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).

Dexter Park: The House That Murder Built

There’s been a lot of baseball parks in Chicago.  Before there was Wrigley, there was Comiskey.  Before Comiskey, there was the West Side Grounds, and before that, Brotherhood Park, and Southside Park, and Lakefront Park, and others, all the way back to Dexter Park.

Located just south of the Chicago Stockyards between 43rd and 47th and Halsted Streets, Dexter Park was the Windy City’s foremost ball ground in the mid-1860s.  It hosted the 1867 tournament that saw Rockford’s Forest City Base Ball Club shock the previously undefeated Washington Nationals, 29 to 23, on July 25.  The Nationals avenged the loss two days later by hammering the Chicago Excelsiors 49 to 7, and then giving the same treatment to the home-ground Chicago Atlantics after another two-day break, 78 to 17.

With the amateur game giving way to the professional version, the Chicago White Stockings claimed the park in time for the 1870 season.  Twenty-thousand fans are said to have witnessed the home team defeat the visiting Cincinnati Red Stockings in mid-October, 16 to 13.

But before there was Dexter Park, there was Dexter himself.  Described as “high-spirited, nervous, wide-awake and intelligent,” Dexter was America’s most famous horse during his short career.  Racing from 1863 until he pulled up lame in 1867, years before he would’ve reached his prime, Dexter ran 55 times and won 50.  He was Inducted as an Immortal to the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 1956.

Dexter beat all of the other famous flyers of the time—Stonewall Jackson, George M. Patchen, Jr., General Butler, Commodore Vanderbilt, Toronto Chief, Lady Thorne and others.  Along the way, the equine powerhouse set speed records for the day in mile heats, best three-out-of-five heats, two miles, three miles, in harness, saddle and wagon.

In 1866, Dexter was stabled in Chicago and owned by George Trussell, a notorious Windy City gambler.  One of Dexter’s most-anticipated races was scheduled to be held at the Chicago Driving Park Association grounds on September 4.  Trussell expected a big day.  But torrential rain soaked the Windy City that morning and a three-way $5,000 match against Patchen and General Butler was postponed.  It still turned out to be a big day for Trussell, when Mollie Cosgriff shot him dead.

Trussell spent the last afternoon of his life at the Driving Park, drinking and gambling with friends despite the race postponement. The party moved downtown in the evening with a tour of bars.  It was said that Trussell had a strong attraction to the spirits of the time, and so it wasn’t a surprise when he drifted into Seneca Wright’s tavern on Randolph for a nightcap and a song toward the 11 o’clock hour.

What was a surprise, was when Mollie Cosgriff showed up at the saloon, wanting a word or two with George.  She looked, according to one newspaper, as if she had just come from a dancing party, wearing a striking white moire dress to the occasion, a shawl draped over her shoulders, drunk, and carrying a revolver in a pocket. 

Mollie was no stranger to the tavern side of life.  She ran a well-known house of ill-repute on Fourth Avenue.

George and Mollie were no strangers to each other.  Mollie had fallen into the demi-monde in Chicago after moving to the city from her home in Ohio.   Her attractive figure and alluring beauty naturally gained the temporary attention if not the permanent affection of Chicago’s fast young men, of whom George was no exception.  An affair evolved, and a son by Mollie’s calculation, and the couple drifted apart, but Mollie never lost her devotion to the man.

The lingering feelings were not reciprocal.  George didn’t feel much like talking with Mollie that night, and he tried to usher her out the front door of Wright’s place.  There was some pushing and shoving at the entrance.  Seneca stepped from behind the bar, separated the two quarrelers, and then went back to his duties.  The former lovers continued to scuffle.  One witness said that George struck Mollie.  Others said he didn’t.  Mollie pulled her gun and shot him in the side.

George careened back toward the center of the saloon.  Mollie followed, and fired again, the bullet striking him in the back.  George stumbled toward a side door.  Mollie shot him a third time.  He staggered out the door, into the entrance of Price’s livery stable, and collapsed.

As if just coming out of a trance, Mollie raced out of the saloon and fell on his body, shrieking frantically, “O my George!  My George!  He is dead.”

A notorious gambler and owner of a famous horse, killed in his prime.  A jilted lover, a keeper of a lewd house, a drunken murderess.  Newspapers across the Northeast quarter of the country followed the story with salacious glee.  It was a sensation, pure and simple, and it seemed like it would be a tough act to follow.  But Chicago was a tough town, and racing soon resumed. 

“There is great excitement in sporting circles,” the Chicago Tribune declared on Friday morning, September 21, 1866, “about the great race…between General Butler and Cooley, for a purse of five thousand dollars a side, and set for tomorrow on the track of the Chicago Driving Park Association.”

General Butler was a popular harness horse whose career overlapped the Civil War.  His likeness circulated on Currier & Ives and other lithographs.

Cooley was a black gelding and a favorite on Chicago race tracks.  Locally owned, the fast trotter was described as “a big little horse” with “an eye full of intelligence and kindness.” 

Heavy betting underscored the excitement for the sulky race between the horses.  “The knowing ones seem to be about equally divided in opinion as far as odds are concerned,” the Tribune computed, “though the majority seem to think the General stands the best chance.”

The match between the horses was also a match between the drivers of the sulkies they pulled.  Manager Bill Riley drove Cooley.  Two men would steer General Butler that afternoon—jockey Samuel Crooks for the first two races, and quarter-owner William McKeever the remainder of the way.

McKeever was a cool customer, and a good enough athlete to have played for two of New York City’s premier baseball clubs.  He began as an infielder with the Gotham club in 1859 before taking on pitching duties for the rough and tumble Mutual club in 1863. 

In 1861, McKeever pitched for New York against Brooklyn and the great Jim Creighton in the famous New York Clipper Silver Ball Match.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle called McKeever “the most effective medium-paced pitcher in the country.”  Creighton outpitched McKeever that day in Hoboken, but Creighton isn’t called great without a reason. 

Now nearing 30, McKeever had traded away the mound work for the less taxing pursuits of harness racing and gambling.  A half-hour delay after the scheduled start of the Driving Park match drew the disapproval of the crowd of thousands in attendance.  Odds favored Cooley 25 to 10 when the match finally began at 3:30 p.m.

General Butler pulled ahead in the first heat, building a five-length lead at the half-mile post but the horses were equal at the final turn.  A late surge by Cooley earned the win by a neck.

Cooley won the second heat by 15 lengths.  Bettors on General Butler, suspicious of the slow times turned in by Crooks and on the verge of seeing their wagers wiped out, begged McKeever to make a switch.  As the odds climbed to 100 to 25 on Cooley, McKeever took the lines for the third heat.  The move paid off with a win by 20 lengths for General Butler and the odds reversed themselves. 

Trouble began in the fourth heat.  A half-an-hour was lost in fits and starts and ill-words between the drivers.  With darkness rapidly falling, the heat finally reached its start.  Two hundred yards into the race, McKeever suddenly swerved in front of Riley’s buggy, scraping Cooley’s nose.  General Butler won the race by a half-length.  Many in the crowd argued that the foul should have resulted in a dead heat, or the award of the race to Cooley.    Disarray prevailed when the track judges stuck with the win for General Butler.

By the time order was resolved, night had fully fallen and only moonlight illuminated the racing grounds for the fifth and final match.  More argument ensued, with half the crowd for the race to be called off due to darkness, and the other half demanding it continue.  A start was made despite the conditions.  General Butler broke in front along the rail as the horses disappeared in the darkness. 

In due course, Cooley returned to view, heading down the home stretch toward the winning line.  General Butler careened behind, without a driver.  A search quickly located McKeever, bloody and unconscious, face down in the cinders on the back stretch.  He was quickly carried to the home of J. R. Gore, a physician who lived nearby on Michigan Avenue.

Examination revealed extensive fractures to McKeever’s skull, with particular injury to the left temple, as if McKeever had been struck in the head by a hard object.  Gore extracted three broken pieces of the cranium.  Hopes were raised that the procedure would relieve pressure on the brain and allow McKeever to regain consciousness.  It soon became apparent that the patient could not recover from the injury. 

With foul play evident, police launched an investigation.  After taking Riley into custody, suspicion fell on Peter and Tom Hickey, brothers who owned a tavern near the race track.  Police arrived at the saloon at two a.m. Sunday morning and arrested the two after a desperate fight that left the officers and suspects bitten, battered, billy-clubbed and pistol-whipped.

McKeever died Sunday afternoon without ever coming out of his coma.  His body was returned to his brother’s care in New York and internment at Greenwood Cemetery, final resting place of so many of the game’s pioneers. Remembering their former pitcher, the entire Mutual Base Ball Club attended McKeever’s funeral.

Back in Illinois, the Cook County Coroner opened an inquest on McKeever’s death.  Chicago’s sporting crowd packed the Central Police Station to view the proceedings.  A string of witnesses testified. Two said they saw Peter Hickey on the track between the fourth and fifth heat.  There were other figures in the shadows.  Tom Hickey denied any knowledge of the events surrounding McKeever’s death.  Bill Riley testified he didn’t have anything to do with it, either.  He closed with one admission.  “I did say, ‘If I could win the race, I would.’”

The coroner’s jury returned its verdict on October without charges, finding only that a plot existed among unnamed friends of Cooley to prevent General Butler from winning the match, and that the result of this plot caused McKeever’s death.  A later history of the Chicago Police Department named Tom Hickey as the killer.

Mollie Cosgriff went on trial that same month for the Trussell killing.  The charge was manslaughter, for which a sentence of up to life could be applied.  There was no argument that Cosgriff killed Trussell.  The only argument was whether she was justified in pulling the trigger, in fear for her own life when Trussell tried to push her out of Seneca Wright’s tavern.  The jury didn’t buy the entire bill of goods, but came close.  After deliberating just over three hours, the jury returned with a guilty verdict and the minimum sentence allowable, a year in the penitentiary.

It might be expected that a woman of Mollie’s notoriety and profession would have some connections.  In prison, she was given a private cell and allowed to receive visitors and wear her own clothes, but that was just a nickel ante in a smaller game.  Mollie had bigger cards to play:  she was pardoned by Illinois Governor Richard J. Oglesby after serving just a month of her sentence.  

The Driving Park Association did not survive McKeever’s death.  With its reputation completely ruined by the autumn’s gruesome murders, the grounds were sold at auction in December of 1866 and soon demolished.  Dexter Park, specifically named after the trotter, opened in July of 1867 to replace the disgraced track.  The spacious infield of the racing oval contained the baseball diamond. 

A tobacco card celebrates Dexter

The horse Dexter had a short career.  So did the park named after him.  It burned to the ground in 1871, a victim of the Great Chicago Fire.

William McKeever has never appeared on a baseball card.

The Milwaukee Racing Sausages

There are many mascot races in the major and minor leagues these days, but it all began at Milwaukee County Stadium on June 27, 1993, when a modest scoreboard animation suddenly burst into live action on the playing field.

That Sunday afternoon, the original Klement’s Famous Sausages—the Bratwurst, the Polish and the Italian—surged out from behind the left field fence and began running haphazardly toward home plate, weaving uncertainly back and forth in their seven-feet from head to knee lederhosen, red-and-blue striped koszulka, and tall chef’s hat.  

Brainchild of Milwaukee graphic designer Michael Dillon of McDill Design, the racers were an instant hit with the 45,580 Brewer fans in attendance.  At first, the races were only held on dates when a big crowd was expected. Later, the races occurred every Sunday.  Finally, they became a ritual between the sixth and seventh innings at every game.  In the mid-1990s, a Hot Dog was added to the County Stadium line-up.  A fifth sausage, the Chorizo, later broke into the regular line-up.

Topps Between Innings, 2014 BI-6, Famous Racing Sausages

The races continued after the Brewers moved to the then-named Miller Park.  On July 9, 2003, Pittsburgh first baseman Randall Simon took a playful tap of the bat at the back of the Italian Sausage as the runners passed the third-base visitor’s dugout.  The poke knocked the mascot to the ground, and the hot dog tripped over the fallen racer.  Young women were playing the role of each racer.  Both suffered cuts and bruises.

Sheriffs at the ballpark took a dim view of Simon’s interference and launched a criminal investigation.  Judicial proceedings ended with a $342 fine levied against the Pirate for disorderly conduct.  Major League Baseball elbowed into the act and suspended Simon for three days.  

Topps Heritage, 2003 156, Randall Simon

Despite the Simon incident, a friendly rivalry evolved between the Sausages and the Pierogies of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the two mascot teams now face off with each other in an annual home and away relay race.

Topps Between Innings, 2014 BI-2, Pierogi Race

But don’t expect anything similar with the Racing Presidents of the Washington Nationals.  There’s some bad blood between the mascots, with the Presidential team mocking the Milwaukee originals as cardboard  “Un-talian sausage,” “No-lish Sausage,” “Not-Dog,” “Not-Wurst,” and “Choriz-No.”

No matter.  The Racing Presidents baseball card is the ugliest baseball card produced so far in the 21st century.

Topps Team Traditions and Celebrations, 2018 TTC-PR, Racing Presidents