4th of July Baseball, 1866

John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail in July of 1776 that future Americans would celebrate America’s independence “with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports…”

The city of New Bedford did just that eighty years later. On July 4, 1866 bands played, the New Bedford Light Artillery fired their guns in salute, songs were sung by the Choir of Misses, the Declaration of Independence was read and the cornerstone of a monument was dedicated. James Bunker Congdon gave a speech that day in which he called the ground on which the monument would stand, “holy ground”.

The monument was the Soldiers and Sailors Monument located in present day Clasky Common Park. In 1866, it was refereed to simply as the Common. The monument was designed by architect George Frederick Meacham, who is known for his design of Boston’s Public Garden and many other works including the Soldiers and Sailors Monument he would build in Fairhaven two years later.

Locating quality granite and the time it took to inscribe the stone, including such phrases as “struggle with Slavery and Treason…” delayed the full monument from being ready for the festivities on that July 4th. Someone was thoughtful enough to place a copper box that was filled with a written history of the monument, a roll of the names of the New Bedford men that died in the Civil War, poems, newspapers, photographs and other items, under the cornerstone. After the cornerstone was placed upon the slate and mortar that protected the box, the mayor gave a speech in which he talked about the fallen in the late Civil War that now “sleep a sweet, an eternal peace.”

“They are dead,” he clarified and then stated that he hoped “peace, independence and liberty” would last forever.

Memorial Day excercises, the Common, New Bedford MA [undated]. Courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum

Memorial Day Exercises, the Common, New Bedford, MA [undated]. Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

In the afternoon, the mood lightened and just as John Adams predicted, games were played. Earlier that year the Wamsutta Base Ball Club was organized. The club included members such as Charles W. Clifford who had played for the Bay State Base Ball Club and Otis Pierce who had played for the Ironsides Base Ball Club, just two of the many baseball clubs that played in New Bedford before the Civil War.

In the summer of 1866, competition from other teams was scarce. Though there had been several clubs playing in and around New Bedford before the war, it is likely that the war brought ball playing to a stop as many young men went off to war. So the newly formed Wamsutta club played a game between members of its own club. A common practice at the time, clubs would typically play informal games among themselves and more serious “match games” against other clubs.

Since this game was purely for fun and amusement, the Wamsutta club divided itself in to two teams, single men vs. married men and it would seem that everyone on the club would get to play… at the same time since the usual baseball rules would not apply. Both teams seemed to have fielded 18 players per side with multiple players playing each of the outfield corner positions. The single men had three right fielders and four left fielders as Preserved Bullock and Thomas Knowles split time as the third left fielder, playing 6 and 3 innings respectively.

The married men did the same with William A. Church and W. C. Taber, Jr. splitting time as the third right fielder. The team captains, Otis Pierce for the single men and Savillion Van Campen for the married men apparently didn’t play in the field but batted lead off for their teams. A sort of early use of a designated hitter; batting but not fielding.

This may not have been the first time the Wamsutta club played. The Republican Standard noted that based on “previous play” it was thought that the single men would win by 25 runs. The single men did win the game by a score of 56 to 46.

Rachel Howland. Courtesy the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Rachel Howland. Courtesy the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Among the attendees of the festivities that day on the common were 122 grammar boys who were there to inaugurate the organization they had started, the Howland Grammar School Association named after their strongest supporter, Rachel Howland. The purpose of forming the society was for “the prevention of profanity and vulgarity”. Several weeks later they would start their own baseball club called the Acushnet Base Ball Club, most likely because they were inspired by the game they had watched that day.

Unfortunately, news accounts did not give many details about that 4th of July game but apparently it had made an impact on more than just the grammar school boys. Two weeks later the Republican Standard noted the establishment of a number of clubs; the Star Club who would play on a open field on Hawthorne Street and the Young America Club and New England Club who would play on the common. Many more clubs would be formed that year and the years to come beginning a golden age of baseball in New Bedford.

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