The photo of the 1867 Nationals of Albany on this web site shows a team unfamiliar to many who have studied the early days of baseball. There was a famous National Club from Washington, D.C., that undertook baseball’s first western tour in 1867, journeying throughout the Midwest and bringing top-flight baseball to areas where it was unknown. Albany’s Nationals were far less renowned, rarely ventured far from home and their main goal was to compete with the Albany Knickerbockers for supremacy of the city.
Albany, the capital of New York State, is located on the west bank of the Hudson River, approximately 140 miles north of New York City. In the first half of the 19th century, it was one of the 10 largest cities in the United States, but by 1860 as Americans moved west, it was no longer so ranked. In 1870, its population was approximately 69,000, with an economy centered on beer, banking, heavy industry and lumber. In 1865, there were roughly 4,000 sawmills in the Albany area.
The National Base Ball Club of Albany was formed May 6, 1864, with H.A. Carpenter as president. (Carpenter, still with the team in 1867, is holding the score book in the panorama photo above.) The club split six decisions in its first season and was much more active during the next two summers.
In 1865, the Nationals played 14 games on spikes and three on skates — a version of baseball that achieved a degree of popularity in the 1860s. Ice skating was all the rage during that decade, and was combined with baseball for a game in which the players donned skates and the rules were slightly amended to account for the difficulties of playing on frozen ponds. Players were allowed to over-skate the bases, and a second catcher sometimes was employed to capture pitches that skidded past the first backstop.
The Nationals were mediocre on both land and ice in 1865, going 8-6 in traditional games and winning once, losing once and playing one tie on skates. The team stayed close to home, playing mostly in Albany and Troy. In fierce competition for local honors, the Nationals split two games each with the Knickerbockers and Live Oaks, who along with the Nationals were the three best teams in Albany. The Victory Club of nearby Troy and the Unions of Lansingburgh (a Troy suburb) also provided stiff competition.
In January 1866, the Nationals beat the Knickerbockers on ice but lost twice to them during the summer, giving the latter the championship of the city. The Nationals won 11 of 15 games in 1866, losing only to the Knickerbockers, the Unions of Morrisania and the Excelsiors of Brooklyn. Although the Excelsiors were not as strong as they had been during their glorious 1860 season, the Unions were one of the best teams in the New York area. While the Nationals couldn’t match the best New York City nines, they dominated lesser teams, including a 113-15 win over the Fremont Club of Fishkill.
The first problem the Albany clubs faced before taking the field for the 1867 season was finding a field. The Nationals spent a fair amount of money and time fitting up the Rensselaer Park Grounds only to be refused permission to use it. The Skating Park was another possibility, but eventually the club elected to play its home games on the Washington Parade Ground, a portion of Washington Park bounded by Willett and Knox streets and State Street and Madison Avenue. The principal shortcoming of the field was a deep ditch behind the catcher. Wild pitches frequently landed in the ditch, and the press repeatedly urged that it be filled.
The first reported game of the Nationals took place May 28 against the Live Oaks, a junior club ostensibly composed of youths 16 and under, and resulted in a 26-21 Nationals win. There was little activity in June, the biggest news on the Albany baseball scene being some unpleasantness involving the umpire of a Knickerbockers game. The 1860s are usually recalled as the “gentleman era,” but on this occasion (and apparently others previously) one of the Knickerbockers behaved in a most ungentlemanly manner.
“The Knickerbockers nine do not deserve to have an umpire act for them while this man is among their number,” said the Albany Evening Times. A few days later, the newspaper commented, “We have seen quick-tempered players behave petulantly, but the Knicks stand alone among clubs which have always borne a reputable name in having on their nine a deliberate violator of the proprieties of base ball.”
Albany fans also came in for criticism because the treatment of visiting players was not always delivered in the impartial spirit so prized by baseball’s most ardent supporters. Fans were expected to maintain a respectable decorum and applaud the good play of both teams with equal enthusiasm. As the summer wore on, the Evening Times expressed its disappointment with the deportment of local spectators The Albany crowds had always been, it stated, the most respectable of those seen in any city other than Utica, “But [their] character is altering rapidly” the paper said. “During the last two matches played on the Parade Ground, a crowd of blackguards on right field have stoned the Utica and National fielders. An example should be made of some of those brutes. A short visit of one or two of them to a building plainly visible from the scene of their misdemeanor would have a wonderful salutary effect. An officer in plain clothes is going to be among them on the next match.”
There had been little activity by the Nationals until late June, after which they began to play regularly. On the 28th, they beat the Victory Club 35-31 at Weir’s Course. A few days later, Albany easily defeated the Niagaras of West Troy, then visited Pittsfield to take on the Old Elm Club. The journey to the Berkshire region of Massachusetts was one of the longest the club had undertaken, and as was typical for the era, the Old Elms were genial hosts, meeting the Nationals at the station, taking them to the grounds in an omnibus and treating them to an enjoyable dinner after the game. To complete the gracious reception, the Old Elms obligingly lost to the Nationals.
By William Ryczek, June 26, 2013 National Pastime Museum