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McHistory: Baseball ban a dark day for some in Bloomington

A sketch of a 19th century schoolhouse in Bloomington.
Ken Kashian
McLean County Museum of History
The yard at the Fifth Ward school was one of the few open spaces suited to play baseball in the mid to late 1800s in Bloomington.

The Major League Baseball playoffs are once again making October a special time. But baseball was not always here to root for and entertain us.

Bloomington has a rich history of baseball.

Charles ‘Old Hoss’ Radbourn was a 19th century pitcher, who won a still-record 60 games in a season for the Providence Grays. He pitched all three games in the 1884 World Series to win the championship. Radbourn also is the first known professional athlete to be photographed flipping the bird at someone, in a team photo. He played 12 years in the early major leagues. In later life, he ran a saloon in Bloomington.

Clark "The Old Fox" Griffith grew up in Bloomington, and later played for the St. Louis Browns, Chicago White Stockings, and Boston Reds. Griffith later owned the Washington Senators and helped organize the American League.

A lesser light from Bloomington was pitcher Jack Powell, a woulda-coulda-shoulda-been a Hall of Famer.

Charles 'Old Hoss' Radbourn of Bloomington won a major league record 60 games in 1884 for the Providence Grays.
McLean County Museum of History
McLean County Museum of History
Charles 'Old Hoss' Radbourn of Bloomington won a major league record 60 games in 1884 for the Providence Grays.

But before that, Bloomington had a relationship with baseball that at times was distinguished, and at other times cranky.

“When it comes to the earliest history of baseball, we see references in the 1850s first, interestingly, to the English game of cricket, another bat and ball game,” said McLean County Museum of History librarian Bill Kemp. “We also see references to ‘town ball,’ an early New England bat and ball game.”

The first known reference to baseball is June 20, 1857.

“The Base Ball club was out last night in good force. The playing was very spirited and was kept up as long as there was light enough to see the ball. This fine game is becoming popular among the men of our town,” stated a story in The Pantagraph newspaper.

In the early days, Kemp said, the words base and ball were always separated.

The Civil War helped popularize the game throughout the North. Before the Civil War, the game was primarily played in larger cities in the east. But regiments mixed, and the game spread.

“We see it in letters of the 94th Illinois Infantry Regiment, privates, and others. The game of baseball is being played by these Illinois infantrymen as they campaigned in the deep south after the war,” said Kemp.

Two months after Appomattox and the beginning of the end of the Civil War, on May 22, 1865, the Bloomington baseball club organized. They were not paid athletes, instead primarily middle-class men who wanted to get some exercise and fresh air and enjoy the benefits of a social club.

“The Bloomington baseball club is considered by 1867, two years after its organization, as one of the better baseball clubs in all of Illinois, challenging the vaunted Chicago Excelsior,” said Kemp.

Yet sensibilities began to turn against the game, said Kemp. The McLean County Agricultural Society had a fairground on the west edge of the city, and tired of young men playing baseball on Sunday, which was illegal, it threatened prosecution. The Pantagraph editor called baseball played on the courthouse square an “unendurable nuisance.” Broken windows were a problem. So was profanity and vulgarity.

“A person might think, listening to some of our baseball clubs while playing, that swearing was necessary to the play,” wrote the newspaper.

“Gambling is also associated with baseball. So is the consumption of liquor. Complaints center on the Fifth Ward school grounds, which are the official grounds of the Bloomington baseball club and one of the only open areas in the city limits of Bloomington,” said Kemp.

Though the game already was being called the national pastime, the Bloomington City Council banned baseball, except for students playing during school hours. The 1867 resolution required fines of $1-$10 for offenders.

“Athens was no less renowned for her gymnasium than for her Academy, no less famous for her soldiers than for her scholars. While we may feel proud of the enthusiasm that our citizens are infusing in the work of our mental and moral education, we cannot but feel ashamed of the discouragement we receive of our physical education,” wrote a member of the club in protest of the ban on Aug. 14, 1867.

The writer referred to the game as taking "a little free and healthful exercise," and implied a less pleasant consequence of the ban.

“If we wish any recreation or diversion from our business and studies, we must either go out into the country or take it in a licensed saloon. So far, the Bloomington Base Ball Club has preferred to go into the country," stated the letter. “Our citizens are aware that the Bloomington club comprise the best young men in the city and their game of Base Ball deters young men from seeking amusement in an immoral way.”

The mayor of Bloomington at the time was, in fact, a member of the club.

“Mayor E.H. Rood proposed amending the ban and moving to exempt ... ‘organized’ clubs. Obviously, the Bloomington club would not be part of this. The city council shot this down by a vote of two to seven. Such was the animosity, generally speaking, toward the game,” said Kemp.

The Bloomington club limped along for another year or two, making its way back to the west side fairgrounds. Eventually, the game was welcomed back into the city after cooler spirits prevailed. But the first formal baseball parks and ball fields were not established inside city limits until the 1880s.

McHistory is a co-production of WGLT and the McLean County Museum of History.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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