Origins of Baseball

It seems like an impossible job—condense the history of baseball in the 19th Century to a set of one hundred cards.  After all, it took Harold and Dorothy Seymour three hundred pages to cover the same ground in their collaborative volume Baseball:  The Early Years.  But that was the task undertaken by a small band of researchers in a set titled “The Origins of Baseball 1744—1899.” 

Presided over by Jonathan Mork, the team included David Martin for artwork and Mer-Mer Chen for graphic design and photo restoration.  Jonathan’s brother Jeremy authored the stories on the back of the cards.  Issued by the American Archives Publishing Co. in 1994, the boxed collection logically balances most of its imagery between player and executive portraits, team photographs, playing fields and notable events.  The year 1744 in the title refers to the date of an English woodcut of a game of Rounders included as card 3 in the set, below.

More than twenty-five years after printing, the cards need gentle handling.  The black finish of the borders easily flakes.

Images were carefully selected from photographs and other illustrations maintained by the Hall of Fame’s National Baseball Library.  The full-length studio photographs are especially striking in the card format.  Clockwise from upper left: Jack Chesbro (card 92); Tony Mullane (card 66); Sam Thompson (card 93); and Paul Hines (card 37).

Noted personalities of the game include pioneering sportswriter Henry Chadwick (card 11), the grand old man of the game Connie Mack (card 84), and umpire Tom Connolly (card 72).  The surprise is the 17th President of the United States, Andrew Johnson (card 14).  Said to be a fan of the game, Johnson is honored for allowing government clerks and staffers to clock out early when the Washington Nationals were scheduled to play an important game.

Team cards are an important part of the set.  The collection naturally includes the founding Knickerbockers (card 5) and the undefeated 1869 Red Stockings (card 19).

The three powerful early Brooklyn teams are also pictured:  the Atlantics (card 16), the Eckfords (card 9), and the Excelsiors (card 12).  The Atlantics virtually monopolized the early championships of the sport.  The Eckfords notched a pair of flags themselves.  The third and deciding game of the 1860 championship match between the Atlantics and the Excelsiors produced one of the game’s first great controversies. With his team leading 8-6 in the sixth inning, Excelsior captain Joe Leggett pulled his club off the field when gamblers and Atlantic partisans in the crowd shouted one too many insults against his players. The two great teams never faced each other again.   Leggett may have been incorruptible on the diamond; off was a different matter.  Over the years, his hands found themselves in a number of tills to feed a gambling habit he could not afford.  He disappeared in 1877 with $1,000 missing in liquor license fees from the Brooklyn Police Department Excise Bureau.  

Teams of the 1880s are well-represented in the set.  The Boston Beaneaters (card 98) were the most successful National League team of the 1890s, winning flags in 1891, 1892, 1893, 1897 and 1898.  The City of Chicago lent its broad shoulders to the development of baseball behind the likes of National League founder William Hulbert, star pitcher and later sporting goods magnate Albert Spalding, and five-time pennant winner Cap Anson.  The 1886 team is pictured on card 45.  The 1887 National League Detroit Wolverines (card 51) played a 15-game championship series that year against the American Association St. Louis Browns.  Eight of the games were played on neutral grounds.  Detroit claimed the flag in Game 11, played in the afternoon in Baltimore after a morning tilt in Washington.

The set doesn’t sugarcoat the game. 

Above:  Jesse “The Crab” Burkett of the Cleveland Spiders (card 88) earns a spot in the set for his role in a post-game melee in Louisville that saw the entire Cleveland team hauled off to jail.  Edwin Bligh (card 31) scandalized the game when he was accused of fathering a child with a 17-year-old girl.  

Below:  Hard drinking plagued the early years of the sport.  A detective once trailed Mike “King” Kelly (card 48) into the early morning hours, reporting the Chicago catcher enjoying a glass of lemonade at 3 a.m. at a local watering hole.  Kelly denied the allegation.  “The detective is a complete liar.  I never drink lemonade at that hour.  It was pure whiskey.” 

Ed Delahanty’s attraction to the spirits had a grim ending (card 74).  The only player to win batting titles in both the American and National Leagues, the outfielder was thrown off a train in 1903 near Niagara Falls by a conductor for being drunk and disorderly.  He fell off a bridge into the Niagara River and was swept to his death. 

A SABR biography of Delahanty by John Saccoman can be found at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/ed-delahanty/.

Several cards highlight the playing fields of the day. A diagram of a New England version of the game is shown on card 10:

The decades of the 1850s and the 1860s are summarized on individual cards.

Top:  Elysian Fields, the ancestral homeland of the game, is shown card 7.  A game between the Brooklyn Atlantics and the Philadelphia Athletics is shown on card 18.  Gamblers congregate in the lower left.  Seated umpires and the official scorers at their table take up station between home and first base.

Abraham Lincoln is featured on card 13 of the set.  Commentary on the back of the card includes an early debunking of the theory that returning Civil War soldiers spread the game to the American South.  As the back of the Lincoln card states, an especially robust strain of the game emerged in New Orleans before the Civil War.  It sure did. 

At least half a dozen baseball clubs were playing regularly by 1859.  The Magnolia and Southern clubs squared off in one series; the Empire and the presiding elder Louisiana Base Ball Club played one match series against each other.  The Louisiana club didn’t appear to take things as seriously as their younger counterparts.  In one game, the patriarchs were forced to start with just eight players present, and in another with just seven.  Other nines played side against side.   The Orleans Club was active on and off the field of play, leading a political parade on horseback in red velvet caps on one occasion and giving a Mardi Gras masquerade ball on another.

The Magnolia and Southern clubs seemed especially well-suited to each other. After one game, the teams exchanged badges and then marched together to the United States Hotel for a round or two of drinks.

The clubs had trouble finding spaces for their games.  The Third District, where many of the teams were located, had only three open fields.  One behind Claiborne Circle was the province by seniority of the Black Racket clubs.  White Racket clubs claimed the grounds near the Old Paper Mill behind the Pontchartrain Railroad by the same rights of prior occupancy.    An open square on Claiborne Street was guarded by neighborhood youths known as the Squatters.  When a Les Quatre club tried to use the field one day, the Squatters drew knives and pistols and ran them off.

The New Orleans Crescent described Racket as “the game of all games for the spectator,”   a spirited Creole affair of base and ball with a high reputation for entertainment value, played with a short one-handed bat—the racket.

A box for a game between Les Quatre clubs shows a scored and umpired game of runs played in innings with 12 men to a side.   By the following spring, the teams were described as baseball clubs.

City newspapers approved of all the play.  The Sunday Delta observed:

Lately a furore has been started among us, which, if it only goes on progressing in the same spirit it has commenced, will make cricket and other games of ball as common in this section as they are in England.  Whether it continues long or not, it will exercise a good influence as long as it lasts, and we see no reason for its abatement, as the better these games are generally understood, the more popular do they become.

The New Orleans Crescent apologized for not being to attend all the games.  “There are now so many Base Ball and Cricket and Racket Clubs, and they play so frequently, appearing in the field nearly every day, up town, down town, and over the river, that we cannot keep the run of them.”

Up and down the great rivers of the United States the game still thrives, from town to town as the Crescent saw so long ago.  One hundred cards cannot tell the whole story of the 19th Century game, but each card provides a path to a different chapter in the story.  It’s a fine set, worthy of time and study.  Listed for $25 or so on eBay, it’s a steal.

DISCLAIMER

Images in this article have been brightened from original scans for presentation purposes.  Master heckler William Gleason on card 36 is pictured before (top) and after modification (bottom).

Author: Russell Streur

Russell Streur is an Atlanta-area collector. He is a regular contributor to Jay Grochalski's collecting blog Junk Wax Jay https://junkwaxjay.blogspot.com/ and maintains a modest card blog of his own at https://blueheronsbaseballclub.blog/ Streur is also editor and chief bartender of the eco-poetic journal, Plum Tree Tavern, at https://theplumtreetavern.blogspot.com/

9 thoughts on “Origins of Baseball”

  1. Hear hear! What a fun, interesting, and enlightening post – I had no idea. Thank you, Russell. I couldn’t resist picking up one of those $25 sets on eBay!

    Like

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