The weather has turned in our fair city and the cold days of winter are fading into the past. As we breathe in the spring air and look forward to a COVID-free world, sometime hopefully soon, the thoughts of many local sports fans turn to the boys of summer returning to Sahlen Field. While it is unknown at this time whether those boys will be our own Bisons or the migrant Jays from the north, it seems clear we will have baseball in Buffalo this year. As we look forward to a return to normal, I am reminded of a quote by the great American poet Walt Whitman:
I see things great in base ball. It’s our game–the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.
Taking people out-of-doors, something we all have yearned for in the last year, filling our lungs with oxygen without it being filtered by a mask, and repairing the losses we all have had to overcome in the past year have been paramount in our minds. In a sense, getting back the normal that was taken for granted, that we cannot wait to find again.
Whitman’s quote is a reinforcement of what was a general movement of the Victorian era in America. A sense of exercise and a movement to be outdoors and partaking of the world around us. This movement took off after the Civil War and in Buffalo it started in 1868 with Fredrick Law Olmsted beginning the designs of what would become the city’s extensive and renowned park system. The first of many being “The Park”(Delaware Park) which was completed 150 years ago in 1871.
As the 2021 baseball season is now almost a month old, I look forward to the excitement of Buffalo’s own Opening Day 2021. I wonder, what did Buffalo’s “first” opening day look like? Was it a mild affair or fraught with excitement and fanfare? To find that day, we need to travel back to the year 1858 in the month of AUGUST. Buffalo, New York’s first opening day using the “modern rules” of baseball was played on August 26, 1858, between the Buffalo Niagaras and the Eries.
The Niagaras were one of the first baseball clubs to grace the city and to play under the “Knickerbocker” or New York rules from which the modern rules of baseball are descended. These rules were made “official” in early 1857 when they were chosen by the National Association of Base Ball Players as the rule set they would play by going forward. In 1857 the Buffalo Niagaras were founded by a pair of gentlemen from Brooklyn named James B. Bach and Richard Oliver who brought these New York rules with them from their own club, the Brooklyn Excelsiors. What made these rules the grandfather of our own Major League Baseball (MLB) you may ask?
At first, baseball was played by two sets of rules: “New England” and New York/Knickerbocker rules. In the establishment of the New York rules, certain things we take for given in the modern MLB game were established. These include: nine players on a side, fair vs. foul balls, nine innings, three outs per half inning, and the ball was hurled (pitched) to the batter (albeit underhanded). A few interesting notes regarding these rules vs. our modern game. Until 1864 a ball could be caught on one bounce or “hop” to record an out, the ball was not pitched overhanded until 1884, balls and strikes were not regularly called, and there were no gloves in existence until the mid 1880s. It was also spelled as two words instead of one. Think of those things and of playing a game of baseball!
If the reader is interested in witnessing a slice of this history, travel up the road to Genesee Country Village Museum in Mumford, New York, and on most Saturdays and Sundays in the summer games are played by 1868 rules–which include all of the above; however, balls are caught on the fly. Ask for “Yank” of the Victory club and I will be sure and sign an autograph for you.
Regarding our first opening day story, if one reads the Buffalo Express on August 25, 1858, you can witness the general excitement and national fervor over physical fitness along with a reference to what not only may be Buffalo’s first opening day but the first “ladies day” as well:
We hope a good representation of ladies will be present, who by their smiles, will nerve the players to their task, and urge them like the knights of old, to do their devoirs before their ‘ladyes fair.’ We believe in encouraging athletic sports of all kinds, for they promote the health and vigor of our youth in a great degree and the generations to come will feel their influence.
In this quote, one can see the influence of what Whitman was referring to, the feeling that even to this day we get when we have a good hard workout and the adrenaline is pumping through our veins. On August 26, 1858, the players took to the grounds, which were set up at Seventh and Pennsylvania and were the home grounds of the Eries. The papers the next day trumpeted the virtues of the match. The Buffalo Express stated:
Great Game of Base Ball- The match between the Erie and Niagara Base Ball Clubs yesterday afternoon on Seventh Street, was one of the most exciting games we ever witnessed, and was contested with remarkable skill. An immense crowd of people were in attendance, including over one hundred carriages containing ladies.
These ladies must have encouraged the knights of Niagara in grand fashion as they were the victors that day by a score of 25-16. The local Buffalo Commercial Advertiser shared the feelings of the spectators watching the game as “the most exciting ever witnessed” and the players’ good cheer for one another as the Niagaras gave three cheers for the Eries and they then returned the favor. Keep in mind that these were BOTH Buffalo clubs that were made up of everyday people who worked and lived together daily so the camaraderie was real.
Another interesting anecdote from this game was that only a month prior, the FIRST base ball game to charge admission was played in Queens, New York, at the Fashion Race Course. It was a contest of bragging rights, a series of three games played between varying Brooklyn and New York clubs. Spectators paid ten cents, plus an extra twenty cents to park a one horse carriage and yet forty cents more to park a two horse carriage. Buffalonians were getting away cheap to watch a contest of the new knickerbocker rules for free.
So as you step outside and remove your mask this week and become “fill[ed] them with oxygen” think back to that lazy summer day of August, 1858, when the city was witnessing something we take for granted for the first time ever–baseball played pretty much as it is today.
Lead image: This is the 1859 Team Photograph of the Buffalo Niagara’s. This was created by pasting individual photos of each player on a backdrop. Photo Credit: The Buffalo History Museum, Joseph M Overfield Collection