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Monday, July 4, 2022

Rise of Baseball-1840s to 1900

 Journal Opinion , June 22, 2022

Thrown Out On Second. Published in Harper's Weekly in Sept 1887, this Gilbert Gaul's  illustration captured the nation's fascination with baseball. 

“Tuesday the quiet of our [Newbury] village was broken by the shouts and mirth attending a game of baseball.  The Orford Base Ball Club dispatched a challenge to the Newbury Club. The playing on the part of both clubs was excellent, the Newburys excelling at the bat, and the Orfords in the fielding.”  Bradford Opinion, August 8, 1874

Baseball has been dubbed the nation’s past

time. There are mounds of articles and books on the subject.  So much material is available, that the history of baseball locally and throughout New Hampshire and Vermont will bel presented in two columns.  This column explores the game’s roots and its development into an obsession in the period before 1900.  A second column will cover the period from 1900 to 1970. 

Americans played team games with bats and balls before the inception of baseball. One game that had its heyday was the English game of cricket. In 1709, it was being played in Virginia and the first public match was held in New York City in 1751. Interest in matches grew, and, by 1849, an estimated 100,000 Americans played cricket.

 In the late 18th century, a game called wicket became popular in New England as a variation of cricket. At first, it was just an informal game with varying rules. Later, wicket clubs became more popular, and rules were needed to govern matches

A more lively game, however,  began to catch the nation’s attention.  It was baseball, at first spelled as two separate words. It was sometimes referred to as “bat and ball.” The story that it was invented in 1839 by Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown, NY has been widely refuted.

 In 1845, a game on the grounds of the Brooklyn Cricket Club was played with eight players on each side and may have been one of the first organized games. This newer game was considered more exciting than previous ones, “so much more full of life.”  One of the first organized teams was the Knickerbockers of New York.

At first, there were variations of the game’s rules. One set of rules was written in 1845 by Alexander Cartwright of the Knickerbockers. In 1839, Dr. Daniel Lucas Adams, a native of Mont Vernon, NH, moved to New York City and joined the Knickerbockers.  In 1857, he wrote a booklet entitled “The Laws of Base Ball.”

 These rules, which became widely used, described the game with nine players on each side, nine innings, and a 90-foot distance between bases. This, so-called New York game won over the competing Massachusetts set of rules.  

By that time, baseball was receiving editorial support and was played on the fairgrounds and playing fields across the country.  One editor wrote, “The good effect produced by the health and strength and morals of the young men engaged….has taken them from the unhealthy haunts of disputation indoors and given them a taste for manly sports.”

During the election of 1860, a political cartoon depicted Abraham Lincoln winning a game of baseball against his rivals.

In August 1860, a contest between the Brattleboro Base Ball Club and the Green Mt Base Ball Club of Jamaica drew “quite a crowd to witness” one of the first “Prized Ball” games played in the state.  That same year “a number of actively disposed citizens of Burlington, mostly young men,” established the Burlington Base Ball Club. The Star Base Ball Club was formed in Rutland in 1862.  

During the Civil War, baseball was “the most popular sport of all competitive sports in the camps of both armies and even in prison camps.”  Soldiers in the both Vermont and New Hampshire regiments played baseball during the lulls between military actions. 

Veterans brought home their enthusiasm for the sport.  By 1867, it was reported there were 44 baseball clubs in Vermont. What had started as a “gentlemanly sport” grew more inclusive. Leagues were formed, with series and amateur tournaments were held. 

Church groups opposed the playing of baseball on Sundays, calling it “a desecration of the Lord’s Day.”  In 1880, Vermont reaffirmed its ban on Sunday activities. According to an 1887 Burlington newspaper article, the legislatures in some states were passed laws against “the evils of Sunday base ball games.” 

In 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings was established as the first professional club with openly paid players. As other cities established teams, the National League was formed in 1876. American Association, later renamed the American League, was created in 1882. These newly-formed professional teams held Sunday games to attract more spectators. Amateur teams followed suit.    

Over the years, some New Hampshire and Vermont baseball players made it to these big leagues. The only local one before 1900 was Lee Viau, who was born in Corinth in 1866 and grew up in Hanover.  He began playing for the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1888 and continued with other professional teams until 1892.  In 1889, he was described as “one of the greatest pitchers in the country today.” 

He was also described as “the handsomest man ever in the professional ranks” and was a favorite on Ladies Days. However, he didn’t take the trouble to keep in condition, and late nights and drinking took their toll, ending his professional career. In 1894, he was the manager of the Littleton team when it played the nine from Bradford.      

Another professional player with a two-state connection was John “Bud” Fowler.  He was born in New York in 1858.  He is considered one of baseball’s racial pioneers, the first black professional and the first to manage an integrated team. He was described as “one of the best general players in the country.”  But racial factors led him to move from team to team.

In 1887, Fowler joined the Montpelier team of the Northeastern League as captain, a first for an integrated team. Vermont newspapers described him as “a phenomenal second-baser,”  “a spectators’ favorite,” and “a first-class ball-tosser in every respect.” His career in Vermont was short-lived as the team folded. Fowler went on to play successfully for the Laconia, NH team, but also for just a short time.

As professional leagues moved to exclude Africa-Americans from the formerly integrated team, Fowler helped organize opportunities for Black players, including helping to organize the Cuban Giants, the first great Black club.  Fowler was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2021.

The Cuban Giants, which incidentally included no Cubans, made a number of tours of Vermont between 1887 and 1900.  The first year they toured the state playing teams from Bennington to St. Albans. Special trains brought fans to the games.  In 1892, a match at Brattleboro drew 800 spectators. The team challenged both league and college teams.            

As teams multiplied, the equipment needs changed. In 1858, the first factory-made balls were manufactured. At that time, balls were furnished by the challenging club and presented to the winning team as a trophy.

 In 1878, Albert Spalding established a company to manufacture standardized baseballs. In 1887, George Rawling established a company to manufacture baseball equipment.

 There was also a move to standardize baseball bats.  Previously, there was a wide range of styles, with bats often handmade by the players. Manufacturers began to mass-produce bats. 1888, Bradford’s United Opinion reported that nation-wide each year a million feet of lumber was turned into 500,000 bats. 

Bats and balls were not the only equipment that have become synonymous with the game. 

 At first, the idea of players wearing a glove for protection was dismissed. Gradually, mitt were introduced as players recognized the importance of reducing injury and enhancing performance.  About 1883, professional player Arthur Irwin designed a padded glove and brought it to Plymouth, NH to find a manufacturer. The established firm of Draper & Maynard accepted and became one of the major suppliers of both baseball gloves and balls.    

In 1887, Warden’s store on Bradford’s Main Street was advertising baseball bats, balls, gloves, scorebooks, and guides for sale.  Guides were necessary as “radical changes” had been made in the long accepted rules of the game. Those changes included “what constituted a fair ball, bunting, batman being struck and the behavior of the pitcher.”

Uniforms changed as the sport developed.  Straw hats were replaced with caps. By 1882, inspired by the Cincinnati Red Stockings, teams wore knee-breeches with colored stockings.  Spiked shoes were replaced by cleats by 1880.

How many local teams had uniforms is unknown.  In May 1877, the United Opinion included a call for financial assistance to purchase uniforms for Bradford’s team.  Encouraging civic pride, it suggested “a good base ball club is no disgrace to any town.”

In 1885, St Johnbury team uniforms were made of white cotton flannel, corded with red, and included knee-breeches and red stockings.

As the game became more formalized for adults, a carefree spirit continued to persist among children.  Pickup, scratch or sandlot games were a favorite among the youth.  Often played with informal rules, with procedures for dividing up the talent, these games were simply played for the fun of it. No adult coaches or umpires were available or required. 

One editor mentioned a mystery, “Why a boy’s hands will blister so much sooner on a hoe handle than they will on a base-ball bat.”

There was great interest in fielding village or  town teams. In the period between 1865 and 1900, there were teams in virtually every town in the area and sometimes more than one.

 Haverhill had teams in North Haverhill, Haverhill Corner, and Woodsville, although not necessarily at the same time. Team titles included the Boomer Club of East Corinth, the Eagle Club of Bradford, the Star Club of Thetford, and the Athletic Club of West Fairlee. 

In 1896, the East Corinth team adopted the self-deprecating title of the Muffers while the Corinth team played under the title of the Hayseeds.

Sometimes a team would fold only to be subsequently reestablished.  In 1894, the Bradford team was reorganized. In 1896, the Orford and Fairlee teams were reorganized as one.

 Local newspapers gave good coverage, with analysis of contests. The United Opinion analysis of the newly reorganized Bradford team included,   “the boys are bound to make things hustle this season.”  

Hundreds of spectators were common. In1874, a match between Orford and Newbury “drew nearly all the village people to view the play.” Spectators were sometimes asked to contribute to the costs.  At the Bradford-Wells River match in 1897, admission was “gents 10 cents, ladies and children free.”

Major contests were often scheduled for holidays such as Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day. Ballfields existed in most communities, with fairgrounds used. Double headers were sometimes held.   

Competition between town teams sometimes involved conflicts and trash talk.  Some matches were apparently rowdy and “notoriously brutal.” In 1897, the Bradford team crossed bats “in deadly strife” with North Haverhill.  “Look out for bruises and black eyes,” the local correspondent wrote.  Given youthful vigor, rivalry, and, perhaps alcohol, fights would not be unexpected.  

There were references to opposing teams as “hayseed nine.” One Fairlee team suggested to the Bradford team that “the boys had better let the married team at Bradford give them a few lessons.”

There were also charges that teams brought in ringers to boost their game.  One 1894 match between Newbury and Bradford was cancelled because of “imported batteries.”  Later, games between Orford, Bradford and Newbury were advertised as being played exclusively with resident players. 

A review of newspaper coverage indicates that generally, “everything passed off with the best of feelings on all sides.” However, when an 1894 game between Woodsville and Bradford resulted in a 24-5 drubbing of Woodsville, the United Opinion felt the need to mention the game’s coverage by the competing Woodsville News. “The Woodsville News gracefully acknowledge the corn, and the baseball boys took their medicine like little men.”

Teams travelled by train or wagon to the games. When  Bradford playing Woodsville, the Vermonters took the  train to Wells River, walking over to Woodsville and returning by the same method.

Colleges such as Dartmouth, Middlebury, UVM and UNH had baseball teams. High schools also had teams.  In the 1890’s, interscholastic games were held between Haverhill Academy, Newbury Seminary, Bradford Academy, and St. Johnsbury Academy. 

This widespread enthusiasm for the game of baseball that had evolved since the 1840’s was carried over into the 20th century.  Local residents continued to create town teams, and school teams continued to seek championships.  Some local men sought professional careers.

Some of these details will be covered in a later column this summer.  If any readers have memories of the town games before 1970, please feel free to share them with me soon at larrylcoffin@gmail.com. I am willing to follow up with a personal conversation.