The past two years have seen the NHL stage the Winter Classic at two of baseball’s most famous parks. But on Jan. 16, 1884, a legendary baseball figure helped stage a baseball game unlike any you have ever seen, but one fans of the NHL could appreciate.
Even if you are not a hockey fan—and judging by the TV ratings, most of you aren’t—one can appreciate the annual Winter Classic, the NHL’s outdoor game. The past two years it has been played at baseball stadiums, first Wrigley Field then Fenway Park. This is surely the oddest use of a facility designed for one sport being used for another since a snowstorm forced the 1932 NFL Championship game to be played inside Chicago Stadium on an 80-yard field.
Today’s event leans more towards the ’32 title game than either of the Winter Classics, although it is really in a category all of its own. A team of amateurs, selected by Henry Chadwick, competed against a team of professionals in a game of, as The New York Times described it the next day, “base-ball.”
(A quick aside: It appears from looking at other documents of around the same time that the hyphen was the common usage. This was the second step on the road to baseball becoming one word; prior to the late 1860s it was always written as two. I would guess headline writers’ desire to save space ultimately encouraged the merging into one word; it was not until a few years into the 20th century that baseball [no space, no hyphen] became the standard.)
Even in 1884, a team of amateurs would be likely to struggle against the professionals. To even the odds, or perhaps just for sake of weirdness, this game had a twist: It was played on ice skates. (Or, to quote the Times again, it was competed by two teams of “steel-shod players.”)
Of course, there are a lot of stories here, so I’ll try to touch on all of them. The presence of Chadwick in the incident is notable. Frequently credited as the “Father of Baseball,” including on his tombstone, Chadwick developed the box score, the basic form of which has been only marginally changed from his original model despite the passing of more than a hundred years. There is some debate as to whether Chadwick invented statistics like batting average and ERA, but at the least he widely popularized them.
In any case, Chadwick was a logical choice to select the amateur players, since it could be reasonably argued that he knew more about baseball than anyone else. For good measure, the apparently trustworthy Chadwick also served as the game’s umpire. And while the gap between amateurs and professionals was distinct (notwithstanding the playing-on-skates factor), it was still not quite as much as it would be today. The 1884 season saw three leagues now recognized as Major Leagues: the National League, the American Association and the Union Association.
(The UA is somewhat bafflingly counted as a Major League, given that while teams played more than 100 games, some played as few as eight. Its champions were the memorably named St. Louis Maroons, who finished ahead of teams with names like the St. Paul White Caps and the Wilmington Quicksteps. Base-ball was awfully strange back then.)
|Fenway Park, hosting a more traditional ice-based sport (Icon/SMI)|
The professional players in this baseball-on-ice showcase were led by Billy Barnie, “an old Brooklyn player,” according to the Times. (The game took place at Washington Park, the first home of the Brooklyn Dodgers.) Barnie was nicknamed Baid Billy, which has left me totally baffled since I can’t even establish what (or where?) a “baid” is.
In his youth Barnie played for Hartford and other teams in the National Association, but his relatively inept hitting (a two-year line of.169/.176/.204 in the NA) launched his career as a manager. Barnie’s team varied widely in quality but were often underwhelming; they finished third just once but eighth or worse five times. Nonetheless, he managed for a long time and is still in the top 100 for all-time managerial wins.
Evidently fancying his chances better with the gimmick squad than an authentic one, Barnie issued a challenge after the game, offering “to play any club in the country with his steel-shod players.”
For a relatively short article, the Times article provides a good amount of information, including that the players got together the week before to practice. The game lasted six innings, and was essentially over after the first half when the professionals took a 12-2 lead with a seven-run second inning and a five-run third.
There is some description of the action, including a compliment to the amateurs’ left fielder for making “a pretty catch,” while the hitting star of the game was third baseman Dasher Troy, who had three hits and scored three runs. When not performing on ice, Troy was a regular for the New York Metropolitans of the AA.
Easily my favorite part of the article, however, is the description of the game being played on ice that was “in capital condition.” I don’t know why people stopped using “capital” to refer to things as excellent. I’ve always thought it was a capital usage of the word.
The amateurs put up a bit of a fight in the late innings, putting up a five-spot of their own in the fifth inning, but the professionals continued to tack on runs and the game ended 16-8 in favor of the latter. The game featured 12 errors, including eight by the professionals. That is a lot of errors, even by the standards of the times, but is pretty good when you consider the conditions they were playing under.
Even with the success of the Winter Classic, we are unlikely to see a Major League all-star team take on a group of talented amateurs on the ice at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, entertaining though it would be. But we can at least look back on the days when baseball was two words, and such exhibitions were regarded as a trifle peculiar at most. There is a lot to be said for the modern game, but nothing is perfect.