This article was written by Jerrold Casway
Determining the first enclosed baseball field is a matter for debate. A significant criterion for inclusion is whether the playing site was adapted from another recreational venue such as a race track, fairgrounds, cricket pitch, skating rink, or a parade field. Candidacy should be solely based on whether the grounds were specifically erected and intended for baseball games where admission was charged.
One of the most frequently suggested candidates was the Union Grounds in Williamsburg, New York, across the East River from Lower Manhattan. The site was developed by a Brooklyn businessman and politician, William Cammeyer. He seemingly was influenced by an 1858 All Star series played at the Fashion Race Course in what is now Flushing Meadows, Queens. Motivated by this innovation, Cammeyer in 1861 purchased the site and built an ice-skating rink that he intended to turn into a baseball field. A year later, he drained, leveled, and sodded the grounds and converted the site from an ice rink to an enclosed ballfield. The site covered 6 acres and was surrounded by a “broad fence six or seven feet in height.” The grounds had a “commodious clubhouse” and roofed seating for women spectators. On May 15, 1862, without admission fees, he hosted a game between the All-Star players from the playing field’s three tenant teams, the Eckford, Putnam, and Constellation clubs.[fn]Brooklyn Eagle, May 16, 1862; Michael Gershman, Diamonds; The Evolution of the Ballpark, (Boston, 1993, pp. 11-3); Harold Seymour, Baseball: The Early Years, (New York, I, 1960, 48-9.)[/fn] The grounds were distinguished by a three-story pagoda in deep center field that lit up and decorated the winter skating pond.
The question is whether the Union Grounds is a candidate for hosting the first enclosed baseball game. We cannot overlook how the field was a converted ice rink that reverted to its original purpose when the ball season was over. There was also the matter of having a large alien structure in the outfield that had no place in baseball. Finally, the site was widely known as the Union Baseball and Cricket Grounds.
Another candidate, Capitoline Grounds, was sometimes confused with the Union Grounds. This field, in nearby Brooklyn, rivaled Cammeyer’s site. But Capitoline Grounds was primarily an ice-skating area that was used for an enclosed baseball game almost two years (May 15, 1864) after the Union Grounds All-Star contest.[fn]Philip Lowry, Green Cathedrals, (New York, 2006, pp. 34-5.) New York Herald, August 15, 1865.[/fn] In the nation’s capital, the Nationals of Washington enclosed their pioneering grounds with a ten-foot fence in 1867.[fn]David Voigt, American Baseball, (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966, I, 19.)[/fn]
Philadelphia, too, had candidates of its own. One of the city’s oldest ballplaying sites was in South Philadelphia, at 11th and Wharton. The Wharton Parade Square, in the shadow of the Moyamensing Prison, was used for baseball and town ball in 1859, but it was not enclosed until 1871. Another pioneering site, the Jefferson Square Parade Grounds, was located at 25th and Masters Streets, across from the city’s reservoir. As early as 1863, ballgames were played on these grounds. The field had a clubhouse and wooden bleachers, but the site was not enclosed until 1865.[fn]Lithograph of Mercantile grounds by T. Sinclair, c. 1865 in Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Picture of Olympic Club House, c. 1865 in Library of Baseball Hall of Fame; Charles Peverelly, The Book of American Pastimes, (New York, 1866, p. 479); Philadelphia Inquirer, October 31, 1865, January 27, 1871; Sunday Press, May 6, 1866; Sunday Item, March 11, 1894.[/fn] East of this playing field, on 18th Street, was the Mercantile Grounds, which had been fenced in by 1865. The celebrated home of the early Athletics of Philadelphia at 17th and Montgomery Avenue had enclosing fences the following year.[fn]Jerrold Casway, “At the Old Ball Game,” Temple Review, Spring 1992, pp. 22-3. Painting of Athletics-Atlantics game, October 22, 1865 in Library of Baseball Hall of Fame.[/fn] Four blocks east, at Camac Woods, was the best candidate for being the first enclosed ballfield.
This site, at 12th and Berks Streets, was part of a popular public park, noted for its manicured lawns and sumptuous strolling gardens. In September 1859 part of these grounds was prepared as a cricket pitch for the All-England Cricket exhibition series. The soon-to-be St. Georges Cricket Grounds was resurfaced, leveled, and enclosed by a “broad fence.” Wooden stands were erected for 1,500 spectators and benches surrounded the playing area. After the English cricket series the enclosed grounds attracted local baseball clubs. The original fence was raised and modified. A wooden clubhouse was built and “Barlow board benches” were set up for female spectators. Admission fees of 25 cents were frequently charged. On Tuesday, July 24, 1860, the Olympics of Philadelphia played the St. George baseball team. Using New York rules, the Olympics won, 25-17.[fn]Jerrold Casway, “Camac Woods in Philadelphia,” Nineteenth-Century Notes, Fall 2008, pp. 1-3; Jerrold Casway, “At the Old Ball Game,” Temple Review, Spring 1992, pp. 19-22. Peverelly, op. cit., p. 410 & p. 474. Clipping in Campbell Collection, HSP, Vol. 64, 143-4. North American, October 11, 1859; Philadelphia Public Ledger, October 13, 1859; Philadelphia Press, October 14, 1859; Sunday Dispatch, January 28, 1872.[/fn]
Although Camac Woods (St. Georges Cricket Ground) was originally intended for the cricket exhibition series, the site was renovated and turned into an enclosed baseball facility that charged admission. The Olympics game, as a result, was the most qualified candidate for being the first game played in an enclosed site set up for baseball.
This essay was originally published in “Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the 19th Century” (2013), edited by Bill Felber. Download the SABR e-book by clicking here.
Olympics of Philadelphia vs.
St. George of Philadelphia
St. George Cricket Club Grounds
Camac Woods, Philadelphia, PA
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