In 1884, nine young men who would later become Ashland's movers and shakers — including Butler, Wimer, Wagner, Tolman — started a baseball team. And one of them, George McConnell, had a secret weapon: He figured out how to throw a curveball, perhaps the first in the West.
The men were so confident in McConnell's pitching they challenged any team to beat them — and backed it up with a $2,000 bet.
There were no takers, says Ashland historian Joe Peterson, who will give a free lecture on the team, "Ashland's Great Curve Ball," at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 11, in the Gresham Room of the Ashland library, 410 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland.
What: "Ashland's Great Curve Ball," a lecture on Ashland's 1884 baseball team by historian Joe Peterson
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 11
Where: Gresham Room of the Ashland library, 410 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland
Peterson, author of "Ashland," part of the "Images of America" history book series, started looking into the pioneer era of baseball when he bought two old team photographs at a garage sale. They were identified only by the players' last names, at least two of which adorn primary streets in Ashland.
That set Peterson on one of his favorite pastimes — playing detective. He searched Ashland Daily Tidings microfilm in the library till he found the town's "boys of summer," all in their 20s at the time.
The Ashland nine "really thumped" Yreka at a diamond on Oak Street, Peterson says, but opponents thought better of laying any money on the game.
The Tidings crowed that McConnell's was the first curveball ever thrown. But after checking with the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y, Peterson learned it may have been the first in the West only, as the curveball was invented in 1867 by Candy Cummings of the Brooklyn Excelsiors.
McConnell's curveball seemed to defy the laws of physics, Peterson says. In fact, most people thought it was an optical illusion. So the team set up three poles in a line, inviting public scrutiny of the ball's path as it wound left of the first pole, right of the second pole and left of the last pole.
"In the old days of baseball, the ball was thrown underhand and no one wore gloves," says Peterson. "The batter was allowed to call it to be thrown high, between the waist and shoulders, or low, between the knees and waist. But McConnell could make the curveball drop or go horizontal at the plate. The umpires would scratch their heads and didn't know what to do with it."
On May 1, 1886, the Ashland nine published a "Baseball Challenge" in the Tidings, daring any team from Roseburg to Redding, Calif., to a game. "Now boys, come to the rack or foreverafter hold your peace," the ad said, taunting all takers to bet $1,000 or $2,000 on the game.
The higher figure would be about $25,000 in today's dollars, says Peterson.
Putting together all the pieces of the baseball puzzle "became quite a detective story," says Peterson, but it started making sense as he matched players' names with town features.
Wimer Street was named after Loren Wimer. Butler Lane and Butler Band Shell and Fountain came from Ashland's first millionaire, Gwinn Butler. Wagner Butte and Wagner Creek in Talent are named after Jacob Wagner. McConnell was noted as the owner of Ashland's first grocery store, says Peterson, as well as a breeder of fancy show pigeons.
Peterson says that in the mid-1880s, baseball was changing fast into its present form. Pitchers were starting to throw overhand, catchers began wearing masks adapted from the sport of fencing and players started wearing padded gloves, instead of suffering pains from catching barehanded.
Peterson found and purchased an antique baseball glove and mask, which he will display along with historic photos during his lecture.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.