Monday, August 11, 2008

Known 19th Century St. Louis Baseball Clubs, Part One

“(It) would be an utter impossibility to publish all the games of the local clubs and therefore only such will be included in this record, with some few exceptions, as had a bearing upon the state championship and consequently the games between (St. Louis) clubs…must be restricted to such clubs as belonged to the State Association.” As E. H. Tobias wrote in The Sporting News, it’s an “utter impossibility” to discover and list all the clubs that existed in St. Louis in the 19th century. Tobias is certainly one of the best available sources for information about these clubs. It’s entirely possible that a thorough search of contemporary St. Louis newspapers would reveal names of more clubs but there is no doubt that Tobias has mentioned the most prominent and important baseball clubs in St. Louis between 1860 and 1875.

A quick note on club names: While I refer to clubs such as the Empire or Union (or sometimes the Empires or Unions), the official name of such a club would be the Empire Base Ball Club of St. Louis or the Union Base Ball Club of St. Louis. The actual name of almost all of the clubs on this list would take this form.

Morning Star

The above were, according to Tobias, “Among the very first of regularly formed clubs in St. Louis…” Of the antebellum clubs, Merritt Griswold, in a letter to Al Spink written in 1911, mentions the Cyclones, Morning Stars, Empires, and Commercials as the first clubs in St. Louis. Griswold makes the claim that the Cyclone Club was the first organized baseball club in St. Louis and there is enough evidence backing up Griswold’s claims to take this seriously. Tobias claims that the Union Club was the first club in St. Louis, forming in 1859 (or 1860; the text is difficult to make out). There is no evidence backing up Tobias’ claim that I’m aware of and several factors that make it unlikely. Any claims that Jeremiah Fruin was the first person to bring baseball to St. Louis and that he formed the first club in the city are demonstratively false.

While there is a substantial amount of information about St. Louis baseball in the antebellum period, the history is still obscure. We know that baseball was being played by 1860 and that season was an active one. We also know that most of the clubs that had formed by the summer of 1860 disbanded due to the pressures of the Civil War. The only club that I’m aware of that was active during the war years is the Empires. That the Empires continued their baseball activities during the war years is rather remarkable and generally unique in baseball history. There are very few clubs that had formed in the late 1850’s that not only survived the outbreak of the war but were active during and after it.

Information on baseball activity prior to the fall of 1859 is difficult to come by. There is enough circumstantial evidence and vague references in the source material to believe that something was going on prior to the 1860 season. There were certainly bat and ball games being played in St. Louis prior to 1860-town ball, cricket, etc.-and there were organized clubs that played these games. But the best evidence to date suggests that the Regulation Game of baseball was not introduced in St. Louis until the fall of 1859 and that the first match games were not played until 1860.

The organization of the clubs listed above date to this period. Griswold came to St. Louis from Brooklyn in the fall of 1859 and, along with his co-worker Ed Bredell, formed the Cyclone Club. That winter, Griswold also published the rules of the game in the Missouri Democrat. In his letter to Spink, Griswold states that he found the Morning Star Club (whose members were mostly employees “of the firm of Ubsdell, Pierson & Co.”) playing town ball and convinced them to try the new game of baseball. The Union Club was formed by Asa Smith around the same time, possibly as early as 1859, and was made up of high school students. The Empires were organized at a meeting on April 16, 1860 and, according to Tobias, “was largely composed of men who had been connected with the old volunteer fire department…” It had the largest membership of all of the antebellum clubs, “(outnumbering) most all the other clubs put together…,” and was most likely founded by Joseph Hollenbeck, the first secretary and centerfielder of the club. The Commercial Club was made up of “young business men.”

The first mention of the Olympics by Tobias was in reference to a June 7, 1866 game against the Unions.

The first mention of a game by the Hope Club was a June 20, 1867 match against the Unions.

Excelsior-Mentioned by Tobias “as being one of the ante-bellum organizations…” Evidence suggests that they were another town ball club that switched to playing baseball.

Laclede -The Laclede Club was mentioned by Al Spink, in The National Game, as one of the early opponents of the Empires. It’s unclear if the club was active in the antebellum period. Tobias states that the club was made up of master mechanics and describes them as one of the “early” clubs.



These clubs (along with the Resolute and Hope clubs) were mentioned by Tobias as taking part in a torchlight parade in 1865 honoring the Empire Club, who were returning from the first road trip by a St. Louis club.

Pickwick-Played a game against the Unions on May 9, 1867.

Magnolia-Played matches against the Olympics and Unions in 1867 and were a club “located in the Southern portion of the city.”

Sherman-A club founded by Louis Schrader in 1867 and named after Gen. Sherman; “existed only for a year or so…”

Star-Another club founded by Schrader and another “short lived” club.

Turner-Schrader’s third attempt at starting a baseball club; William Medart also was involved in the original organization of the club; the club was composed, as the name suggests, largely of lathe or machine operators; “one of the strongest” clubs in the city, according to Tobias.

Aetna-Another club that Schrader belonged to.


Richard Hershberger said...

"That the Empires continued their baseball activities during the war years is rather remarkable and generally unique in baseball history. There are very few clubs that had formed in the late 1850’s that not only survived the outbreak of the war but were active during and after it."

This overstates the case. Many eastern clubs played through the war, albeit at a lower level of activity. My sense is that western and southern clubs mostly disbanded, so the Empires stand out as an exception to that more limited rule.

Jeff Kittel said...

Well, the statement is qualified to a certain extent. I do think (in my own mind) that I was trying to limit my statement to clubs that had formed during the spread of the game in the immediate antebellum period-that would certainly mean the new western/southern teams. I was also trying to speak to what I think has to be a rather unique history of the Empires-being one of western teams founded in the flush of baseball expansion in the antebellum period which not only was active (to a certain extent) during the war but thrived after it.

How many clubs where there that existed from 1860-1876 and were active during the war? How many were not located in New York, Phil., Washington, or Boston? How many played at a (state) championship level during that entire period? I'm not sure. But I can't imagine it being that many and I'm fairly certain that the Empires were the only western club that fits the description.

I think you're right though, Richard, that I may be overstating the case. But I'm still in the process of trying to figure out where the Empires fit in the greater scheme of things and I do find their history to be rather unique.