While passing through Vicksburg, Mississippi, I stopped at the town’s fascinating—and slightly biased—local museum, located in the old courthouse. For those of you who may not be up on your Civil War history, Vicksburg was a major port on the Mississippi River, which the North tried several times to capture before finally succeeding. While most of the Vicksburg Museum focuses on this stuff, there was one display about baseball in Vicksburg at the time (see right). The little plaque inside the case reads as follows:
The game of baseball was brought to Vicksburg by Yankee Soldiers who were in the army of occupation; they played their first game Nov. 24, 1864. They referred to the game as “the play” and called their teams “The Nines” and organized the Mississippi Valley Baseball Club. Within a few years after the war, local men also began playing. By 1893, Vicksburg had several good semi-pro teams that were affiliated with the Gulf States League. In 1902 the Cotton States League was formed by teams from the lower South. Professional clubs operated in Vicksburg until 1955, the last one being the “Vicksburg Billies.”
Baseball existed, in a rudimentary form, before the Civil War. But the rules varied from city to city and state to state, and the game was still largely considered a “gentleman’s game.” The game was more popular in the Northeast—especially in New York and Boston (la plus ca change…). However, over the course of the war, as soldiers from that region mingled with soldiers from other regions, the game’s popularity spread. New York’s more codified rules, set out by Alexander Cartwright and his Wall Street buddies in the 1840s, became the norm across the country. However, Cartwright’s belief that the game was only for the upper classes died away as the game became a game of the people. Baseball (sometimes called bat-ball or Townball) also became more popular in the South, as Southerners watched Northerners play and eventually began to participate. Sometimes the Confederates would even form their own team and play against their Yankee prisoners of war to pass the time. While the rules continued to evolve after the war ended, it was during our nation’s worst crisis that baseball became both national and a pastime.