“Phirst Phillies” is a series of stories about the earliest days of professional baseball in Philadelphia, by Lawrence Knorr.
Way back in 1883, our nation was in the midst of a recession. Eighteen years removed from the end of the Civil War, it was the Gilded Era of railroads, coal and steel. The Reading Railroad was the largest company in the world. In New York City, the Brooklyn Bridge was completed. Out west, Black Bart was robbing stage coaches.
In Philadelphia, at a long forgotten place called Recreation Park, the first National League baseball game played by the Philadelphia club was held on Tuesday, May 1, against the Providence Grays. Known then as the Quakers, Philadelphia dropped this first game 4 to 3. Providence would stay in town for two more days, sweeping these Quakers, who would go on to a National League worst 17-81 record.
Where was Recreation Park? It was bounded by Columbia Avenue (now Cecil B. Moore Avenue) and Ridge Avenue, between 24th and 25th Streets, in the northwest section of town, east of Fairmount Park, on the edge of Brewerytown. Back then, this part of town was known for the number of breweries in its vicinity. Today, there is no park in this location. Instead, two city blocks, split by Clifford Street, stand on the grounds. You can tour the site using Google Earth, by “driving around the block” on your computer. It does not appear there are any historical markers in this neighborhood, which has clearly seen better days.
Al Reach purchased these grounds in 1882 and served as team president from 1883 through 1899, when he sold out to John Rogers. He had made millions in sporting goods before selling his firm to Spalding in 1889. Reach’s Recreation Park had been used for baseball games in years past, including what was known as “the first baseball game in Pennsylvania” back in 1860. With a capacity of 6,500 fans, the park was small, reaching only 331 feet to center, 300 feet to left, and 247 feet to right. The park was only in operation through 1886, and was demolished in 1889, soon after which many of the structures present today were constructed.
On the mound that day for Providence was none other than hall of fame pitcher Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn. Though he gave up two runs in the first, he stymied the Quakers for most of the rest of the contest. According to a newspaper account from the time:
“The Philadelphias won the game with the Providence today, then lost it, then nearly tied the score, and finally left the field defeated in the first league game of the season. On both sides, the game was well-played and hard hitting, met with excellent stopping and fielding in every inning until everybody must have been satisfied with the exhibition, whether satisfied with its result or not.
“In the field, the Philadelphias did particularly good work, making no errors that cost them anything in runs, and the latter innings playing a perfect game. At bat, however, they were not so strong, and the single and two-base hits made by the first two men were more than the half of all they scored.
“The Providence team, which opened the batting poorly, getting one hit and a hit that is scored them through the umpire’s decision, until the eighth inning seemed unable to get the hitch of the pitching, but they lit onto it and hit safely in every direction until they had scored three earned runs. In the field, they interspersed good playing with an occasional bad muff, their third baseman and left fielder being most prominent in the latter direction. Start made one beautiful catch on a high line fly, which he got in one hand, and one or two stops of low-thrown balls to first.
“Farrar at first base took every opportunity that offered, and put seventeen men out. About 1,000 people were in attendance.”
The box score: