Academic journal article Base Ball

The Antebellum Growth and Spread of the New York Game

Academic journal article Base Ball

The Antebellum Growth and Spread of the New York Game

Article excerpt

Baseball grew rapidly in the years immediately before the Civil War. This much has been known since the publication in 1960 of Harold Seymour and Dorothy Seymour Mills' classic Baseball: The Early Years. The details have been less clear: The precise timing, the magnitude, and the geographic extent of baseball's growth have been only vaguely understood. The fraternity in 1857 met in convention, and the following year formed the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP). The NABBP would be the governing body of baseball through 1870. Seymour and Mills used its growth as a proxy for the growth of baseball as a whole.1 Even assuming that this presents an accurate picture, baseball was already well into its initial growth spurt by 1857. This proxy at best begins the story in media res. I undertake here to make a more direct measurement: an actual count of clubs.

The inspiration for this project came with the availability of the New York Sunday Mercury. The New York press of the era was divided between daily (except for Sunday) or weekly (typically published Saturday or Sunday) papers. The weeklies could not compete on breaking news, so they frequently concentrated on cultural affairs, including sports. In earlier years this usually meant horseracing, supplemented by boxing (illegal, but of wide popular interest) and cricket. In the 1850s several weeklies adopted baseball as a specialty. The two most important were Porter's Spirit of the Times and the Sunday Mercury. (The New York Clipper is better known today. It would rise to prominence in the 1860s, but in the 1850s it was a comparatively minor source of baseball news.) This has been well known, but in the case of the Sunday Mercury only in an abstract way. It has not been widely available, so even the best research has only mentioned it, rather than using it as a source.

This changed in recent years. Robert Tholkes undertook the project of seeking out and electronically scanning all available baseball reports through the war years. Unfortunately, there is no known extant run of the Sunday Mercury from 1855 to 1857, but otherwise a nearly complete run can be compiled.

The Sunday Mercury turns out, upon examination, to be clearly the dominant paper of the era: the de facto paper of record for the baseball fraternity. It covered not only matches between the prominent clubs, but games between obscure junior clubs. It also noted the creation of new organizations, even the most negligible. To put this in perspective, it was willing to report when a group of 10 or 1 2 boys decided to form a baseball club. It was not the only newspaper to report on such doings, but it was by far the most complete.

Neither did the Sunday Mercury limit its coverage to the New York region. It was perfectly happy to print such reports from all over the country. The New York weeklies had a national audience, and none more so than the Sunday Mercury. Ball clubs across the country would send reports of their doings, so they could read about themselves the following week.

As I read the Sunday Mercury it dawned on me that I could use it as the basis for a reasonable approximation of a complete count of clubs. I went through all its available baseball coverage through 1860, recording every club. I then supplemented this by going through other newspapers, the most important being The Spirit of the Times, Porter's Spirit of the Times, Wilkes' Spirit of the Times, and the New York Clipper. Finally, I also looked at local papers, usually dailies, in cities I knew to have early clubs.

The resulting database lists over 900 clubs founded through 1860. Some clubs undoubtedly were overlooked. The most likely gaps will be discussed below. There also may be a few duplicates; clubs often shared names, sometimes changed names, and occasionally merged. Sorting these out is difficult, and some errors likely crept in. While these limitations should be kept in mind, the database is substantially complete, with only the most obscure omissions. …

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