The Civil War was the bloodiest conflict fought in our history, up until Vietnam. Combat took many lives, but most were lost to surgical trauma and infection.
The carnage of 19th century warfare was horrific. Antietam was the single deadliest day of the war, accounting for some 23,000 lives in only 12 hours. Gettysburg was the worst encounter, claiming some 51,000 Union and Confederate soldiers between July 1 and July 3, 1863.
Though it may be difficult to believe, it was during this terrible time that baseball began to emerge as the “nation’s pastime.” It marked the outset of what we think of today as the modern era of the game.
As Ted Spencer, the head curator at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, points out, Union soldiers “played baseball continually throughout the war, with at least one contest taking place every week.”
Abner Doubleday, whom legend has assigned credit for creating the game of baseball, actually had little to do with its development. Nonetheless, Captain Doubleday earned the reputation of being a courageous officer in defense of Fort Sumter when the Confederacy launched its attack.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, noted historian and author, wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book entitled “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” Nonetheless, it was not until she toured the museum at Cooperstown and saw an old newspaper cartoon from 1860 that she first learned of Lincoln’s “ability to strike a fair ball.”
War has two basic components. The first is what Teddy Roosevelt called “that crowded hour,” when all is consumed by the furor of shell and shot. The second is the tedium of camp life, stretching out for days or even weeks between encounters with the enemy.
It was in this latter period that baseball relieved the tension and boredom of the conflict. Civil War historian Bell Irvin Wiley has written that of all the activities the soldiers took part in, “baseball appears to have been the most popular.”
On May 7, 1864, the New York Clipper printed the box score of a game between the 9th and 14th New York State Militias. The former edged out their opponents by a score of 36-29. Shortstop Tabelle and left fielder Vredenburgh combined to drive in 10 runs for the victors.
After the game, manager Johnny Grindell of the winning ball club challenged General Grant “to send them to have a match with General Lee.”
The game became increasingly popular in the 1840s and ‘50s, but was played according to widely varying rules. By 1861, however, the so-called “National Association Game” became the standard of play. New York, Boston and Philadelphia emerged as the centers of the sport, eventually leading to paid professionals, charged admissions and the first-ever enclosed playing field at Brooklyn Union Grounds.
Native Americans, including the Chicasaw, played ball games, and it has been documented that the earliest settlers brought a similar game with them from Europe. The rest, as they say, is history.
Ammon, a longtime lakes area resident, has written a book entitled “State of the Union: Observations on American Life.”