Baseball in New Bedford seems to have a longer past than once believed. According to a May 2006 Standard Times article, the Wamsutta Base Ball Club was the first baseball club in the city in 1866. The source of that information may have come from the obituary of Charles W. Clifford which appeared in the September 13, 1923 New Bedford Evening Standard:
The part that recreation plays in wholesome physical and mental life apparently always appealed to him; for in 1865 he introduced the new New York game of baseball into this city… He was a Harvard student when he saw and became enthusiastic over the “New Yorkgame” of baseball. In the summer and fall of 1865, he took the initiative in playing ball according to the new rules, forming a team and playing scrub games; and the following winter the Wamsutta Baseball Club was organized, with Charles W. Clifford at third base.
By 1865-1866 the New York game was not new. The New York rules were standardized in 1857 by sixteen New York baseball clubs when they formed the National Association of Base Ball Players. The New York game is the direct ancestor of modern baseball. In 1858 several clubs in Massachusetts formed the Massachusetts Association of Base Ball Players and standardized the Massachusetts game rules. The rules included 10-14 players per side on a field that was square shaped, “soaking” or throwing the ball at the runner to record an out and a 100 run requirement to win the ball game. The batter, or striker as he was known stood half way between the first and fourth base. Bases were 4-foot wooden stakes set 60 feet apart. The pitcher was known as the thrower and threw to the striker overhand at a distance of 35 feet away.
It may seem that Mr. Clifford introduced the New York game to New Bedford in 1866 due to a lack of baseball activity during the Civil War. However, the New York game was in existence in New England by 1857. On June 16thof that year the Tri-Mountain Base Ball Club was formed in Boston and there is a possibility that the Aurora Base Ball Club was playing the New York game in Providence in the spring of 1857.In 1858 the New York game had spread to New Bedford. The New Bedford Evening Standard first made a specific mention of the New York game on September 13:
Yet Another. – A number of seamen, now in port, have formed a Club entitled the “Sons of the Ocean Base Ball Club.” They play on the City common, on Thursdays, and we are requested to state that the members challenge any of the other clubs in the city to a trial either of the New York or Massachusetts game. The officers of the Club are Albert Brown, President, D. Davids, Vice President, Harvey Hudson, Secretary, S.M. Thompson, Treasurer.
The Evening Standard mentions six baseball clubs in existence in the city during the 1858 season. The Ironsides Base Ball Club may have been the first in the city to play by the New York rules. The Ironsides formed on August 10. However, it was not until October 18 that the Evening Standard noted while reporting on a game between the Ironsides and the Bristol County Base Ball Club that the Ironsides was a New York rules club:
The game played was that known as the “Massachusetts,” which is the one usually played by the Bristol County Club, while the Ironsides play the one known as the “New York,” which differs from the Massachusetts game in several particulars. These Clubs will probably play the New York game at their next trial, which may take place on Friday next.
The Ironsides soon issued a challenge to the Bristol County Club to play a game on Thanksgiving Day by the New York rules. The Bristol County Club declined to play the Ironsides by the New York rules saying that to do so would be unpatriotic:
We would say that having, as a Club, chosen the Massachusetts game as the proper one to be played on Massachusetts soil, we deem it inconsistent in a Match Game to play any other than the one governed by the rules and regulations adopted by the duly organized association of Base Ball players, established in Dedham, May 13th, 1858… we are prepared to accept any Challenge from the Ironsides Club which may be presented between now and the Thank giving of 1858, to play a Match Game of Base Ball, in accordance with the fashion of the Old Bay State.
Several of the clubs in New Bedford including the Ironsides, Sons of the Ocean and the Union Base Ball Club were reported to be New York Clubs or at least willing to play the New York game. But by the time of the Ironsides/Bristol County match the other clubs may have switched to the Massachusetts game. The Bristol County Club went on to suggest in their reply to the Ironsides that the New York game was not a popular game to be played in New Bedford:
Fearing however that the public may draw a wrong inference from the reading of the Challenge as it appeared in your columns, and suppose that the arrangements were in through perfected for a trial of skill, permit on to state that nay manner of playing which has been adopted has met the approval of but one Club, and that the one which sends the Challenge, seeming to us rather unusual proceedings, considering us as the challenged party.
I haven’t found any evidence to suggest that the New York game was played between two different clubs in New Bedford during the 1858 season. I have found that the Ironsides played an inter-club match of what appears to have been the New York game. Some members of the BristolCounty club played in this game as reported by the Daily Mercury on October 25:
Base Ball – The Ironsides Club met on the Common on Friday afternoon, and engaged in one of the most exciting games of the season. Andrew Hayes, jr. and James D. Allen were appointed leaders. The two sides were equally divided. A few members of the Bristol County Club joined in the game, which resulted in Hayes’ side scoring 33 runs, and Allen’s 29. Two of the players had their fingers dislocated by the ball striking them. – The challenge that the Ironsides Club sent the Bristol County Club has been declined.
The New York game was in New Bedford seven years before Charles Clifford returned from Harvard and began playing the game in his home town. According to the H Book of Harvard Athletics, 1852-1922 the New York game was brought to Harvard from incoming students that had attended PhillipsExeterAcademy in New Hampshire. In December of 1862 they formed the ’66 Base Ball Club. A club known as the “Cricket and Base Ball Club” had been formed by the class of 1864 in 1860 but it did not last long. Before Clifford left Harvard he most likely would have been exposed to ball playing at Harvard. He notes that he was the secretary of the Harvard Cricket Club but he makes no mention of being affiliated with the baseball club. It is interesting to note that Clifford does not appear to have taken part in baseball while a student at Harvard. He may have been aware of baseball activity while a student and may have even learned the New York rules while attending Harvard but it is most likely that he became aware of the New York game and may have even seen in played in New Bedford before leaving to study in Cambridge. It is not surprising that Clifford wanted to organize a baseball club in New Bedford after returning from Harvard in 1865. Baseball after the Civil War saw a growth in popularity in the New York version of the game as it spread around the country. It is likely Clifford was swept up in this baseball fever. After all he had been president of a New Bedford baseball club in 1858 as reported by the Evening Standard in September of that year:
“Old Hickory.” – A correspondent informs us that the name of the Bay State Base Ball Club has been changed to Old Hickory Base Ball Club. The members are all young men under 18 years of age… The President of the club is Charles Clifford, son of Hon. J.H. Clifford. They meet for practice for the first time to-morrow morning at 5 o’clock, on the corner of Hawthorn and Cottage streets.
At a latter date the Evening Standard noted that the Old Hickory Club played the Massachusetts game. The Ironsides were still playing in 1859 although it is not clear if they were still playing the New York game. Not much is known about why the Massachusetts game died out in favor of the New York game. In New Bedford, baseball playing seemed to have come to a stop during the Civil War. A search of the Evening Standard did not note any ball playing during the war years and very few references to ball playing in 1859 and 1860.By 1866 baseball was back in business in New Bedford. On July 4 the Wamsutta Club played a game of baseball matching the club’s married men against its single men. A couple of weeks later the New Bedford Republican Standard noted:
The organization of the Wamsutta Base Ball Club seems to have remarkably aroused the spirit of ball playing in the city and three more clubs are now under way.
Soon baseball clubs spread throughout the city with names like the North Star Club, the New England Club, the Young America Club, the Massasoit Base Ball Club and the O.K. Base Ball Club.
Baseball would continue to grow in New Bedford thanks to the re-introduction of the game by the Wamsutta Base Ball Club. The city would host professional franchises in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Wamsutta Club still exist today strictly as a social club. The club has recently opened a baseball themed club known as the 1866 Rounders Club. A recent Standard Times article notes that the Wamsutta Club formed the club as a way to generate more interest in the Wamsutta Club by focusing on its rich baseball history. It is odd that the club is named after an entirely different bat and ball game known as rounders. A one time hypothesis considered that baseball evolved from the English game of rounders which no doubt the Wamsutta Club is referring to. David Block explains the baseball from rounders myth in his book Baseball Before We Knew It.
Clearly baseball in New Bedford existed before the founding of the Wamsutta Club in 1866. It is not clear how the New York game came to be in New Bedford. Since the city had a major whaling port, it is possible that the game entered in to the city before 1858. The willingness of the Sons of the Ocean Base Ball Club to play the New York game suggests that one possibility is seamen could have learned the game while in New York or near by ports and brought the game to New Bedford.