The Story of George Thompson’s 1823 Find -- "Base Ball" in NYC!

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by George Thompson, January 2013

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Twenty-five years ago or thereabouts, I was feeling bored and frustrated. The solution? Travel. But I was burdened by a job, and by having no money. (I know that Thoreau thought that having no money was liberating, but he was a crank.) The next-best solution? Time-travel. And so I set forth.

My favorite destination was New York City in the 18th & 19th centuries. My vehicle, most of the time, was a newspaper. Sometimes I would travel by diary, or by a collection of letters, and occasionally through a novel. With experience, I came to prefer the period between 1750 and 1850.

One evening in the spring of 2001, when I had taken the National Advocate back to April, 1823, I came upon The Paragraph That Made Me Famous. The Paragraph was a letter to the editor, saying that the writer had just come from watching a group of active young men playing the manly and athletic game of base ball.

I supposed that this was an important find, and the next morning I called the Hall of Fame, and spoke to someone who assured me that indeed it was. Since the game had been played on what had been a rich guy's country estate, on the west side of Broadway, between Washington Place and 8th street, a spot that several hundred thousand New Yorkers pass every day -- it's true that many of them pass it underground, but still . . . -- I supposed that the New York Times would be interested.

I made a couple of ineffectual tries at getting the Times's attention, then gave the problem to the office of public relations where I was then working. Before long I was talking with a young reporter named Edward Wong. (A few years later, he was reporting from the field in Afghanistan -- there must have been days when he wished he was back in New York, talking with an addled old librarian about the prehistory of baseball. When he came to see me a second time, and then a third, I began to think that when the story came out, it would be more than what I had been hoping for, a paragraph or two somewhere on the pages of local news.

The story appeared on Sunday, July 8, 2001, on the front page, and above the fold! “Above the fold” will mystify the youth of today, but back then, all newspapers put on the front page the stories the editor thought were the most interesting, to lure people into putting down their money and taking up the paper. But a broadsheet like the Times sits on the newsstand folded so that only the top half of the front page is visible, so for a story to be above the fold is an additional distinction. Do I need to explain to the youth of today what a newsstand used to be? I was looking at the paper in astonishment, over breakfast, when the telephone rang: a reporter from the United Press, to get their version of the story. Then a call from a local television station, then a radio station. I had to go to my library and meet a camera crew from a television station that wanted to show their viewers the actual microfilm reader I had found The Paragraph on. A sports-talk show from Cincinnati called. The broadcaster asked what newspaper had carried The Paragraph. I said, the National Advocate. He said, "Woa, the National Advocate? I've never even heard of the National Advocate!" I thought, you and 280 million other Americans. The BBC called, and not a sports-talk show, either, where Nigel calls to vent about his cricket team. They put me on hold until my time slot came up, and I heard the story that was the lead into my story: a discussion of the Kyoto Accord. Meanwhile, the Times distributed three versions of its original story to subscribers to its news service: the full original version, a shorter version, and a much shorter version. Between the Times's network and the United Press, the story reached a newspaper in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, among many others.

So I was famous for about 72 hours, before being allowed to sink back into obscurity. Actually, I was only present for the first 48 hours, having long had a ticket to fly to Iceland and Norway. On the George Thompson’s Startling 1823 Find, concluded airplane, the stewardesses passed out newspapers. I chose the International Herald Tribune. My story was on the front page, though I don't remember now whether it was above the fold. Meanwhile, back in New York, my son, who I was sharing an apartment with, took the last straggling telephone calls and impersonated me, giving interviews and explaining where it left Abner Doubleday.

An odd quirk to all this was that the spring evening when I found The Paragraph was probably the third time I had looked at that issue of the Advocate. A few years before I had written a book on the "African Theatre", an all-black theatre company active in New York between 1821 and 1823, and the Advocate had been by far the best source of information on it. So certainly I had gone through it once before, and probably twice, while researching the theatre. But then I learned that another small theatre had run into problems similar to ones that had helped break up the African Theatre, but its problems had landed in court, and the editor of the Advocate had testified. Surely, he must have reported on the trial, in detail. He hadn’t, not a word, but in hunting through his paper for some mention, I came upon The Paragraph.

— George A. Thompson

That 1823 Paragraph

“I was last Saturday much pleased in witnessing a company of active young men playing the manly and athletic game of ‘base ball’ at the (Jones’) Retreat in Broadway [on the west side of Broadway between what now is Washington Place and Eighth Street]. I am informed they are an organized association, and that a very interesting game will be played on Saturday next at the above place, to commence at half past 3 o'clock, P.M. Any person fond of witnessing this game may avail himself of seeing it played with consummate skill and wonderful dexterity.... It is surprising, and to be regretted that the young men of our city do not engage more in this manual sport; it is innocent amusement, and healthy exercise, attended with but little expense, and has no demoralizing tendency.” -- The National Advocate, April 25, 1823, page 2, column 4,
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