Posts Tagged ‘Brooklyn Atlantics’

William V. Babcock and the Atlantic

August 8, 2014

In trying to decide who I’d like to put into My Own Little Hall of Fame, I have from the beginning considered pioneers, owners, and team founders as legitimate candidates. So I’ve written down a bunch of names, some of which will be familiar to you, others utterly obscure. While on the phone with my son one day I ran down the list for him. He almost immediately asked, “Who’s William V. Babcock?” Here’s an answer to his question, and most likely the question you’re currently asking.

The great pre-National Association of Professional Base Ball Players team was the Atlantic of Brooklyn (hereafter the Atlantics). They were formed in 1855 and dominated New York baseball through the 1860s. Their primary founder was William V. Babcock.

Babcock was born in 1833. He was an engraver and printer who happened to like baseball. In August 1855 he was the primary force in forming the Atlantics (Thomas Tassie, who did much of the administrative work for the club and Caleb Sniffen, the original pitcher were the other men who helped Babcock form the club). Initially the team was, like many of the better teams in New York and Brooklyn, a gentleman’s club formed to promote recreation among the businessmen of the area (this time Brooklyn). The most significant form of recreation and exercise was baseball so they formed a ball team. Babcock was initially a shortstop who did a little pitching.

By 1857 he was vice president of the club but was looking for new opportunities. In late 1857 he moved to California, setting up shop in San Francisco. He is credited with forming in 1858 the first team on the West Coast to play baseball using the National Association of Base Ball Players rules. The game was played in November 1858 with Babcock, who knew the rules better than anyone else, acting as umpire.

By 1859 he’d had enough of California and returned to New York (there’s a joke there, but I’ll let you write your own) where he again hooked up with the Atlantics. He served as vice president and later club president during much of the 1860s. During that period the Atlantics established themselves as the best team in baseball. They won pennants in 1859, 1860, 1861, 1864, 1865, 1866, and 1869 (a record to make even the Yankees proud). The 1860 pennant was controversial as the Atlantics were losing to Jim Creighton and the Excelsiors when a crowd stormed the field and play was cancelled. The game was not rescheduled and the Atlantics, as defending champions, were declared the new champs (try that today).

After the founding of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, Babcock went back to being strictly a printer, having little input into the team, which did not join the Association. He again drifted away from Brooklyn. He’s still there in 1887 (according to a city directory) but moved shortly thereafter. He settled in Washington, DC by 1888 (he shows up in a city directory) where he worked printing bank notes. By the 1905 New York state census he’s back in Brooklyn as a printer.

In the book Our Devoted Friend: The Dog there’s a story of Babcock embalming his 21-year-old pooch (named Dot), then getting a rosewood coffin and burying the dog in the Hillsdale Pet Cemetery. The dog was apparently a gift from his son. The book is from 1902. Babcock seems to have survived the dog by 13 years. He died in September 1915 and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn (along with a number of other pioneers of baseball).

Babcock isn’t one of the first people you think of when you think of paleolithic baseball. But by creating the best team of the era, he formed the first great baseball dynasty. As such he should be remembered as a founder of the game.



The Urban Gentleman

April 15, 2014
Newspaper drawing of one of the 1858 Brooklyn vs New York all-star games

Newspaper drawing of one of the 1858 Brooklyn vs New York all-star games

Folkert Rapelje Boerum was born in Brooklyn 26 October 1829. He was the eldest son of one of the most prominent old families of Brooklyn. The Rapelje’s went back to when New York was New Netherland. One of his ancestors was a member of the governing counsel of the Dutch colony. The Boerum’s came only slightly later, one family member serving the First Continental Congress of 1775. Their home was a big house set on a big lot. They were originally farmers, but by Folkert Boerum’s time the family was established as a “leading family” of Brooklyn. He is described in A History of Long Island From its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time (the “Present Time” being 1905) as “one of the best and most highly regarded citizens” of the borough. The work also uses words like “public-spirited” and “trusted” to describe him. He helped maintain the Bushwick and East Brooklyn Dispensary, The Good Samaritan Society, and the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, among other charitable work. He died 13 November 1903 and is buried in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery. He is, unquestionably, the very definition of a mid-to late 19th Century American urban gentleman. I guess it’s fair to say he did have one vice. He was also a ballplayer.

When we first run across Boerum in connection with baseball, he’s the catcher and three hitter for the Harmony, one of the older Brooklyn teams. They weren’t all that good, but they did have a handful of quality players. Boerum was one of them. William Babcock, the man who ran the Atlantic, Brooklyn’s premier team, lured Boerum away from the Harmony where he became the team’s starting catcher. He remained there into 1858. He appears as the catcher in one of the 1858 “all-star” games held between Brooklyn’s best and New York City’s best (Brooklyn was an independent city in 1858). By 1859 he’d moved to third base where he was considered one of the finest third sackers of his day. He remained at third until 1861 when he retired from the game. I’m not sure why. I can find no evidence that he joined the Union Army after Fort Sumter. During 1858-1860 he served as club vice president.

Boerum is an extremely good example of an early baseball player. It was a world of amateurism and only men with a certain amount of leisure time could afford to take off time to play ball. Working stiffs simply couldn’t afford to lose the pay. Most of the early players were wealthy farmers or insurance men or doctors or some sort of other professional who received (for the time) a good paycheck and had free time to pursue the game in “gentlemen” clubs. That defines Boerum and most of his teammates and opponents. With the arrival of professionals like Jim Creighton (who played for the Excelsiors against Boerum) the game changed and we lost the Boerum’s of the game.


Over the Outhouse, By the Pagoda, Around the Tree, and Watch for the Cow Chip

January 18, 2011
 Take a look at a modern baseball stadium. It’s almost awe-inspiring in its size and grandeur. Now take a look at 1860s ball parks. They’re called “parks” for a reason. They look much more like a large green open, or at least semi-open, space where someone stuck down a diamond and yelled “Play Ball.” They have, like many modern stadia, a lot of quirks. Here’s some of my favorite 1850-1870 oddities.
Capitoline Grounds

Capitoline Grounds 1866

 Apparently when the field (home of the Atlantic) was first laid out by Reuben Decker and Hamilton Weed in 1864, there was a round brick outhouse in deep right field (it does not appear in the picture above and I was unable to find a picture of it either on-line or in a book). A player hitting the ball over the outhouse on the fly received a bottle of champagne of his efforts. Now this leads to several questions, and, yes, you know I’m going to ask them. I am going to refrain, however, from any gags involving the phrase “stacked like a brick…”. I wonder if it was cheap or expensive champagne. How big was the bottle? Did the player have to share it with the rest of the team (and even the opponents) or could he take it home? Who paid for it, the player’s team, the opposing team, or the opposing pitcher?  Did you get something extra for doing your Babe Ruth impression and calling your shot? What happened if you hit the roof on the fly, did you get a bottle of wine?  If you hit the front on a bounce, did you get a bottle  of beer? How about he front door? Was that a bottle of scotch? And of  course the most important questions are how many holes in the outhouse and was it co-ed? Don’t you want to know the answer to all these questions? And before anyone asks, the only player I find reference to hitting two over the outhouse on the same day is Lip Pike. I don’t know if he got two bottles or not.

Union Grounds

The Union Grounds, built by William Cammeyer in 1862, held a number of teams, the most famous being the Eckfords, named for shipbuilder Henry Eckford. Having a lot of money, Eckford built the oddity at the Union Grounds. If you look at the far left of the picture above you’ll see a round multi-story building (no it isn’t the Capitoline outhouse moved across town). This building was known in its own era as the “pagoda.” It was built by Eckford as a sort of early “Skybox” luxury suite. It seems Eckford would watch games from the pagoda with some of his friends and colleagues. He was known to conduct business from it, and was not averse to the company of young women in the pagoda during games. Refreshments were available in the pagoda, including alcoholic beverages (type unspecified). Also the grounds were fenced. This allowed the Eckfords to control the crowd, and, of course, charge fans for watching the game. It seems to be the first at least partially enclosed field and thus very significant in paving the road toward professionalism. With more money available to clubs, it wasn’t unreasonable for players to start asking for a cut.

Elysian FieldsElysian Fields 1866

 The Elysian Fields are primarily famous as the home of the “”first baseball game.” But they were used for most of the 1850-1870 period by the Knickerbockers and other teams. The picture above is from 1866, so it doesn’t show one of the great quirks of the park. About ten feet to the left of a right-handed batter there was a big tree. I’ve seen a picture of it in a book, but can’t find a copy on-line. It looks huge and I wouldn’t be surprised if the limbs didn’t hang down over home on occasion. It was instrumental in the Knickerbockers’ view of the foul ball. It got them to change the rule so that a foul didn’t count against the batter if it hit the tree and the fielder had no chance to catch the ball in flight. It seems to have been a very early version of the current rule on foul balls. By 1860 the tree was gone, but the rule hung on.

 Excelsior Grounds

The Excelsior Grounds were set up in the late 1850s. By the 1860s they were being overshadowed by the Captioline and the Union Grounds. But for a few years they were the home of some of the best baseball in the area. Being so early, they were a multi-purpose facility. The hosted baseball games, but in the off-season and during the weeks when the Excelsiors weren’t playing the land was  leased for cattle grazing. There’s even a story about one woman stabbing another over grazing rights (and you thought that only happened in old John Wayne Westerns, didn’t you?) At least it had the advantage of keeping the grass short, but I’m not sure what happened if the ball landed on a cow chip.

There were a lot of other parks in the era, some more famous than others. Even Lowry’s Green Cathedrals doesn’t list them all. These four get my vote for some of the quirkiest things in or about early ballparks.


Excelsior Grounds 1860

“Start”ing at First

December 13, 2010

Joe Start

A few years back my son suggested I sit down and began trying to find out who were the best players in the old National Association (1871-5). Most of the guys I came up with were the usual suspects: Cap Anson, Al Spaulding, Cal McVey, Ross Barnes, etc. But the more I looked the more I kept coming back to an obscure player neither my son nor I had ever heard of in all our baseball reading, Joe Start. He turned out to be a heck of a player.

Start was born in New York in 1842. He was a good enough teenage player that he drew the attention of the Brooklyn Enterprise Club in 1860 and in 1861 joined the  Brooklyn Atlantics, one of the major amateur teams of the era. He played first base for them all the way into 1871, including during the American Civil War. Remember, that the initial couple of years of the Civil War, volunteers comprised the Union Army. The draft began only in 1863, leading to riots in New York, among other places. As he was playing in 1862, he obviously didn’t volunteer. He was still with the Atlantics, helping them to undefeated seasons in 1864 and 1865, so he also missed the draft (I don’t mean to imply he “dodged” it.).  In an 18 game season in 1864, Start clubbed 11 home runs and led the team. On 6 September 1869, he had one of the great days in amateur baseball. He is credited with hitting four home runs, notching seven hits, and 21 total bases in a game against the Eckfords (also a Brooklyn club). Between 1861 and 1869, Start helped lead the Atlantics to five championships (1861, 1864-6, and 1869). In the famous 1870 game against the Cincinnati Red Stockings, Start knocked in the first run in the 11th inning and scored the game tying run. The Atlantics won, upending the previously undefeated Red Stockings (For a good overview of this famous game, see DMB Historic World Series Reply’s 29 November post. You can find the link to the site on the blogroll at right.).

With the formation of the National Association in 1871, Start jumped to the Mutual of New York, where he played for entire life of the Association. He hit .295 with an OPS of .665, 475 total bases, and an OPS+ of 110. He had 187 RBIs and 262 runs in 272 games. The Mutuals finished as high as second (1874). While with the Mutuals, one source credits Start with originating the practice of playing off the bag at first to cover more ground. There are a number of other sources that credit a number of other players with inventing this, now common, practice. Frankly, I don’t know who started it.

In 1876 the National League replaced the Association and Start moved with his team to the new league. In 1877 he went to Hartford, then to Chicago in 1878. In 1879 he settled in at Providence where he stayed through 1885. While at Providence, he helped lead the Grays to National League pennants in 1879 and again in 1884. In September of the latter year, he hit his only home run of the season, a three run shot that clinched the pennant for Providence. The year 1884 saw the first “World Series” played between Providence and the American Association team in New York. It was a three game series with Providence winning all three games. Start didn’t do well, managing one hit and one RBI in ten at bats. In 1886 he played his last season for Washington at age 43. He hit a miserable .221 with 17 RBIs in only 31 games. For his NL career he hit .300 with a .700 OPS (125 OPS+), 1031 hits, 590 runs, 257 RBIs, and 1269 total bases in 798 games, all but one at first base (plus a couple of pinch-hitting performances).  In all he played from 1860 through 1886 inclusive, a total of 27 years. I’m not sure that a record for the 19th Century, but it has to be close.

After his retirement, he moved to Warwick, Rhode Island where he ran a hotel. He died in March 1927 at age 84. He’s buried in Providence.

It’s difficult to evaluate Start, as it is all the players of the era. To begin with, he’s 29 when the National Association begins play. His best years, which must have been pretty good if you believe the handful of reports available, were behind him. And that’s the crux of the problem. His best years are behind him and the record of those seasons is spotty. He’s a good enough player in both the Association and the NL, but not spectacular. Maybe he was spectacular in the 1860s, but we simply don’t know enough to make an informed statement. All we can honestly state is that he was a good enough player to hang around 27 years. That alone means he was pretty good.