Baseball in Gold Rush California

What if a New England transplant taught loggers in 1850s California how to play baseball?

That was the thought I had while working on my historical novel The Standing-Ground. Loggers worked twelve hours a day, six days a week. Other than binge drinking, which was common, what better way to spend a free Sunday afternoon than playing America’s game?

The New England transplant wasn’t a problem. The gold rush had turned California into a salmagundi of humanity from every corner of the world. But was I on shaky ground with baseball history? I’m a lifelong baseball fan, weaned on Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax. Thanks to a baseball-loving mother, I had my first glove when I was five, one of those flat, puffy numbers now found only in vintage sports shops, a hand-me-down from a minor leaguer. I played Little League. I’ve been to Cooperstown. But I had never studied the game’s earliest history in depth. Would baseball in Gold Rush California be an anachronism?


Sandlot Games on the American Prairie

Drawing of Wagon train crossing the Plains in 1859 [Public domain]

Wagon train crossing the Plains in 1859 [Public domain]

After a little digging, I found a book titled The Golden Game: The Story of California Baseball by Kevin Nelson. Early in the first chapter was a drawing from 1853 of pioneers playing “a stick-and-ball game on the way west.” As it turns out, the father of baseball, New Yorker Alexander Cartwright, was smitten with gold fever in 1849 and traveled to California by wagon train from Independence, Missouri. He brought with him a somewhat squishy, handmade sphere, known as a lemon peel ball, that he’d used in games with his amateur team, the New York Knickerbockers. And there on the American prairie, somewhere between the Mississippi and the Sierras, Cartwright taught the pioneers—and by his own account, Native Americans—to play the game he called base-ball.


Baseball’s Confusing Parentage

Wait a minute; back up. Alexander Cartwright? What about Abner Doubleday and the vacant lot in Cooperstown? It’s a convoluted story, but baseball historians now generally agree there is no evidence to support that tale told to Albert Spaulding by Abner Graves about Doubleday inventing the game in 1835. Numerous ball and stick games have been played throughout history and likely migrated here with immigrants during the 18th and 19th centuries. The earliest forms of the modern game probably originated in rural areas then spread to cities where they were collectively referred to as town ball. Cincinnati, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston: all had some form of town ball and each form had different rules.


Town Ball: The First Game

Drawing of the New York Knickerbockers baseball team during a practice session by Homer Davenport [Public domain]

Knickerbockers during a practice by Homer Davenport [Public domain]

The number of players varied greatly but there were usually defined positions bearing names such as “ball giver” (pitcher), “behind” (catcher), “basetender” (infielder), and “scout” (outfielder). Games were often played on a square field with four “corners” marked by tall stakes. The behind and the “striker” (batter) were situated between the first and fourth corners at “home base” and the ball giver stood in the center of the square roughly thirty feet away. There was often an umpire to oversee the game but he didn’t call balls and strikes. The striker swung at pitched balls, usually thrown underhand, until he either “ticked” (hit) the ball or missed three times. If the ball was struck, and there was no such thing as a foul, the striker would circle the field in a clockwise motion, rounding each stake until he reached home base or until he was “soaked” (struck by a thrown ball). Some varieties of the game allowed the runner to safely stop at one of the corners while others commanded an all or nothing effort getting home. If the runner made it to home base, the team was awarded a tally. If the struck ball was caught in the air or, in some versions, on a bounce, the runner was out. Two or three outs comprised a “side” and two sides an inning. Most games lasted 2-4 innings.

The early games delighted onlookers and fired the imaginations of our brash young nation’s visionaries. Herman Melville may well have provided the first color commentary in 1844, predating Vin Skully’s jeux d’esprit by more than a century:

And now hurrah! for the speeding ball
Is flung in viewless air,
And where it will strike in its rapid fall
The boys are hastening there–
And the parted lip and the eager eye
Are following its descent,
Whilst the baffl’d stumbler’s falling cry
With th’exulting shout is blent.
The leader now of either band
Picks cautiously his men,
And the quickest foot and the roughest hand
Are what he chooses then.
And see!the ball with swift rebound,
Flies from the swinging bat,
While the player spurns the beaten ground,
Nor heeds his wind-caught hat.
But the ball is stopp’d in its quick career,
And is sent with a well-aim’d fling,
And he dodges to feel it whistling near,
Or leaps at its sudden sting,
Whilst the shot is hail’d with a hearty shout,
As the wounded one stops short,
For his ‘side’ by the luckless blow is out–
And the others wait their sport.


Cartwright’s Rules of the Game

It was this game of town ball, popular in 1840s New York, that served as the foundation for what would become “the game of bases” or  “base” or “base-ball.” Young Alexander Joy Cartwright, a Manhattan bank clerk and volunteer firefighter, organized games in several lots around town. Unable after a time to secure a place to play, Cartwright and friends moved across the Hudson to Hoboken’s Elysian Fields where they rented space for $75 a year. To finance their pastime, they formalized the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club and charged members $5 a year. Shortly thereafter, Cartwright recorded the first standardized rules and on June 19, 1846, the Knickerbockers played their first competitive game. The opposing team, the New York Nines, was comprised of young men from Manhattan who’d refused to follow Cartwright across the river. The Nines prevailed in that game, scoring 24 tallies to the Knickerbocker’s 1 in four innings.

The New York Knickerbockers Base Ball Club, circa 1847. Alexander Cartwright is in the upper row center. [Public domain]

The New York Knickerbockers Base Ball Club, circa 1847. Alexander Cartwright is in the upper row center. [Public domain]

As more clubs formed, the game’s popularity grew rapidly. Ever a champion of American pluck and spirit, Walt Whitman sang baseball’s praises in the July 23, 1846 edition of The Brooklyn Eagle:

In our sun-down perambulations of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn we have observed several parties of youngsters playing ‘base,’ a certain game of ball … The game of ball is glorious.

Cartwright’s role in the “invention” of baseball has since been abased, modern historians arguing the game evolved over many years and bears the fingerprints of countless people. If Cartwright was not the father of the game, he was certainly its Johnny Appleseed, scattering it over the frontier like a free-swinging Brigham Young—across prairies and rivers, over mountains, and, after abandoning his quest for gold, across the Pacific to Hawaii.


Baseball in the Redwoods

So my idea of loggers led by a few Easterners in a game of Sunday ball was in no way far fetched. Though I’ve been unable to find any written evidence of such activity in Mendocino County lumber camps, the spread of baseball in San Francisco and throughout the state during the gold rush years is well documented. In fact, the first organized baseball team in San Francisco, according to a 1926 article in The San Francisco Call Bulletin, was the San Francisco Eagles. The Eagles formed in 1859 but their first competitive game, against the Sacramento Red Rovers, took place near 16th and Harrison Streets on February 22. The game, tied 33-33 at the end of nine innings, ended in an unresolved dispute.

For the scene in my novel, I chose to have the loggers play by town ball rather than Knickerbocker rules because that seemed more likely for such a diverse group of men interested only in recreation. The loggers argue over which version of the game should be played and, in the end, settle on a hybrid set of rules. The one rule they readily approve is that a runner can only be put out by soaking, being hit with a thrown ball between bases. That decision sets up the conflict in the scene when the camp bully comes to bat and drives the ball deep into the outfield (an oceanside bluff covered with coyote bush):

The left side fielder finally spotted the ball, wrested it from the brush, and hurled it frantically towards the basetender near the third corner.  The basetender jumped high to reach the soaring throw but the damp leather orb spurted through his outstretched hands then dribbled sluggishly toward the Ball Giver’s box.

“Soak him, Morgan!” Walker yelled from the Striker box. “Fetch the damn ball and soak him.”

Alastair had been watching carefully and was already en route to the ball, aware that Mule was rounding the third corner. He grabbed the brown sphere, checked his grip, then fired it overhand towards the bull punch who was now twenty feet from scoring. The ball blurred across the field and slammed into the base of Mule’s skull. Knees buckling and hands flailing in the air, the big man crashed to the ground several yards from home base.

2 Replies to “Baseball in Gold Rush California”

  1. Nice article. Up here in the Pacific NW, the folks at Fort Vancouver National Park have an active base ball program. They follow Beadle’s Base Ball book 1860. There are hurlers, base tenders and strikers. Good fun. Fort Vancouver was originally a Hudson’s Bay Company trading fort. After the 1846 treaty with Great Britain, the US Army moved in. Grant was out here as quartermaster. The game could have been introduced here in 1850s.

    • Thanks for dropping in and sharing the information about baseball at Fort Vancouver, Janet. It’s encouraging to hear that someone is preserving the tradition and spirit of what Whitman said “has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere–belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.” That seems melodramatic now, but it perfectly describes a nation driven by ambition and manifest destiny. Oddly enough, the early game was played purely for fun; winning was secondary. I found a YouTube video of the Fort Vancouver program.

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