This article was written by John G. Zinn
Some baseball games are historic even though few details of the contest survive. A case in point is the June 3, 1851, Knickerbocker-Washington game. Although the only surviving information is the line score, the match is remembered because it marked the beginning of ongoing match play.
Before that game, there is no surviving record of a true match game since the famous June 19, 1846, contest between the Knickerbockers and the New York Club, won easily by the latter, 23-1. The 1846 game, which took place at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, has been called the first baseball game, the first documented baseball game and/or the first game played by the Knickerbocker rules. Neither of the first two claims is accurate and the third may not be.
In the fall of 1845 the New York Club played three games against a Brooklyn team, losing one and winning two, so the 1846 match was definitely not the first documented baseball game. There is also some basis for believing the earlier New York Club games were played by the Knickerbocker rules or their equivalent since William Wheaton helped write the rules for both the Knickerbockers and the New York Club.1
Perhaps more importantly, since there were no repeat performances for five years, the 1846 affair didn’t establish match play as an idea whose time had come. Some of this might be put down to reluctance by the Knickerbockers to associate with a club they had left because the Knickerbockers were more “fastidious.” However, that is unlikely, because less than two weeks after the 1846 contest, a game was played between two teams, each a mixture of Knickerbocker and New York Club players. Another possibility is after being thrashed 23-1, the Knickerbockers saw no point in competing with a team that never seemed to lose. In addition, since the Knickerbocker Club hadn’t been formed to play other clubs, further match play probably wasn’t a priority.2
Regardless of the reasons for the five-year hiatus, things had clearly changed by 1851. The June 3 match may have been facilitated by a reorganization of the old New York/Gotham/Washington Club into a new Washington Club. The Knickerbockers seem to have taken the impending match very seriously, since by June 2 they had played almost twice as many intersquad matches as in the same period in 1850.
Somewhat surprisingly, the match was played at the Red House in Harlem instead of Elysian Fields in Hoboken. The most logical explanation is that in the wake of the May 27 riots in Hoboken between immigrant Germans and a Nativist group called the Short Boys, the clubs may have felt it wiser to allow passions to cool before playing at Hoboken.3
The running score doesn’t indicate which team batted first, but in the early going the Knickerbockers may have wondered whether anything had changed in five years. Washington led 2-0 after one inning, 7-3 after two and 8-6 after three. The fourth inning marked the turning point, as the Knickerbockers added three aces while blanking the Washington Club.
The more “fastidious” bunch then exploded for five more runs in the fifth and a 14-9 lead, only seven short of the winning score of 21. Scoring was limited over the next two innings and the Knickerbockers led 15-11 as the game went to the eighth inning. This time they were not to be denied, tallying six times for a 21-11 win and sweet, albeit much delayed, revenge.
Unlike the 1846 affair, the game wasn’t a one-time thing; a return match took place two weeks later, this time at Elysian Fields. The Knickerbockers prevailed in a much closer, 22-20 game that took 10 innings.4
Why was the June 3 match historic? Unlike the 1846 contest, the 1851 game marked the beginning of regular team competition — competition that has continued to this day. Competition is a key word here. To that point the New York/Washington Club not only won its matches, but did so easily. With little prospect of success, other clubs had little incentive to venture beyond interclub play. Real competition would, however, be much more appealing to both the players and potential spectators. Similarly, there is also a direct path between the rules in 1851 and the rules of today’s game. Once regular competition between the clubs became the norm, the rules had to be standardized and modified as necessary — a process that continues.5
The Knickerbocker victories also marked one of the first transitions in organized baseball. Before this match, the Washington Club (by whatever name it was called) was the preeminent club. The club had been formed earlier, had effectively spun off the Knickerbocker Club, and appeared to have no peers on the field. But after losing to the Knickerbockers twice in two weeks, in spite of having some of the old guard from 1845-46, the older club was no longer dominant.
In fact, it would be four years before the Washington Club (by then called the Gothams) would defeat their new/old rivals. The 1851 Knickerbocker win was also therefore the beginning of a cycle of change that has continued. When the two clubs took the field on that long-ago June day, the players probably weren’t thinking beyond what the game meant to them and their respective teams, but almost regardless of the details, the day was truly historic.6
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.
2 John Thorn, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011), 71, 73; Knickerbocker Game Books, June 29, 1846, Albert G. Spalding Collection, New York Public Library; Brown, “How Baseball Began” ; Randall Brown e-mail, July 21, 2011.
3 Thorn, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, 308-09, reference page 39; Knickerbocker game books, 1850-1851, Albert G. Spalding Collection, New York Public Library (Not all the matches in the Knickerbocker game books are clearly dated, but in 1851, the Knickerbockers played 15 interclub games from April 3 through June 2, the day before the Washington Club match. In 1850, it appears the club had only nine interclub matches through June 1); New York Tribune, May 27 and 28, 1851; Randall Brown e-mail, July 26, 2011.
4 Charles A. Peverelly, Book of American Pastimes, (New York: 1866), 345.
5 Thorn, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, 35.
6 William J. Ryczek, Baseball’s First Inning: A History of the National Pastime Through the Civil War, (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2009), 47; John Thorn e-mail, July 20, 2011.
Knickerbockers vs. Washington Club
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