Mark of Greatness

Written by: Tom Shieber

Baseball is a game heavily infused with tradition. Off the field, fans partake in the seventh-inning stretch, sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and razz the umpire. On the field, players throw the ball “around the horn,” give the “silent treatment” to a pitcher tossing a no-hitter and avoid stepping on foul lines when coming on and off the diamond.

While these customs have long been a part of the game, other practices have had a fleeting existence – some lasting just a few seasons, others surviving for decades before disappearing from the landscape of baseball ritual. In the game’s pre-professional era, clubs regularly painted baseballs, creating “trophy balls” to commemorate victories. Up until the early 1950s, players tossed their gloves on the ground after the final out of an inning, retrieving them when they next took the field. And remember the short-lived but popular forearm bash?

One custom that was only briefly in vogue was the practice of opposing players swapping silk ribbons prior to a match. In the days before organized leagues and schedules – when barnstorming was a way of life for the best players – each baseball game was a special event to be celebrated and commemorated. This was especially the case when facing a top-flight club, as it was a matter of pride to take on the very best, no matter what the game’s final outcome might be.

Though the exchanging of these “silk badges” was commonplace for a decade after the Civil War, surprisingly little was written about the practice. In 1902, Clarence Deming, a former baseball player at Yale University from 1869 to 1872, recalled these ribbons and their special meaning as he reminisced about baseball’s bygone era:

One or two of the customs of the old game were unique. Such for instance was the habit of the better class of clubs of exchanging, just before each match, silk badges imprinted with the club name. The players wore these accumulated trophies pinned upon the breast, sometimes with startling color effects; and the baseball man was proud, indeed, who could pin on the outside of his deep strata of badges a ribbon from the mighty Atlantics, Mutuals, or Eckfords, attesting his worth for meeting giants, if not mastering them.

One-time Princeton University second baseman George Ward remembered the use of the ribbons while recounting the origin of the school’s colors:

[The class of 1869] approved the idea of orange for a class color; for in 1868, when we went to Yale to play our '69 class game, we carried along badges of orange ribbon with "'69 B.B.C." printed upon them. ... The 'orange and black' originated with the class of '69,—the color of the ribbon, orange; the word 'Princeton' printed thereon in black ink.

Silk ribbons were also created for non-baseball purposes during the mid-19th century, as political, theatrical and fraternal organizations often had colorful badges produced as giveaways. But, at the time, the ribbons were apparently most associated with ballplayers. In The Pine and the Palm Greeting, author N.J. Watkins tells of an amusing case of mistaken identity as a group of southern newspaperman headed north by train:

At Harrisburg, a number of the party having on their linen traveling caps and red ribbon badges, alighted to refresh themselves and were mistaken by sundry sports hanging about the platform, for a base-ball club, and were challenged for a match with the picked nine of that city. The challenge was accepted and preliminaries arranged, but before all of their champions could be notified, (for which purpose the aforesaid sports hurried away) the cars whistled and we were gone.

Very few of these baseball ribbons exist today, but a stunning collection of about 70 such silks resides at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Even more astounding is the provenance of these ribbons, as they came from the personal collection of one of the greatest players of baseball’s early amateur era: Hall of Famer George Wright. The majority of these ribbons date from Wright’s seasons with the National Club of Washington D.C. (1867), the Unions of Morrisania (1868) and the Cincinnati Red Stockings (1869 and 1870).

In Sept. 18, 1867, the Nationals played host to the Pastime Club of Richmond, Va. Wright and his teammates graciously welcomed the Pastimes, the players no doubt exchanging club ribbons. After the pre-game niceties, the Nationals proceeded to pummel their guests by the score of 111-9, Wright leading all batters with 16 runs scored. The Pastime’s silk ribbon featured their club name printed alongside the Virginia state seal featuring the motto “Sic Semper Tyrannis.”

In 1868, Wright received a beautiful blue and red ribbon from the Yale Club, most likely prior to the Union’s second game of the season. In an exciting match played in New Haven, Conn. on June 6, Yale held their own against the powerful Unions, forcing extra innings before succumbing in the 10th, 16-14. For the Unions, it was their second of 29 straight wins en route to a season record of 37-6. Coincidentally, manning first base for Yale in the game against the Unions was none other than Clarence Deming, who later wrote of the use of ribbons as quoted above.

The following season, Wright joined the now-famous Cincinnati Red Stockings, signing to play with the club for a reported salary of $1,400, the highest on the club and likely a record remuneration among baseball players in this fledgling era of professional baseball. For the month of June 1869, the Red Stockings barnstormed throughout the East, facing clubs in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Washington D.C. They posted victories against each and every one, playing their final game of the tour against the Baltic Club of Wheeling, W.Va. On June 30, the Baltic Club presented the Red Stockings with impressive ribbons bearing their club name in a decorated Tuscan letterform. Unfortunately for the West Virginians, the rest of the day lacked such beauty. In the top of the fourth, Cincinnati was batting with a 52-0 lead when heavy rains fell, the score reverting to the score at the end of the third: 44-0 … but who’s counting? The next day the Red Stockings returned home to a grand reception for the famed club that ultimately ended the season without a single loss.

In 1870, the Red Stockings took an early-season trip to the South, playing clubs in Louisville, Louisiana and Tennessee. In one week in late April, the Red Stockings defeated each of the top clubs in New Orleans: the Pelicans, Southerns, Atlantics, Lone Stars and Robert E. Lees. But baseball was not the only activity that occupied the Red Stockings’ time in the Crescent City. During their stay, the Cincinnati players attended the theater, Wright collecting a ribbon from the Orleans Dramatic Relief Association and writing upon it “1870 Red Stocking 9 visited the above while in New Orleans. GW.”

Over the years, Wright collected dozens of these ribbon badges, silk tributes from clubs that relished the opportunity to play against the very best. Clearly he cherished these mementoes of his days traveling the country, playing the game he loved, with and against the era’s top clubs. Now these very same ribbons have found a home in Cooperstown, providing a rare glimpse into the storied past of a Hall of Famer’s career and a long-forgotten custom of baseball’s early days.

Like barnstorming itself, these ribbons mark a history that will always belong to the National Pastime.

Tom Shieber is the senior curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum