1861 Winter Meetings: The National Association of Base Ball Players

This article was written by John G. Zinn

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


Baseball's 19th Century Winter Meetings: 1857-1900When the National Association of Base Ball Players voted unanimously in March of 1860 to shift future conventions to mid-December, they most likely didn’t foresee that the decision would thrust the next gathering into the midst of one of the most troubled periods in American history.1 At the time of the March vote, even the most pessimistic observer of the national scene would have been hard-pressed to predict the deterioration in the political situation after the election of Abraham Lincoln in early November. Before that month was over, five Southern states called conventions of a different sort, meetings designed to rend the national fabric by seceding from a Union not yet a hundred years old. And, if the threat of secession by the South wasn’t enough, the lack of any Northern consensus on an appropriate response had to trouble any concerned NABBP delegate who read the local newspapers on the day of the convention. Editorial positions ranged from the vehemently anti-Lincoln New York Herald to the staunchly pro-Union Evening Post and New York Times.2

But even before the delegates of the NABBP headed for New York City, another part of the base ball community gathered to begin organizing for their common advantage. Still seeking acceptability and respectability in antebellum America, the NABBP clubs emphasized base ball’s “manly” characteristics and denied any suggestion of similarities to “boyish” games like rounders. According to historian Warren Goldstein, this at least partly explains the decision of the 1858 NABBP Convention to mandate that all delegates had to be at least 21 years old. By definition this prevented junior clubs from joining the Association and sent a message to the larger world that the NABBP was about grown-up business, not children’s games.3 Seeing no indication that these barriers would come down in the near future, some junior clubs, primarily in Brooklyn, took the initiative to form their own association. At the invitation of the Powhatan Club of Brooklyn, delegates from some 32 clubs gathered on October 5, 1860, at the club’s rooms at Joralemon and Court Streets. Not surprisingly, given the ages of the participants, the meeting was a very local affair with all but one club coming from New York state, primarily Brooklyn. In fact, almost 75 percent of the delegates came from the City of Churches or its neighboring Long Island communities with all but one other club crossing the East River from Manhattan. The sole representative from outside New York state was the Resolute Club of Greenville, New Jersey.4

While the junior clubs may have been less skilled on the base ball field, they apparently more than held their own in using parliamentary procedure. The conduct of the delegates even met the high standards of the New York Clipper, presumably, Henry Chadwick, who gushed, “Our councilmen, and even the legislature might have learned a lesson” from the “order and decorum,” not to mention the “degree of parliamentary correctness.” The delegates spent their first meeting electing officers and appointing a committee to draft a constitution and bylaws for presentation at a second meeting a week later. Not surprisingly, given the Powhatan Club’s leadership role in getting the process started, one of its members, Thomas J. Irwin, was elected president with George Dick appointed to the committee preparing the constitution and bylaws. Wisely seeing no reason to re-invent the wheel, a week later, again at the Powhatan Club rooms, the committee simply recommended adopting the NABBP constitution and bylaws with some minor modifications.5 Surprisingly after this good start, things apparently didn’t go very smoothly. Although the dues were only $1, by the first annual meeting in January of 1861, only 16 clubs had paid and, of those, the Powhatan Club had withdrawn after taking the lead in forming the organization.6 Since the Brooklyn club was also represented at the NABBP meeting in December, the most likely explanation is that the Powhatans had decided to become a senior club and had enough members over 21 to do so. (Technically, they only needed one to be an NABBP delegate.)7

Once the junior clubs wrapped up their affairs on October 12, attention turned to the meeting of the supposedly more “manly” group. The Clipper’s Henry Chadwick complained somewhat peevishly about his inability to answer questions regarding the location of the upcoming meeting. Never short of opinions, he found the Cooper Institute’s room “altogether too small,” and “too far up town” for delegates from Brooklyn, not to mention sportswriters, since Chadwick himself had the same commute.8 In the end, the delegates had to adjust not just to a different time of year, but also a new venue, the Mercantile Library at Clinton Hall, not terribly far from the previous meeting place at the supposedly too small and inconvenient Cooper Institute.9 Previously the home of the Astor Place Opera House, the building had been renovated only six years earlier to, among other things, serve as the new home of the New York Mercantile Library, founded in 1821 for the benefits of “clerks and business owners.” Anyone concerned with omens might have had some concern over the location’s history as the site of an unlikely riot between the supporters of two Shakespearean actors, American Edwin Forrest and William Macready from England.10 

Although the number of clubs present had increased slightly, the New York Clipper focused on the 27 member clubs not in attendance, a situation Chadwick felt might be caused by “the peculiar state of the times,” but which the writer thought was more likely due to what he felt was a mistake in changing the meeting date from March to December. Spring, he suggested, was a better time because players were more “on the qui vive” to begin play again than would be the case “at the close of a long season’s play.”11 Regardless of whether or not that was correct, absence from a March meeting just before the season began was a more likely indication that the club in question might have gone out of existence than missing a December gathering would be. An analysis of the missing clubs confirms that almost without exception, none took the field (or at least the base ball field) in 1861. It’s impossible to know to what degree this was due to the war or whether there was some other reason for abandoning competitive play.12

The reference to the “times” combined with the claim by the paper that cities from “Southern, Western and Eastern states” had attended the March 1860 convention, might suggest that among the missing in December were Southern ballclubs more focused on secession than the national game. However, a detailed look at the March attendees indicates only one “Western” club (Detroit) and only two (Washington and Baltimore) from south of the Mason-Dixon Line.13 In fact, both the March and December 1860 conventions were still very much Brooklyn and New York affairs. Fully 30 percent of the 55 clubs in attendance in December didn’t even have to leave Manhattan Island to travel to Clinton Hall, with a similar percentage needing only to take the East River ferry and some kind of horse-drawn conveyance. While there was no Western representative in attendance at the December meeting, the troubled times or the change in the meeting date didn’t seem to inhibit others with long journeys; Boston, Baltimore, and Washington were all represented, although not necessarily by the same clubs as in March. 

One significant new addition was the initial participation by Philadelphia clubs with the Athletic, Equity, Benedict, United, and Winona Clubs all in attendance.14 Before the New York game had even gotten started, the Olympic Club in Philadelphia was formed to play Philadelphia town ball.  They had been joined by other clubs from the city of Brotherly Love in playing this local bat-and-ball game, but those who traveled to Clinton Hall had by December 1860 seen the error of their ways and converted to the New York game. Their journey to New York was solid evidence that base ball would ultimately prevail in the Philadelphia area, ending town ball’s days as the game of choice. Enthusiasm about the attendance of the Philadelphia clubs may have waned somewhat when the Clipper’s Philadelphia correspondent reported that unless the local clubs chose cricketers as delegates “the sentiment” among Philadelphia players was “most assuredly to oppose the abolishing of the present rule,” [the bound game.15

Nor were the delegates from Philadelphia the only teams attending for the first time; 13 other clubs were making their maiden voyage to the convention. The roster of other first-time attendees was further evidence of some broadening of association membership beyond New York and Brooklyn. New Jersey had five new clubs at Clinton Hall, which were joined by three other “provincial clubs” from as close as New Rochelle and as far away as Rochester, New York. Some of the new members’ participation may have been at least partly based on an impending reduction in the cost of membership, since almost immediately after the roll was called the rules were suspended to amend Article Eight of the constitution to reduce the annual dues from $5 to $2. Not surprisingly, the proposal passed and immediately thereafter all of the new clubs’ membership applications were approved.16 With the new members in place, the convention proceeded to elect its officers for the coming year. It was probably no shock that the incumbent treasurer (E.H. Brown of the Metropolitan Club of New York) and the recording and corresponding secretaries (J. Ross Postley of the Manhattan Club and Theodore F. Jackson of the Putnam Club) were re-elected unanimously on a single ballot. Given the work involved in these positions, so long as these gentlemen were willing serve, it was unlikely anyone else was going to challenge them.17

These elections by acclamation followed what was apparently the only seriously contested election, the choice of a new president. Here the delegates had three choices: the incumbent, Dr. Joseph Jones of the Excelsior Club; Thomas Dakin of the Putnam Club of Brooklyn; and David Milliken of the Union Club from “provincial” Morrisania. There was no drama as Milliken received 55 votes to 33 for Dakin with Jones mustering only 10 for a second term. In accepting his election, Milliken modestly indicated he had arrived at the meeting with “no thought, or desire” to seek the post and promised to do his best to follow Jones’s example. Mindful as perhaps all of the attendees were of the threatening clouds on the national horizon, the new president stated that “he was gratified to find so sound a Union sentiment” at the convention. Having chosen a president from outside of Brooklyn and New York City, although not by much, the delegates followed suit with the vice president’s positions, selecting Colonel Dewitt C. Moore of the Athletic Club of Philadelphia and Burr Porter of the Newark Club.18

As with past elections, on-the-field performance was not an important criterion for election to an officer’s position in the NABBP. After coming close to the presidency only nine months earlier, Dakin, described as a “competent strategic pitcher,” was easily defeated by Milliken, who appears to have played in only one match for a 3-7 Morrisania Club.19 A 37-year-old merchant from West Farms in Westchester, wealthy enough to afford three servants,20 Milliken apparently offered a degree of dignity or respectability to the still relatively new association. A founding member of the Athletic Club of Philadelphia, the 35-year-old Moore was a colonel in the Pennsylvania State Guard and like many of the club’s founders a member of the Philadelphia’s Handel and Haydn Society.21 The Philadelphian was most likely chosen in recognition and support of the presence of the five Philadelphia clubs and their transition from town ball to the New York game. Like Milliken, new second vice president Burr Porter of the Newark Club, New Jersey’s oldest team, had made very few appearances in the club’s games in 1860. Also over 30, Porter was a college graduate and lawyer who, like his peers, brought added respectability to the Association, not to mention legal skills, if they should be needed.22 Both Moore and Porter won contested elections with the corresponding secretary, Theodore Jackson of the Putnam Club, finishing second both times. Like Porter, Jackson was a lawyer in his early 30s.23

Although leadership positions are always important, it seems unlikely that the choice of one candidate over another would have a significant difference in how the game was played in 1861. Far more important in that regard were decisions about the rules, which took up the bulk of the convention’s time. As a result, membership on the rules committee may have been even more important than elected office. With one exception, all nine positions on the committee were held by members of Brooklyn and New York clubs, with the City of Churches holding a majority.  While Manhattan clubs held only three slots, one was that of chairman, filled once again by the venerable Daniel “Doc” Adams of the Knickerbocker Club. While the only non-Brooklyn-Manhattan member didn’t get on the field himself, he had a voice far beyond the convention itself. William Cauldwell, a nonplaying member of the Union Club of Morrisania, was more importantly editor of the Sunday Mercury and most likely the author of the detailed convention coverage that appeared in that publication.24

All told the committee reported seven possible rule changes to the convention, all, but one of which it recommended the full body approve. The sole negative recommendation concerned Section 16, which covered situations when runners had to return to their base and/or could not advance, including when the striker hit a foul ball. The existing rule stipulated that runners could not advance on a foul ball and could also be put out before they returned to their current base. However, the same section offered some protection to the runner in requiring that the ball could not be used to retire the runner “until first settled in the hands of the pitcher.” Someone had proposed an addition to the rule providing for some unstated reason that on foul balls, runners had to return after the ball was put in play, in other words in the hands of the pitcher. Preferring to keep things simple, the committee emphasized that there was no point in establishing the exact moment that the runner had to return so long as it was before the ball arrived or he was tagged out. Perhaps more importantly, the new proposal would require umpires to watch “two points at the same time,” the pitcher and the baserunner. Probably trying to let the proposer down gently, the committee suggested that this problem “undoubtedly” had not occurred to him.25

Of the six remaining positive recommendations, one was the major issue of the bound/fly game while the other five appear to be adjustments drawn from practical experience. A recommended change to Section 1 that affected every player at every level was the weight and size of the ball. Based on the recommendations and perhaps pleas of “many old and experienced players,” the committee proposed to reduce the weight of the ball by a quarter of an ounce and the size by a half-inch to a weight between 5½ and 5¾ ounces and a circumference between 9½ and 9¾ inches.26 The so-called veteran players felt that considering the number of times the ball was thrown and caught, this perhaps seemingly minor adjustment could lessen the likelihood of major finger injuries, which the committee considered “the only painful reminiscences of ball-playing.”27 Based doubtless on the natural human instinct for self-preservation, the recommendation was adopted.28 The action marked the second reduction in the size of the ball from the 6-to-6¼-ounce, 10-to-10¼-inch sphere adopted in 1857, a process that continued until the final adjustment to a 5-to-5¼-ounce and 9-to-9¼-inch ball in 1872.29

Proposed changes to Sections 4 and 8 appear also to be drawn from practical experience and a desire to make fair/foul calls easier for players and especially for the umpire. The proposed addition to Section 4 would make mandatory a practice that a number of clubs had begun during the 1860 season and which the committee considered “not absolutely essential” but one that could provide “important assistance” to the umpire. If adopted, the amendment would require marking a fair/foul line between home and both first and third bases with “chalk, or other suitable material.” Establishing a fixed reference point would not only make the umpire’s job easier, but also would prevent some arguments before they even began.30 

While the visual assistance provided in the Section 4 amendment helped the umpire make the fair or foul call, the proposed change to Section 8 would eliminate one source of confusion about the exact definition of a fair ball. Previously if a batted ball hit a fielder’s hands in fair territory and then bounced foul, it was considered a foul ball.31 This obviously forced the umpire to delay his decision until it was clear that the fielder had made the catch. While for the batter such delay at most meant the wasted effort of an unnecessary trip toward first, the delayed decision could have fatal implications for baserunners. Required to advance on a fair ball that hit the ground, but prohibited from doing so on a foul ball, the runner had to strike a happy medium between going too far or not far enough. With the proposed rule change, batted balls hitting a player, the ground or “any other object” in fair territory were automatically fair and the baserunners would have a much clearer sense of where they literally stood. Given the condition of many of the fields of the day, the “other object” question was probably not academic but an indication that the committee wanted to deal with all the possibilities in one amendment.32

If simplification was the spirit behind the fair/foul amendments, clarification was most likely behind two other proposed changes. One was a proposed change to Section 19 spelling out the sequence to be followed in running the bases, not just in advancing, but also retreating. While not even the rankest muffin needed to be told how to move from first to home, some more creative players seem to have developed the strategy of skipping a base or two on the return journey after a foul ball. The proposed amendment eliminated the alibi that the silence of the rules on the subject could be construed as permitting such action or at least not forbidding it, something the Sunday Mercury insisted “was never allowed by the rules.” No explanation was offered for the proposed clarifying amendment to Section 28, which required the umpire to announce the winning club and sign both scorebooks before leaving the grounds. In the days before scoreboards, even manual wooden scoreboards, an official statement of the result was definitely a good idea. The proposal was almost certainly based to some degree on the famous or infamous August 23, 1860, Excelsior-Atlantic match, which was stopped because of the rowdy behavior of the crowd. The umpire in that contest, B. Thorn of the Empire Club, failed to announce a winner, sign the scorebooks or in any way declare a final decision, making a bad situation worse. He didn’t help the situation afterward by writing to the Sunday Mercury that in his opinion neither team won the game, but since one team didn’t want to continue (the Excelsiors) and one did (the Atlantics), under the rules the game was forfeited to the Atlantics.  Not surprisingly, all of these proposals received the approval of the assembled delegates.33

In describing the March convention, the Clipper praised the “commendable dignity and decorum” of the delegates. Whether it was the growing contention over the national crisis or the change in the meeting date of the convention from March to December, the paper reported decidedly more “animus” at the December meeting. While either or both of these possibilities could have contributed to the more tense atmosphere, it is more likely that discussing base ball’s most contentious issue for the second time in nine months explained some lack of “dignity and decorum.” In fact, at the end of the March meeting, Chadwick himself fanned the flames by not only lamenting the failure of the delegates to adopt the fly game, but also taking a clear shot at its opponents. Expressing his regret at the action or inaction, he wrote, “That it will ultimately be the rule of the game, we have not the slightest doubt, for the poor players cannot always be in the majority,” a position further endorsed by his paper with a headline describing the “Re-adoption of the Boy’s Rule.”34

As in 1859, the 1860 season saw at least one “experimental” match by the Knickerbockers and Excelsior Club played by the fly rule.35 Like the 1859 experiments, the game changed neither the hearts nor minds of either the pro-fly-rule Clipper or the opposing Sunday Mercury. However, further “on the field” experience did at least modify the Clipper/Chadwick’s enthusiasm for the proposed change. Writing in the November 10 issue of the paper just a month before the convention, Chadwick noted that while he had previously “warmly advocated” the fly game, his 1860 experience watching cricket matches in the New York area and Philadelphia had somewhat changed his mind. Apparently, the participants in the New York City area matches included some base ball players whose fielding was “conspicuous for its excellence,” especially compared to what he saw in Philadelphia cricket contests. Wracking his brain for an explanation for the smooth transition from one game to another, Chadwick concluded that it could only be that “base ball is a superior school for fielding to cricket.” By that, Chadwick meant that the two possible means of catching any batted ball in base ball required additional effort so the player could more easily handle the lesser responsibilities in cricket. Although he still thought it inappropriate to catch a ball on the bound when it could be caught on the fly, Chadwick now doubted that the proposed rule change would “improve the character of the fielding” as so “many suppose it will.”36

In spite of this modification in position by one of the leading advocates of the fly game and a March vote where the “poor players” prevailed by 55 to 37, the rules committee apparently felt the question was so clear that it wasn’t necessary to “recapitulate” the case for the change. They did, however, modestly and respectfully suggest that the change “would prove the crowning step in the progress and final perfection of the game we cherish.” A look at the makeup of the nine-member rules committee and their subsequent vote suggests something like a 7-to-2 vote in favor of the fly game. Further support for the committee’s recommendation came from a distinguished former opponent, Judge Van Cott of the Gotham Club, who not only changed his mind, but actually moved the approval of the amendment. Van Cott’s change of mind was apparently not so much due to a change in opinion as a feeling that the fly game should be given a chance “out of courtesy” to those who so fervently believed it would improve the game. In spite of all this, nine months consideration didn’t prove to be enough time to change a sufficient number of opinions of the supposedly less proficient; the proposal again failed, this time by a narrower 51-to-42 vote. In an attempt at accommodation that was a worthy example for those debating far greater national issues, the convention did approve a resolution offered by Thomas Dakin of the Putnam Club, allowing clubs that preferred to play the fly game the “privilege of doing so.”37

Given the importance of the issue and also, doubtless, the result, the Sunday Mercury provided a full recapitulation of the delegates’ votes, which Henry Chadwick also printed in the 1861 Beadle Guide. The New York clubs present at both 1860 conventions were against the fly game with the December vote 12 to 10 against. Of far greater importance were the Manhattan clubs present in March but absent in December, when a net loss of 10 negative votes advanced the fly game’s cause. Brooklyn clubs were decidedly for the new rule by almost 4 to 1, representing a major change from March, with the absent negative votes also helping the fly game. Of the provincial or non-New York clubs, only 10 were present in both March and December and they broke down almost equally on both sides of the question, only a slight change from March. All told, the clubs represented at both 1860 conventions favored the fly rule by a 10-vote margin, due primarily to the absence of the delegates who voted against the proposal in March. 

Unfortunately for the rules committee and Judge Van Cott, not to mention Henry Chadwick, the first-time attendees weren’t convinced by reason, “courtesy,” or any other rationale. As happy as the convention may have been to welcome the Philadelphia delegates, seven of the eight voted against the proposed amendment as did seven of the 10 new delegates from New Jersey, accounting for more than 70 percent of the 19-negative-vote margin from the new clubs. The net result was a nine-vote defeat, much closer than in March but probably of little satisfaction to the fly game’s advocates.38

In the minority on the rules committee but not the final vote was William Cauldwell, who, writing in the Sunday Mercury, didn’t find any “animus” in the fly-game debate, claiming instead that “the advocates of the fly game quietly acquiesced in the wishes of the majority.” He was, however, a realist and had “little doubt it will be adopted” at the next convention, especially if playing it more frequently proved to enhance the game. Cauldwell also suggested that some of the delegates who actually favored the fly game voted against it because their clubs had directed them to do so. In spite of all this, the sportswriter and Morrisania Club member remained unconvinced of the superiority of the fly game. Rather he believed that bound rule or no bound rule, players would catch the ball on the fly when possible, but that the incentive for recording an out “inspires players to make extraordinary exertions to take the ball on the bound.” Without the potential reward, Cauldwell doubted the same effort would be expended.39

By failing to eliminate the bound out, the 1861 convention ensured that it had no distinctive place in base ball history. The rule changes it did adopt clarified and improved the game, but marked no significant changes in direction. More noteworthy from a historical perspective was the participation of the Philadelphia clubs, which meant the New York game now covered most of the East Coast to at least Washington. In reporting on the missing clubs, the Clipper confirmed that a number had disbanded or merged into other clubs, while some simply hadn’t sent delegates. Among the latter group was the Hamilton Club of Jersey City, which about four months later held its organizational meeting for the 1861 season. It was literally the last entry in the club’s minute book as the meeting took place on April 11, 1861. The next day, the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter and the Civil War was under way.40 The 1861 season and the next four NABBP conventions would take place under very different circumstances.

 

Notes

1 New York Clipper, March 24, 1860: 387.

2 Allen Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln: Prologue to Civil War, 1859-1861 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), 322, 337-38.

3 Warren Goldstein, Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Base Ball (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1989), 43-45.

4 Sunday Mercury, October 7, 1860: 5; Henry Chadwick, Beadles Dime Base-Ball Player for 1861 (New York: Beadle and Company), 16. Greenville is now part of Jersey City.

5 Chadwick, 1861, 16-18.

6 Sunday Mercury, January 20, 1861: 8.

7 Sunday Mercury, December 16, 1860: 8.

8 New York Clipper, November 10, 1860: 234.

9 Sunday Mercury, December 16, 1860: 8.

10 New York Times, March 2, 2003.

11 New York Clipper, December 22, 1860: 284.

12 protoball.org.

13 New York Clipper, March 24, 1860: 387.

14 New York Clipper, December 22, 1860: 285.

15 New York Clipper, November 24, 1860: 250.

16 New York Clipper, December 22, 1860: 284.

17 Chadwick, 1861, 9.

18 Sunday Mercury, December 16, 1860: 8.

19 Peter Morris, William J. Ryczek, Jan Finkel, Leonard Levin, and Richard Malatzky, eds., Baseball Founders: The Clubs, Players and Cities of the Northeast That Established the Game, (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2013), 113, 115; Marshall O. Wright, The National Association of Baseball Players, 1857-1870 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co, 2000), 50.

20 1860 US Census.

21 Morris et al., Baseball Founders, 234, 239.

22 Newark Daily Advertiser, March 15, 1871: 2.

23 Morris et al., Baseball Founders, 115; Sunday Mercury, December 16, 1860: 8.

24 Henry Chadwick, Beadle’s Dime Base Ball Player for 1860 (New York: Irwin P. Beadle & Co., 1860), 24.

25 Chadwick, 1861, 6, 12.

26 Chadwick, 1861, 11; Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 13, 1860: 3.

27 Chadwick, 1861, 11.

28 Sunday Mercury, December 16, 1860: 8.

29 Peter Morris, A Game of Inches: The Story Behind the Innovations that Shaped Base Ball, (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006), 273.

30 Sunday Mercury, December 16, 1860: 8.

31 Wilkes Spirit of the Times, December 22, 1860.

32 Sunday Mercury, December 16, 1860: 8.

33 Sunday Mercury, August 26, 1860: 5.

34 New York Clipper, March 24, 1860: 387; December 22, 1860: 284.

35 New York Clipper, September 8, 1860: 165; Sunday Mercury, August 26, 1860: 5.

36 New York Clipper, November 10, 1860: 234.

37 Sunday Mercury, December 16, 1860: 8.

38 New York Clipper, March 24, 1860: 387; Sunday Mercury, December 16, 1860: 8; Chadwick, 1861, 12-14.

39 Sunday Mercury, December 16, 1860: 8.

40 New York Clipper, December 22, 1860: 284, Hamilton Club of Jersey City Minute Book, A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Library, Cooperstown, New York.

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