Then & Now | A Whole New Ballgame

In a world saturated with sports (albeit mostly virtual nowadays) it is hard to envision a time when sport was simply a passion and a pastime rather than a mega-business. That was just the situation in Cleveland in the 1850s.

By the 1850s Cleveland had become a relatively prosperous city thanks to its transportation links – the canal, the lake, and a growing number of railroads. Harper’s Universal Gazetteer for 1855 referred to it as the “emporium of Northern Ohio.” With a population approaching 40,000 (it had just merged with Ohio City the previous year) it was creating a somewhat wealthy business class and a growing middle class, both of which had time for recreation.

One of the oldest sports, horse racing, became organized. The Cleveland Jockey Club, founded in 1850 sponsored both pacing and trotting races at an annual five day meet likely held at the Forest City Course located between what are now E. 9th and E. 14th street. But ownership of a fine horse was then, as now, an expensive proposition. But the 1850s also opened up other areas of somewhat more affordable recreation.

For the Scottish immigrant, curling was perfectly suited to a Cleveland winter and was first reported in the 1850s. The decade also brought the advent of the billiard hall, then and for many years a hangout of young men that would develop a rather dubious reputation.

And it was young men who shaped two of the most important sports to appear in the decade, rowing and baseball. Rowing grew nationally in popularity with the advent of the Harvard-Yale competition (itself mimicking the contests held by British universities). Three years after the first Harvard-Yale “regatta” in 1852 a group of Clevelanders formed the Ivanhoe Boat Club. Around that time another group of young men, some of whom were graduates of Cleveland’s Central High School (established in 1846 and the first high school west of the Appalachians) formed another club, the Ydrad rowing club. Fortunately for posterity the small minute book of the Ydrad club, led by “Captain” Marcus A. Hanna, is preserved at the Western Reserve Historical Society. The entries relate to fees for buying a boat and having “fun” that for March 30, 1862 includes the line: “Motion that the Club do as they did last summer i.e. go up to Rocky River and get drunk.” Increasing river traffic, pollution, and service in the Civil War, rather than inebriation would end this short period of rowing memories.

That minute book, however, also offers some clues to the most important sport to rise in Cleveland at that time. The back pages list the players for the Central High baseball team, among whom was Leonard Hanna, Mark’s brother. Early notices of ball playing turn up in the Cleveland newspapers of the 1850s. Cleveland, however seems to have been a bit late in truly adopting the game as it had already gotten a start and a set of rules laid down by Alexander Cartwright in New York City in 1845.  Interestingly, in that year a city ordinance banned “ball playing” on the Public Square but in 1856 it repealed the law.. Some hard evidence of arrival of the sport in Cleveland was a ball game reported on Public Square in 1857.. And, at the Ohio History Center there exists an ambrotype image of a ball diamond on the Square taken in that decade. In 1856, the sporting newspaper of the era, Spirit of the Times referred to the game as “The American National Game of Base Ball.”

The Civil War that followed only served to popularize the game. WRHS holds an image showing soldiers playing ball at Fort Pulaski. As the troops traveled, the game went with them and after the war it became more than just a game — it became an American passion.

Immediately after the War, in 1865, the city’s first organized amateur team, the Forest City Club of the Forest City Baseball Association was formed. Its first game – against the Penfields of Oberlin – resulted in a 67 to 28 loss. Its games were played on Case Commons located on Putnam (now E. 38th Street) between Central and Scovill. By 1868 the Club had 150 members and a decent record against other area teams. But it would shortly follow the move of the Cincinnati Red Stockings which went professional in 1869. The move to employ paid players resulted in the loss of many of Forest City’s amateur adherents who feared for the “purity” of the game.

Fielding a mixed team of professionals and amateurs, the Forest City team played its first professional game on June 2, 1869 against the Red Stockings. And, you probably guessed it… Cleveland lost by a score of 25 to 6.

Amateur baseball would continue to thrive in Cleveland up to the present, a reminder in its own way of the changes in sporting culture that took place in the city in the 1850s. But from then to now, the money has been “on” the professional game, whether it be baseball, football, hockey, basketball or any of a number of sports that excite fans and form the basis of a mega-billion dollar national “industry.” It is, indeed, a whole new ballgame.