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Your Turn: The New York game comes to the Rose City

Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series. Next week: the game grows.

Baseball was not the first item on the minds of readers as they perused the Norwich Bulletin on April 11, 1861. The principal news, emphasized by articles set in ominous black type, gave details of disunionist activities in the southern states and rumors of an impending fight in the vicinity of Fort Sumter, the federal bastion in the harbor of Charleston, S.C.

Whether out of real conviction or simply to reassure nervous subscribers, the Bulletin’s correspondent discredited such report, stressing, “those best informed in the government policy give no credence to the report that there will be a fight in Charleston Harbor, and declared Fort Sumter to be evacuated.”

A day later, Confederate forces under the command of General Pierre T. Beauregard would commence firing on Fort Sumter, and the nation would be plunged into the maelstrom of a bloody four-year civil war.

Almost lost among the rumors of war or peace was a brief announcement under the heading Local Affairs, subtitled Base Ball (written as two words until the 20th century), directing members of the Uncas Club to “a call in the Special Notice column.”

That column directed members of the Uncas Baseball Club to attend a meeting at No. 3 Breed Hall, “this Thursday at 5 pm. A full meeting is required to transact the business at hand. Per order of C.E. Dyer, Sec.”

This, apparently, is the first mention of baseball in Norwich. There are no hints as to how well organized the Uncas Club was, nor prior or subsequent reports of meetings. In fact, this singular appearance marked the only notice of baseball in Norwich between 1861 and 1865. With other details lacking, the genesis of the game in Norwich must be assembled from subsequent reports and memory.

Several sources, including the Bulletin, credit Frank Stanley Chester, the bookkeeper at the Thames Bank, with the introduction of the game. The son of a Buffalo, N.Y., clergyman, and a recent arrival in Norwich, Chester apparently brought the New York form of the game from his home state to the Rose City, and was an integral part of the formation of the Uncas Club.

The abrupt beginning and end of the club’s activities may also reflect the sudden departure of Chester, who was among the first to volunteer for military duty. By April 21, 1861, now Captain Frank Chester of the Buckingham Rifles was drilling his troops in preparation for departure for New Haven and, subsequently, service in the first major engagement of the conflict, at Bull Run or Manassas, Virginia, on July 21, 1861 as part of company B, Second Connecticut regiment.

Chester did not remain in Norwich following his return from duty. Despite his association with the game, at the time of his death in 1907, the Bulletin’s obituary made no mention of his early association with baseball in Norwich.

Baseball’s renascence in Norwich, like its initial disappearance, was inextricably linked to the Civil War. On April 11, 1865, within days of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, of which the Bulletin declared, “the head of the rebellion is crushed,” the following announcement appeared in the Local Affairs column:

“We understand that the Free Academy base ball club have challenged any nine players residing in town to play them a match game on Fast Day — a day of general prayer and fasting in observance of the war’s end — and their challenge will probably be accepted by some amateurs. By the way, why do not our young men about town form a club or two to play this manly game.”

This challenge to the “young men about town” was answered enthusiastically, and for a few years a veritable baseball mania would grip Norwich and its denizens. The game they would embrace was variously referred to as base ball and the New York game, in acknowledgment of its most popular and widely embraced version.

This is not to claim that ball games were played solely in New York, for this is patently false, inasmuch as versions of ball games flourished in New England, Philadelphia and New York dating back to the colonial period. Witness the recently rediscovered Pittsfield, Massachusetts, ordinance dating from 1791 proscribing ball playing within 80 yards of the big church in the Town Square.

However, modern baseball, and the game introduced to Norwich in 1861, derives most immediately from the New York version created by the Knickerbockers of that city during the 1840s. While this monograph is not designed as a compact history of 19th century baseball and its evolution, it is illuminating to discuss some of the characteristics that connect and distinguish the game of 1865 from those of the early 21st century.

Baseball changed rapidly during its early history, and while the game played in 1865 would be identifiable to the modern observer, there are some noteworthy differences. Among the most significant:

n While the field was laid out very much like a modern diamond, there was no pitcher’s mound, but instead a pitcher’s box bounded by two iron quoits, initially four by six feet, expanded to six feet square in 1869. The pitcher began and ended his delivery between these two points, the nearest lying 45 feet from home plate. There was no batter’s box per se, with the striker — or batter — required to stand on a line drawn perpendicular to home plate. Hitters were required to neither step forward nor backward when swinging, but to remain with feet firmly planted lest they be called out.

n The job of the pitcher was to deliver the ball fairly to the striker, or batsman, as close to the center of the plate as possible. The pitch was delivered underhand, with a straight arm, for the ball was to be pitched, not jerked or thrown to the striker. If the pitcher did not succeed in throwing hittable balls, the umpire would call a warning, and begin calling balls. Three balls were a walk.

n If a batter swung and missed, it was a strike; three such swings was an out; if a striker did not swing at hittable pitches, the umpire would announce a warning; following the warning strikes would be called. Three strikes after the warning was an out.

n Fair-Foul: Unlike the modern game, any ball, which first hits in fair territory, constituted a fair ball. Many batters perfected the fair-foul hit, hitting the ball in fair territory just in front of the plate after which it would spin off into foul territory far from the clutches of the catcher and other fielders.

n Early rules allowed fielders to either catch a ball on the fly or first bounce to record an out. This rule was amended in 1864, and henceforth, the fly game became the standard for serious clubs. However, foul balls caught on the first bounce as well as the fly were considered outs.

n As for base running, prior to 1871, runners could not overrun first base; runners could tag up and run after the catch of a foul ball, however he could be put out if a foul ball fly or grounder were returned to the pitcher and thrown to the base before he could tag up.

n Stealing was allowed, but the runner was prohibited from leading and could not leave the bag before the ball left the pitcher’s hand.

n Ball players did not wear gloves, and that included the catcher.

These in general form were the rules followed by the two squads who assembled on the Great Plain at two o’clock on April 14, 1865, to reintroduce baseball to Norwich.

In commenting on the game, the Bulletin remarked that, as this constituted “one of the first matches ever played in this city, much interest is manifested.” Unfortunately, the score of the game is not recorded; however, the “base ball fever” ignited by this initial match led to a secondary announcement on the same day, proclaiming a meeting at the Wauregan Hotel at 7:30 “to take measures to organize a base ball club in this city.”

The meeting resulted from a “call,” probably a petition, circulated to test local interest in a team. All those so inclined were encouraged to be present without fail.

Like many new endeavors, the as of yet unnamed club benefited from an initial burst of enthusiasm, and subsequently suffered from a cooling of ardor among would be participants. By April 29, 1865, the Bulletin announced the last attempt to “complete the organization of the base ball club in Norwich,” with a meeting scheduled at the Wauregan for 8 o’clock. The Bulletin opined the poor response, noting with dismay the small number who agreed to join the club while applauding the hard work of a few dedicated enthusiasts.

The only hope for success lay with a good turnout at the forthcoming meeting, failing that, “the project will be abandoned.”

That, apparently, was the stimulus required to complete the organization of the new club, for the May 1 paper contained a lengthy description of the newly constituted Uncas Club. A reported 20-30 members accepted membership, with the club organized under the rules of the “National Base Ball Association,” probably a misreading of the National Association of Base Ball Player, the national organization of amateur clubs founded in 1857. Playing by the rules of the NABBP and bidding for membership therein was one way of judging the seriousness of a club’s attitude. While the Bulletin carried notes on a number of Norwich teams during the years 1865-1870, only four probably joined the organization and/invoked their rules of play.

Business meetings were scheduled once a month, commencing May 2, at 7:30 at the Wauregan. That meeting would tackle the essential tasks of choosing officers, and procuring funding for what the Bulletin referred to as “the implements of practice.” Those implements were not easy to come by, for a meeting on May 5, directed a member to “procure the requisite implements in New York, [and] he left last evening and will have them here Thursday.”

With those essential items in hand, practice was scheduled for Saturdays, at 4 p.m. on the Big Plain.

Regardless of the team and the year, all records indicate that three sites were used for games. The Great Plain or Big Plain was one, followed by Williams Park, and the county fairgrounds. Of the three, the Great Plain location was regularly used for practice and games, the Williams Park site for games only, and the fair grounds for games played in conjunction with the annual agricultural fair. The exact location of the Great Plains field remains something of a mystery; it appears to have been located on the New London Turnpike, probably adjacent to the fairgrounds site.

Keep in mind that the grounds refer to something less than a professionally groomed diamond. While it featured distinct baselines and fair/foul points distinguished by pennants, the grounds were not manicured, with rudimentary seating designed to accommodate the ladies in attendance.

For a time the Uncas Club, the appellation chosen for the new Norwich club, confined its matches to inter-squad games, pitting members of different nines gainst each other. Unlike modern ball clubs, teams of the 1860s might include a first nine consisting of superior players, a second nine, with good but slightly less proficient or experienced members, a group of members termed “muffins” as a reference to their proclivity for “muffing” plays and being enthusiastic but inept, and a group of honorary members, who represented esteemed members of society.

For example, former Gov. William Buckingham, several mayors, clergymen and military veterans accepted honorary memberships in Norwich ball clubs. These practices were already on the decline in New York by 1865, but continued in Norwich into the late 1860s.

There was also a lack of suitable opposition in Norwich. Although reference is made to other “city clubs,” these remained unnamed in 1865. The only other “nine” mentioned is the Free Academy club, composed of junior players, a reference to their age as being under 21.

That did not stop them from challenging the older Uncas players, and the city’s first post war match between recognized teams was scheduled for July 1, 1865, at 5 p.m. on the Big Plain. In anticipation of a good turnout, the Bulletin reminded readers that Williams Avenue below the Big Plain was not to be blocked up by carriages.

Game reports described a large number of spectators, including a fair sprinkling of ladies in attendance to witness what the Bulletin described as a somewhat surprising 25-15 victory by the neophyte Uncas nine.

Modern observers might also be surprised by the time of the game, a swift one hour and thirty minutes. For reasons unarticulated in the press, the Free Academy team disbanded following their defeat.

Emboldened by their initial success, the Uncas club proceeded to expand their recruitment efforts, and discuss appropriate uniforms. Their success garnered attention in the press, and they were soon to have competition in the form of a new club.

This new aggregation was introduced to the Bulletin’s readers on the 18th of July 1865 as the Terrifics, prompting the Bulletin to hope that they will “Terrify this and other clubs into more constant play than heretofore seen in our city clubs.” In response, the Hartford Post mocked the new team, chiding them with the observation that should they play the premiere Hartford Club, the Charter Oaks, they might well become the “Terrified.”

The name Terrifics proved to be a temporary sobriquet, and by July 25 the new club assumed the name Chesters in honor of Captain Frank Chester, the eponymous founder of baseball in Norwich. Similar in structure to the Uncas club, the Chesters drew their first nine players from a similar stratum of society.

The key players were relatively young men in their 20s, largely single, employed as store and bank clerks, skilled artisans, perhaps in the city’s gun manufactories and mills. At least one was a school teacher, and several were Civil War veterans.

Although no record of the Chester’s uniforms is extant, the Uncas club adopted a distinctive uniform on July 31, described thusly: “Blue cap with white frontispiece white flannel shirt with blue trimmings, white belt embossed with the word Uncas, and blue flannel pants.”

By inference, the Chesters assumed red as the prominent color for their uniforms, inasmuch as the Bulletin reported that contests between the two clubs featured many ladies sporting blue or red ribbons to designate their favorites.

The two teams were practicing hard, three days a week by August 1865, and it was only a matter of time before one or the other extended a challenge. The first to strike were the Chesters, who delivered a challenge to the Uncas club for a Sept. 6, match. The first nine of each squad would play at 3 o’clock for the grandiosely titled “championship of eastern Connecticut.” The second nines would play on the following Wednesday, presumably for bragging rights.

Both games were scheduled for the Uncas grounds on the Great Plain. In hopes of instilling a sense of decorum for both matches, the Bulletin announced that seats would be provided for the ladies, and all in attendance were asked to refrain from questioning the scorers or commenting on the umpire’s calls.

The first nine games drew a crowd of about 200, and lasted a modest one hour and 30 minutes. Despite their lack of experience, the Chesters prevailed by a score of 29-15. On Thursday, the second nines competed, and once again the Chesters prevailed, this time by a score of 40-38, in 2 hours and 31 minutes.

A double defeat was not on the Uncas club’s agenda. In the spirit of good fellowship, the two clubs agreed to a rematch, with a newly reconstituted Uncas club again suffering a defeat, 37-31, on Sept. 13 in one hour and 57 minutes.

The Uncas second nine triumphed a day later 49-21, but given the prominence of the first nine this must have offered cold comfort to the Uncas club.

As it turned out, the final game of the 1865 season also featured a Chesters-Uncas match, this time as part of the annual county fair. Unlike the previous matches, this one featured a purse of $25. Also unlike previous matches, this game was held within the confines of the fair ground, on a site not conducive to ball playing.

Observers commented unfavorably both on the crush of humanity which surrounded the players, and the conditions of the grounds. Loud complaints were voiced over the damage inflicted by people, horses and carriages, which made good fielding almost impossible. Fielding aside, the Chesters triumphed again, 47-33, and claimed the purse.

While this proved to be the last game of the season, it was not the last attempt to play an extended schedule in 1865. Modern ball, with its well defined season, had no comparable model in the post-Civil War scheduling. The Chesters attempted to play a match with the Waterbury Baseball Club at the Charter Oak Grounds in Hartford, and subsequently to play the Charter Oaks on their home field deep into November. Efforts only terminated at the end of the month, with a final note on Sept. 27 concluding that due to the illness of a key player and the lateness of the season the Charter Oaks would not take up the Chesters’ challenge that year.

Bob Farwell is executive director of Otis Library in Norwich.

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