If you’ve ever been to a professional baseball game, you’ll recall certain things: the food, the camaraderie among like-minded fans, exciting plays on the field, and the overall feeling of enjoyment. And remember that professional doesn’t necessarily mean major league. It also applies to the minor leagues, where, at least in my opinion, all those things are even more enjoyable, especially in Single-A ball. Watching the Geneva Cubs and other teams back in the 1980s in the Finger Lakes region is one of my all-time favorite baseball experiences.
The atmosphere at today’s baseball games evolved from earlier American traditions. In the Adirondacks, those traditions are rooted around the time of the Civil War. Baseball had taken hold in New York City in the 1850s, popularizing it elsewhere. In the early 1860s, many Adirondack towns and villages had independent teams that competed among themselves. Local leagues with schedules came along much later, in the 1920s. Until then, games were arranged via challenges published in newspapers, setting up a match on a farm field or some other suitable, semi-flat area.
Organized around the scheduled match were a number of other activities, for the home-team’s town also served as the host. Baseball games were for a long time the core component of these social events. Teams traveling to larger places like Watertown, Ogdensburg, or Plattsburgh might be greeted by a small parade or a marching band. Much was made of the arriving players, who were treated to a post-game feast, sometimes in hotels or other large buildings, but most often in outdoor picnic style. If the festivities lasted until later in the afternoon, a second meal would be provided. There might also be things like three-legged races and other family games, plus lots of socializing.
Newspapers covered the game scores and highlights, and sometimes delved into details of the teams’ uniforms, the sportsmanship of certain players, and overall crowd behavior.
As the games became more competitive, the North Country adopted an idea that had spread as baseball became more popular outside of the New York City area: presenting an award to champions. The trophy of choice was a Silver Ball. Other silver items were sometimes used, but most often it was the Silver Ball that identified champions.
“Champions” at the time referred to the current best team, beginning with the season’s first game. The winner took the Silver Ball home, after which the same team or others could then challenge the standing champions to play for possession of the Silver Ball. By the end of summer, it was usually evident which teams were the best, and they would play each other for final possession of the Silver Ball until the next season.
In far northern New York, teams from Canton, Potsdam, Ogdensburg, and other towns were competing as early as 1865 for a Silver Ball engraved with, “Champion, St. Lawrence County.”
In 1868, a committee in Plattsburgh purchased a Silver Ball trophy to be held by the leading club. Eighteen teams, including nine from the city, competed for that right. It was clear that the award added interest and fostered competition. How coveted was the championship? Check out this newspaper report from 1868, when the Empires of Keeseville, who held the Silver Ball going into the last match of the year, were defeated at home by the Auroras of Plattsburgh.
“Both clubs played with the best of feeling and treated each other pleasantly and gentlemanly. The Empires acknowledged themselves fairly beaten, and gracefully gave up the Ball. The results of the game were telegraphed to the village [Plattsburgh], and the news spreading among our citizens, the game of baseball rapidly grew in favor.
“On return of the Auroras and their friends, they were met by Mayo’s Band, several baseball clubs, firemen, and a large concourse of citizens who escorted the favored champions to Witherill’s new hotel. Assisted by some twenty or more citizens, they feasted for a time on mine host’s ‘Good Cheer.’ ”
That description sounds like what we call the good old days. Examined closely, however, the good old days often fall short of expectations because we tend to remember just the good stuff. But some of the negatives associated with baseball today, like bad-acting fans, are also rooted in the past. In the 1920s and ’30s, for instance, games were so fiercely contested that when teams like the Plattsburgh Majors met the legendary Lyon Mountain Miners, a strong police presence was necessary to prevent riot-like behavior that had broken out in the past.
So it wasn’t all good … but the baseball social sure sounds like a winner.
Photos: 1) A Silver Ball engraved with, “Presented by the Ulster County Agricultural Society to the Mutual B.B.C. Sept. 21st, 1865.” Surviving Silver Balls are rare. Most were eventually melted down, but maybe in someone’s attic…?; 2) a typical game at Lyon Mountain: a band in the bandstand on the left, and the grandstand and bleachers packed.