Baseball Came to Cincinnati Even Earlier Than We Thought

The sport’s origin story has a new pre–Civil War date, a new east side birthplace, and a new connection to the famous 1869 Red Stockings.

In the late afternoon of Friday, July 23, 1858, a second set of horses was being added to an omnibus (horse-drawn streetcar) headed north out of downtown for a climb up what today is Reading Road. A group of men had arrived together for transportation to a sporting event.

They were leaving the Cincinnati riverfront basin, where 50 livery stables, 75 blacksmiths, 120 bakeries, and 750 grocers (and even more saloons) serviced 100,000 people crammed into a two-by-one-mile area. It was the second most congested area of that size in the U.S. outside of Manhattan.

The Penny Press highlighted this East Walnut Hills cricket grounds a year after it hosted Cincinnati’s very first baseball game.

Illustration courtesy of Library of Congress

The men in that omnibus were bat-and-ball players headed for the first known “base ball” game in Cincinnati, on a playing field in East Walnut Hills. Their meeting turns on its head everything we thought we knew about the origins of baseball in this famous baseball city. There isn’t a single west sider who believes that baseball began anywhere but on the west side. But that’s a myth. Baseball in these parts began on the city’s east side.

The only reportage of that first game was in the Monday, July 26 edition of The Commercial Tribune, just above a more detailed story and the early equivalent of a box score for a game of town ball. “The [base ball] contest is said to have been an exciting and spirited affair,” the small news item offered, “but as we have not been furnished with the score, we cannot lay it before the curious….”

Well, today we finally lay it before the curious, all the dots we could unearth and connect. It’s a prequel story that preceded by 11 years the formation of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, who established the city as the home of professional baseball.

This prequel involves a cricket field-turned-baseball diamond in the most unlikely of places, off Madison Pike between Hackberry Street and Woodburn Avenue, far from where the most popular of games, town ball, was played. It shares a moment in the city’s pre–Civil War history with the Underground Railroad. And it stars a previously uncredited pioneer and bridge to the famous Red Stockings, whom few have heard of since his death in 1912.

The big participation sports in mid-19th century Cincinnati were town ball and the English game cricket. Not baseball. Town ball had been played since the 1830s on fields set up in squares or rectangles, the rules circa 1858 being four bases 60 feet apart, 10 to 14 players per side, four innings, outs made by batted balls caught in the air or by “soaking” a runner (hitting them with the ball), and scores coming by runners circling the bases. Cricket, in its most distilled form, had been played here well before that, probably as soon as four Englishmen got together somewhere on the first piece of flat ground above the Ohio River.

Baseball—back then called “base ball,” long before it became the American game—was not played here in a formal sense until July 23, 1858.

But, baseball—back then called “base ball,” long before it became the American game—was not played here in a formal sense until July 23, 1858. It said as much in The Commercial Tribune the day before that game: “A club has been formed and the first trial of skill will take place tomorrow up on East Walnut Hills. Several of the members have belonged to crack Eastern clubs.”

Lost to history are the names of the players in that first baseball game or any of the subsequent three contests later that summer. But almost certainly they were a blend of players from town ball and cricket. Cricket because, after all, they were using the cricket players’ field. And town ball because those players would have been most familiar with and interested in a new game that had become the rage on the East Coast.

The town ball players who would have tried their hand at baseball here that first year were likely led by Bom DeBeck, a transplant from New Jersey. He was prominent in town ball, having appeared in his first local box score in 1858 as the captain of his team. He’s the only town ball player known to have played baseball when it resumed here after the Civil War.

Bodo Otto Morgan DeBeck—Bom to his friends—was born on March 30, 1830, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, and arrived in Cincinnati at the age of 11. He attended old Woodward High School and College. By 1858 he was married with two children, and lived at the northwest corner of Fourth and Main—several blocks from the First Unitarian Church and Zion Baptist Church, both active participants in the Underground Railroad at the time. It was an easy nine-block walk to the Seventh District School, where DeBeck was a teacher and later principal.

He was so intertwined with Cincinnati’s early baseball history that he likely would have played in one if not all four of that summer’s games. He had the time (late afternoons off as a teacher) and the inclination (almost certainly he had some familiarity with the game being played back home in New Jersey), and he had the connections within Cincinnati’s athletic community.

It was a hard one-mile climb of 300 feet elevation from the northeastern edge of downtown to McMillan Street, with a slight descent to Madison and Hackberry. Costing 10 cents, the omnibus trip was especially difficult in the 94-degree July heat. (“Steadily, systematically, and provokingly hot,” read that day’s weather in The Commercial Tribune.)

Illustration by Gina Erardi

The field they were headed to was in the same block as St. Francis DeSales Chapel, a wooden structure just north of where the big church that replaced it is today. Across Madison Pike was the One Mile House, a rest stop for horse travelers, especially those coming out of downtown Cincinnati. A sketch of the cricket grounds appeared in The Penny Press in 1859, a year after the first baseball game there.

The impetus for this inaugural game almost certainly was a newly codified Laws of Base Ball pamphlet published in the winter of 1857–1858, with its dictate that a contest shall consist of nine innings, with three outs per half-inning; nine men to a side; and a field with 90 feet between four bases. The local crowd would have likely read the announcement of a trio of nationally publicized “All-Star Games” in Brooklyn, the first of which was scheduled for July 13. (It was rained out, a postponement reported as far away as Davenport, Iowa, and Charleston, South Carolina.) The first All-Star Game was played July 20 between New York City and Brooklyn (its own city at the time) in front of a paying crowd of between 4,000 and 10,000.

At the time of its inception in 1858, “base ball” in Cincinnati was an unnoticed game in an underground (railroad) city. The opposite is true today, when our twin representations of the national pastime, Great American Ball Park and the Reds Hall of Fame, stand side-by-side on the riverfront with the building that symbolizes arguably the noblest pursuit in our city’s history, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Civil War–era Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky was a key launching spot for the Underground Railroad and the game of baseball, which would first be played in East Walnut Hills.

Photograph courtesy of the Cincinnati Historical Society

The city’s first baseball players lived and mixed with those supporting Underground Railroad activities in pre–Civil War Cincinnati. When placing on an 1858 map the residences of the cricket and town ball players and tracing the omnibus horse car’s route to East Walnut Hills, one quickly realizes how close these players and so many of their downtown neighbors were to antislavery operations that ran as an open secret. Every other week there was a story of some sort in the local newspapers about escaped slaves, usually through Cincinnati. Commercial Tribune headlines in 1857 and 1858 declared, “The Underground Railroad in Operation,” “Passengers for the Underground Railroad,” “Escape of a Couple of Slaves,” and “The Underground,” among others.

Town ball player Benjamin Buckley, a 26-year-old Englishman who operated a feed store, frequented black abolitionist Kittie Doram’s dry goods shop a block away in Little Bucktown, in the lower West End near the river. Cricket club president William Coolidge lived a block and a half west of Eliza Potter, the biracial hairdresser to the city’s bluebloods who herself was later jailed in Louisville for counseling a slave on how to escape to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Four blocks from Potter’s house was the home of former slave and abolitionist Peter Fossett, who had been the property of Thomas Jefferson and cared for horses at Monticello.

The omnibus ride that began at Fourth and Sycamore and ended in East Walnut Hills ran past fugitive harbors where the players would have known of or suspected Underground Railroad activities, including the Dumas House, Wesley Chapel, African Methodist Church, and Allen Chapel Temple. They would have passed the secondhand clothes shop of Joseph Kite, whose niece, the escaped Boone County slave Margaret Garner, had two years earlier killed her slave child in Kite’s home rather than allow the child’s return to servitude. The episode became the subject of Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel, Beloved.

In Walnut Hills, less than a mile from the cricket grounds/baseball field, was the former home of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Everyone who played in those first baseball games would have been well aware of Stowe’s famous book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which had been published in 1852 and sold 300,000 copies in the first three months and 2 million by the end of 1857. Among the bat-and-ball players were two schoolteachers, including Bom DeBeck, who likely would have discussed Stowe with their young students.

After the four baseball games that were played in July and August 1858, there is no record of additional formal baseball being played in Cincinnati until the summer of 1866. The Commercial Tribune was especially attuned to chronicling the city’s sporting scene and likely wouldn’t have missed it. They certainly didn’t miss reporting on town ball games in which DeBeck played.

The famous 1869 Red Stockings featured three players hired from Bom DeBeck’s rival club: Charles Sweasy (#5), Charlie Gould (#9), and Andy Leonard (#10). DeBeck likely was part of the group that played Cincinnati’s very first baseball game in 1858.

In the fall of 1864, the Union Cricket Club (UCC), under the direction of George Ellard, hired well-known New York City cricketeer Harry Wright to captain and coach their team for the 1865 season in new grounds at the foot of Richmond Street in the West End. It would be Wright’s final full season of cricket.

On September 2, 1866, the UCC merged into the newly formed Cincinnati Base Ball Club. Wright pulled double duty of sorts, under contract to UCC until November 1867 but allowed to play and manage the baseball club as well.

The Buckeye Base Ball club was also formed in the fall of 1866. DeBeck was elected to its membership committee, and his name appears regularly as a player in 1866 and 1867, meaning he played against many of the famous future Cincinnati Red Stockings. In fact, in that first Red Stockings game played on September 29, 1866, at UCC’s newly fenced-in grounds, DeBeck manned first base as the Buckeyes won 20–18. No doubt, the gregarious DeBeck would have had conversations at first base with Red Stockings pioneers Aaron Champion, William Johnson, Ellard, and Wright. Right place, right time for Harry Wright, but a little too late for DeBeck, then 36—when Wright needed a new first baseman for the Red Stockings, he plucked DeBeck’s 20-year-old Buckeye teammate Charlie Gould.

The sport that hadn’t caught on in 1858 blew up across Cincinnati after the Civil War. On Sunday, April 7, 1867, the first gloriously warm spring day in the Queen City, 200 teenaged boys from the West End and downtown spontaneously converged on the UCC cricket grounds to play baseball. Although 12 wound up being arrested for violating the peace of the Sabbath, it was in effect the first opening day in Cincinnati—a baseball parade of sorts in which the game itself served as Pied Piper.

It quickly became apparent that a bigger and better baseball field would be required, so the combined cricket and baseball clubs leased new land west of Lincoln Park, only a few blocks away. The first match there was played on July 4, 1867. That field, Union Grounds, is where the esplanade of the Museum Center at Union Terminal is today.

In 1868, future Red Stockings Charles Sweasy and Andy Leonard were enticed from DeBeck’s home state to play for his Buckeyes. Wright signed the duo to his team a year later and would soon launch its famous undefeated season as baseball’s first professional club.

DeBeck would play baseball in Cincinnati for another season and then focus on his work with local schools. At 68, he was named principal of the city’s Night School and later the superintendent. On Christmas Eve of that year, 1898, after locking up the school, DeBeck was on the way home when—crossing the Ninth Street Bridge over the canal—he was attacked by two highwaymen. He knocked the first to the ground and fought with the second, and both attackers ran away without securing anything from him.

In 1903, as part of a fund-raiser for the Cincinnati Gymnasium, 73-year-old DeBeck was part of a four-man tug-of-war team competition against five other teams. He died on Sept. 9, 1912, from injuries sustained in a fall at his home.

In 2013, the website dedicated itself to telling the story of baseball’s earliest origins in newspaper snippet form. It unearthed Cincinnati’s first game here in 1858. Until now, however, no one had developed the story, and few knew about it.

Without the Union Cricket Club and one transplanted New Jersey town ball star, plus a borrowed east side playing field, it seems unlikely that the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869—the team that made baseball famous and raised the city’s profile considerably—would have had anywhere near such a profound impact.

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