|Sunday, July 8
Articles show 'base ball' was played in 1823
NEW YORK -- Once upon a time in prehistory, two cavemen had a difference of opinion. One picked up a rock and threw it. The other swung his club and whacked it a country mile.
Baseball was born.
It hasn't yet come to that, but it might if historians and researchers keep pushing back the time frame in which the National Pastime was either invented or evolved.
For decades, the widely accepted version was that Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday dreamed up the game in 1839 while a cadet at West Point, and later encouraged it among his Union troops when not fighting off Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg.
While that legend led to the National Baseball Hall of Fame being founded in Doubleday's home town of Cooperstown, N.Y., more recent evidence showed that the first real game of baseball was played by two teams in Hoboken, N.J. in 1846.
But now comes George A. Thompson Jr., a New York University librarian and baseball fan who spends a lot of time trolling through old newspapers in search of interesting items that shed light on early life in New York City.
Last fall, he was poking through the pages of The National Advocate, a long-forgotten newspaper, when he discovered a brief item on April 23, 1823, referring to Saturday games of "base ball" being played at the corner of Broadway and 8th Street in lower Manhattan.
The writer, calling himself "A Spectator," told of being "much pleased in witnessing a company of active young men playing the manly and athletic game" and said another contest was to be held on the same field a week hence.
On the same day, the rival New-York Gazette and General Advertiser carried a one-paragraph item saying it had "received a communication in favor of the manly exercise of base ball," presumably from the same anonymous "Spectator."
"When I found the item, I was struck by the fact that the game was actually called `base ball,' and that it had to be a very early reference, if not the earliest," Thompson said in an interview Sunday. He said he called the Baseball Hall of Fame, which "confirmed that it would be a very early reference."
Even more intriguing, he says, was that the writer and the editor saw no need to explain what "base ball" was. "They took it for granted that people would understand what it was about," suggesting that many people were already familiar with the game.
The Advocate gave no name for the "organized association" that held the contest of "consummate skill and wonderful dexterity," but called the game "innocent amusement ... attended with but little expense" and "no demoralizing tendency," an apparent reference to the insidious effects of gambling.
Yet no one watching that day could have envisioned that one week shy of a century later, something called "The House that Ruth Built" would open with 74,000 spectators to see the New York Yankees beat the Boston Red Sox 4-1 on a home run by -- yes, Babe Ruth.
Thompson, who describes himself as "a Yankee fan since Whitey Ford was a rookie," said the newspapers of the early 19th century were typically four pages filled mainly with advertising, leaving scant space for news. Sports items would be limited to a once-a-year horse race or "somebody arrested for prize fighting."
Gotham-to-be in 1823 extended only as far north as Canal Street, and its cobblestoned pathways were lit by oil lamps and candles, except when there was a full moon, Thompson said.
The site of the game, then open pastures, is now part of Greenwich Village. The southern half of the field is taken up with NYU buildings including its school of performing arts.
Thompson said he is puzzled that in randomly perusing 19th century papers he has found no mention of baseball between the 1820s and the 1840s. "It would seem that there ought to be references that filled that gap," he said.