Though football, basketball and time have cut into the popularity of America’s pastime in recent decades, few dispute the unique place that baseball occupies in the annals of American history. The specifics of the games earliest days are a whole different story, with multiple cities, towns and states laying claim to their piece of baseball history.
Cooperstown, NY brands itself as the birthplace of baseball. Hoboken, NJ claims the first recorded game took place at Elysian Fields. The actual first game of baseball would have occurred before both of these games. Where did cricket (or rounders) end and baseball begin? The line is murky.
In Indiana, we are unconcerned with any of this noise, because one thing that historians do know, with absolute certainty, is that the first professional baseball game was played right here in Fort Wayne, back in 1871.
Though some teams began paying players in 1869, the first pro league was the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, a precursor to today’s NL. Founded in March of 1871, when representatives from 10 teams met above a saloon in New York city to hammer out details. Two of the teams balked at the ten dollar league fee, and the league was left with eight teams – the Philadelphia Athletics, New York Mutuals, Washington Olympics, Troy Haymakers, Chicago White Stockings, Rockford Forest Cities, Cleveland Forest Cities and the Boston Red Stockings.
In the days following the meeting, a team from Fort Wayne would step forward, ten dollars in hand, and round out the original nine.
The Fort Wayne Kekionga, named for a nearby Miami Indian settlement, had just added ace pitcher Bobby Matthews and a number of other players from a bankrupt Baltimore team and were looking for redemption (they had lost by several 20+ run scores in the previous years). The team continued to recruit players
The Kekionga’s efforts proved successful, as they hosted the first NAPBBP game in history, defeating the favored Cleveland Forest Cities 2-0 in front of 200 spectators at Kekionga Baseball Grounds.
The team sold season tickets for $5, but attendance was poor, and, following their historic win, the club quickly lost steam, though several players, including star pitcher Bobby Matthews, would go on to have respectable careers with other teams.
Although we hosted the first pro game, Indiana has never hosted an MLB team. Still, baseball culture is strong with the Evansville Otters, the Fort Wayne Tin Caps, the Gary Southshore Railcats, the Indianapolis Indians, and the South Bend Silver Hawks representing us in the minor leagues.
On top of that, Indiana was the birthplace of several prominent baseball names, including Kenny Lofton, Tommy John and current Marlins manager Don Mattingly. Several current MLB players, including Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier (Fort Wayne) and pitcher Sean Manaea (Valparaiso) of the Oakland Athletics.
Plus, if we are laying claim to former Hoosiers ballplayers (and we are) then Cubs slugger, World Series champ and former Indiana University All-American Kyle Schwarber counts, too.