SABR

John Dickins

This article was written by Peter Morris.

Baseball was part of the long and varied life of John W. Dickins for only a few years, and it seems to have played no role at all after the 1869 advent of open professionalism. Nevertheless, he made important contributions to the post-Civil War spread of the game in the South, a development that lent credence to descriptions of baseball as the “national game.”

John Whitby Dickins was born in Wigan, Lancashire County, England, on June 24, 1841, the son of Samuel Dickins, a schoolmaster, and his wife Eliza. When he was sixteen John was sent to the United States to study at the Williston Seminary in Easthampton, Massachusetts. After a year of teaching school, he moved to Brooklyn and commenced the study of law while working for the law firm of Hagner & Smith. Brooklyn was a baseball-mad city at the time and the young Englishman must have been introduced to the sport at this time, if not before.

The outbreak of the Civil War interrupted his law studies as he began what was supposed to be a three-month enlistment in the 71st New York State Militia. Instead, Dickins was captured at the Battle of Bull Run, spending four months in Libby Prison in Richmond, four months in Parish Prison in New Orleans, and another three months in the Confederate Prison in Salisbury, North Carolina. While imprisoned, he became the associate editor of “The Stars and Stripes in Rebeldom,” a collection of the writings of Union prisoners.

After close to a year behind bars, Dickins was exchanged and promptly reenlisted in the 165th New York Infantry, a regiment that became known as “Duryea’s Zouaves.” One of his fellow soldiers in the 165th was future National League president Abraham G. Mills, who would later recollect having regularly packed a bat and ball in with his field equipment and having played in a Christmas Day 1862 game at Hilton Head, South Carolina, said to have been watched by 40,000 soldiers. The figure is preposterous, but it seems a safe assumption that Dickins’ time in Duryea’s Zouaves increased his familiarity with baseball. He was promoted from Corporal to Full Sergeant on February 25, 1863, and was wounded at the battle of Port Hudson, Louisiana, on May 27, 1863.

After another promotion to Sergeant-Major, Dickins was transferred to a captaincy in the 100th U.S. Colored Troops Infantry Regiment in July of 1864. He led his new charges at the Battle of Nashville that December and was brevetted Major and Lieutenant-Colonel for “uniform gallantry and good conduct, and for especial bravery” at this pivotal battle.

It was not until the end of 1865 that John Dickins was mustered out, but he must have been free to travel after the war’s end, as he took advantage to return to England in the summer of 1865 and marry a young woman named Emma Lowe. The young couple returned to the States in October, and on Christmas Day the Civil War service of John Dickins officially ended.  His discharge read: “Character, excellent; a brave, skillful and most efficient officer.”

It had now been more than four years since he had put aside his law studies, and, instead of resuming them, Dickins chose to accept a position in Nashville with the Bureau of Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. Upon his arrival in Nashville, the young Englishman used his familiarity with baseball to help organize the Cumberland Base Ball Club of Nashville, of which he served as captain and president.

Nor was his ambassadorial service on behalf of the sport restricted to Nashville. In July of 1866, he made two trips to Louisville to umpire a series for the local championship. His umpiring earned high praise from the Louisville press, and after the final out of the first contest, both clubs joined in giving him three cheers and a “tiger” – a distinctive growling cheer created by Princeton students. Not to be outdone, Dickins then called for three cheers for “base ball in general.”[1]  There was another type of drama at the end of the second game, which saw the Louisville Base Ball Club retain local bragging rights. After announcing the result, Dickins challenged the Louisville Club to face his club for the “championship of Kentucky and Tennessee.”[2]  While the right of these two clubs to contest for this honor was debatable at best, there could be no argument about the excitement the series generated in a region where baseball had yet to take firm root.

The first game was scheduled for July 31 in Tennessee. The excited members of the Louisville Club made the 183-mile trip to Nashville on the night train and engaged in “many a lusty shout and cheer for all that pertained to base ball either generally or specifically” before finally turning in for the night. Their time in Nashville lived up to their expectations as the Cumberland Club hosted them in style. The contest took place on the grounds of the Cumberland Club, located near Fort Gilliam, and in spite of intense heat a crowd estimated at 2,000-3,000 turned out to watch the visitors pull out a 30-23 triumph. One feature of the game that drew special attention was the identity of the score-keeper for the home club: Emma Dickins.[3]

The return game took place in Louisville a couple of weeks later. It was originally scheduled for August 15, but the train carrying the Nashville players was delayed by an accident on the line, forcing a one-day postponement.[4] Even with the delay, an overflow crowd of over 5,000 was on hand to watch, including Emma Dickins, who again acted as score-keeper for the Cumberland Club. The match ended with the Louisville Base Ball Club winning and wrapping up the best-of-three series, a result that led a reporter for the Louisville Daily Democrat to call the “exciting” contest “an epoch in the history of base ball.” He exuberantly declared that there was “not a more healthy, interesting and innocent recreation than that of base ball, a game which is recognized throughout the entire country.” He concluded by describing the Louisville Base Ball Club as “entitled to the proud CHAMPIONSHIP OF THE SOUTH” and “the equal of any in the country.”[5]

John Dickins must have felt very proud to be a part of a match that so vividly demonstrated the extended reach of baseball. Yet his familiarity with the caliber of baseball played in other regions must have made him less sanguine about the contest’s significance. The Louisville Club’s right to claim the championship of the South was debatable at best, while the assertion that it was on a par with the national powers was mere hyperbole. Of more direct concern to Dickins was the lopsided 72-11 score by which his club had lost. The enormous gap highlighted a recurring problem for the still-young sport of baseball – that even great enthusiasm and the best of planning could not ensure the competitive balance necessary for long-term success.

As it happened, John and Emma Dickins moved to Louisville that winter, where he became an accountant. He also took over as shortstop for the Louisville Base Ball Club, and was described as an old Brooklyn player.[6]  Over the next two seasons, Dickins played shortstop for this club as it hosted a series of national powerhouses, beginning with the historic visit of the Nationals of Washington on July 17, 1867.  The arrival of this club on the first-ever trans-Allegheny tour was another important milestone for a game that was still mostly confined to the Northeast. The contest led one reporter to declare that baseball had “undoubtedly established itself as the National game of our country,” so it was fitting that John Dickins played in the game.[7]

But by this time the best days of the Louisville Base Ball Club were past, with many core players having less time for baseball because of the demands of careers and families. In the thirteen months after the game against the Nationals, the Louisville Club played host to the Athletics of Philadelphia, the Atlantics of Brooklyn, the Unions of Morrisania, and the Cincinnati club that was soon to become known as the “Red Stockings.” But none of these matches were remotely close, and the Louisville public became disenchanted with the lopsided losses. Even after the loss to the Nationals, the attitude of the Daily Democrat had begun to change, and its reporter wrote that he was “disappointed” by the “poor playing” of Dickins and second baseman Walter Brooks.[8] Subsequent defeats prompted more grumbling and led to the departure of more regulars from the “first nine” of the Louisville Base Ball Club.

John Dickins remained a fixture in the Louisville Club’s lineup in 1868, though the birth of their first son put an end to Emma’s days as a score-keeper. He also found time to umpire numerous local contests, performing his duties “in a long-tailed duster, under a sun umbrella” on one humid summer day.[9]

The Louisville Base Ball Club barely managed to retain local supremacy in 1868, but it came as no surprise to anyone when it disbanded at the end of that season. That was also the end of any recorded connection between John W. Dickins and the sport he had helped to popularize in the South. His family continued to grow, and by 1880 he and Emma were raising six children. His father eventually emigrated from England and joined the household.

John Dickins remained in Louisville for the rest of his life, and in 1902 he accepted a commission in the Internal Revenue Service. Emma Dickins died at some point, and he remarried around 1898 and started a second family. He died at his Louisville home on October 17, 1916, survived by his second wife and by five children from his two marriages.[10]  By then the game he had helped to introduce to the South in the 1860s was long established, with Louisville having obtained and lost two different major league franchises. It would be fascinating to learn what Dickins thought about the many changes to baseball during those years, but alas those reflections remain unknown.

Sources

History of the Second Battalion Duryee [sic] Zouaves : One Hundred and Sixty-Fifth Regiment New York Volunteer Infantry, mustered in the United States service at Camp Washington, Staten Island, N.Y. (Salem, Mass.: Higginson Book Co., 1905); Album of the Second Battalion, Duryee [sic] Zouaves, One Hundred and Sixty-fifth Regt., New York Volunteer Infantry. (1906); LDS Film 1469056, Lancashire County Baptisms 1841-1846 from the Bishop’s Transcripts, Page 2, Entry 15; BMD Birth and Marriage Records for Lancashire County; Obituary of John W. Dickins in the Louisville Evening Post, October 19, 1916, 2; Ancestry.com. Kentucky Death Records, 1852-1953 [database on-line]. (Provo, Utah: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007); Chadwick Scrapbooks; census listings and city directories; contemporaneous news coverage, as cited in notes.




[1] Louisville Journal, July 18, 1866, 3; Louisville Daily Democrat, July 18, 1866, 2

[2] Louisville Daily Democrat, July 27, 1866, 2

[3] Louisville Journal, August 1, 2 and 3, 1866

[4] Louisville Daily Democrat, August 16, 1866, 2

[5] Louisville Daily Democrat, August 17, 1866, 2

[6] Chadwick Scrapbooks, unidentified clipping

[7] Louisville Journal, July 18, 1867, 3

[8] Louisville Daily Democrat, July 18, 1867, 1

[9] Louisville Daily Democrat, July 21, 1868

[10] Louisville Evening Post, October 18, 1916, 1, and October 19, 1916, 2

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.