Review: When Illinois Base Ball (sic) Was for Fun, Ballists, Dead Beats, and Muffins: Inside Early Baseball in Illinois, by Robert D. Sampson

In the handful of years after the Civil War, Illinoisans went crazy for baseball, a game that was then spelled as two words “base ball.” By 1868, however, an editor of the Cairo Democrat was writing that “the mania has passed away, vanished like a summer cloud.”

Those few years were a moment in time when, throughout the state, baseball was played for the joy of it, for fun and for pride, as historian Robert D. Sampson details in his lively new book from University of Illinois Press—Ballists, Dead Beats, and Muffins: Inside Early Baseball in Illinois.

In a 24-page appendix, Sampson, the editor of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society and the author of John L. O’Sullivan and His Times, lists more than 600 Illinois clubs that took the field between 1865 and 1870, only 11 of which were in Chicago.

That number isn’t complete, as the author acknowledges, but the fact is that teams from the largest city in the state represented only a tiny proportion of Illinois clubs—a reminder of an era when Chicago wasn’t yet as large a factor as it would become. In 1860, the city contained less than 6 percent of the Illinois population, and, a decade later, its share had risen only to not quite 12 percent.

Nonetheless, one prominent Chicago team, the Excelsiors, was something of the Darth Vader of baseball in the state. “No club,” writes Sampson, “was more disdained and disparaged by other communities and players.” Not only did the team have a “penchant for dispute and disparaging language toward opponents,” but it also “indiscriminately insulted other teams.” And it violated the mores of the game at the time by paying at least some of its players.

Such trash-talking, competitiveness, and professionalism was out of tune with the way the game was supposed to be played during this post-war period. Baseball, which began on the playing fields in and around Manhattan in the 1830s and 1840s, was a gentlemanly contest that frowned on bad sportsmanship. As Sampson writes:

Baseball in Illinois between 1865 and 1868 existed, first, for fun. It was an activity that provided exercise and generated good times. The game was so enjoyable that at times everyone wanted in on it.

“Orderly Behavior, Standards, and Rituals”

That, in fact, was the core of the baseball craze, he writes—“the fun they had and the joy they shared.” And central to the enjoyment were the ceremonies that were attached to the playing of a game, ceremonies that included what came before and after the contests.

Not only rules, but also expectations grounded baseball in Illinois, expressed through orderly behavior, standards, and rituals. Winning was nice, but how one played the game and treated opponents, umpires, and fellow players was paramount.

For instance, on the morning of September 10, 1866, the Hardin Base Ball Club from Jacksonville arrived at the Springfield train station for a three-inning game against the Capital Base Ball Club.

A group of Springfield “ballists” escorted the Hardin players to breakfast at a local hotel after which both teams gathered in the Illinois Supreme Court rooms of the capitol building. Together they sang songs and heard speeches and had lunch at a hotel before heading to the Capital Club’s playing grounds.

Following the game, the Springfield team escorted the Jacksonville team back to the station for their train to Bloomington for a game the next day. “Such hospitality,” Sampson writes, “reinforced the importance of ritual in early Illinois baseball.”

The rituals often began with a written invitation and included an escort for the visitors as well as meals and entertainment, and, at the end of the game, the presentation of a ball by the losing team to the winners.

Rituals were important “in mitigating the inevitable bruised egos and hard feelings spawned by competition, providing a framework to contain competitiveness and ensure inclusivity and shared reference for baseball’s ideals.” In one case, an Aurora newspaper report on a match stated that the losers had the “comforting reflection that they had been beat by gentlemen.”

The game was different in myriad other ways from its 21st-century descendant, as Sampson’s title Ballists, Dead Beats, and Muffins indicates. 

Ballplayers were called ballists, and muffins were weak teams. However, rather than a put-down, muffin was often a term used to indicate games in which fun and, it seems, a bit of silliness were involved. A typical muffin game might pit a fat team against a thin team or an old team against a young one or bachelors versus married men.

Ballplayers were called ballists, and muffins were weak teams. However, rather than a put-down, muffin was often a term used to indicate games in which fun and, it seems, a bit of silliness were involved.

Dead Beats in the title refers to the Dead Beat Club in Ashley, one of more than a few with a goofy-seeming name, such as the Counterjumpers of Amboy, the Lively Turtles of Rock Island, the Plowboys and the Light Weights of Aurora, the Clodhoppers of Cairo, the Hit and Go Lightnings of Forsyth and, particularly intriguing, the One Gallows Base Ball Club of Marshall.

A twenty-first-century traveler coming upon a baseball game in post-Civil War Illinois would be thoroughly perplexed by much of what transpires on the field. The diamond, while featuring the familiar ninety-foot basepaths, a home plate, and perhaps foul poles, would seem primitive, its surface marred by trees or ditches and unmowed infields and outfields. Players might appear less skilled, even clumsy.

Baseball as a Work in Progress

Although already called the national game and the national pastime, baseball was, Sampson writes, still very much a work in progress as players were “learning its nuances on the field, dropping fly balls and fumbling grounders.”

Fly balls were called “skyscrapers” while “daisy cutters” were ground balls. Newspaper reporting of the games was also in its infancy, and such coverage can be frustrating for a modern reader for what’s left out and what’s put in. For instance, a phrase used in such accounts was “gobbling up the huckleberry” which, Sampson guesses, possibly meant catching the ball in some way since “huckleberry” was used at the time to describe a small object.

In this post-war era, offense held sway. Dozens of runs would cross the plate in a routine game, and lopsided scores weren’t unheard of. In 1867, during a game in Chicago, the Excelsiors were crushed 49-4 by the essentially professional Washington Nationals, to the great glee of the rest of the state, such as a Springfield editor who crowed, “Poor Chicago; poor foolish Chicago.”

One reason for the high scores was that a batter could tell the pitcher where he wanted the ball, the better to smash it. Another was that fielders wore no gloves and had to snare a line drive or a grounder with bare hands. 

A change in the game made this even more difficult—the new “fly rule” which required a fielder to catch a fair ball in the air to record an out. Previously, he could nab it on a bounce which, in terms of injury risk, was much preferable. For a while, a foul ball caught on a bounce was still an out.

Ballists, Dead Beats, and Muffins makes clear that there was a simplicity, innocence, and freshness to baseball in Illinois in these years, even as Sampson details the movement—probably inevitable—toward a more competitive and more professional level of play.

The players might have been clumsy and less than skilled and even in it for the laughs, but their games must have been great fun to watch.

Ballists, Dead Beats, and Muffins: Inside Early Baseball in Illinois is available at most bookstores and through the University of Illinois Press website.

Picture of the author
Patrick T. Reardon

Patrick T. Reardon is a Chicago historian, essayist, poet and writer who was a Chicago Tribune reporter for 32 years. He is the author of nine books including the forthcoming The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago (SIU Press).