Saturday, March 8, 2008

Bat And Ball Games In St. Louis Prior To The Advent Of Baseball

It was in the latter years of the '50's that base ball found a permanent lodgement here and in 1860, 1861, and 1862 it became quite "the craze," and assumed definite proportions. This was not accomplished without considerable opposition and the overcoming of much prejudice. Cricket had long had a strong hold on lovers of out door sports and St. Louis possessed several good clubs, notable among them being the Jackson, which enjoyed quite an extended reputation and deservedly so too. The advent of base ball was met with sneers and derision, denouncements and obstructions. But its votaries or "cranks" had the "craze" bad, very bad, and they stood in to win, which they did and their success proved the downfall of cricket. Upon the disbandment of these clubs quite a number of cricketers enlisted in the ranks of base ball and proved skillful players.

-E. H. Tobias, writing in The Sporting News, October 26, 1895

Tobias also wrote, in the next installment of his series on the history of baseball in St. Louis, that "Prior to the starting of any of (the first baseball) clubs, what was called 'Town ball' had quite a footing in St. Louis." One would imagine that the popularity of bat and ball games such as town ball and cricket in St. Louis in the first half of the 19th century helped pave the way for the spread of baseball in the city. While there is no doubt that Tobias is correct when he says that there was resistance to the new game from those who played the old, a solid tradition of bat and ball games in the city helped create an infrastructure that baseball could co-op.

This is one possible explanation for why the game, once it first appeared in the city in 1859, took hold so quickly. By the summer of 1860, there are at least six base ball clubs already playing in St. Louis and there may have been as many as ten. Players, clubs, ball grounds, equipment, etc. were already in existence when the game first arrived in St. Louis. While this infrastructure may not have been perfectly and completely co-opted by the new game, it certainly had to have helped facilitate the introduction and acceptance of a new bat and ball game.

While I look at the prior existence of bat and ball games in St. Louis as something that had a positive impact on the introduction and growth of baseball in St. Louis, this didn't necessarily have to be the case. In one sense, baseball, town ball, and cricket were natural competitors for the time and loyalties of people in St. Louis. As Tobias wrote, there was opposition to and prejudice against the new game. Merritt Griswold wrote about his interactions with the Morning Star Club when they were still playing town ball and the efforts that it took to get them to try the new game. While it appears that the existence of a bat and ball game infrastructure helped in the establishment of the game in city, it could have just as easily impeded that establishment and crushed the game in its cradle. While that didn't happen, it certainly could have and there was no reason to believe in 1859 that baseball would plant its roots in St. Louis as deeply as it did.

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