PostHeaderIcon Who brought baseball to California?

AzariahSmithIt is a simple journal entry by Mormon Battalion member Azariah Smith. After spending most of 1846 struggling along the long, 1,900 mile road from Council Bluffs, near what is now Omaha, Nebraska, through the territory we know as Kansas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and after arriving in southern California, near San Diego, Smith recorded in his diary early in 1847 how he and some fellow soldiers chose to entertain themselves:


Sunday March the 6th. We drilled as before and through the day we play ball and amuse ourselves the best way we can. It is very cool weather and clothing scarce.

“Ball,” of course, likely meant baseball or some form of the game. There was simply no other game that was called “ball.” While it is conceivable that Smith meant something different, as we saw in my post on Joseph Smith and baseball, “ball” was the common name for baseball, only rarely referring to something else, and the Mormons in Nauvoo, and on the Missouri frontier played baseball.

Smith, who joined the Mormons at 11 years of age in Ohio in 1839, could have easily been one of those who played ball with the Prophet. We don’t know where the Mormons of the late 1830s and the 1840s learned how to play baseball, nor do we know for sure that Azariah Smith learned the game in Nauvoo. He may have played baseball or seen it played earlier, before his family left Ohio.

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Of course, while Smith has apparently the first recorded reference to baseball in California, another group of Mormons could have brought the sport to California.

Traditionally, the origin of baseball is attributed to New York, and the first formal rules of baseball were drawn up by the New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in 1846. The founding members of the club began playing baseball in 1842 in Manhattan, and by 1846 had run out of suitable fields on Manhattan and had moved to playing on the Elysian Fields in Hoboken twice a week. Prior to this organized leagues developed to play earlier versions of baseball in Philadelphia and in Camden, New Jersey.

But the Knickerbocker club wasn’t the only user of Elysian Fields. A newspaper article of August 1844 reports the following:

Pic Nic at Hoboken

This recherche little pleasure meeting came off on Tuesday last—at 10 o’clock, some thirty or forty saints met at Canal street Ferry, prepared to enjoy themselves and as the boat bore them across the river, the air resounded with the glorious songs of Zion. After arriving at Hoboken, they proceeded to the “Elysian Fields,” marching to the time of some favorite hymn. We never witnessed such a bevy of cheerful countenances as was displayed on this occasion—every one giving their mite for the happiness of the whole. We have been on many pleasure parties, but never saw so much unity. Not a single circumstance occurred during the whole day to mar the harmony of the scene. There were several that had not yet taken upon themselves the name of Jesus, who resolved that they would investigate Mormonism, because a religion that would produce such harmony and good feeling, must be of God.

The proprietors of the cottage that sheltered us during the half-hour it rained, deserve our thanks for their kind attention—and while mntioning those who administered to our comfort on that day, we would not forget Mr. Mrs. and Miss A., whose well stored basket came in good play—nor would we forget Brother B., whose humor added much to the pleasures of the day.

As this little affair has gone off so well, we would propose one on a more extensive scale. A great union of saints, say some three weeks hence. Come Sisters, will you not assist us in getting up one.

The New York branch was therefore no stranger to Elysian Fields, also the site of the first regular baseball field, in use by September 1846. When were games first played there? We don’t know. It could easily have been before 1844, and branch members could have easily seen games, or even pick up the rules that Alexander Cartwright and the Knickerbockers published in late 1845.

Many of the saints in New York, along with members from the region, including Philadelphia and Camden, purchased tickets on the ship Brooklyn, which left the first week of February in 1846. The Brooklyn arrived in Yerba Buena, California (now San Francisco) on July 31, 1846 and briefly made Mormonism the principal religion in the town.

Did any of the 238 Mormon passengers on the Brooklyn play baseball? Could the game have been been played in San Francisco in the seven months before Azariah Smith played it in San Diego?

We may never know, of course. I don’t know how many records and accounts exist covering San Francisco during those seven months. I assume there aren’t many. If not, then there simply may not be any record of anyone playing “ball.” Or, it could be, that no one has ever looked.

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