Long Island's Fashion Race Course was jumping that cloudy and cool afternoon. A train with a wood-burning locomotive wheezed to a stop nearby, and a procession of carriages and omnibuses converged from all directions. Though Fashion was a horse track, the only horses in evidence were those pulling the carriages. The well-dressed crowd, which included a sprinkling of hoop-skirted ladies with parasols, wasn't there to watch the ponies run. Everyone had arrived to see the opening game of baseball's first "World Series," between Brooklyn and New York. The date: Tuesday, July 20, 1858.
That Series has received little attention from modern chroniclers of the game, and it is deserving of far more. The Fashion Course games of 1858—a best-of-three affair—were the first to pit the finest players of the time against each other; they were also the first baseball games to charge admission and the first to solicit attendance from the general public. By the time the Series was over, almost 15,000 people had made the trip to Fashion, record numbers for the game of baseball in those days.
The games were promoted by Henry Chadwick. a young English immigrant who had abandoned his first love, cricket, for a lifelong affair with baseball. In time he became the unofficial (and somewhat pontifical) Bowie Kuhn of his day, the ultimate authority on playing rules and longtime editor of the Spalding Baseball Guide. In 1858 he was a sports stringer for the Tribune, Brooklyn Eagle and New York Clipper (now Variety), in whose pages he fanned enthusiasm for an intra-city series.
Baseball in 1858 was still largely confined to the New York metropolitan area, and nine clubs, five in Manhattan and four in Brooklyn, were among the best. Because it was suspected that in any team-vs.-team confrontation the powerful Brooklyn Atlantics would easily win, all-star teams (they were called "picked nines") were selected. Neutral Fashion Race Course in Nassau County was the site chosen, though access from Manhattan wasn't easy. Fans had to take a small steam ferry from the foot of Fulton Street up the East River to a landing near what is now La Guardia Airport, then endure a bumpy train ride to the racetrack. Long Islanders traveled over dirt roads in carriages and omnibuses, some of the latter so large that they required 10-or 14-horse hitches.
The expense of renting the track and preparing a baseball diamond on the infield was the cause of the admission charge. Still, it is a reasonable guess that the sponsors of the Series neither expected nor wanted big, noisy crowds. The 50¬¨¬®¬¨¢ fee at a time when $1.65 a day was the average top wage for a skilled workman discouraged the "baser element," as did scheduling the games in midweek. Nevertheless, the turnout for the first game that Tuesday was an astonishing 4,000-plus.
The game was far less artistic than that played by today's highly skilled millionaires, though the principle was the same—to score more runs in nine innings than the other side. Baseball in 1858 resembled softball on a full-sized diamond. It was played bare-handed with a ball slightly larger than today's regulation ball. The pitcher tossed it underhand; his function was to dish it up and let the batters take their cuts. Fly balls caught on the first bounce were putouts, not that easy an achievement with a ball full of India rubber.
The lineups represented all the major clubs. The New York nine included two players each from the Knickerbockers, Eagles, Gothams and Empires, and one from the Unions. The Brooklyn team consisted of three Atlantics and two players each from the Excelsiors, the Eckfords and the Putnams. Brooklyn was a slight pregame favorite.
Brooklyn led 5-1 at the end of 2½ innings, but New York soon settled down behind Pitcher Will Van Cott and began to peck away at Brooklyn's Matty O'Brien. By the middle innings Brooklyn Catcher Joe Leggett had been charged with 11 passed balls; nevertheless, Brooklyn continued to stay in front. Then in the eighth inning, trailing 18-17, the New Yorkers scored five runs to take the lead for the first time in the game and they went on to win 22-18.
Sketchy accounts indicate that 27 putouts were flies caught on the first hop, which means there was some expert playing off the bounce on the '''loose, friable" outfield turf. The only home run of the Series was hit by Jack Holden. Brooklyn's slugging second baseman. Although the rivals were all amateurs, the homer earned Holden a princely $25. A fan of the Eckfords, Holden's home club, had wagered $100 that the second baseman would hit one out of the park, and figuring his hero would be inspired by a piece of the action, promised Holden $25 of the winnings. Holden had waited for just the right pitch (waiting out the pitcher was perfectly safe, because no balls or strikes were called, although extreme delaying tactics were considered unsporting) and hit a line drive to deep rightfield for the homer.
The game over, each team gave nine "huzzahs" for the other. "Then there was a waving of hats and handkerchiefs, shaking of hands and a general congratulation." Taking defeat graciously, the Brooklyns "smiled good-humoredly and hoped for better luck another day."
Another day came a month later, on Aug. 17. Threatening skies and showers failed to interrupt play, and attendance was about 5,000. Brooklyn took advantage of sloppy New York fielding to score six runs in the first inning and five in the third. The debacle continued. Final score: 29-8.
The rubber game was played Friday, Sept. 10, in ideal weather before a crowd of more than 5,000. New York exploded for seven runs in the first inning, led 7-2 after three and added eight more in the middle innings to hold a 15-6 lead at the end of six. Brooklyn scored 12 runs in the last three, but New York got 14, winning the game 29-18 and thus the Series. As in the first game, 27 of the putouts were flies caught on the first bounce.
Following the customary postgame courtesies on the field, the players, club officers and members adjourned to the committee room of the track's clubhouse, where a "collation" had been laid out, including plenty of champagne on ice. Oratory, punctuated by popping corks, grew eloquent as toasts were downed to everything and everybody connected with the Series. The boys even hoisted their glasses to the health of the umpire.