Such Tumbles, Such Collisions

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by Steve Sisto, February 2021

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Editor’s Note: The game of baseball was originally intended to be fun for the players, as well as the spectators. As such, early baseball variants included “bachelors v. benedicts” (single men v. married) contests, and baseball on ice. Another early variant was “fat” or “fat vs. lean” baseball. As early as 1858, “fat” and “lean” clubs are (more or less seriously) playing each other. In that vein, we present a great article from SABR member Steve Sisto about an early “fat mens” game, and how the local newspapers covered it.

On October 29, 1870, a baseball game like no other was played in the town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Billed in The Berkshire County Eagle as "Ten Thousand Pounds — The Heaviest Base Ball Club in the World," the game featured men from the town who weighed 200 pounds or more.1 The game, gimmicky as it was, proved to be a turning point for how local newspapers viewed baseball. Previously, most games were given a one-sentence blurb, such as: "The Haymakers of Lansingburg beat the Mutuals in a game of base-ball at Troy on Thursday, the score being 32 to 20" or "At a base-ball game played in this town on Saturday, between the Old Elm Club and the Williams College nine, the former victorious, 34 to 10," with lengthier recaps and box scores being exceptionally rare.2 With this game, however, both The Eagle and its crosstown rival, The Pittsfield Sun, published full-column write-ups, one of the few times that both papers printed accounts of the same game. Being that the two articles are different from each other suggests that the papers sent their own correspondents to cover the game instead of simply publishing accounts written by the teams themselves, which is what appeared to have happened previously.

The game was first promoted in the October 27 issue of The Eagle, promising "one of the most tremendous games of base-ball this or any other town ever saw." The article tried to play up the possibility of increased danger of heavier men playing baseball, mentioning that "a competent corps of surgeons will be on hand to render services in case of accidents. Admission to the game was 10 cents, 25 cents for carriages, with half of the proceeds going to Pittsfield's Old Elm Club and the other half to charity.

The players had a combined weight of 5,753 pounds, falling well short of the originally advertised "Ten Thousand Pounds." The average weight was 213 pounds, compared to the 2020 major league average of 210 pounds (the heaviest team was the Toronto Blue Jays at an average of 216 pounds), while the average age was 46 years old. Several of the men were no strangers to organized baseball, having played with local teams for multiple years. Kellogg and the two elder Plunketts, for example, were members of the Pittsfield Base Ball Club dating back to the 1850s, while the Root and West men had played for the Old Elm Club. The two captains were George Willis, who had 13 men on his team, and Ensign Kellogg, who had 12.3 Attempts were made to list the rosters and lineups for each team, but due to a lack of clarity in The Eagle's article, it became impossible to do so with complete accuracy. Local man W. H. Sloan was named umpire, and the scoring was done by J. D. Francis and H. A. Brewster. Willis, batting leadoff, stepped up to the plate for the first at-bat of the game, while Weller took the mound for Kellogg's squad. The weather was described by The Sun as "blustering, cold and uncomfortable as one could well endure," but even so, more than 800 spectators were said to be in attendance.4

As for each of the newspapers' accounts of the game, there were massive differences between their reporting. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to put it into modern broadcasting terms: The Eagle did the play-by-play while The Sun provided the color commentary. The former gave an inning-by-inning breakdown of each at-bat and run scored, whereas the latter wrote about the experience of watching heavyset, mostly middle-aged men gallop and frolic around the field. For example, here is how The Eagle summarized the first inning:

Willis was the first striker, and he, sending an astonishing daisy cutter to the left field, thundered down the path to the first base, where he breathed a minute, then tore away to second. Parker took the bat next but went out on a foul bound caught scientifically by Weller, Willis attempting to make his third when the ball was struck, was put out by Kellogg throwing to Campbell. W. R. Plunkett struck next, sending the ball well out and making the bases without hinderance. Munyan also struck well but was left at second by West, who went out on a foul bound taken by Weller. Plunkett made his tally. Side out. Kellogg took the bat amid the wildest cheers. But the pitcher made such bad work of it that it was impossible to hit the ball, so Kellogg went out without showing what he was really capable of. Francis followed him and got a first rate hit, but the junior Plunkett and Weller were left on bases by Clary and Smith going out to Willis, the catcher, the first on a foul bound and the second on three strikes. Francis made a tally and the score stood 1 to 1.6

Other than the use of the rarely used term "daisy cutter," nothing too fancy or superfluous about that description. Despite the fact that this was The Eagle's first detailed article about baseball, the paper succeeded in providing a clear account of the game, suggesting that the writer was knowledgeable about the sport. Meanwhile, this was from the article in The Sun:

Such tumbles, such collisions! … But collisions were nothing in the comical way in comparison with the queer gaits some of the solids took on in running the bases — or trying to run them; for success was just the reverse of an assured fact. And, after all, running the bases wasn't so funny by half as the insanely desperate efforts in chasing a scudding ball or catching it on a fly. And then, think of the momentum acquired by one of those huge masses in giving a vigorous stroke of the bat. You couldn't have told "Hale from a Brobdingnagian top, as he spun helplessly round after a prodigious effort of that kind. But we forbear -- or rather give up in despair of giving any adequate picture of this gigantic piece of fun, which was enjoyed as hugely by the players as by the spectators. We only regret that as the game proceeded and the green hands began to get initiated into its science, and a little practice warmed up the unaccustomed limbs, the play began to get too good, and the fun began to wane while the vulgar interest in winning increased.

Other than listing the final score, The Sun gives no details about the game itself, choosing to go a more entertaining route through jokes and anecdotes. That is not to say that The Eagle didn't also have fun in its reporting; read this description of a sixth inning home run by Kellogg:

Kellogg then rolled into position amid the breathless attention of the spectators. He closed his mouth hard shut; poised himself over the base in admirable attitude; tapped the ground impatient for a strike; struck, finally, with such force that he spun dizzily round half a dozen times with the club at arm's length, to the imminent danger of the shortstop and the catcher, and then started for first amid a shower of vest buttons. He rested a second at first and then went tearing round the bases and made a tally amid prolonged applause.

Some of the biggest highlights included back-to-back six-run innings by Kellogg's team to take the lead late in the game, followed by a valiant five-run inning by Willis' squad in the top of the eighth, which was the final inning. In the end, Kellogg's side came out on top, 16-12. Seventeen of the game's 28 total runs were scored in the last two innings, and there were only four half-innings with no runs scored. Francis, Moran, and William Plunkett led the scoring with three runs apiece. There were at least six home runs hit (the writing makes it hard at times to discern which runs were home runs and which were not.)

Following the game, the players met for dinner at Pittsfield's American House, which was owned by Cebra Quackenbush. When it came to eating, The Sun wrote, "Not a man of them was out of practice in that game." What's very interesting is how each paper reported on baseball in the years following this article. The Eagle continued to publish scores and detailed accounts, but also began writing about baseball from more of a news perspective as well. In 1871, for example, The Eagle had stories about a Massachusetts Senate bill to incorporate the Boston Base Ball Club and the Old Elm Base Ball Club's annual meeting.7 The Eagle also took a more personal involvement in baseball, writing in support of Pittsfield clubs, not dissimilar to how today's local news organizations report on their hometown teams. The Sun, on the other hand, didn't change its approach to baseball reporting immediately after the "Fat Mens' Base Ball Game, going back to printing nothing beyond one-liners about games. It wasn't until June 1877 that another in-depth article with a box score appeared in The Sun.8 The contributions of Henry Chadwick to the field of sports journalism are well documented and cannot be diminished, but it is quite fascinating to see how the rivalry between two small town papers also helped evolve the practice of baseball writing as far back as 1870.

__________ 1 The Berkshire County Eagle, October 27, 1870. 2 The Berkshire County Eagle, July 15, 1869; The Pittsfield Sun, June 16, 1870. 3 Ensign H. Kellogg (1812-82) was a U. S. Congressman. George S. Willis (1810-80) founded the local gas company. 4 "The 200 Pounder Base Ball Play," The Pittsfield Sun, November 3, 1870. 5 Civil War veteran Israel Casey Weller (1840-1900), who owned a tannery in Pittsfield. 6 "The Big Base Ballists," The Berkshire County Eagle, November 3, 1870. 7 The Berkshire County Eagle, March 16, 1871; The Berkshire County Eagle, April 6, 1871. 8 "Base Ball — Buckeyes vs. Pittsfields," The Pittsfield Sun, June 27, 1877.