Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Spirited Game Of Old Town Ball

All the Deputy Sheriff's, Marshall's and some of the clerks at the Court House went out on Franklin avenue, near Leffingwell avenue, yesterday afternoon, and had a spirited game of old town ball.  We are glad to know that this pleasant game has been revived this season.  A regular club has been organized, and will meet once a week during the season.
-St. Louis Daily Bulletin, May 4, 1860

This is the first reference to town ball in a contemporary St. Louis newspaper that I've found.

Edmund Tobias, in his history, mentions that town ball was popular in St. Louis and played in the antebellum period prior to the advent of the New York game in the city.  Also, there's a hint in his writings that the Excelsior Club had previously been a town ball club.  Richard Perry, in 1887, and Merritt Griswold, in 1911, both mentioned that the Morning Star had played town ball.  So we certainly knew that town ball, or some form of base ball, was being played in St. Louis prior to the introduction of the New York game.  Now, however, we have contemporary evidence that the game was being played in 1860 and that it was a "revival" of a game played in the past.  

The extent to which the game was played, how popular it was, and when it was first played in St. Louis remains unknown.    


Richard Hershberger said...

Thanks for posting this. The "revival" aspect is a bit mystifying. In what sense did town ball need reviving? It may be that it was "revived this season" from the Winter lull.

This is in the same way that later clubs being "disbanded" might mean that they disappeared permanently, or that the season was over; subsequent "reorganization" might mean that some old members are reviving a defunct club (or unconnected persons reviving an old name), but it might also mean that the club which "disbanded" last Fall is "reorganizing" this Spring for the upcoming season.

The nation-wide surge in organized adult team sports was still fresh. It tended to begin in the northeast and worked its way west and south. So it could also be that this is a revival in the sense that these individuals had played the game as boys, but stopped as they grew older. Playing it as adults constitutes a revival of play.

I doubt that it means that the game had died out in any broad sense. It is implausible that boys had stopped playing it during the 1850s.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

I read "revival" as meaning a revival for the season. We have enough secondary sources to believe that the game had some popularity in StL and was being played prior to 1860. Tobias, I believe, actually wrote something about there being a tradition of town ball play in the antebellum era.

It's interesting that you brought up the idea of a revival of the game in the context of adult play because I think that's relevent to the reference to "base ball" that I'm posting tomorrow. The author, writing in 1860, talks about playing base ball in his youth and how he's glad to see the game becoming popular (this time among adults).