- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2007


By George B. Kirsch, Princeton University Press, $21.95 hardcover, $14.95 paperback, 145 pages, illustrated

Modern baseball developed in New York, Philadelphia and Boston in the 1830s and 1840s and was well on its way to becoming the national pastime when the Civil War erupted in 1861.

This scholarly book by George B. Kirsch, professor of history at Manhattan College, documents games played in camp between battles and in Union and Confederate prisons when the men were healthy enough to take the field.

However, Mr. Kirsch, by necessity, spends considerable time examining the periods immediately before and after the war, which in many ways is more fascinating because — let’s face it — no mere game can compete with the drama of the Civil War.

Baseball, in its infancy, featured a variety of rules. There was “townball,” especially popular in Boston, in which the field was square rather than a diamond and fielders could throw out a runner by hitting him with the ball. The ball must have been softer in those days.

Mr. Kirsch quotes a Boston enthusiast saying in 1856 that the ball was “made of yarn, tightly wound round a lump or cork or India rubber, and covered with smooth calf-skin in quarters … the seams closed snugly, and not raised, lest they should blister the hands of the thrower and catcher.”

But the New York Knickerbockers, in the 1840s, devised their own rules, which more resemble those of the game we know today, except that the pitchers (unlike the New England version) threw underhand.

Well, at least the New Yorkers got the name right, calling it (two words) “base ball.” In the end, the New York version (minus the underhand pitching) won out, not least because it was spread across the nation during the war.

“Abraham G. Mills of Cincinnati, a future president of the National League … packed a bat and ball with his army gear before reporting for military duty,” the author says. “He later recalled that he used his sporting equipment as much as his side arms.”

Mills recalled that on Christmas Day 1862, 40,000 soldiers at Hilton Head, S.C., witnessed a baseball game between a team from the 165th New York Volunteer Infantry and a picked team from other Union regiments.

When the 14th Regiment returned to Brooklyn in June 1864, one of the soldiers wrote to the Brooklyn Eagle, saying, “Among the returned heroes of our gallant Fourteenth are some well-known ball players, who, while devoted to the use of more deadly weapons, have not forgotten the use of bat or ball, as the many games played by them during their three years service will prove.”

The Confederates also enjoyed playing ball. As the author notes, Bell Wiley, in “The Life of Johnny Reb,” said that baseball games were common in almost every regiment, although they were hindered by a lack of equipment, which did not stop the troops from making use of whatever was at hand, whether a hickory branch for a bat or a yarn-wrapped walnut for a ball.

“In November 1861 the Charleston Mercury of South Carolina reported that Confederate troops were stuck in soggy camps near Centreville, Fairfax County, Virginia. Heavy rains created miserably wet conditions so that ‘even the baseball players find the green sward in front of the camp, too boggy for their accustomed sport.’ ”

During the first two years of the war, when the two sides were still exchanging prisoners and the prison camps were not so crowded and provided reasonable amounts of food, baseball helped relieve the monotony of captivity, the author says, citing in particular the camps at Salisbury, N.C., and Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie, near Sandusky, Ohio.

Even the Rebel guards seemed to enjoy the ball games at Salisbury, one Yankee wrote. “I have seen more smiles today on their oblong faces than before since I came to rebeldom, for they have been the most doleful looking set of men I ever saw, and the Confederate gray uniform really adds to their mournful appearance.”

Even as the soldiers in the field and in prison continued to play the game, so did civilians on the home front and students in college, the author informs us. Thus, baseball entered the postwar era more popular than ever.

“As the 1860s drew to a close, excursions of ball clubs [to other parts of the nation] generated friendlier feelings and more hope that baseball could help bind North and South together,” the author says.

In Fayetteville, Tenn., former residents of Philadelphia and Washington organized the first game ever played in that town. The October 1868 contest featured a KKK club against “nine carpetbaggers.” The Southerners were victorious.

Greg Pierce is editor of the Civil War page.

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