Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Baseball in Early Calirornia, 1

Baseball in Early California, 1

While most historians trace the beginning of organized teams to the San Francisco Baseball Club-Red Rover contest on February 22, 1860 (with Sacramento Baseball Club versus the Union Club of the same city squaring off later in the day), the game can be traced back to 1852 when the California Alta noted a “town ball” game played in San Francisco.  In my research, I came across a series of three games played by the Robinsons against the Parkers (the Robinsons taking two out of three games) beginning on May 18, 1859, so I wouldn’t at all be surprised for some one to come up with earlier contests, especially since I found this note from the Petaluma Journal: “This game [baseball] is fast becoming a favorite in this locality.  Scarcely a day passes but parties may be seen participating in it.”

From the early 1860s through the 1870s, a number of clubs were formed in the state, though the vast majority were in the Bay Area, and those clubs formed the basis of the first baseball league in the state, the Pacific Coast League in 1878.  

(Some papers called it the Pacific League, but the only paper that covered baseball in depth called it by the former name, though late in the season, they began calling it the Pacific League on occasion.  After the season, the league officially c hanged its name to the Pacific League.)

The fist league was a ragtag operation, with according to some accounts players would even take a smoke while on the field. And the following season (1879), the league could not get its act together, and a rival league, the California League, beat the Pacific League out of shoot, and in doing so became the premier league in the West.

In the early days of California baseball, park owners became the organizers of leagues.  In other words, one league would be associated with one park, and play most, if not all, its games there.  One league in  the Bay Area would play at Recreation Grounds in San Francisco and the rival league would play its games at the Oakland Grounds in Oakland.

Over the winter, a couple of eastern clubs traveled out to the coast, including the famous Hop Bitters.  A number of players like the weather on the coast, and remained out here for the 1880 season. Fan interest was astonishing, and that led to one of the classic minor league seasons, a success both on the field and at the box office.

The 1880 California League no doubt the best minor league of the 19th Century (and totally missed by every historian to date), and probably the best minor league ever as far as pitching is concerned.  Who pitched in the league: Pud Galvin, Grasshopper Jim Whitney, Jim Devlin (the one expelled from the major leagues), and Bill Sweeney.  Even “The Only” Nolan couldn’t make it in the league, and was forced to pitch in the rival Pacific League.  The Pacific League started the season, once again, late, and wound up being “the other league.”  (One interesting aspect of the Pacific League was that at their winter meeting on January 24, 1880, the league directors chose Pacific Coast League as their official name, only to become known universally as the Pacific League once the season began.  Go figure!)

In 1881, the Pacific League finally got its act together, changed its name to the New California League, and wound up as the premier league in the state.  The leagues became leagues with almost only California players, but by then the play of Californians had reached a pretty high level.

By 1882 the novelty had pretty much worn off, and salaries to attract eastern players had completely dried up.  The only league that played that season was the California League (a three-team affair) which was formed with one club from each of the 1881 leagues, and the independent National club.  The league only played two games before folding, though the individual teams played throughout the summer and into the fall.  (I am not even positive that the league lasted past its first week, but during its first month of scheduled games the game for the third week conformed to the schedule.  Week two had a non-league club playing a league club at Recreation Grounds.  After week three, The California Spirit of the Times stopped printing the league schedule in its pages.)

1883 was only slightly better.  The California League was reformed with almost all new clubs, and began play at the newly constructed Recreation Park on April Fools Day.  Play continued through July 8, when the league disbanded.  The Nantic club was taken over by Woonsocket Rubber Company, and continued as the Woonsocket club.

At the end of July, the Recreation Park ownership decided to form a new league, the California State League, with clubs outside of San Francisco, but that only lasted three weeks.  Finally, the Recreation Park people decided to have a tournament for the Championship of California, but that also fizzled out after a few weeks of games.

Tomorrow I will continue with the 1884 season.  The below chart lists all the leagues that I have found— and the teams that comprised those leagues.  The 1886 Southern California League and the 1887 Central Coast League may have had more teams, but so far my work on those two leagues is far from complete.

Click on Image to Enlarge League Chart


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