Glenn Uminowicz - March 2009

Another Kind of March Madness
Base Ball on Ice


Glenn Uminowicz

They tackled baseball on the ice,
’Twas thrilling, you can bet.
The catcher hit and slide to first—
They say he’s sliding yet.

From the Ironwood, Michigan, Daily Globe, January 1922

   In the years after the Civil War, “base ball fever” swept across the nation with the formation of hundreds of amateur clubs. Americans eagerly transformed themselves into both the girls and boys of summer. During the winter months between 1915 and the early 1920s, a variant of that fever spread through the cold weather states like the onset of flu season. Northerners enthusiastically embraced playing baseball on ice.
    In 1915, for example, government employees strapped on their skates and picked up their bats and balls and played on a frozen pond within a stone’s throw of the White House. One year later, Chicago policemen held back thousands of gleefully unruly baseball on ice fans from the field of play. Finally, in 1921, the Tin Lizzies squared off against the Mud Hens on Lake Minnehaha near Cheyenne, Wyoming. After the baseball on ice concluded, Lizzies captain R.J. Baker observed, “Everybody who has seen or taken part in the sport has fallen hard for it.”
    The history of baseball on ice stretches back to 1861 when two clubs faced off on Litchfield Pond in Brooklyn. One of the clubs was reputedly organized by the “Father of Modern Baseball” rulebook compiler Henry Chadwick. The earliest known image of the sport appeared in Harper’s Weekly magazine in 1884.
    Since they play the National Pastime according to the rules of the 1860s, the Talbot County Fair Plays were ideally suited to bring base ball on ice to Maryland. The vintage base ball club did so last March in a match against the Talbot County Parks and Recreation Department. The two teams are now preparing for their second annual ice base ball match on March 21st at 3 p.m. in the Talbot County Community Center on Route 50 in Easton.
    The match will be played according to the rules Henry Chadwick knew in the 1860s. In so doing, however, the players will also recapture the spirit of how baseball on ice was enjoyed during its Frozen Golden Age in the 1910s and ’20s. In 1920, a Massachusetts newspaper reporter insisted, “Most sports on skates are fast and thrilling, but I believe baseball on ice is the best of all.” Swinging a bat proved challenging, but skaters could dash to first base at great speed if a ball was struck. Moreover, the reporter noted, “Outfielders can cover greater territory and the infielders perform with dazzling speed.”
    Of course, fielding a grounder (or is that an “icer”?) on skates proved challenging. In the 1920s, an Iowa City newspaper ran a cartoon of an infielder in freefall after racing forward to catch a hard-hit line drive. The accompanying caption read, “Baseball on ice would be a great game if somebody would invent a perfect brake for skates.”
    Difficulties also arose from sharing the ice with other sportsmen. In 1916, for example, two clubs in Brockton, Massachusetts, suspended their match early. A local newspaper reported, “The game was called by Umpire Walsh at the end of the fifth inning because the ball, the only one within two miles of the pond, was knocked into the water on the fly and went under the ice. A careless fisherman had left open the hole through which the ball disappeared.”
    In preparing for the Fair Plays’ first base ball on ice match last year, Historical Society of Talbot County curator Beth Hansen enlisted the help of baseball historian Peter Morris. At the time, he was awaiting the release of his second book on early baseball, entitled But Didn’t We Have Fun: An Informal History of Baseball’s Pioneer Era, 1843-1870 (2008). Hansen had noticed a reference to baseball on ice in Morris’ first book. In the 1860s, Morris observed that runners were not permitted to overrun first base. He then cited a source indicating that the rule allowing the base runner to overrun the base without risking being tagged out evolved from base ball on ice. Lacking a brake for skates, players found it difficult to stop on a dime on the base paths, so skaters were permitted to glide past first and remain safe. The practice eventually migrated from the winter to the summer game.
    Beyond the evolution of a specific rule, however, base ball on ice illustrates an important theme for Morris. The majority of baseball historians concentrate on the evolution of professional baseball beginning after the Civil War, paying scant attention to the earlier amateur era. By contrast, Morris notes that most members of the pioneer generation of baseball possessed neither the talent nor the desire to participate in the professional game. Yet a significant number of them continued to play. Historians concentrating on professional leagues, pennant races and statistics largely ignore their stories.
    Most pioneers had little interest in statistical abstractions and had a hard time seeing the professional game as the legitimate heir to the one they knew. Morris observed, “The game they remembered had been inclusive, but professional baseball was highly exclusive, without a place for the men who had built baseball.” Most of all, the pioneers viewed the obsession with winning and the tyranny of the rulebook as producing a mirthless competition. In short, their cherished game had evolved to the point where there was no joy in Mudville or anywhere else.
    In response, an alternative to the professional game evolved. Morris notes that the amateurs staged no organized rebellion. Their vehicle for reviving the older spirit and practice of base ball was the “muffin game.” Several years ago, I introduced Tidewater Times readers to the muffins. These early baseball players loved the game but their enthusiasm far outstripped their innate talents. In the parlance of the 1860s, if you committed an error, it was a “muff.” Continued miscues branded you as a “muffin.” To allow these members to play, early base ball clubs staged “muffin matches” with each side fielding nine inept starters.
    In the years following the Civil War, muffin games became all the rage. Morris points out this was not due to any national organization. These matches “spread organically, propelled by the exuberance and enthusiasm they inspired.” They communicated the simple but powerful message that base ball could still be played for fun. Moreover, everybody could play. As Morris expressed it, “Of course you can play in a muffin game. You couldn’t possibly not be good enough.”
    Muffins parodied the excesses of professional baseball, disputing umpires’ calls to illustrate its argumentative nature. They produced ridiculously long lists of rules that players promptly forgot and paraded onto the field in comical displays, presenting each other with inscribed badges to mark the august occasion. They also restored older customs, such as the post-game banquet, to a place of prominence.
    In short, Morris concluded that the muffins reminded us that there is “no reason for anyone to be left out, that almost anything might happen in the course of the game, and that the one thing we should be able to take for granted is that everyone will have a good time.”
    Morris noted that the muffin tradition of fun on the baseball diamond has carried through into the 21st century. He points to the great barnstorming teams of the 1930s, such as the House of David club from a religious colony in Michigan with its longhaired, bearded players. During the Great Depression, the town team in Danvers, Massachusetts, played three barnstorming clubs—the Intercollegiate Clowns, the Georgia Chain Gang and the Pittsburgh Hobos. All were uniformed in keeping with their names.
    The Hobos, for example, arrived in town in a boxcar and then marched to the baseball field. They claimed to be “poor little rich boys” who had been reduced to playing baseball for a living after losing everything in the stock market crash. Their double play combination read something like Ford to Vanderbilt to Rockefeller. The Danvers Town Team won the game in extra innings when Marshall Field dropped an outfield fly.
    Spectators at barnstorming games came to see good baseball but also to have fun. A reporter at one Intercollegiate Clowns game, for example, noted that the crowd was disappointed after the town team built an early lead and the Clowns reverted to playing “serious baseball.”
    Today, Morris considers friendly games at company picnics and vintage base ball matches as heirs to the muffin tradition. Among the latter, perhaps no club ranks higher than the Talbot County Fair Plays. They stand as the first vintage club created in Maryland and all evidence suggests that they have staged the first ever base ball on ice matches in the state. In 1916, a newspaper reporter observed regarding such matches, “It took the amateurs to put the thing over.” The Fair Plays and the Talbot County Parks and Recreation Department will continue their effort to spawn a second Frozen Golden Age of base ball on ice on March 21st. In keeping with muffin tradition, the one thing to take for granted is that everyone will have a good time.