As long as there have been skates, people around the world have been finding new ways to entertain themselves on ice. From figure and speed skating to curling, skate sailing, hockey and bandy, the ice has played host to plenty of recreational activities and sports over the years. Ice hockey was actually developed from field hockey which was first played in Persia around 2000 B.C. and other summer sports such as rugby and lacrosse have also been adapted to the ice over the years as well but the short lived boom of baseball on ice in the nineteenth century is a fascinating anecdote in skating history that's all but forgotten.
The popularity of ice skating in New York in the mid-nineteenth century left baseball enthusiasts wanting to get in on the action. Patricia Astifan's article "Baseball In The 19th Century" from "Rochester History, Vol I.XII" relates the tale of one such game played in Rochester, New York: "On January 16, 1860, ball players from the city's prominent clubs played a game on ice skates on Irondequoit Bay near the Float Bridge (Empire Blvd.) Another reported game was played on New Year's Day in 1861. This game was played at Washington Park, Brooklyn, by Brooklyn teams Billy Barnie against Henry Chadwick’s team made up of players from Adelphi and Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn." The popularity of the unique sport continued for a short time in the state. William Ryczek's "The 1867 Nationals Of Albany" noted that "in 1865, the Nationals played 14 games on spikes and three on skates - a version of baseball that achieved a degree of popularity in the 1860s. Ice skating was all the rage during that decade, and was combined with baseball for a game in which the players donned skates and the rules were slightly amended to account for the difficulties of playing on frozen ponds. Players were allowed to over-skate the bases, and a second catcher sometimes was employed to capture pitches that skidded past the first backstop." Record of these games being played in New York continue until the 1880's (though dwindling in participation by that time) then seem to peter off entirely but there are also accounts of similar games being played during the same era in Detroit, Michigan.
Ilia Kulik skating to "Baseball Cap" in 1999
Peter Morris' book "A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations that Shaped Baseball" explains the rules of the game: "A game on ice played under rules which admit of five innings as a complete game, though more can be played if there is time. Then, too, only the square pitch or toss of the ball to the bat is allowable, no throwing the ball to the bat by the pitcher being admissable. The bound catch of a fair ball, too, counts; and each base runner makes every base simply by overrunning the line of the base, he being exempted from being put out in returning by turning to the right after crossing the line of the base. A very dead ball is used. The best skaters are required for the out fielders. Ten players on each side make a game, there being right short stops as well as the regular short stops." One of the most unique aspects of baseball on ice is that the stronger skaters had a clear advantage over the stronger baseball players. The Brooklyn Eagle reported that "it will be readily understood that the game when played upon ice with the 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." One player who found particular success both on land and ice was Dickey Pearce, a shortstop for the Brooklyn Atlantics team.
A contributing factor to the sport's demise was actually the response to these games by figure skaters! An 1865 article from The Brooklyn Eagle quotes a 'fancy' skater as saying "We hope 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." Apparently the skaters and clubs in existence in the area bore resentment to the baseball players for the damage these games caused to the ice surfaces.
By the final decade of the nineteenth century, baseball on ice became very rare, though it enjoyed a short revival in popularity in Cleveland, Ohio in the early twentieth century. A January 1, 1912 article in The Washington Post explained how plans were announced to form a league if Lake Erie froze over and this wonderful video from British Pathe shows a baseball on ice game being played by a group of skaters in Toronto, Ontario in 1924.
Will baseball on ice ever make a serious revival? According to a 2014 Harris Poll, major league baseball was the favourite sport of fourteen percent of Americans. Hockey has kept many a rink in this world alive... and this obscure, long lost sport might just be the ticket for arenas selling even more ice time. Stranger things have happened. You HAVE seen the IJS footwork sequences, haven't you?
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