Baseball’s Secret History

I recently finished reading John Thorn’s Baseball in the Garden of EdenThe Secret History of the Early Game (Simon & Schuster 2011), which my father gave me for Christmas.  (I don’t get to read as much as I’d like, and I’m a slow reader.)

I definitely recommend it.  Thorn tells his history in a less linear style than I would perhaps prefer, but that’s my only knock.  I learned a lot I didn’t know, and I’ve read a lot about baseball.

Here are the facts I consider most worth repeating.

The 1845 New York Knickerbockers were not the first club to play the New York game of baseball, the version that eventually took over nationally and evolved into the modern game of baseball.  Instead, they were merely the best at documenting what they were doing and maintaining their club records for posterity.

Preceding the Knickerbockers were the New York Ball Club, the Gotham, the Eagle, the Magnolia Ball Club, all of New York City (Manhatten) and the Brooklyn Base Ball Club (Brooklyn didn’t become a part of New York City until 1896).  While most of these clubs were made up of young upper middle class men who had enough leisure time to play ball, the Magnolia Ball Club was made of successful, but much more earthy, working men — saloon keepers, billiard hall operators and brothel owners, among others.  Thorn contends that the Magnolia Ball Club was written out of history due to the less than sterling backgrounds of its members.

As Thorn points out, history records that the Knickerbockers got pounded by the New York Ball Club 23-1 in their first match game, strong evidence that the Knicks were the baseball newbies.

Another piece of largely forgotten history worth mentioning is one of baseball’s first really big series which occurred in the summer of 1858 when a team of all-stars from Manhattan played three matches against a team of all-stars from Brooklyn at the Fashion Race Course on Long Island not far from where Shea Stadium is today.

Ten cents admission was charged for the games, with higher fees for transportation and livery costs (you had to come by horse and carriage or train).  One newspaper contemporaneously reported the paid attendance for the first game of the series at 7,800.

The New York team won the first and third games, with the Brooklyns taking only the second, with each game played about a month apart.  Stars on the New York team included Joe Gelston of the Eagles, Charles DeBost of the Knickerbockers, Joe Pinckney of the Unions and Louis F. Wadsworth of the Gotham, while the best Brooklyn players were generally considered to be Frank Pidgeon and Johnny Grum of the Eckfords, Joe Leggett of the Excelciors and the brothers Matty and Pete O’Brien of the Atlantics, although the line-ups changed considerably for each game.  Dickey Pearce, who would later star in the National Association, the first professional baseball league in the early 1870’s, also played shortstop in at least game for Brooklyn.

Some of these players were probably already being paid to play under the table, since a number of them already had reputations as “revolvers,” i.e. players who regularly revolved from one team to another for undeclared reasons.  In fact, the National Association of Base Ball Players formed in 1858 (then really only the New York Association of Base Ball Players, but they had aspirations), passed a ban on professional players in 1859, again strong evidence that the best players were already being paid by teams that wanted to win not only as a matter of prestige but also because large sums of money were already being bet on the top teams’ matches.

In fact, famed chronicle of the early game Henry Chadwick wrote an article fifteen years later in 1873 about how in the first game of the series, Brooklyn second baseman John Holder won a $75 bet that he would hit a home run in his next at-bat, which would be equivalent to about $2,000 today.  It was the game’s only home run.

At the time these all-star games were played, called strikes had only been introduced that season, and balls were still not called.  Up to that point, pitchers were expected to pitch the ball underhanded with a straight arm up to the bat, with the fielders being entirely responsible for defense.  That would soon change as pitchers began to bend the rules, by bending their arms and wrists, to make pitched balls harder to hit.

The success of this first big series also inspired a number of entrepreneurs to build enclosed ball fields where admissions could be charged on a regular basis.

Explore posts in the same categories: Baseball History

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