There are two kinds of baseball fans. Those who love its 19th Century chapters and those who don’t. If you are in the former camp, feast your eyes on a new book - “Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the 19th Century” (free for SABR members). The author and editors are a who’s who of SABR’s 19th century researchers. Leading off with the Introduction, the quintessential person to do so -- MLB’s Historian John Thorn.
Wish I had more time with this one. Went through the games and picked out my five favorites.
1. July to September 1858, The Rivalry Begins – Brooklyn vs New York by John Zinn
Pay attention scribes in Boston and New York.
John Zinn notes this match up between the best players from each city, was in effect, the first all-star game. Crowd estimates were between 4,000 and 10,000 for the first game, large numbers back then.
Brooklyn would dominate in the coming decades, but Manhattan took the first bragging rights. Spread across the summer of 1858, these were three high-octane games, with the New Yorks winning the rubber match 29 to 18.
As important as the result was at the time, the series had an even more important influence on base ball’s long-term development. The public’s willingness to pay to watch this relatively new game provided the most tangible proof possible of base ball’s growing popular appeal. The matches also marked the formal beginning of one of the most intense rivalries in sports history.
2. July 25, 1867: The Most Important Game in Baseball History? – Rockford vs Washington by John Thorn
Washington’s eternal baseball scar is the years 1972 to 2004 when the city was without the big league game. But how many fans can brag that a team from their city, with the same name as their current one, played a pioneering role in the development of the game, and was considered one of the greatest in its time?
Nice to see the Nationals get this recognition. The title seems hyperbolic but I’m not going to argue with John Thorn. He concludes by noting:
Rockford and Spalding held their six-run lead, emerging victorious by a score of 29–23. There had been upsets before in baseball’s brief history, but never one on this scale. The Nationals broke up after the season, but even in defeat their Steinbrennerian squadron had supplied the model for how baseball might succeed as America’s game.
3. Sep 10, 1881: Roger Connor’s Grand Slam – Worcester at Troy by John R. Husman
Towards the end of the season, with nothing but pride on the line, Troy hosted Worcester in a National League match up. Connor’s grand slam in the bottom of the ninth won the game 8 to 7.
I think it was Ev Parker who termed this feat “The Ultimate Grand Slam.” Connor was the first to do so.
Husman notes press coverage did not sensationalize Connor’s walk off slam, as that vocabulary did not exist. Chicks did not necessarily dig the long ball, as hinted at by the coverage from the Troy Daily Times:
…and the Trojans in the last innings made five runs by the “funny fumbling” of Carpenter, the poor pitching of Richmond and the accidental hit of the Megatherian Connor.
A great trivia question came out of this game, as it was played in Albany.
4. Sep 29 to Oct 3, 1885 – Capping a Pennant Race – New York at Chicago
Can you imagine winning more than ¾ of your games and not winning the pennant? It happed to the Giants in 1885.
I remember going to the Library of Congress and looking at this pennant race. This was the mid 1990s, the days before Retrosheet and Baseball Reference.
Noel Hynd captured this season when he wrote: “It all coalesced at once: the pennant race, the attention of the city, and the nickname.”
With 34 games left, the Giants won 11 in a row. Their string of pearls, however, only got them a game and half closer, and still one and a half back.
The “New Yorks” as they were known in the New York Times, played like their new nickname until the penultimate series of the season. When they arrived for the showdown in Chicago they were two games behind with eight to play.
All eyes were on this series and the newspapers were using the term “pennant race.” Bob Tiemann notes:
All four games of the eagerly anticipated final series were sold out in advance, an unprecedented occurrence.
In the end, this one was anti-climatic. The Giants lost the first three and stood at the brink of elimination. The fourth game ended in a tie. Chicago, then known as the White Stockings, beat third place Philadelphia while the Giants lost to the lowly Maroons of St Louis. The junior class from Manhattan would have to wait three more years before it first tasted glory.
5. Oct 2, 1889: The Giants Win the Pennant on the Last Day – New York at Cleveland
I also tracked this race. It was even closer than 1885.
In the last month, the Giants games behind went like this.
Tied, tied, -1, -1, -.5, -.5, -.5, +.5, +.5, +.5, +.5, +.5, +.5, +1, +1, +1, +1, tied, tied, +.5, tied, +1, tied, tied, tied, +1. (Note: In those days, standings were kept by winning percentage.)
Before the advent of air travel, teams went out on long train rides and extended road trips that lasted two or more weeks. The Giants would play their last 19 on the road, while Boston had their last 15 away. With three games to play, the two were tied with 80 and 43 records. It all came down to the final day of the season with New York in Cleveland and Boston in Pittsburg.
A baseball game 125 years old might seem too anachronistic for modern day tastes, but even back then fans engaged in pennant race scoreboard watching. Article author Don Jensen notes:
In Pittsburgh, meanwhile, the Alleghenies took a 3–0 lead over a weary and wild John Clarkson in the first inning. The Boston Herald wrote that the Beaneaters appeared “anxious” and “overconfident” at the same time—in part, no doubt, because the progress of the Giants-Spiders game was posted on the left-field fence. When the Giants’ win was announced, many people in the stands felt the life go out of the Beaneaters, who managed but five hits and committed five errors in a 6–1 loss. New York was again champion.
On street celebrations are nothing new either in baseball. Jensen:
So large was the celebrating mob upon the club’s arrival in Jersey City the next day that team members had trouble boarding the ferryboat to take them across the Hudson River. When the craft reached Manhattan, the Giants were met by another enthusiastic crowd, which cheered them at every street corner until the players disappeared into their homes.
Those fans had every right to be delirious. After watching Chicago or Boston win 9 of the National League’s first dozen titles, New York had finally taken over the top of the world.
The history of 19th Century baseball has come a long way from the days when the only bonafide sources were SABR’s special publications and David Nemec’s classic. In its own way, this book caps the end of that era.
Baseball owners have been vey reluctant to display these stars at their ballparks. One gathers the main reason was a lack of common knowledge about 19th Century baseball.
Ain’t no excuse now.