Baseball: Its Beginnings on Nantucket

Walt Whitman loved the game of baseball. In his wandering about the parks of New York and Brooklyn he witnessed the birth of the modern game and its rapid growth in popularity. He also anticipated its emergence as an integral thread in America’s cultural fabric. When pondering the game and its significance, he mused, “I see great things in baseball. 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.” History has shown his observation to be prescient. In the late nineteenth century, baseball helped revitalize Nantucket’s people, as the island struggled to reinvent itself.

The earliest evidence of Nantucket’s interest in baseball appears to be an item in the July 8, 1871, issue of the Inquirer and Mirror, reporting that “The annual base ball contest between Harvard and Yale came off on Wednesday afternoon, and was won by Harvard. It was the most warmly contested game for several years. “Apparently, the college boys had introduced the game to Nantucket and played here regularly. Similarly terse and distant observations filled the newspaper that day. A man had invented a dishwashing machine in Connecticut; a dog from Virginia had been trained to transport mail between two towns. It seemed that all of the excitement was off-island, and the writers felt the world passing them by. Whaleships no longer crowded the island’s harbor, and the liquid gold of whale oil had ceased to fuel the island’s economy. The seeds of a new tourist economy were being sown, but they were slow to germinate. Further evidence of the town’s Walt Whitman loved the game of baseball. In his wanderings about the parks of New York and Brooklyn he witnessed the birth of the modern game and its rapid growth in popularity. sluggish state appeared in a column discussing the recent passing of Independence Day, “almost without our knowing it and save for the blowing of horns by the rising generation, the town was even more than ordinarily quiet. “The island’s inhabitants craved something fresh and exciting.

On a warm Saturday afternoon in July 1875, eighteen young men played one of the earliest recorded “baseball” games in Nantucket’s history. The contest was waged between “a nine composed of Nantucket boys and a picked nine.” Most, if not all of them, probably did not own a glove. They likely shared a single bat and ball. We can only imagine what they used for bases, or home plate. The field’s surface was probably uneven and rough, a far cry from today’s carefully manicured diamonds. Yet despite their humble grounds and gear, the players and spectators were filled with excitement. A new form of recreation had arrived.

The Nantucket Nine fell behind in the early innings, but ultimately battled back to win—29 to 25. The Inquirer and Mirror saw a bright future for baseball on Nantucket, noting, “Considering that the players had never been upon the field before together, the game was very well played; and with practice they would make exceedingly strong teams to beat, for the ‘stock’ is there, and it only requires practice to bring about good results.”

Nantucket’s aspiring ballplayers were diligent in practicing. By 1878, island schools were fielding teams of their own. One of the earliest documented contests between Nantucket schools occurred in June 1878, between the High School and the Coffin School. The High School prevailed, 25 to 21.The Inquirer and Mirror continued to feel great enthusiasm for this new-found recreation, noting, “we would like to see other nines formed and think a little interest on the part of those interested would bring about favorable results.”

By 1880, the hopes articulated in print were being realized. Permanent teams from Nantucket and ’Sconset had been formed, and a rivalry had developed between the two clubs. On July 14, 1880, a game between them “drew forth the largest number of spectators ever seen upon a base ball field here.” The large crowd witnessed an interesting spectacle. Early in the afternoon, when the two teams assembled, it appeared that the ’Sconsets would be most decidedly outmanned. The Nantuckets had nine players, while the ’Sconsets could only manage six. Play commenced nonetheless, and in the early innings, the ’Sconsets were terribly disadvantaged. Mercifully, after two innings, they “were much strengthened by securing the services of Messrs. Whitney and Perkins, formerly of the Howards, of Brockton.”

With an eight-man lineup, the ’Sconsets provided a brilliant display of offensive firepower, scoring twenty-one runs, while the Nantuckets managed just eleven. In the top of the ninth inning, controversy arose. Barnum, a pitcher noted for his “left-handed curving,” was pitching for ’Sconset. He apparently committed what is known as a “balk.” The “balk” rule is a bit complicated. Essentially, the rule limits a pitcher’s ability to deceive base runners into making mistakes. The specific infraction committed by Barnum is unclear. Perhaps he pretended to start throwing the ball to home plate and stopped, or he may not have set his feet properly on the mound before throwing home. The umpire was probably doing his best to understand the game’s rules, but in doing so, he made a curious, albeit entertaining, mistake.

The Nantuckets had a runner at third base. Upon the umpire’s issuance of the balk call, the runner started casually walking toward home plate. The pitcher observed this, and decided to throw the ball home. The umpire immediately declared the base runner out. This led to an angry exchange between the two clubs and the umpire. Despite the controversy, the game was completed, and the Inquirer and Mirror tried to sort out the matter later.

An article summarizing the game declared “If our interpretation of the plain English of Sec. 7 of Rule 5, is correct, the ’Sconsets were decidedly in the wrong in their action. We shall wait to obtain the authority of those better versed in the matter before commenting further upon the subject.” The people of Nantucket had readily embraced baseball, but they were still trying to understand its rules.

The newspaper’s colorful coverage in the preceding weeks provides fascinating reading. Some time after the game, the Inquirer and Mirror’s staff read a letter from a man writing under the clearly impartial pseudonym of “’Sconset.” He apparently took issue with their interpretation of the balk rule. Apparently quoting from a rule book, he noted that upon a balk being called, “every player running the bases shall take one base without being put out, and shall do so on the run.” Since the Nantucket base runner was not running home, he was, according to “’Sconset,” most decidedly in the wrong.

The newspaper responded by stating that he “was correct in his opinion of the controversy, in the recent Nantucket–’Sconset game, and we shall have to take the cucumber.” [According to The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, a cucumber is, in gambling terms, “an ignorant victim of a cheat.”—Ed.] They went on to say that he had “hinted at a little prejudice on our part in favor of the Nantuckets—a soft impeachment we modestly deny, for we always desire to deal fairly with all parties.” This controversy likely fueled local gossip for at least several weeks.

The game continued growing in popularity among the locals. Eventually, the Nantuckets and ’Sconsets faced more competition. The skating rink fielded a team, known as the Rinks. New teams with whimsical names kept popping up. Games were played in Surfside between the Cranks and the All Mightys. By the late1880s, teams representing the northern and southern sides of Main Street would be competing as well. Nantucket had a strong case of baseball fever.

As is often the case with any newly acquired talent or skill, Nantucket’s ballplayers soon wished to test their athletic prowess against teams from the mainland. Early contests did not yield auspicious results. At the end of July 1880, the Nantucket nine traveled to Cottage City (Oak Bluffs) to compete against their local club. Apparently, they “came back after a Waterloo defeat.” Cottage City pounded Nantucket’s pitching for twenty- four runs, while the Nantuckets managed only five. Perhaps even more humiliating was the fact that the game lasted just seven innings, as the Nantuckets had to leave in order to catch the steamer home. Despite this setback, the local press offered words of encouragement: “Don’t feel discouraged, boys,” the Inquirer and Mirror wrote. “Strengthen the weak places with stronger players, if they can be found, and practice together, and we will warrant that the result will be different when the Cottage Citys call on you ‘at home.’” In time, local teams would face competition from New Bedford and Martha’s Vineyard, among other places, with mixed results. However one of the greatest moments for Nantucket’s ballplayers came at the end of the decade, in August 1889, when they tested their talents against a team from Yale.

Yale University’s baseball program has a long and celebrated tradition, being among the nation’s oldest, established in 1865. Some twenty- three of their alumni have played in the Major Leagues. The team was a tough adversary, and most of the players probably walked with a confident swagger. They came to Nantucket ready to compete. The island’s players wanted to field the best team possible, for they did not wish to experience another “Waterloo defeat” in front of the home crowd. Therefore, it was concluded that the best option was for the two rivals to join forces. The Nantuckets and ’Sconsets pulled the best players from their lineups and created a new team, dubbed the ’Scontuckets. Shortly thereafter, the contest was waged. It was a warm Tuesday afternoon at the ball grounds near the Cliff, and large crowds were present. The ’Scontuckets did not disappoint, defeating Yale 10 to 4.The local pitcher, Mr. Highlands, baffled Yale’s hitters, recording ten strikeouts. It was, undoubtedly, one of the proudest moments for Nantucket’s ballplayers. They had put aside their personal rivalry to represent their small island community. However, just two days after their great victory, old rivalries were renewed. The ’Sconsets and Nantuckets played a tight game, which ended bitterly when Nantucket captain Echeverria “kicked at the umpire’s decision and left the grounds with his men, thus forfeiting the game to the ’Sconsets.”

In the decades that followed, baseball grew into an extremely popular summer activity. Many different clubs would be formed, and spirited rivalries continued to fuel local competition. Many notable Nantucketers, including Edouard Stackpole, readily embraced the game. After World War II, however, the game never recaptured the spirit of its early days. Newsports, such as football, emerged as popular alternatives for the island’s youth. Today, while spirited baseball and softball contests are still waged on local fields, the communal furor and excitement is probably not what it used to be. However, old-time baseball’s legacy has certainly not been lost.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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