One hundred forty-nine years ago, two teams made up of members of the Union Army faced off against each other in a Christmas Day baseball game in Hilton Head, South Carolina. The Civil War is widely credited as having been a factor in spreading baseball across the country, and historical records exist for a number of the games played during the war — Baseball Almanac notes at least five in 1862 alone. The Christmas Day game was probably the best-attended game of the war, perhaps one of the best-attended games of the 19th century. But we don’t know that for certain, or indeed much of anything about the game, not even its final score.
One reason for the confusion is the unreliable source at the heart of the story. The game’s most famous player was A.G. Mills, the namesake of the Mills Commission, which established Abner Doubleday as the “founder” of baseball and Cooperstown as its birthplace on the basis of virtually no evidence. Mills played in the game when he was an 18-year old private with the New York Volunteers, as James Mallinson of SABR writes. Mills later became a lawyer who helped established many of the league rules that banned teams from raiding each other’s players and strengthened player contracts. The Mills Commission itself was created as a force for patriotic propaganda, to establish as fact that baseball was invented in America, not in England, and Mills freely admitted he had no factual basis for Cooperstown as baseball’s birthplace: “None at all, as far as the actual origin of baseball is concerned.”
So who played in this game? As Laura Nahmias of Hilton Head’s Island Packet newspaper writes, both teams were made up of New Yorkers, one team consisting of members of the 165th New York Volunteer Infantry, and the other made up from the 47th and 48th New York Infantry Regiments. That’s no surprise: if New York wasn’t the absolute birthplace of baseball, it’s certainly its spiritual home. The first officially recorded baseball game was between Alexander Cartwright’s New York Knickerbockers and the New York Nine in 1846, and it took place at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, just across the river from what we now know as the the Meatpacking District. The Knickerbockers got pounded 23-1, but their rules — baseball’s first rulebook — became adopted as the standard rules for baseball.
As Nahmias writes, the soldiers’ uniforms were brilliantly colored: while the Infantry wore blue, “The 165th players wore a distinctive uniform — red balloon pants, ornamental cloth jackets, white spats, and fezzes with blue tassels.” This distinctive uniform reinforced their unusual nickname: Second Duryea’s Zouaves. The term “Zouaves” originated in the French Army in the early 19th century, and came from Berber soldiers recruited in Algeria. Civil War Zouaves tended to be volunteers, and they pretty much just liked the uniforms. Especially the fezzes. (Personally, I think baseball would be improved immeasurably if more players wore fezzes with blue tassels.) “Duryea” referred to Abram Duryee, or Duryea, who commanded the Fifth New York Volunteers, a group of Zouaves; his example led some to name the Zouaves of the 165th after him, hence “Second Duryea.”
Different sources have said that as many as 40,000 people — including Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners — attended the Christmas game in 1862, such as amateur historian Michael Aubrecht:
I am fully confident with the proposed number of “40,000,” as various sources have reinforced it… The Sands Of Time, A History of Hilton Head Island, by Hilton Head resident and historian Margaret Greer, states: “In November, 1861, after surviving a hurricane off Cape Hatteras… Union Forces alone reached over 50,000 on the Island.”
Therefore, during Federal occupation, the population at Hilton Head swelled to well beyond its normal capacity. As was customary, Christmas would have been celebrated and acknowledged by the military forces; and baseball would have provided suitable entertainment for a large mass of people. I would assume that anyone who could have attended the festivities would have. A crowd of 40,000 would have still left 10,000 troops ‘on duty.’
When examining the Hilton Head area—including Fort Howell, Fort Walker, and Fort Mitchell one quickly realizes that the open beach or inland area would have been the best space on which to play baseball, and the surrounding dunes may have provided the best ‘seats’ to observe it.
But other sources say 10,000, due both to contemporaneous reports and to discomfort with Mills’s habit for exaggeration. Peter Morris, arguably the most-respected historian of early baseball, is convinced that the larger number is “preposterous.” Even if it was only ten thousand, that’s an impressive showing, considering that the first professional baseball game in New York City, which took place at the Polo Grounds in 1880, drew just a fraction as many, somewhere over 2,000 fans. But then, the baseball fans in Hilton Head, or cranks, as they called them then, were much more of a captive audience. (Please pardon the prisoner pun.)
What’s the truth? We’ll probably never know. In no other American professional sport are the origins so thoroughly prehistoric, and it’s honestly probably better that way. Like the origins of Christmas itself — a holiday celebrating a prophet whose known teachings number a few red-colored words, and whose teenage life is utterly unknown — baseball is shrouded in belief, love, and mystery, which is so much more romantic than certainty, like the way we know for certain that James Naismith invented basketball with peach baskets in a gym in 1891. Now that we have batted ball data, Pitch f/x, and soon will have unlocked all the secrets of Field f/x, there are no new myths being created in baseball. Fortunately, there’s no end to old ones.
A very merry Christmas and happy holidays to all.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.