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The Kekiongas of Fort Wayne Defeat the Forest City Club of Cleveland in the First Major League Game

This albumen photograph of James “Deacon” White originates from his family. He not only was the very first batter in the first professional Major League game in 1871, but he made the first hit.

The 1869 Red Stockings of Cincinnati were a remarkable team. Made up entirely of acknowledged paid players, the nine, managed by Harry Wright, traversed the country, venturing as far as California, and did not lose a single game. The following season, the Red Stockings had a very good team, but lost a few games, which led to great dissatisfaction among the directors, a repudiation of professionalism, and the disbanding of the club. Wright took the Red Stocking name and about half the club to Boston while the others went to Washington, DC to play for the Olympic Club.

Prior to the 1871 season, nearly all of the professional clubs left the organization that had governed baseball since 1857 and established their own league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. For the first time, baseball would have a league composed of professional clubs and a formal method of determining a champion. There was no fixed schedule; that would not come until 1877. Club secretaries corresponded with each other to determine playing dates throughout the summer.

The opening game of the National Association season, the first game ever played by clubs in a professional league, was scheduled to take place at Washington on May 3 between the Red Stockings and Olympics, pitting the old Cincinnati stars against each other. The notion was inspired, but nature was uncooperative. It rained in Washington on May 3, hard enough to cause a postponement of the game.

The following day, the Forest City Club of Cleveland played the Kekiongas of Fort Wayne at Hamilton Field in the latter city before a crowd reported as between 200 and 500. Thanks to the rain in Washington, the Forest Cities and Kekiongas, two of the less renowned members of the NA, played the first game in the league’s history. “What did they take a name such as that for?” lamented the New York Clipper of the Kekiongas, whose appellation was taken from the name of the original Indian settlement that eventually became Fort Wayne.

There were a number of firsts that day at Hamilton Field, some produced by men who would achieve lasting fame in Major League Baseball. The first pitch was delivered by little Bobby Mathews of the Kekiongas, a skinny 5’5” 19-year-old right-hander who won 297 Major League games during a career that lasted through 1887. The first batter was Cleveland’s James (Deacon) White, a 23-year-old catcher who would play through 1890. After watching the first Major League pitch sail wide of the strike zone, White hit the second into right field for a double, the first Major League hit. 

The Detroit Wolverine Championship Dauvray Cup Pendant was awarded to Deacon White in 1887, a year in which he batted .303 at the age of 39. In 2013 Deacon would be enshrined in Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

The man who drove in the first run, in contrast to Mathews and White, emerged from obscurity and soon returned to it. Joe McDermott was a late-minute addition to the Kekiongas roster, and his second inning hit that drove in the first run was his only hit of the season and one of only ten in his career. Fort Wayne scored a second run in the fifth inning and Mathews pitched a shutout for a 2–0 win. In an era of underhand pitching, gloveless defenders and rough fields, 2–0 was an unusually low score, and would be the lowest scoring game in the five-year history of the NA. The New York Times called it “the finest game of baseball ever witnessed.”

The box score for the first game was as follows:

 

 

Kekiongas Forest City
  R H PO A
Williams 3b 0 2 2 0
Mathews p 0 0 1 0
Foran 1b 0 1 2 0
Goldsmith ss 0 0 3 1
Lennon c 1 1 9 1
Carey 2b 0 0 4 6
Mincher lf 0 0 4 0
McDermott cf 0 1 0 1
Kelly rf 1 1 2 0
         
Totals 2 6 27 9
  R H PO A
J. White c 0 3 9 0
Kimball 2b 0 0 4 0
Pabor lf 0 0 0 0
Allison cf 0 1 2 0
E. White rf 0 0 1 0
Pratt p 0 0 1 0
Sutton 3b 0 1 0 1
Carlton 1b 0 0 6 0
Bass ss 0 0 1 4
         
  0 5 24 5

Two aspects of the game are noteworthy in that they deviate from modern custom. As can be seen from the 24 putouts credited to the Forest City Club, the Kekiongas did not bat in the bottom half of the ninth inning. Even though they were leading, the rules called for each team to bat nine times and the Fort Wayne club would have done so had not a shower put an end to the game.

Second, the fact that the Kekiongas batted last was not due to their being the home club. Prior to the game, the clubs flipped a coin, tossed a bat or partook in a similar ritual to determine which club would have the option of batting first or last.

Deacon White went onto to play with many outstanding teams throughout his stellar career. Over the 20 year period from 1871 to 1890 he batted .312 and had more r.b.i.'s than any other professional ballplayer except Cap Anson. Here he is with the 1886 Detroit Wolverines (sitting second from viewers right).

Neither of the teams involved in the historic opener had an illustrious career. The Kekiongas were the only club that did not survive the initial NA season, collapsing in July amidst rumors of drunkenness and rowdy behavior on the part of the players and a failure of management to pay the players. The Forest City Club lasted until July of 1872, when they too perished from financial distress. But on May 4, 1871, the two clubs made history by playing the first game of the first Major League season.

 

 

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