Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Top Twenty Games In 19th Century St. Louis Baseball History: # 9

9. July 4, 1865: Empires vs. Freeport

The forenoon (of July 4, 1865) was passed in frantic endeavors to keep cool-efforts were not crowned with success. At two o'clock, p.m., the St. Louis and Freeport Base Ball Clubs met on the common (in Freeport, Illinois) to ascertain, we suppose, what exercise would do toward keeping the blood cool. A large crowd of spectators from Stephenson and adjoining counties was present to watch the game. The members of both clubs were dressed in a very picturesque costume. The cap of white muslin with red trimmings was a union of beauty and utility. To your humble correspondent the game seems a boyish one, but "men are only boys grown tall." The Freeport boys were beaten, but they say it was not fairly done, and it is rumored that it is to be tried over again to-morrow. By the way the umpire was from Chicago, and there are complaints of partiality.
-Chicago Tribune, July 7, 1865

The Civil War was over and the baseball fever was about to sweep the nation.  The Empire Club, having ruled the St. Louis baseball scene during the war years, looked about for a new challenge and found it in Illinois. 

This game is significant for two reasons.  First, as far as I can tell, this was the first time a St. Louis baseball club played a club from outside the city.  It was also, by extension, the first time a St. Louis club traveled outside the city to play a game.  However, the true significance of this game lies in the fact that this was the first time, in the West, that a baseball match was played using the fly rule. 

E.H. Tobias, in the November 9, 1895 issue of The Sporting News, wrote that "No definite arrangements were made as to whether it would be 'a bound or a fly' game until the two club captains faced one another on the diamond, when in reply to the question as to what it would be, Frain promptly responded: 'Just as you please' and the answer came promptly: 'Fly it is.' It afterward developed that the Freeport Captain thought he had gained quite an advantage by thus choosing, as the 'fly' game was still quite a novelty, and though some of the St. Louis boys felt a little weak over the chances of winning, Fruin had not the least misgiving, as he knew full well that his men 'just doted' on fly balls when they came along."

The adoption of the fly rule, at the expense of the bound rule, was an important step in the evolution of baseball towards its modern form and the debate about the rule change went back to the antebellum era.  Peter Morris, in A Game of Inches, wrote that "The issue was heatedly debated [for several years] and was brought up at the annual convention of the National Association of Base Ball Players no fewer than six times...On December 14, 1864, they finally carried their point, and fielders were required to catch fair balls on the fly, though fouls could still be caught on the first bounce until the 1880s."

Warren Goldstein, in A History of Early Baseball, has a great deal to say about the debate over the fly rule and places it within the context of the maturation of the game.  He writes that "In the late 1850s and early 1860s the struggle over baseball's manly or boyish character took clearest form in a debate over a particular rule of the game - what was known at the time as the fly rule...Simply put, the reformers considered the bound catch a 'boy's rule.'  By eliminating the bound catch in favor of the fly catch, they hoped to make baseball a more manly sport.  Proponents of the fly game argued their case by example on the playing field, in the newspapers, and in conventions of the National Association of Base Ball Players."

The proponents of the fly rule carried the day and baseball was changed forever.  The Empire/Freeport match of 1865 shows how much influence the National Association had in shaping the game and how baseball had truly developed into a national game with national rules.  The fly rule was adopted by the National Association in December of 1864 and, by the summer of 1865, the rule was being applied in matches in Illinois.

Honestly, I might have this game a little low on the list and could be convinced that it should be as high as number four.  The first fly match in the west, which is nationally significant.  The first road game, which was a big deal in St. Louis at the time.  And, as we'll see, this win by the Empires was part of their claim to the mythical Championship of the West.  This game has a lot going for it.     

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