The year 1875 fell in the middle of a renewal period for America.
The Reconstruction Era was in full swing, and the nation was rebuilding itself in a time of business, industry and prosperity.
Also, there was baseball. The sport itself was essentially the same as it is today – but with a few rather barbaric differences.
The pitcher’s mound didn’t exist yet. Instead, pitchers threw from a “pitcher’s box” that was flat on the field level and just 45 feet from home plate. Pitches were tossed underhand or slung sidearm, as overhand delivery was not allowed until 1884.
A new element was introduced that year, though only a few players took advantage of it at the onset – gloves. The sport was originally intended to be played barehanded, and any complaints players made of pain, bruising or even broken bones were thought of as unimportant gripes made at the risk of belittling the desired toughness of the game. The pioneering gloves of 1875 were only worn at first by catchers and the occasional first baseman. They were thin, usually fingerless, and offered about as much protection as a standard batting or golf glove does today.
The then-relatively new game of base ball (referred to in those days as two words) was taking the country by storm, with professional and amateur teams and leagues dotting the land from coast to coast. Two such teams, the Chicago White Stockings (as they were called before they became the Cubs) from the National Association and the Joliet Stone Citys would square off Sept. 28 in Joliet, according to Will County Historical Society and other research.
The White Stockings were winding down a mediocre season in 1875. They would finish 30-37, good for sixth place in the 13-team National Association. Despite a 13-3 start, Chicago dealt with inconsistency in the second half, and labored to a 4-9-1 stretch in the final month. Interestingly, the National Association disbanded after the 1875 season, and the new National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, essentially the same National League we know today, began play in 1876.
With a few off days set for the end of September, White Stockings manager Jimmy Wood used the break to line up a couple of exhibitions.
Initially, Wood sent a telegram to Doug Snapp, manager of the Stone Citys, inviting Joliet to play the game at the 23rd Street Grounds in Chicago, but this would later change. The Stone Citys were considered among the best amateur teams in the state, along with rival clubs from Elgin and Morris – who were also nicknamed the White Stockings – and to whom the Chicago club would travel the next day for another game. The opportunity to play two exhibitions in two days within a short distance was likely the reason Wood agreed to move the game from Chicago. Snapp was confident in his team’s preparedness to challenge the pros, and so was the rest of the town.
“The Stone Citys, as amateurs, stand on a par with the White Stockings, as professionals,” the “Joliet Weekly Sun” claimed, and so, the stage was set for what is known to be the first time Joliet hosted a big league baseball club.
Details on the game itself are sketchy, as no box score or full recap could be located. What is known however, is the lopsided final score:
Chicago White Stockings: 29
Joliet Stone Citys: 1
While future Joliet squads would acquit themselves relatively well against visiting major league teams (a 7-3 loss vs. the Cubs in 1902, a 6-0 loss vs. the White Sox in 1910, and a 5-4 victory over the Cubs in 1920), this day would end up being lengthy for the locals, and the Sun was singing a much different tune afterward. In stark contrast to declaring that the Joliet team needed a lot of practice, the performance of the White Stockings was highly praised, calling it “…the best game of ball we ever saw.”
The exact location of where the Stone Citys hosted this early version of the Cubs was never reported. There is evidence of at least three ballparks in Joliet in 1875, one on Sherman Street, another on Linden Avenue, and the original Will County Fairgrounds at Rowell and Second avenues. Given the scope of this game, it was likely held at the fairgrounds.
Despite more precise details being lost, it remains an important part of professional – and local – baseball history. What seemed at the time like a routine exhibition was the catalyst for more such games in the future, and it helped set Joliet and surrounding areas on the path to becoming the hotbed of baseball talent that continues today.