The New York Game in the Rose City: Baseball comes to Norwich, 1865-1870

Check out this article by Robert D. Farwell, former Thames BBC team pitcher (2005-2008) and current Executive Director of the Otis Library in Norwich, CT.

The New York Game in the Rose City: Baseball comes to Norwich, 1865-1870

Baseball was not the first item on the minds of readers as they perused the Norwich Bulletin on April 11, 1861. The principal news, emphasized by articles set in ominous black type, gave details of disunionist activities in the southern states and rumors of an impending fight in the vicinity of Fort Sumter, the federal bastion in Charleston harbor, South Carolina. Whether out of real conviction or simply to reassure nervous subscribers, the Bulletin’s correspondent discredited such report, stressing, “those best informed in the government policy give no credence to the report that there will be a fight in Charleston Harbor, and declared Fort Sumter to be evacuated.” A day later, Confederate forces under the command of General Pierre T. Beauregard would commence firing on Fort Sumter and the nation would be plunged into the maelstrom of a bloody 4-year civil war.

Almost lost among the rumors of war or peace was a brief announcement under the heading Local Affairs, subtitled Base Ball (written as two words until the twentieth century) directing members of the Uncas Club to “a call in the Special Notice column That columndirected members of the Uncas Baseball Club to attend a meeting at No.3 Breed Hall, “this Thursday at 5 pm. A full meeting is required to transact the business at hand. Per order of C.E. Dyer, Sec.” This, apparently, is the first mention of base ball in Norwich. There are no hints as to how well organized the Uncas Club was, nor prior or subsequent reports of meetings. In fact, this singular appearance marked the only notice of base ball in Norwich between 1861 and 1865. With other details lacking, the genesis of the game in Norwich must be assembled from subsequent reports and memory. Several sources, including the Bulletin, credit Frank Stanley Chester, the bookkeeper at the Thames Bank with the introduction of the game. The son of a Buffalo, New York clergyman, and a recent arrival in Norwich, Chester apparently brought the New York form of the game from his home state to the Rose City, and was an integral part of the formation of the Uncas Club. The abrupt beginning and end of the clubs activities may also reflect the sudden departure of Mr. Chester, who was among the first to volunteer for military duty. By April 21, 1861, now Captain Frank Chester of the Buckingham Rifles was drilling his troops in preparation for departure for New Haven, and subsequently, service in the first major engagement of the conflict, at Bull Run or Manassas, Virginia, on July 21, 1861 as part of company B, Second Connecticut regiment. Mr. Chester did not remain in Norwich following his return from duty. Despite his association with the game, at the time of his death in 1907, the Bulletin’s obituary made no mention of his early association with base ball in Norwich.

Baseball’s renascence in Norwich, like its initial disappearance, was inextricably linked to the Civil War. On Tuesday April 11, 1865, within days of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, of which the Bulletin declared, “the head of the rebellion is crushed” the following announcement appeared in the Local Affairs column:

“We understand that the Free Academy base ball club have challenged any nine players residing in town to play them a match game on Fast Day-a day of general prayer and fasting in observance of the war’s end-and their challenge will probably be accepted by some amateurs. By the way, why do not our young men about town form a club or two to play this manly game.”

This challenge to the “young men about town” was answered enthusiastically, and for a few years a veritable baseball mania would grip Norwich and its denizens. The game they would embrace was variously referred to as base ball-spelled as two words until the early twentieth century- and the New York game, in acknowledgment of its most popular and widely embraced version. This is not to claim that ball games were played solely in New York, for this is patently false, inasmuch as versions of ball games flourished in New England, Philadelphia and New York dating back to the colonial period. Witness the recently rediscovered Pittsfield, Massachusetts ordnance dating from 1791 proscribing ball playing within eighty yards of the big church in the Town Square. However, modern baseball, and the game introduced to Norwich in 1861, derives most immediately from the New York version created by the Knickerbockers of that city during the 1840’s. While this monograph is not designed as a compact history of 19th century baseball and its evolution, it is illuminating to discuss some of the characteristics that connect and distinguish the game of 1865 from those of the early 21st century. Baseball changed rapidly during its early history, and while the game played in 1865 would be identifiable to the modern observer, there are some differences that are noteworthy. Among the most significant:

  • While the field was laid out very much like a modern diamond, there was no pitcher’s mound, but instead a pitcher’s box bounded by two iron quoits, initially four by six feet, expanded to six feet square in 1869. The pitcher began and ended his delivery between these two points, the nearest lying 45 feet from home plate. There was no batter’s box per se, with the striker-or batter-required to stand on a line drawn perpendicular to home plate. Hitters were required to neither step forward nor backward when swinging, but to remain with feet firmly planted lest they be called out.
  • The job of the pitcher was to deliver the ball fairly to the striker, or batsman, as close to the center of the plate as possible. The pitch was delivered underhand, with a straight arm, for the ball was to be pitched, not jerked or thrown to the striker. If the pitcher did not succeed in throwing hittable balls, the umpire would call a warning, and begin calling balls. Three balls were a walk.
  • If a batter swung and missed, it was a strike; three such swings was an out; if a striker did not swing at hittable pitches, the umpire would announce a warning; following the warning strikes would be called. Three strikes after the warning was an out.
  • Fair-Foul: Unlike the modern game, any ball, which first hits in fair territory, constituted a fair ball. Many batters perfected the fair-foul hit, hitting the ball in fair territory just in front of the plate after which it would spin off into foul territory far from the clutches of the catcher and other fielders.
  • Early rules allowed fielders to either catch a ball on the fly or first bounce to record an out. This rule was amended in 1864, and henceforth, the fly game became the standard for serious clubs. However, foul balls caught on the first bounce as well as the fly were considered outs.
  • Base running, prior to 1871, runners could not overrun first base; runners could tag up and run after the catch of a foul ball, however he could be put out if a foul ball fly or grounder were returned to the pitcher and thrown to the base before he could tag up.
  • Stealing was allowed, but the runner was prohibited from leading, and could not leave the bag before the ball left the pitchers hand.
  • Ball players did not wear gloves, and that included the catcher.

These in general form were the rules followed by the two squads who assembled on the Great Plain at two o’clock on Friday, April 14, 1865 to reintroduce base ball to Norwich. In commenting on the game, the Bulletin remarked that, as this constituted “one of the first matches ever played in this city, much interest is manifested.” Unfortunately, the score of the game is not recorded; however, the “base ball fever” ignited by this initial match led to a secondary announcement on the same day, proclaiming a meeting at the Wauregan Hotel at 7:30 “to take measures to organize a base ball club in this city.” The meeting resulted from a “call,” probably a petition, circulated to test local interest in a team. All those so inclined were encouraged to be present without fail.

Like many new endeavors, the as of yet unnamed club benefited from an initial burst of enthusiasm, and subsequently suffered from a cooling of ardor among would be participants. By Saturday, April 29, 1865, the Bulletin announced the last attempt to “complete the organization of the base ball club in Norwich,” with a meeting scheduled at the Wauregan for 8 o’clock. The Bulletin opined the poor response, noting with dismay the small number who agreed to join the club while applauding the hard work of a few dedicated enthusiasts. The only hope for success lay with a good turnout at the forthcoming meeting, failing that, “the project will be abandoned.” That, apparently, was the stimulus required to complete the organization of the new club, for the Monday, May 1 paper contained a lengthy description of the newly constituted Uncas Club. A reported 20-30 members accepted membership, with club organized under the rules of the “National Base Ball Association,” probably a misreading of the National Association of Base Ball Player, the national organization of amateur clubs founded in 1857. Playing by the rules of the NABBP and bidding for membership therein was one way of judging the seriousness of a club’s attitude.

While the Bulletin carried notes on a number of Norwich teams during the years 1865-1870, only four probably joined the organization and/invoked their rules of play. Business meetings were scheduled once a month, commencing Tuesday May 2 at 7:30 at the Wauregan. That meeting would tackle the essential tasks of choosing officers, and procuring funding for what the Bulletin referred to as “the implements of practice.” Those implements were not easy to come by, for a meeting on Wednesday, May 5 directed a member to “procure the requisite implements in New York, [and] he left last evening and will have them here Thursday.” With those essential items in hand, practice was scheduled for Saturdays, at 4 p.m. on the Big Plain. Regardless of the team and the year, all records indicate that three sites were used for games. The Great Plain or Big Plain was one, followed by Williams Park, and the county fair grounds. Of the three, the Great Plain location was regularly used for practice and games, the Williams Park site for games only, and the fair grounds for games played in conjunction with the annual agricultural fair. The exact location of the Great Plains field remains something of a mystery; it appears to have been located on the New London Turnpike, probably adjacent to the fair grounds site. Keep in mind that the grounds refer to something less than a professionally groomed diamond. While it featured distinct baselines and fair/foul points distinguished by pennants, the grounds were not manicured, with rudimentary seating designed to accommodate the ladies in attendance.

For a time the Uncas Club, the appellation chosen for the new Norwich club, confined its matches to inter-squad games, pitting members of different nines against each other. Unlike modern ball clubs, teams of the 1860’s might include a first nine consisting of superior players, a second nine, with good but slightly less proficient or experienced members, a group of members termed ‘muffins” a reference to their proclivity for “muffing” plays and being enthusiastic but inept, and a group of honorary members, who represented esteemed members of society. For example, former Governor William Buckingham, several mayors, clergymen and military veterans accepted honorary memberships in Norwich ball clubs. These practices were already on the decline in New York by 1865, but continued in Norwich into the late 1860’s. There was also a lack of suitable opposition in Norwich. Although reference is made to other “city clubs” these remain unnamed in 1865. The only other “nine” mentioned is the Free Academy club, composed of junior players, a reference to their age as being under 21. That did not stop them from challenging the older Uncas players, and the city’s first post war match between recognized teams was scheduled for Saturday July 1, 1865, at 5:00 on the Big Plain. In anticipation of a good turnout, the Bulletin reminded readers that Williams avenue below the Big Plain was not to be blocked up by carriages. Game reports described a large number of spectators, including a fair sprinkling of ladies in attendance to witness what the Bulletin described as a somewhat surprising 25-15 victory by the neophyte Uncas nine. Modern observers might also be surprised by the time of the game, a swift one hour and thirty minutes. For reasons unarticulated in the press, the Free Academy team disbanded following their defeat.

Emboldened by their initial success, the Uncas club proceeded to expand their recruitment efforts, and discuss appropriate uniforms. Their success garnered attention in the press, and they were soon to have competition in the form of a new club. This new aggregation was introduced to the Bulletin’s readers on the 18th of July 1865 as the Terrifics, prompting the Bulletin to hope that they will “Terrify this and other clubs into more constant play than heretofore seen in our city clubs.” In response, the Hartford Post mocked the new team, chiding them with the observation that should they play the premiere Hartford Club, the Charter Oaks, they might well become the “Terrified.” The name Terrifics proved to be a temporary sobriquet, and by July 25 the new club assumed the name Chesters in honor of Captain Frank Chester, the eponymous founder of baseball in Norwich. Similar in structure to the Uncas club, the Chesters drew their first nine players from a similar stratum of society. The key players were relatively young men in their twenties, largely single, employed as store and bank clerks, skilled artisans, perhaps in the city’s gun manufactories and mills. At least one was a school teacher, and several were Civil War veterans.

Although no record of the Chester’s uniforms is extant, the Uncas club adopted a distinctive uniform on July 31, described thusly: Blue cap with white frontispiece white flannel shirt with blue trimmings, white belt embossed with the word Uncas, and blue flannel pants. By inference the Chester’s assumed red as the prominent color for their uniforms, in as much as the Bulletin reported that contests between the two clubs featured many ladies sporting blue or red ribbons to designate their favorites.

The two teams were practicing hard, 3 days a week by August of 1865, and it was only a matter of time before one or the other extended a challenge. The first to strike were the Chesters, who delivered a challenge to the Uncas club for a Wednesday September 6 match. The first nine of each squad would play at 3 o’clock for the grandiosely titled “championship of eastern Connecticut”. The second nines would play on the following Wednesday, presumably for bragging rights. Both games were scheduled for the Uncas grounds on the Great Plain. In hopes of instilling a sense of decorum for both matches, the Bulletin announced that seats would be provided for the ladies, and all in attendance were asked to refrain from questioning the scorers or commenting on the umpire’s calls.

The first nine game drew a crowd of about 200, and lasted a modest one hour and thirty minutes. Despite their lack of experience, the Chesters prevailed by a score of 29-15. On Thursday the second nines competed, and once again the Chesters prevailed, this time by a score of40-38, in 2 hours and thirty- one minutes. A double defeat was not on the Uncas Clubs agenda. In the spirit of good fellowship the two clubs agreed to a rematch, with a newly reconstituted Uncas club again suffering a defeat, 37-31. On September 13 in one hour and 57 minutes (The Uncas second nine triumphed a day later 49-21, but given the prominence of the first nine this must have offered cold comfort to the Uncas club.) As it turned out, the final game of the 1865 season also featured a Chesters-Uncas match, this time as part of the annual county fair. Unlike the previous matches, this one featured a purse of twenty-five dollars. Also unlike previous matches, this game was held within the confines of the fair ground, on a site not conducive to ball playing. Observers commented unfavorably both on the crush of humanity which surrounded the players, and the conditions of the grounds. Apropos of the conditions, loud complaints were voiced over the damage inflicted by people, horses and carriages, which made good fielding almost impossible. Fielding aside, the Chester’s triumphed again, 47-33 and claimed the purse. While this proved to be the last game of the season, it was not the last attempt to play an extended schedule in 1865. Modern ball, with its well defined season had no comparable model in the post-civil war scheduling. The Chester’s attempted to play a match with the Waterbury Baseball Club at the Charter Oak Grounds in Hartford, and subsequently to play the Charter Oaks on their home field deep into November. Efforts only terminated at the end of the month, with a final note on the 27th concluding that due to the illness of a key player and the lateness of the season the Charter Oaks would not take up the Chesters’ challenge that year.

The year 1865 ended with baseball comfortably ensconced in Norwich. Two clubs were well established, and sources speculated on the recrudescence of the NFA club and the appearance of a third new club. Meanwhile, the Uncas club was debating the development of a gymnasium to maintain their physical conditioning, and the Chesters, emboldened by their sweep of the Uncas first nine, awaited spring and a possible match with the Charter Oaks. All signs indicated that 1866 would be a good year for Norwich baseball.

In the New Year both the Uncas and Chester clubs looked to improve their play and to engage with teams beyond the Norwich city limits. The dormant challenge by the Chesters was accepted by the Charter Oaks, and a two game match scheduled. The first game, sited in Hartford was scheduled for Saturday, June 23. The Charter Oaks were a well established team, veterans of matches against experienced squads from Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York. In 1865 they won the Connecticut State Champions, and met the Harvard Club of Massachusetts for the New England Championship. While they were defeated 35-13, they never the less represented a significant jump in competition for the sophomore Chesters. A special train was retained to carry the Chester club and its supporters to Hartford, and optimism reigned regarding their chances against the reigning state champions. The outcome was something less than hoped for. The Chesters suffered a 57-15 drubbing, although the Bulletin chose to emphasize the positive, cheerfully reporting that “the Chesters played handsomely, and have learned much from the contest.” The Chesters left fielder, Potter was lauded as an excellent defensive player, who compared favorably to Tate of the Charter Oaks, arguably the best at that position in the state, and was deemed his superior at the plate.

While a rematch with the Charter Oaks was scheduled for early August, an even more memorable match awaited both the Chesters and the Uncas Club. The Union Club of Morrisania, (now part of the Bronx, New York,) was making one of its periodic trips through New England and proposed a stop in the Rose City. If not the strongest of the New York Clubs the Unions were nonetheless a decent team used to playing the elite clubs of New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia. Like their peers, they used these outside appearances both to spread the gospel of the New York game, and to fatten their record at the expense of less skilled “country clubs.” The Unions were most noted for their sterling battery of pitcher Charlie Pabor and catcher Dave Birdsall. Pabor, known as “the laughing philosopher,” was an amiable, swift, albeit rather wild pitcher who threw a rudimentary curve ball. Birdsall was dour and tough, frequently playing with injuries and beset by a permanent foul mood, a condition that might have its genesis in Pabor’s wild pitching. They were like nothing the two Norwich teams had seen.

Two games were scheduled for the 21 of July, the first against the Uncas Club and the second against the Chesters. Williams Park was the site of the first game, which proved a decidedly one sided affair of 51-1 in favor of the Unions. The Bulletin identified Pabor’s pitching as the deciding factor, classifying it as “a style that our Norwich Clubs have not had an opportunity to become accustomed to.” Searching for positive accomplishments, the Bulletin lauded the Uncas defense for holding the Unions to an average of four runs an inning until the ninth, when hard batting secured them nineteen. The next day’s game against the Chesters, played in a stead rain punctuated by lightening, that made ball handling a challenge, proved a closer affair. An injured catcher Birdsall relinquished his post to a substitute, who proved far less adept at handling Pabor’s tosses, forcing the pitcher to moderate the velocity of his deliveries. The Union infield also suffered several lapses with the short stop and first baseman guilty of multiple muffs. Neither was their hitting exceptional, while the Chesters proceeded to hold their own on defense and managed to rap out several good hits again a less aggressive Pabor. The final score of 45-25 was a triumph in the eyes of the Bulletin, and boded well for the Chester’s chances against state competition. The prescience of this statement was shortly to be revealed.

The Chester’s were scheduled to play the second game of their series with the Charter Oaks on Friday July 30, and no one was predicting anything other than a replay of their previous 57-15 rout. For the first time the Bulletin mentions odds and betting on the game, noting odds of 10 to five and twenty-five to five on the Charter Oaks. However, by the fourth inning, when the score stood 34-11 in favor of the Chesters what little betting there was even. By the time the game was called after eight full innings the score stood 51-32 in favor of the Chesters. While the Chesters were peaking the Uncas club was having trouble scheduling matches. Unlike modern scheduling, which is set well in advance, the 19th century often featured spur of the moment challenges. Weather, a dearth of players, bad communications all interfered with matches. To cite only a few examples, the Uncas club’s attempts to complete matches in and August and September against teams from Danielsonville, and Greenville were postponed into October while a tilt with the Oceanics of Mystic went unconsummated until the end of September, when it was played on the same day, Saturday, September 29, as the Chesters’ final match with the Charter Oaks in New Haven. The Chesters were forced to postpone an early September match against the Pequots of New London. When finally held, the Chesters easily overmatched the New London squad 42-25 the day before facing the Charter Oaks for a third and deciding game in New Haven. Proposed games with New London and Mystic languished into October, and finally fell victim to the season’s end.

The most important match of the season was the final game in the 3 game series with Hartford, now billed as the championship of Connecticut. Played on neutral ground in New Haven, the Chesters could not repeat their home victory, and lost by a score of 39 to 22. Also unlike the earlier game, the Bulletin reported “unlovely” play, and a complete absence of snap and animation. How much of this was fatigue due to the prior day’s game with New London went unexplored.

Nonetheless, as the 1866 season drew to a close there was reason for continued optimism. Only two years’ into its existence, Norwich baseball was challenging for the state championship and performing admirably against strong clubs from within and without the state. The prospects for a successful 1867 season appeared good. Unbeknownst to players and fans, 1867 would mark the swift decline of Norwich baseball.

According to the 1867 City Directory, there were 28 base ball clubs playing in Norwich. Superficially, the game seemed in good health. However, most of these teams received brief if any notice in the Bulletin,their rosters were not published, and their successes and failures remain largely unrecorded. Prominent in their absence were the two teams most closely associated with serious baseball, the Chesters and Uncas Club. During the winter, for reasons not disclosed in the press, the two clubs merged to form a new aggregation, the Riversides. The Riversides were members of the National Association of Baseball Players, and counted 40 members. Eschewing the bright reds and blues of the Uncas and Chester Clubs, the Riversides adopted a uniform featuring shade of gray. As described in the Bulletin, the Riversides wore caps and pants of medium gray, and tight fitting shirts of lighter gray with an old English R upon the left breast. The Riversides were the premiere club in Norwich, but not the only club in the area. The Marvins of Norwichtown,- named for Marvin Waite the first commissioned officer from Norwich killed during the Civil War, and also members of the NABBP were playing, but took a decidedly secondary role to that of the Riversides.

The Riversides were a competent team, besting the Marvins for the city championship, and performing adequately against the Unions when they again visited Norwich in September of 1867. The Unions played two games in one day, besting both the Pequots of New London and the Riversides on the fair grounds by scores of 33-8, and 66-17 respectively. Of the Riversides play, the Bulletin noted weakness in the outfield, and generally declared the Riversides to be a weak nine. Their catcher, Kinne, stopped balls quite well, but did not throw to the bases allowing the Unions to walk to third with impunity. Likewise, there were numerous muffs at first. Some of these weaknesses might be due to the lack of playing time. At least one game on the Riversides grounds was canceled because the grass was too long, delaying competition until the end of June. As it was, the Riversides played an abbreviated schedule, besting the Marvins for the “city championship” 30-20 and 42-17, in late June and early July, and between games with the Marvins losing to the Yale Club of New Haven 23-13 on July 4 and besting the Forest City‘s of Middletown 23-19 in a five inning affair in Middletown.

This last contest was a tainted victory, the Riversides claiming that the game was called because of the unsatisfactory condition of the grounds, while the Middletown partisans claimed the game ended, unfairly, with the abrupt departure of the Norwich club who claimed they could not keep their steamboat waiting any longer. This, combined with their loss to the Unions gave the Riversides a 3-2 record. It was somewhat surprising then, that the Riversides declared themselves candidates for the state championship, and proceeded to challenge the Pequots of New London, the proclaimed champions, who were expected to play the Monitors of Waterbury to settle the issue of the champion’s laurels. The resulting match, played on September 28 was the dismantling of the Riversides, 40-8 in what the Bulletin declared to be the “the poorest game they were ever guilty of.” Only one indicator of the level of play need be mentioned, the Riversides 14 pass balls vs. the Pequots 3.

This low note also marked the disappearance of the Riversides. Rumors circulated that they would regroup for the 1868 season, but nothing of the sort occurred. A single attempt was made to revive the club in order to accept a challenge from the touring Oriental Club of New York. With interest on the wane, a temporary aggregation composed of players from two defunct Clubs, the Riversides and the Oceanics of Mystic squared off against the Orientals on a muggy July day and meekly succumbed. The Marvins also disbanded, leaving Norwich with no senior teams. The Bulletin took note of this, commenting in June “the base ball epidemic has not broken out this season. Consequently masculine muscles go undeveloped, and thumbs and fingers escape strain.” The reasons for this swift demise are, at this point speculative. The same fate befell the Oceanics, and was attributed to the maturation of the players, and their growing work and family responsibilities. Similar circumstances might have sundered the Riversides. An equally plausible argument identified the rising professionalism of baseball as a contributing factor. First tier teams such as the Unions proclaimed their amateur status, and the National Association of Baseball Players insisted on it, but teams condoned surreptitious payments and questionable employment opportunities to retain star players. Indeed, in 1869 the first admittedly professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings arrived on the stage and changed the nature of baseball and in 1870, the National Association of Professional Baseball Players supplanted the amateur NABBA. Teams like the Riversides, Marvins, Uncas, and Chester Clubs, true amateur clubs could not compete at this level using the decidedly non-professional nines available in a community of Norwich’s size, and no one at the time evinced an interest in subsidizing a professional club.

The disappearance of the first tier Norwich clubs did not portend the end of baseball in Norwich. At a less visible and arguably less aggressive level amateur clubs continued to play baseball in city leagues and against neighboring community nines. Professional baseball, albeit on the minor league level appeared, disappeared, and reappeared periodically, most recently in the form of the Connecticut Defenders, the Double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants. While all these incarnations achieved some level of visibility, none has attracted the accolades and public awareness of the early clubs who introduced the New York game to the Rose City.

Robert D. Farwell (Nov. 26, 2005)