Friday, June 8, 2012
Our “Traveling Correspondent,” W.H. P., who is also a traveling correspondent of the New York Spirit of the Times, in a recent letter to that paper dated Havana, Ill., thus speaks of the excitement there on the “Base Ball” question:I found the young people had formed a base ball club, and enjoyed themselves three times a week at the sport. There were some good, and even expert players, and two or three would rank with the best at the North. Among the members were the principal bankers, lawyers and merchants. One evening last week an exciting match took place, playing commencing at four o’clock. The court was in session, an important case was on; twenty-four hours had been occupied in selecting a jury, and among them was two members of the club. The principal counsel was also a member, and all were itching to be out of the courtroom on the ground. Every few minutes some one would come into court with a slip of paper of the game. The excitement increased as cheers from the outside arose. The solicitor could no longer withstand it and throwing down his “brief,” exclaimed, “Gentleman of the jury, d—m the case; I must see that base ball game played.” The judge coincided and adjourned till candlelight, and all were soon on the ground, the jury being under the charge of the sheriff, were escorted to good position, the members being allowed to take part, and the game was finished satisfactorily.
-Davenport Daily Gazette, April 10, 1861
Havana is located on the Illinois River, about a hundred miles or so north of St. Louis, in Mason County.
This is a real interesting reference that raises questions pertaining to how baseball spread across the United States. We know that there was an active ball-playing community in Mason County, going back to the 1820s, and that town ball was a popular activity in the area. So it's entirely possible that this is a town ball reference, with the local Havana variant simply being called "base ball." However, the regulation game had reached Chicago and eastern Iowa by 1858 and St. Louis by 1859 so its possible that this is a reference to the regulation game being played in a small, rural, central Illinois town in 1861, as the Civil War was just breaking out. The fact that the report appeared in Spirit of the Times, I think, supports the idea that this was the regulation game.
And the idea that this was the regulation game fascinates me. I think it's generally accepted that the regulation game spread far and wide before the Civil War but, for the most part, the spread was limited (outside of the Northeast) to the larger urban areas and that the game didn't reach the more rural areas until after the war. St. Louis, Chicago and Davenport have the regulation game prior to the war but it doesn't reach Quincy, Illinois or Decatur until after the war. That's the pattern of spread that's supported by the evidence that I've seen. But this reference runs contrary to that general pattern. Is our thinking wrong about when the game reached the rural West or is this just an outlier? It's impossible to say but it's not out of the realm of possibility that they were playing the New York game in Havana in 1861. Stranger things have happened.
One thing I should point out is the possibility that the story is not true. The whole thing seems to be a tall tale and I have serious doubts about most of the facts reported in the story. That doesn't necessarily mean that the report of a baseball club in Havana is false and it may have just been the device upon which the writer hung his tale. But the rest of it just seems like a country bumpkin story told to entertain New Yorkers.