Friday, April 25, 2008

The Ebb

It was manifest at this time that the interest in base ball matters in St. Louis had been on the ebb for a year or two as in fact had been the case in every part of the country where the playing had been left to purely amateur organizations. The cause of the decline was natural and is to be accounted for by reasons which were apparent to all in any way familiar with the game. The distance of the grounds from the business part of the city at this time when electric cars were not in vogue and the absorption of the attention of the fraternity by other matters had prevented the old time frequency of local contests while the superiority in almost every case of visiting nines, entirely or in a great part composed of professionals, exercised a depressing influence on the home clubs which were obliged to bear repeated defeats because they were altogether made up of amateurs.
-E.H. Tobias, writing in The Sporting News, December 28, 1895

Tobias wrote these words while discussing the 1870 and 1871 seasons and it ties in with the article from the Cincinnati Daily Times from July of 1868 that I was talking about in this post. The game, during this era, was certainly in a transitional phase. The changes that took place in the game during the late 1860's and culminated in the advent of the National Association in 1871 certainly were not universally popular among "the fraternity" and for someone like Tobias, who had been a part of the Empire Club since the end of the Civil War, the direction that the game was taking was not one that he approved.

In But Didn't We Have Fun, Peter Morris speaks directly to some of the issues that Tobias raised in 1895:

By the close of the Civil War, the elements that would lead to the end of the pioneer era were in place. In 1866 and 1867 the game seemed more vibrant than ever. But when doubts about the old standards began to arise, devotees turned to the traditional leaders and found that most of them had departed the scene. This led to a period of reexamination that moved baseball away from its childlike innocence and into the professional era.

In the process, attitudes underwent subtle alterations that produced changes in how baseball was played. The game's prevailing spirit of forthright honesty gave way to competitiveness, and this in turn revealed that other elements of the game's spirit were fragile. The "patience of hope" that sustained clubs after a convincing loss began to be replaced by demoralization. An unquestioning adherence to playing by the rules yielded to efforts to find loopholes in them. Unswerving allegiance to one's club was succeeded by a more mercenary approach.

The first generation of leaders of the St. Louis baseball scene were, by 1870/71, no longer active in the game. Men like Asa Smith and Jeremiah Fruin, who had been incomparable leaders in the post-war era, had left the game just at the time when their leadership and experience were needed to help their clubs adjust to the new realities of the baseball world. Smith had done an outstanding job in recognizing the new trends and helping the Union Club adapt but as these trends reached their pinnacle Smith had retired from the field and the Unions essentially died as a baseball entity rather than further compromise their "gentlemanly" principles. The Empires and Unions, the two great clubs of the post-war era in St. Louis, would soon be overtaken on the playing fields by the Red Stockings and, later, the Brown Stockings.

It would take St. Louis baseball several years to recover from this "ebb" and to fully adapt to the changes that were taking place in the game. It's ironic that a decade after St. Louisians first picked up the game, they had just about caught up with the baseball mainstream. They were involved in the game on a national level, playing teams from all over the country both at home and on the road. They had built enclosed grounds and were charging admission to games. Despite Tobias' protest that the St. Louis clubs were "purely amateur," St. Louis players were most likely receiving compensation. They had developed a strong state association and had organized a system to decide a championship. But just as they were making substantial changes in the way the game was organized in St. Louis, baseball was undergoing a radical change that would leave men like Tobias questioning what was happening to the game that they loved. It would not be until 1874 and 1875 that baseball in St. Louis would recover from the shock of the changes that baseball was undergoing in the late 1860's and regain the popularity that it had in the immediate post-war era.

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