Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Excelsior Club

In a previous communication mention was made of the Excelsior Club as being one of the ante-bellum organizations that met with an early dissolution. Through the kindness of one of its surviving members, John McKernou, Esq., of Washington avenue and Twenty-First street, the following additional and interesting data has been obtained: The club was orgainized by the election of Jas. Fitzwilliams, president; Patrick Keenan, a whitener, was treasurer; W. Sullivan, a drummer, who taught the comedian, Jos. K. Emmett, how to handle the stick, was secretary and among its active members were Peter Fitzwilliams, who was killed in the rebel army; John Hogan, a bookbinder; Joseph Champine and my informant, whose memory fails him as to the others. The club found birth and home in two old omnibusses placed end to end at Sloan's Carriage Factory, Eighth and St. Charles streets where now stands N.O. Nelson & Co.'s building. When the club membership became too large for its original quarters, its meetings were held on the east side of Sixth street between Morgan and Franklin avenue back of what was known as Beckner's Garden and in front of the Sans Souci Garden, both being places of public resort. The club played on Gamble Lawn during its brief existence of one season, that period of time being long enough to tire the boys out in carrying the old style sand bag bases back and forth the long distance to the grounds. Another feature of the game that added to the disheartening of this mis-named club was the round shape of the bats, whereby they were unable to hit the ball so frequently as with the old paddle.
-E.H. Tobias, writing in The Sporting News, November 16, 1895


Richard Hershberger said...

Which tells us that town ball in St. Louis used flat bats. This isn't startling, as flat bats were a standard option, but it is a data point. We might also suspect that they were two-handed, as this was not mentioned in the piece. Some places used one-handed bats.

Jeff Kittel said...

I've got a rather hectic work schedule this week and didn't get a chance to add a note to the post but the first thing I thought of when reading about the flat bats was cricket, although town ball certainly makes more sense. If they were using flat bats to play town ball then I guess this tells us they were playing the Phil. version in StL rather than the Mass. version.

I think I may have to start reading up a bit on town ball.

Richard Hershberger said...

I know of no evidence that Philadelphia town ball used flat bats.

There is indirect evidence that they used round bats. There was a fair amount of local discussion comparing town ball with base ball, and the subject of the shape of the bats never arose. I would expect it to have been mentioned, were they different. Also, a club that lost a base ball game to the Athletics soon after the adoption of the New York game used as an excuse that the Athletics had experience batting in town ball, giving them an advantage. Excuses for losing don't need to make a whole lot of sense, but if everyone knew that town ball bats were different from base ball bats, this wouldn't really have been plausible as a face-saving measure. This isn't a slam dunk, but as a tentative conclusion I judge Philadelphia town ball bats to have been substantively similar to New York bats.

Flat bats are mentioned fairly widely for town ball in the west and south. There isn't enough data to say conclusively that this was a regional characteristic, but it wouldn't surprise me.

More broadly, it is a serious mistake to imagine that players in one region were copying the rules of another. This is often assumed, but for no good reason. I would expect that a time machine would show that St. Louis town ball had many characteristics common to other forms, but in its own unique combination.

Flat bats, by the way, have an advantage. There are frequent mentions of the technique for deciding which captain picked first for choosing sides, and which side went to bat first. One of the captains would spit on the bat and toss it in the air. The other captain would call "wet" or "dry". This wouldn't work with a round bat, hence the New York game's reliance on a coin toss.