Hiram Waldo

This article was written by Peter Morris

By the end of the nineteenth century, the venerable Cap Anson was acclaimed as the “grand old man of base ball” on such a regular basis that the appellation was often shortened to the “G. O. M.” In the years since, the honorary title has been conferred on such éminences grises as Connie Mack and Cy Young. Long before any of these men burst upon the baseball scene, however, the title of “grand old man of base ball” belonged to the now-forgotten Hiram H. Waldo, the pioneer who discovered both Anson and A. G. Spalding and who did more than anyone else to bring the town of Rockford, Illinois, to national prominence in baseball.[1]

Hiram Hungerford Waldo was born in Elba, Genesee County, New York, on November 23, 1827. His parents, Hiram Waldo and the former Dulcena Foster, were “plain sturdy New Yorkers” for whom luxuries were out of the question.[2] Their son was educated at a country school and then spent one term at the Cary Collegiate Seminary in the nearby town of Oakfield before his parents’ means were exhausted. Then it was time for young Hiram to make his own way in the world, and in 1846, after hearing glowing reports of the Rock River Valley region of Illinois, he set out for the village of Rockford.

Despite the abrupt end to his New York schooling, Hiram Waldo had acquired a great love of learning. He persuaded district school commissioner Goodyear A. Sanford to hire him as a schoolmaster by promising to complete his own education in the local schools. Over the next five years, Waldo studied in the summers and spent the winters teaching farmers’ sons in the nearby communities as Cherry Valley, Whig Hill, Guilford, and Harlem. His appetite for knowledge was such that while teaching at Cherry Valley he once walked the eight miles to Rockford to attend a lecture by temperance leader John B. Gough.

It had been Waldo’s plan to continue his studies at Beloit College, but in 1851 he received an offer of a clerkship in the Chicago post office that was too good to refuse. After two years in Chicago, during which he was promoted to superintendent of western distribution, Waldo returned to Rockford to work for postmaster Charles I. Horsman. Horsman had other business interests so “did not give his personal attention to the office, and Mr. Waldo assumed this responsibility. He paid Mr. Horsman five hundred dollars a year from the earnings of the office, and retained the balance as his compensation.”[3]

Hiram Waldo changed professions again on September 1, 1855, when he opened a bookstore on West State Street in Rockford. Like its owner, the store’s origins were humble, being little more than a shanty that was suspended on stilts to keep the Rock River out. A great storyteller who possessed an “inexhaustible fund of reminiscences,” Waldo would later regale listeners with descriptions of the disadvantages of occupying the last building before the river. “From the front of the building to the river it was all down hill,” Waldo would recount. “In the fall the water backed up under my store, and, settling there, froze with the coming cold weather, and formed a skating pond for the small boys.”[4]

After four years, he was able to able to move his bookstore further up West State Street to a location that was closer to the business district and less precarious. There he stayed until his death in 1912, becoming one of Rockford’s most enduring institutions and earning recognition from Harper Brothers of New York as the “dean of the booksellers of the world.” Throughout those years, Waldo remained sole proprietor of the store, though “several of his assistants were with him so long that each in turn seemed to belong to the place.” Another tribute to his hardiness was the sign in front of the store, which was never changed in all those year, only “retouched with paint now and then.”[5]

Hiram Waldo’s personal life was often touched by tragedy. He married his first wife, Olive S. True, on April 26, 1855, but she died after only four months after their wedding. On November 19, 1858, he wed for the second time, and his marriage to Sarah Hulett would last nearly fifty years. Sadly, however, their only child was a daughter named Clara Elizabeth who died when she was about four.

In response to these sad events, Hiram Waldo embraced the children and young people of Rockford, becoming universally known as “Uncle Hi.” He and Sarah took one of their nieces into their home and raised her. They also kept an eye out for youngsters such as the young A. G. Spalding, who moved to Rockford after his father’s death. In his book, Spalding recalled how his most difficult decisions, “as have so many problems in other Rockford households in the last half century,” were resolved by “an appeal to Rockford’s Grand Old Man, Hiram H. Waldo, to whom I here pay the homage of man’s sincere tribute to man. I held him in honor in the days of my youth. I esteemed him in my early manhood, and now, in my maturer years, I count him as one of the noblest, purest, most unselfish men I have ever known.”[6]    

Though he never returned to teaching, Hiram Waldo continued to take an active interest in the education of the young people of Winnebago County. He served as county school commissioner from 1857 to 1859, and again from 1863 to 1865, and, along with Simeon Wright and Newton Bateman, helped to draft the first free school law enacted by the Illinois legislature. He was also a great proponent of the teachers’ institutes, and in later years he was known to grumble that their lectures had once been attended by all classes of people, instead of only by teachers.[7]

Waldo was a man with strong views that were often out of step with those of his townsfolk. Raised in a devout household, he inherited a great love of the experience of going to church and loved nothing better than singing in the church choir. Yet his vast reading during a time that saw the rise of thinkers like Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer led him to question many of the tenets of Christianity. As a result, in 1870 he became the leader in the formation of a “Church of Christian Union,” which was described as the first church in the country to be “absolutely independent of all ecclesiastical organization.” It was a compromise that gave Waldo the sense of community he cherished without the doctrines that had troubled him, and for the remainder of his life he never missed a service except when out of town.[8]  

His views on politics were just as unorthodox. He took a keen interest in political questions and could often be heard giving stump speeches or presiding over political conventions. Yet as he liked to joke, he had the unique distinction of always having voted with the minority in Winnebago County. He took particular pride in noting that he had been an Abolitionist when there were only seven in the entire county.[9]

Despite these major differences, Hiram Waldo was one of those rare men blessed with the gift of remaining on the best of terms with those whose views differed from his own. It was a talent that he attributed to his experience as a pioneer. “Society was [then] free from artificial distinctions,” he explained. “The pioneer days were the red letter days of my life. I would like to live them over again. There was a more fraternal feeling among men in the same line of business. Competition was not so strong. The popular amusements were instructive as well as entertaining.”[10]

It was the game of baseball that Waldo found especially entertaining. Having grown up in Genesee County, which was reported to have had one of the country’s first baseball clubs in the mid-1830s, he already was long familiar with the game when he arrived in Rockford in 1846.[11]

“I commenced playing ball seventy years ago,” Waldo wrote in 1905 in a letter to the Spalding-organized commission on baseball’s origins. “I was the only one in the game and it was called ‘Toss up and Catch,’ or ‘Bound and Catch.’ A few years later I played ‘Barn Ball.’ Two were in this game, one a thrower against the barn, and catcher on its rebound, unless the batter hit it with a club; if so, and he could run and touch the barn with his bat, and return to the home plate before the ball reached there, he was not out – otherwise he was.”[12]

According to Waldo, “barn ball” soon gave way to “town ball,” a version that received its name because “it was mostly played at ‘Town Meetings.’ It had as many players on a side as chose to play; but the principal players were ‘Thrower’ and ‘Catcher.’ There were three bases and a home plate. The players were put out by being touched with ball [sic] or hit with thrown ball, when off the base. You can readily see that the present game is an evolution from Town Ball.”[13]

Upon his arrival in Rockford, Waldo “found ‘Town Ball’ a popular game at all Town meetings … and it was the custom of the losing side to buy the gingerbread and elder.” He added, “I never heard of Rounders. We had too much national pride in those days to adopt anything that was English in our sporting life.”[14]

Despite the long familiarity with bat-and-ball games resembling baseball, it was not until after the Civil War that Rockford had a baseball club of any note. From the first, Hiram Waldo was one of the leading spirits in the Forest City Base Ball Club, and members all credited him with a major role in the club’s smooth transition from pure amateurism to open professionalism.

Waldo’s formal election as president of the Forest City Club came in April of 1866, but before then he had already played a major role in shaping the club’s destiny. During the 1865 season, the Forest Citys had been represented by a nine made up of Rockford men in their twenties and thirties. Though this made for a strong “town team” in the best sense of the word, it also meant that the club had little chance of improvement. Waldo recognized this and became the driving force in bringing young players and in recruiting stars from neighboring communities. Paradoxically, it was this decision to bring in ballplayers from the surrounding region that enabled the Forest Citys to put Rockford, a sleepy town of 8,000, on the national baseball map.

As sportswriter and team historian Horace E. Buker explained, the most consequential game that the Forest Citys played in 1865 was an exhibition contest on November 7 against a “picked nine” chosen by Waldo. The regular nine won 31-19, but the pitcher for the picked nine was the fifteen-year-old A. G. Spalding, and his performance on that day was a revelation. There was some resistance from the incumbents, but eventually Waldo prevailed and Spalding was named the pitcher of the 1866 Forest Citys. The wisdom of the decision soon became evident and Spalding was joined in the ranks by young Rockford players like Ross Barnes and Fred Cone and by such stars from nearby communities as Bob Addy, Gat Stires and Ballard Osborn.[15]

These additions enabled the Forest Citys to overcome the considerable odds and emerge as a national powerhouse. Such an accomplishment was made possible by many contributors, but none of them were more indispensable than Hiram Waldo because it was his cheery brand of diplomacy that made it possible to integrate each new player without ruffling the feathers of the men who were being displaced.

Hiram Waldo served as president of the Forest City Club for three glorious seasons. The club is best remembered for the shocking 1867 upset of the touring Nationals of Washington; what is even more impressive is that the representatives of a mid-sized town sustained the ability to compete with and often defeat clubs hailing from huge metropolises. Waldo’s tenure as president culminated on July 4, 1868, when the Forest Citys defeated Chicago’s top team to sweep a best-of-three series for the state championship. The train carrying the players returned to Rockford at 2 a.m. and was greeted at the depot by a raucous crowd of 500 that included the city band. After a fireworks display, the band led a parade through the city that ended at the home of Hiram Waldo, “to whom a serenade was given and the crowds dispersed with cheers for the ‘Forest City.”[16]     

Waldo stepped aside as club president at the start of the 1869 season, not as a result of diminishing interest but because it was in the best interests of the Forest Citys. Baseball had been officially an amateur sport until the end of the 1868 season and the Forest City Club had adhered to the spirit of amateurism, though the letter of the law was blurred from time to time. That made the club reliant upon the generosity of local businessmen and Waldo had led the way – at various times, he “bribed” (with a bat and ball) a Rockford junior club known as the Pioneers to take the name of Forest City Juniors, provided a job at his bookstore and lodging to a reserve player, and picked up the tab for countless club expenditures.[17]

But Waldo also understood that a club like the Forest Citys would need additional funding to remain competitive in baseball’s era of open professionalism. As a result, he stepped down as club president so that the position could be conferred upon Thomas Butterworth, a wealthy Rockford businessman whose financial support was crucial. Yet Waldo remained the team’s guiding spirit, and, after confirming Butterworth as their new president, club members debated how to recognize the man who had been “guide, counselor and friend of the club since its start.” Eventually someone suggested the perfect title and Waldo was elected as the club’s official “father.”[18]

One of the qualities that inspired that affection was that, despite his allegiance to the town of Rockford and the Forest City Base Ball Club, Waldo always put the best interests of the local ballplayers first. When Spalding was first offered a chance to play professionally in Chicago, he took the offer to “Uncle Hi,” who replied: “You know, my boy, that, as a citizen of Rockford, I don’t want you to go; and perhaps, as President of the Forest City Club, I ought to urge you to stay; but, as a friend to whom you have come for advice, I must say to you, accept the offer and go.” Then with a smile, Waldo added, “but you needn’t tell that I advised it.”[19]

Waldo had already helped the Forest Citys make a smooth transition from town team to national contender and his skills were again crucial as the club adapted to the era of open professionalism. In addition to his willingness to let Butterworth take over the presidency, tickets to the team’s games were sold at Waldo’s bookstore. The results speak for themselves: in 1869, while the Red Stockings of Cincinnati were enjoying their historic undefeated season, the Forest Citys sustained only four defeats – each of them at the hands of the Red Stockings.

Two years later the first professional league, the National Association, was formed and it was once more Waldo who guided the club’s transition. Three of the club’s top players – Spalding, Barnes and Cone – had signed with Boston, making it seem impossible for the Forest Citys to field a competitive squad. But Waldo solved the problem by discovering and signing such promising youngsters as Adrian “Cap” Anson and George Bird and enlisting the services of such well-known professionals as Chick Fulmer, Denny Mack, and Cherokee Fisher. Rockford once again had a nine strong enough to take on clubs representing the country’s largest cities.

At one time, “Uncle Hi” Waldo was listed in baseball encyclopedias as the manager of the 1871 Forest Citys. Listing anyone as the manager of a baseball club of the 1870s is likely to be an exercise in futility, since most of the functions performed by today’s managers had not yet come into existence. It is particularly silly in the case of the 1871 Forest Citys, with Scott Hastings being listed as the manager even though Bob Addy appears to have been the club’s captain and made in-game decisions.[20] More important, having the responsibility of calling out the name of the teammate who is to catch a pop fly is not akin to managing a team, and if anyone should be listed as the club’s manager it is Hiram Waldo. Perhaps a better solution would be a notation such as this: “Most clubs of the 1870s did not have a manager, including the Forest Citys. Their key decisions were instead made by Hiram Waldo, the only man in baseball history to be voted the official ‘father’ of a baseball club.”

The Great Chicago Fire forced the Forest Citys to disband at the end of the 1871 campaign. The club is now credited with a 4-21 record, but, as with the listing of Hastings as manager, that is misleading. Hastings was subsequently determined to have been ineligible during the Forest City Club’s early-season contests, with the result that four victories were forfeited. Two of those wins had come at the expense of the league’s first pennant winners, the Philadelphia Athletics, and if those results had stood the pennant race might have had a different outcome.

With professional baseball in Rockford now a thing of the past, many of the players who had gained fame at the ballpark at the city’s fairgrounds again turned to Waldo for advice. In most cases his counsel was sage, but in at least one instance he miscalculated. George Bird was offered a contract by Athletics, but Waldo assured him that a better offer would be forthcoming if he waited. Against his better judgment, the young center fielder followed the advice of Uncle Hi, and negotiations fell through, ending George Bird’s professional career.[21]

The demise of the Forest Citys also ended Hiram Waldo’s formal involvement with baseball, but not his love of the game. Rockford eventually got a minor league team, and he became a passionate supporter, though in old age he had to stop attending games because the excitement of close contests proved too much of a strain. Even then, however, anyone who stopped by his bookstore or chatted with him after services at the Church of Christian Union was treated to a “seemingly inexhaustible fund of anecdotes” about the early days of baseball.[22]

In 1896 baseball paid tribute to the first anniversary of the death of pioneer Harry Wright by holding ceremonies in ballparks all over the country. Fittingly, the most ambitious event was staged in Rockford and featured such luminaries as Spalding, Cherokee Fisher, Hugh Fullerton, Jim Hart, and George Wright. And, with almost all surviving members of the Forest Citys having reassembled for one final game there could be only one choice to serve as umpire. When asked, Hiram Waldo agreed to do so but only after insisting on one condition – “that all fines ‘went.’”[23]

The Harry Wright Day game was ended by rain, but that may have been just as well as it saved the aging ballplayers from some sore muscles. It was the accompanying banquet that really mattered and it was no disappointment. Spalding offered remarks on “Olden Times” and paid special tribute to “pleasant face, gray haired, dear old Uncle Hi Waldo. I recall when he was connected with the board of education and interceded with my teacher to let me off early whenever the Forest Citys had a ball game on for that afternoon. I remember especially his kindness toward my widowed mother when she was endeavoring to give her family the best advantages in the city. When asked why I became a ball player, I say that it is all the fault of my old guardian, and I might even say base ball ‘dad,’ Mr. Waldo.”[24]

When it was the turn of “Rockford’s Grand Old Man” to address the gathering, he began on a humorous note by comparing himself to a dying tree: “The winds of nearly seventy winters have whistle through my branches. The foliage on top is nearly gone, as you will see. The side-branches have turned to that snowy whiteness which indicates that the end is near at hand.”

The allusion to his own mortality brought cries of “No! No!” from the audience and Waldo then turned serious. “I hope it will be said that the proudest thing in my life is that I have done something to support and carry forward the national game. I feel young to-night. I never felt younger, and I know I never felt any happier, except on one occasion, and that was the event of my marriage. I am somewhat of a philosopher, and of late years my bent is to inquire into the reason of things. I have indulged in retrospection and have endeavored to ascertain why it is that I feel younger and so happy. If I could but know I would solve this problem of the world, ‘What is the fountain of perpetual youth?’ I think it is this: In living over happy scenes and incidents of bygone days. What a host of pleasant recollection crowd about the throne of thought and make me feel young again! I am proud of Rockford not only because it gave the best club the world ever had, but because it sent young men out into the world to teach the heathens of the east and the wise men at the Hub how to achieve excellence in athletic sports.”[25] 

Sarah Waldo died on January 8, 1908, shortly before the couple would have celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. Her husband joined her in death four years later, on April 26, 1912, and his funeral at the Church of the Christian Union attracted a huge throng of mourners. Those who had been captivated by Hiram Waldo’s rich store of reminiscences urged him to write a book but, ironically, the venerable bookseller “could never be persuaded to put [his memories] on paper that they might be preserved.”[26] 


Horace E. Buker, forty-four-part history of the Forest City Club that was published serially in the Rockford Republic in 1922

Charles A. Church, History of Rockford and Winnebago County, Illinois (Rockford: New England Society of Rockford, 1900)

“A ‘Father’ Passes: The ‘Grand Old Man of Base Ball’ in Rockford, One-Time Preceptor of A. G. Spalding, Dies in His 84th Year,” Sporting Life, May 4, 1912, 7

“Hiram H. Waldo Is Dead; End Comes This Morning,” Rockford Register-Gazette, April 26, 1912, 4

“Spalding’s Start,” Sporting Life, June 20, 1908, 16

Waldo Lincoln, Genealogy of the Waldo family: a record of the descendants of Cornelius Waldo of Ipswich, Mass., Volume 2 (Worcester, MA, 1902)

John Molyneaux, five-part series 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))

Protoball website, part of www.retrosheet.org

Albert Goodwill Spalding, America’s National Game: Historic Facts Concerning the Beginning, Evolution, Development, and Popularity of Base Ball, with Personal Reminiscences of Its Vicissitudes, Its Victories, and Its Votaries (1910) (reprint: Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992)

Harriet Spalding, Reminiscences of Harriet I. Spalding (East Orange, NJ.: 1910)

[1] “A ‘Father’ Passes: The ‘Grand Old Man of Base Ball’ in Rockford, One-Time Preceptor of A. G. Spalding, Dies in His 84th Year,” Sporting Life, May 4, 1912, 7; Albert Goodwill Spalding, America’s National Game, 121

[2] “Hiram H. Waldo Is Dead; End Comes This Morning,” Rockford Register-Gazette, April 26, 1912, 4

[3] Charles A. Church, History of Rockford and Winnebago County, Illinois, 277

[4] “Hiram H. Waldo Is Dead; End Comes This Morning,” Rockford Register-Gazette, April 26, 1912, 4

[5] “Hiram H. Waldo Is Dead; End Comes This Morning,” Rockford Register-Gazette, April 26, 1912, 4

[6] Albert Goodwill Spalding, America’s National Game, 121

[7] “Hiram H. Waldo Is Dead; End Comes This Morning,” Rockford Register-Gazette, April 26, 1912, 4

[8] “Hiram H. Waldo Is Dead; End Comes This Morning,” Rockford Register-Gazette, April 26, 1912, 4

[9] Charles A. Church, History of Rockford and Winnebago County, Illinois, 278

[10] “Hiram H. Waldo Is Dead; End Comes This Morning,” Rockford Register-Gazette, April 26, 1912, 4

[11] Thurlow Weed, Life of Thurlow Weed, volume 1 (Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 1883), 203

[12] Letter from Hiram H. Waldo to the Mills Commission, July 7, 1905; reprinted on the Protoball website

[13] Letter from Hiram H. Waldo to the Mills Commission, April 8, 1905; reprinted on the Protoball website

[14] Letter from Hiram H. Waldo to the Mills Commission, July 7, 1905; Spalding Official Base Ball Guide for 1907, 40-41

[15] Rockford Republic, March 18, 1922, 1 and 10

[16] Quoted in John Molyneaux, “No Longer Amateurs: The Forest City Base Ball Club in 1868,” Nuggets of History 46:2 (June 2008), 6

[17] Rockford Republic, April 29, 1922

[18] Rockford Republic, June 17, 1922, 3

[19] Albert Goodwill Spalding, America’s National Game, 121-122

[20] Rockford Republic, August 16, 1922, 10

[21] Rockford Republic, September 6, 1922, 1 and 10

[22] “A ‘Father’ Passes: The ‘Grand Old Man of Base Ball’ in Rockford, One-Time Preceptor of A. G. Spalding, Dies in His 84th Year,” Sporting Life, May 4, 1912, 7

[23] “Harry Wright Day in Rockford,” Rockford Register-Gazette, April 13, 1896

[24] “Harry Wright Banquet,” Rockford Register-Gazette, April 14, 1896

[25] “Harry Wright Banquet,” Rockford Register-Gazette, April 14, 1896

[26] “A ‘Father’ Passes: The ‘Grand Old Man of Base Ball’ in Rockford, One-Time Preceptor of A. G. Spalding, Dies in His 84th Year,” Sporting Life, May 4, 1912, 7

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