Baseball in the genteel 19th Century (dodging mattresses & bullets)

Baseball got its start as a pastime played by gentlemen, who believed in the importance of vigorous exercise. Once it took off in popularity and became a national obsession, everyone joined in — drunks, flakes, oddballs, eccentrics, gamblers, miscreants — you know, the people who made the game interesting.

Before I ever dug into baseball’s origins, I had it in my head that early professional baseball was still a gentlemanly game, before the likes of Ty Cobb and John McGraw came in with spikes flashing and made it a more cutthroat sport. Part of that belief came from the fact that we don’t have much photographic evidence of 19th Century baseball. The cameras of the day couldn’t capture in-game action, so the bulk of what we have are staged studio photos of serious-looking, nattily dressed men with impressive facial hair. The ballplayers of the 1880s and ’90s look much too sober to gamble, drink or start a fight, much less cheat or scream at an umpire.

Pictured here is Jim Keenan. I wrote about him a while back with his own grave story. He doesn’t look like he’d be a troublemaker, but he had some ups and downs with drinking in his life before he settled down to a career as a politician and a saloon owner. The following story is one that he told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1889, and it nicely shows that ballplayers of yesterday were just as likely to get into trouble as their modern-day equivalents.

“I was with one team in my baseball career that had to leave a hotel on account of boisterous conduct. I am pleased to say that this unpleasant episode only occurred one time. It was in 1877. I was with the Auburn Club then, and what a time we did have in every city that we visited! We had such players as [Morrie] Critchley, [Fred] Dunlap, [Tom] Burns, of the Chicagos, Jim [Bill] Tobin, [Adam] Rocap and Brick [Tom] Mansell.

“On one occasion we went to Rochester to take part in a baseball tournament. The players were out for all the fun possible. They had been amusing themselves throwing pillows and bed-clothes at each other all evening. It was about eleven o’clock when I started upstairs to go to bed. A guest of the hotel, a finely dressed man who wore a plug hat, was right behind me.

“I half suspected mischief, and as I neared the top floor I looked up — just in time to see a big mattress come over the railing. Quick as a flash I ducked down and fell full length on the floor. The guest right behind me was not so fortunate. The mattress struck his plug hat right on top and crushed it down over his ears. It took him some time to pull the dilapidated dicer off his head, and when he succeeded he was as mad as a March hare. He spat out oaths that would make Comiskey jealous even when in his best kicking mood. He was not satisfied, but pulled his revolver and fired four of five shots at the players. In an instant all was confusion. The host of the hotel was worked up to a high pitch, and ordered us out of the hotel immediately. We had to go, too, and put in an hour or so hunting a new boarding place.”

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