Icepocalypse 2017 is underway in the Midwest, and what better time to talk about the game of baseball being played on ice skates? Believe it or not, for a brief period of time, baseball on ice was actually a thing.
The first known instance of baseball being played on ice took place on January 1, 1861 in Rochester, New York, when two local teams took up a game on skates before a crowd of about two thousand spectators. Later that year, the Brooklyn Atlantics defeated the Charter Oaks, 36-27, in their own slippery competition. I have to tip my hat to these guys — I can barely handle ice skating sans bat and ball. Can you imagine trying to pitch effectively without falling down?
Sadly, the ice baseball fad didn’t last long. Four years later, in 1865, the Brooklyn Eagle wrote, “We shall have no more ball games on ice. … If any of the ball clubs want to make fools of themselves, let them go down to Coney Island and play a game on stilts.” (By the way, if anyone is aware of an actual instance of a baseball game on stilts, please let me know!) There doesn’t seem to be any definitive explanation as to why the game on ice lost popularity. There is speculation that it was due to a poor quality of play, or perhaps the owners of the various skating rinks didn’t appreciate their ice getting so torn up.
There was an attempt at a comeback about twenty years later. Baseball, still being a new game with a lot of eager fans and players, was practically a year-round form of recreation. In January 1884, when the winter weather prevented a conventional game from being played, the diamond at Washington Park was converted into an ice rink so that games could continue and fans’ demand for some baseball entertainment could be met.
On January 12th of that year, Henry Chadwick assembled a team of amateurs to take on Brooklyn, managing to out-skate the pro team on their way to a 41-12 victory. A few days later, the two teams faced off again, and this time Brooklyn managed to save face with a 16-8 win. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be record (that I can find) of an ice baseball game being played after this time.
The concept of baseball on ice isn’t completely forgotten today, as an NHL ice crew demonstrated a couple years ago. In December 2014, in order to test the ice prior to the NHL Winter Classic, tossed around a baseball while skating on the rink. If I was any good on skates, I would love to try this myself.
On February 4, 1861, a baseball game was played in ice skates on a frozen Litchfield Pond in South Brooklyn. As a large crowd looked on, the champion team Atlantics defeated the Charter Oak Club, 36-27. Each team was permitted to have ten players, with the extra player in the role of backup catcher. The following day, the Brooklyn Eagle reported: “It will be readily understood that the game when played upon ice with skates is altogether a different sort of affair from that which the Clubs are familiar with. The most scientific player upon the play ground finds himself out of his reckoning when he has got the runaway skates to depend on, and the best skater is the best player.”
Morris, Peter. A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations that Shaped Baseball: the Game on the Field. Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.
In a game against the Cincinnati Red Stockings in Brooklyn, the Atlantics’ infielder Bob Ferguson led his team to an 8-7 victory that ended the Red Stockings’ 81-game winning streak. In an effort to avoid hitting the ball to the Red Stockings’ star shortstop, George Wright, Ferguson opted to bat from the left side of the plate, making him the first known switch-hitter in professional baseball.