‘A female goose came on the ground': New book examines baseball’s emergence in Illinois
Author and historian Robert D. Sampson came across a number of odd and humorous stories as he researched the early days of baseball in Illinois for his latest book.
One of the more memorable accounts comes from a newspaper report of a Peoria team facing an opposing squad in Bloomington in 1866.
“All sorts of stuff gets into the stories, and this case, in the third inning of this game it was interrupted ‘when a fat Englishman in the crowd persistent in getting in the way, at this state of the game create a disturbance.’ So some ample-bodied fellow who apparently was an English immigrant walked onto the field in the middle of the game and caused a disruption and they had to get him off the field.
“But the problems weren't over because in the fifth thing, ‘a female goose came on the ground and waddled towards the shortstop as if to take his place.’”
Fortunately, a line drive from Peoria’s captain, M.A. Stearns — a significant figure in the sport’s history in this area — chased the goose from the field. “But this sort of stuff is not uncommon in the game stores,” said Sampson, editor of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.
Sampson spent 10 years poring over newspaper clippings to write “Ballists, Dead Beats, and Muffins: Inside Early Baseball in Illinois.” Ballists was the common term for the players, “Dead Beats” was an unusually named team from Centralia, and “Muffins” …
“Muffin was slang for a poor player, so they would create teams — like heavyweight teams (where) you had to be over 200 pounds to play on the team,” said Sampson. “Of course, they were ripping out their uniform pants and falling down and it was just all in good fun. People really, in some ways, enjoyed those games more than the more competitive games against the town clubs.”
Sampson said a handful of “base ball” teams sprung up around the state in the late 1850s, but the Civil War stunted the fledgling game’s growth.
“But when people started coming back in the summer of 1865, it got a toehold. Then it really exploded in between 1866 and 1868 (with) over 1,000 teams, the vast majority of those outside the city of Chicago,” he said.
Sampson said Peoria and Pekin were among those 1,000 teams, and Stearns had an instrumental role in Peoria.
“He was apparently an Army recruiter who was assigned to Peoria for a couple of years. There was a Peoria team in 1865 called the Olympics, and for whatever reason they had fallen apart,” said Sampson. “So in 1866, Stearns leads an effort to reorganize, revive — whatever you want to call it — that team.
“There was also a team in Pekin called the Celestials. They seemed to play mostly against Peoria, and quite frequently beat them, the Peoria team. The Olympics wasn't all that good as it turned out, but a lot of teams had that problem.”
Sampson said Peoria also had a distinction as home to a team that took the name of a local business.
“When the Olympics began fading away, they combined with another team — it was maybe the Athletics — and they took the name of the Fort Clark Bakery, which was, I guess, a prominent business,” said Sampson. “The Peoria team is one of only two I found in Illinois that had a name associated with a business, the other being the Springfield Capitals, which took its name from the Capital Street Horse Railway.”
Sampson said while baseball experienced a major growth spurt in the 1860s, it also was embroiled with problems such as racial and gender discrimination, and gambling.
“I think the gambling was important because it led to a lot of controversies and unruly behavior, if you will, on the part of spectators,” he said. “Now, that did not become a problem in the Peoria area, but in other parts of the state, gambling seem to bring out the worst in people.
“Tied with that was community rivalries. These towns, whether they be the size of Peoria or Farmington or other smaller places, they were competing for railroad connections. We see all these railroad tracks and assume they were always there. There's a story behind each of those rail lines — many of the ones that of course are now abandoned. So they're competing for that, they're competing for commercial advantage, they're competing for bragging rights, and these baseball teams become part of that. Suddenly, it becomes very important whether you win or lose. It’s not so much this ‘gentlemen’s game.’”
Sampson points out that in some communities, including Bloomington, the problems led to the game being banned within the city limits. He also notes that Black players were not allowed to play with white players under an 1867 rule adopted by the National Association of Base Ball Players, and that women who attempted to play encountered a lot of condescension.
“The game really reflected that world that existed between 1865 and 1870. But they really loved the game in those first few years,” said Sampson. “People would come out by the hundreds to watch these games.”
Sampson will speak about the book at the Washington Historical Society’s annual meeting on April 24.