South Coast Vintage Base Ball

Discovering baseball history on the southcoast of Massachusetts

Category Archives: Mattapoisett

Near tragedy in Mattapoisett, 1875

Research has been rather slow lately.  I have been thinking about the possibility of expanding the scope of this blog to include writings about baseball history in general. I have many research findings set aside for possible future projects. It is taking over what little storage I have at home. Perhaps a new blog would be in order.  One that I have enough material to update on a regular basis. Perhaps.

In the meantime, I have discovered this disastrous account of a baseball accident reported in the Lowell Daily Citizen on June 21, 1875:

In 1875, baseball was played with very little protective gear. Fielder’s gloves did not come in to use until a decade later and head protection was certainly unheard of. Most ball fields were open fields and probably did not have much in the way of fencing surrounding the playing field that would have protected fans from foul balls and in this case, the occasional run away bat.

I have been unable to locate a follow up story reporting the fate of young Willis Burbank. I did a little research to see what I could find about him. He was born about 1862  to Joseph and Sarah (Price) Burbank. Joseph was a ship carpenter and most likely employed by one of the ship yards in Mattapoisett.

Willis had three siblings; George, Mary and William. William died on December 31, 1850 of neurosyphilis at the age of 5. George was born about 1854. Records for him are scarce but it appears he died sometime before 1870.

Mary seems to have escaped the dangers of childhood. In 1878 she would marry William Branch Nelson of Mattapoisett.  I wasn’t able to locate Mary’s fate but her husband died of septicemia in 1893. By 1900 she was living with her 13 year old daughter, Sarah. In November of 1912, Sarah married George Hiller in Mattapoisett. They would go on to have five children, Nelson, Mary, Richard and Emerson. I’ll stop here with the genealogy on Mary (genealogy is an addiction for me). Let’s get back to to injured Willis.

Evidently Willis’ injury was not as bad as his physician feared. While I wasn’t able to identify any additional details about his injury I found that by 1880 he was working as a sailor out of Mattapoisett. He gave up a career on the seas, married Cora Haskell in 1898, and pursued a retail career in woolen goods and umbrellas. Willis and Cora do not appear to have had children. Wills lived well beyond what his doctor feared on that near tragic day in 1875. While I have not been able to determine Willis’ fate, I found that by 1930 he was living in Roxbury with his wife and a nurse while still actively engaged in business.

Thomas Robbins

I am currently reading a published diary of a minister named Thomas Robbins who lived from 1777-1856. Insight into people’s lives and how they lived can be readily gained through diaries and journals. And I really like to pry in to people’s personal lives!  But to be fair, I wait at least a century or so after they die before opening their diaries. I also like to read them because, as a member of the Society of American Baseball Research,  I am associated with the origins committee of SABR. The Origins people are studying the early history of the game and looking at  pre-baseball type gamesfor clues as to where our current game originates. Through journals and archival material , I look for references to bat and ball games such as trap ball or phrases such as “played at ball” or “game of ball”.

But back to Robbins. He began his diary in 1796 and more or less kept it day in and out until 1854. He began the diary the year he graduated from Yale College and spent the next few years after college teaching, preaching and studying theology. In 1803 he went to Ohio which had just entered in to statehood to organize churches for the Connecticut Missionary Society. A few years after that he preached in a few towns in his home state of Connecticut before coming to the South Coast to replace his uncle as Congregational minister in Mattapoisett in 1831.

What does Robbins have to do with baseball? He wasn’t a ball player, at least I haven’t read any diary entries about his engaging in ball playing activities. But he does provide some evidence that people were playing ball prior to the mid-nineteenth century popularization of baseball playing. Though Robbins does not say what type of ball game was being played, he does note such activity in Mattapoisett:

  • December 21, 1826: “The boys play ball in the streets… Warm and languid weather…”
  • April 4, 1833: “Fast. Meetings well attended… A part of the people were off playing ball, according to their usual practice here.”
  • March 28, 1839: “Fast… Some playing ball… Thermometer rose to 70″.

Fast is referring to Fast Day. It was a public holiday consisting of fasting and prayer. In Massachusetts it was replaced by Patriots Day in 1894.

In 1858 there were several baseball clubs that had formed in New Bedford. Some had played games on Thanksgiving Day that was reported on by the local press. The Evening Standard began their report on the game “From time Immemorial Thanksgiving and Fast days have been set apart for ball playing…”  Not only does Robbins’ diary support the Evening Standard’s statement about ball playing having long been part of fast day activities, it suggests that it could have been baseball the people were playing in Mattapoisett. Then again it could have been Wicket which was popular in Robbins’ home state or some other ball game.

For fun here are some random non-ball playing entries from the diary while he was in Mattapoisett:

  • 9/28/1831: “Rode to Fairhaven… That town is much improving.”
  • 6/1/1832: “Walked to Dr. Robbins… His two sons are theological students, and I fear will be Unitarians.”
  • 9/27/1832: “Dined out. Attended the funeral of a young colored child.”
  • 10/1/1832: “My ill health continues. Have a bad diarrhea.”
  • 12/12/1832: “I hope God will save the country from civil war.”
  • 2/26/1833: “… attended the annual meeting of the Bristol County Temperance Society. I became a member.”
  • 3/6/1833: “My wine in a chamber without fire, is frozen.”
  • 5/14/1833: “Attended the Bible class… My people are very stupid.”

Vintage Base Ball Club Could be Reborn Later This Summer

After putting in a lot of time last year in to forming and organizing a vintage club I have decided against putting in additional time again this year in to trying it again. I put in a lot of time, effort and money (I don’t have) and in the end there were not quite enough dedicated to playing a full schedule. Did I mention that I put a lot of time in to it last year? On the plus side I have some cool vintage baseball bats, baseballs and a cap! Instead, this summer my wife will be setting up at the Rochester Farmers’ Market selling handcraft fabric children’s aprons, capes, dolls, etc. I will also attempt to make cloth baseballs made to the style of the 19th century lemon peel design to sell at the market. The first couple of ones I made are pretty sad but there is time for improvement.

The idea of putting together a vintage club is not completely dead. Mattapoisett is in the process of planning an annual historical festival, a scaled down version of the 150th anniversary celebration. Although vintage baseball is not mentioned in the Wanderer’s report of the Mattapoisett Board of Selectmen’s Meeting, I have been contacted by one of the event organizers about including vintage baseball as part of the activities. I don’t have all of the details yet but when I do I will post them here.

My hope is that this will be a good place to reorganize plans for a vintage ball team. Most likely the club’s name will be changed from the Ironsides to something based on a historic Mattapoisett town team. Should this work out, the club could play at other local events and could expand in to playing other vintage clubs. And maybe, just maybe get those cool reproduction uniforms.

If anyone is interested in playing in this event, please contact me.

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