Take Me Out to the Ball Game

by: John Stanton

photography by: Nantucket Historical Association

The game was introduced in the 1840s and 1850s, those years before the Civil War. But the seeds of baseball were planted during that war, blossoming when soldiers on both sides returned to their small towns and taught the game to their sons.

The famous line in the great baseball movie “Bull Durham,” which the character played by Susan Sarandon attributed to Walt Whitman, is that baseball “will repair our losses and be a blessing.”

The Knights of Columbus baseball team in 1929.

The game made it through World War II, even though some 500 major league players served overseas. But in this summer of the pandemic, the question is, will televised games from a league in South Korea, with the seats filled with cardboard cutouts of fans, be the best place to see baseball this season?

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has said that he fully expects baseball will return in 2020, but we will believe that when the first pitch is thrown.

On the July Fourth weekend of 1871, Yale played Harvard on Nantucket. What is said to be the first organized game with island players took place in 1875.

Under the simple headline, “Base Ball,” The Inquirer and Mirror wrote, “A very interesting and well-played game of base ball took place at the Agricultural Grounds on Saturday, between a nine composed of Nantucket boys and a picked nine. There was a large number of spectators, including many ladies. The first inning was quickly played, and resulted in two runs, one earned. The visitors then took the ash in hand and batted for five runs.”

The newspaper claimed there were “some very fine individual plays on both sides” in the seven-inning game. The final score was Nantucket 29, Visitors 25. Despite what people were reading in the newspaper, scores more suited to a football game rather than a baseball game indicated that there might not have been that many “fine individual plays.”

“Considering the players had never been on the field together before the game, it was very well played,” the story went on. “And with practice they would be exceedingly strong teams to beat, for the stock is there and only requires practice to bring about good results.”

Island baseball coaches commandeered some nautical phrases. In 1892, one game was described in the newspaper this way: “Spectators claim they could not think for the noisy coaching along the base lines. New phrases in connection with the game were heard. Baserunners were urged to ‘pull hard,’ and ‘lay off,’ and ‘drop your anchor.’ Batsmen were coached with, ‘It’s (the pitch) too far to port (or starboard),’ and the umpire kept the boys guessing.”

By 1907, the game was considered part of the summer season. Eventually, there were multiple ballparks around the island. Local rivalries were most often between teams from Nantucket and what was then known as Sconset Village. Teams also came from off-island.

“It seems quite likely that base ball will once again become a feature of the season’s amusements,” wrote the newspaper. “Rival nines are being organized and a series of match games may be looked for. As The Inquirer and Mirror stands for Sconset as well as Nantucket we must hold an editorial balance even between them. Games that were once played at the Fair Grounds will now be played at Brant Point. It means an added attraction to Nantucket’s season and will give a snap and interest to many of us, to what otherwise would be dull afternoons. Play Ball!” ///

John Stanton is a documentary filmmaker and story editor of Nantucket Today.