When Greenpoint Won the World Series (Well, Sort Of)
It’s late October and all the baseball fans will be glued to the World Series. Homer Murray and other Cubs fans will go nuts if the Cubs finally win the world Series, but even many of the most passionate Greenpoint baseball fans are aware that a local team, the Eckford Club was the best team in America before the organization of professional baseball.
Organized in 1855, the Eckford Club won the national championship in 1862 and 1863 in the days when baseball was still an amateur sport. The players were shipwrights who worked in the shipyard of Eckford Webb, at the foot of Milton Street. Although they had little time to practice on account of the sixty-hour weeks they worked, the Eckford players succeeded nevertheless because shipbuilding made them incredibly fit and strong.
In 1860 The Eckfords were good enough to contend for the New York title. They faced the champion Brooklyn Atlantics. The Eckfords were leading the first game of the three game series going into the ninth inning when the Atlantics scored four in the ninth to win seventeen to fifteen. Fan interest grew and several thousand people showed up for the second game of the match. The Eckfords were losing nine to six in the fourth inning when Pigeon told them. Now, boys just think that you are playing a common club and forget that those fellows are the Athletics. The team went on to score four runs in the inning and won twenty to fifteen. Several thousand people came out to see the rubber game of the match, but the Eckfords sloppy fielding led to a twenty to eleven defeat. Even though they lost, the team had served notice that it was a force to be reckoned with.
Few teams played many baseball games in 1861 because of the outbreak of the Civil War, but in 1862 the Eckfords met the Athletics again for the championship. The game was played in the first-ever enclosed baseball ground, the Union Grounds in Williamsburg. The enclosed grounds allowed the teams to charge admission, but there was so much fan resistance to the idea of having to pay to see baseball that the gate receipts were given to charity.
The Eckford Club achieved its greatest glory during the Civil War. The Eckfords regularly drew crowds of up to fifteen hundred people and they finished the 1862 season with a fourteen and two record with a seven and one record against the top teams. The Eckford disposed of their New York rivals, the Mutuals of Manhattan setting up a championship series with the Philadelphia Athletics. The Eckfords won the first game of the October series twenty-four to fourteen, but lost the second game thirty-nine to five, setting up the decisive game of the series of October 18th. There was huge excitement surrounding the game and a record crowd showed up whose huge size frightened the heavily outnumbered police. The ten thousand fans that showed up were more than had ever watched a baseball game before. The police feared a riot that never occurred. The Eckfords won the championship game eight to three and a huge joyous crowd returned to the Mansion House to celebrate their victory.
1863 was the height of the Civil War, but it would prove to be the finest season the Eckfords ever had. They extended their winning streak to twenty games completing the season with a perfect record having seven wins without a loss against the top teams. They finished the season by again defeating the Athletics in a three game series, but the final game of the series had to be postponed until the Eckford’s pitcher could get leave from serving in the Union Army in the Civil War to come home to Brooklyn and win the series’ final game.
The Eckford team, though, would become a victim of the new sport’s success. Gambling and large gates doomed the amateur status of the sport. The team’s star, Frank Pigeon, was adamant in his conviction that baseball stay amateur. In an 1858 interview he wrote to the editor of the paper, The Spirit of the Times, “I suppose that you will admit that a man who does not pay his obligations, and has in his power to do some, is a knave and not fit to be trusted in a game of ball, or anything else; and if he has not the money, his time would be better spent in the earning the same than playing ball-business first, pleasure afterwards.”
Pigeon advocated amateur baseball, however, he was fighting a losing battle. Players began to inexplicably jump from one team to another. In reality they were lured by money under the table many teams now offered. The Eckfords made baseball history when their first baseman, Al Reach, jumped to the Philadelphia Athletics in 1864 openly admitting that he was paid to do so. He is considered the first fully professional baseball player.
In 1865 the Eckfords would be involved in a scandal that would foreshadow the Black Sox scandal that nearly ruined professional baseball. The Brooklyn Daily Times reported that the Eckfords beat the Mutuals with the help of professional gamblers who paid some of the Mutuals a hundred dollars to throw the game.
It was merely a question of time until the game became fully professional, which occurred in 1869 when the National Association was formed, but even before the formation of the pro league many of the Eckford’s best players had left lured by teams offering money.
The Eckford’s entered the league with amateur players and despite their obvious handicap had great initial success. In 1869 they won the New York title before losing to another team in the national championship. However, their best players wanted big money. One of the best players Jimmy Wood not only left for the Chicago White Sox, but also enticed many of the top players to leave with him. By 1872 the team folded. Today there is a huge case of gilded baseballs won by the Eckford Club sitting in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. There is also a monument to Al Reach who was inducted into the hall. Sadly, even here in Greenpoint, few people realized that local ball players wrote a glorious chapter in the history of our nation’s pastime.