Idaho History

Nine balls for a walk? No gloves? Flat bats? That’s baseball in early Boise.

Early baseball in Idaho was played with no grass, no grandstand, no uniforms – and rules that changed often.
Early baseball in Idaho was played with no grass, no grandstand, no uniforms – and rules that changed often. Provided by Arthur Hart

Baseball was played in Boise as early as 1868, but it was a very different game compared to the one played today. Perhaps its most conspicuous feature was that the pitcher tossed the ball underhand from just 45 feet away, rather in the manner of a softball pitcher today, but without much speed. Even though it was legal at the time for the pitcher to take a running start before delivering the ball, as in cricket, his job was not to strike out the batter, but to toss the ball where he could hit it. The batter could even request the kind of pitch he wanted.

The baseball used in the 1860s was not as hard as today’s ball, and not yet standard in size, but it was plenty hard enough for fielders who mostly played bare-handed on a rough, dirt surface. Every hop of the ball was likely to be a bad hop. The first gloves used by fielders were not padded. The ball was made of wound yarn with a stitched leather cover. The bat was flat on one or both sides and was called a “paddle” by early Idaho players. Not until 1893 were baseball bats required to be round.

With the pitcher just putting the ball into play, and allowing the batter to hit it as hard as he could, fielders had a real challenge. When Boise’s Pioneer Baseball Club was organized in March 1868, the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman predicted success for the effort, “as a means of amusement and healthful exercise,” but warned that “bloody noses, disjointed thumbs and cracked shins” could be expected. A call to practice in 1869 included this warning: “Sore hands no excuse.”

After several weeks without a practice or a game in the summer of 1869, the Statesman asked, “What has become the Capital Club? Supposing it is warm; so much the better opportunity for the display of endurance as well as skill.” Club secretary C.D. Vajen replied in a humorous vein: “It was thought advisable to rest for several weeks to give the wounded a chance to recover. Oldham’s nose, Riley’s hand and Logan’s finger have all recovered without amputation.”

Endurance was needed to play baseball in Boise during those first 20 years or so, not only because of summer heat, but because the rules in use at the time made games very long. It took nine balls to walk a batter, for example, and there were usually far more errors than hits. This made for long innings and incredibly high scores. A runner who advanced from first to third on a hit or an error was given credit for a stolen base. A batted ball that landed fair in the infield but bounced or rolled foul short of first or third base was ruled fair. Batters with skill learned to slice bunts wickedly so the ball landed just fair, then spun away from fielders into foul ground. On the other hand, if a fielder could catch that ball on the first bounce, the batter was out.

Boise’s early teams included some prominent citizens. Thomas E. Logan, who had been appointed postmaster by Abraham Lincoln in 1864, was an active member of the 1868 Pioneer Club and the 1869 Capital Club. He was elected mayor of the city four times over the next few years. Charles Himrod, president of the Capitals, was mayor in 1869 when the club issued a challenge to “any other nine that may be or may hereafter come into existence in this Territory.” There is no record of the challenge being accepted.

Those first baseball games were played where Idaho’s Capitol stands today. Called in 1869 “the public square” and later “Capitol Square,” this two-block area, bounded by Sixth and Eighth and State and Jefferson, was a stretch of raw sagebrush desert that had to be cleared of brush and rubbish each spring before any games could be played there.

Next week: Town teams battle Army teams.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.

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