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America’s Other Civil War: The Battle for the Heart of Baseball

22nd MVI Game Ball

The United States was born in blood at the tail end of the eighteenth century, with a violent revolution against the king of England. The birth of this new nation saw a new form of government take shape, driven by new approaches to self-government and representative democracy, borrowed in part from classical Greece and Rome. At the same time, a uniquely American version of an amorphous game– “Rounders”– was also being molded into the game of baseball. This is evinced by many references in the historical record. George Ewing, a soldier under the command of George Washington at Valley Forge wrote of playing ‘Base’ in his diary (Millen 73). A 1791 town ordnance was discovered in Pittsfield Massachusetts that cited the game by the modern name of ‘baseball’ (Cole 68). There were a plethora of other varieties of the game played as well in towns across America. Generally these ‘safe haven’ games went by names such as “town ball”, “old cat”, “Rounders” and others (Morris 11-25). Regional in nature, these similar games had coalesced into two primary variants in the years leading up to the Civil War. One form was centered geographically in Massachusetts, referred to as ‘roundball,’ ‘base’ or the eponymous “Massachusetts Game” (“Bats, Balls, and Bullets”, Kirsch 31). The other, based in New York was known as “The Knickerbocker Game” for those that originated it (“Baseball in Blue and Grey”, Kirsch 6; “Bats, Balls and Bullets, Kirsch 32). As the Civil War gripped the nation in the middle of the nineteenth century, another more modest conflict was fought in tandem between these two forms of baseball for primacy.

A common myth states that the game was created then spread by Major General Abner Doubleday of the Union Army over the course of the Civil War. Though the origination of the game with Doubleday has been debunked by historians, the story of the Civil War spreading the game has continued (Morris 227-228). What is clear is that the variant games of baseball were played virtually everywhere that the soldiers went. There is ample evidence that civilian and government apparatuses actively supported the troops playing baseball while not drilling or fighting. The United States Sanitary Commission, a civilian body concerned with the health and welfare of the troops, recommended athletic activities as a means to “…preserve the health of soldiers” (“Bats, Balls and Bullets”, Kirsch 33; Millen 18). Soldiers took advantage of this to entertain themselves with the game of baseball just as they would have had they still been safe at home. John Parker, regimental historian of the 22nd Massachusetts Infantry, noted that while his unit was training in camp outside Washington D.C.:

Fast Day (at home) April 3 [1862], there was no drill, and twelve of our enlisted men challenged an equal number from the Thirteenth New York, to a game of base-ball, Massachusetts game. We beat the New-Yorkers, 34 to 10 (79-80).

Other soldiers found time for playing ball during interludes in battle. Millen cites: “…Captain James Hall of the 24th Alabama Regiment observed his men playing baseball ‘just like schoolboys’ while waiting for the advance of General Sherman” (19). Playing ball at the front could be rather hazardous to one’s health. A contest played by the 114th New York regiment came to premature conclusion when “…Confederate snipers killed the right fielder and captured the center fielder and the baseball” (qtd. in Ryczek 162). Even being captured by the enemy did not prevent the soldiers from playing ball. Millen notes that the Salisbury, North Carolina camp was a prime example of ball-playing while in captivity, when in 1862 and 1863 frequent games were played (27-30).

The conflict between the variant forms of the game does surface in the diaries and letters of some of the participants, despite the assertion of Millen that “Civil War soldiers were not overly concerned with the rules of play, they were only looking for a brief hiatus from the stress of the war” (Millen, 20). Josephus Clarkson, an inmate of Salisbury Prison, made a modest evaluation of the primary forms of the game when he wrote:

To put a man out by Town Ball rules you could plug him as he ran. Since many of the men were in a weakened condition, it was agreed to play by the faster but less harsh New York rules, which intrigued our guards. The game of baseball had been played much in the South, but many of them [the guards] had never seen the game devised by Mr. Cartwright (qtd. in Millen 30).

“Plugging” (also termed “soaking”) was a bit of baseball jargon describing an old town ball rule that was still in use with the Massachusetts game, whereby a runner could be put out by means of being hit with a thrown ball, rather than the New York method of simply tagging the player as in the modern game. Agreeing with the risk of playing what was probably the Massachusetts game, one diarist with a New York regiment noted a number of injuries suffered while playing against the 22nd Massachusetts—when he wrote:

Played Base Ball nearly all day and experienced a ‘Chapter of Accidents’. Got a severe blow with ball in the face, and a finger almost broken; and quit on having a collision with a man who knocked me down and made me “see stars” by striking his chin under mine – both were moving swiftly and look up at the ball high in the air. (Randall)

The regionalism of the game seems to have persisted, at least for a time, despite the rules. Indeed, while Kirsch notes that New England men were generally more likely to partake in the Massachusetts variant and Southerners in the similar town ball game; when games would be planned between the lovers of the older games and those from New York, the Knickerbocker rules were preferred. (“Baseball in Blue and Gray”, Kirsch 39).

There is evidence to support the assertion that facets of the rules themselves were a major driver of the game moving from multiple, regional rule sets to the two primary antebellum variants; then finally to the Knickerbocker game being accepted as ‘America’s Pastime.’ In a virtual invasion of Massachusetts game country, a number of Knickerbocker teams began to spring up in and around Boston as early as 1857 and 1858. Edward Saltzman, a New York expatriate, founded the Tri-Mountain Club in Boston in 1857. He was followed by the Bowdoin Club of fellow Bostonites and the Atwater Club in Westfield. John Lowell, eponymous founder of the Lowell Club, was another supporter of the New York rules despite being born within the home turf of the Massachusetts game (Ryczek 131-132). Despite these inroads made into Massachusetts territory by erstwhile Knickerbockers, and while their version of baseball was “…still almost exclusively confined to the New York metropolitan area as late as 1858…” (Morris 39), they had established their beachhead.

While the Massachusetts infantry was away at the front fighting the Civil War, on the home front, the battle for baseball’s future continued in their back yards. Boston was the center of the Massachusetts game’s universe, but it was under siege. Morris posits that the biggest driver of this is a stressor that affects city-goers as much today as it did in the nineteenth century: Space. The earlier town ball and Massachusetts games played with a rule set that stated that any struck ball was fair play—there was no foul territory. This meant that a tremendous amount of open grassland was required to play. This was something that was getting to be in very short supply in the crowded city of Boston. The New York game by contrast, incorporated the concept of foul territory into which a struck ball did not count; and this dramatically reduced the space needed to play a successful match. In land-crunched Boston, as in New York, this helped speed acceptance of the New York style of play (Morris 47)..

There is an adage that “success breeds success.” If so, than the successes of the tour of a Brooklyn baseball team into New York continued to breed success for the Knickerbocker game.
In 1862 the Knickerbocker-playing Brooklyn Excelsiors made a trip to Boston and its environs, highlighted by the utter drubbing of two local teams at baseball matches by scores of 41-15 and 39-13 on consecutive days, playing by New York rules. (“Baseball in Blue and Gray”, Kirsch 53). It is likely that the stunning success of the Brooklyn club, combined with baseball’s own version of the political Copperhead movement may well have contributed to the gradual adoption of the New York rules in Massachusetts by the end of the war.

The press played a contributing role to the decline and fall of the Massachusetts game and the rise and eventual victory of the New York rules as well. The biggest sports periodicals of the time—the New York Clipper and Porter’s (later Wilkes’) Spirit of the Times both printed their mastheads in New York (Morris 39; Ryczek 133). On December 6 1856, Porter’s made available to the masses the Knickerbocker club rules. It was followed by the Clipper doing the same only a week later. Mass-printed copies of the rules facilitated the spread of the Knickerbocker game, which could then be learned by anyone capable of reading the paper. This allowed for an identical game to be played by teams far afield, without any of the rules arguments that were seen earlier. Clubs using the New York rules began springing up across the nation, as far afield as Philadelphia and Cincinnati; courtesy of the Knickerbocker rules being reproduced by the press (Morris 39-40). National coverage in media print glamorizing the New York game may well have left the Massachusetts game out in the cold. Ryczek quotes one of the early baseball press’ greatest luminaries, Henry Chadwick when he states that:

It should be remembered that the press is largely influential in promoting the welfare and advancement of the game, and were the papers to neglect publishing the daily proceedings of the ballplayers during the summer, the games they play would decline in popularity and ultimately be confined only to a glorious minority of the sport loving of the community (173).

Clearly, Chadwick was prescient in his predication, for though the New York game continued to flourish under the eyes of his press, the Massachusetts game that they ignored did in fact, wither on the vine and eventually die out. Two years after the end of the Civil War, the war for baseball appears to have ended as well. By the close of 1867, all the baseball clubs in Massachusetts had switched over to the Knickerbocker style of play (Morris 47).

In the final equation, while the Civil War was raging on, the baseball civil war was being waged – and won – on the home turf of the Massachusetts game by the invaders. The media drove the spread of the Knickerbocker mystique and their rules throughout the nation. The reduced real estate commitment to the New York game versus the Massachusetts variant allowed the game to flourish in space-starved metropolitan areas; which in turn allowed for increased spectators, driving further interest. When the soldiers came home after the close of the Civil War, they returned to the last gasps of baseball’s own war. The Massachusetts home team took their cuts in the bottom of the ninth, but just came up short. Knickerbocker ball was king. Long live the king.


Works Cited

Cole, Diane. “A Dispute at First. (cover story).” U.S. News & World Report 141.6 (2006): 68-69.
Military & Government Collection. EBESCO. Web. 7 June 2011.

Kirsch, George B. Baseball in Blue and Gray: The National Pastime During the Civil War.
Princeton: Princeton University, 2003. Print

—. “Bats, Balls, and Bullets: Baseball and the Civil War.” Civil War Times Illustrated May 1998:
30-37. Print.

Millen, Patricia. From Pastime to Passion: Baseball and the Civil War. Bowie: Heritage, 2001.

Morris, Peter. But Didn’t We Have Fun? An Informal History of Baseball’s Pioneer Era, 1843-
1870. Chicago: Dee, 2008. Print.

Parker, John. Henry Wilson’s Regiment: History of the 22nd Massachusetts Infantry, The 2nd
Company Sharpshooters and the 3rd Light Battery. Boston: Rand Avery 1887. Baltimore:
Butternut and Blue. 1997. Print.

Randall, H. E.. Diary Entry. 2 February 1864. Hunt Auctions. Web. 20 June 2011.

Ryczek, William J. Baseball’s First Inning: A History of the National Pastime Through the Civil
War. Jefferson: McFarland, 2009. Print.

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