Trips by the 1869 Cincinnati team made the game famous
Three months later, they capped a 57-0 inaugural season with a 4,764-mile trip to San Francisco and back aboard the Transcontinental Railroad, which was completed only the previous May with the pounding of the Golden Spike at Promontory, Utah.
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Millar: “The cars zig-zag (making it impossible) to stand erect . . . Not only do they zig-zag, they jump up from the track. . . In one place we counted seven freight cars in a triangular heap, with the locomotive about fifty feet in advance, alongside the track in a swampy hole.”
In Council Bluffs, Mo., a stagecoach awaited, the “whip” (driver) choosing the convivial and graceful George Wright and Cal McVey to ride the platform with him. Millar, Charlie Gould and lone substitute Oak Taylor sat on top with the baggage and the rest of the party climbed inside. What a sight! The champion ball club of America bumping and bouncing toward the next great adventure.
In Omaha, Neb., Harry and the boys boarded a special Pullman “Silver Palace” car on the Union Pacific Railroad. The operator of Cincinnati’s grand Gibson House hotel catered a party in a large, private compartment at the rear of the car that Hatton had reserved. Millar reported everyone in “jubilant spirits,” eating, drinking and carrying on. Millar noted that the team’s quartet of singers – Brainard, third baseman Fred Waterman, left fielder Andy Leonard and the writer himself – had improved considerably since the team’s Eastern tour.
As for the Transcontinental train ride itself, Millar wrote: “It is almost impossible to keep the boys inside of the car (so anxious are they) to get a glimpse of everything attractive or novel.” Sightings of buffalo, antelope and prairie dogs created an uproar and dash for the windows. Harry and some others carried pistols and rifles and – in the custom of the day – took potshots at this menagerie from the train windows. At each stop, the players would hurry outside and toss the ball about to keep their arms in shape, much to the astonishment of the locals, especially the Native Americans and the Chinese.
Darryl Brock, a painstaking researcher, described the scenery the boys would have seen in Utah Territory this way in his bestselling novel, “If I Never Get Back”: “We climbed through the rugged gorges of Echo and Weber Canyons, staring at thrusts of red sandstone towering hundreds of feet above – Devil’s Gate, Devil’s Slide, Witches’ Rock – as we passed along the ledges barely wide enough for the tracks. The Weber River was spanned by a reconstructed bridge. The original had washed away. This one swayed alarmingly as the engineer stopped in midspan so we could look straight down into a chasm where the river flowed between rock walls.”
Once in San Francisco, the Red Stockings routed the opposition. The “Frisco” clubs, however, had one custom the Red Stockings were not familiar with. At the end of the sixth inning, the teams observed a 10-minute intermission, “a dodge to advertise and have the crowd patronize the bar,” Millar wrote.
Away from the ballpark, the Red Stockings enjoyed the sights of the Bay Area. There was no Golden Gate Bridge or Coit Tower, but there was Chinatown and the Cliff House overlooking the Pacific Ocean, where sea lions perched on the rocks.
On the Red Stockings’ final night in San Francisco, they were feted at a splendid banquet, and the next morning headed for home.
The team’s exploits were reported nationally. So familiar were the nation’s ball fans with this team, that in western Illinois when the club stopped for a pre-arranged game with the Quincy Occidentals, they complained about the Red Stockings playing out of position. Harry had wanted to rest the sore hands of catcher Doug Allison. At the end of each inning, the fans called for Harry to put Asa in the pitcher’s box and Allison behind the plate.
Finally, Harry relented and the crowd cheered.
John Erardi, Greg Rhodes and Greg Gajus are the co-authors of the new book, “Baseball Revolutionaries: How the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings Rocked the Country and Made Baseball Famous."