During the glorious seven-year existence of the Forest City Base Ball Club of Rockford, a town team of local men representing a sleepy Illinois village was transformed into a national powerhouse. The key to that remarkable development was the club’s ability to adapt to changing times and add new players without alienating the original members. As a result, only one man played for the Forest Citys in both their maiden season of 1865 and their final season in 1871. This is Al Barker’s story.
Alfred L. Barker was born on January 18, 1839, in Indiana – sources differ as to whether the location was Terre Haute or the nearby community of Lost Creek, but the latter seems more likely. His parents, Ira Barker and the former Margaret Stewart, brought their family of four boys and two girls to Illinois in 1848, initially settling in the rural community of Daysville, Ogle County. In January of 1853 the family moved twenty-five miles north to Rockford, where Al Barker lived for the remainder of his life.
As a young man Barker held jobs as a paper hanger, decorator, and store clerk. At the outbreak of the Civil War he enlisted as a private in Company D of the 11th Illinois. Barker was mustered out after three months, but in September 1862 he reenlisted as a second lieutenant in Company A of the 74th Illinois, where he fought alongside his brother Henry. Al Barker’s Civil War service ended with his resignation on March 9, 1863, and he appears to have escaped the war unscathed. Sadly, Henry Barker was not as fortunate, losing his life on June 27, 1864, at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.
When the devastating war finally came to an end, the young men of Rockford turned their attention to the still-young sport of baseball. The Forest City Club was formed on June 7, 1865, with Al Barker one of its original directors. He also played on the club’s first nine that year, primarily at catcher, as the Forest Citys emerged as the strongest team in the region. Despite the success, however, the new baseball club was nothing more than a successful town team, and there was no way to predict a glorious future.
The ensuing years saw the original core members of the Forest City Club slowly but surely nudged aside in favor of younger and more talented ballplayers from Rockford and the surrounding region. Before long, only Barker remained on the first nine, and even he had a precarious hold on his spot. He played a variety of positions and from time to time his name would be absent from the lineup for unknown reasons – perhaps Barker was unavailable due to other obligations, but he too may have been asked to step aside to strengthen the lineup.
What is clear is that Al Barker embraced the role of leader and elder statesman on a young team. When a team reunion was held in 1896 to commemorate Harry Wright Day, Al Spalding recalled how Barker “always used to remind us of practice days, and who always saw that the necessary paraphernalia was at hand.” He was also credited with having served as captain of the Forest Citys for the 1867 game in Chicago in which the club pulled its historic upset of the Nationals of Washington.
Al Barker’s pride in the Forest City Club was especially evident. For two days after the memorable victory over the Nationals, Barker wore his uniform everywhere he went so that the people of Chicago would know he was part of the club that was the talk of the baseball world. At the 1896 reunion banquet, Rockford city attorney George M. Blake recalled how he first heard of Rockford while growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts. The Forest Citys came to Springfield for a game and “Al Barker confidently informed [Blake] that the Forest Citys could knock the spots off the best club that lived … [Barker] threw the ball from one end of the ball park to the other, and did numerous other feats to make the eyes of the youngsters stick out.” Blake concluded his remarks by declaring that he “had had the honor of meeting many distinguished men since that time, but that he never saw a man who impressed him as being so much bigger than old [Ulysses S.] Grant as Al Barker.”
In 1870 the inevitable finally occurred and Barker was replaced as a regular. He left Rockford for a brief stint with the Mutuals of Janesville, but soon returned and saw duty as a substitute in 11 of the team’s 56 games. When the Forest City Club joined the National Association in 1871, Barker was again left out of the starting nine. So he accepted a role as substitute and accompanied the team on its long Eastern trip, seeing action in five contests. Four of those games were exhibitions, but he was also called on to start in a game in New York on June 1, 1871, thus earning Al Barker a spot in the baseball record books as a major leaguer. He acquitted himself very creditably, cleanly handling two chances in left field and collecting a walk and a single that drove in two of his team’s three runs.
The end of a baseball career is a difficult time for many men, but Al Barker made the transition with ease. Between his two stints in the Union Army, Barker had married a young Rockford woman named Narcissa Tripp, but the marriage had not been a success. (Narcissa Tripp soon reverted to using her maiden name, suggesting an annulment.) On June 26, 1872, Barker was remarried to a young divorcee named Sarah Matilda “Tillie” Converse, and the couple spent the remainder of their lives indulging a joint passion for the fine arts.
Within a few years of their wedding, the Barkers opened a dancing school at the hall of the Christian Union church. For more than a quarter of a century Al Barker gave lessons there to Rockford youngsters and gained considerable local acclaim. An editorial written to commemorate his death explained that his secret was that “youth remained so long in his heart.” As a result, “his care for the thousand of little charges who filled his classes … was delightful to look upon. Mr. Barker followed a high ideal in his teaching of dancing, regarding it in the light of a profession, and his instruction was ever marked by methods dictated by dignity.”
Al Barker’s passion for music was nurtured in the choirs of the Episcopal and Second Congregational churches of Rockford. In 1877, he joined a quartet that became so well known around Rockford that it came to be known simply as the “Old Quartet.” Barker also sang in a foursome known as the Amphyon Quartet, played the tuba in the Forest City Band, and served as prompter and manager of the Benedict Orchestra.
Despite his love of these pursuits, Al Barker never lost his affection for baseball. He umpired three National League games in 1881 and became known for his inexhaustible fount of memories. Coverage of the 1896 Harry Wright Day celebrations noted that Barker possessed “more reminiscences about the old times than any member of the team and can tell them in a peculiarly happy manner.” At the grand banquet, A. G. Spalding recalled how Barker and Mart Wheeler often sang their teammates to sleep with a rendition of a song called “Larboard Watch.” By popular demand, Barker and Wheeler closed the festivities by performing the old favorite once more.
The thirty-four-year marriage of Al and Tillie Barker, which produced no children, came to an end with Tillie’s death on October 29, 1906. Until well into his sixties, Al Barker retained the vivacity and agility of a much younger man. But in 1912 he contracted stomach cancer, and the disease claimed his life on September 15, 1912.
The death of Alfred Barker prompted lengthy obituaries in both Rockford papers and an editorial in the Rockford Register-Gazette. Naturally, the obituaries gave prominent coverage to his role as one of the last surviving members of the club that put Rockford on the national baseball map. That distinction caused news of Barker’s death to run in newspapers across the country, with the Buffalo Morning Express running the piece under the headline “Famous Ball Player Dead.”
But in Rockford, Al Barker was remembered as much more than just a man who had once won glory on the baseball diamond. As the editorial in the Register-Gazette explained, “Hundreds of people heard with more than momentary regret the announcement of the passing yesterday of Alfred Barker. His life was so much a part of Rockford’s life, the social side of it, that few of the city’s residents were more widely known. His kindly qualities, which forbade him speaking ill of any man, his abounding good humor, his wit and his love for little children, these were the things in his make-up which caused people to like him. For fifty years as a band member, orchestra manager, singer and dancing teacher he had held in Rockford’s social and musical world a place which came to be peculiarly his own.”
The primary sources of biographical information are two obituaries of Al Barker: “Alfred Barker Passed Away Sunday,” Rockford Republic, September 16, 1912, 9, “Al Barker in Death’s Sleep,” Rockford Register-Gazette, September 16, 1912, 3. The editorial that is quoted from on several occasions was entitled “‘Al’ Barker,” and was published in the Rockford Register-Gazette on September 16, 1912. The coverage of the 1896 Harry Wright Day event appeared in the Rockford Register-Gazette on April 13 and 14, 1896. The main sources of information about the Forest City Club are Horace E. Buker’s forty-four-part history that appeared serially in the Rockford Republic in 1922 and a five-part series by John Molyneaux that appeared in Nuggets of History, a publication of the Rockford Historical Society (“The Sinnissippi Base Ball Club,” 43:1 (March 2005); “The Forest City Base Ball Club: The Amateur Years,” 45:1 (March 2007); “No Longer Amateurs: The Forest City Base Ball Club in 1868,” 46:2 (June 2008); “‘We Can Beat the Spots Off the Best Club That Ever Lived’: The Forest City Base Ball Club in 1869,” 46:3 (September 2008); “The Eastern Tour – The 1870 Season of the Forest City Baseball Club,” 47:3 (September 2009)).