Talking Base-Ball: The 1866 World Series

1866, baseball, brooklyn, philadelphia, athletics

Decades before the Yankees and Cardinals tried to trademark the term “baseball dynasty,” there was the Brooklyn Atlantics. From 1859-1870, the Atlantics dominated the amateur-only[1] National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP), winning seven league championships. They won the first officially recognized American baseball championship in 1859. They won 3 more pennants even as the Civil War raged.

The Atlantic Base Ball Club of Brooklyn was so good, even when they lost, they still won. Case in point: the 1866 World Series[2].Today, baseball glows with a gentlemanly sheen, a game of rules written and unwritten[3]. In 1866, though, rules sat in perpetual flux, changing year-to-year and sometimes game-to-game. NABBP rules even allowed for “House Rules” at each team’s field.

The process of declaring a “Champion” was muddled and unclear. There were no set schedules and teams often played differing numbers of games. The NABBP relied on a boxing-style challenge system to determine the best teams: a team beating the #2 ranked team would gain that ranking[4]. A series at season’s end between the #1 and #2 ranked teams determined a champion.

Non-uniform scheduling and ladder seeding often saw the NABBP’s best teams sitting idle at season’s end. This was the case in 1866: the Morrisania (NY) Union, though owners of the league’s second-best record, lost out on a championship berth by virtue of a loss to the undefeated Philadelphia Athletics. In the Union’s stead, the Brooklyn Atlantics, the previous season’s champion and owners of a respectable 17-2 record, earned a postseason invite.

The first of three games pitting NABBP #1 Philadelphia and #2 Brooklyn was scheduled for October 2, 1866 in the City of Brotherly Love.

That game was never played. To quote the New York Times’ account of the would-be match: “The Philadelphia police were either so defective, or the populace of that provincial town displayed so little decency, that the grounds were broken in upon, and the match of necessity was postponed.[5]

Accounts indicate up to 50,000 fans overwhelmed the Philadelphia Athletic Grounds. The Philadelphia Inquirer described “the surging mass of humanity [swaying] to and fro like a ripe wheat field in a high wind.” The game actually started as scheduled (itself a small miracle as the first pitch of NABBP games were often delayed up to an hour past the posted time), and the Athletics quickly jumped out to a 2-0 lead.

However, with Brooklyn batting in the bottom of the first[6], Philadelphia fans, eager to see the action, smothered the field of play. “Fences were broken, guard lines snapped asunder, and a scene of indescribable confusion ensued.” And counter to what the New York Times described above, the Inquirer reported “no rowdyism and no ill nature [were] exhibited.”

Despite the efforts of a bat-wielding mob to clear the field, Philadelphia’s appointed Umpire eventually called the game. The NABBP decided to reschedule for the following Monday at Brooklyn, with a second game back in Philadelphia the week after.

Game 1 of the 1866 World Series finally occurred at Brooklyn’s Capitoline Grounds on October 15[7], before a crowd of 20,000. City officials took every precaution to ensure there would be no repeat of the scene in Philadelphia:

“[Police] Superintendent Folk will be in command of a force of 100 picked men on the occasion, and with clubs for trumps, he is bound to win the game.[8]

Even under threat of police brutality, reports indicate the Long Island street urchins had a heyday stealing unattended buggies and carriages. It’s baseball just like grandpa used to talk about. Cordoned by the thin blue line, the Atlantics and Athletics started their long-awaited game shortly after 1 pm.

Multiple, exhaustive records of the game exist, but my personal favorite ran in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Paper on November 3, 1866:

“Suffice it to say that the Atlantics led a little from the start, seeming to have ‘luck’ a little with them, as well as playing with spirit, but no discouraging prospect for their opponents opening until the seventh inning, when the Atlantics, having scored twelve to the Athletics’ eleven, added the heavy figure of eight too the score, and made the balance up-hill for the Philadelphians.[9]

Brooklyn trounced the previously-unbeaten Philadelphia Athletics by a score of 27-17.

Though the NABBP Championship was meant to be 3 games, the cancellation of the first game meant sudden-death for Philly. Remember, these are boxing-style rules: if you want to be the champ, you’ve got to put the old champ down on the mat. Ties were for women and sissies.

So, even when Philly clubbed Brooklyn 31-12 in game 2, the resulting tie gave the title back to the reigning champion Atlantics.

The NABBP’s undisputed top team lost the championship on a tie. I’m trying to imagine what Earl Weaver would say, but sadly, most of it is unfit for polite company.

The Morrisania Union Club–owners of the league’s second-best record–challenged the Atlantics to a winner-take-all tilt, but, no big surprise, the Atlantics politely declined.

So it happened that the 1866 Brooklyn Atlantics won the World Series despite losing their last game of the season. Of Brooklyn’s seven NABBP championships, only four times (1859, 1864, 1865 and 1869) did they finish in the top two for win percentage. That’s the kind of baseball dynasty the Yanks and Cards can only dream of: even when the Atlantics lost, they still won.


[1] Though league rules prohibited paying players, reports suggest it was a rule widely broken.
[2] I’m using the term “World Series” with heavy anachronistic license. Though the first official “World Series” wasn’t played until 1903, the term has ten times the panache of “NABBP Challenge-Format Championship Match.”
[3] Just ask a Cardinals fan, I’m sure they’ll enumerate every last “unwritten rule.”
[4] Which, thinking about it, isn’t too dissimilar from College Football’s regular season.
[5] This is either extreme myopia or the pot calling the kettle black. Just a few years previous, the Atlantics, trailing the Brooklyn Excelsior 6-8 in the deciding third game of the NABBP Championship Series, saw its own fans pour onto the field, halting the game. Instead of awarding the game, and championship, to Excelsior, the NABBP called the game a draw and named the Atlantics League Champion by virtue of their being the previous year’s champion. The Grey Lady’s man could be unaware of the 1860 Excelsior-Atlantics debacle, but it seems more likely, given his colorful verbiage, he’s just being a jerk.
[6] The rule dictating home get last bat wouldn’t come until later. In 1866, team order was decided by the pregame flip of “a penny.”
[7] Why the game was again postponed from the 9th to the 15th, I can find no record of.
[8] From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper [New York, New York] 20 Oct. 1866: 78. At this point, it should be eminently clear I simply enjoy quoting the colorful prose of yesterday’s sportswriters.
[9] It’s clear the reporter here has absolutely zero clue what baseball even is and is merely describing the box score.

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