1865 Winter Meetings: 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: 1857-1900In choosing December as the best month of the year in which to discuss their affairs, the National Association of Base Ball Players couldn’t have foreseen that the date of their meeting would also prove to be the time when the country was marking another 12 months of seemingly endless war. Just as the December 1860 meeting was held amid the secession crisis, the next three meetings took place after 12 more months of battles; none of which proved to be decisive.

As the December 14, 1864, meeting date approached, however, there was at least some reason for hope, if not optimism. Although the Confederacy had not yet surrendered, Union armies were on the offensive everywhere and Abraham Lincoln’s re-election, only a month earlier, ensured that the war would go on and the Confederacy would ultimately be defeated. More specific reasons for optimism were available to any delegate who took the time on the day of the meeting to read the New York newspapers, which reported that Sherman’s army had completed its march across Georgia and was closing in on the gates of Savannah. Although previous hopes for peace had come cruelly crashing down to earth, here at last seemed some basis to hope that at least part of the 1865 season would be played in a peaceful and reunited country.1

By 1864 the NABBP had held a sufficient number of annual meetings for the participants not just to consider the issues, but also to evaluate the process itself. Some apparently believed, or at least suggested, that too many rule changes and amendments were being proposed and debated.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the New York Clipper (presumably Henry Chadwick) didn’t agree, expounding on Chadwick’s opposition at some length. Implicitly recognizing that while the game of base ball had been around for a long time, but that organized competition “can scarcely be said to have been in existence ten years,” Chadwick felt there was still more than ample room for improvement.  If, Chadwick argued, competitive cricket had been around for over a century and was still making changes, it was unreasonable to believe base ball in less than 10 years could have “been brought to that point of excellence which it is requisite such a national pastime should reach.” More specifically, the “Father of Base Ball” seemed to understand that significant rule changes, such as the introduction of walks for the 1864 season, would always require further clarification, especially for those he sarcastically derided as having “the most obtuse understanding.”2

Agreeing with Chadwick was the Sunday Mercury, presumably William Cauldwell, Chadwick’s sometime adversary on the fly/bound game issue and also a fellow member of the rules committee itself. Cauldwell’s belief in the importance of an effective process to develop rules was tangibly demonstrated in the amount of space he devoted in the Mercury to a detailed report of the rules committee recommendations and the supporting rationales. In case anyone missed the reason for going into things in such detail, Cauldwell emphatically declared that the goal was to have “more voting than talking on the night of Convention.” Clearly the committee also took the process quite seriously as it devoted four hours of “somewhat tedious work” to going through both the constitution and the rules section by section to come up with recommendations which they then made available to the delegates for their advance consideration.3 Cauldwell went even further on the importance of action over talk on the fly/bound game issue, saying the question should be put to a vote “at once” since everyone’s minds were already made up. In order to further expedite the proceedings, delegates were asked to be in room 5 on the second floor of Clinton Hall on Astor Place by 7:00 P.M. so the meeting could begin at 7:30 and adjourn by 10:00.4

Cauldwell may have been somewhat overly optimistic about the potential attendance at the convention, since he reported that over 50 clubs might send delegates.5 The actual result was far more modest with some 30 clubs in attendance, two more than in 1863, but reportedly the highest number since the last peacetime meeting, in 1860.6 An analysis of the clubs sending delegates shows that the convention was still a very local affair, most likely because wartime conditions limited travel from almost any place outside the New York — Washington D.C. corridor. All told, Brooklyn and New York City clubs made up almost half of the attendees with another seven from other parts of New York state. Only eight clubs came from outside of the Empire State, with the largest contingent from nearby Newark, New Jersey (4), followed by Philadelphia (2) and a lone club from the embattled nation’s capital.

The aptly named National Club from Washington and the Utica Club from upstate New York had the longest journey to attend the one-night meeting. Something else that stands out about the attendees at the 1864 convention is the high level of consistency in the clubs sending delegates in both 1863 and 1864. Just six clubs that were represented in 1863 (three each from New York City and Brooklyn) failed to send delegates in 1864. There were replacements for two of the New York City clubs, but none for the Brooklyn teams so that Brooklyn had only six clubs representing the City of Churches, a far cry from the last antebellum convention, when 13 clubs crossed the East River to attend. It was especially appropriate that the Knickerbockers were once again in attendance for what would prove to be a historic convention.7

If how the game was played on the field had evolved gradually during the Association’s relatively brief existence, so had issues about the makeup of clubs and the governance of the Association itself. One danger, real or perceived, was that a handful of players could form a club and have the same number of votes as clubs with 100 members, presumably the more established Brooklyn and New York clubs.8 Some of the blame or responsibility for the failure to win approval of the fly game at previous conventions might have been attributed by delegates to the problem of too loose a definition of what constituted a base ball club.  In the 1864 edition of the Beadle Guide, Chadwick claimed that “all, or nearly all, of those opposed to [the fly game] belong to the muffin fraternity”9 and this was presumably even truer of clubs with only token membership. The extent of the risk was probably exaggerated, but there was sufficient concern that the rules committee proposed a constitutional amendment requiring clubs to have a minimum of nine active players. The proposal clearly struck a responsive chord with the larger body, since the delegates apparently felt the committee hadn’t gone far enough, and the convention raised the number to 18. Perhaps related to this action was a further committee proposal to raise the annual dues from $2 to $5, which was also approved. Although the amount seems inconsequential today, it was another way to try to limit the participation in Association affairs by clubs that existed in name only.10

While the December 14, 1864, meeting dealt with major issues of pitching and the fly game, like most base ball meetings it also did some fine-tuning of other rules. One proposed rule change, which may have seemed minor, generated apparently almost universal strong feelings among the delegates and was also something of a constitutional issue. As baseball became increasingly competitive, the temptation for players to switch to a better team and for clubs to encourage or at least allow such behavior became far greater. To try to control the problem, at least to some degree, Section 29 of the NABBP rules required a player to be a member of a club for 30 days before playing in a match. Trying to tighten things up even further, the rules committee proposed that the rule also apply to players playing for clubs “either in or out of the convention.” The modification was apparently directed to some degree at junior clubs as well as other teams that weren’t members of the Association. The committee’s proposal was emphatically supported by Colonel Moore of the Athletic Club of Philadelphia and his speech was reportedly received with applause. Moore’s strong feelings on the subject were apparently due to his own practical experience with some clubs in the City of Brotherly Love. According to Chadwick, the applause “was palpably indicative” that base ball players wanted no part of what was apparently a common practice in cricket. Generously and perhaps hoping to attract converts, the new rule didn’t apply to cricket clubs allowing participation by what were probably a relatively small number of cricket players who occasionally wanted to play base ball, but weren’t interested in joining a club.11

Two other proposed changes apparently generated less feeling, but clearly dealt with practical issues based on actual experience. Although by rule bases were attached to base posts, an obvious practical question was what happened when the base became detached in one way or another during an attempt at a tag or a force out. The committee’s solution was to modify Section 16 so the key was not the base itself, but the place where the base had been located at the beginning of the game. If adopted, runners would be required to have some part of their body remain in contact with that spot regardless of where the base itself went. However, the delegates, almost all of whom presumably had practical experience as players, apparently didn’t care for this solution to the problem and rejected the proposal so the base was still the base, no matter where it ended up. No record survives of the content of the debate, but the existing rule was not an ideal solution since it required the runner to both reach and maintain contact with a moving target. The weakness of this and other possible solutions doubtless led to the future decision (and current practice) to fix the base in the ground.12

The other experience-generated change was a proposed addition to Section 24 that continued to be more important as the game itself grew more popular, attracting larger crowds sitting or standing behind first base and third base. It was then only a question of time before fan interference increasingly became an issue, not just in the case of inadvertent contact with the ball but also in the case of a spectator intentionally intervening to help the team in the field. Section 24 already provided that if a fielder stopped the ball with his hat or took it from the hands of a nonplayer, no play could be made on the baserunners until after the ball had “been settled in the hands of the pitcher.” The proposed addition added the same requirement where the ball was “stopped” by a nonplayer, which obviously gave the fielders an unfair advantage even if they had to retrieve the ball. The basic premise continued to be to give baserunners back some of the time or advantage gained by the ball getting past the fielder. Cauldwell, hoped, however that the change would also give teams incentive to keep the area behind both bases clear of all spectators, thereby eliminating the potential risk of interference, intentional or otherwise. Since almost every club was at risk to the potential problem, it’s no great surprise that the change was approved.13

While the proposals related to fan interference and the movable base were attempts to deal with issues that had likely been around for at least a while, proposed additional rule modifications related to pitching came after major rule changes introduced in the prior season. Reportedly responding to “the swift and wild pitching in vogue,” the December 1863 convention had introduced bases on balls as a penalty for wildness or an incentive for better control. After a year of practical experience, the rules committee proposed some further clarification of Sections 6 and 8 which was accomplished by changing only a few words in the rules. In outlining the penalty of a walk for throwing three balls, Section 6 stated the batter was “entitled” to first base and all other baserunners were similarly “entitled” to one base. Hard as it may be to believe (this may be the “obtuse understanding” Chadwick was talking about), some apparently interpreted “entitled to” as making going to first or advancing optional for the strikers or baserunners. All such interpretations were eliminated by the new wording, which left no doubt that the base must be taken. The proposed amendment to Section 8 provided similar clarification of what happened in case of a balk, but also stipulated that the striker did not go to first base.14

The logic of these further modifications on pitching and walks must have been obvious, because both proposals appear to have passed without difficulty. Further clarification of some other pitching-related issues was apparently not so crystal-clear to the delegates and the committee’s proposals didn’t fare as well as the prior amendments. One proposal was to make two changes to Section 7 with the goal of more clearly defining when the pitcher had to deliver the ball or be called for a balk. As approved by prior conventions, the rule mandated the pitcher must deliver the ball either when he “draws back his hand” or “moves with the apparent purpose or pretension” of pitching the ball.15 The first part of the committee’s proposed change was to eliminate the “draws back his hand” requirement, and the convention agreed.

Apparently not satisfied with this change, the committee tried to take things a step further and define “the time of delivery” as “any movement necessarily made to pitch a ball from the first motion of the pitcher’s body until the ball leaves his hand.” Chadwick favored this change, but suggested that the phrase “the pitcher’s body” should have read “the pitcher’s arm.”16 Cauldwell also agreed with the change and believed the proposed rule would somehow stop “the useless custom” of throwing to first base unless a pickoff play had been called.17 The Sunday Mercury writer’s concern about unnecessary throws to first seems to put him well ahead of his time and shows how long the practice has been an annoyance to at least some fans. Regardless of what the two influential commentators thought, however, the convention felt otherwise, rejecting the idea because of, at least as far as Chadwick was concerned, the mistaken belief that it “still further limited the movements of the pitcher.”18

The final pitching-related proposal was of far greater consequence than the issue of time of delivery and was a direct result of the 1863 amendment introducing called “balls” into the game (effective in 1864) for the first time. As originally passed, the new rule stated only that pitchers had to throw the ball “as near as possible over the centre of the home base” with the repeated failure to do so leading to a warning from the umpire, followed by calling three balls and the awarding of first base to the striker.19 It’s not clear if those who had introduced that amendment and/or those who voted for it in 1863 completely understood how hopelessly vague the term “as near as possible” to middle of the plate would prove in practice. Not surprisingly both Cauldwell and Chadwick recognized the problem and didn’t hesitate to chime in. Chadwick claimed that “No two umpires last season agreed upon what constituted a fair ball” (a hittable pitch), while Cauldwell claimed the rule as it stood was open to the “caprice of an umpire,” permitting him to favor one club over another, and predicted the proposal’s unanimous approval.20

Most likely the other members of the rules committee recognized the problem without the two men’s rhetoric and made an attempt to define a hittable pitch. Under the proposal a “fair” ball had to be pitched “within four feet of the hip of the striker,” could not hit the ground to the striker’s front or be pitched to the opposite side of his striking zone and also not “touch or come within one foot of his body.” Apparently either not as concerned as the two commentators or having some difficulty understanding the proposed definition of a “fair” pitch, the convention rejected the proposal. Not surprisingly, Chadwick found the action “strange” and claimed the voice vote was close. Considering both reporters saw many more games than the average delegate in the course of the season, this was at least one case where the convention would have been wise to heed their counsel.21

While it’s not stated in any of the newspaper accounts, it’s hard not to believe that all of the prior debate, as important as it might have been, was just a preliminary to the main event, the vote on the fly game. Having come so close a year earlier, the proponents had to have been optimistic while the opponents may very well have been gradually preparing themselves for the inevitable.  It’s also very likely both sides agreed with Cauldwell’s assertion that no more debate was necessary. Even if Cauldwell felt that way about convention debate, however, he wasn’t about to withhold his final thoughts on the subject. In December of 1860 he had been opposed to the elimination of the bound out because it provided the incentive for very athletic attempts by fielders to catch a batted ball on the bounce.  Four years later, the sports editor of the Sunday Mercury was in the unenviable position of arguing against himself as he was now a convert to the fly game. In explaining his change of opinion, he offered multiple explanations, including the supposed “fact” that most well-played bound outs were on foul balls that would not be affected by the change and that fielding a hard-hit ball on the ground in the outfield was as difficult as some of the athletic bound catches he had admired so much in 1860. Cauldwell also acknowledged his desire to eliminate the dozen or so bound catches per game taken in an “unworthy” fashion rather than try for a fly catch in the more “worthy” — and one presumes manly — manner. Chadwick no doubt took great satisfaction that his fellow writer and rules-committee member had been converted to his viewpoint.22

Perhaps not surprisingly, the vote itself was anticlimactic. The fly game at last prevailed by a 32-to-19 count, a margin that Chadwick suggested would have been even higher if some clubs such as the Atlantics of Brooklyn and Eureka of Newark hadn’t been directed to vote for the bound game when presumably their hearts and minds went in a different direction.23 An analysis of the voting suggests that the primary reason for the decisive margin was dramatic swings in the votes of Brooklyn and Philadelphia clubs, especially the former. At the 1863 convention, the Brooklyn delegates’ vote was 10 to 8 for the bound game, but a year later, it had swung almost 180 degrees to 10 to 2 for the fly version, with the supposedly instructed Atlantics accounting for the only negative votes from Brooklyn delegates. Part of the change was due to the Resolute and Enterprise Clubs switching into the fly game column, and the cause was also helped by the absence of the Constellation and Olympic Clubs, which were on the bound side in 1863.

While the numbers weren’t as great, the Philadelphia clubs had also seen the light, going from 4 to 0 against the fly game to 3 to 1 in favor. Also extremely important was the vote of the upstate New York clubs, which went from 6 to 1 for the fly game in 1863 to 14 to 0 in 1864, driven primarily by the votes of the three clubs that weren’t represented at the 1863 vote. Ironically, Manhattan, where the New York game got its start, remained the most sharply divided on the question.  From an 11-to-7 vote against the prior year, there had been a modest shift to 10 to 8 in favor in 1864, due largely to a shift by the Mutuals and the presence of the pathfinding Knickerbockers, who were absent in 1863. If there was any debate it wasn’t reported, but the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (most likely Chadwick) wrote that the announcement of the vote was greeted with “deafening applause.”24

None of the contemporary accounts mention the length of the meeting, but after the contention over some of the pitching rules and at least some tension over the fly game vote, it’s unlikely the delegates had much energy or time left for further business. Still, the convention needed to elect officers for the coming year, which apparently happened without controversy. In a continuation of the pattern of choosing officers from a broad base of clubs, Thomas G. Voorhis of the Empire Club of New York was elected president with D.A. Scott of the Hudson River Club of Newburgh as first vice president and M.G. Thompson of the Utica Club as second vice president. Understandably both secretarial positions and that of the treasurer stayed local with treasurer P.J. Cozans of the Eagle Club of New York continuing in that position with J. Seaver Page of the Active Club as recording secretary and A.H. Rogers of the Resolutes of Brooklyn handling the corresponding position.25

As the delegates left Clinton Hall for their hotels or began their journey home, they had completed some important historic work, more significant than they perhaps may have realized. As Chadwick noted in previewing the convention, some level of fine-tuning would be necessary almost every year. The December 1864 meeting had done that and gone beyond in two important ways. First the delegates had resolved once and for all what must have seemed like the interminable fly game/bound game debate. William Cauldwell’s point about eliminating the “unworthy” bound catch was well taken, especially as the game became more competitive and less social. Presented with the temptation to take the easy “out,” there was little question that it would be abused and cheapen the game. Similarly, even though it failed to take action, the convention considered the definition of what would eventually be called the strike zone, an issue that has been and likely always will be debated in base ball bodies. Even more favorably for the game’s development, by the time the convention’s actions, historic and routine, could be put to test on the field, the war was over and the national pastime was set for a new and much more extensive period of expansion. 

 

Notes

1 New York Tribune, December 14, 1864:1.

2 New York Clipper, December 17, 1864: 284. The article was clearly written before the December 1864 convention met.

3 Sunday Mercury, December 4, 1864.

4 Sunday Mercury, December 11, 1864.

5 Ibid.

6 New York Clipper, December 24, 1864: 290; Sunday Mercury, December 13, 1863.

7 New York Clipper, December 22, 1860, 285; December 24, 1864: 290. Henry Chadwick, Beadle’s Dime Base Ball Player for 1864 (New York: Beadle and Company, 1864), 33.

8 Sunday Mercury, December 4, 1864.

9 Beadle’s, 1864, 35.

10 New York Clipper, December 17, 1864: 284, December 24, 1864: 290.

11 New York Clipper, December 24, 1864: 290.

12 New York Clipper, December 24, 1864: 290.

13 New York Clipper, December 24, 1864: 290; Sunday Mercury, December 4, 1864; Beadle’s, 1864, 16.

14 Sunday Mercury, December 4, 1864.

15 Beadle’s, 1864, 13.

16 New York Clipper, December 24, 1864: 290.

17 Sunday Mercury, December 4, 1864.

18 New York Clipper, December 24, 1864: 290.

19 Sunday Mercury, December 13, 1863.

20 Sunday Mercury, December 4, 1864, New York Clipper, December 17, 1864: 284.

21 New York Clipper, December 24, 1864: 290.

22 Sunday Mercury, December 11, 1864.

23 New York Clipper, December 24, 1864: 290.

24 Beadle’s, 1864, 33; Henry Chadwick, Beadle’s Dime Base Ball Player for 1865 (New York: Beadle and Company, 1865), 35-36; Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 15, 1864: 2.

25 Beadle’s, 1865, 36.

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