Field of Rosewood Dreams: A Story of Early Base Ball in Portsmouth by Thomas R. Watson
In a quiet corner of the memory house that is the home of the Portsmouth Historical Society, sits a nineteenth century baseball bat. No ordinary bat of ash or maple, this bat is turned from a single piece of rosewood. The bat bears a silver plate on which is inscribed, “Presented to the member of the Rockingham Nine making the best score in the second match between the Kearsarge Club of Concord and the Rockingham Club of Portsmouth, Sept. 11, 1866.” The bat tells an important story of the development of baseball in Portsmouth in the 1860’s.
Prior to the Civil War, baseball, then spelled base ball, was a fledgling pastime concentrated in the larger cities on the Northeast, principally New York, Boston, Brooklyn and Philadelphia. Each area had different rules and traditions. Gradually, the “New York” game came to predominate. Following the close of the Civil War, base ball entered its first boom as teams popped up is small towns and large cities throughout the country. Often, teams were formed by returning veterans who learned the game during breaks in the hostilities. Also central to this growth were railroads whose lines ran like tentacles from New York throughout New England and westward.
Portsmouth was an early participant in this craze. By 1866, several clubs had organized in the area, including the Rockingham Club, the National Club and the Granite State Club in Portsmouth and the Whipple Club and the Star Club in Kittery. Playing fields in Portsmouth were secured at the Plains (at the approximate location of the current little league field) and in Rundlett’s Pasture (in the vicinity of the current Masonic Temple and nearby Masonic parking lot across Middle Street from the Rundlett-May House).
Base ball in 1866 should not be confused with baseball as we know it today. There were no professional players, no ball parks with fixed seating or outfield fences, no gloves and no leagues or even preset schedules. The players were local residents, who held day jobs, loosely organized as sporting clubs. Games typically resulted from challenges or invitations extended from one club to another. Most games were played between teams located in the same area. The Rockingham Club was the best known of the Portsmouth area clubs.
James H. Dow was a prominent member of the Rockingham Club. A Portsmouth native, Dow alternated as both pitcher and center fielder for the club. It was reputed that he was “able to throw a ball a greater distance than any other player on the team.” “Dow was a stellar center fielder and strong-armed pitcher. But his real forte was swinging a bat,” wrote author and newspaper columnist, Ray Brighton, in a 1990 Portsmouth Herald article. Often, Brighton said, while playing on a field whose home plate was near the brick schoolhouse at the Plains, Dow drove the ball far into the field that is now Calvary Cemetery.
In late August 1866, the Kearsarge Club of Concord, New Hampshire challenged the Rockingham Club to a match. The game was scheduled for September 5, 1866, at Plains Field. The Kearsarge players and an entourage of fans arrived in Portsmouth on the 10 o’clock train. It was reported that the game was “witnessed by a large assemblage” and later described as “a citywide affair with invited women riding in a passenger wagon from market square. Unfortunately, the Rockinghams did not bring their best game to the match and lost 31 to 26.
Following the game, both Clubs adjourned to the Rockingham House hotel where the home team hosted the visitors for dinner followed by a night of toasts. speeches, drinking, music and dancing. Not surprisingly, before the night was out, the Rockingham Club challenged Kearsarge to a rematch and the game was scheduled for September 11th in Concord. In anticipation of the second game, Portsmouth physician, Albion P. Stevens, commissioned the rosewood bat with the silver plate.
On the appointed day, the Rockingham players and a retinue of fans traveled by train to Concord and met the Kearsarge Club on an intervale across the Merrimack River from the City. As described by Brighton, “[s]adly, again it wasn’t the Rockinghams’ day. The match went only five innings because of rain, and when called the Concord team was leading 32 to 19.”
Both teams adjourned to the Eagle Hotel in Concord for dinner. Captain Hayes of the Rockingham Club presented a game ball to Captain Gage of the Kearsarge Club in recognition of the latter’s victory. In his acceptance, Gage noted that the two teams had the satisfaction of “having played the first match of the national game of Base Ball ever played in this State, and through their influence he hoped the game would be extended.” Several other speeches followed but the highlight of the banquet was the attendance and a speech by then-former President Franklin Pierce. At 10 o’clock, the players and fans adjourned to nearby Angelos Hall where the festivities lasted into the wee hours of the morning, with lots of drinking, speeches about “manly sports,” quadrille bands and “comely damsels.”
James H. Dow was presented with the rosewood bat as the best scorer of the match for the Rockingham Club although the decision was made by lot because one of his teammates, named Barstow, scored the same number of runs. Legend had it that President Pierce personally presented the bat to Dow. This legend proved to be a myth. The Concord Daily Monitor reported on September 12, 1866, “This morning, an elegant rosewood bat was presented by Dr. A. P. Stevens, of Portsmouth, through Fred L. Dodge, Secretary of the Rockingham Club, to James. H. Dow of the same Club for the best score in the match yesterday. The presentation took place in the parlor of the Eagle Hotel.”
The Rockingham Club continued to play games in the Fall of 1866 and in subsequent years until its merger into of the Granite State Club of Portsmouth a few years later. Dow also made the transmission, as well. During this time, Dow operated a fancy goods store on Market Street. He died in Portsmouth on February 27, 1918 at the age of seventy-eight.
1. This article borrows freely from an article titled “Rosewood bat presented as tribute to career” published in the Portsmouth Herald by author, reporter and editor Ray Brighton on July 29, 1990.
2. Fabrizio, Richard, Ball in Play since 1866, Portsmouth Herald, July 24, 2001.
3. This legend was repeated in a Portsmouth newspaper in 1906.