1859 Winter Meetings: Growing Pains

This article was written by Robert Tholkes

This article was published in Baseball’s 19th Century Winter Meetings: 1857-1900

Baseball's 19th Century Winter Meetings: 1857-1900On February 20, 1859, William Cauldwell, National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) convention delegate and secretary of the Union Base Ball Club of Morrisania, NABBP Rules Committee member, and editor/publisher of the New York Sunday Mercury, printed a notice of the Association’s impending second annual convention, scheduled to open on March 9.

The notice included a reminder of the requirements for membership and admission of delegates, and added that suggestions to the NABBP Committee on Rules and Regulations should be submitted immediately, since the committee would meet before the convention to draft its recommendations. The notice was repeated on February 27, and it noted that the convention would take place in “Room 23 (first floor) of the Cooper Institute, corner of Eighth street and Bowery, at 7½ o’clock.” Notices also appeared on March 8 in the New York Times and the New York Herald.

The Cooper would become better known to history as the site 12 months later of the Eastern coming-out speech of an obscure Western contender for the Republican nomination for president in 1860.

Cauldwell’s Rules Committee membership enabled him to print in the Sunday Mercury on March 6 insider information about the committee’s pre-convention deliberations:

It was suggested that Article 13 should be amended, so as to make it imperative that a ball should be caught on the fly (instead of on the bound, as at present), in order to put a striker out. In reference to this matter, the committee was equally divided in opinion, the argument against the proposed alteration being that while it might add to what is called the “science” of the game, it would tend to destroy the interest and spirit, by making batting less hazardous.

Much discussion was had in reference to Section 16, which it was proposed to alter so as to do away with the necessity of the ball being passed from “the pitcher to the striker,” before it is in play. The committee will recommend some alteration of this section, such as substituting the word “catcher,” in place of “striker.”

The committee will also recommend an addition to Section 36, which will prevent any one from playing in a match who shall, either directly or indirectly, receive compensation for his services by the club for which he appears.

It is also proposed that hereafter all matches shall be decided by one game instead of three, which, it is thought, will be a decided improvement, and will enable a great many more matches to be played during the season.

Rules changes aside, the Sunday Mercury had other expectations for the convention, chiefly dealing with the many clubs expected to apply for admission. New clubs had mushroomed during 1858, especially after the public attention generated by the Brooklyn vs. New York all-star games at the Fashion Race Course, which attracted up to 10,000 spectators.

The 1859 convention opened in the presence of delegates from 21 of the 25 member clubs. There were what might be described as growing pains — parliamentary chaos concerning the admission of new members, described by the Sunday Mercury, the only paper to publish the complete proceedings, on March 13:

… (T)he Committee on Nominations … reported that nineteen applications had been made to them for admission; but that only eleven of these had made their applications in due form. … The Constitution provided that all applications from clubs for admission must be left in writing with the recording secretary — at least one month before the annual meeting — setting forth the name of the club, date of its organization, days and place of playing, number of members comprising it, and the names of its officers and delegates. As the provisions of this section were not generally known, and as it was represented to the Committee on Rules that several worthy clubs would be necessarily excluded on account of trifling informalities in the applications, referred to in the above report, that the committee had resolved to recommend an amendment to the Constitution which would remove the obstacles in the way of their admission. And, to facilitate this object, a motion was made by one of the committee … to suspend the Rules of Order, so that the report of the Committee on Rules might first be read and acted upon. The object of the motion was not generally understood, it was lost, and a great waste of time was the consequence. …

The report of the Nominating Committee was received, in regular order, and the eleven clubs reported upon favorably were admitted without a dissenting voice, and by a unanimous vote — this part of the business was done up brown.

A very natural desire was then exhibited to open the door of admission to the eight clubs reported by the committee as having been informal in their application. Without amending the Constitution, this was impossible; and to secure the end in the view, a motion was made to lay the further consideration of the subject on the table, till after the Committee on Rules had reported. But again, the object being misunderstood — or misinterpreted as an election dodge — this motion was lost, and full half an hour was lost in idle debate and parliamentary skirmishing, succeeded by a renewal of the motion to lay on the table, and to suspend sections 4 and 5 of the Rules of Order, which, this time, was carried; and that which might have been done in one half the time, and saved a great deal of bother, was finally accomplished. The report of the Committee of Rules was then read. …

The Rules Committee (Dr. D.L. Adams [the chair], T.G. Voorhis, T.F. Jackson, W.A. Sears, F. Pidgeon, and Cauldwell; three others were absent), dealing first with the association’s Constitution, recommended that:

… (T)he adoption of the following amendment to Section 2 of Article 3 of the constitution, viz: to add to said section the words: “Any informality or irregularity in the form or substance of the application, may be waved (sic) by a two-thirds vote of the members present at the annual meeting.” To Article 11 of the constitution, viz: to amend Section 1 of said article by inserting after the words “By Laws,” the words “or Rules and Regulations”; and after the words “on rules,” the words “at least one month”; to strike out “thereof,” and add the words “of such alteration, addition, or amendment to the Constitution and By-Laws, and a majority in favor of alterations or amendments to the Rules and Regulations.” Also to strike out Section 2 of said Article. [the latter because the changes added its contents to Section 1.1

The Sunday Mercury noted that the final change was made to “prevent hasty and unconsidered alterations from being passed,” a judgment, surely, on the temperament of the delegates, and then summarized the committee’s submission to the convention:

The committee then discussed certain proposed alterations of the Rules and Regulations, without arriving at a unanimous conclusion as to their propriety; and determined to submit their proceedings to the association, that such action might be had as should accord with the views of the majority.

A motion was made that committee report in favor of the adoption of the following amendment to Rule 13, viz: To strike out the word “either” and all after the word “ground” [this covered the fly rule].

Upon the adoption of this motion, the members of the committee present were equally divided, and therefore leave it to the association to decide the question.

An amendment was proposed to Rule 16 [instructions to the pitcher to pitch good balls, as follows: To strike out the words “to the striker,” and insert instead, the words “over the home-base”; and by a vote of 4 to 2, it was determined to recommend its adoption.

An amendment was proposed to Rule 20 [governing obstruction by base runners], viz: to insert after the word “player,” the words “running the bases”; and by a vote of 5 to 1, its adoption was recommended.

The committee unanimously recommend the adoption of the following amendment or substitute to Rule 36, viz:

“Sec. 36. No person who shall be in arrears to any other club, or who shall at any time receive compensation for his services as a player, shall be competent to play in any match.”

The committee also unanimously recommended the adoption of the following new section:

“Sec. 38. Every match hereafter made shall be decided by a single game, unless otherwise mutually agreed upon by the contesting clubs.” The committee would also mention that it will be necessary to make certain alterations or amendments to others of the Rules, in case the amendment to Rule 13 should be adopted, in order to make them conform to the change in the character of the game — which alterations or amendments are, however, merely verbal — for which purpose they ask leave to make a further report, in case of such change.2

Several other applications for membership not submitted in time for consideration by the Committee on Nominations were then presented, and set aside until the committee could review them. Judge Van Cott was then re-elected as president. Sixty-three votes were cast by the 36 clubs now admitted to membership.

Next, still per the Sunday Mercury on March 13, the meeting had to move:

It is the rule at the Cooper Institute to “turn off the gas,” precisely at half-past ten o’clock, and as that time had very nearly arrived, and the building had to be vacated, a recess was taken to the “Gotham” [the Gotham Inn, site of the 1858 convention, was a five-minute walk to the south along the Bowery] to finish the business of election, which the Constitution requires shall be accomplished “on the night of the second Wednesday in March.” The election of officers was completed at the Gotham; all the remaining incumbent officers were re-elected.

Cauldwell closed by expressing his opposition to the “fly rule”:

Strenuous efforts will be made to alter section 13 of the Rules and Regulations, so as to make it imperative that the ball from the bat shall be caught on the fly, to put the striker out; and if this be adopted, then will follow an increase in the number of fielders in a match, an extension of the distance between the bases, and so forth and so on. We doubt much whether the contemplated alteration will be made. It may be an improvement, but we think not. The Rules are “pretty good” as they stand, and they should be touched tenderly, and tinkered as little as possible. No vital change should be attempted, unless good and sufficient grounds for it can be presented.

The convention reconvened on Tuesday evening, March 15, again at the Cooper Institute, with 63 delegates in attendance. After a second report by the Committee on Nominations, the eight clubs not admitted on March 9 because of “informalities” in their applications were seated, including the first club from outside Greater New York City, the Niagara Club of Buffalo. Members of the Standing Committees on Rules and Regulations and Nominations were announced. Joining the Rules committee were N.B. Law of the Continental Club and Louis Wadsworth of the Gotham Club. Consideration then began on the report of the Committee on Rules, as the Sunday Mercury reported on March 20:

… (R)ead by the chairman of the committee, Dr. Adams, who moved to amend Rule 1st, so that the ball used in the game shall weigh not less than five and a half, or more than six ounces, avoirdupois; and to measure not less than nine and three quarters, or more than ten inches in circumference. Mr. Voorhis moved as an amendment to the amendment, that the ball shall weigh not less than five and three-quarters, nor more than six ounces, which amendment was accepted by the mover, and the amendment, as amended, was adopted, by a vote of 38 to 17.

A lengthy discussion ensued upon a proposition to amend Rule 13, by striking out the word “either,” and also “or upon the first bound,” thus making it imperative that balls from the bat should be caught on the fly, in order to put out the striker. The debate was brought to a close by a call for the previous question, which prevailed; and the proposed amendment was lost by the following decisive vote: [the vote of each delegate was listed. There were 47 noes and 15 ayes; Cauldwell’s name was not listed among the voters]

… A motion was made (by way of a clincher) to reconsider the vote, and that motion was laid upon the table.

Mr. Pidgeon then moved that Rule 13 be amended by striking out the words “with or without having touched the ground, or,” with the view of doing away altogether with catching the ball on the fly.” But the motion was made without any idea of its being adopted, and was quickly tabled.

The amendment to Rule 16, proposed by the Committee on Rules, was then submitted, and Mr. Dawson moved as an amendment to the amendment, that after the word “ground,” be inserted the words: “And the ball shall in the former instance be considered dead and not in play until it shall first have been settled in the hands of the pitcher. In either case the players running the bases shall return to them.”

Another lengthy discussion ensued, which was cut off by a call for the previous question; and the rule, as amended, was adopted. … It will be seen that this amendment to Rule 16 does away with the necessity of the ball being “first pitched to the striker” before it is in play. And a ball which has been caught on the fly, will not (as heretofore) have to be settled in the pitcher’s hands, before it is in play. The new Rule will, we think, make the game more lively, and the players more spry.

In terms of its immediate effect on the game on the field, the adjustment to Rule 16 was easily the most significant of 1859. It may be viewed as a sop to the disappointed hopes of fly-rule supporters, as it increased the benefit of catching flies in the air instead of on the bound. It produced immense confusion among baserunners. The first triple plays were recorded during the 1859 season, as baserunners were caught off base on fair caught flies. The Sunday Mercury, which answered correspondence in its columns, was inundated over the course of the season with inquiries about the proper application of Rule 16. With regard to the downsizing of the ball, the New York Clipper had commented on March 19 that the present ball “is too heavy and too large for the hands, hence the number of fingers knocked out of joint” — with which the convention apparently agreed.

Review of the committee’s recommendations continued:

The proposition to amend Rule 20, by adding, after the word “player,” “running the bases,” was then considered. And the amendment was lost.

The amendment, or substitute for Rule 36 [forbidding the compensation of players], was then considered, and adopted.3

Significant for the embryonic “business of baseball,” the new language in Rule 36 — “or who shall at any time receive compensation for his services as a player” — did not include the phrase “directly or indirectly,” which Cauldwell had earlier reported would appear in the Rules Committee’s recommendation. The omission evidently was interpreted by the clubs that compensated players indirectly by waiving their dues or providing them with a “situation” (that is, employment) to mean that they could continue to do so, and that only payment of a direct wage was enjoined. Over the next several years, clubs seeking to enroll expert players who did not otherwise fit a club’s social status continued the practice. This even included the clubs regarded as of the most gentlemanly integrity, for example the Knickerbocker and Gotham of New York and the Excelsior of Brooklyn. After the Civil War, at least as early as the season of 1865, the line between direct and indirect compensation began to be crossed with impunity. By then the press was differentiating openly between amateur and professional players.

Finally, a new rule, Section 38, was added, replacing the standard two-out-of-three-game matches with single matches unless the clubs specified otherwise. In practice, all matches for the annual informal (but much prized) championship continued to be two out of three, it doubtless being felt that a team recognized as champion should not be dethroned by a single loss. After passing the constitutional amendments recommended by the committee without alteration, the convention turned to routine business, accepting the treasurer’s report and voting necessary expenditures, including a gift to the recording secretary, who was viewed as having devoted the greatest time, effort, and personal expenditure to the performance of his duties. A final resolution, proposed by Dr. Adams of the Knickerbocker, was adopted, recommending “the entire abolition of the custom of furnishing refreshments on the occasion of matches.” As Cauldwell commented, “A similar one was adopted last year, and broken on almost every occasion, and we fear this one will be also.” The convention then adjourned.

The Sunday Mercury closed its comments by listing the “Old Clubs” and “New Clubs” now in the Association. It had precisely doubled its membership, from 25 clubs to 50, which meant that some of the applications received too late for consideration by the Committee on Nominations before the convention were also acted upon at some point, presumably before the proceedings closed.

The New York Clipper weighed in on the convention in its issue of March 26:

The vexed question of catching the ball “on the fly” instead of “first bound” was also settled for the present in a most positive manner by a majority of 32 votes out of 62 cast. We should hardly suppose, however, that it will remain so permanently, since when the majority of players have attained that perfection in fielding, which many have already, it will reduce the “batting” part of the game to a nonentity, making an innings rather too short to be interesting. Rule 36 was also amended, and provides that “no party shall be competent to play in a match who received compensation for his services.” Hasn’t that rather an aristocratic odor, and does it not exhibit a rather uncharitable disposition towards poor players? …

A very necessary reduction in the size and weight of the ball was also determined upon: formerly it was not less than six, or more than six and one-quarter ounces in weight, and not less than ten or more than ten and one-quarter inches in circumference; but hereafter, it is not to weigh less than five and three-quarters or more than six ounces avoirdupois; its measurement is not to be less than nine and three-quarters, nor to exceed ten inches in circumference. Altogether it was an enthusiastic meeting. …

Porter’s Spirit of the Times had carried on, despite the death of publisher-editor William T. Porter in July of 1858, and in its comments on the convention on March 19 continued to express its concern about the effects of regulation that it had voiced after the 1858 convention:

We are unable to give, in this number of the SPIRIT, any extended report of the discussions which ensued; but, of course, they were very animated, and must tend to keep alive the spirit which we hope will ever animate the clubs of this vicinity. At the same time, there may be too much legislation, and the love for the exercise may, in the end, be trammeled by rules and regulations, as to catching “balls on the fly” or “on the bound.” If gentlemen and amateurs would endeavor to simplify the rules and regulations, they will find their exertions, in the end, tend more for the encouragement of all out-door exercises — and for this reason, among many others that might be cited, that the mind, when disposed to relaxation, or the enjoyment of physical exercise, does not desire to be trammeled with forms and ceremonials. It is true, that for the preservation of order, and the carrying out of what may be termed the continuity of all games, the players must be subject to certain fixed laws; but these should be as simple as is consistent with the end to always be had in view, viz., the development of the physique of the rising generation, and the relief from the ennui and tedium which are the invariable accompaniment of the sedentary pursuits of business, or professional avocations.

… For instance, what can it matter in the long run whether a person in a match shall receive directly or indirectly any compensation for his services from the club for which he appears. … If, from any circumstances, personal or pecuniary, a lover of the sport cannot afford a day to travel from his home to play a match of cricket or base ball, and his brother members of the club are able and willing to remunerate him for his time and expenses, why should they not be permitted to do so? It is a good democratic rule, and tends to level the artificial distinctions between wealth and poverty. In the “Old Country,” the peer and the peasant are on a level on the cricket ground.

In the same report, by the way, there is another profound specimen of snobbism, as to “arrears.” How, forsooth, shall it be discovered, when gentlemen come upon the ground of a club to play a friendly game of ball, who or who is not in arrears? We presume there are some legal gents on the Committee on “Rules”; would they advise the filing of a “Bill of Discovery” the day before the match is to be played, in order to come at the fact? Or suppose that Mr. Hardup should be in that terrible plight of arrears, which barred him from taking the part of pitcher or catcher, would it be legal for Mr. Jollie Green to advance the needful? We presume not, because Mr. Hardup would be paid for playing; such dodges we pronounce most unsportsmanlike and ungentlemanly.

Fortunately for the inquisitive historian, Porter’s on March 26 printed the reply of Rules Committee member Pidgeon, who, calling himself the “parent of the bantling,” detailed the convention’s avowed reasoning in adopting the arrears and compensation rules:

(I) am still unable to see anything ungentlemanly or unsportsmanlike, in expecting every person to pay his dues, and play ball for pleasure, not profit.

I suppose you will admit that a man who does not pay his obligations, and has it in his power to do so, is a knave, and not fit to be trusted in a game of ball or anywhere else; and if he has not this money, his time would be much better spent in earning the same, rather than playing ball — business first, pleasure afterwards — this is all that need be said on that subject. …

As to compensation: you mistake the object of the rule entirely, when you attribute the passing of it to snobbish inclinations; “on the contrary, quite the reverse.” We will suppose, sir, you belonged to a club composed mostly of mechanics; that you had taken great interest in helping to build it up; had shared their victories and defeats, and become attached to them, and they to you, by these friendly ties, the existence of which is one of the charms of ball play; how would you like to see those you depended upon to uphold the name and fame of the club bought up like cattle; or if not bought, would you like to see the bribe repeatedly offered to them, to desert their colors? These have occurred, and it was thought best to nip them in the bud, and it was done without one dissenting voice.

You say you do not want to depreciate or throw cold water upon our intentions. I believe, sir, you do not; but could anyone be more unjust or unkind than to attribute snobbishness to us, when this rule was passed to protect ourselves against the influence of money, and give “honest poverty” a fair chance, and in a struggle for supremacy between clubs to let skill, courage, and endurance decide who shall be the victors.

The primary sources available for the 1859 NABBP convention offer the opportunity to examine the currents of opinion swirling around the baseball community before the Civil War. The “fly rule” controversy of 1858 returned, and the primary sources reveal that “fly rule” vs. “bound rule” was seen by “fly” opponents as not merely a matter of encouraging or discouraging “manly” play or athleticism, but as a change that would require additional changes to maintain a balance between batting and fielding.

The charges of elitism leveled in 1858 returned also, in reaction to the Association’s strictures against players in arrears on club dues or compensated for playing. The action against players in arrears on their club dues presumably reflects some difficulty in collecting dues from players. With an unknowable number of players having their dues waived in return for their services, a tendency by other players to avoid dues payment can be reasonably assumed. The final language prohibiting player compensation, not specifically forbidding indirect forms, seems to preserve a status quo.

The proponents of compensation, arguing on “equal opportunity” grounds, both for individuals and clubs, were nonetheless not advocating direct payment for play. In an era when gambling was endemic, it was considered deleterious to the integrity of the game, and was not a part of professionalism in cricket, from which baseball still took its cue in many respects. Direct pay as a common practice, legally or otherwise, would enter baseball after the Civil War, when enclosed fields, paid admissions, and payment of gate receipts to clubs had changed the business.



  1. New York Sunday Mercury, March 13, 1859.
  2. Ibid.
  3. New York Sunday Mercury, March 20, 1859.