By Ken Zurski
Conventional wisdom would suggest that the start of the Civil War in 1861 slowed down the progress of a game like baseball, a sport that was gaining popularity in the years before the conflict began.
And that is true, to a point.
Inevitably as men heeded the call to serve, there just weren’t as many players to take the field. But there were reserves to take their place, especially in the well populated state like New York, which holds the distinction of introducing the world to Base Ball (then written as two words).
While bat-and-ball type games were popping up throughout the country, in New York, an actual team called the Knickerbockers emerged in the 1840’s. While not trailblazers in creating the game, they can be considered pioneers when it comes to the sport. The Knickerbockers actually made and followed rules.
Other teams formed and crowds grew.
Then came the war.
Although pick-up games continued, the sport shifted to the battlefront instead. “Each regiment had its share of disease and desertion; each had it’s ball-players turned soldiers,” remembered George T Stevens, of the 77th Regiment, New York Volunteers.
Union soldiers would play a good “game of nines” to help pass the time.
Otto Boetticher was a Union prisoner at Salisbury, North Carolina. In 1861, at the age of 45, he enlisted in the 68th New York Volunteers and left his job as a commercial artist. The following year he was captured and ended up in Salisbury before a prisoner swap set him free a few months later. Before leaving, Boetticher did a drawing of a prisoner game of baseball.
Boetticher’s drawing, released in 1864, was hardly representative of prison camp descriptions at the time. “Despite the bleak realities of imprisonment,there is a sense of ease and contentment in the image, conveyed in part by pleasures of the game, the glowing sky and sunlight, and the well-ordered composition,” one assessment of the drawing goes.
Boettchler’s lighthearted look at prisoner life wasn’t his fault. The harsh reality of the POW camps would come later with the woeful Libby and Andersonville among others where the prisoner population grew by thousands and unsanitary and overcrowded conditions led to widespread starvation and sickness. Early on, however, the captured soldiers waited for their name to be called.
Why not play a spirited game of baseball?
Boetticher’s print may have been from a July 4th game, when prisoners were allowed to celebrate the nation’s holiday, as one prisoner described, with “music, sack and foot races and baseball.” But if weather permitted and “for those who like it and are able,” baseball was played everyday.
Some might think Boetticher’s depiction of prison life is more deception than reality. But prisoner recollections support the claim that despite the animosity between them, a game of baseball was good fun for both sides.
“I have never seen more smiles today on their oblong faces,” William Crosley a Union sergeant in Company C wrote describing Confederate captors watching a match at Salisbury. “For they have been the most doleful looking set of men I ever saw.”
Once the conflict was over, the game itself was in for an overhaul. Many of the older players who went off to war, were either injured, weary, or worse. That’s when younger players joined in. Skills improved, rules were implemented and the game became more about the playing and the winning rather than just a friendly “game of nines”
Base ball became Baseball – a legitimate competitive sport.