May 5, 1871: Red Stockings win first regular-season game in Boston baseball history
“This sort of thing isn’t done in England, you know, where they have cricket, you know, and rowing, you know, but not this sort of thing, you know.” — Comments overheard from a British high commissioner in attendance.1
In what would be a “prime time” matchup today, the first scheduled game of the new National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was to be a match of the now-disbanded Cincinnati Red Stockings, or what the Boston Advertiser called a matchup liken to “When Greek meets Greek.”2 Five of the old Red Stockings (Charlie Sweasy, Asa Brainard, Doug Allison, Andy Leonard, and Fred Waterman) signed with the Washington Olympics, while four signed with Boston (Harry and George Wright, Cal McVey, and Charlie Gould), which also took the Red Stockings name. A rainout on May 4 spoiled that storybook beginning of the association, yet the matchup still, according to the New York Clipper, was “the principal topic of interest in base ball circles east and west.”3 The matchup of Boston and Washington, which countered with the nickname of Blue Stockings, was a battle of two teams “torn from their Western admirers,” grumbled the Cincinnati Enquirer.4
“Long before the appointed time for calling play (4 P.M.), crowds could have been seen moving towards the grounds from all directions – hacks, ambulances and street-cars coming out heavily loaded … an eager and expectant multitude, numbering at least five thousand, were in waiting,” the National Republican wrote.5 The Olympic Grounds were located about 13 blocks north of the White House.6 Members of President Grant’s Cabinet, congressmen, and two British high commissioners, were in attendance.7 “The National Game of Base Ball has many admirers here at the Metropolis,” wrote Benjamin Perley Poore of the Boston Journal, “especially among those young men who are clerks in the Departments, and who need outdoor exercise.”8 This was the first official game in Boston’s professional baseball history.
Fans traveled from Cincinnati “anxious to witness the playing of those who gave the name of that pork packing metropolis such an honorable place in 1868, ’69 and ’70,” wrote Poore.9 There was a new team wearing red stockings with “the name ‘Boston’ emblazoned in scarlet letters upon the white flannel which covered their ample chests.”10
Umpire Hicks Hayhurst failed to appear, so Hervie Alden Dobson of the Flower City club of Rochester, New York, was chosen. Dobson was the baseball editor of the New York Clipper and had lost a leg in the Civil War but “moves about nimbly on crutches.”11 He was also a known friend of the Washington club and “it was generally remarked on the grand stand that the Bostons were playing against the Olympics and the umpire.”12 Dobson had also written a letter in the March 11, 1871, Clipper, suggesting batting averages should be determined by at-bats, not games played.13
At 3:30 P.M., the flags of both clubs were hoisted up the flagpole. Harry Wright won the coin toss and elected for Washington to bat first. Washington starters Sweasy and John Glenn were unable to play due to illness.
With runners at first and second in the first inning, Washington’s Doug Allison doubled on a fair-foul hit15 past third that scored Davy Force and put Everett Mills on third. George Wright’s throw of a George Hall grounder was wild, and Mills scored. Allison scored on a passed ball to make the score 3-0. Andy Leonard and the pitcher Brainard walked to load the bases, and then Harry Wright misplayed a fly ball by Henry Burroughs to center, and Hall scored. A groundball and another passed ball gave Washington a 6-0 lead over the error-prone Boston team.
Boston countered with one run in its half of the first, as George Wright walked and scored on a single by Cal McVey.
In the Washington second, Force led with a single, and Mills was hit by a pitch. Allison’s fair-foul loaded the bases with no outs. A single by Hall scored Force and Mills. George Wright and Henry Schafer collided on a pop fly hit by Leonard, and Allison scored. A single by Burroughs scored Leonard, and Washington led 10-1 after two innings.
In the Boston third, Spalding and George Wright scored on a throwing error by Allison. McVey reached on Harry Berthrong’s error, and Ross Barnes scored. Gould’s grounder scored Birdsall, and Schafer’s single scored McVey. Fred Cone walked to load the bases, and a groundout by Spalding scored Gould, making the score 10-7 Washington. George Wright hit back to the pitcher, but Schafer beat the throw to the plate. Seven runs scored on only two hits, making the score Washington 10-8.
In the fourth, singles by Hall and Brainard plus another error on George Wright loaded the bases for the Olympics. Berthrong walked, scoring Hall. Washington scored another run in the fifth to take a 12-8 lead, then added another three runs in the sixth inning, as another error by George Wright scored Burroughs and Berthrong. Barnes dropped a pop fly and Waterman scored. Washington led 15-8 after six innings.
In the Boston seventh, George Wright walked for the fourth time, advanced to second on a passed ball, and stole third. Barnes walked, and both runners scored on Allison’s throwing error. Allison also “had his thumb split by a ball,”16 and had to leave the game later. Birdsall scored on a single by Harry Wright, who scored on a double by Gould. Washington led 15-12.
In the Washington eighth, a groundball through George Wright’s legs scored Mills and Hall. A single by Burroughs scored Leonard. Washington pushed its lead to 18-12. In the Boston eighth, Schafer reached on an error by Norton, who was now playing third. He scored on a double by Cone, who then scored on a throwing error by Waterman, now catching. Wright scored on a double steal to cut the Washington lead to 18-15. Also in the eighth, “The umpire received an ugly blow on his only leg in the eighth inning, which keeled him over on the grass, but he soon recovered,” reported Poore.17
Boston held Washington scoreless in the ninth.
Harry Wright led off the Boston ninth with a walk and Gould singled. Both scored on Schafer’s triple to center, cutting the lead to 18-17. Spalding singled in Schafer to tie the game. George Wright singled, and Barnes doubled in Spalding with what would today be the walk-off run, but back then the entire inning had to be played out. Dave Birdsall tripled to right, scoring Barnes with Boston’s 20th run for the eventual 20-18 win. Boston tallied six of its 13 hits in the ninth inning, “when Brainard had dropped his pace to accommodate Waterman, who was catching,” wrote the Clipper.18 In those days with smaller rosters, the lack of a qualified backup catcher proved a game-changer that day for Washington.
“The victors were loudly applauded and warmly congratulated,” wrote Poore, “while the Olympics received many compliments for their plucky playing under the difficulties incident on the loss of three of their trained nine.”19
However, umpire Dobson was lambasted in the papers. “In several instances,” blasted the Boston Herald, “he called balls when they should have been strikes, and vice versa.”20 The Cincinnati Gazette declared that he “kept the bases full continually by calling every ball either as a strike or as a count, and the consequence was that the poorest batter got his base equally with the best.”21 A walk was definitely not as good as a hit in those days.
The Clipper, however, blamed the rule changes, not the umpire, for the chaos. “He umpired the game strictly in accordance with the letter of the new rules, never letting a ball pass after the first one, without it was either called ‘strike’ or a ‘ball.’ It is the first game so umpired here.” The rule change made an immediate impact on game strategy, the Clipper believed. In what sounds familiarly close to modern baseball strategy of taking pitches and making the pitcher work, “the Bostonians … won the game by waiting. Harry Wright’s orders were to wait for three balls, as they must necessarily come before three strikes in nine cases out of ten. … (F)orty-six strikes were called on the Boston to twelve on the Olympic, showing that the game was won by simply waiting. Truly not very scientific play.”22 Boston walked 18 times, Washington, 10.
The Cincinnati Gazette, not surprisingly, wasn’t impressed with the new Red Stockings. “The Reds made several wretched muffs, such as dropping flies, overthrows and general bad playing. They will have to vastly improve before they will be up to the old Red Stocking discipline.”23
This article was originally published in "Boston’s First Nine: The 1871-75 Boston Red Stockings" (SABR, 2016), edited by Bob LeMoine and Bill Nowlin. To read more articles from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.
Special thanks to John Thorn for research assistance in writing this article.
An advertisement in the May 4, 1871 edition of the Daily National Republican in Washington, D.C. This was the first regular-season game in Boston professional baseball history. It was rained out and played on May 5.
1 Benjamin Perley Poore, “Base Ball at Washington. The First Match for the National Championship. The Boston Club Victorious,” Boston Journal, May 6, 1871: 1. Note: The article is signed at the bottom with “Perley.” Benjamin Perley Poore (1820-1887) was a Washington correspondent for the Boston Journal (1854-1883) and other newspapers, covering mostly Congress and politics. He used his trademark “Perley” on his articles. Joseph P. McKerns. "Poore, Benjamin Perley," in American National Biography Online, February 2000. anb.org/articles/16/16-01311.html; accessed July 24, 2015.
2 “The Red Stockings vs. Blue Stockings Base-Ball Match,” Boston Advertiser, May 8, 1871: 4.
3 “Grand Match at Washington,” New York Clipper, April 29, 1871: 26.
4 “Base-Ball. The Great Game at Washington. Boston Club Victorious,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 6, 1871: 1.
5 “Base Ball. The Great Game. Boston 20 – Washington 18,” Daily National Republican, May 6, 1871: 4.
6 The Olympic Grounds were bounded by 17th Street NW on the west, 16th Street NW on the east, and S Street NW to the south. Paul Batesel, Players and Teams of the National Association, 1871-1875 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2012), 196 [Google Ebook edition]. According to the National Republican, (January 27, 1870), work began on the new Olympic Grounds in early 1870. A block of ground bounded by 16th and 17th and R and S Streets were fenced in with an eight-foot fence. They also erected “a beautiful cottage-style club-house, painted in lavender and white, set back from the street, inclosed by a neat picket fence, to be decorated by a flower garden in front, when the season shall justify.” Two tiers of seats of 125 feet long, with five rows of seats in each tier, were assembled and could hold 1,000 spectators. Between the tiers was a space of 40 feet, above which the scorers and writers would stand. The total size of the grounds were said to be 426 feet by 450 feet, with an excellent drainage system. The grounds were formally opened on April 27, 1870, for the then-amateur Washington Olympic Base Ball Club, according to the April 30 edition of the Republican. The fences were “colored with a wash of bluish tint,” and seating accommodated over 1,000 spectators. A year later, with the Olympics becoming a professional club and acquiring an influx of new talent, the grounds were improved. The Republican (January 20, 1871) noted that double train tracks were to be put in place by the Washington and Georgetown Railroad Company along 14th Street to accommodate visitors. The Republican (April 7, 1871) noted that by the opening of the baseball season that there was a line of covered seats constructed to accommodate 2,500 spectators. The west side of the grounds contained a section seating 600, and along the north side was a section seating 1,200 along the entire width of the grounds. The grandstand was called “The Grand Duchesse.” The grandstand was 60 feet long and 12 feet in width, and could accommodate 200, with front seats reserved for the press. The east side had a row of uncovered seats accommodating 500. The northwest end of the section with covered seats was a “refreshment stand provided with eatables and drinkables in abundance for the benefit of the inner man. Many persons visiting the grounds to witness a game are compelled to go without their dinners, and this eating saloon, no doubt, will receive its full share of patronage.”
7 The two British high commissioners were among several in Washington from February 27 to May 8 to draw up the Treaty of Washington. After the Civil War, tensions were high between the United States and United Kingdom over the latter’s role in assisting the Confederacy during the war. The treaty settled various disputes between the countries. Theodore A. Wilson, "Treaty of Washington." Salem Press Encyclopedia (January 2014): Research Starters, EBSCOhost (accessed June 14, 2015).
8 “Base Ball. The Great Game. Boston 20 – Washington 18.”
13 John Thorn, “Chadwick’s Choice: The Origin of the Batting Average.” Our Game. Published September 18, 2013. ourgame.mlblogs.com/2013/09/18/chadwicks-choice-the-origin-of-the-batting-average/.
15 A fair-foul hit was one that landed started fair and rolled foul, even in the infield. In baseball’s early days, this was scored a hit, as opposed to the modern game’s foul ball. Some batters excelled at hitting fair-fouls.
18 "The Professional Championship. Boston vs. Olympic," New York Clipper, May 13, 1871: 42.
20 “Base Ball. Boston vs. Olympic,” Boston Herald, May 8, 1871: 2.
21 “Base Ball. The Red Stockings of Boston vs the Olympics of Washington. All in the Family,” Cincinnati Gazette, May 6, 1871.
22 “The Professional Championship.” The rules of umpires calling balls and strikes had changed, based on the action of the convention in November 1870, and both of the split amateur and professional leagues approved these in March of 1871. “The Base-Ball Guide for 1871,” published after these conventions, stated in Rule II, Section II, “Should the pitcher repeatedly fail to deliver to the striker fair balls, from any cause, the umpire must call one ball; and if the pitcher persists in such action, two and three balls. When three balls shall have been called, the striker shall take the first base without being put out.” Rule III, Section II stated, “The striker shall be privileged to call for either a high or low ball, in which case, the pitcher must deliver the ball to the bat as required. The ball shall be considered a high ball if pitched between the height of the waist and the shoulder of the striker; and it shall be considered a low ball if pitched between the height of the knee and the waist." (This text is taken from retrosheet.org/1871Rules.doc.) The first pitch was not called anything unless the batter swung. Strictly calling balls and strikes as the rules dictated, based on the striker’s (batter’s) request of “high” or “low,” resulted in more bases on balls. This outraged fans as it “took the bat out of player’s hands,” and made for a less interesting game. Still, there was disagreement over the actual rules themselves, something not uncommon in the NAPBBP. See David Nemec, The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Baseball (New York: David Fine Books, 1997), 7-8; William J. Ryczek, Blackguards and Red Stockings: A History of Baseball’s National Association, 1871-1875 (Wallingford, Connecticut: Colebrook Press, 1992), 17; Peter Morris, Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball: The Game on the Field (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006), 17-20.
23 "Base Ball. The Red Stockings of Boston vs the Olympics of Washington."