The Baseball Game Played on Ice Skates
Baseball isn’t meant to be played on frozen ponds, but it took a while for that to be figured out
When winter months drag on, it’s increasingly difficult for baseball fans and players to wait for the weather to clear up and permit the resumption of play. In the early days of organized ball, two teams decided that they had waited long enough and organized a game that they played on ice skates in front of a sellout crowd.
On February 4, 1861, the Brooklyn Charter Oaks and Brooklyn Atlantic clubs organized a baseball game that they played on the frozen Litchfield (Washington) Pond in Brooklyn. The Atlantics were the best team in the National Association of Baseball Players (NABBP) at the time and were an obvious draw. 20 players agreed to play in the modified conditions and showed a great deal of skill and dexterity with their new footwear, with not as many trips and falls as might be expected.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported:
“This novel match has been on the tapis for two or three weeks, thanks to the capricious weather; the frosts of Saturday and Sunday nights however, removed uncertainty on this point, and although the ice was not in the best of skating condition, and in defiance of ominous-looking cracks or fissures, through which the water oozed.”
The two squads had long planned the game but given the fickleness of winter had a hard time identifying a day that provided optimal conditions. Ultimately, they decided to play ball once it was at least reasonable. Instead of using bases, the ice was marked in appropriate spots in red and “runners” were allowed to over skate the bags in order to avoid injuries.
Brooklyn Atlantic sported red and blue jackets while Charter Oaks wore plaid. Much was on the line, as a silver ball donated by the president of the Fifth Avenue Railroad Company was the reward for the winning team.
The outcome wasn’t in doubt for long, as Brooklyn Atlantic opened up a commanding 18–2 lead by the third inning and held on to win 36–27 after nine innings. The New York Times reported that “Play was lively and exciting.” Every player scored at least one run except for a Charter Oak’s first baseman named Shields. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Atlantic second baseman C. Smith paced the action with six runs of his own.
Perhaps the biggest star was Brooklyn Atlantic shortstop Dickey Pearce, who eventually gained a reputation as one of the pioneers of the National Pastime. The New York Clipper described him that day “as good a short stop on the ice as he is on a summer day.”
Baseball was already steadily building in its popularity, but this drew even more wide-spread attention. An estimated 10,000–15,000 people jammed the banks of the pond to watch the exciting action. It was truly like nothing they had ever seen before. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described the scene:
“Hooped and ribboned loveliness was out in full blow, and while many ladies courageously braved the perils of the treacherous ice, very few adventured the skates. Quite a number of carriages pulled up in the street skirting the pond — a position which afforded the inmates a good view of the ball-players, who full of enthusiasm and excitement, dreamed not and cared not for broken bones and bruised flesh.”
The fact that ice is not ideal for a baseball game did rear its head at times. In addition to some bumps and bruises, it was reported that “One young fellow was picked up in an insensible condition, bleeding at the ears; he was taken to one of the refreshment hut and when restored to consciousness assisted to his home.”
The Clipper wrote, “We hope to chronicle many similar pleasant and exciting trials of skill during this and future winters.” The game was so successful in popularity, especially driving traffic to the rail line that sponsored the event with the silver ball, that another similar contest was scheduled for just a couple of days afterwards.
In the ensuing years, there were more ice-skating baseball games played before they fizzled in popularity by the early 20th century. Ultimately, the game became too refined and popular to need such stunts. It was also a potential hazard for players, who had rapidly become expensive commodities.
Ice baseball was a small but unique chapter in the history of the game. While it’s understandable why it didn’t hang on as a long-standing fad, it made for some interesting moments, including one brisk February day in Brooklyn.