The original Washington National Baseball Club was a top-level, ostensibly amateur, team in the 1860s. But like other highly skilled teams of that era, the team was made up of what are often known as “ringers” brought in from elsewhere and given no-show jobs by wealthy and well-connected baseball enthusiasts.
The first professional league, the National Association, was still more than four years in the future when the Washington Nationals embarked on what became known as the Great Western Tour in July 1867. Although the Excelsiors of South Brooklyn had toured as far north as Buffalo and as far south as Baltimore in the summer and fall of 1860 to play and defeat highly regarded competition, the Nationals tour was the most extensive — and widely touted, thanks to early baseball chronicler Henry Chadwick, who was on the trip – ever attempted.
The way the game was played in 1867 would be recognizable to today’s fan, despite its differences and lack of gloves. The layout of the field was the same. Bases were 90 feet apart. But the pitcher was just 45 feet away from the batter (or “striker” as he was called then). The pitcher had to deliver the ball as if he were a discus thrower. According to the rules of the day, “a pitched ball is one delivered with the arm straight, and swinging perpendicularly, and free from the body.”
On July 11, 1867, the nine starting player and eight reserves boarded a train headed for Columbus, Ohio. A small crowd cheered the team as it left the Baltimore & Ohio rail depot at New Jersey Avenue and C Street in the District. The starting players for the 20-day tour consisted of two college students and seven men who had jobs for which little or no work was required at various federal government departments. The government jobs had been arranged by the former Union army officer Col. Frank Jones, the new club president who by different accounts was either a War Department or Treasury official.
Among the players who benefited from the colonel’s largess were the future Hall-of-Famer George Wright and George Fletcher, both recruited from strong Brooklyn teams, Edward Smith, Henry Parker, Harry Berthrong, Seymour Studley, Andrew Gibney and Frank Norton. The top pitcher was law student Billy Williams. Third baseman George Fox, a student at Georgetown, also had played for a team in Brooklyn.
The tour was in large part a business venture — a chance to build identity for the team in hopes of scheduling more games for which admission would be charged and a chance to scout talent in the Midwest.
Chadwick, who invented the box score and was a major figure in codifying the game’s rules, devoted a chapter of his1868 book, The Game of Base Ball to the Nationals’ tour. The Hall of Fame player and sporting goods entrepreneur Albert G. Spalding, also wrote about it in America’s National Game, his 1911 book – not surprising because as a 17-year-old, Spalding pitched against the Nationals and handed them their only defeat in 10 games during the tour.
In Columbus on July 12, the Nationals crushed the locals’ best, 90-10 in a game stopped after seven innings. Next, in Cincinnati, the Nationals routed Harry Wright’s Red Stockings, 53-10. It was the Cincinnati team’s only defeat of the season. A day later, Washington pummeled another Cincinnati team, the Buckeyes, 88-12.
On the next stop, Washington trounced a Louisville team, 82-21. In Indianapolis, the Nationals were merciless, winning 106-21 with George Wright hitting five home runs. Playing in 100+-degree heat, the Nationals crushed two St. Louis teams, scoring a tour-high 113 runs in the first game. The opposition called it quits after six innings in the next day’s game, even though the Nats only led by 27 runs.
The Nationals met Spalding’s team, Forest Citys of Rockford, on July 29 after winning the first six games of the tour by ridiculous margins, outscoring the opposition, 497 to 114. The game against the Rockford team was intended to be a warm-up for two games scheduled against Chicago’s premiere teams, one of which had beaten the Forest Citys twice earlier to claim the Illinois championship. Forest Citys beat the Nationals, 29-23.
The Nationals’ defeat raised expectations for the Chicago Excelsiors and for the city’s baseball fans. An estimated 8,000 people, the largest western crowd ever to watch a game, paid 50 cents each to see the Nationals rebound to trounce the Excelsiors, 49-4, on July 31. On August 2, Chicago’s Atlantics were the victims, losing, 78-17.
The Chicago Tribune quickly accused the Washington team of losing on purpose to Rockford in an effort to increase the betting against them for the following games. The excuse was a bit of an insult to Spalding and to second baseman Ross Barnes, who later won three batting titles in the National Association. Forest Citys’ losses to the Excelsiors were much closer than Chicago’s thrashing by the Nationals.
Nevertheless, the Chicago papers were duly impressed with the ability of the Nationals’ players. “A better exhibition of skill and the beauties of the game than that given by (the Nationals) has never been seen,” the Chicago Republican wrote after Washington had beaten the two Chicago teams.
Showing the Midwest teams a higher level of play clearly was another purpose of the Nationals’ tour. An 18th Century edition of the Spalding Baseball Guide, mostly likely written by Chadwick, praised the 1867 tour’s positive effect on the game: “The Nationals of Washington appeared … with such uniform success as to open the eyes of people who had supposed the beauties of the game had received the fullest illustration at the hands of the local amateur clubs.”
When the Nationals arrived back in Washington on August 3, a band and several hundred fans greeted them as conquering heroes. The mayor told the players how proud the city was, and that a banquet had been scheduled in their honor.
In Cincinnati, meanwhile, Harry Wright learned a lesson from his team’s defeat. Buttressed by skilled recruits, the Red Stockings exacted their revenge by beating the Nationals the next season and in their famous undefeated tour in 1869.
Historian Ryan Swanson, in 2015 online essay for the Filson Historical Society and the Cincinnati Museum, “Cleaning Up the Wild and Wooly West: The Washington Nationals’ 1867 Baseball Tour Through the Ohio Valley” wrote about the larger context:
“The Nationals, in taking the tour, led the first wave of a reconciliation movement that would quickly overtake organized baseball during the decade following the Civil War. The club set out to convince the ball clubs of the Ohio Valley that, despite lingering war tensions and regional differences in baseball game play, baseball should be nationally cohesive.”
The title of a 2013 SABR essay by John Thorn, MLB’s official historian and a prolific baseball author, puts the Nationals’ 1867 tour in perspective, focusing on the defeat of the Red Stockings: “July 25, 1867: The most important game in baseball history?”
Better to argue that the tour itself, more than that one game, is what was most important.