By 1862 Nashville was occupied by the largest southern contingent of the Union army, next to Atlanta. Generals Buell, Rosseau, Negley, Rosencrans, and Grant, as commander-in-chief of the Army of the Cumberlands, had all set up headquarters in Nashville.
It would be hard to imagine that Yankee soldiers did not teach the locals how to play the Northern version of base ball. Even in prison camps in both the north and south, games were organized as a way to give players and spectators opportunity to divest themselves of the perils and weariness of war – if even only for a few hours.
A few months ago I was to speak for a few minutes at a meeting at the Smyrna Library. The theme was vintage baseball, and a few of the team members of the new Stewart’s Creek Scouts were going to discuss their interest in the vintage game. I was unable to attend due to illness, but my plan was to “wax romantic”, as the team would be playing home games at the home of Confederate Civil War hero Sam Davis.
What I have written below is fiction, but somewhere there are letters from home that will be found that describe something like this, that will give us a direct connection to the emergence of the great game in communities like Nashville, Smyrna, Murfreesboro, and a myriad of other towns.
Perhaps that letter will be one to a family member, father or mother, or in a manuscript, journal, or diary. Perhaps it will never come, but I hope in the not-to-distant future to be able to read for myself something very much like this:
I swear there were Yankees at every turn. Each hill, each valley, we crouched, slid, and hopped tree to tree without so much as a whisper, so as not to call attention to where we were. To hide we followed creeks when we could, hoping the sound from the water pushing over the stones would mask any snaps from the sticks we stepped on.
We helped branches back to their position to keep the swishing from signaling our where-abouts. Sometimes we’d see a plume of smoke from a campfire, or sometimes hear the whiney of horses. We always hoped those were ours, but could not take the chance that they were. As discreet as we could, we moved on. We had to make it to Chattanooga.
The only break we took was one day when we came up on a clearing once where there was nearly a frightful noise. Wondering what the racket was about, we slowly moved up behind a locust tree and could hardly believe our eyes and ears.
Men were yelling and whooping and hollering as bare-chested soldiers ran like bears between other soldiers chasing a ball. The soldier coming up from the rear of the circle or square or some other laid out dimension in the field was pumping his arms as the others were chasing after something with shouts of “throw it, throw it!”.
I recollected that this was the game called “base-ball” being played in some of the prisoner camps that I had heard about, at least I reckoned that’s what this was without the prison. Seems that some of the officers allowed for prisoners to play active soldiers as a way to give healthful exercise for all.
Crazy as it must sound, when the sweaty soldiers in the clearing stopped for water and rest, we showed ourselves. It was not purposeful, believe me. But when one of them looked our way and knew that we were the enemy, well, we were really scared and did not know what to do.
But what they did was even crazier. Seems they needed a couple of more players and invited us to play.
We were more scared to say, “no”, so we said, “yep” and they gathered around and put us way out in the field and for what must’ve been an hour we played. We hit with a birch bat they had, we threw the ball and we caught it when we could get to it.
All of us took a turn or two and when it was all over and whichever team won, they didn’t tell us, them Yankees told us we played good.
Then they told us, “so long”, mama, and I’ll never forget it.
(Note: This is an excerpt of keynote presentation delivered on April 14, 2014 to the Baseball in Literature & Culture Conference, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee)
© 2014 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.