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Baseball was a substitute for war

Library of Congress

This undated painting depicts Union prisoners of war playing baseball at a Confederate prison camp in Salisbury, N.C.

The men of the 165th New York Volunteer Regiment hardly seemed dressed for battle.

They wore tasseled fezzes, red balloon pants and white spats, along with ornamental cloth jackets, which made for a strange sight when they took the field at Hilton Head on Christmas Day 1862.

But that day, these Union soldiers weren't thinking about war -- just baseball. The Volunteers were facing members of the 47th and 48th New York Infantry Regiments, dressed in traditional Union blue, and the two sides soon commenced a spirited game that, by some accounts, was witnessed by more than 40,000 spectators.

It was an impressive crowd, even if some of them -- thousands of Confederate prisoners of war -- were not there voluntarily.

The results of the game are lost to history, but it played an important role in the development of America's pastime.

Today, former College of Charleston President Alex Sanders will present his essay, "Civil War Baseball," at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. His talk will be part of the hall's 23rd annual Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture.

Sanders thought in this Civil War sesquicentennial year, the connection between the war and baseball was a perfect topic.

"I have recently been drawn to the pivotal role played by the game of baseball in uniting America after the great conflict still known in the South as The War Between the States," Sanders said.

Baseball was still very much a developing sport when the war divided the nation. It was decidedly more popular in the Northern states, and many Southerners learned about the game watching Union soldiers play in Confederate POW camps. Soon both sides got into the game.

"It was played on both sides," Fort Sumter historian Richard Hatcher said. "It wasn't the game it is today in popularity, but it was one of many things soldiers did during long periods of inactivity."

One letter from a Union soldier recounts a game played by Northern troops on Folly Island one winter during the Siege of Charleston. The soldier jokingly wrote back home that his teammates hoped the Southerners wouldn't send their own ball into the game.

Such was life in a war zone.

On Baseball Almanac's website, Michael Aubrecht notes that games often were called on account of gunfire. One Union soldier, George Putnam, described a Confederate Infantry unit attacking a game.

"Suddenly there was a scattering of fire, which three outfielders caught the brunt; the centerfield was hit and captured, left and right field managed to get back to the lines," Putnam wrote.

"The attack ... was repelled without serious difficult, but we had lost not only our centerfield, but ... the only baseball in Alexandria, Texas."

Charleston plays a significant, if tenuous, role in baseball mythology. For many years, Abner Doubleday -- the U.S. soldier who fired the first shot in defense of the Union from Fort Sumter -- was credited with being the father of baseball. The staff at Fort Sumter has found no proof of the claim, however.

A 1905 commission created to determine the origins of the game ultimately credited Doubleday with creating the game in 1839 at Cooperstown. Baseball historians have since claimed that the commission's finding was based on the word of one unreliable witness.

Hatcher notes that Doubleday was a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point that year, and underclassmen did not get summer breaks.

Doubleday, who later wrote two books, never claimed any special association to baseball, even though some troops recalled him organizing games during long lulls between Civil War battles.

Despite a mountain of evidence against the claim, Hatcher said that people still ask about the Fort Sumter-baseball connection. One of the more popular theories is that home plate is shaped like Fort Sumter as homage to Doubleday's time at the fort. But that apparently is just another myth.

Baseball games broke out often throughout the war, often at prisoner camps. But perhaps the most symbolic game came just after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Va.

There, the Army of the Potomac played the Army of Northern Virginia, just to pass the time. The score doesn't survive, but at least there were no casualties.

"Baseball became a remarkable substitute for war," Sanders said in his essay. "As we enter upon the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the struggle continues for 'one nation, indivisible.' Unfortunately, Americans find they don't have much in common with each other.

"They don't have a common heritage, or a common race, or a common religion, or common dreams and ambitions or even a common language. Unlike the citizens of other countries, Americans have none of these things in common.

"The one single thing all Americans have in common to unite them is baseball."

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