SABR

Ben De La Vergne

This article was written by Peter Morris.

Ben De La Vergne was one of the brave catchers who played during the antebellum years when baseball first began to earn recognition as the national pastime. Ballplayers of the era wore protective equipment and, as such, his primary claim to fame is being credited with having been the first ballplayer to defy custom and wear gloves.[1] There is no contemporaneous documentation of the claim and, even if there were, there would be no way to prove that De La Vergne’s glove had no predecessors. In addition, it is safe to assume that any glove worn by De La Vergne was very light and bore no resemblance to today’s fielder’s glove. Nevertheless, there are no earlier claimants, and thus it seems likely that Ben De La Vergne did indeed pioneer the use of this basic piece of fielding equipment.

This legacy would be enough on its own to secure a place in baseball history, but Ben De La Vergne has other claims to distinction. His club, the Victory Base Ball Club of Troy, was the first outside of the New York City area to prove that it could hold its own against one of the best clubs from the metropolis. First organized on August 2, 1859, the Victory Club lost its first two match games but then reeled off four straight victories that fall. The final victory was a dramatic win over the hitherto unbeaten Champion Club of Albany that was achieved in spite of crippling injuries – De La Vergne had chopped off the end of his thumb on the eve of the match, while two other starters had suffered injuries during practice.[2] Perhaps it was this accident that prompted him to don gloves.

The Victory Club had healed by the spring of 1860, and the new season was off to an auspicious start when the touring Excelsiors of Brooklyn arrived in Troy. The home side started the contest with Edward Curtis pitching and Ben Follett catching, only to fall behind 9-1 after two innings. At that point club captain William H. Hegeman took over the pitching, and De La Vergne switched places with Follett. The change had a dramatic effect, and the Victory Club outscored their famous rivals over the balance of the game. The match ended with the Excelsiors winning 13-7, a result that prompted Excelsior star catcher Joe Leggett to tell De La Vergne “that he wondered that Troy had such a good club.” According to De La Verge, the contest was also a financial windfall for Troy baseball fans because visitors from Brooklyn had wagered that their club would double the score of the Victory Club.[3]

After that impressive outing, Hegeman and De La Vergne remained the battery of the Victory Club and led their club to a string of victories. One of those wins prompted a Utica reporter to rave, “DELAVAGE [sic] of the Troy Club, showed himself a very superior catcher, and the most powerful batter of the game. He also did well at running the bases – in fact as good a player, altogether as we ever saw.”[4] At a crucial juncture of another match, De La Vergne “took the bat, with a man on each base, and knocked the ball over both fences, making a home run, and bringing in three others.”[5] His club ended the 1860 season with a sterling 14-1 record, prompting the Troy Whig to boast, “the Victorys are rather of the invincible order. They are without doubt the strongest club out of the Metropolis.”[6]

That glorious season was one that the Victory Club was not able to repeat. The outbreak of the Civil War cost them many players; according to Hegeman, “when that broke out it crippled us some, for the boys enlisted, some of them, and we became scattered.”[7] De La Vergne was one of the latter, having moved thirty miles away to the town of Greenwich. As a result, as he later recalled, “The last game I played was in July, 1861, at Saratoga. It was on the Fourth and was for a gold cup. I lived then in Greenwich, and at ‘Doc’ Hegeman’s behest I went over. We won the cup. We got eighty odd runs and I don’t remember how many the Saratoga fellows got. Oh, in those days, I’d walk twenty miles to play base ball.”[8]

But what really makes the story of Ben De La Vergne remarkable is a discovery made during my quest to learn more about this baseball pioneer. While a distinctive surname such as De La Vergne can make it easier to locate a person in vital records, that advantage can be offset by the difficulty of spelling it correctly. The only candidate of plausible age in the censuses was a Ben De La Vergne who was born in New York State in 1830 and who died in Illinois in 1925. It seemed that this had to be the ballplayer until I discovered that this man was already living in Illinois during the ballplayer’s career.

The only other Ben De La Vergne I had found to this point was a man I had rejected because he was born in 1819, making him too old to be a likely candidate. So I went back to square one and began looking for variant renderings of his hard-to-spell surname and reexamining all the evidence. The two important clues were De La Vergne’s own statement that he had moved to Greenwich in 1861 and the fact that he was back in Troy by 1896 when he was interviewed by a local paper. After a careful examination, a candidate emerged who was a perfect fit: he was in Troy on the 1850 and 1860 censuses, then in Greenwich on the 1870 and 1880 censuses, before returning to the Troy city directories in the 1890s.

On none of the four censuses was the spelling of this man’s name even close to being correct: the scribblings of the census-takers were indexed as “Benjamin De Cavarge” in 1850 and as “Benj. Dlivarge” in 1860, while Deleverge was the spelling used in both 1870 and 1880. But the fact that his occupation was always given as butcher and that his wife’s name and age were consistent in the last three censuses left no doubt that all these listings were for the same person and that he had to be the man credited with introducing the catcher’s glove to baseball. (His occupation of butcher also explained why the ballplayer had “chopped off the end of his thumb” before that 1859 game.)

So who was this man? To my surprise, he was the candidate I had rejected out of hand because of his 1819 year of birth. That’s right, Benjamin De La Vergne – the man who seems to have introduced the catcher’s glove to baseball, whose play drew rave reviews, and who later reminisced “in those days, I’d walk twenty miles to play base ball” – was already forty years old when he took up baseball!

Finally identifying this pioneer ballplayer made it possible to fill in a few details about his life. By 1850, he was already working in Troy as a butcher and was married to his first wife, Catherine. But she died shortly thereafter, leaving Ben to care for a daughter named Frances, and he was remarried in 1857 to a much younger woman named Emily Harrison. Frances may also have died, as her whereabouts could not be traced after 1860, and Ben’s second marriage produced no children. After many years of working as a butcher in Greenwich, he returned to Troy in old age and died there on April 23, 1901, at the age of eighty-two.

Perhaps further research will unearth more information about this forgotten pioneer. But what has already emerged makes clear that his life was quite an extraordinary one.

Sources

A series of articles about Troy’s baseball history that were published in the Troy Northern Budget after the 1896 season and were reprinted in Sporting News on December 5, 12, and 19, 1896, and January 2 and 9, 1897 (all on page 6); “Pre-Civil-War Base Ball Games Played in the Capitol Area of New York State,” Craig Waff’s compilation of games on the Retrosheet website; a detailed history of the Victory Club in Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times, May 4, 1861; contemporaneous coverage, as noted.




[1] Sporting News, June 28, 1886; Detroit Free Press, May 17, 1887

[2] Troy Daily Whig, October 27, 1859, 3

[3] Troy Northern Budget, reprinted in Sporting News on January 9, 1897, 6

[4] Utica Morning Herald and Daily Gazette, October 31, 1860

[5] Troy Daily Whig, October 6, 1860, 6

[6] Troy Daily Whig, July 25, 1860, 3

[7] Troy Northern Budget, reprinted in Sporting News on January 9, 1897, 6

[8] Troy Northern Budget, reprinted in Sporting News on January 9, 1897, 6

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.