New Bedford High School Baseball, 150 Years Ago

Not only is this year the 150th anniversary of the first known baseball team in New Bedford (predating the Wamsutta Club’s claim by 8 years), it is also an anniversary year for the New Bedford high school team. In 1858 the New Bedford High School fielded a team making them the first high school or secondary school in the country to do so.

To verify this I have been searching for published works about the history of high school baseball but I haven’t had much luck. The only references to early high school baseball teams that I have found have been in the Illinois High School Association’s website which states “Worcester High School in Massachusetts has been traditionally recognized as the first secondary institution to form a team that competed against teams outside of the school.” It notes that their first game was against a club called the Eaglets which Worcester beat on October 12, 1859. Harold Seymour’s brilliant work Baseball: The People’s Game also notes Worcester High School as having the first high school baseball club. My source of New Bedford superseding the Worcester club comes from one line in the October 18, 1858 New Bedford Evening Standard:

The Old Hickory Base Ball Club have challenged the High School Base Ball Club to play the Massachusetts game.

The Massachusetts game was a competing form of baseball in Massachusetts with the New York game. It is important to note that the Massachusetts game is considered to be baseball and not a different bat and ball game such as rounders. Some differences in the games were:

   Massachusetts Game                                              New York Game

First club to score 100 wins                                   Club ahead after 9 innings wins

Square shaped field, bases at 4 corners            Diamond shaped field

Pitcher threw overhand                                         Pitcher pitched underhand

Fielder can strike runner with ball for out       Fielder must tag runner or base

Ball must be caught in air for an out                  Ball can be caught on a bound

A look back New Bedford’s history of public education in the early 1800s shows hostility to funding public schools even though state law required localities to fund public education. Instead of public education for all of its citizens, New Bedford voted to fund their public school “to school the poor children in this town”. Presumably the rich hired private tutors or sent their children off to private schools. In 1827 a state law went in to effect requiring all towns in the Commonwealth with at least 500 families to open a high school. But in 1829 the town voted to close its high school. They were able to do this because the law was changed to give the towns the option to operate a high school. Although children under six years old could still attend the public school, the high school remained closed until 1837 when it reopened on a permanent basis. By 1858 the high school was operating as a four year course of study, preparing students admitted at age 12, for college.

Although sports teams may not have become the norm for high schools and colleges until later in the 19th century it is safe to say that school aged kids were playing ball in New Bedford in the first half of the century. An 1822 bylaw levied a fine to anyone who would “play at ball, fly a kite or run down hill upon a sled… in any street of that part of the town commonly called the Village of New-Bedford”. Thomas Rodman wrote about being “initiated into the mysteries of Foot-ball, Base and every game boys pursue” when he was a student at Friends Academy in the mid-1830s. When it became fashionable to form social clubs based on sports in the mid 1800s, young adults formed their own clubs as well.

But let’s get back to the high school club. The New Bedford game appears not to have taken place until the following month when the New Bedford Republican Standard reported that the High School club beat Charles Clifford’s Old Hickory club 100-73:

The New Bedford Republican Standard

November 18, 1858

Base Ball. – The match game we noticed a few days ago, took place on Saturday afternoon between the High School and Old Hickory Clubs. After playing about two hours and a half, the High School boys, the challenged party, were declared the victors, having scored 100. The Old Hickory Club scored 73. During the first half of the game the latter Club took the lead. Considerable interest was manifested by a large number of spectators. At the close the vanquished gave three cheers and the victors responded.

Those appear to be the only references to high school baseball in the 1858 New Bedford newspapers.  It is not clear if this club was sanctioned by the high school as an extracurricular activity or if it was made up of high school students calling themselves the High School Base Ball Club. Harold Seymour notes that the Worcester club in 1859 was formed by students on their own. School officials at first protested calling the club a high school club before warming up to the idea of a high school baseball club and supporting it. If New Bedford high school officials had issues with the High School Base Ball Club it wasn’t reported on in the papers. It is hard to judge how long the 1858 edition of the high school team lasted. There were just a few mentions of baseball in the 1859 and 1860 New Bedford papers but nothing on the high school club. In fact there is no mention of baseball in the newspapers again until 1866. In that year, in addition to the Wamsutta and other clubs, the Howland Grammar School Association formed the Acushnet Base Ball Club. This association was formed by a Middle Street Grammar School student for the “prevention of profanity and vulgarity”.

High school baseball appears again in the New Bedford papers in 1867 when the High School club beat Friend’s Academy 33-17, presumably playing the New York rules which the Ironsides Base Ball Club may have first introduced to New Bedford in 1858.

Here is to another 150 years of baseball in New Bedford and throughout the south coast of Massachusetts (and maybe high schools will go back to wood bats).