Brooklyn's Baseball Prehistory

Brooklyn, like every city in the new United States, had a large number of immigrants from England, and with them came children's games like base ball. While the game remained one for children, with rules passed along by word of mouth and constantly evolving in different directions, not much was written of it. Newspapers would no more report on a game of base ball (or town ball, or old cat) than they would on a game of tag. That said, in later years, one man recalling his Brooklyn childhood for the Eagle would date the game in Brooklyn as early as 1820:

Ex-Mayor Frank Stryker -- I went to school in 1820-1, to one Samuel Seabury, on Hicks street, near Poplar, and afterward in a private house at the corner of James and Front streets; then to one Lummiss, who taught in the Titus House, in Fulton street, between York and Front. I also attended Mr. Hunt's school, over George Smith's wheelwright shop in Fulton street, opposite High. Foot racing and base ball used to be favorite games in those days, and we used to go skating on Fricke's Mill Pond, at about Butler street and Third avenue.

As grown men began to play base ball, with clubs fielding regular teams, it was inevitable that someone would write down the rules, so everyone could properly agree on the game to be played. In New York, the men who took on this task were members of the Gotham and Knickerbocker Clubs. The latter's rules, from 1845, are the earliest written artifact of what would become known as the New York game. Much is missing from this set of rules - you could not play a game from scratch using them. Rather, they assume a certain knowledge of how base ball works, and lay out the specifics of the local version. Regularly revised, this New York game would became modern baseball, with almost all the present day rules intact by the early 1900s.

In the years following the codification of base ball rules by the New York clubs, the sport flourished all through the surrounding area. Henry Chadwick, an English born Brooklyn resident, was an aggressive promoter of the game. He was the first serious baseball reporter, writing for almost every newspaper in Brooklyn and New York at some point, and producing the Dime Base-Ball Player annual. Chadwick worked hard to revise and extend the game's rules, and its methods of record keeping. He organized a series of "prize games" in Brooklyn at the beginning of seasons to try out new rules with the best players available. It is fair to call Chadwick the inventor of the box score and the whole notion of baseball statistics. During important matches, it was not unknown for captains and umpires to turn to Chadwick for his opinion of a tricky rules question. His monument at Greenwood Cemetery bears the incription "Father of Baseball" and we will not argue.

Henry Chadwick and his Dime Base-Ball Player

Baseball grew in Brooklyn faster than anywhere. Amateur clubs thrived throughout the city, and contests between them were widely followed, as were those between combination teams of Brooklyn and New York. The most famous such combination matchup was a three game series in 1858, at the Fashion Racecourse on Long Island. In front of large crowds, New York defeated Brooklyn two games to one: 22-10, 8-29, 29-18.

Among top early teams were the Putnam, Resolute, Niagara, Bedford, and Star Clubs. This last featured pitcher Candy Cummings, who played a major part in the evolution of the curve ball. The three most famous clubs, however, were the Excelsior, Eckford, and Atlantic Clubs.

The Excelsior Club of 1860- Creighton is third from left

The Excelsior Club was formed in late 1854 in South Brooklyn, by members of the Jolly Bachelors social club, and was the first great team in Brooklyn baseball. They regularly thrashed lesser teams, once scoring 46 runs against the Independent Club, and 50 against the Niagaras of Buffalo. Their best player was James Creighton, also a fine cricketer, whose pitching at its best was near unhittable. He jumped from the Stars in 1860, probably becoming the first professional baseball player at the same time. He also pitched the first known shutout. Creighton died in 1862 at age 21, supposedly a victim of internal injuries from a mighty swing of the bat. His grave at Greenwood Cemetery became a pilgrimage destination for players from other teams who visited Brooklyn.

The Excelsior Club was a founding member of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) in 1857. This association declared a national champion at the end of each season. Such championships were decided in a way similar to boxing titles- beat the champion in a three game series, and become the champion. The Excelsiors never won this title, although the 1860 result is open to dispute. The Excelsior team was leading the champion Atlantics 8-6 in the deciding game of their series at the Putnam Grounds when the pro-Atlantic crowd became too rowdy and violent for play to continue. The game was declared a draw, and the Atlantic Club retained the title. The top nines of the two great clubs never each other played again.

Perhaps the longest lasting effect of the Excelsior on the game was the club's part in a highly significant rule change in early baseball. In the original rules laid down by the Knickerbocker Club, a catch "on the bound" (after one bounce) was a legitimate out. A number of top clubs, anxious to show off a more skilful game, later called for such catches to be eliminated. The Excelsiors played exhibitions with the Knickerbocker and Putnam Clubs under this "fly rule" which created huge interest and drew thousands of fans. Eventually, in 1865, the fly rule was adopted officially.

The Excelsiors called many places home. Beginning on a rough field that would, many years later, become the first Washington Park, they then played at two parks in what is now Cobble Hill, before settling on grounds at the foot of Court Street, now part of Red Hook Park. In 1866, the Excelsiors moved to the fancier Capitoline Grounds, but by the time of the professional National Association (NA) in 1871, the club had faded from glory, and was not interested in the professional game in any case.

Eckford and Atlantic display cases with balls from games won. The Eckford case is on display at the Hall
of Fame. The Atlantic case finished up in the hands of the Brooklyn Dodgers and was destroyed by
Walter O'Malley in 1946 so that he could give the balls out as gifts to his employees. The ball at right
survived the experience. Atlantic 39, Mutual 20 at Elysian Fields on September 19, 1859.

The Eckford Club, named for famed ship builder Henry Eckford*, was formed by star pitcher Frank Pidgeon and other shipyard workers in the Greenpoint neighborhood in 1855, but just played games amongst thelselves before gamely challenging the winner of a match between the Baltic and Union Clubs in August, 1857. Union defeated Baltic, and the Eckfords took them on, walking away with a 22 to 8 upset victory.

The Eckford Club first played at the Manor House Ground in Greenpoint, and moved to Cammeyer's Union Grounds in 1862. They grew in strength, soon becoming contenders for the national championship. In 1862 the Eckfords played an epic series with the Atlantics at the Union Grounds. Eckford surprised everyone, winning the first match 20 to 14, but collapsed in game two, losing 39 to 5. The Eckfords did not wilt, however. On their greatest day, they came back behind the pitching of Sprague to win game three 8 to 3, and take their first title, along with a silver ball presented by the Continental Club. The Eckfords successfully defended the championship in 1863, but never won it again.

The 1858 Eckford Club.

In 1865, however, the Eckfords played their most famous, or rather infamous, game. Three members of the highly rated New York Mutual team, including ex-Eckford shortstop Tom Devyr, were offered a total of $100 by gamblers to throw the game. The Eckford Club took advantage of constant errors and passed balls, winning a ridiculously easy victory 23-11. A long history of baseball corruption, leading eventually to the 1919 Black Sox scandal, had begun.

When the NABBP gave way to the professional National Association in 1871, the Eckford Club was offered a place, but balked at the $10 fee. They did pay their players and play a schedule as if they belonged to the Association, eventually forwarding the fee in August. But by then it was too late for their record to count officially. In 1872, the Eckfords properly joined, playing an incomplete schedule and finishing 3-26. Being a co-operative club (sharing gate receipts) rather than a fully professional one, the Eckfords had great difficulty in holding onto their best players. After 1872, the Eckford Club of Brooklyn disappeared from view as a base ball concern, but as a social club it would last into the 1960s.

* The Eckford Base Ball Club should not be confused with the Henry Eckford Base Ball Club, also from Greenpoint.

The Atlantic Clubs of 1865 and 1868
1868 picture courtesy Mark Rucker (Transcendental Graphics)

The Atlantic Club was the greatest of the three. Formed in 1855 in Bedford, a practice match between members of the club is recorded as early as August 16, but they played their first known competitive game on October 21, defeating the Harmony Club 24 to 22. They were also founder members of the NABBP, and had great rivalries with teams of New York and Philadelphia as well as Brooklyn. The Atlantics began sharing a field with the Long Island Cricket Club, then moved to their own grounds at Marcy and Gates Avenues, then in 1864 to the Capitoline Grounds.

Led by stars such as Peter and Matty O'Brien, Joe Start, and Dicky Pearce, the Atlantics finished seven seasons as national champion: 1859, 1860, 1861, 1864, 1865, 1866, and 1869. The 1864 and 1865 teams were especially powerful, going undefeated and feasting on weaker teams, including a 107 to 16 slaughter of the Tri-Mountain Club in Boston. At other times, fortunate scheduling helped a team that was good but not unbeatable. The Red Stockings of Cincinnati, the first fully professional club, avoided defeat through 57 matches in 1869, including series wins over each of the Brooklyn teams, but happened to beat the Atlantic Club before the Atlantics had taken the title from the Eckfords.

The Atlantics of 1865 in action: in the first picture, we see a fantastic, nonexistent match between the 1865
Atlantic Club and the Excelsiors of 1860 at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, but the second shows a very real and
contentious match in Philadelphia between the Atlantic Club and the Athletics of that city.

In 1861, the Atlantics also played in the first match of ice base ball recorded by baseball historian Chadwick, defeating the Charter Oak Club 36 to 27. Club records show many later games on ice, although none was ever considered a truly serious affair.

The best remembered achievement of the Atlantics, however, was in 1870. The Cincinnati Red Stockings brought an 89 game winning streak and an unbeatable reputation to the Capitoline Grounds. The Atlantics played them to a 5-5 draw over 9 innings, and captain Bob "Death to Flying Things" Ferguson took his team from the field, content with the result. Harry Wright of Cincy insisted on continuing, however. The Red Stockings took 2 runs from pitcher George Zettlin in the top of the 11th, but the Atlantics came back, with Ferguson's daring base running scoring the winning run for an 8 to 7 victory.

The last proper game of the "Old Atlantic" was played on November 25, 1870. The Atlantic nine defeated the Oriental Club of New York, 16 to 4. The Times noted that the Atlantic team was to be broken up in readiness for the coming National Association:

The Atlantic Club will organize as an amateur club next season, as Ferguson, Start, Smith, and Hall, of the Atlantic Club, will play in the new Brooklyn nine now in progress of organization as an incorporated stock base-ball company. In this new club, too, Cummings and Rogers, of the Stars, will play, as also C. Mills and Martin, of the Mutuals. It will therefore be seen that it will be a strong team.

That Brooklyn club never materialized, but the Atlantic's professional players did indeed disperse for the National Association, as did those of the Eckford Club. A weakened Atlantic squad finally joined the N.A. in 1872, and played four seasons which ranged from mediocre to dreadful. A move to the Union Grounds in 1873 was no help. Finishing 2-42 in 1875, with 31 straight losses and accusations of "hippodroming" (throwing games), the Atlantics limped away from the NA, a shadow of their former selves, and the club disbanded.

Bob "Death to Flying Things" Ferguson, Doug Allison, Candy Cummings

Following this debacle, Atlantic nines were periodically organized, by people with varying degrees of association to the original club, right up until 1886. These teams had ups and downs. For each highlight- an 11 run ninth inning against the Metropolitan Club for a stunning 14-12 win, there was a lowlight- 26 errors in a single game against the same team. Billy Barnie's Atlantic team nearly joined the new American Association in 1882, but that did not pan out.

One other 19th century Atlantic Club deserves mention. This one played at the Queens County Grounds in Maspeth and was briefly in the Eastern League of 1884. The Atlantics joined in July, inheriting the schedule of the disbanded Harrisburg club. They lost two home games against the Virginia Club of Richmond, before being expelled from the league for failing to pay the visitors their guarantee.

The 1870 Mutual Club

Other professional clubs of the pre-Dodger era in Brooklyn were transplants from elsewhere. The Mutual Club of New York moved to the Union Grounds in 1868, and won a disputed national championship in that year, lasting through the NA era and a single National League season in 1876. The Hartford Club of the 1877 National League almost folded, but was moved to the Union Grounds by Bob Ferguson and became the Hartfords of Brooklyn for that season. One notable player on both these teams was Doug Allison, the first catcher ever to use a glove. He also played for the Eckfords at one point.

By 1883, Brooklyn had almost forgotten these teams and was watching another team play. Byrne's men would go on to be much beloved and long remembered, but the likes of the Excelsior, Eckford, and Atlantic Clubs paved their way.

There is an Atlantic Base Ball Club today, wearing the old Atlantic's 1864 uniform and playing by the rules of that year on a ground at Smithtown, Long Island. The club motto is "No Gloves, No Steroids." Similarly, Excelsior and Mutual teams play at Old Bethpage, Long Island.

Thanks go out to Richard Hershberger for his invaluable corrections to our timeline of the Atlantics, and to John Thorn for his endless patience and unerringly accurate picture identification. is brought to you by
Andrew Ross (
and David Dyte (
Please contact us with any corrections, additions, or requests.