Near tragedy in Mattapoisett, 1875

Research has been rather slow lately.  I have been thinking about the possibility of expanding the scope of this blog to include writings about baseball history in general. I have many research findings set aside for possible future projects. It is taking over what little storage I have at home. Perhaps a new blog would be in order.  One that I have enough material to update on a regular basis. Perhaps.

In the meantime, I have discovered this disastrous account of a baseball accident reported in the Lowell Daily Citizen on June 21, 1875:

In 1875, baseball was played with very little protective gear. Fielder’s gloves did not come in to use until a decade later and head protection was certainly unheard of. Most ball fields were open fields and probably did not have much in the way of fencing surrounding the playing field that would have protected fans from foul balls and in this case, the occasional run away bat.

I have been unable to locate a follow up story reporting the fate of young Willis Burbank. I did a little research to see what I could find about him. He was born about 1862  to Joseph and Sarah (Price) Burbank. Joseph was a ship carpenter and most likely employed by one of the ship yards in Mattapoisett.

Willis had three siblings; George, Mary and William. William died on December 31, 1850 of neurosyphilis at the age of 5. George was born about 1854. Records for him are scarce but it appears he died sometime before 1870.

Mary seems to have escaped the dangers of childhood. In 1878 she would marry William Branch Nelson of Mattapoisett.  I wasn’t able to locate Mary’s fate but her husband died of septicemia in 1893. By 1900 she was living with her 13 year old daughter, Sarah. In November of 1912, Sarah married George Hiller in Mattapoisett. They would go on to have five children, Nelson, Mary, Richard and Emerson. I’ll stop here with the genealogy on Mary (genealogy is an addiction for me). Let’s get back to to injured Willis.

Evidently Willis’ injury was not as bad as his physician feared. While I wasn’t able to identify any additional details about his injury I found that by 1880 he was working as a sailor out of Mattapoisett. He gave up a career on the seas, married Cora Haskell in 1898, and pursued a retail career in woolen goods and umbrellas. Willis and Cora do not appear to have had children. Wills lived well beyond what his doctor feared on that near tragic day in 1875. While I have not been able to determine Willis’ fate, I found that by 1930 he was living in Roxbury with his wife and a nurse while still actively engaged in business.

Thomas Robbins

I am currently reading a published diary of a minister named Thomas Robbins who lived from 1777-1856. Insight into people’s lives and how they lived can be readily gained through diaries and journals. And I really like to pry in to people’s personal lives!  But to be fair, I wait at least a century or so after they die before opening their diaries. I also like to read them because, as a member of the Society of American Baseball Research,  I am associated with the origins committee of SABR. The Origins people are studying the early history of the game and looking at  pre-baseball type gamesfor clues as to where our current game originates. Through journals and archival material , I look for references to bat and ball games such as trap ball or phrases such as “played at ball” or “game of ball”.

But back to Robbins. He began his diary in 1796 and more or less kept it day in and out until 1854. He began the diary the year he graduated from Yale College and spent the next few years after college teaching, preaching and studying theology. In 1803 he went to Ohio which had just entered in to statehood to organize churches for the Connecticut Missionary Society. A few years after that he preached in a few towns in his home state of Connecticut before coming to the South Coast to replace his uncle as Congregational minister in Mattapoisett in 1831.

What does Robbins have to do with baseball? He wasn’t a ball player, at least I haven’t read any diary entries about his engaging in ball playing activities. But he does provide some evidence that people were playing ball prior to the mid-nineteenth century popularization of baseball playing. Though Robbins does not say what type of ball game was being played, he does note such activity in Mattapoisett:

  • December 21, 1826: “The boys play ball in the streets… Warm and languid weather…”
  • April 4, 1833: “Fast. Meetings well attended… A part of the people were off playing ball, according to their usual practice here.”
  • March 28, 1839: “Fast… Some playing ball… Thermometer rose to 70″.

Fast is referring to Fast Day. It was a public holiday consisting of fasting and prayer. In Massachusetts it was replaced by Patriots Day in 1894.

In 1858 there were several baseball clubs that had formed in New Bedford. Some had played games on Thanksgiving Day that was reported on by the local press. The Evening Standard began their report on the game “From time Immemorial Thanksgiving and Fast days have been set apart for ball playing…”  Not only does Robbins’ diary support the Evening Standard’s statement about ball playing having long been part of fast day activities, it suggests that it could have been baseball the people were playing in Mattapoisett. Then again it could have been Wicket which was popular in Robbins’ home state or some other ball game.

For fun here are some random non-ball playing entries from the diary while he was in Mattapoisett:

  • 9/28/1831: “Rode to Fairhaven… That town is much improving.”
  • 6/1/1832: “Walked to Dr. Robbins… His two sons are theological students, and I fear will be Unitarians.”
  • 9/27/1832: “Dined out. Attended the funeral of a young colored child.”
  • 10/1/1832: “My ill health continues. Have a bad diarrhea.”
  • 12/12/1832: “I hope God will save the country from civil war.”
  • 2/26/1833: “… attended the annual meeting of the Bristol County Temperance Society. I became a member.”
  • 3/6/1833: “My wine in a chamber without fire, is frozen.”
  • 5/14/1833: “Attended the Bible class… My people are very stupid.”

Muffin Baseball

Six cards in color, from Ropes... Digital ID: 56337. New York Public Library

A ‘muffin’ is a term that was applied to a new or inexperience ball player in the early 1860s. In the collections of the
Umass Dartmouth Archives and Special Collections is a booklet containing humorous illustrations of the type of play you may expect to see of a mid-19th century muffin. The booklet, Base Ball as Viewed By a Muffin, was published in 1867 and illustrated by Savillion Van Campen. Van Campen was the president of the Ironsides Base Ball Club based in New Bedford in 1858. At the time of publication he was secretary and a member of the Wamsutta Base Ball Clubs first nine. The previous year he had been a member of the Wamsutta Club’s muffin nine. For a guy who had been playing the New York game since at least 1858, it is not clear why he was on the muffin nine. Perhaps it was just for fun.

By the late 1860s muffin baseball had become popular in response to the professionalism of baseball. According to Peter Morris’ book, But Didn’t We Have Fun? muffin baseball spread rapidly during the late 1860s showing that baseball was meant to be played for fun. Rules were not taken seriously and in some cases old rules were reverted to such as the bound rule in which a player could be put out when his batted ball was caught on one bounce as opposed to catching it on the fly. In fact some muffin games forbid players from catching fly balls. They could only be caught on the bound. Muffin games often matched up teams based on appearance or marital status such as in games of fat vs. skinny players or married vs. single players. Other muffin games didn’t limit the number of players on the field. More than nine players could be on a side with two or more fielding one position.

On July 4, 1866 the Wamsutta Base Ball Club played in once such muffin game in which the club’s single men defeated the club’s married men 56-46. Shortstop and each of the outfield positions were manned by two players each and the box score listed a position called the Catcher’s Stop in addition to the catcher. This was most likely a second catcher or a back up to the catcher.

Trap Ball

                  The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house All that cold, cold, wet day.           – from The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss

Unfortunately because of this lousy weather brought on by the storm I share a name with, I can not try out the new game I just got. Well, actually it is quite an old game. Trap Ball, I am told through various readings, was played as far back as the 14th century and into the 19th century. Mainly played in England, there is some evidence that it was played in colonial America but it may not have been as popular as it was in England. However, it does show up in some American publications as late as the 1890s. I have not seen evidence to suggest that it was played on the Southcoast of Massachusetts but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be played now, right?

Many publications note that it was a children’s game played by boys. From time to time it is suggested that it was played by adults such as in Games and Sports; Being an Appendix to “Manly Exercises” and “Exercises for Ladies” by Donald Walker published in London in 1837. In the dedication of the book, Walker states

In many of these Games, ladies may participate: most of them, they may witness and patronize. As not inconsistent, therefore, with female taste, I beg leave to inscibe them to you – in homage at once to Beauty and Intellect.

Walker does not say if Trap Ball was played by ladies. In Games For All Seasons by James Blackwood (London, 1858) which includes an entry for Trap Ball he states in the preface “In the present volume will be found descriptions of the principal games played by boys as well as girls…”

According to A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs, and Ancient Customs, From the Fourteenth Century, Volume II (London, 1881) the game is defined as:

A game played with a trap, a ball, and a small bat. The trap is of wood, made like a slipper, with a hollow at the heel end for the ball, and kind of wooden spoon, moving on a pivot, in the bowl of which the ball is placed. By striking the end or handle of the spoon, the ball of course rises into the air, and the art of the game is to strike it as far as possible with the bat before it reaches the ground. The adversaries on the look-out, either by catching the ball, or by bowling it from the place where it falls, to hit the trap, take possession of the trap, bat, and ball, to try their own dexterity.

The next entry of the dictionary defines the bat in Trap Ball as a Trap-Bittle. The rules of the game seem to vary. Another version of the rules is similar to the above except that the batter calls out an estimate of bat lengths the ball will reach the trap after the fielder has thrown the ball at it. If the batter is correct in the guess the batter adds to the score that number of bat lengths (each batter gets a point for each safe hit). If the number of bat lengths estimated by the batter is more than the actual number, the batter is out. Many other versions of the game suggest that there is a foul territory on either side of the batter. If the ball is stuck in to foul territory, the batter is out. It also seems common that if the batter swings and misses while trying to hit the ball after striking the trap 3 times… the batter is out.

There is no base running in this game and it seems that a minimum of two people are need to play. Many players can be divided up in to teams, with the teams switching sides once everyone on one side has been put out. Or no teams are selected and instead a batting order is selected and individual tallies are kept.

Below is the Trap Ball set that I purchased minus the ball. The ball pictured came from Lemon Ball which is made to the specifications of the Massachusetts game of baseball. The Trap Ball set came with a smaller (about 2″) ball made of dark leather sewed in the figure 8 style. I’ll have to check my notes for descriptions of the actual ball used in Trap Ball. I am afraid that the ball that came with the set may get lost easliy due to its size. The Massachusetts ball may still be small enough to strike from the trap and not be easliy lost. Anything bigger would probably be difficult to elevate high enough from the trap to strike it.

Lowell vs. Wamsutta

John Lowell, ca. 1861

John Lowell, ca. 1861

One hundred forty years ago this week the Wamsutta Base Ball Club took on the mighty Lowell Club of Boston. The Lowell Club was one of the more talented baseball clubs in the area during that time. It was formed in 1861 by students of various Boston secondary schools at the suggestion of John A. Lowell and the Bowdoin Base Ball Club to play the New York game. The New York game was played in New England but it was facing competition from the Massachusetts game. In honor of Mr. Lowell, the club was named after him.

The Tri-Mountain Base Ball Club is widely considered to be the first club in New England formed to play the New York game. Formed in 1857, they didn’t play their first match against another club until early September of 1858 when they beat a club from Portland Maine. It remains a mystery as to why the Tri-Mountain club did not play the Ironsides Club of New Bedford which had been formed to play the New York game at that time.

The Lowell club quickly established their talent by winning their first game against Medford 17-10. Lowell played its second match in May of 1863 against the established Tri-Mountain club. Lowell won 37-1. In 1866 the Lowell club’s first nine would win every match they played.

In 1868 the Lowell Base Ball Club set out on tour of New England cities in an effort to reach out and be “neighborly”. While the tour lasted only during the month of June the Lowell club made a trip to New Bedford in August where they faced the Wamsutta club. The game lasted 3 hours and 25 minutes. It was painful 3 hours in 25 minutes for the Wamsuttas losing to the Lowells 62-6 in 7 innings.

New Bedford Republican Standard
August 20, 1868

Base Ball. – The game between the Lowell and Wamsutta clubs at Myrick’s on Friday was concluded at the end of the 7th inning, with the following score:

Lowell. Wamsutta.

O.  R.                                      O.  R.

Lovett, p.,            1    9   N. E. Howland, 2. b.,    3    0
Alline, 3. b.,         3    7   J. H. Tallman, r. f..,      3    0
Dennison, 1. b.,   0    8   O. N. Pierce, p.,           1    1
Sumner, 2. b.,      6    4   Walter Clifford, s. s.,   3    0
Bradbury, c.,         1   8   G. D. Gifford, c.,          2    1
Rogers, c. f.,         1   8   C. Almy, Jr., c. f.,         3    0
Newton, l. f.,        4   6   M. M. Howland, l. f.     2    2
Hawes, r. f.,          3   6   F. W. Knowlton, 1. b.,  2    1
Dillingham, s. s.,  2   6   W. C. Gooding, 3. b.,   2    1

62                                            6

Runs in each Inning.

1st.   2d.   3d.   4th.   5th.   6th.   7th.
Lowell,       5        9      1      10     6     11     20
Wamsutta, 1         0     2         1     1      0        1

Ball Playing Banned in New Bedford… in 1821

New Bedford Mecury, July 13, 1821

One hundred eighty seven years ago the New Bedford Mercury publish the recently passed by-laws for New Bedford including a ban on ball playing:

Voted, That the following Rules and Regulations be established the By-Laws of this town, viz: —

First, Any person, who shall, after the 1st day of July next play at ball, or fly a kite or run down hill upon a sled, or play any other sport which may incommode peacable citizens and passengers in any street of that part of this town commonly called the Village of Bedford, shall for every such offence, upon convicition of the same forfeit and pay the penalty of fifty cents, with costs of prosecution; the said penality to be applied to the use of the poor of this town.

 

 

 

 

 

This does not mean that it was baseball being played on the streets of New Bedford. It could have been any number of ball games such as football, cricket, trap ball or any of the “old cat” games. It could be baseball but the by-law writters chose not to be specific about the types of ball games banned as Pittsfield did 30 years prior to the New Bedford by-law. Various laws have been passed banning the playing of ball in New England since at least 1762 when the town of Salem ordered that no one would be allowed to play “Foot-Ball, or the Exercise of Bat-and-Ball, or Cricket, within any of the Publick Places, Streets, or Lanes” in town. Closer to home, Providence passed a ban on ball playing in 1823.

I will also point out that in those same 1821 New Bedford by-laws there was already a problem with graffiti:

Fifth. And whereas some evil minded persons are in the habit of disfiguring fences and buildings, by wantonly painting on them, and by writing and drawing obscene words and pictures on them, to the disgrace of this town in the eyes of strangers, and to the disgust of well-disposed citizens: — Therefore, Voted, That any person who shall after the first day of July next, be convicted as aforesaid of any such offence, shall forfeit and pay a penalty of not less than one dollar, nor more than five dollars, for every such offence, with the costs of prosecution; said penalty to be applied as aforesaid.

 

 

 

No doubt that neighborohoods such as Hard Dig were targeted with this law. But did the placement of the by-laws indicate the severity of each problem? Ball playing, kite flying and sledding were listed in the first by-law while graffiti was addressed in the fifth by-law. Number two on the list was blocking the streets with lumber and rubbish. Number three was a speed limit on horses (6 miles per hour) and the fourth delt with carriages blocking the streets. There were a total of 12 by laws altogether. The graffiti penalty had the highest penalty of five dollars along with storing more than 25 lbs. of gun powder in one place and stacking fish for the purporse of making manure. Take a look at the by laws here.

Baseball in Mattapoisett or Heaven?

This must be the inspiration for Field of Dreams. To be fair it was the book Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella first published in 1982 that inspired the film. This is one of those rare cases where the movie was still good having read the book first. Unfortunatley people seem to know of the movie more than the book.

New York Times; Aug. 8, 1910

A HEAVEN WITH BASEBALL.

Preacher Believes It Will Be Found in a Spiritual Form.

Mattapoisett, Mass., Aug. 7 – “Baseball in Heaven,” was the subject of a sermon preached to-day by the Rev. C. Julian Tuthill, pastor of the Congregational Church. He said in part: “Heaven is but an evolution of this world. A Christian may love a ball game and loving it remain a Christian. Why, then, is it not safe to prophesy that even the game of baseball will have its place in some spiritual form in Heaven.”

Would this group have been opposed to the mixing of baseball and religion?

Boston Investigator; March 7, 1894

Ho For Mattapoisett, Boston Investigator; 3/7/1894