The Antioch Connection: The First Professional Game?

This article was written by Dan Hotaling

This article was published in 1983 Baseball Research Journal

One of the best books ever written about baseball was Baseball in Cincinnati, A History, by Harry Ellard, copyrighted in 1907. It is rich in details, anecdotes, human insights, descriptive passages, poems, songs, and excellent photographs of all the leading personalities. It also has an error or two.

An example of the latter, which has perpetuated a misconception for years, occurs in Chapter IV on page 154 under the heading “The First Regular Game.” Ellard is describing the 1869 season of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball’s first all-professional team, or so the tale goes. The total payroll was listed as $9,300. After a few “practice” games at home, the team launched, on the road, what was to be the first official season of a fully professional baseball club — the first game to be in Yellow Springs, Ohio, against the Antioch College Nine.

This historic game was scheduled in Yellow Springs for Monday, May 31, and Harry Ellard describes it as having happened. But, it was never played!

The season began with a tour of midwestern and eastern teams. In September, after a home stand, the team traveled to the West Coast. In effect, Cincinnati challenged any and all baseball clubs willing to host them and share receipts. Although some players on other teams were paid, openly or not, all other teams were classified as amateur in 1869. Not one of the opponents of the Red Stockings that year could beat the great professionals of Cincinnati.

Here is what Ellard says about the departure from Cincinnati of the Redstocking Nine on Monday morning, May 31, 1869: “It arrived at Yellow Springs, and that afternoon had its first regular game of the tour with the Antioch College Nine, defeating it by a score of 41 to 7.”

He goes on to describe the “second game” with the Mansfield, Ohio   Independents, the Red Stockings winning 48 to 14. Then on through the entire season of 57 or 58 or 65 games, depending on your method of counting. There is, of course, much made of the famous 4 to 2 victory over the Mutuals of New York, the controversial tie with the Haymakers of Troy, and the triumphal return home.

For years around Antioch College, the word was that our pioneering educational institution had played the first game with the unbeatable Red Stockings of 1869. Pride filled our history-minded hearts  especially since Antioch’s Co-operative Education Program of alternating work and study for all students had long since forced the elimination of intercollegiate sports from the College’s offerings.

Aaron Burr Champion, the energetic young President of the Red Stockings (“I would rather be President of the Red Stockings than President of the United States”), had studied ten years earlier under Horace Mann, first Antioch College President. Champion thus felt that the location, timing, and historical significance were perfect for Yellow Springs as the site of the first game. It was also felt that Antioch had a good team and would make a worthy opponent.

And now for the reason why that “first game” was not played in old Yellow Springs. Heavy rain persisted that day throughout Southwest Ohio. The Red Stockings, plus some of the contemporary groupies and women fans (reminiscent of the unfortunate Washington picnickers eight years earlier at the first Battle of Bull Run), made the trip to Yellow Springs by special car of the Little Miami Railroad. They were elaborately entertained and feasted at Johnson’s Yellow Springs House, but sad to say, the game was totally wiped out by the bad weather and impossible playing conditions.

Antioch College and Yellow Springs certainly can claim the first scheduled game of the first professional tour of the Cincinnati Red Stockings. Perhaps hosting the first official rainout is distinction enough!

Why had Harry Ellard written in his famous book that the first game was in Yellow Springs? It must have been a careless oversight since he knew the game had been scheduled and since he knew there was a game between the two teams in 1869. He even lists it in his summary of the entire season, pages 170 to 172. However in the summary he lists it correctly as having been played two weeks earlier, May 15. Therefore, it was one of the “practice” games, number five actually, played on the Union Grounds in Cincinnati.

The central figure of the Antioch Nine, pitcher and captain Hugh Taylor Birch, later became a prominent lawyer, real estate investor, and naturalist. Today, Glen Helen in Yellow Springs and Hugh Taylor Birch State Park in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, perpetuate his love of natural beauty and a clean environment.

The actual Antioch game, won by Cincinnati 41 to 7, was significant and held much promise as a warm up for the Big One to be played two weeks later in Yellow Springs. The following account of the game, written by special correspondent for the Reds, Harry M. Millar, appeared in the Cincinnati Commercial on Sunday, May 16, 1869.


Cincinnati vs. Antioch

The game in the Union Grounds yesterday afternoon, between the Cincinnati and Antioch College Nine of Yellow Springs, Ohio was a very interesting one, and was witnessed by a rather large concourse of spectators. The Antiochs have been improved wonderfully since last season, and have provided them with a new and neat uniform, consisting of gray pants, shirts, and caps. Across the breast of the shirts is a large old English “A”. The score of the game last season was 45 to 15. They have an excellent pitcher whose delivery is very swift. Their fielders are well adapted for play, and succeeded admirably in the game yesterday. The Antioch, we are of the opinion, is the best amateur club in the State, with the exception of the Forest City Club, of Cleveland, and the Independents, of Mansfield. The return game will be played shortly, and should draw a large audience. The players are, as a general thing, tall, well built, and in every respect perfect gentlemen. The Cincinnatis batting was very poor, but they did admirably in every other way. The following is the score:

May 15, 1869 box score: Antioch vs. Cincinnati Red Stockings

Well, then, what was the first professional game?

Was it Practice Game Number One on April 17 against a local Picked Nine, won by the Red Stockings 24 to 15?

Was it Practice Game Number Three on May 4 against Great Western of Cincinnati, won by the Red Stockings 45 to 9? The Cincinnati Commercial of May 1 had advertised this game as “The First Regular Match Game This Season.”

Was it the first tour game, June 1st, in Mansfield against the Independents, won by the Red Stockings 48 to 14?

Was it an unidentified game the next year in 1870 when both teams admitted to paying all their players?

Was it an unidentified earlier game back in the 1860s when teams pretended not to pay their players, but did?

You decide. I think I’ll secretly pretend my Antioch Nine can claim the glory! Some myths are relatively harmless…