Tuesday, January 13, 2015

"If the Ice Permits"

The deep freeze which recently gripped the northern part of the country doubtless has many base ball players and fans, not to mention historians, thinking wistfully of warmer temperatures and the advent of a new season.   There was, however, a time when at least some base ball players welcomed colder temperatures because it meant they could get back on the field or at least the ice, in games that could only be played "if the ice permits" on frozen ponds and lakes.  As with everything else in base ball history, it's always risky to claim a "first," but one of the earliest reports of base ball on ice appeared in the New York Clipper during the 1860-61 "secession winter."  A brief  account in the January 19th edition of the paper said that on New Year's Day, two Rochester clubs, the Lone Star and Live Oak played a match on ice before 2500 people with the Lone Star Club prevailing 21-8.  Apparently intrigued by the idea, the writer challenged the New York clubs to hold a similar event at New York's Central Park so the upstate clubs would not be "ice-olated in this respect."

Washington Skating Club in action in south Brooklyn

A response wasn't long in coming, but from another quarter, nearby Brooklyn, then an independent city, where the enthusiasm for competitive base ball equaled, if not exceeded, its Manhattan roots. On February 4th, two well known Brooklyn clubs, the Atlantics and Charter Oak Clubs took the ice "upon what is known as Litchfield's pond" near 5th Avenue and 3rd Streets in south Brooklyn.  Understandably attracted by what the reporter claimed was the first such game "in our latitude," a reported crowd of 12000 including 1500 ladies lined the "abutting embankments" (seen in the drawing above ) while others watched from the comfort and relative warmth of their carriages.  Many in the crowd, however, hadn't come to watch, but to skate as both the Clipper and Eagle reported major difficulties in freeing sufficient space on the pond's ten acres of ice so the game could begin.  Finally, however, enough of the ice was cleared to allow the Atlantics resplendent in "red jackets and blue facings" and the Charter Oaks in "plaid" coats to try their hands at this new and novel approach to the old game.

Dickey Pearce

Each team had ten players with the extra position filled by a second catcher, probably in recognition of the risk of passed balls rolling without end on the slippery surface.  Not surprisingly, the conditions favored the "the best skater" over "the best player," but for the Atlantics, they were pretty much one and the same especially the legendary Dickey Pearce who made "several splendid fly catches," demonstrating he was "as good a shortstop on ice, as he is on a summer's day."  As a result the once and future champions triumphed, just as they frequently did "on terra firma," wining 36-27 to earn a silver trophy ball donated by Mr. Litchfield himself, the president of the Fifth Avenue Railroad Company.  Although the game was completed successfully, the conditions deteriorated as "water oozed up" through "ominous cracks and fissures" in the ice.

1865 Ad for Ice Skates

At the end of his account of the Brooklyn contest, the Clipper reporter again challenged the Manhattan clubs to host "a similar exhibition" at Central Park, but perhaps because of the war only a couple of matches were even attempted over the next few years. According an 1865 article in the Clipper there was an 1863 Brooklyn match at an unidentified site and an 1864 Empire-Gotham match at Sylvan Lake in Hoboken which was wisely halted because of breaking ice.  However early in 1865 with the end of the war hopefully in sight and base ball on the brink of a period of major expansion, the Atlantic and Gotham clubs agreed to play a best of three series beginning with a January 12th contest at Capitoline Grounds.  It was certainly an appropriate venue as the Brooklyn facility first opened to host ice skating and then became one of the first enclosed base ball grounds.  Bases for the match consisted of circles of "powdered charcoal" with runners permitted to over run/over skate the base.  A major challenge for the players was the difficulty in planting their feet on the hard and slippery surface.  As a result the pitchers focused on control to limit the number of passed balls while strikers concentrated on placing their hits outside the limited range of the fielders.  In match that featured the Wright brothers (George and Harry) in the Gotham lineup and the aforementioned Pearce as well as Joe Start and Fred Crane playing for the Atlantics, the Brooklyn club skated to an easy 32-5 win.

Sylvan Lake was reportedly at the foot of 7th Street in Hoboken which would put it on the Stevens family property at Castle Point - map by Andrea Magno 

Things were not so easy for the Atlantics in the return match four days later on the Gothams' home turf/ice at Sylvan Lake in Hoboken where the home team triumphed 39-19 in three hours of cold and wind.  Conditions were even worse for the deciding match on January 26th at Washington Pond (Litchfield Pond) in Brooklyn where it took 4 1/2 hours in the bitter cold before the Atlantics prevailed 50-30.  Beyond the obvious discomfort, the frigid temperatures made the surface so hard, the players had an even more difficult than usual time in getting a foothold in the ice.  By this time the reporter (possibly Henry Chadwick) had had more than enough of base ball on ice claiming that unless the weather was milder, the only appeal was the novelty factor which wore quickly wore thin in conditions that made the game "anything, but sport to players or spectators."

If this was meant to sound the death knell for the winter game, the words were anything, but prophetic as almost two decades later the new version of the New York game was still being played, at least in Brooklyn.  In January of 1883, Prospect Park was the scene of at least two matches of teams chosen by major leaguers William Barnie of Baltimore and John "Candy" Nelson of the Metropolitans (Mets).  Reporting on the event, the Clipper thoughtfully provided the following list of major differences between winter and summer base ball.

New York Clipper - February 3, 1883

A year later, the greater New York version of base ball on ice returned to its birthplace in south Brooklyn where the Brooklyn Base Ball Association (ultimately the Brooklyn Dodgers) built the first incarnation of Washington Park  in the same area as the skating pond mentioned earlier.  Accounts in the Clipper and Eagle make no mention of an admission charge, but the best bet is that anyone who wanted to watch or skate (which went on simultaneously) paid for the privilege as club president, Charles Byrne tried maximize the revenue from his all too frequently vacant ball park.  If the Clipper reporter who wrote so disparagingly of base ball on ice in 1865 was indeed the Father of Base Ball himself, Henry Chadwick had changed his tune by 1884.  Not only was Chadwick present, but he along with Brooklyn manager, George Taylor, selected the two "tens" of both amateur and professional players.  Among the professionals were Sam Kimber and John Cassidy of Brooklyn and it's interesting (at least to me) that Brooklyn management was willing to risk injury to their players even though this was long before such prohibitions in major league contracts.  I have a vague recollection from high school in the 1960's that basketball players were prohibited from ice skating during the basketball season as just such a precaution.  The game was close for three innings, but Chawick's team scores seven times in the fourth and added a ridiculous 27 runs in the fifth for a dominating 41-12 victory.

Base ball on ice at Washington Park 

According to Peter Morris' always valuable, A Game of Inches, base ball on ice seems to have gradually died out as the 19th century progressed although there was talk of a league being formed in Cleveland in 1912 if Lake Erie froze sufficiently.  Peter also reports that at least one old time player, James Wood, claimed that base ball on ice's one legacy was the rule change allowing base runners to over run first base.  While the frozen version of base ball didn't last as long at Washington Park,  a few years later the grounds were the unlikely site of another winter sport which will be the subject of the next post.  

1 comment:

  1. Richard HershbergerJanuary 18, 2015 at 8:24 AM

    The NY Sunday Mercury of January 22, 1860 reports on a game on ice in Rochester played January 16 between mixed sides, including the Live Oaks. This is the earliest game I can find. It makes sense that the idea would spring up in upstate New York. The region was absolutely baseball crazy in this era, and with absurdly cold winters.