History of the 19th Century Gotham Club


The true origins of baseball are a controversial topic among sports enthusiasts. Games of "town ball," "base," or simply "ball," were played with sticks, balls, and bases in many places throughout the Northeastern United States during the first half of the 19th century, although rules varied greatly from town to town. Famed 19th century sportswriter Henry Chadwick claimed that baseball evolved from the English sport of rounders, while his colleague Al Spalding argued that its origins lay with an American game called "Old Cat." Still others can trace the game as far back as 14th century France. Wherever it originated, there is no denying that New York City base ball was crucial to the evolution of the modern sport.

Base ball was played in New York at least as early as 1837, when the first Gotham Base Ball Club of New York was founded. These Gothams played at an unused Army parade ground near what is now Madison Square Park. They mainly engaged in drills (playing catch, shagging flies) for exercise purposes, though they also held occasional intra-club competitions. Their eventual archrivals, the New York Knickerbockers, were formed in 1845. The "Knickerbocker Rules" mark one of the earliest attempts at a formal, universal rule set for base ball and formed the basis for the "New York Rules" that eventually evolved into the modern game.

The excitement around the games played between the Gotham Club and Knickerbockers in the early 1850s spurred on many other teams to form in the New York area, and base ball fever quickly spread beyond New York City. The oldest definitively known base ball photograph is of the 1856 Gotham Club. That same year, the club was implicated in a player stealing scandal—the first of its kind! Another first occurred in 1858, when several Gotham players were involved in the first ever "All-Star Game," along with players from the Knickerbockers, Eagles, Empires, and Unions—against all-stars from the prominent Brooklyn squads at the time (Atlantic, Eckford, and Excelsior). The New York team won the three-game series played at the Fashion Course Racetrack in Corona located less than 100 yards from present day Citifield.

In 1857, watch-case maker and New York Gotham Edward G. Saltzman moved to Boston, where he encountered a game played under the "Massachusetts Rules," a variation of the "New York Rules." He taught his new shopmates how to play ball in the New York manner and converted Massachusetts to the New York Rules. The rules quickly gained traction throughout the Northeast.

During the early- and mid- 1860s three of base ball's earliest and brightest stars, George and Harry Wright and Candy Cummings, played for the Gotham Club for several seasons. All three are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. In January 1865, on a frozen lake in the Capitoline Grounds in Brooklyn, the Gotham Club helped to give new meaning to "Base Ball Fever" as they engaged in a series of games played against the Atlantic Base Ball Club.

In the late 1860s, as many teams began paying their best players, the Gotham Club fell prey to stronger teams and eventually folded. They revived as a professional club in the mid-1870s with new management and new players. This second Gotham team was the precursor to the present-day San Francisco (formerly New York) Giants.

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With special thanks to Stephen Ready for his extensive research and contributions to this article.