EARLY BASEBALL IN WASHINGTON , D.C. : HOW THE WASHINGTON NATIONALS HELPED DEVELOP AMERICA 'S GAME
By Frank Ceresi and Carol McMains
Today Washington D.C. is primarily known as being the home of our nation's expansive central government and a wealth of great museums. The city is also steeped in politics. That seems to be our claim to fame, in a sense. Even though locals and long-time residents know of the other hidden treasures within the District, very few people are aware that in many ways our fair city helped give the game of baseball its rich national identity . . . over 150 years ago! Now it is time to crack open records that have existed for a century and a half and set the record straight!
A thorough review of the recent “find” of baseball materials, known simply as the “French Collection,” that is found within the archives of the Washington Historical Society gives us a perfect opportunity to analyze Washington D.C.'s significant role in the development of the very game that is still popularly called “our national pastime.” In order for us to fully appreciate Washington's role in the context of the game's development, let us first review baseball's beginnings and take a trip back in time to enjoy baseball as it existed in its crucial formative years around the time of the Civil War.
While the origins of the national pastime have taken on mythical proportions, history tells us that as long as there has been a child throwing a ball towards another child swinging a stick, there has always been something akin to baseball. Historians have even traced loosely defined bat and ball games to ancient civilizations. We know that contrary to the major league sanctioned Mills Commission Report from 1907, issued after a three-year investigation yielding scant evidence, the game was not “invented” out of whole cloth in 1839 by Abner Doubleday one summer morning on a pastoral river bank in Cooperstown, New York. Doubleday was, in many respects, a great man who achieved prominence as a Union General during the Civil War, but he had very little, if anything, to do with the game of baseball.
In truth, the evolution of the game evolved over many decades, if not centuries, and its roots are, in reality, a tangled web of bat and ball games brought to this country by immigrants. Some things are, however, certain. We know that baseball does have definite ties to the old English game of rounders and its cousin, the more formal and genteel game of cricket. Also, during the time period that our nation was literally taking form, there are many references of youngsters playing “town ball,” an American form of rounders, in village greens throughout the northeastern part of the United States . Other similar ball games played on this side of the Atlantic Ocean in the late 1700's and for the first decades of the 1800's are the Dutch game of “stool ball,” an English game called “old cat” which actually featured a batter, pitcher and two bases, and yet another game balkanized from rounders called “goal ball.” In that game, the “goal” of the runner was to touch a series of bases.
How did the popularity of “bat and ball” games stack up against other sporting and recreational activities of the time? Not very well, it seems, as records are replete with references that small towns such as Worcester , Massachusetts and even Cooperstown , New York , the future home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, banned youngsters from playing the game. Early on the game was viewed as not much more than a child's game or public nuisance. During the first three decades of the 19 th century the only truly organized sport of interest was horseracing, a sport that really reflected the agrarian and rural makeup of the vast majority of our country. True, adult men frequented taverns where they enjoyed a game of billiards or ninepins while drinking and gambling and, on occasion, they also witnessed boxing matches. But it was horse racing in the large open fields on well worn dirt tracks, whether thoroughbred or steeplechase racing of the gentry class, or bareback racing enjoyed by the middle and lower classes, that would draw large and enthusiastic crowds of spectators.
By 1840 things were beginning to change swiftly as the country's new industrialism began to take hold and country life, so dependent on large areas of land mass, began to give way to city life and crowds of people. The result? New forms of leisure and recreation were needed. Soon field sports and informal schoolyard games were becoming less available to workers in towns and cities. It was within the context of this void that baseball, as we know it today, began to assert itself as a game to be reckoned with.
The first real turning point in the development of baseball occurred in 1842 in the biggest, most bustling city of them all, New York City . For what occurred that summer was that a group of middle to upper class gentlemen, in the newly prosperous Manhattan section of the City of New York, met to play regularly scheduled games of baseball “for health and recreation” against each other and occasionally against others throughout the city. They formed a team and called themselves the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York. Today, the Knickerbockers are universally regarded as the nation's first organized baseball club. They regularly met after work, generally around mid afternoon, to enjoy each other's company and the game that they found exhilarating.
Three years later a serious young Knickerbocker, Alexander Joy Cartwright, a bank teller by trade and part-time volunteer fireman, suggested to the others that the team become more organized, schedule games with other like minded young men in rival “clubs” that were springing up in the New York City environs and adopt a set of rules. On September 23, 1845 the rules, forever known as the “ New York ” rules, were drawn up and codified and the seeds of something big were sown. Soon the men went so far as to leave the crowded Manhattan and travel by ferry to Hoboken , New Jersey . There they played and practiced base ball on a grassy picnic grove called Elysian Fields overlooking the Hudson River .
Clearly something was in the air but for the next decade and a half, although other areas of the northeast sprouted ball clubs of one form or another, real organized competitive baseball was pretty much confined to New York City and its immediate suburbs. Even though “baseball momentum” clearly emerged from the valiant efforts of the Knickerbockers and their cross-town rivals, the Gothams, history tells us that in New York City the most popular outdoor team bat and ball sport of the late 1850's was not baseball . . . it was cricket! After all, it was only 75 years that this young country split from England , the motherland, and old habits die hard. Even in Hoboken , New Jersey , right on Elysian Fields, the “home” grounds of the Knickerbockers, a crowd of 24,000 men and women strong gathered in 1859 to watch their favorite players in a game not of baseball, but of cricket! That kind of crowd dwarfed the number of spectators attending baseball matches in the 1850's. That was, however, about to change drastically. Within the next decade, baseball would become far more popular than Alexander Cartwright, his Knickerbocker teammates or anyone else could have possibly imagined.
The Baseball Explosion Begins: Here Come the Nationals
It is during this precise time period that something began to stir in Washington D.C. , the nation's capital, and a city on the verge of being swept into the great Civil War. It started innocently enough when a group of mostly Federal Government employees decided they should take a cue from their counterparts up north and form an organized baseball team. That team would be known as the Washington Nationals. A careful review of the activities of the Nationals from their inception, during the Civil War and throughout the key decade of the 1860's clearly illustrates that the Washington Nationals were quite significant to the development of the national pastime.
How influential were they? The fact of the matter is that the Washington Base Ball Club would eventually help ignite a baseball boom that, for all intents and purposes, continues to this day. Not only were the Nationals one of the first dominant organized ball clubs in the country, but in 1867 they would embark on a journey to the west that would sow the seeds of the game in communities throughout the land. Further, as news of their superb ball playing abilities on the diamond spread through the pen of journalist Henry Chadwick, our country's first sportswriter, their popularity and influence deepened. The result was that by the end of the decade the Nationals became central to baseball clearly becoming, as Walt Whitman would say, “ America 's game.”
It all began, as mentioned, innocently enough. That the men were civil servants gave the group an air of respectability for government workers of that era were a considerable force in the social and economic life of the city. The group, though certainly not wealthy, was comprised of upper middle class workers who were envied for their wage rate, steady pay and job security. Accounts of the day report that many were “thrilled” by the prospects of deserting taverns and the Willard and Ebbitt Hotel bars for the “wholesome, invigorating outdoors.” Quickly, and with a grim determination that would make any governmental bureaucrat proud, the officers undertook the task of writing rules for their club. The group formally organized a ball club, naming it the Washington Nationals Base Ball Club. They elected James Morrow, a clerk from the Pension Office, as President, and Joseph L. Wright, the Official Doorkeeper of the United States House of Representatives, as Vice President. Arthur Pue Gorman, the 22-year-old chosen as Secretary, also worked on Capitol Hill. He was a messenger but displayed crack political instincts. He later made his mark, not only on the field but off it as well. Mr. Gorman became a reliable player for the Nationals, an organizer who helped hatch the team's “grand tour of the west” directly after the Civil War and a long-time United States Senator from the State of Maryland .
What was the look and feel of the game of baseball during this critical time period in the game's development? Because of the recent find of baseball documents related to the Washington Nationals, which are commonly referred to as the “French Collection,” we are able to peek inside the team's rule book and get a flavor of the game as it existed at the time of the Civil War. First, though, who was Mr. French? E.F. French was a gentleman who worked at the Treasury Department in 1859. He was a founding member of the Nationals and played second base for the team for many years. He was also the ball club's second President, after James Morrow, and served in that capacity from 1862 through 1866. We can only surmise that Mr. French was critical to the make up of the Rule Book, but whether he was or not is of little import. What is important is what the rules tell us about the game they helped launch. They tell us plenty.
First, they tell us that baseball, when the Nationals first formed, was clearly an amateur, not professional sport. Not only were there no salaried players, but membership on the Nationals required dues to be paid by the players to the club, initially of 50 cents and 25 cents each and every month thereafter. Second, the membership was exclusive. Article I of the Constitution declared that the club would have no more than 40 members and “gentlemen wishing to become members may be proposed” and thereafter would be “balloted for.” What did that mean? It meant that membership was not guaranteed, not by a long shot for Article II set up a “committee of inquiry” and membership would be denied by “three black balls!”
Of further importance to gaining an understanding of how the game was played is that the Rules contained within the Constitution's Bylaws set forth a definite and stringent code of conduct for the ball players. Simply put, the club wanted the men on the field of play to be exemplary and polite. This was clearly thought to be a way to weed out riff raff and gamblers who frequented horse races and boxing matches. Article II of the Bylaws admonished that a fine of 10 cents would be levied at any member who used “improper or profane language.” It didn't stop there! If you, as a member of the Nationals, “disputed an umpire's call” you “shall” be fined a quarter. Worse yet, if you “audibly expressed (your) opinion on a doubtful play before the decision of an umpire,” you would be a dime poorer. Let's say you did not agree with your team captain's lead on the field. Forget it! Anyone “refusing obedience to a team captain” would be fined 10 cents.
Other rules are not quite as quaint when viewed through the lens of contemporary life, but they certainly illustrate the game as it was played. Though baseballs were specific as to size and weight, they were harder and smaller than what is used today. Also, “wood” bats were limited in size and dimension but they were larger and longer than those commonly used in the modern game. Baseball in 1860 was definitely a hitter's (called the “striker”) game. Article III, Rule 6 of the Bylaws nails that point. It specifies that the ball must be “pitched” not “jerked or thrown” to the striker. The rule literally directed the pitcher to heave the ball, in a discus-like motion, towards the striker in a way that would almost assure a hit. As was the baseball custom of the day, the striker could tell the pitcher exactly where to place the ball. If the pitcher didn't “pitch” the ball to the striker's liking, but instead “threw or jerked” it in a confusing manner, the umpire could call out a warning, “ball to the bat!”, and walk the striker after only three called balls. Lest one would think, however, that the game, essentially handcuffing the pitcher, was an easy walk in the park compared to the game as it is played today, there were no gloves and unless a fielder was to catch the hard ball in his hat, he must only use his hands.
By the next summer, on July 2, 1860 , the Washington Star recorded the first box score for teams representing the District of Columbia . In this game, Art Gorman, scored six runs and Mr. French added five of his own, as the Nationals beat the Washington Potomacs Ball Club. The Potomacs, likely filled with other men with government related jobs, did not have the staying power of the Nationals as any reference whatsoever to “the Potomacs” shortly disappeared from local papers. They apparently were not that great either, as they got trounced, 46 to 14, by the stronger Nationals club in Washington 's historic first recorded game.
The Civil War Years
Washington D.C. , the central seat of the United States Government was, of course, in the “eye of the hurricane” during the Civil War years. For citizens of the District of Columbia , those were tense and trying times because not only was the city the focal point and symbol for a unified nation, but it was very precariously situated. After all, Richmond , the capital of the Confederacy, was less than a hundred miles south of the District line. Yet, through it all, baseball in Washington , as in many parts of the northeast, did not halt. The game actually flourished.
One of the chief reasons that the game prospered during the war was that it, unlike many other sporting and recreational games, was portable. That is, it could be played in any relatively open field in the great outdoors. All you needed was a bat or large stick, a ball, at least some knowledge of the rules of the game and, of course, willing participants. Remember there were no gloves, no catcher's or other equipment to lug around and, unlike cricket, you did not need nicely manicured grass. Besides, for the soldier on the field whose days were spent either drilling or being terrified that they might soon be engaged in a form of hand-to-hand combat, the game was a welcome relief. In short, not only did it lend itself to the feeling of being part of a team, a nice feature in a military setting, but it was fun! One soldier from Virginia in 1862 said it best when he wrote:
It is astonishing how indifferent a person can become to danger. . . The report of musketry is heard a little distance from us . . . yet over there on the other side of the road is most of our company playing Bat Ball and perhaps in less than a half an hour they may be called to play a ball game of a more serious nature.
In the meantime, the Washington Nationals were doing their part to keep the game going during the Civil War years. Although the city's other team, their rivals, the Potomacs, disbanded with the outbreak of the Civil War, the Nationals kept playing whenever and wherever possible. In fact, one of the Nationals' biggest games of 1861 was played on July 2 against the 71 st New York Regiment. The team of New Yorkers was well-schooled in the intricacies of the game and their superiority on the field showed as they won 41 to 13. That game would be, however, the New Yorkers' last bit of frivolity for that Regiment was on its way to Manassas , Virginia . Within a few short days the 71 st would be surprised by the strength of the Confederate Army and the Regiment sustained very heavy losses in the famous Battle of Bull Run.
For the next two years, most of the Nationals games were played locally. All of the ball clubs in the Washington area that sprouted up during this time sported names that perfectly captured the tenor of the times and Washington 's prominence as the capital city -- the Washington Nationals, Washington Unions and Washington Jeffersons. After all, this was a period of intense patriotism in the city that housed the Federal Government during the time when the outcome of the Civil War was far from certain. The Nationals played both of the other District teams, winning each and every time they played. For the first game of the 1862 season, on May 20, the Nationals welcomed the newly formed “ Jeffersons ” into the baseball community by tattooing them for a 40 run victory, 62 to 22. Ned Hibbs of the Nationals socked five home runs in that game, future senator Gorman hit three others, and Mr. French himself tallied nine runs. The game was covered in a local newspaper and the following telling line was recorded. “The spectators of the game were numerous and cheered bravely whenever a home run or fine catch was made.” What does that tell us today? Despite the Civil War battles that were literally surrounding Washington D.C. in early 1862, the game drew “numerous spectators.” Also, similar to crowds that would congregate today in any baseball stadium in the land, fans at the game enjoyed seeing the long ball being hit!
In August of 1862 the Nationals again played against New York 's 71 st Regiment in Tenleytown , Maryland (now part of the District of Columbia ). This time, however, the result of the rematch game would be different as the Nationals were victorious 28 to 13. The final score at first glance might indicate that the Nationals were becoming more talented on the field although the New York 71 st manpower was, by then, depleted due to the ravages of war. The box score and roster of the game, the only one known to exist in any form whatsoever, is neatly handwritten in the French Collection materials, presumably by French himself. By midseason the following year, the Nationals kept playing despite the increased volatility of life in the nation's capital. In July of 1863, as the Battle of Gettysburg raged north of the city in Pennsylvania , the Nationals played ball and were drawing crowds wherever they went. They won all games they played against the Jeffersons, the Unions and a new Baltimore club, the Pastimes.
Members of the Nationals team were gaining stature outside of the baseball diamond as well. Crafty second baseman Arthur Gorman, newly elected as the team President, was named the Postmaster of the Senate. His climb up the political ladder would in time benefit the team greatly. Others who played, or who would play, for the Nationals saw significant combat action during the war. One such ball player, Seymour Studley, was not only wounded but almost died of heat stroke while fighting for the Union .
The Nationals continued to test their skills against Union soldiers right up until the very end of the war. For example, on May 17, 1865 the team battled the 133 rd Regiment of New York in a game played at Fort Meigs in Maryland as the Union troops were mustering out of the military. What is most interesting about that particular game is the almost genteel tone of the game summary that appeared in the newspaper clipping that is found in the French Collection. Although the newspaper column is not identified, its substance is very revealing especially when the reader considers the light mood that must have pervaded the soldiers as well as the civilians on the Nationals ball club . . . for this game took place barely six weeks after General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appotomax outside of Lynchburg, Virginia. It was reported that, “Each and all of the nines (the starting lineup) played in first class style endeavoring to make it an interesting and agreeable match.” Further, the men apparently worked up a nice appetite as the paper reported, matter of factly, that, “During the progress of the game a handsome collation (light meal) was spread and the urbanity of the officers and members of the 133 rd added much to the entertainment!”
Hungry or not, 1865 was quite a year as the Nationals ball players kept winning. The Civil War had ended and Washingtonians were ready to celebrate! Baseball helped fill that void and the game's popularity was cemented in the capital city forever. Nice sized crowds, from several hundred into the thousands, saw the team take on and beat all comers, from the Baltimore Pastimes and that city's newly formed Enterprise Club, to the Nationals' old rivals, the Washington Unions. On August 22, 1865 , the Nationals beat Washington 's “other” team, the Jeffersons, in what the newspapers dubbed the “Great Baseball Match for the Championship of the South.” This might have, in reality, been a bit of local hyperbole, probably induced by their newly elected President, the clever and politically connected Postmaster Gorman. However, the Nationals did win “the championship” game, 34 to 14, and within a couple of days two of the “better” Northern teams accepted an invitation from Mr. Gorman himself to play the “champs” in a “baseball tournament” right in the capital city. Here there was no hyperbole . . . this would be big!
Baseball and High Society in the Nation's Capital
The teams that Mr. Gorman invited to the tournament were the two most powerful baseball clubs in the country during the 1865 season. The Atlantics from Brooklyn , New York were undefeated, winning all 18 of their games. That team featured the very popular Dickey Pearce, a great shortstop who some credit with having literally invented the bunt. The Philadelphia Athletics were no slouches either. They won all except three of their games for the year and showcased the talented and influential Albert Reach. Some say Reach was the first player ever to be paid for his baseball skills, thus making him a “professional ballplayer,” although his real mark in the game he loved was made later on as a businessman. When his playing days concluded, Reach opened a sporting goods company, A.J. Reach and Company, and made a fortune manufacturing baseball equipment.
Even with this impressive talent on its way down from the north, the wily Mr. Gorman knew what to do to really put the Nationals on the front pages! A newspaper clipping, likely from a local paper, in the French Collection hand dated August 28 th tells the story in detail. The column tells us that Arthur Gorman met the ball clubs at the train station in Washington D.C. in what turned out to be a very significant three-day stay. Why? Arthur Gorman was savvy enough to create a welcoming atmosphere by not only showcasing his beloved Nationals but by exposing his guests to the trappings of a city that was really coming into its own. Gorman did what hundreds of politicians have done since that time . . . he rolled out the red carpet in a serious way. He led the visiting ball clubs by four horse coaches draped with American flags for a special tour the United States Capitol and followed that treat by taking his visitors to the White House to meet President Andrew Johnson himself. Though the players missed the President on that day's visit, they would meet him the next day at the presidential home. This was the very first time a sport team would be received by the President of the United States ! New York might have Wall Street and Philadelphia its cracked bell, but the District has the leader of the entire country. The visitors were suitably impressed.
After the White House visit, the guests went to their rooms at the Willard Hotel , freshened up and proceeded to join the Nationals at the “Presidential Grounds” to play baseball. The game might have been interesting but the show was really in the stands. What stands, say you? It seems that Mr. Gorman was able to not only arrange the team's Presidential visit, but he made sure that spectator seats were erected on the Presidential Grounds where the gentlemen of government, including Cabinet level appointees, escorted their “belles of the capital” in their finery to watch the contest. Not only that, but the fans had the privilege of actually paying a hefty one dollar charge to enter the grounds to watch the affair. The fans could not have been happier to pay! Even though the Philadelphians, and next day the New Yorkers, won both games, five thousand of Washington 's elite witnessed more than a pair of baseball games . . . they witnessed a tournament turn into a social event at a most opportune time. The gala atmosphere was just what the still war weary city, indeed the nation, really needed. The game of baseball, almost as a backdrop, had now really come into its own. Also, the “battle” for sports supremacy was now over and baseball was the victor! As the American Chronicle of Sports and Pastimes stated in 1868, baseball had changed more in ten years than cricket had in 400 . . . because it adapted to the American circumstances.
For the next year and a half, the Nationals capitalized on their popularity in the Washington D.C. region and continued to battle clubs from other areas of the country as well. Regional intra-city rivalries now flourished, at least in the northeast. The Nationals again played a New York team on October 9, 1865 , the excellent Excelsiors Club from Brooklyn , beating them in a “close” game, 36 to 30. This entitled the club the prestigious “trophy ball.” They also continued a tradition that was becoming standard for the Nationals and other major ball clubs of the day. Since the game was played on their “home field,” the boys hosted a magnificent feast for their guests after the game, with rounds of toasts, speeches and general all-around merriment.
During 1866, in hindsight, the club was sharpening their collective skills in preparation of what would be their grand “tour of the west” a year later, a tour that would forever confirm the influence of the Washington Nationals over the game of baseball. During the summer they would literally win every game they played against the best of the other local baseball clubs, the Jeffersons and the Unions. After they dispensed with the local talent, the team traveled south into the former Confederacy to play and beat the Monticellos from Charlottsville, 37 to 7. They topped off the mini tour and traveled east to crush the Unions of Richmond, 143 to 11. They were now ready to head north to make good on their promise the previous year to visit with the clubs from New York that visited them in 1865.
Reality set in during that trip. The Nationals' only defeats in 1866 came when they played in New York City , still the hotbed of organized baseball, where the most talented players in the country resided. As much of a mark as the Nationals had made in the capital region, New York was still the baseball capital. In fact, The New York based National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) was at its height as an organization. The Association saw its membership numbers rise dramatically during the first full year after the Civil War ended. Even the wily Arthur Pue Gorman officially left the Washington Nationals as a player and officer to become President of that Association. Gorman was, after all, an ambitious man and the presidency of the only organized baseball association was prestigious. However, we would see that Gorman would be perfectly positioned to shortly help guide his old team deftly, but behind the scenes, in what would become the team's finest moment.
The Nationals took on baseball's “best of the best” during the 1866 trip, including the nation's strongest club during that season, the Unions from Morrisania , New York . But they simply could not get over the top! They lost to the Unions twice and to New York City 's excellent Excelsior and Gotham ball clubs. By the end of the year, the Nationals would claim dominance in the Washington D.C. area as they were even dubbed “champions of the south” and they clearly were considered peerless and polite hosts when the New York boys would visit town for a friendly game on the Nationals home turf. However, the 1866 trip “up north” revealed that the Washington team needed to strengthen if they were to continue making their mark or even deepen their influence on the national stage.
The Nationals' Great 1867 Tour of the West
1867 was certainly the banner year for the Washington Nationals. The need for shaking things up fell into the capable hands of the club's new President, the former Union Officer, Colonel Frank Jones. The Colonel had found employment as Chief of the Redemption Department at the Treasury Department after the war. That department, Washington's largest, was an easy walk to many a baseball game in and around the National Mall as baseball contests dotted the landscape by the war's end. Although Art Gorman's time was cramped due to his political and NABBP responsibilities, he was still able to offer Jones advice and political good will. The men struck upon an idea, probably already in Gorman's fertile baseball mind, that they felt certain had merit.
Why not take the Nationals on the road into America 's heartland to showcase the game they loved? Although baseball clubs had previously traveled up and down the northeast for years, said “tours” were really very limited and confined to the northeast and the capital city's immediate south. The Washington pair correctly thought that a “grand tour of the west,” a first for any baseball club, would really put their team on the map, help spread the baseball gospel, and ultimately cement the Washington Nationals' rightful place in history. They would be right.
The Colonel and Gorman quickly scored an immediate and impressive coup. Their dream was taking shape. From the Nationals' New York travels in 1866, they were well aware of the fine play demonstrated by a 20-year-old George Wright who played for the nation's top team, the Unions from Morrisania. Young Mr. Wright not only played for the team that thrashed the Nationals, 22 to 8, but he also came from impressive baseball stock. He was the son of a renowned cricketer and younger brother of Harry, whose baseball roots went back all the way to the great Knickerbocker teams of the mid 1850's. Perhaps it was a promised job as a clerk at the Treasury Department that did the trick, after all a steady paycheck was a nice thing to have, or it could have been Colonel Jones' evocative talk of taking his team “on a grand tour of the west,” a first for any organized club. Either way, Wright was approached and agreed in April to play with the Nationals for the 1867 season.
The Nationals followed their Wright score by quickly landing two other New Yorkers for their starting nine as well. The men were catcher Frank Norton, a whiz with his barehanded grabs, and the impressive first baseman George Fletcher from the same Brooklyn Excelsior club that edged Washington , 32 to 28, the previous year. Norton had led the Excelsiors with 70 runs in 20 recorded games during the 1866 season, and Fletcher came in second for the club with 62 runs. Shortstop Ed Smith, formerly of the Brooklyn Stars, Harry McLean, who at one time played with the Harlem Club and from the Brooklyn Eckfords, and the talented George H. Fox rounded out the New York contingent. The boys from the north were ably joined by the veteran Washington Nationals players, namely, Will Williams, an excellent pitcher who was also a law student at Georgetown University , Henry Parker of the Internal Revenue Service, fleet outfielder and Civil War veteran Harry Berthrong, and finally the old standby and tough Civil War veteran outfielder Seymour Studley. Both Berthrong and Studley worked at Treasury, Henry at the Office of the Comptroller and Seymour as a clerk.
Excitement was in the air as the fully assembled team began the 20-day, 10-stop western tour by railway on July 11, 1867 . It would not only be covered by the Washington Star , but also by the influential and important weekly journal known as The Ball Players Chronicle . That was impressive in itself, but the man credited with being the nation's first daily baseball journalist, Henry Chadwick, traveled with the team to duly note each of the games on the tour. Not only did “Father Henry,” as he was affectionately known, write the content and edit The Ball Players Chronicle and contribute columns to assure Star coverage, but he also provided up-to-the-minute details of the tour to other traveling journalists from the New York Times , New York Mercury and New York Clipper . The result would be that the Nationals tour was to get press coverage that far exceeded anything ever done in sports before. Colonel Jones and Art Gorman, who would join the team in Chicago , were ecstatic!
The first game of the tour was played 550 miles from their starting point against the Capitals of Columbus, Ohio. Let's let Mr. Chadwick set the stage:
The arrangements for the match were excellent, a roped boundary enclosing the field, and all the base lines laid down properly. Tables were provided for the scorers and members of the press, seats for the players, with a retiring tent, and also seats for ladies. A cordon of carriages, mostly filled with the fair belles of Columbus , occupied two-thirds of the outer portion of the field, and the surroundings of the grounds with the white uniform of the Columbus players – the flags and the assemblage, altogether made up a very picturesque scene indeed. Though it was but ten o'clock in the morning, an hour when hundreds who desired to witness the game could not well get away, quite a numerous assemblage of spectators were present, the delegation of ladies being very numerous, something we are glad to record.
The game itself showed the team, and the throngs of spectators who watched, just how powerful the Nationals nine were. The Capitals scored the first two runs of the game, but things quickly got out of hand for the host team. Each of the Nationals scored at least seven runs, as they walloped the Columbus Capitals, 90 to 10. At that point, the game was called after an abbreviated seven innings, the dinner bell rang and the teams went on to enjoy the post-game feast, a routine that would occur in virtually each city on the 10-stop tour. It was, as Mr. Chadwick duly noted, a “pleasant and rational opening” for the Nationals tour.
It was thought that things would be a bit tougher for the Washington team the next day in Cincinnati for their game against the Red Stockings. After all, this team featured Harry Wright, George's older brother, and an old hand from the Knickerbocker days of yore. The locals were impressed with the Nationals' blue pants, white woolen shirts and blue caps and cheered the team's arrival. After awhile, though, the home team had little to cheer about as Washington , led by the younger of the Wright brothers, thrashed the Red Stockings, 53 to 10 . The Nationals played again in Cincinnati the next day and spanked the Red Stockings' bitter cross town rivals, the Buckeyes, by a score of 88 to 12.
Henry Chadwick's columns tell us that things would continue in favor of the touring Nationals for the next several stops. George Wright and George Fletcher each hit three homers on their way to an 82 to 12 victory over Louisville in the blue hills of Kentucky . The next day, George Wright bashed five homers to lead the team over Indianapolis . Fletcher only hit three homers but the others began to flex their collective muscle. The final score? 106 to 21! After two days during which the team crossed the Mississippi by steamboat, the Nationals downed the Unions from St Louis , in scorching heat of up to 104 degrees, 113 to 26. That very afternoon, in the same sweltering heat, they played in the same city again. This time it was closer, but the Empires could barely hang on as the Washington club bested them, 53 to 26. The heat was oppressive but the Nats bats were on fire too!
This was as far west as the team would get. The railway system was simply not sophisticated enough to take the club into the real western region of our rapidly growing nation. This was to be the beginning of the final leg on the tour. The train took the players to Chicago for the last three games. The boys were tired from the trip and those hot days in St Louis but soon, it was thought, they would be heading back in triumph to the nation's capital. By any measure, the tour was, thus far, far more successful than even Colonel Jones or Art Gorman could have possibly imagined. Crowds from all over the Midwest met the players at every stop. They were wined and dined in each city, even those where they annihilated the home town ball club. Handsome George Wright, slugger George Fletcher, pitcher Will Williams and the others had their own flock of fans to contend with, both male and female. Thanks to the omnipresent pen of Henry Chadwick, and other journalists who were now reporting in their own newspapers as each game unfolded, each Nationals' game, and the exploits of the individual players, were for the first time followed in every major city in the United States . The baseball gospel was indeed spreading!
When the team arrived in Chicago they were met by hundreds of fans as well as the ball players of all three of the Chicago area teams they were to play, the rival Atlantic and Excelsior squads and the much less experienced Forest City Club from Rockford , Illinois . The latter club had traveled 100 miles from their home to “host” the Nationals for the first game. It was to be a tune up for the stronger Excelsior and Atlantic clubs that hailed from Chicago proper. As so often happens in sporting events, however, things did not go as everyone predicted. The long tour, the July heat and the hoopla finally caught up with the Nationals. The Forest City Club, led by 17-year-old pitching sensation, Albert Goodwill Spalding, jumped to an early lead in a game that was marred by two rain delays. The “corn crackers” from Rockford never relinquished their lead. The final score was 29 to 23. That was the only loss the Nationals sustained during the entire tour.
The Nationals' defeat, however, only heightened an already enthusiastic fan base for the remaining two games. After all, the home team newspapers blared, if the less experienced Forest City Club could win, think of what the two major big city clubs could do! Not much, it seems, for the Nationals, having been able to rest for a day, came roaring back. In front of a crowd that was estimated to be 8,000 strong, they first annihilated the Excelsiors, 49 to 4, and finished their tour taking apart the Chicago Atlantics, 78 to 17. The boys really ended on a high note. The team had traveled to parts of the country that had never really seen the evolving game played so “splendidly,” they had won nine of ten games and they outscored their opponents 735 to146! (see Appendix A).
The Nationals' Legacy
By the end of the decade that defined baseball's explosion, the Washington Nationals' fingerprints were everywhere. Their influence would be felt locally and nationally. For a baseball club that began less than a year before 1860, it is amazing what the team accomplished in such a short period of time. Not only did the Nationals help keep the game alive during the Civil War by hosting ball games with visiting Union soldiers, but by 1865 as the war ended, at a critical time when the weary country needed a shot in the arm, the team for the first time was able to meld the excitement of the national pastime into an exuberant patriotic celebration that even involved the President of the United States. Additionally, their baseball dominance locally sowed seeds of the game within the entire city and those seeds helped sprout not only significant white teams, but African-American teams as well.
Lastly, the Nationals will forever be known for their groundbreaking “grand tour of the west” where they single-handedly introduced to scores of people the game that would quickly be recognized as our country's national game. Forty years after the tour, the then “grand old man” of baseball, Henry Chadwick, made that point many times, and even the influential Spalding's Baseball Guide credits the Nationals for “opening the eyes of the people” to the beauty of the game and the tour for serving “to intensify the passion for the game by stimulating the formation of clubs that wanted to achieve similar renown.”Curiously, although Chadwick, Spalding and other giants of 19 th century baseball recognized the important accomplishments of the Nationals to the game's development, very little credit to the team and their significance has been made by more contemporary baseball historians. Perhaps this article will help set the record straight, or should I say “even the score!”