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From a Game to a Sport

Baseball in the 1850s
By William Ryczek, November 17, 2016

Original artwork by Joey Enos.

The 1850s were the decade in which baseball evolved from a game played for fun by children and for exercise by a few grown men to a competitive affair in which teams of adult men competed for victory against other teams of equally serious men. Cordiality, decorous behavior, and hospitality remained an integral part of the game, but by the end of the 1850s, winning was equally important.

One of the reasons for increased competition was the explosive growth in the number of teams in the New York City area. At the beginning of the decade, members of the Knickerbocker Club were gathering together and dividing into teams for intramural activity, and there were a couple of other organizations doing the same. There was little competition because there were very few clubs. By 1859, the field was greatly expanded, and the battle for the title of best nine in New York had become very spirited. Since New York was the only place where serious baseball was played, their best team was considered the champion club of the United States.

When the Knickerbockers were formed in 1845, their principal purpose was to provide exercise and convivial companionship for their members. The men met a couple of days a week to form teams of varying numbers, depending on how many people showed up, and play baseball. The Knickerbockers were meticulous about keeping records, and thus we know who won and who lost, but the makeup of the teams varied from day to day and the main objective was to have fun and get the blood flowing more vigorously.

The Knickerbockers stressed the health aspects of baseball because, in order to be taken seriously as an activity for grown men, baseball had to be justified on the basis of its physical and spiritual benefits. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, sports had been considered a frivolous waste of time. Many of the earliest references to baseball and other sports are to laws prohibiting them. Cooperstown banned baseball in 1816, and as late as 1839, it was illegal to play ball in a public area of New York City. In the mid-nineteenth century, men were supposed to take life seriously, and baseball and similar games were considered suitable only for children. Men should be pursuing a trade, supporting a family, and furthering the Manifest Destiny that was the duty of every American of the 1840s.

The fact that baseball was fun was insufficient; in order to be legitimate, it had to be beneficial to both the players and society. Therefore, baseball’s supporters constructed a rationale. A man in good physical condition was a more productive worker and thus a better citizen. Baseball could turn sunken-chested office workers into men as hardy as their pioneer ancestors. A healthier society was a better and more prosperous society, and since baseball could make men healthier, it was good for America. A vigorous afternoon of baseball provided relief from the stress of the business world, promoted sportsmanship, and was far more reputable than sports like boxing and horse racing. By the 1850s, the public had been convinced that the benefits of baseball outweighed the fun, and men could play it without fear of reprobation.

During the early part of the decade, inter-club matches began to take place between organizations like the Knicks, Gothams, and Eagles. They were relatively rare events (the Knicks played just 21 in their first 11 years) arranged through lengthy and formal correspondence between club secretaries. While each nine did its best to win, one of the most important facets of the event was the postgame banquet.

Members of the 1859 New York Knickerbockers with baseball pioneer Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams (center).
Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

By the end of the decade, the Atlantics and Eckfords (both formed in 1855) were trying very hard (some thought too hard) to be the best team in New York. The two clubs have often been portrayed as blue-collar organizations, in contrast to the genteel Knickerbockers, Eagles, and Gothams, but there were a number of cultured men among their ranks.

One of the most prominent Eckford players, Frank Pidgeon, was the antithesis of the working-class stereotype. He was a man of multiple talents—a shipbuilder, entrepreneur, inventor, musician, and painter as well as the pitcher for one of Brooklyn’s best clubs. In 1857, Pidgeon served on the committee that drafted baseball’s first collaborative set of rules, and throughout his career he was a staunch defender of amateurism. In 1859, long before players were openly paid for their services, he wrote a letter to Porter’s Spirit of the Times condemning even indirect remuneration such as paying the club dues of a talented player. If a man was capable of paying his dues and didn’t, Pidgeon reasoned, he was “a knave and not fit to be trusted.” If he did not have the funds, then his time would be better spent earning money rather than playing baseball. During the 1870 convention of the National Association, Pidgeon delivered a passionate defense of amateurism, but his train had long since left the station. Professional baseball was firmly established, and Pidgeon and his ilk had become anachronisms.

Another pure amateur, Daniel (Doc) Adams of the Knickerbockers, also wielded significant influence in early baseball circles. Adams, a Yale and Harvard-trained physician, is currently the subject of a spirited campaign by his great-granddaughter Marjorie Adams to secure his election to the Hall of Fame.

Marjorie is energetic and persuasive, and she has mounted a formidable effort, producing chotchkies like t-shirts and hats and being featured in the New York Times. Despite her efforts, Doc fell just short in the recent ballot of the Pre-Integration Committee, garnering 10 votes, two short of the 12 required for election. It’s highly possible he will be inducted at some point in the future, for he has two things in his favor. The first is his devoted and irrepressible great-granddaughter, who could probably put an unrepentant Pete Rose in the Hall if she became his advocate rather than the doctor’s. The second is the fact that Adams played a significant role in the development of early baseball.

Doc Adams was not one of the original Knickerbockers, but he joined the club about a month after it was formed in 1845. Americans were becoming mobile in the late 1840s and 1850s, and several of the original Knicks, including Alexander Cartwright and William Wheaton, ventured west in search of adventure and fortune. Cartwright became a major figure in the commercial and political history of Hawaii, and Wheaton became a prominent California attorney.

With the founders gone, Adams stepped into the breach. He represented the Knickerbockers on the rules committee and was one of its most influential and respected members. In addition to making rules, Adams made baseballs, without which the game he helped design could not be played. As a player, he developed the shortstop position, and as an administrator he served as president of the Knickerbockers for a total of six years in the 1840s and 1850s. In 1862, at the age of 48, Adams resigned from the club and moved to Connecticut, where he had a distinguished career as a physician, served as president of Ridgefield Savings Bank, and was elected to the state legislature. Like Pidgeon, he was a man of many talents and interests, typical of baseball pioneers from the amateur era.

By the end of the 1850s, competition among the top clubs was more spirited, and the influence of men like Pidgeon and Adams was waning. Baseball was becoming more popular, and it seemed as though every neighborhood had a team. “The Cry is Still They Come,” read a headline in the Brooklyn Eagle announcing the formation of a number of new clubs. Most of the novice entrants had little talent, and their goal was the amusement and exercise of their members. But the best teams weren’t out for exercise. They wanted to win, and it was the intensity of the competition that marked the major change in the game of baseball during the decade. By 1859, baseball had become a serious affair.

This illustration shows a small crowd gathered for a baseball match at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey (Harper’s Weekly, October 15, 1859). 
Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog




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