Base Ball on Johnson’s Island

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2014, All Rights Reserved

On August 27, 1864, Confederate prisoners played a base ball (as it used to be spelled) game on Johnson’s Island near Sandusky, Ohio, on the grounds of the U.S. Army prison camp there. The Confederate and the Southern base ball clubs took to the field, and when all was said and done, the Southern team won by a score of 19-11.

On August 24, 2014, a century and a half later almost to the day, vintage base ball players reenacted the game on Johnson’s Island. Members of the Great Black Swamp Frogs played the the Confederate club, all in red shirts, while the Ohio Village Muffins, in white, portrayed the Southern team. Members of the Army of the Ohio, a Civil War reenactment group including members from the 6th, 30th and 41st Ohio, served as prison guards (and, for those who showed up in gray or butternut, prisoner/spectators).

Historian Dr. David Bush addresses the crowd before the game

Base ball historian John Husman spoke to the crowd before the game, noting that the 1864 game is thought to be the first organized base ball game ever played in Ohio. Many of the prisoners were members of antebellum base ball clubs in New Orleans. Base ball lingo was different in 1864; players were “ballists,” a batter was a “striker,” an error was a “muff” (hence the Ohio Village team’s name), a run was an “ace,” and you encouraged a striker to run fast by shouting, “Leg it!” And of course, we all shouted “Huzzah!” and not “Hooray!”

The rules were different back then, too. The umpire stood to one side and back just a bit from home plate (“home base”), not right behind the catcher. He would call foul balls immediately, but not fair ones (hits were presumed fair unless he said otherwise). He also called strikes only after warning a striker who repeatedly let good pitches go by, but would not call balls. A striker would be out after three called or swinging strikes. Ballists in the field could catch a ball in the air or ‐ big difference! ‐ after a single bounce to put the striker out. All pitches were underhand. Ballists wore no gloves. (I had the chance to hold one of the balls, which was a little larger and a little squishier than a modern baseball; the wife of one of the ballists told me that the balls are hand-stitched and cost $40 apiece.)

Lithograph depicting Union prisoners at Camp Salisbury, North Carolina playing base ball

The 2014 game proceeded with high energy and with everyone in good spirits, as the guards in blue kept a watchful eye around the edge of the ball field (“playground”). The Confederates batted their way into an early lead over the Southerners and never yielded it. As happened back in the 1860s, players loudly made bets with each other as to this or that ballist getting on base or scoring an ace. Not all of the action was on the playground, either. Ballists occasionally tried to escape, but only one -an outfielder from the Southern team – got away from his guards for long. He was captured out in the scrub brush beyond left field after just a few minutes, and was marched back by three guards. The guards also intercepted a young woman in hoop skirts who was apparently trying to kiss her prisoner beaux.

There was no scoreboard, but the score was announced from time to time ‐ once, a member of the Southern team declared mournfully, “The Confederates have scored too many runs to count, and the Southerners, too few to admit.” The final score was Confederates 23, Southerners 9, so history did not quite repeat itself. Fortunately, I had no money riding on the Southerners!

About 3,000 people are reported to have watched the 1864 game. It was a smaller but still appreciative crowd of 200-some fans, including, I was glad to see, CWRT members Jean Rhodes and Kirk Hinman, who enjoyed the 2014 game under clear skies and brisk Lake Erie breezes.

The event was sponsored by the Friends and Descendants of Johnson’s Island, on the board of which Kirk and I have the honor to serve. More information can be found on the website of the Johnson’s Island Civil War Military Prison.

Related link:
Johnson’s Island