Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Baseball Comes To St. Louis

It’s always been my understanding that baseball was first introduced in St. Louis in the early 1850's by Jere Frain, a 'contractor' who moved to St. Louis from New York. Frain had played for the Charter Oak Club of Brooklyn and was captain of the Empire Club of St. Louis in 1864. Peter Golenbock wrote, in The Spirit of St. Louis, that Frain laid out the first baseball diamond in Lafayette Park in St. Louis and showed the locals how to play the game. I've seen this mentioned in other sources but I've never seen any evidence to support the claim. When researching Frain, all I've ever found were other sources that told the same story as Golenbock. It seems that the story has just been accepted and gets rehashed whenever the history of baseball in St. Louis is told.

However, I found a letter from a man named Merritt W. Griswold, reprinted in Richard Peterson's St. Louis Baseball Reader, in which Griswold claims to have brought the game to St. Louis in 1859. In this letter, Griswold tells how he first published the rules of the game, along with a diagram of the playing field and the positions of the players, in the Missouri Democrat newspaper in the winter of 1859/60. He claims that at the same time he was organizing a baseball club called the Cyclones. Their first match game, he wrote, was played against a club called the Morning stars in 1860. Interestingly, he stated that the Morning Star Club played town ball and he convinced them to play by the "national" rules. The Morning Stars defeated the Cyclones at the old Fairgrounds in north St. Louis and the game ball was gilded, engraved with the score of the game, and used as a trophy ball "for years" in St. Louis. Griswold wrote that the last he heard of the ball it was in the possession of the Empire Club. The Cyclones, he said, disbanded when the civil war broke out and the players went off to fight "on one side or the other".

While I've never been able to confirm anything about the Frain story, i was immediately able to find some evidence supporting some of Griswold's claims. He stated in the letter that he had played for the Putnam Club of Brooklyn in 1857 and then for the Hiawathas of Brooklyn in 1858 and 1859 (before moving to St. Louis). Checking the teams and rosters of the NABBP from 1857-1859, I found a Griswold playing for the Putnams in 1857. The Hiawathas were not members of the NABBP during the time frame and so I couldn't find their roster but there is a record of them playing a game against the Osceola club of Brooklyn on July 31, 1858. The Hiawathas are also mentioned as being in existence in 1859, although no games are mentioned. While this is hardly proof positive that Griswold is telling the truth and that he, rather than Frain, is the “father” of baseball in St. Louis, it does put his story on some factual ground.

If Griswold's account is truthful then we have a primary source that places the beginning of baseball in St. Louis (as played by the "national" rules) in 1860 (or possibly as early as 1859). While this conflicts with the Frain account, I'm much more comfortable with Griswold's letter than I am with the Frain mythology. On its face, while the two stories are similar, the Frain account just sounds like something somebody made up in 1864, telling stories in the bar after a game. It sounds like legend to me. The Griswold account has a more truthful ring to it.

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