Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

A Good Base Ball Club Is a Splendid Advertisement to a Town

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

A Good Base Ball Club Is a Splendid Advertisement to a Town

Article excerpt

On 6 June 1890, James Mahaney announced in the Clifton Forge Review that he had founded the town's first baseball club-the Cliftons.1 To form this club, Mahaney gathered a group of local men, all of whom lived and worked in Clifton Forge. Some of these men were the sons of local business owners and politicians; most worked as day laborers or for a railroad company; and all were white, around twenty years old, and resided in the immediate Clifton Forge area. Mahaney himself was white, nineteen years old, and had recently moved to the town to pursue employment as a yard conductor with the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway.2 Mahaney became the club's first captain, and his Cliftons enjoyed significant local popularity and victories for the next several years. Despite this success, the club's final recorded season was in 1897, just seven years after its founding. The 1897 season concluded with two days of doubleheaders hosting nearby rival Covington. The Clifton Forge Review reported that both clubs played well, the games were well attended, and that the players and fans alike behaved as gentlemen and ladies. The next week's issue contained a final short comment on the season directly from club captain James Mahaney: "Thanks boys, we do not fail to appreciate good treatment. Would like to mention all. Everyone played ball to win."3

But did the Cliftons actually play ball to win? Certainly that was James Mahaney's and the club's stated goal, but the team desired far more than accumulating victories. The club's players also sought to represent themselves as "gentlemen," understood here as exhibiting a specific type of manliness acquired through public refinement, dignity, order, fairness, courage, and respectability both on and off the field.4 By the 1890s, the vast majority of baseball clubs throughout the United States actively professionalized, and the gentlemanly approach to baseball largely fell out of favor-but not in Clifton Forge.5 In representing themselves and their town, the Cliftons, like many other clubs, fought publicly to eliminate rowdiness from home crowds, removed dishonest umpires from games, and competed hard while maintaining a respectable public demeanor. But unlike other clubs, the Cliftons, for example, demanded gentlemanly behavior from players and actively campaigned against amateur clubs' recruitment of outside players.6 From actions such as these, it becomes clear that Clifton Forge residents- like Cliftons captain James Mahaney-expected their team to consist of local men who would play competitive baseball, hopefully win, and, above all else, represent themselves and the town as gentlemen both on and off the field.

Historians of the American South often stress that many activities originating in the North, including baseball, were at odds with southern culture. These scholars generally assert that southern men of honor opposed baseball because some of the game's traits-running, competitiveness, and the democratic equality of players-conflicted with the way southern white men presented themselves publicly, specifically their public appearance of calmness and self-control.7 In addition, at least one local historian of Clifton Forge wrote that local men were too busy working to spare any time for recreation, so no baseball team existed in the town before 1914.8 These arguments do not hold as baseball actually quickly gained popularity in much of the South after the Civil War, and throughout most of the country, fierce competition, professionalization, and commercialization overtook amateur baseball club culture well before the 1890s.9 Clifton Forge embraced baseball in the 1890s, as did many neighboring towns, but the Cliftons also embraced gentlemanliness far more intensely and for much longer than any of these other towns. Baseball quickly became Clifton Forge's local game and pastime, yet town residents did not blindly follow a path toward professionalization and away from gentlemanliness, as did so many other communities in the surrounding area and nationwide. …

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