1868 Winter Meetings: ‘The Most Brilliant Season’ or ‘A Lamentable Failure’

This article was written by Jeffrey Koslowski

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


Baseball's 19th Century Winter Meetings: 1857-1900As the 1867 baseball season drew to a close, the sport was meeting and exceeding the goals that were anticipated by players and journalists alike. The anticipation that the “game of nines” would become the pastime of the United States had been predicted, and even perhaps prematurely proclaimed, for close to a decade.

Now, with the growth of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) and the emergence of teams “by thousands, extending from the shores of the Atlantic to the Pacific,” these ideas looked to be close to a true realization. Periodicals proclaimed in the spring of 1867 that, “of all games, base-ball is the most played in the country.”1

Yet, like all sports, baseball had its share of issues. Injuries were prevalent. Professionalism, while technically outlawed, was starting to develop a following of players who saw its merits. Gambling was a scourge on the game’s landscape that needed to be dealt with before it grew too large. Even the question of African-Americans on all-black or integrated teams needed to be answered.

With all of these looming issues, the NABBP winter meeting held in Philadelphia on December 11 looked to set some precedents that would take the game to the next level. Why was the meeting such a major tipping point for the fundamental and cultural future of baseball? It would prove to have major consequences for the future of the sport because of the rules put in place in an attempt to prolong the health of its players, the grudging holdouts of professionalism and its desired supporters of its legitimacy, and the establishment of a “color line” that would remain in place until Jackie Robinson was signed during the mid-twentieth century.

The National Association of Base Ball Players annual meeting came at the conclusion of a season of growth and prosperity. The National Base Ball Club of Washington concluded a tour of the West that featured matches in Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio, Louisville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Chicago.2 The tourists posted a record of nine wins and one loss but, more importantly, they displayed their game at its highest form to teams away from the East Coast that were looking for firsthand models of how the game was played by some of the best in the country.

The success of this trip also raised hopes for an even more ambitious series of games planned by the Atlantic Club of Brooklyn: a trip in 1868 that would include a stop in New Orleans and potential games in Mobile, Savannah, and Charleston.3 The trip was called off because of disagreements on gate receipts, but it, as well as the National Club’s venture, gave many confidence about the growth of the game. Baseball would be seen as a way to not only generate revenue but provide a healthy means for Americans to develop physically, psychologically, spiritually, and socially.

As December 11 approached, delegates from across the country were expected to come to Philadelphia in large numbers. The Philadelphia City Item expected a huge boom from the Midwest with 44 teams in Ohio, 55 in Illinois, 26 in Wisconsin, and 30 in Indiana.4 New York was expected to be there in force, but not all would welcome the New Yorkers’ presence. The Philadelphia Sunday Mercury vented displeasure at the “selfishness of the Gotham delegates,” who it said often put their own interests over those of Philadelphia clubs like the Keystones whenever they hosted teams from New York. The paper also expressed its disregard for Henry Chadwick, the man considered the voice of the game in the Empire State, and his potential rule changes. The Mercury wrote that if the “Father of Baseball” publicly announced any amendments to the rules of the game, an interpreter would be needed “to make them intelligible.”5

As December 11 dawned, delegates from across the United States converged on the Chestnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. Each club introduced itself and was met with a warm round of applause. The loudest applause went to the Atlantic Club as well as a team from Oregon and other “distant territories” which no doubt represented the exact spirit of what the NABBP was attempting to convey with a national pastime.6

After two days of bad weather and struggles with the local city transportation to get delegates to the convention, the meeting adjourned with an apparently softened Philadelphia contingent thanking Henry Chadwick “for his zeal and service in promoting the welfare of the game and the interests of the National Association.”7 The delegates went home with a list of changes, amendments, decisions, rulings, and, most of all, hope for a season that would bring their team growth and prosperity. They hoped for trophy balls, gate receipts, and championship wins. Most of all, they hoped for a growth in the game of base ball. They hoped to inspire others to start new clubs on which the next generation of players could be raised. They hoped that the game would catch on even further in the South and West. They hoped the “national” pastime would indeed be validated with clubs and they even hoped to inspire others from around the world to take up the game. For this to happen, the rulings made in December 1867 would need to serve as the bedrock. As it turned out, decisions were made that would be felt as baseball evolved over the next century and a half. Through 28 presidents, two World Wars, a cold war, two economic panics, a Great Depression, and Astroturf, these policy particulars would shape the game for better or worse.

Legendary Detroit Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell once called baseball “as simple as a ball and a bat.”8 Baseball, from its embryonic stages, never strayed beyond that formula. The ball, traditionally made of India rubber, wrapped in yarn, and covered in leather, had fluctuated in weight and circumference since its appearance in Section One of the 1857 rules. Prior to 1867, it could have weighed (at its most extreme), 6¼ ounces and measured over 10 inches in circumference.9 At the conclusion of the 1867 season, the ball slimmed down to between 5½ and 5¾ ounces and between 9½ and 9¾ inches in circumference.10 At this size, and with the lack of standardization of gloves as a permanent piece of playing equipment, hand injuries were fairly common among fielders.

While the ball would go through varying incarnations with regard to size and appearance, the bat remained relatively simple from the standpoint of rules. Since the National Association was founded in 1857, every legal bat had to maintain three specifications: It was to be made of wood, wholly and completely without any foreign products; it had to be round on all sides and not look like a cricket paddle; and at its widest point it could not exceed 2½ inches. Aside from these rules, players were free to experiment. Weights and counterweights were added to give a bat mass. Different types of wood were used and recommended based on the style of pitching. Chadwick recommended a lighter bat because “it is almost impossible to hit quick enough for swift pitching with a heavy bat.”11 However, an 1857 National Association bat could have resembled one from a decade later.

The Ball Player’s Chronicle, citing the “hundreds of broken fingers and injured hands from heavy balls,”12 felt that for the safety of players, the ball and bat had to be modified. The pitcher for the Champion Base Ball Club of Philadelphia, Mr. Oppy, had to leave a game with what the Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch described as a red-hot ball that nearly dislocated his arm, and the team’s first baseman, Mr. Buck, was forced out by a “daisy-trimmer” that resulted in a sprained ankle.13

The bat, as The Ball Player’s Chronicle noted, gave the striker a distinct advantage if it was allowed to be of any length that suited him. “If skillfully handled,” a bat without any limitation “would send a ball from the bat swift enough to break a fielder’s leg.”14

Its participants were the strongest and best of the clubs and they proved it by vanquishing their opponents. The baseball field was a battlefield, the muskets and bullets replaced by bats and balls. Injuries were common and precautions were being taken to prolong a player’s career. Change in the equipment was inevitable.

The first newspaper accounts of the Philadelphia conference give little indication of any discussion about the weight of the ball or the length of a bat. But the New York Clipper on December 28 published the rules that had been modified at the conference, and they included Rules One and Two, the ball and bat respectively. The ball’s weight was decreased a half-ounce and the bat’s maximum length was set at 42 inches. Was there any fanfare or discussion in Philadelphia among the delegates opposing this change? No, suggested the New York Sunday Mercury; they were “indorsed to the very letter” of their recommendation.15

Just before the meeting Chadwick called for other rule changes as well, including the removal of all restrictions placed on pitchers and hitters. Pitchers in 1867 were required to deliver the ball underhanded in a way that ensuring that it was neither jerked nor thrown to the batter. The rules defined a jerked ball as one in which “the pitcher’s arm touches his person when the arm is swung forward to deliver the ball” and defined a pitched ball as one thrown with “the arm … bent at the elbow, at an angle from the body, or horizontally from the shoulder, when it is swung forward to deliver the ball.”16 Chadwick felt that limitations on the pitcher put teams with good defense at a disadvantage. From an offensive standpoint, the batter would be put at a disadvantage and he wanted to make sure teams that were either offensive- or defensive-oriented would receive some form of benefit. He advocated for “a space of six feet square” for both the pitcher and batter “to take the step forward each have been hitherto prohibited from doing.”17 Chadwick was, in a sense, asking for the modern-day equivalent of a batter’s box and while this wouldn’t be adopted until after the 1867 meeting, it is interesting to see how he felt the game should have progressed.

The rules, according to Chadwick, should always be subject to change. “Each season’s experience shows the necessity of improvements,” he said. “The objection to any amendments to the rules, or changes in the game, on the old-fashioned plea that ‘what was good enough for our ancestors is good enough for us’ is an argument too puerile to have influence with any intelligent or progressive member of the fraternity.”18 The delegates in Philadelphia showed that they were willing to listen to proposed changes brought forward by the rules committee and passed them to the point where it was noted that “amendments to the playing rules have never been acted on in the convention with more harmony or with less opposition than were those presented and read to the convention by the acting Chairman of the committee.”19 Was it because it was the last piece of business before adjournment and delegates were hoping to beat the weather; was it the memory of bitter debates over the bound rule; or were these simply changes that needed to be made; or was it perhaps a combination of all three? The answer is unclear.

As of 2016, the baseball bat is still restricted to a maximum length of 42 inches. The ball, which has undergone a series of changes in both appearance and material, has been reduced in size by a quarter-inch inch since 1868, but the weight is just as the rules committee set it in December 1867.20 Players would continue to tinker with the design of a bat for years to come. The addition of gripping material near the handle, whether in the form of tape, wax, or pine tar, continues today. The practice of cupping a bat to remove excess weight was introduced later and is a legal measure (provided it still conforms to specifications). As player skills increased, so too did their ingenuity and desire to gain a competitive advantage. Extra hits and runs could lead to another element discussed at the conference — professional play.

The concept of professionalism first appeared as a defined rule in 1860. Section 36 stated, “No person who shall be in arrears to any other club, or who shall at any time receive compensation for his services as player, shall be competent to play in any match.”21 The 1867 rules took this a step further by adding that anyone who accepted money for his work on the diamond would be considered a professional and would thus be not allowed to participate in any match games. Furthermore, any club who either paid a player or who willingly employed a player would lose its membership in the National Association, as would any team who played the club.22 It was clear by the rules of the time that professionalism would not be tolerated by the NABBP. Why would such a hard line be drawn against players who used their skills on the baseball field for compensation?

The answer seems to lie in the realm of gamblers. Baseball leaders very clearly wanted to separate their game from the betting elements that had infiltrated horse racing and boxing, the two other major sports in the United States at the time. In order to achieve the growth, baseball had to appeal to all members of the family. It had to be the outdoor excursion a husband could take his wife to and know that the game would be conducted in the most proper of ways. Parents could take their children to show how players of great skill were using their talents the best and most honest way they knew how. It was felt that baseball players, who had other jobs and means of economic survival, would play for the exercise and fun. To add fiscal enhancements would subtract the purity from the game.

Gambling was a problem and a scourge in sporting society. The formalists of the game wanted to ensure that it stayed out. Professional gamblers were seen as putting the popularity of sports in jeopardy.23 The National Association was looking to make a firm stand against gambling. The game also struggled with the concept of “revolvers,” players who would voluntarily leave one team to join another. The reasons for leaving were rarely publicly announced but it was almost always related to the search for “greener pastures.”24 The NABBP rules had tried to curb this at the 1857 convention by enacting Section 27, which stated that players “must have been regular members of the club which they represent, for thirty days prior to the match.” But this was not strongly enforced and suspect teams disingenuously claimed that games with players who were in violation of Section 27 were merely “practice games.”25

Henry Chadwick made a pitch in the December 5 edition of the Ball Player’s Chronicle for allowing players to be compensated. He noted that the existing rules forced teams to pay players under the table. He compared professional baseball players to professional cricket players. If it was a question of the quality of people, Chadwick argued, compensation would not make a serious difference because “cricket professionals are, as a class, as honest as any that can be found.”26 He explained why rules against professionalism were created in the first place. It was not so much that paying a base ball player was wrong as it was about the parity of the games being played. This was about the creation of two different classes of players, professionals and amateurs. “By giving professionals a legal status,” Chadwick wrote, “we give them an honest position and afford them a chance to act honestly in it.”27

At the December meeting, aside from a change to the wording on Section 5 of the fifth rule (Section 41 as it was known the previous season), little was addressed about the simmering situation. That word change, however, put in motion the steps that eventually allowed professionalism. It was decided, with apparently little opposition, that the rule would simply read that “no person who shall be in arrears to any other club than the one he plays with, shall be competent to play in any match.” Stricken from the rule was the phrase, “or shall at any time receive compensation for his services as a player.”28 While it still left some question regarding being paid for play with regard to eligibility in the NABBP, it was a small step toward professionalism.

Chadwick was not done and in later editorials in his Chronicle articles, he attacked the stigma attached to the name “professional.” A professional baseball player carried with him a slanderous title that he did not think should stand. “Why should it necessarily follow that, because one ball player, out of a number who use their skill to earn money, is an ignorant fellow; vulgar in manners, low in language, and dishonest in his practices, all should be so?”29

In the February 23 edition of the Chronicle, an unnamed but self-confessed “professional base ball player” also spoke up about character: “Professional ball players have their characters in their own hands, that is, it depends upon themselves whether they are to rank with the reputable portion of the fraternity, or with the school of professionals who cultivate ‘plants’ like that which disgraced the game in 1865.”30 Voices were beginning to get louder. The Father of Baseball, the man who believed in changing rules for the sake of the evolution and improvement of the game, was advocating not just a rule change but a change in mindset. With gate money increasing beyond what the Knickerbockers and other clubs of the 1840s envisioned, it was time to stop thinking of players who were paid for their skills as ruffians and start giving them a chance to showcase their abilities honestly.

The delegates, with little fanfare, had made decisions that would affect the game for the next century and beyond. Still, more business lay at hand. With the growing popularity of base ball and the forming of new teams, should future National Association meetings allow every team to attend? Could a small handful of delegates speak for an entire state’s interests? Culturally, the biggest decision made at the Chestnut Street Theater would pass early and quietly — the question of race.

African-Americans playing baseball was not a new concept. The earliest recorded game between two all-black teams took place in November 1859 in New York City.31 Over the next eight seasons, teams composed of black players would form throughout the East, both in the North and South. Perhaps no club was more prominently known than the Pythians of Philadelphia. Led by Octavius Catto and Jacob C. White Jr., they won the majority of their games while also fighting for African-American rights.

The relationship between the Pythians and the rest of Philadelphia was mixed at best. As author Ryan A. Swanson noted, the Athletics of Philadelphia had what could be described as an “amicable” relationship with the Pythians, who shared their baseball grounds, a luxury almost no other African-American team in the country had.32 Several members of the Athletics attended a game in which the Pythians hosted the Alert Base Ball Club of Washington. The Athletics, referred to as “experts,” were portrayed as offering a form of mentorship to the Pythians. Whether this was true or just the Mercury’s view that it showed the black club as being subordinate to their white counterparts is open to debate.

The Pythians found another ally in Colonel Thomas Fitzgerald. As the editor of the Philadelphia City Item and founder of the Athletic Base Ball Club, Fitzgerald was an early champion of equality. He used his newspaper to be “constantly aggressive in all that relates to the quality of Man before the Law and ever striving to break down barriers of Prejudice and Caste.”33 He tried for years to arrange for an interracial match that he hoped would ease tensions in a Philadelphia that was, like the rest of the country trying to find its voice and place with regard to race relations.

Coverage in the local newspaper and the use of the same grounds as the major team in the city would seem like a big deal for a group fighting to be recognized as equals, but this could only survive if Fitzgerald was in power. Unfortunately for the Pythians, this ended in 1866 when he was forced to resign under mysterious circumstances. Allegations ranged from the payment of his players to being “ignorant of the decencies of social intercourse, the privacy of business relations, and the sanctity of domestic life.”34 Swanson argued that it was Fitzgerald’s Republican leanings and pursuit of basic human rights for African-Americans that led to his dismissal shortly after his re-election as president of the Athletics in early 1866.35

Regardless of the cause, the Pythians were without their biggest advocate and now had to deal with an even bigger issue. At the 1866 National Convention in New York more than 200 teams and organizations were represented.36 With baseball expanding and the hope that it would grow even more in the coming seasons, the logistical concerns with housing and transporting even more teams and representatives were frightening even for a major city like Philadelphia, which was to host the 1867 meeting. Henry Chadwick believed that teams residing in a state in which a state organization was formed must belong to that state organization in order to be able to attend the National Convention.37

This meant the Pythians would need to join the Pennsylvania Association of Base Ball Players (PABBP) and, without their biggest white supporter in Colonel Fitzgerald this would be easier said than done. Finding whites willing to act on the Pythians’ behalf was next to impossible. Pythian vice president Raymond Burr said that “whilst all expressed sympathy for our club, a few only … expressed a willingness to vote for our admission.”38 Upon seeing that no help would be provided, Burr withdrew his club’s request to join the PABBP.

At the National Convention later that year, what was announced, moved and passed about race would send shockwaves throughout the baseball community that would be felt until the middle of the twentieth century. Shortly after the roll call, the Nominating Committee’s report was read, “the feature of it being a recommendation to reject all appearance from colored clubs for representation in the association.” The New York Sunday Mercury reported that this was fully endorsed by the convention and the report was adopted “with but few dissenting votes.”39 The purpose seemed to be focused on baseball matters. It was “to keep out of the convention the discussion of any subjects having a political bearing, as this undoubtedly had.”40 With no other reference to it for the remainder of the convention, the first official color line on a national scale was drawn.

Was this as critical a matter in 1867 as we see it in the twenty-first century? If it was, why would the NABBP endorse it? The truth seems to lie in the goals of baseball beyond 1868. Henry Chadwick, in an editorial for the American Chronicle of Pastimes and Sports, was excited for the progress that baseball would make in the South. “The game has taken strong root in popular estimation, and we trust, ere many years have elapsed, to learn of our anticipations in regard to Southern ball players being fully realized; and these are that the South will one day furnish the most expert and brilliant ball players the country has yet seen.”41 The desire was for the game to move into a region of the country still reeling from losing the Civil War. Were they prepared for yet another Northern invasion?

National Association President Arthur Gorman seemed like the right person to have in place if national expansion was the goal. As one of the founding members of the National Base Ball Club of Washington, his election as president of the NABBP was just what the sport seemed to need. The perception of the Nationals as a “Southern” team (according to Northern newspapers, at least) gave the perception that Gorman would help increase the popularity of the game to the South.

In doing so, however, African-American baseball was made to suffer. The National Association, knowingly or unknowingly, had traded integration for potential growth. What was worse was the lack of reciprocal feelings Southern teams had toward their Northern counterparts. The Union Base Ball Club of Richmond rejected a proposal for membership from the NABBP with the sole reason being, “We are Southerners.”42 Less than three years after the Civil War, the wounds of the South were still fresh and the balm of baseball would not be enough to soothe them. The conclusion of the meeting and the coming season brought about very mixed emotions. Henry Chadwick was extremely excited when he said that “(N)o one can look upon the approach of the summer season of 1868 without being fully convinced that the fairest prospects exist for marking it as the most brilliant season known in the annals of base ball.”43 “Old Peto Brine” in an editorial in January 1868 did not feel as strongly as Chadwick. “We used to play matches for the honor of the thing in my young ball days; now clubs play for gate money and the betting rings.”44

Perhaps the most scathing comment about the 1867 National Convention was printed by Colonel Fitzgerald’s Philadelphia City Item:

“The Base Ball Convention was a lamentable failure. The principal business seemed to be opposition to the colored man. The ‘roughs’ of the assembly were united in their determination to keep ‘the nigger’ out in the cold. … Base ball is in a serious decline hereabouts.”45

Baseball moved forward. Over the next several seasons, the Pythians played several games against white opponents, some with Colonel Fitzgerald present and occasionally umpiring.46 But Octavius Catto would not live to see many more games. During an election in Philadelphia in 1871, he was murdered in the streets at the height of a series of race riots.47 Fitzgerald died in 1891, never to see the time when African-Americans were encouraged to play alongside their white counterparts. Gorman, the Southerner who engaged the wheels of African-American baseball repression, would be elected to the US Senate from Maryland, where he voted against a measure that would have assisted black citizens with voting in the South.48

The effects of the National Convention meeting in December 1867 would be felt for decades. Equipment changes were introduced to improve player safety. Continued discussion and modification of rules pertaining to professionalism were held as feelings against pay began to soften. African-American players felt the harsh pain of exclusion from baseball as a Southern-sympathizing baseball impresario denied them national recognition on the grounds of the game’s expansion and unwillingness to make baseball a political issue. Whether positively or negatively, the game continued to evolve in a manner that would put it more and more prominently in the public eye.

 

Notes

1 Charles J. Foster, “Early Summer Sports Base-Ball and Cricket,” in Our Young Folks. An Illustrated Magazine for Boys and Girls, May, 1867: 1.

2 Peter Morris, But Didn’t We Have Fun? An Informal History of Baseball’s Pioneer Era, 1843-1870 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2008), 138.

3 Henry Chadwick, The American Chronicle of Sports and Pastimes, January 2, 1868: 3.

4 Philadelphia City Item, December 14, 1867: 1.

5 Philadelphia Sunday Mercury, December 8, 1867: 1.

6 New York Sunday Mercury, December 15, 1867: 1.

7 Ibid.

8 Ernie Harwell, Induction Day speech, National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York, August 2, 1981.

9 Beadle’s Dime Base-Ball Player, 1862.

10 Henry Chadwick, Haney’s Base Ball Book of Reference (Bedford, Massachusetts: Applewood Books, 1867), 9.

11 Chadwick, Haney’s, 10.

12 The Ball Player’s Chronicle, December 5, 1867: 4.

13 Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch, June 2, 1867: 2.

14 The Ball Player’s Chronicle, December 5, 1867: 4.

15 New York Sunday Mercury, December 15, 1867: 1.

16 Chadwick, Haney’s, 14.

17 The Ball Player’s Chronicle, December 5, 1867: 4.

18 Ibid.

19 New York Sunday Mercury, December 15, 1867: 1.

20 Major League Baseball Official Rule Book, 2015, 17.

21 Beadle’s Dime Base-Ball Player, 1860.

22 Chadwick, Haney’s, 31-32.

23 “The Base-Ball Season,” in The Galaxy. A Magazine of Entertainment Reading, October 1868 (American Periodicals, 563).

24 Marshall D. Wright, The National Association of Base Ball Players, 1857-1870 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2000), 188.

25 Ibid.

26 The Ball Player’s Chronicle, December 5, 1867: 4.

27 Ibid.

28 New York Sunday Mercury, December 15, 1867: 1.

29 The Ball Player’s Chronicle, January 23, 1868: 4.

30 The Ball Player’s Chronicle, February 23, 1868: 3.

31 James Overmyer, “Early Days,” in Lawrence D. Hogan, Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball. (Washington: National Geographic, 2006), 6.

32 Ryan A. Swanson, When Baseball Went White: Reconstruction, Reconciliation, & Dreams of a National Pastime. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), 42.

33 Overmyer, 15.

34 Philadelphia Sunday Mercury, September 9, 1866: 1.

35 Swanson, 60-66.

36 New York Sunday Mercury, December 16, 1866: 1.

37 Swanson, 76.

38 Swanson, 78.

39 New York Sunday Mercury, December 15, 1867: 1.

40 Robert Peterson, Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams (New York: Gramercy Books, 1970), 17.

41 American Chronicle of Pastimes and Sports, March 5, 1868: 3.

42 Swanson, 21.

43 American Chronicle of Pastimes and Sports. March 5, 1868: 3.

44 American Chronicle of Pastimes and Sports, January 9, 1868: 2.

45 Philadelphia City Item, December 21, 1867: 1.

46 William J. Ryczek, When Johnny Came Sliding Home: The Post-Civil War Baseball Boom, 1865-1870 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1998), 101.

47 Swanson, 144.

48 Swanson, 105.

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