The good old social game of base ball, which we used so much to delight in when a student, and which, semi-occasionally, we have indulged in since arriving at man's estate, is fast becoming one of the most popular pastimes among us. On Monday night a base ball club was organized, with twenty-four members, under the style of the "Morning Star Club." The following officers were elected: President-J.R. Naylor; Vice-President-R. Henry; Secretary-Geo. Franklin; Directors-C.C. Ferguson, R.H. Franklin and Chas. Scudder.The club will meet every morning for practice. We wish them much enjoyment, and shall accept their kind invitation to take a game when convenient.
-St. Louis Daily Bulletin, June 6, 1860
This is the earliest contemporary reference that we now have of the formation of a St. Louis baseball club. While there are sources that place the founding of the Cyclone Club in the summer of 1859 and the Empire Club in April of 1860, Richard Perry, a member of the Morning Star Club, stated in 1887 that his club was "the first club organized" in St. Louis and, as of now, I can't conclusively prove that he's incorrect. I do believe, however, that the weight of the evidence still supports the Cyclone and Empire Clubs forming prior to June of 1860. The true significance of this information from the Bulletin is that it is contemporary evidence confirming some of what we already know based on secondary sources as well as the fact that it fills in some of the gaps of our knowledge regarding the Morning Star Club.
The real interesting thing here is the reference to the "good old social game of base ball" that the author of the piece played in his youth and what that means in the context of the May 4, 1860 reference to town ball and the 1858 Alton references to base ball. If we parse the text, what we have is a reference to an old game, played previous to 1860, that the author refers to as base ball. We've already seen, in the Alton references, that there was a bat and ball, safe haven game called base ball played in the St. Louis area in 1858 and, given the geographical, cultural, and economic connections between Alton and St. Louis, I always assumed that if this game was being played in Alton then it was also being played in St. Louis. This reference may be confirmation of that assumption.
However, there are at least two things that complicate the matter. The first is the earlier reference to town ball in the Bulletin. Speaking of the game as "old" and referring to a "revival" of the sport, the reference gives the impression that a sport called town ball was played in St. Louis and had been for some time. So the question becomes whether or not we're talking about one game or two. Were the terms town ball and base ball being used interchangeably in the St. Louis area? If this is unlikely then we're possibly looking at two different forms of American base ball, town ball and base ball, played in the St. Louis area prior to the arrival of the New York game.
The second complication is the identity of the author. Edmund Tobias wrote in The Sporting News that the "first newspaper man to hold out a helping hand to the 'infant industry' of base ball reporting was Col. W.H. Swift, then the editor of the St. Louis Daily Bulletin, who magnanimously consented to publish the reports if gratuitously furnished his paper. And this was done." If William Henry Swift was the author of the above reference to base ball then this puts the reference in a different light and it's much easier to explain. Swift was born in Cayuga Co., New York in 1832, educated in New York public schools, and apprenticed at the Auburn (New York) Advertiser from 1844 to 1849 before moving to St. Louis in 1850. If he was the author then the reference to the "old social game" and to student play would be to baseball in New York rather than St. Louis.
Let's see if I can be a bit more clear in my thinking. Here are the facts:
1. We have an 1858 reference to base ball in the Alton papers. The description of the game leaves no doubt that it is not the New York game.
2. We have an 1860 reference to town ball in St. Louis that implies that the game had been played in St. Louis in the past. We also know that there were clubs organized to play this game.
3. We have an 1860 reference to base ball in St. Louis that directly refers to a club organizing to play the New York game while at the same time implying that the game was played by the author of the article in his youth.
4. Since the best available evidence suggests that the New York game was first played in the St. Louis area in the summer of 1859, any references to base ball in St. Louis prior to that is to the St. Louis version of base ball rather than the New York version.
Trying to reconcile these facts, I could argue that in the antebellum era, prior to the advent of the New York game in the area, various bat and ball games were played in St. Louis and clubs were organized around the playing of those games. In Alton, the game went by the name of base ball while in St. Louis it was known as town ball. The reference to the "old social game of base ball" is W.H. Swift speaking about his experiences playing base ball in New York.
However, we could also possibly argue that we're talking about one bat and ball game referred to by different names. While certainly this game was malleable and lent itself to rule-change variations, in general there was one bat and ball game around which clubs were formed and this game was known variously, around St. Louis, as town ball or base ball. Under this theory, the game played in Alton in 1858 and called base ball was the same as that played in St. Louis in 1860 and called town ball. The main reasoning behind this argument would be the economic, social, and cultural connections between St. Louis and the various satellite communities that sprung up around it. I find it unlikely that entirely different forms of bat and ball games, going under different names and being played by adults, would develop at the same time in St. Louis and Alton. It's possible but I just can't imagine any type of evolutionary trend taking place in one of the cities without it immediately impacting the other.
I was looking through David Block's Baseball Before We Knew It last night to see if there might be anything which could address some of the questions that I have and found this:
From all available indications, the term "town-ball" was simply one of several regional aliases for baseball before 1845. In those years, the game was a localized and generally unorganized activity. Two teams in neighboring communities might have called their respective games town-ball but played under different sets of rules. By the same token, their rules could have been identical, but one might have called it "town-ball" and the other "base ball."
I think that this lends some support to the idea that we could be looking at one game under two names. Certainly it isn't conclusive or any kind of smoking gun but it at least touches on the possibility.
There is one more point I'd like to mention before wrapping this up. If Swift was the author of the article and had some familiarity with the New York game before moving to St. Louis then it appears that he recognized the game that Morning Star Club was playing as the New York game. However, if Swift was not the author or he had no familiarity with the New York game then the reference to base ball becomes even more interesting because the author is using one term to refer to both the New York game and the St. Louis variation of American base ball. The implication is that the author did not see enough difference between the two games to distinguish between them. I think that would be significant in that it would speak to the subtleness of the evolutionary development of baseball. Not only was there a subtleness to the development of the game itself, as it distinguished itself from other forms of bat and ball games, but also to the spread of the game. An event which we might see as significant, the advent of the New York game in a specific city or region, was most likely a non-event to those who participated in the game or observed its playing. The New York game was just one more bat and ball game being played at the time; just one variation of base ball among many. There was nothing special about it.