LONG BEFORE RED SOX NATION, BASEBALL FEVER GRIPPED THE AREA;
Mark Sullivan, Globe Correspondent. Boston Globe. Boston, Mass.: Jul 27, 2006. pg. 1
GLOBE WEST 3
ASHLAND – Before the Red Sox and Yankees, before the Dodgers and Giants, there were the Upton Excelsiors and the Medway Unions.
The two teams from small towns in Boston’s western suburbs were archrivals during baseball’s early flowering in New England before the Civil War.
On July 28 and 29, 1859, Stone Park in Ashland was the site of one of their epic barnburners if you can call a game that lasted two days and featured breaks for lunch and dinner a barnburner.
Medway beat Upton by a score of 100-78 in a contest that drew as many as 8,000 spectators.
Society for American Baseball Research historian Phil Lowry, who has made a study of marathon games, said the Ashland contest under the old “Massachusetts rules” was the second-longest ballgame ever. It ended when Medway reached 100 runs, after 14 hours and 10 minutes, in the team’s 106th turn at bat.
He said the two teams also hold the record for the longest ballgame ever recorded an 1860 meeting in Worcester when it took Upton 172 innings, spread over seven days, to beat Medway, 50-29.
The game was different back then, said research society member Joanne Hulbert, an authority on 19th-century baseball and town historian in Holliston, where the Mudville neighborhood, residents like to believe, inspired the poem “Casey at the Bat.”
Baseball, as played under rules prevalent in Boston and New England in the early- to mid-19th century, echoed its English relations, rounders and cricket. No foul territory meant a ball hit backward was in play. A runner was put out by being hit, or “soaked,” by a thrown ball.
And marathon game records were set that never have been equaled, because under Massachusetts rules, a team got one out per inning, and games lasted until the winner reached a predetermined tally of runs, such as 50 or 100. A game played to 100 could take days.
The New York set of rules, which standardized innings and formed the basis of the modern game, eclipsed the Massachusetts version in the years following the Civil War.
But the New England game was at its peak of popularity when the Medway Unions and the Upton Excelsiors took the field in Ashland 147 years ago. The challenge match carried a prize of $100, put up by the Alpha Club of Ashland, as well as local bragging rights.
The game was “the great event of the season, in the ball playing line,” reported the Dedham Gazette’s correspondent, who went by the pen name “Nemo.”
“The rival Clubs arrived in Ashland at an early hour, and were escorted to the ground by the Alpha Club of that town, to the inspiriting notes of the Ashland Brass Band. The battle field consisted of four acres of level mowing land, and was kept entirely clear of spectators through the day by a numerous and efficient police.
“Extra trains, stages, omnibuses, and vehicles of all descriptions discharged their living freight through the forenoon, and at noon the crowd was accurately estimated to number at least eight thousand persons.”
The Milford Journal called it “the greatest match game of Base Ball . . . yet played in New England.
“Ashland was absolutely crowded, out of doors, by strangers; and the oldest inhabitants of that quiet and neat village say their streets were never before thronged by such an army of men or string of teams. It electrified them to see all this, and a general cessation of labor was the result,” the newspaper reported.
With its pomp, speeches, and brass-band processions, the exercise had a lot in common with that other great Massachusetts sport, the political rally, said Hulbert, who is writing a sports history of Holliston.
“People backed these teams from town to town,” she said. “This was something that fired people up.”
Spectators from Milford, Holliston, and Hopkinton cheered the Medway players, and fans from Worcester and Grafton backed Upton.
The game “passed pleasantly” until the noon lunch break, the Journal reported, with “the crowd flocking to dinner as doves to their windows,” then “returning to the ball-ground, refreshed and puffing the Principes and cheroots.” Play resumed until 7 p.m., when the match, knotted at 70 after 85 innings, was adjourned until the next day.
No provisions having been made for an overnight stay, the ballplayers were put up in private homes and at the town’s hotel, where Nemo reported the Upton team slept 10 to a room, using mattresses spread on the floor.
But the ballplayers didn’t make an early night of it, to read between the lines of the Milford Journal, which noted the “good humor” with which the contestants left the field: “All were weary, and many `beat out,’ by the day’s work, and yesterday morning needed a deal of physical courage to bring them to the scratch but they were `thar,’ at the nick of time, spunky as ever, if not as agile.”
They were probably a bit hung over, Hulbert said.
“The social aspect of the game was extremely important,” she said. “They probably got together at Stone’s Tavern, and we can speculate a little drinking went on. I’m sure things went on well into the night. You can imagine these guys getting up the next morning for another day’s worth of game.”
The game resumed at 8:30 a.m., and stayed close until Medway pulled away with eight runs in the 90th inning and finally reached the winning score of 100 in the 106th.
“As soon as the last tally was made, the crowd, which had restrained its enthusiasm till it could be controlled no longer, burst all bounds and rushed in from all sides, with as many wild cries and as much elan as distinguishes a charge of the renowned Zouaves,” wrote Nemo.
At the Upton Historical Society, a painted banner from 1859 commemorates Upton’s triumph in a rematch between the two teams in Worcester that October.
“It was the World Series of its time,” society vice president Barbara Burke said.
On the banner’s front, an allegorical figure of a woman strides a hilltop under a flag reading “Excelsior” (Latin for “ever upward”), while the back carries a Latin inscription that reads, “Post Proelia Praemia,” or “After the Battles Come the Rewards.”
The cheers have faded, but interest remains in the games played a century and a half ago.
“George Will once said `baseball trivia’ is an oxymoron, because nothing about baseball is trivial,” Lowry, author of a baseball park history, “Green Cathedrals,” said via telephone from his home in Minnetonka, Minn. “I think George Will’s right.”