstands in the Bowery. This experience aided Queen in determining “the material most in popular demand,” which “suggested an opportunity for venturing upon his long cherished project of starting a newspaper of his own.”7
Connecting with well heeled Harrison Trent, who took the position of publisher, Queen launched the Clipper from 150 Fulton Street as a four-page weekly with six columns to the page. After three months the sheet was enlarged and its price was raised to three cents, “to enable us to meet the extra expense attendant upon the enlargement, and to employ additional reporters in the news department. The Clipper will now be enabled to keep the public advised of all movements transpiring in the Sporting and Theatrical world….”7
For some time, boxing and aquatics continued to form the core of the Clipper’s sporting coverage, supplemented by cricket, shooting, rat-baiting, and pedestrianism. In 1854 the paper did assign a reporter to cover yachting, billiards, cricket, and baseball—the expatriate Briton William H. Bray. In 1855 Queen bought Trent out. In 1857 he hired Chadwick to replace Bray. A few other sporting papers appeared in the years before 1865, including the California Spirit of the Times (1854), the Horse Journal (1855), the Philadelphia Police Gazette and Sporting Chronicle (1856), Billiard Cue (1856), Sportsman (1863), and San Francisco’s Our Mazeppa (1864). The Ball Players’ Chronicle and the New England Base Ballist were baseball-only publications in the years after the Civil War. But with only Wilkes’ Spirit offering real competition, the Clipper was beginning to exert dominance.
On April 5, 1868, the paper began its baseball coverage for the season by crowing:
The Clipper, as the leading organ of all legitimate sports, was the first to recognize the game of base ball as a recreation that was destined to be the National Game of America. We fostered the incipient pastime, gave advice to clubs and players, and exerted our widespread influence to perpetuate it as a healthy and harmless amusement.
1. Letter, July 6, 1853, to The Spirit of the Times: July 9, 1853, p. 246, col. 1. Posted to 19CBB by David Block, Sept. 6, 2006. SOT facsimile provided by Craig Waff, Sept. 2008.
2. Jack M. Doyle, Albert Spalding Scrapbooks, BA SCR 42, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, N.Y.
3. This debut number does not survive, but an issue for May 7 bears the number “2.” Perplexingly, the Clipper for May 14 is listed in the page-one masthead as “Vol. I, No. 1.” Yet on page two of this issue the editor writes: “THE CLIPPER./ITS COURSE ONWARD./ITS PROSPECTS BRIGHT./We have now entered upon the third voyage of our Clipper, and bright skies shine upon us, and favoring gales still waft us onward to that point, we desire to reach, the approbation of an indulgent public, and the cheering smiles of kind friends, and well wishers.” Confirming this reconstruction, the Clipper of May 21 is numbered as “Vol. I, No. 4.”
4. Two short-lived predecessors were Annals of the Turf (1826), published by George W. Jeffreys in North Carolina, and the Farmer’s, Mechanic’s, Manufacturer’s and Sportsman’s Magazine, published briefly (March 1826–February 1827) in New York. Betts, J. 1953. “Sporting Journalism in Nineteenth-Century America,” American Quarterly 5.1, 39–56. See also the “Stuntz List”: Stuntz, S. 1941. List of the Agricultural periodicals of the United States and Canada Published during the Century July 1810–July 1910.
5. Porter, Spirit of the Times: May 11, 1835.
6. Wallace, J. 1897. The Horse of America in His Derivation, History and Development (pp. 97 ff.).
7. “Frank Queen and His Contemporaries,” Clipper: Nov. 4, 1882.
With this twelfth of sixteen articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by Randall Brown, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball. The article below, by Larry McCray, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball for which Larry served as guest editor. He is the founder of the invaluable Protoball Project, a website where many of the early game’s top scholars have shared their finds. He is also a panelist on Major League Baseball’s Origins Committee, which I chair.
These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1845.1, reflects that it is the first Protoball entry for the year 1845.
1845.1 The Knickerbocker Rules—and the Long History of the One-Bounce Fielding Rule
If a ball be struck, or tipped, and caught, either flying or on the first bound, it is a hand out.2
The famous Knickerbocker rules of 1845 may not be comprehensive enough to fully define a playable game, and may not even be baseball’s first written rules,3 but they did indeed survive, and they give us the first coherent picture of the roots of the New York game.
At first taken as evidence of the Knickerbocker Club’s knack for inventive genius, the 13 playing rules have recently been freshly reconsidered in an evolutionary context, and their reputation for originality has taken several hits.4 At this point, it appears that only three rules that endure today lack clear precedent in prior safe-haven ballgames.5 These are (1) the tag-out rule, which supplanted the “plugging” of base-runners to put them out6; (2) the characteristic “90-degree” territory defining fair hits; and (3) the three-out inning. The three-strike rule, for example, was already in use in predecessor games—as was the dropped-third strike rule that freed the batter who whiffed to run the bases. (Such familiar modern icons as the nine-inning game, the nine-player team and the ninety-foot basepath came along more than a decade later.)
It seems ironic, when discussing rule innovations, that what may have been early game’s most contentious rule (the issue remained unsettled for four decades) was perhaps actually the most ancient aspect of ballplay. The basic fly rule for putting batters out seems to have been a part of ballplaying since, at least, the earliest accounts of English stoolball and cricket, centuries ago.
What We Know About the Prehistory of the Bound Rule
The Knickerbocker Club’s rule 12, cited above, includes a provision that to baseball fans seems quaint, if not alien, today; a batter could be retired if a fair or foul hit is caught after it bounces once.
There has been, until recently, reasonable speculation that this provision was another Knickerbocker innovation, and why it appeared. Over time, the weight and dimension of the ball had been evolving toward that of the cricket ball, making it heavier—and, reportedly, harder. One might surmise, then, that a fielder’s hands might be better protected from pain and injury if he were afforded the option of letting the ball bounce once, and then to field it once it was “spent.” A closer look, however, reveals some evidence that the one-bounce rule was known even before the New York game took shape.
The bound rule actually has a solid place in ball sports—and not just in the children’s game of jacks and in assorted playground fungo games. It is seen today mostly in tennis and related sports like handball and squash and table tennis, where the objective is to return a ball before it bounces twice, an event that would abruptly add one to the opponent’s score. For many centuries the bound rule has been an essential part of the old form of tennis, played long before modern lawn tennis was invented (keeping the bound rule) in 1873. Very early forms of collegiate football in the United States, and rugby-rules football in England, also included rules that specified what a player could and could not do when catching a ball on the bound.7
But was the bound rule also part of earlier safe-haven ballgames? One baseball pioneer certainly thought so. Describing the rules set for the new Gotham Base Ball Club in 1837, William Wheaton wrote, a half-century later: “We abandoned the old rule of putting out on the first bound and confined it to fly catching.”8 (If true, of course, this means that the Knickerbocker Club had actually decided to reverse the Gotham Club’s decision, and had reverted to the bound rule.) A second pioneer agrees: Knickerbocker mainstay Doc Adams seems to have suggested that one reason that players still liked the bound rule in 1860 was that it was a familiar feature of their boyhood ballgames.9
The direct evidence on broad prior use of a bound rule is suggestive, but it is not overwhelming. We have, as yet, only two contemporary references to its use before 1845. The earliest, found by David Block in a poem on stool-ball published in 1733, seems to imply the fielder’s objective was “To seize the ball before it grounds / Or take it when it first rebounds.”10 The other reference is in a public challenge in June 1841 to play a wicket match near Hartford, Connecticut; it specifies, as the second of four playing rules, “the ball to be fairly caught flying or at the first bound.”11 The standard early surveys of games—including Willughby, Gutsmuths, Strutt, Clarke—do refer to batters being put out by means of caught balls, but none actually defines a “catch” as being made on the fly.
Several other references to pre–1845 use of the bound rule appear in retrospective accounts. Historian Harold Seymour associates the practice with the old-cat games (but does not give a source),12 and a recollection of such games around 1840 in Illinois recalls a one-bounce rule.13 The rule is remembered for ballgames played in the 1820s in New York State, and in 1840 in accounts from Georgia and North Carolina.14 In New England, one account attributes the bound rule to the traditional ballgame called base.15
After the New York game had emerged, the bound rule was employed for wicket in Rochester, town ball in Ohio, and in Philadelphia Town Ball.16 It seems quite plausible that these practices were retained from earlier years, although the post–1845 adoption of the Knickerbocker rule 12 is another possibility. And as late as 1857, the rules of the Olympic Club of Boston listed the feature as a short-handed “scrub” variant of its own (non–New York) game.17 One Indianapolis writer, musing on ancient varieties of ballplaying, wrote that “[b]ecause the fielders were so helpless, it appears that even catches on two bounds were considered outs in games between younger players.”18
So the bound rule certainly was known before 1845. Whether it was the dominant form for “caught out” rules in early safe-haven games is not yet clear. We might speculate about the purposes for specifying bound outs in predecessor games—both to protect the hands of young or inexperienced players, and to extend the effective range of fielders when too few players were available. But in those early days, balls were apparently lighter and softer, and thus hits were shorter and damage to hands was a lesser risk.
The Slow Demise of the Bound Rule19
While it was their own club’s original rule, by the mid–1850s some prominent members of the Knickerbocker Club wanted to eliminate the bound rule. In this cause they were to be joined by the energetic reformer Henry Chadwick, who would call this campaign “one of the toughest I had.”20
In preparation for the 1857 convention that would revamp baseball’s rules, each of 16 New York area clubs were asked to send representatives to meetings to consider draft rules prepared by the Knickerbocker Club, and this draft eliminated bound catches. It was reported that the delegates were “pretty evenly divided” on this provision,21 but a compromise was reached, and unanimity thereby was achieved. The bound rule stayed, but a provision was fashioned as a new inducement for fielders to make fly catches whenever they could22: Although baserunners could still, as before, scamper ahead on all hit balls put in flight, for bound catches, runners could keep the bases they had gained on the play. If those balls were caught on the fly, however, the runners now were returned, with safe passage, to their original bases (the modern tag-up rule was to come later).
Thus began a reform campaign that gained press support but that failed, time after time, at Association rules conventions. Despite derision by Chadwick and others that the bound rule was merely a “boy’s rule,” delegates repeatedly voted to retain it, their majority buoyed by the growing numbers of new and distant clubs that were obviously more comfortable with it.
Meanwhile, more and more of the elite urban clubs—following the lead of the Knickerbockers—adopted the fly rule on their own. The manly game of cricket, using a ball as heavy and hard as a baseball, had no bound rule, a fact not unnoticed by proud cricketers, and this may have been a factor in the conversion. (Even today, cricketers make long fly catches without benefit of fielding gloves, while in baseball and softball, barehanded catches are largely reserved for spectators.)
Eventually, in December 1864, a fly rule for fair hits was voted in, as a one-year experiment for 1865 that stuck. But for foul balls, the bound rule lived on, and for two more decades, fielders outside the lines had the convenient option of grabbing the ball on one bounce.23
1. This essay benefited from several email exchanges with Richard Hershberger in early 2011.
2. Knickerbocker Rule 12.
3. Writing in 1887, William Wheaton recalls writing a set of rules for the Gotham Base Ball Club in 1837. See Protoball entry 1837.1, which carries the Wheaton article.
4. Rule-by-rule reviews of the Knickerbocker playing standards have been presented in: Block, D. 2005. Baseball before We Knew It (pp. 80–93); Thorn, J. 2011. Baseball in the Garden of Eden (pp. 71–77).
5. Whether the balk rule was originated by New York’s pioneer clubs has not been evaluated carefully at this time.
6. Actually, Wheaton wrote that this was “the first step we took” in laying out Gotham Club rules in 1837, eight years earlier. However, a tag rule that replaced plugging is not found in accounts of predecessor games, and may have been a New York modification.
7. See, e.g.: Gems, G., et al. 2008. Sports in American History (p. 138).
8. See Protoball entry 1837.1, which includes the full text of the Wheaton article.
9. Sunday Mercury, 1860. The cited observation was quoted from the report of the NABBP rules committee. Adams is not specifically named as author, but he chaired the committee.
10. Block 2005, 86, 111–118. The poem, “Stool Ball, Or the Easter Diversion,” is a detailed account of a holiday game that involved hitting but no pitching or baserunning.
11. See Protoball entry 1841.10; the original source is the Hartford Daily Courant of June 23, 1841.
12. Seymour, H. 1989. Baseball: The Early Years (p. 7).
13. Jones, A. 1970. Representative Recreation Activities (pp. 100–101).
14. See Protoball entries 1823c.12, 1840.24, and 1840c.33, respectively.
15. See Protoball entry 1750s.3.
16. See, respectively, Protoball entries 1850s.16 and 1850s.20, and Hershberger, R. 2007. “A Reconstruction of Philadelphia Town Ball,” Base Ball 1.2 (pp. 36–37).
17. See Protoball entry 1857.20. Massachusetts Base Ball, formally codified in the following year, specified the fly rule for match play.
18. “Old Baseball,” Indianapolis Sentinel: Apr. 3, 1887; cited in Morris, P. 2010. A Game of Inches (revised ed.) (p. 120).
19. A nuanced and recent overview of the controversy appears in Ryczek, W. 2009. Baseball’s First Inning (pp. 174–178).
20. Chadwick, H. 1868. The Game of Base Ball (p. 11).
21. “Out-door Sports. Base Ball Convention,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Mar. 7, 1857. Section 16 of the 1857 rules contains this provision.
22. There were already two competitive reasons for teams to prefer to try for fly catches. First, a fly catch reduces the time to return the ball to the infield, deterring advancing runners. Second, where playing surfaces were not well manicured, irregular bounces could prove uncatchable on the bound.
23. The shift in the vote may have been affected by the fact that membership in the NABBP had fallen off sharply. The number of member clubs fell from 62 in 1860 to 30 in 1864, according to Charles Peverelly in 1866. See Freyer and Rucker. 2005. Peverelly’s National Game (p. 117).
Apart from family, what seems important to me is play, a more serious activity than work and one that reveals more about who we are or wish to be. Work is performed under duress; play, never. And the work that seems most like play to me is rummaging around in history’s attic, often emerging into the light empty-handed only to discover what was in plain sight all along.
The subject of this post is a man famous long ago and vanished since … only to turn up virtually in my backyard, when I lived in Saugerties, New York, as I long did until a year ago. His name is Frank Pidgeon. He was baseball’s greatest pitcher in the 1850s and the founder of one of its fabled clubs. He was a pioneer shipbuilder whose colleague in the Brooklyn shipyards and lifelong friend was George Steers, the man who built the racing yacht America, for which the America’s Cup is named. Frank Pidgeon went round Cape Horn to California in 1849 to make his mark in the Gold Rush, and came back overland across the Isthmus of Panama. He was an engineer, a painter, a musician, an entrepreneur, an inventor. For the last twenty years of his life he lived in Saugerties, where today no one knows his name.
Frank Pidgeon’s descent from fame to oblivion has been complete, except among a handful of baseball savants. The man who followed him as the greatest pitcher of the age, Jim Creighton, was remembered upon his death with a mighty obelisk in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery. Where was Pidgeon’s monument? A decade ago I received a good-hearted tip that Pidgeon had not only owned a splendid home in the hamlet of Malden, but that he was also buried there, on the Asa Bigelow property that he had purchased in 1860. My three sons and I clambered up and down an ivy-covered hill that contained a vegetation-encrusted above-ground tomb, but it was not Pidgeon’s.
Readying a new book on early baseball rekindled my interest in finding Frank Pidgeon. I realized that I had a better chance of understanding how and where he came to reside in death if I better understood his life. So let me tell you who he was, to the extent I have learned that, and where he is.
Francis Pidgeon was born in the Eleventh Ward of New York on February 11, 1825 to Irish-American parents. As a young man he entered the ship- and yacht-building trades. After his return from California, he married Mary Elizabeth Orr, with whom he was to have six children: Francis Jr, Mary, Annie, Jeannette, John, and Isabelle. (Isabelle died at age seven; Mary Eliza Pidgeon Searing (“A.E.P. Searing”) went on to become an author of children’s books, including the truly delightful When Granny Was a Little Girl (1926).
At about the same time, Frank Pidgeon also secured a patent for “a useful improvement in machinery for making Thimbles,” as reported in The Scientific American of December 13, 1851. (“The improvement consists in the employment of two rollers, of which one is divided transversely to its axis, and in combination with a stationary bar….”) In later years he also invented the only successful steam traction plow ever made.
In 1855 Pidgeon, along with fellow shipbuilders, founded the Eckford Base Ball Club of Brooklyn, one of the legendary early clubs and a national champion. Despite his advanced years (he had passed his thirtieth birthday), he was a great all-around player who captained the nine and played several positions. In the three all-star games of 1858, pitting the best of Brooklyn against the best of Manhattan, he was selected each time and, when he pitched, won the lone game Brooklyn was able to capture. He was a competent second baseman, shortstop, and left fielder, but he won his fame as a pitcher not of the speedy or wild variety that emerged in the 1860s, but as the paragon of “headwork,” changing speeds and arcs while pitching “fairly to the bat,” as was the mandate back then.
Frank Pidgeon was a pure amateur who played baseball for the love of the game. When “revolving”—inexplicable player movements from team to team, no doubt spurred by under-the-table inducements—became a problem, he authored the National Association of Base Ball Players bill against professionalism. He even spoke out against some clubs’ practice of recruiting young players with no visible means of support and then paying them expense money so that they could travel to play ball. “I suppose that you will admit,” Pidgeon wrote to the editor of The Spirit of the Times in 1858, “that a man who does not pay his obligations, and has in his power to do so, is a knave and not fit to be trusted in a game of ball or anything else; and if he has not the money, his time would better [be] spent in earning the same than playing ball—business first, pleasure afterwards.”
In 1860 the aformentioned Jim Creighton became the most prominent player to receive pay for his services, and other sub rosa professionals followed. Pidgeon walked away from the playing field after 1863 and within a year or so took his growing family up the Hudson to make a new home in the Saugerties area. He maintained business offices in Long Island City, where as a contractor he continued to do extensive dock-building and landfill work for the cities of New York and Brooklyn. Pidgeon had accumulated significant wealth through his contracting activities, frequently accepting, in lieu of cash, parcels of land that he had filled. In the 1870 Federal Census the value of his real estate owned is $91,250 (multiply by thirty to get a comparable figure today); his personal property was worth an additional $18,000.
The family had three domestic servants and one farm laborer, and they built a spacious $30,000 home in Malden, depicted in an Edward Jernegan photo in the 1875 photo-monthly, The Pearl. “Paintings by his own hand adorned his parlors,” reported The New York Clipper.
Pidgeon’s eldest son, Frank Jr., joined him in the contracting business by 1870 and married Mary Kiersted, whose fine home on Main Street is today the Saugerties Historical Society. When Frank Jr. poured new concete floors for the old house, he inlaid his signature pigeons in four locations, still visible today. Frank Jr.’s success continued, and he was one of three baseball-buff petitioners whose efforts culminated in the creation of a fine ball diamond at what is now known as Cantine Field.
But Frank Sr.’s unbroken string of successes finally snapped. A Brooklyn commission investigated cost overruns and halting progress on a bridge project to which his crews and leased equipment had been heavily committed. The municipality held up his invoices as creditors pursued him for payment. A five-year pattern of underbidding municipal jobs so as to leave no profit in them, only parcels of land, had dried up his cash on hand and left him vulnerable. In 1881 he was forced to assign his assets for the benefit of creditors and to declare bankruptcy. His business was gone, and so was his fine home. By 1883 he was working for his son’s still thriving contracting business, overseeing construction; in April 1884 he was compelled to leave Saugerties altogether and relocate to a rented home in Harlem.
Let the contemporary accounts tell the rest. The Kingston Daily Leader, whose editor was Pidgeon’s son-in-law John W. Searing, wrote: “SAUGERTIES, June 14. On Friday afternoon the sad intelligence reached here by way of telegram that Francis Pidgeon, formerly of this place, late of Harlem was dead. His son-in-law Howard Gillespy had left him only the evening before in good health and spirit and as the telegram failed to state the cause of death, it was surmised that he had died suddenly of heart disease. This morning however that idea was soon dispelled, when it was learned that while he was walking along the track near High Bridge, a north bound train of the New York Central Railroad struck him and he was instantly killed. He was in that locality superintending a contract made by his son Frank with the Astors to lay out and sewer certain grounds on the Harlem River. [Why a man looking to place sewers would be walking along the tracks is a question that did not require an answer in the subtly polite newspapers of the day, let alone one managed by the family of the deceased.]
“Mr. Pigeon [sic] had resided in this village for about fifteen years, he erected an elegant and costly residence upon the bank of the Hudson river, which was recently sold to John G. Myer of Albany for $15,000, about half its cost…. Of late years his business contracts proved quite disastrous, and although at one time it was supposed that he was quite affluent, yet he died a poor man. His untimely death is generally regretted in this village and vicinity. He was sixty years of age.”
The Kingston Daily Freeman later reported: “The funeral of Mr. Francis Pidgeon took place from the Reformed Church, on Saturday afternoon at 5 o’clock. It was largely attended. The remains were interred in the new village cemetery at the head of Main street. Rev. Dr. Wortman officiated. The remains were not exposed to the view of the assemblage, being so badly disfigured.”
Here was new information. Not buried in Malden after all, but in the village of Saugerties. But where, precisely? A tip took me out to the tiny, picturesque Lutheran Cemetery on Ulster Avenue, with my photographer son Mark ready to click the great discovery. This proved a bum steer. Corrected information received that evening took me to the Mountain View Cemetery next day … but where was Pidgeon to be found? The custodian’s listing appeared to have Frank Jr. but not his illustrious father. And then there it was, right along the path, behind a boulder with a bronze plate emblazoned, “PIDGEON.” Couldn’t miss it, although the previous day we had.
Mark and I wrote a message for Frank Pidgeon on a baseball that we signed and left at his headstone. Safe at home.
With this eleventh of sixteen articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by Randall Brown, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball. Randall Brown specializes in 19th century history and has published articles in Base Ball on early black clubs and the Doubleday-Cooperstown–baseball connection. His important research article on the Wheaton find appeared in National Pastime in 2004.
These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1837.1, reflects that it is the first Protoball entry for the year 1837.
1837.1 The Evolution of the New York Game—The Arbiter’s Tale
We first organized what we called the Gotham Base Ball club … in 1837. Among the members were Dr. John Miller, a popular physician of that day; John Murphy, a well-known hotelkeeper, and James Lee, president of the New York Chamber of Commerce.*
Creation or evolution? Baseball historians have argued a similar question for a century and a half. American invention or grownup English children’s game? The extensive 1887 testimony of William R. Wheaton, the game’s first umpire, provides satisfaction to both sides.
Wheaton turned 23 in the spring of 1837. He was newly married and had been practicing law for a year. According to John M. Ward, “Colonel James Lee, elected an honorary member of the Knickerbocker Club in 1846, said that he had often played the same game when a boy.”1
The members of the club soon swelled beyond the fastidious notions of some of us, and we decided to withdraw and form a new organization we called the Knickerbocker.
The 1887 narrative leaps ahead eight years to the fall of 1845. Wheaton and W. H. Tucker were delegated to draft the rules and bylaws of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. On the occasion of the club’s first game at Elysian Fields, on October 6, Wheaton served as umpire, endorsing the score in the Knickerbocker game book.
The Gothams played a game with the Star Cricket Club of Brooklyn and beat the Englishmen out of sight, of course.
This comment is significant because it links the Gothams of 1837 to the later New York club. The name may have been changed in 1843 when the club moved to Elysian Fields, which also hosted the fledgling New York Cricket Club. On October 21, 1845, the Brooklyn Eagle advised the public of “A Great Match at Base Ball,” between the New York Base Ball Club and the Brooklyn Club. The Morning News of the following day carried details of the game, a 24–4 victory for the former club. Wheaton was listed as one of three umpires, serving in the same capacity in the return match several days later.2
Confirmation is provided by the presence of Miller and Murphy in the lineup against Brooklyn, represented by members of the Union Star Cricket Club. Alexander Cartwright and Daniel Adams, pioneers of the Knickerbocker Club, each reluctantly acknowledged the New York club as a predecessor.3 The same club defeated the Knickerbockers 23–1 in a famous match on June 19, 1846.
We laid out the ground at Madison Square in the form of an accurate diamond, with home plate and sand-bags for bases. You must remember that what is now called Madison Square, opposite the Fifth Avenue Hotel, in the thirties, was out in the country, far from the city limits.
“Base ball” was a popular amusement in New York during the early 19th century. Charles Haswell refers to “the boy of 1816,” noting that “on Saturday afternoon in the fall of the year, a few students would meet in the hollow on the Battery.”4 After city authorities banned ballplaying at the Battery and City Hall Parks in 1817, the game moved up Manhattan Island. An anonymous item in the New York Clipper of October 23, 1880, recalled the days when “Baseball was the favorite game” played on Chatham square.”5 There were games in Greenwich Village in the early 1820s and at Washington Square after it was opened in 1826.
Originally used as a burial ground, the location of the future Madison Square had been part of the “Parade,” nearly 75 acres set aside by city planners as “an area sufficient to maneuver the entire militia of New York.”6 An arsenal was built in 1806 at the junction of Broadway and the Boston Post Road, and, during the War of 1812, the ground served its intended purpose. It is possible that baseball was played there by New York soldiers like James Lee.7
The growing city gradually encroached on the Parade. In 1825, the arsenal was converted into a juvenile detention hall. In 1837, there was still open ground in front of the “House of Refuge.” The opening of Fifth Avenue and the construction of the Harlem Railroad had recently made the neighborhood more accessible. In 1839 two events would interfere with the play of the Gotham club. On May 5, the City Council passed the following ordinance: “No person shall play at ball, quoits, or any other sport or play whatsoever in any public place in the City of New York.”8 Three weeks later, the House of Refuge burned to the ground in a spectacular fire.9 The institution was relocated and the old site was designated as “Madison Square.”
There were, however, still a number of vacant lots and backyards in the neighborhood, and these were occupied by a variety of ballplayers. In 1840, according to a later article in the Clipper, the St. George Cricket Club “mustered as a club upon the grounds of Ralph Burroughs to the rear
of the old House of Refuge.”10 The groundskeeper was Sam Wright, father of baseball pioneers Harry and George. On October 24, 1840, the Colored American called attention “to the practice of the lads of our City, who, in great numbers, are resorting to the suburbs of the city, as high as 25th or 30th street, for the purpose of ball playing.”11
Another informal group came to the area in 1842. Duncan Curry, first president of the Knickerbocker Ball Club, recalled that “for several years it had been our habit to casually assemble on a plot of ground that is now known as 27th street and Fourth avenue, where the Harlem Railroad depot afterward stood. We would take our bats and balls with us and play any sort of a game.”12
According to a clipping in Henry Chadwick’s scrapbook, the Gotham/New York club found a new home across the street.
Speaking of the first base ball club, a friend—the veteran shortstop of the old Eagle club of New York of 1860 recently wrote me from his home in Waterbury Connecticut. “I first saw the game played on the grounds of the old New York Base Ball Club in the forties, on the block bounded by 5th and 6th avenues and 23rd and 24th streets, a district at that time given over to fields.”13
Charles Haswell provided further identification, noting that during the early 1840s “the premises on Fifth Avenue between 23rd and 24th streets were occupied by Corporal Thompson as a well-known and popular way-side house of entertainment.”14
After the Gotham club had been in existence a few months it was found necessary to reduce the rules of the new game to writing. This work fell to my hands, and the code I then formulated is essentially that in use today.
As the version of baseball pioneered by the Gotham/New York and Knickerbocker clubs became popular, contemporary observers realized that it was replacing an earlier game. The Clipper of October 10, 1857, reported on a match between the Liberty Club of New Jersey and “a party of Old Fogies who were in the habit of playing the old fashioned base ball, which as nearly everyone knows, is entirely different from the base ball as now played.”15 The article on Chatham Square included some details of the differences: “Baseball was then a simple pastime, with flat sticks or axe-handles for bats, and yarn balls.”16 Wheaton also mentioned that
in the old game when a man struck out those of his side who happened to be on the bases had to come in and lose that chance of making a run. We changed that and made the rule which holds good now.
The most important innovations incorporated in new rules were the result of a technological advance. In his description of the tools of the game, Charles Haswell touched on the key breakthrough, recalling that: “If a baseball was required, the boy of 1816 founded it with a bit of cork, or, if he were singularly fortunate, with some shreds of India rubber.”17 Primarily used to erase pencil marks, the South American substance provided new bounce to balls and increased distance to hits. There were, however, consequences.
The ball was made with a hard rubber center, tightly wrapped with yarn, and in the hands of a strong-armed man it was a terrible missile, and sometimes had fatal results when it came in contact with a delicate part of the player’s anatomy.
Wheaton and his colleagues decided to impose two new rules. One remains in effect today:
The first step we took in making baseball was to abolish the rule of throwing the ball at the runner and order that it should be thrown to the baseman instead, who had to touch the runner with it before he reached the base.
The second change would shape baseball history for another fifty years. The pitcher was not allowed to throw the ball, giving batters an edge. Wheaton was particularly proud of this feature.
The pitcher really pitched the ball, and underhand throwing was forbidden. Moreover, he pitched the ball so the batsman could strike it and give some work to the fielders.
Not all contemporary ballplayers agreed. After describing a Canadian game “Very Like Baseball” in an 1886 letter to Sporting Life, the writer added:
I well remember when some fellows down at or near New York got up the game of base ball that had a “pitcher” and “fouls,” etc. India rubber had come into use, and they put so much into the balls to make them lively that when the fellow tossed it to you like a girl playing “one old cat,” you could knock it so far that the fielders would be chasing it yet, like dogs hunting sheep, after you had gone clear around and scored your tally.18
When Wheaton was interviewed in November 1887, the modern “throw as you like” rule, supplemented by a clearly defined strike zone, had recently been enacted, much to the relief of umpires. His disappointment was clearly stated.
Nowadays the game seems to be played almost entirely by the pitcher and catcher. The pitcher sends his ball purposely in a baffling way, so that the batsman half the time can’t get a strike or reach a base.
On balance, however, the “Old Pioneer” was pleased with the results of his work.
When I saw the game between the Unions and Bohemians the other day, I said to myself if some of my old playmates who have been dead forty years could arise and see this game they would declare it was the same old game we used to play in the Elysian Fields, with the exception of the shortstop, the masked catcher, and the uniforms of the players.19
*San Francisco Examiner: Nov. 27, 1887. Note: This quotation and all others from the Wheaton interview are set in bold italic.
1. Ward, Baseball—How to Become a Ball Player.
2. N. Y. Herald: Oct. 21, 1845; Brooklyn Eagle: Oct. 21, 1845; N. Y. Morning News: Oct. 22, 1845.
3. Cartwright letter to Charles DeBost, Barry Halper Collection; Adams in Sporting News: Feb. 29, 1896, p. 3
4. Haswell, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian (p. 81).
5. Clipper: Oct. 23, 1880.
6. Dunshee, As You Pass By (p. 233).
7. See Clipper of Aug. 25, 1860, for report of “a game of base ball” played by veterans of 1812.
8. N. Y. C. By-Laws and Ordinances, May 8, 1839.
9. Rochester Republican: May 27, 1839.
10. Chadwick Scrapbook.
11. The Colored American: Oct. 24, 1840.
12. Spink, The National Game (p. 54).
13. Chadwick Scrapbook.
14. Haswell, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian (p. 365).
15. Clipper: Sept. 29, 1857.
16. Clipper: Oct. 23, 1880.
17. Haswell, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian (p. 77).
18. Sporting Life: May 5, 1886.
19. For details of Union/Bohemian game see S. F. Chronicle: Nov. 5, 1887.
With this tenth of sixteen articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by Richard Hershberger, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball. He has, in a few short years, become a leading fact-finder in our field, as he pursues his personal goal of understanding the social and organizational history of U.S. baseball from the 18th century to 1880. His recent articles in Base Ball include one on Philadelphia Town Ball (2007) and one on baseball and rounders (2009).
These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1831.1, reflects that it is the first Protoball entry for the year 1831.
1831.1 The Olympic Ball Club of Philadelphia
A small distance from the woods, I beheld a party of young men, (the majority of whom I afterwards distinguished to be Market street merchants,) and who styled themselves the “Olympic Club,” a title well answering to its name by the manner in which the party amused themselves in the recreant pleasure of town ball….1
The Olympic Ball Club of Philadelphia was by far the longest-lived baseball club of the amateur era. Its origins go as far back as 1831, when a group of Philadelphians in their twenties gathered to play ball. Two years later they merged with another group, which was loosely organized and went by the name “Olympic.” The combined group kept this name and adopted a formal constitution.2 The Olympics were still playing ball in the 1880s, with the last record of the club as a going concern dating to 1889.
The Olympics crossed the Delaware River to play in Camden, New Jersey. There is a persistent rumor that this was due to blue laws prohibiting ball play in Philadelphia, but there is no evidence for such an ordinance. It is more likely that they were driven by the same imperative that would have New York ballplayers crossing the Hudson River to Hoboken. There was not yet even rudimentary public transportation. Urban growth pushed open fields beyond easy reach of the center city. Camden was a rural village with ample open space, and conveniently accessible by ferry. There they would remain until just before the Civil War, by which time passenger railroads gave access to outlying regions.
The new club had the features that would become the classic model of a baseball club. The early clubs typically were urban organizations composed of young men of the professional and mercantile class. They held sedentary jobs, leading to a desire for exercise. They wished to take their exercise in a social context with their peers. They had the flexibility to make time for the activity, and the financial resources to support it.
The Olympics fit easily within the broad pattern of baseball clubs. But the lingering question remains: Do they really count as a baseball club? Traditional histories consider the Knickerbockers of New York, founded in 1845, the first ballclub, with the Olympics tending to be dismissed as a “town ball” club that did not switch to authentic baseball until 1860.
There is a kernel of truth here. Modern baseball derives from the version that arose in New York City in the late 1830s or 1840s. This “New York game” began to spread outward in the late 1850s. The Olympics switched to the New York game in 1860. But what did they switch from?
Baseball was brought to America from England in colonial times, played as an informal, unorganized game. It was part of our common English cultural heritage. But this is not to say that is was played in a single version, or went by a single name. Versions were local, in the way that informal children’s games even today vary from one locale to the next. It also went by different names, varying by region.3
In New York the game retained the old English name of “base ball.” In Philadelphia it went by a newer name: “town ball.” The origin of this name is unknown. (The common explanation that “town ball” was so called because it was played at town meetings is post hoc speculation with no supporting evidence.) It was the usual term through a wide swath of America, from Pennsylvania west through the Ohio valley and throughout the South. It is entirely likely that the term arose on the eastern seaboard and spread west with white settlement, but there is no direct evidence of this. The earliest citations appear in the late 1830s, appearing within a few years of each other in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Louisiana.4
Another misunderstanding is the common assertion that townball was the ancestor of baseball. This misconception arose in the later 19th century, when old-timers in areas such as the midwest recalled that “town ball” (meaning the old local form of baseball) came before “base ball” (meaning the New York game). This statement of chronological fact was misinterpreted as a statement of genealogy.
There is no direct evidence of the exact rules of the game as the early Olympics played it. The earliest game accounts are from a quarter-century later, when a community of competitive clubs arose in Philadelphia. The basic format would be familiar, with bases laid out in the field; two teams trading places each inning; and one team trying to bat the ball and run around the bases while the other team tried to catch the ball or throw out the runner. (Like most early forms, the technique to put out the runner was to throw the ball at him. Tagging was a development of the New York game.) Other features are less familiar. The six bases, marked by stakes, were about twenty feet apart. Unique among known forms, the batter had to complete the circuit with each hit, rather than stopping at a base to await a later batter.5
With their formal organization, the Olympics took the shape of the classic baseball club. But they came from an older model. Baseball requires sufficient space, a sufficient number of players, and sufficient time to play It. For juveniles, these requirements naturally come together on the school ground. Baseball followed westward white settlement, arriving as soon as population density had risen high enough to support a school. Matters were not so simple for adult play. There was a widespread taboo against playing on Sunday, which was the only frequent opportunity. This left occasional events such as barn-raisings and the calendar of holidays. The Fourth of July was by far the most important warm-weather holiday, and baseball play was a widespread feature of the day.
Sometimes these holiday games were impromptu. Sometimes they were planned in advance. It was an easy step from advance planning to organizing a club for the annual festivity: a bit like Philadelphia’s Mummers clubs today organize for the New Year’s parade. One of the predecessor groups that formed the Olympics was such a club. They had organized to play ball annually on Independence Day. They occasionally played informal games at other times. A few members went to Camden, where they began playing with the regulars there, leading to the merger of 1833.
The club retained something of its holiday origin. They would turn out in force every Fourth of July for ball play, accompanied by their longtime president, attorney William Whitman, reading the Declaration of Independence, the singing of national songs, and “an address delivered for the perpetuation of the Stars and Stripes.”
The Olympics were not the first baseball club, nor were they the most influential. They do, however, hold a unique status as the only club before the Knickerbockers to be well documented. Other early clubs are known only by vague references and reminiscences made long after they had faded away. The Olympics were the only pre–Knickerbocker club to survive into baseball’s heyday. As the club switched to the New York game in 1860, it already was aware of its unique status. It still included some of its original members, who kept its institutional memory, and took care to record its history. In 1866 the club published a pamphlet that included a history of the club and its historical membership roster.
An open question in baseball history is the extent of early clubs. There are clear signs that they existed, but there is little evidence for how common or widespread they were. It is tempting to take this absence of evidence for evidence of absence, so it is instructive to note how much early evidence there is for the Olympics. There is very little. The club pamphlet for 1838 survives in a single extant copy. There is exactly one known newspaper reference prior to 1857.
This is a letter to the editor published in the Philadelphia Public Ledger in 1838, quoted in the epigraph introducing this essay. The writer tells that, desiring a walk in the country, he took the ferry to Camden. While strolling through the woods he came upon a party of young men playing ball. He learned that they were Philadelphians and called themselves the Olympic Club. He was enchanted by them and impressed by the benefits of the exercise, and encouraged his readers to follow the club’s lead. This item is strikingly similar to the note 15 years earlier in New York’s National Advocate (Protoball 1823.1).
This paucity of early documentation shows that even a club indisputably stable and formally organized could barely appear in the contemporary record. This gives credence to the hints and memories of other clubs elsewhere. The mere fact that we know such a club existed is the Olympics’ legacy to early baseball history.
1. Public Ledger (Philadelphia): May 14, 1838.
2. The major source for the early history of the club is the club pamphlet of 1866. Early clubs frequently published pamphlets containing their constitution and bylaws, roster, and playing rules. The Olympics’ 1866 pamphlet includes a historical essay and historical roster. One known copy survives, in the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Center.
3. American baseball received little attention until the 1850s. Generalizations of earlier forms and terminology are derived from a combination of scattered early references, extrapolation backwards from documented events of the 1850s, and reminiscences from later in the century.
4. Respectively: Public Ledger (Philadelphia): May 14, 1838; Indiana Journal (Indianapolis): May 13, 1837; Southern Patriot (Charleston, S.C.): Aug. 31, 1841, quoting the Concordia (Louisiana) Intelligencer.
5. Hershberger, R. 2007. “A Reconstruction of Philadelphia Town Ball,” Base Ball 1.2, 28–43.
Disclaimer: If you have read my latest book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, or just happen to be a real smartypants, you know all this already and may as well find something else to amuse. This little entry in Our Game is not meant to be definitive on any point; more may be learned from the book, or just ask for explanation via the comment box.
1. When was baseball first played in America?
A game by that name was documented in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1791 but was probably played in that state way earlier. A game called baste or baste ball, which was probably just a regional variant spelling, was played at Princeton College in 1786.
2. Who invented baseball?
Neither Abner Doubleday nor Alexander Cartwright … not any one individual, certainly. But three other men had more to do with baseball’s rise than those two: William Rufus Wheaton, Daniel Lucius Adams, and Louis Fenn Wadsworth.
3. What did Wheaton do?
Wheaton (not Cartwright) wrote the first baseball rules for another club (the Gothams) and copied them, virtually unchanged, eight years later for the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of 1845.
4. What did Adams do?
Adams (not Cartwright) set the base paths at ninety feet, the pitching distance at 45 feet (its distance from the 1850s well into the era of professional league play, enduring until 1880). He also created the position of shortstop in 1849–50.
5. What did Wadsworth do?
Wadsworth (not Cartwright) is responsible for setting the number of men to the side at nine and the number of innings required to complete a game likewise at nine. In doing so he bucked the majority of his fellow Knickerbockers, who preferred the number seven. (Wouldn’t need so many closers today if Wadsworth had lost his argument.)
Like Cartwright he went to his grave in the early 1890s not knowing he had invented baseball, and no one credited either man with that remarkable feat. Doubleday DID start something—the Civil War, by firing the first shot in response to the Confederate assault upon Fort Sumter. And he was a Sanskrit-reading mystic, an odd fact that is crucial for understanding how he came to be the (symbolic) Father of Baseball.
7. When did baseball cards appear on the scene?
If a card is understood to be an item mass produced for sale, then the first would be the illustrated ticket to the inaugural soiree of the Magnolia Ball Club, an event that took place in 1844 to celebrate the club’s founding the year before. This aggregation of ballplaying brothel keepers, billiard hall owners, and bigamist aldermen was unknown to history until just a few years ago, when I discovered evidence that its members had cavorted at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken two years before the Knickerbockers arrived there.
8. Who was baseball’s first national hero?
Jim Creighton of the Brooklyn Excelsiors. Perfecting a low, swooping underhand delivery with an imperceptible wrist snap that was technically illegal at the time, he dominated hitters as no pitcher before him had ever done. That his success was due in part to cheating—compounded by his receipt of under-the table payments at a time professionalism was likewise illegal—troubled only a few in baseball’s rowdy formative years. When he died at the age of twenty-one in 1862, shortly after injuring himself with a too vigorous swing of the bat, his legend was immediately burnished by those seeking to elevate baseball, and a huge monument was erected over his remains at Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery.
Not Jackie Robinson in 1947, not Moses Fleetwood Walker in 1884 … but William Edward White in 1879. The regular Providence Grays’ first baseman, Joe Start, was injured and unable to play against the visiting Cleveland Blues on June 21, 1879. White, a student ballplayer at Brown University who was the son of a Georgia slave owner and his house servant, played in his place, with so little fanfare that his distinction as an African American went unnoted until 2004. The Providence Morning Star raved about White’s major-league debut and the support from his Brown University teammates. “The Varsity boys lustily cheered their favorite at times, and howled with delight when he got a safe hit in the ninth inning, as they also did his magnificent steals of second in that and the fifth inning.” Though he returned to play for Brown University in 1880, White never played another big league game.
10. Who was the first Hispanic American to play big-league baseball?
Cuban-born Esteban (Steve) Bellán was a naturalized American who played with the Troy Haymakers in 1871, the first year of baseball’s first professional league, the National Association.
With this ninth of sixteen articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by Larry McCray, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball for which Larry served as guest editor. He is the founder of the invaluable Protoball Project, a website where many of the early game’s top scholars have shared their finds. He is also a panelist on Major League Baseball’s Origins Committee, which I chair.
These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1829.2, reflects that it is the second Protoball entry for the year 1829.
1829.2 The Rise and Fall of New England–Style Ballplaying
Mr. Lawrence says, as a boy [h]e played Round Ball in 1829. So far as [his] argument goes for Round Ball being the father of Base Ball, it is all well enough, but there are two things that cannot be accounted for; the conception of the foul ball, and the abolishment of the rule that a player could be put out by being hit with a thrown ball…. Mr. Lawrence considers Round Ball and Four Old Cat one and the same game; the Old Cat game merely being what they would do when there were not more than a dozen players, all told.1
If one is inclined to trust the reliability a senior citizen’s memories from his boyhood seven decades earlier, this 1905 testimony describes a long and simple arc for New England–style ballplaying. The ancient “old cat” games, including perhaps “hornebillets” as described in the 1670s in England, are linked to round ball as played in Massachusetts in the 1820s, which is itself linked, via the formalized Massachusetts Game of the 1850s, to modern baseball.
This essay reviews current evidence on the evolution of New England ballplaying up to the 1860s.
Beginnings and Folk Play to 1854
Excluding references to the English game of cricket and the American game of wicket, we find that scholars have, to this point, unearthed about seven dozen references to ballplaying in the six New England states before club play began in Boston in the mid–1850s. Can we discern the roots of the Massachusetts Game, as finally codified in Dedham MA in 1858, in these spare and disparate clues?
The short answer: Well, maybe, but only when we accept the general assurances of men like Mr. Lawrence, cited above, who assert strong resemblances between early and later forms of play.
The problem is that most of these earliest references give no details on the actual nature of the games they cite. The vast majority are of the quality of Bowdoin student and future poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s letter to his father in 1824:
This has been a very sickly term in college. However, within the last week, the [school’s] government seeing that something must be done to induce the students to exercise, recommended a game of ball now and then, which communicated such an impulse to our limbs and joints, that there is now nothing heard of, in our leisure hours, but ball, ball, ball.2
From our vantage point, this is an especially sweet morsel, but is still, effectively, a sweet nothing; it gives us no glimpse of the actual game played, or its rules, or even the name for the game that was played — just “a game of ball.”
And in fact, about two-thirds of our references fail to name the game played, using terms like “game of ball,” “playing at ball,” and the like.
The games that are specifically named, in order of their relative frequency of appearance, are (1) round ball, found mostly in Eastern Massachusetts, (2) bat-and-ball, mostly to the north and east of Boston, including Maine, (3) one of the old cat versions, (4) base, or base ball, and (5) goal, or goal ball.3 But we are given very few clues whether these labels attached to identical, similar, or dissimilar games, let alone what their playing rules were.
We do get glimpses of isolated aspects of the games: there are scattered references to the use of bats, or bat-sticks, or ball-clubs, and one Vermont account of playing goal in about 1828 mentions that “the elm trees by our yard were the goals (bases).”4 An account of ballplaying in Western Massachusetts in about 1850 mentions games of “round ball, two and four old cat, with soft yarn balls thrown at the runner,” rare evidence of the practice of “plugging” in those pastimes.5 Ours is not a rich feast of anecdotes.
There is one New England source that does lay out several features that were later formalized as the Massachusetts game rules. This book, published in 1834,6 lays out rules for “base, or goal ball” (also identifying it with “round ball”), including two teams, four bases, soft tosses to batters, a three strike rule, the fly rule, plugging, all-out-side-out innings, and backward hitting. Oddly, however, the basic text is not actually written to reflect New England ballplaying: it is taken, with only minor word changes, from an 1828 London book’s section on “minor sports.”7 The original version is found under the heading “rounders,” a game said to be popular then in the west of England.8 (This apparently marked the first appearance of the term “rounders” anywhere. We have 1905 testimony from seniors that round ball in America was believed to have extended back to before 1800,9 so the idea that New Englanders simply “imported” a game known as rounders from England is not easily supported.)
All in all, it seems fair to infer that the basic rules listed in the two books may have governed at least some forms of New England ballplaying in the early part of the 19th century, but that conclusion cannot, at this point, be solidly buttressed by hard contemporary evidence. We are forced to lean heavily both on reflections of the elderly, and on an assumption that the editor of the 1834 book was correct in linking the English rounders rules he printed to games then played in New England.
The Massachusetts Game Emerges and Blossoms, 1854 –1860
In 1854—a decade after the Knickerbockers had formed in New York—Boston saw the founding of the Olympic Club, its first. By 1856, the first known interclub games were reported. There were still major rules kinks to work out; when the Olympics played the Green Mountain Club in a “second trial game of base ball” in May 1856, the two teams were still smarting from an earlier dispute as to whether the “thrower” should deliver from 20 feet or from 40 feet,10 whether the “catcher” could move around during play, and how many strikes made an out (six, they had agreed). An all-out-side-out rule appeared to have been used to define a half-inning when these two clubs played.
In May 1858, 10 clubs met at the town of Dedham and agreed to 21 rules defining the Massachusetts game of baseball. (The term “base ball” was by then uniformly used to denote the New England–style game, sometimes with an indication its traditional name was round ball.) The rules reflected both a shorter list of New England–style rules laid down by the Olympic Club in 1857 and the recently amended 1858 rules of the New York Game, from which it borrowed phraseology. In contrast to the New York rules, the Dedham rules depicted an infield in the form we describe as a square, not a diamond, and with shorter basepaths; deliveries to the batter that were thrown, not pitched; use of a fly rule, but no bound rule; the plugging of runners; a one-out-side-out definition of a half-inning; matches played to 100 “tallies”; team size ranging from 10–14 players; stakes instead of flat bases; a noticeably smaller and lighter ball; and, while not explicitly stated, the absence of any foul territory, which allowed “backwards hitting.”
Some of these new rules may have simply codified traditional practice for New England ballplaying. For other Dedham provisions, however, we have, as yet, no local precedent on record, and for all we know such features may have been introduced more recently: such features may have included overhand pitching, playing one-out-side-out innings, using stakes as bases, playing to 100 tallies (more common format had been a best-of-three set of games to 25 tallies), and setting the number of players on a team.
The Massachusetts Game flourished for only a short while. Its peak may have been reached in October 1859, when a club from Medway and a club from Upton met to decide the state championship, for a stake of $500 in gold. The Upton club prevailed, 100–56, after 11 hours and 80 innings of play. A crowd of 5,000 or more souls was reported per day, and “the neighboring towns gave their employees holidays to see the game.”11
Subduction By the New York Game in the 1860s
But the onrushing New York game presented an irresistible force. Already in 1857, a new Boston club, the Tri-Mountain, had elected to play by the New York rules.12 In 1858, two clubs at Harvard College were playing the New York game.13 In 1859 a scrapbook clipping states that Massachusetts had 37 clubs playing by Massachusetts rules—but that another 13 clubs played by New York rules.14
A brief rivalry between the two forms of baseball arose. An aggressive article in the New York Tribune in October 1859, perhaps seeing overhand deliveries and plugging and the more demanding fly rule as features of a more “manly” game than the one New Yorkers had devised, charged that the New York game was “a bastard game, worthy only of boys 10 years of age. The only genuine game is known as the Massachusetts Game.”15 Detractors called the New York version a “baby game.” In 1860, the champion Upton Club reportedly offered to play the elite Atlantic Club of Brooklyn by Massachusetts rules for a winner-take-all stake of $1,000. The Atlantic Club did not take the bait.16
The national trend was obvious, even in New England. A regional journal in 1860 admitted that the New York game “is fast becoming popular in New England, and in fact over the whole country … requiring a greater attention, courage, and activity than the old game, sometimes called the Massachusetts Game…. The New York Game bids fair to supplant all others.”17 During the Civil War, a few Massachusetts regiments played their traditional game in the war camps, but there were 10 times as many reports of games played by New York rules. New England’s game was fading fast. Even today, it is reported, local vintage baseball clubs rarely play New England’s own game, strangely preferring the gentler one that had emerged from Pinstripe City.
1. Letter from Henry Sargent to the Mills Commission, June 25, 1905.
2. Andrew Hilen, ed. 1966. The Letters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, vol. 1 (p. 87).
3. We have no contemporary evidence of the game of “rounders;” a single account, written in 1917 when the “Rounders Theory” of the origin of baseball was already well publicized, places rounders at Phillips Andover in 1853; see Protoball entry 1853c.1.
4. See Protoball entry 1828c.5.
5. See Protoball entry 1850s.33.
6. Carver, R. 1834, The Book of Sports.
7. The Boy’s Own Book, 1828, p. 20.
8. Carver changes one feature of rounders in his book; while the original 1828 text stipulates that a backward hit is an out, Carver’s version deletes that provision. Both books depict clockwise baserunning.
9. See Protoball entries 1780c.4, 1790s.7, 1800c.4.
10. “Exciting Game of Base Ball,” New York Clipper: May 26, 1856, p. 35.
11. Sargent, H. “Roundball: Baseball’s Predecessor and a Famous Massachusetts Game,” The New York Sun: May 8, 1905.
12. “Base Ball in Boston,” New York Clipper: June 13, 1857.
13. “The Lawrence Base Ball Club,” The Harvard Graduates’ Magazine, Mar. 1917, pp. 336–340.
14. “Base Ball.” Unidentified clipping in the Mears Collection, Cleveland Public Library.
15. New York Tribune: Oct. 18, 1859.
16. Letter from Henry Sargent to the Mills Commission, June 25, 1905.
17. Farmers Cabinet: May 16, 1860, p. 2.
With this eighth of sixteen articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by George A. Thompson, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball. George reads all he can in newspaper coverage in New York City in the 1800s, a habit that led to the discovery of a previously unknown reference to baseball in 1823, upon which he expands below.
These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1823.1, reflects that it is the first Protoball entry for the year 1823.
1823.1 Game of Baseball Reported in the National Advocate
George A. Thompson
COMMUNICATION. I was last Saturday much pleased in witnessing a company of active young men playing the manly and athletic game of “base ball” at the Retreat in Broadway (Jones’). I am informed they are an organized association, and that a very interesting game will be played on Saturday next at the above place, to commence at half past 3 o’clock, P.M. Any person fond of witnessing this game may avail himself of seeing it played with consummate skill and wonderful dexterity. It is surprising, and to be regretted that the young men of our city do not engage more in this manual sport; it is innocent amusement, and healthy exercise, attended with but little expense, and has no demoralizing tendency.— A SPECTATOR.1
Finding this note—roughly 10 years ago—made me famous for about 72 hours. I hit the front page (above the fold) of The New-York Times and the International Herald Tribune; the story was reprinted by newspapers in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and elsewhere; I was interviewed by telephone by a sports-talk jock in Cincinnati and by the BBC, where I followed a discussion of the Kyoto Accord. Since then, of course, I have sunk back into obscurity.
Another newspaper received this same press release, but chose to summarize it:
We have received a communication in favor of the manly exercise of base ball; stating that an organized company, who are in the habit of taking this exercise at the Retreat, will play a great match there on Saturday next, to commence at half past 3 o’clock.”2
If the notice was sent to other papers, it was ignored: I have looked in several for that week without finding it. The letter was published on Friday, the day before the game. There was no later report on the outcome of the game. The newspapers of that era did not employ reporters, and depended on letters like this one for their coverage of local events that the editor did not himself witness. The editors seem to have felt more responsible for telling their readers that an interesting event was going to take place than for describing it afterwards. For example, shipbuilding was the most highly organized industry in New York at that time, and the launch of a full-sized ship was a spectacular event. Newspapers regularly printed one-sentence notes telling their readers that a ship was to be launched the next morning from some yard on the East River, but rarely ran an account of the event afterwards.
Let us read this letter carefully:
The “spectator” tells us of “a company of active young men” who play “the manly and athletic game of ‘base ball.’” The game was played by adults.
These men have formed “an organized association” and “a game will be played on Saturday next, to commence at half past 3 o’clock, P.M.,” that is, the men have formed a club, and they plan their games well in advance, to start at a set time.
“Any person fond of witnessing this game.” It seems that baseball was already a spectator sport, or at least the writer of this note was hoping that it would become one.
Baseball is “attended with but little expense.” I suppose here the writer had in mind the fact that baseball could be played with homemade equipment.3
It has “no demoralizing tendency.” This phrase today tends to raise smirks on those who read or hear it, but it most likely refers to the fact that no one bet on the games. Huge sums were bet on horse and boat races, and the prizes for winning footraces were big enough that a highly publicized race at Hoboken in 1824 was discovered to have been fixed, with the apparent intention of setting up a rematch. The Post was shocked: “We cannot help regretting that so manly a sport should be brought into disrepute by the disgraceful conduct of the competitors.”4
The letter was signed “A Spectator.” The writer was taking the mask of a casual passerby who had just happened upon this baseball game, and maybe he was, but the fact that he took the trouble to write to at least two newspapers suggests that he had some interest at stake. I suspect he was really Mr. Jones, the proprietor of The Retreat, hoping to use the game that the young men were going to play on his grounds to attract visitors to watch, eat, and drink. It is, however, also possible that our “Spectator” was one of the ballplayers, hoping to attract attention to his ballclub, perhaps hoping that other manly and athletic young men would form other ballclubs, to provide his club with opponents.
We know something about “the Retreat in Broadway ( Jones’).”5 It had been the country estate of William Neilson, at Broadway and Art Street, in Manhattan. (Art Street is now 8th Street, so the Retreat was about three blocks east and two blocks north of what is now Washington Square Park.) Neilson had died in November 1820,6 and the next spring his house and grounds had been opened to the public as a hotel and eating house, under the name of The Retreat, by a man named W. B. Heyer.
THE RETREAT—NEW HOTEL. The subscriber begs leave to inform all those who wish to encourage him with their patronage, that the elegant house at the corner of Art street and Broadway, opposite Vauxhall, is now open for their reception. Gentlemen may be accommodated with Board by the week or month. He keeps a constant supply of Ice Cream, and parties may be accommodated with Coffee, Tea and Relishes of various descriptions. HEYER.
N. B. The Retreat is opposite Vauxhall Garden. The proprietor has thought proper, with the advice of his friends, to issue a limited number of Tickets of Admission to this House, on the day of Mr. Guille’s [Balloon] Ascension, at twenty-five cents each, to be had in refreshments, such as Ice Cream, Cake, Punch, Lemonade, &c. &c.7
By June 1822 it had changed hands, and was being managed by William Jones, “formerly of Fulton st.,” who promised “Dinner and Supper Parties supplied at the shortest notice.”8
A deadly epidemic in August 1822 drove New Yorkers who lived or did business in the lower part out of town, to Greenwich Village, on the shores of the Hudson River, what’s now thought of as the “West Village,” or up Broadway. A committee led by Archibald Gracie (the man who built Gracie Mansion), settled on The Retreat as the meeting place for those merchants whose temporary offices were on Broadway.9 A newspaper described the new site of the Merchants’ Exchange:
The Retreat.— This large and convenient establishment, in a delightful situation near the junction of Broadway and the Bowery, has been fitted up by Mr. Jones with every accommodation suitable for a temporary Exchange. The halls and rooms where the Exchange is held are spacious and airy, and the house at sufficient distance from the street to be free of noise and dirt. A spacious garden belonging to the establishment, and the extensive area in front of the house afford fine walks for exercise and health. Mr. Jones keeps an ordinary, and also furnishes regular board.10
Less than a month after the baseball game was played in 1823, William Jones had moved on:
CARD. WILLIAM JONES, of the Retreat, Broadway, has removed from hence to No. 27 James street, and is now ready to entertain his friends and the public, in the line of his business. He feels grateful for past favours, and will do all in his power to merit a continuance of public patronage.11
Our Spectator does not indicate what sort of a game these active young men were playing. I assume that it was at the least ancestrally related to the game played at mid-century. That game was described as the “good old fashioned game of base ball” in stories that specifically mentioned the Knickerbocker club, in 1854 and 1855,12 and if the game played at The Retreat was radically different from the mid-century game, I would expect some remark along the lines of “not your grandfather’s game of base ball.”
1. National Advocate: Apr. 25, 1823, p. 2, col. 4.
2. New-York Gazette & General Advertiser: Apr. 25, 1823, p. 2, col. 2.
3. Charles H. Haswell describes how boys played baseball in his childhood (the late 1810s) with a ball made from scraps by a mother or sister and perhaps a piece of found wood for a bat. Reminiscences of an Octogenarian of the City of New York (1816 to 1860) (p. 77).
4. New-York Evening Post: July 23, 1824, p. 2, col. 2.
5. The history of The Retreat is summarized in: Garrett, T. 1978. “History of Pleasure Gardens in New York City, 1700–1865,” PhD dissertation, New York University (pp. 487–489).
6. American: Nov. 27, 1820, p. 3; New-York Commercial Advertiser: Nov. 27, 1820; Mercantile Advertiser: Nov. 28, 1820; National Advocate: Nov. 28, 1820; New-York Daily Advertiser: Nov. 28, 1820.
7. New-York Evening Post: June 5, 1821.
8. National Advocate for the Country: June 21, 1822 (per John Thorn, September 12, 2009).
9. National Advocate: Apr. 25, 1823, p. 2, col. 4. s
10. New-York Gazette & General Advertiser: Apr. 25, 1823, p. 2, col. 2.
11. New-York Evening Post: May 14, 1823.
12. New York Daily Times: Dec. 19, 1854; New-York Daily Tribune: Dec. 19, 1854, p. 6, col. 2 (the same report); New-York Herald: May 26, 1855, p. 1, col. 1.
With this seventh of sixteen articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by George A. Thompson, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball. George reads all he can in newspaper coverage in New York City in the 1800s, a habit that led to the discovery of a previously unknown reference to baseball in 1823.
These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1805.4, reflects that it is the fourth Protoball entry for the year 1805.
1805.4 An Enigmatic 1805 “Game of Bace” in New York
George A. Thompson
Sporting Intelligence.— Yesterday afternoon a contest at the game of Bace took place on “the Gymnasium,” near Tylers’ between the gentlemen of two different clubs for a supper and trimmings. One of these clubs has taken the very classical appellation of Gymnastics, and the other the no less classical one of The Sons of Diagoras, (not confined however to the number there [sic: properly “three”] but with great submission to the taste of the gentlemen we think a plain English name would have sounded quite as well as either. Great skill and activity it is said was displayed on both sides, but after a severe and well maintained contest, Victory which had at times fluttered a little from one to the other, settled down on the heads of the Gymnastics, who beat The Sons of Diagoras 41 to 34.1
A few years ago, while reading an early–19th century New York newspaper, I came upon this report. One of the two clubs involved had published a call to meeting the day before:
NOTICE. The Sons of Diagoras are requested to meet on the Gymnastic ground, on Friday the 23d [sic] instant, precisely at 3 o’clock P.M. By order of the President.2
This notice was repeated the following day, with the date corrected.3 I have not found a call to meeting from the Gymnastics for this event. That club was a well established one, though, having existed at least since the year before:
by order. The Members of the Gymnastic Association are requested to meet at Mr. Tyler’s, on Saturday next, at 3 o’clock P.M.4
The “Sons of Diagoras” had taken the name of their club from an Olympic boxing champion, the subject of the seventh Olympian Ode by Pindar, written in the mid–5th century BC. His three sons (and the sons of his two daughters) were also Olympic champions.
As for the Gymnastics, a book by Johann Christoph Friedrich Guts Muths (also rendered as Gutsmuths), whom we have met earlier (see David Block’s Item 1796.1), called Gymnastics for Youth, or, A Practical Guide to Healthful and Amusing Exercises: For the Use of Schools, had been published in Philadelphia by William Duane in 1802 and had become a bestseller.
Nothing is known specifically about the “Gymnasium” or the “Gymnastic ground.” It was described as “near Tyler’s,” where the Gymnastic Association was accustomed to meet, and for that place we can do better.
Joseph Tyler was an actor who decided to capitalize on his popularity by opening a “Mead Garden”; it was remembered 25 years later as “a long afternoon’s walk” out of town toward Greenwich, at what had come to be the southwest corner of Spring and Hudson streets.5 This sort of resort was popular with New Yorkers of the day: Imagine the present-day park at Washington Square, or even one of the “community gardens” created in vacant lots around Greenwich Village, being run as a business, offering New Yorkers a place to sit during the summer months in the fresh air among flowers, while buying light beverages and snacks.
A few years after this game of “bace” was played, Tyler’s garden was offered for lease, in an advertisement giving a useful description: There was a house, with
13 rooms and 2 kitchens, a smoak jack, copper &c. with an excellent wine cellar; likewise, a new stable, which can be converted into a store house for goods; also, a spacious green and hot house full of exotic plants, grapes, &c. which will be sold, if not disposed of with the lease. The garden contains near two acres, abounds with a quantity of fruit trees, and a variety of beautiful flowering shrubs; the house and garden commands a view of the north river, a small distance from the New-Market.6
But what was the game of “bace”?
“Bace” was possibly an early version of baseball, but another possibility is that it was an adult form of “prisoner’s base,” known primarily as a chasing and tagging game played by children. It has been carefully examined by Thomas Altherr.7
Joseph Strutt, writing in England in 1801, described the game as follows:
The performance of this pastime requires two parties of equal number, each of them having a base or home, as it is usually called, to themselves, at the distance of about twenty or thirty yards. The players then on either side taking hold of hands, extend themselves in length, and opposite to each other, as far as they conveniently can, always remembering that one of them must touch the base; when any one of them quits the hand of his fellow and runs into the field, which is called giving the chase, he is immediately followed by one of his opponents; he again is followed by a second from the former side, and he by a second opponent; and so on alternately, until as many are out as choose to run, every one pursuing the man he first followed, and no other; and if he overtake him near enough to touch him, his party claims one toward their game, and both return home. They then run forth again and again in like manner, until the number is completed that decides the victory; this number is optional, and I am told rarely exceeds twenty.8
Strutt also described another more complex version of the game, in which a captured player was brought to a prison where he was obliged to stay unless rescued by a teammate.
The version of the game with prisons could be played to a conclusion, which would arrive when all members of a team had been captured. That would seem to be a conclusive indication of the winning side. But Strutt reports that scoring was sometimes used to determine the winning side, and so it is conceivable that the 1805 game followed such a rule.
But some researchers think it may well have been a ballgame. Altherr finds the very idea of a score puzzling: “If this game was the same as ‘prisoner’s base,’ it would be the only one ever located (in the U.S.) that was played to a score,”9 and John Thorn points out that the 41–34 score “resembles scores of baseball games played more than a half a century hence.”10 And the term “base” is not uncommon as a name for baseball. One New York City example appeared about 16 years after this 1805 game:
KENSINGTON HOUSE is beautifully situated on the banks of the East River, distant four miles and a half from New-York, and is a pleasant ride from the city through the Third Avenue…. The grounds of Kensington House are spacious, and well adapted to the playing the noble game[s] of cricket, base, trap-ball, quoits and other amusements; and all the apparatus necessary for the above games will be furnished to clubs and parties.11
If it was a ballgame, it deserves attention as one of the very earliest American game reports we know, occurring only 14 years after the term “base ball” was first used in the U.S., and decades prior to the emergence of the first baseball clubs.
1. New-York Evening Post: Apr. 13, 1805, p. 3, col. 1. (This story was reprinted in the New-York Herald: Apr. 17, 1805, p. 1, col. 5.)
2. Daily Advertiser: Apr. 11, 1805, p. 3, col. 1.
3. Daily Advertiser: Apr. 12, 1805, p. 3, col. 2.
4. Morning Chronicle: Apr. 9, 1804, p. 2, col. 2.
5. Morning Courier & New-York Enquirer: Nov. 14, 1831, p. 2, col. 3. The history of Tyler’s garden is summarized in: Garrett, T. 1978. “History of Pleasure Gardens in New York City, 1700–1865,” unpublished PhD dissertation, New York University, pp. 143–157.
6. New-York Evening Post: Jan. 27, 1808, p. 3, col. 4.
7. Altherr, T. 2009. “Base Is Not Always Baseball: Prisoner’s Base from the 13th to the 20th Centuries,” Base Ball 3.1 (p. 74).
8. Strutt, J. 1801. The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England from the Earliest Period (pp. 68–69). A newspaper article on prisoner’s base from the late 19th century recommended keeping score: “a better plan is to put a time limit to the game—say one hour. When time is up, the count of prisoners is made and the side having the greatest number is declared winner.” “The Game of Prisoner’s Base,” The Daily InterOcean: May 25, 1890, part 3, p. 17, col. 4.
9. Altherr 2009, 76.
10. Thorn, J. 2009. “Origins of the New York Game,” Base Ball 3.1 (pp. 109–110).
11. New-York Evening Post: June 2, 1821, p. 3, col. 1; New-York Gazette & General Advertiser: June 7, 1821, p. 3, col. 4. For more on Kensington House, see the Hershberger essay, Item 1821.5.
With this sixth of sixteen articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by yours truly, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball.
These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1791.1, reflects that it is the first Protoball entry for the year 1791.
1791.1 The Pittsfield “Baseball” Bylaw: What It Means
In Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to promote the safety of the exterior of the newly built meeting house, particularly the windows, a by-law is enacted to bar “any game of wicket, cricket, baseball, batball, football, cats, fives, or any other game played with ball,” within eighty yards of the structure. However, the letter of the law did not exclude the city’s lovers of muscular sport from the tempting lawn of “Meeting-House Common.”1
Thanks to the astonishingly preserved minutes of a Pittsfield town meeting in 1791, we know that in this locality a game called baseball, if played too close to a newly built meeting house, was a violation of the law—at a time when the United States of America was a teenager and the Constitution a mere toddler, four years old.
I’m the fellow who won fleeting fame in the spring of 2004 for finding what was not truly lost, except for its significance. While prowling the internet late at night, I came upon a mention of the now celebrated bylaw in a book entitled The History of Pittsfield, (Berkshire County,) Massachusetts, From the Year 1734 to the Year 1800.2 The bylaw, intended to protect the exterior of the newly built meeting house, particularly its windows, barred “any game of wicket, cricket, baseball, batball, football, cats, fives, or any other game played with ball,” within 80 yards of the structure. Because the book was published in 1869 under the authority of the town, I had no doubts about the authenticity of the reference. The next morning, I called folks at the Pittsfield City Hall to see if they retained minute books all the way back to the 18th century, and was informed that indeed they did.
Still a puzzle, however, is what the Pittsfield game of those days looked like, or what its rules may have been—no 18th century box score or game account survives, or is likely to have existed. We may reasonably assume that the Pittsfield game was different from the other ball games proscribed in the ordinance: “For the Preservation of the Windows in the New Meeting House … no Person or Inhabitant of said town, shall be permitted to play at any game called Wicket, Cricket, Baseball, Football, Cat, Fives or any other game or games with balls, within the Distance of Eighty Yards from said Meeting House.” This new meeting house doubled as a church, designed by Charles Bulfinch, the young nation’s most distinguished architect, who had already designed Faneuil Hall in Boston and would later design the Capitol in Washington, D.C. As it turned out, it was fickle tastes in style that doomed the building rather than flying baseballs. Deemed old-fashioned within decades of its construction, it was soon moved to a new location where it somehow survived until 1936, when it was demolished at last.
Because the old game of baseball may have originated, or at least first flourished, in the Berkshires and the Housatonic Valley, this region might not unreasonably be termed Baseball’s Garden of Eden, a term that Pittsfield’s civic boosters have been quick to adopt; for many this coinage has come to signify, in shorthand, that the national pastime was “invented here.” It was not, of course. If pressed to create a date for baseball’s taking root in America, I’d have to say, about 1735, because old-timer Henry Sargent stated to the Mills Commission of 1905–07 that his contemporary George H. Stoddard—an 1850s roundball player with the Upton Excelsiors whose grandfather and great grandfather had both played the game—believed that roundball surely dated back to just after the Revolution and was not a novelty then. It had been played, Stoddard said, “as long ago as Upton became a little village.”3 Upton was settled in 1735. Roundball was the name favored in New England for a game that was also called baseball, indeed the one that came to be termed the Massachusetts Game.
Admittedly, we are not likely to find hard evidence for that date as good as what now resides in the Berkshire Athenaeum in support of 1791. But we can only suppose that if baseball was banned in Pittsfield in 1791, it was not a nuisance devised in that year—that it had been played for some time before, and not only in this western Massachusetts city. The Berkshires may have been a remote region in 1791, but not as immune to influence as, say, the Galapagos Islands. Why did the Pittsfield legislators of 1791 ban the game as baseball rather than roundball ? My speculation is this: The border between New York and Massachusetts had long been in dispute, and had been settled only four years earlier (the New York–Connecticut border dispute wore on until 1857). But the lines that were finally drawn on a map made no matter to boys playing a game of ball long familiar under a localized name; they were going to call their game whatever previous generations had called it.
In fact baseball appears to have sprung up everywhere, like dandelions, and we cannot now be expected to identify with certainty which of these hardy flowers was truly the first. As Stephen Jay Gould explained not only the Mills Commission’s search for a baseball father but also Cooperstown’s hold on our hearts:
Too few people are comfortable with evolutionary modes of explanation in any form. I do not know why we tend to think so fuzzily in this area, but one reason must reside in our social and psychic attraction to creation myths in preference to evolutionary stories—for creation myths … identify heroes and sacred places, while evolutionary stories provide no palpable, particular thing as a symbol for reverence, worship, or patriotism.4
In the nation’s straitlaced founding period, mentions of ball play came generally in the form of prohibitions or complaints. On Christmas Day in 1621, Governor Bradford was infuriated to find some men of Plymouth Plantation, who had begged off work to observe their faith, instead “frolicking in ye street, at play openly; some at pitching ye barr, some at stoole ball and shuch-like sport.”5 In 1656, the Dutch prohibited playing ball on Sundays in New Netherland, which eight years later would become New York.6 In 1724, Boston diarist Samuel Sewall was sorely disappointed that his lodger “Sam. Hirst got up betimes in the morning, and took Ben Swett with him and went into the [Boston] Common to play at Wicket. Went before any body was up, left the door open; Sam came not to prayer; at which I was most displeased.”7
Colleges too, were getting into the act. Anticipating Pittsfield, Dartmouth—where wicket was the students’ game of choice—prohibited ball play near windows in 1780, and the University of Pennsylvania followed suit in 1784.8 Three years later, the faculty of Princeton prohibited ball play “on account of its being dangerous as well as beneath the propriety of a gentleman.”9 Princeton student John Rhea Smith had noted in his diary for 1786, “A fine day; play baste ball in the campus, but am beaten for I miss both catching and striking the Ball.”10 Smith used baste as a corruption of “base” in two separate contexts: “baste ball” and “prisoners’ baste,” a game of tag. This in my view renders the Princeton diary the first textual reference to a game we should regard as baseball, if not one precisely so named, thus leaving Pittsfield with perhaps only an orthographic “first.”
Clearly bat-and-ball games were being played everywhere, and many of these games must have required a batsman to notch a tally by running around bases without being put out by a thrown ball. Each of these games varied minutely from the others, but all may be termed baseball because each exhibited, in my view, the essence of the game: a bat; a ball that is pitched or thrown to the bat; two sides alternating innings; multiple safe havens, whether bases or stones or stakes; and a round circuit of such havens that scores a run. One might object that none of these games employed the key New York innovations of foul territory and throwing the ball to the base rather than at the runner, but to such objections I would respond that the key innovation of baseball is evident in its very name: the base—just as the essential, defining characteristic of football, handball, racquetball, and basketball is evident in their names.
1. This is the first indigenous instance of the game of baseball being referred to by that name on the North American continent. The History of Pittsfield (Berkshire County), Massachusetts, From the Year 1734 to the Year 1800. Compiled and Written, Under the General Direction of a Committee, by J. E. A. Smith. By Authority of the Town (pp. 446–447). The actual documents repose in the Berkshire Athenaeum.
3. Letter from Henry Sargent, Grafton, Mass., to the Mills Commission, May 23, 1905. National Baseball Library, Cooperstown.
4. Gould, S. 1992. Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History (p. 57).
5. Bradford, W. 1898. Bradford’s history “Of Plimoth plantation”: From the original manuscript with a Report of the Proceedings Incident to the Return of the Manuscript to Massachusetts (pp. 134–135).
6. Channing, E. 1905. A History of the United States (vol. 1) (p. 536).
7. Seymour, G. 1909. Papers and Addresses of the Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Connecticut, Volume II of the Proceedings of the Society (p. 277). Note that this quote is not found in Van Doren, M., ed. 1927. Samuel Sewall’s Diary. It may be in Thomas, M., ed. 1973. The Diary of Samuel Sewall, 1674 –1729.
8. Rules for the Good Government and Discipline of the School in the University of Pennsylvania (Francis Bailey, Philadelphia, 1784).
9. Collins, V. 1914. Princeton (p. 208).
10. Smith, J. March 22, 1786, in “Journal at Nassau Hall,” Princeton Library MSS, AM 12800.