In the 19th century, Brooklynites played baseball on ice

December 5, 2017

Baseball on Ice (1884) via Fine Art America

For baseball fans, winter becomes an unbearably long season. In addition to the cold weather and early darkness, there are no games to watch. As a solution to this ball game drought, Brooklynites of the mid-and-late-1800’s began playing ice baseball. Getting its start in Rochester, N.Y. and later moving downstate to Brooklyn in 1861, the sport of ice baseball forced players to strap on skates and attempt to follow the rules of regular baseball on a frozen pond. Although ice skating remains a very popular winter activity in New York City to this day, baseball on ice eventually lost its charm before the turn of the 20th century, as players, and fans, complained about the freezing cold and slippery conditions.

The skating pond at Washington Park in Brooklyn via Old Stone House

The rules of ice baseball were basically the same as regular baseball, but instead of nine innings, there were only five. According to Joseph Alexiou’s book, “Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal,” the ball was painted bright red and felt softer than a normal baseball. To maintain balance without falling down, the players would overshoot and skate past the bases, which were scratched into the ice. Some historians believe this rule carried over to the rules of modern-day baseball, where overrunning first base is acceptable.

The first game of ice baseball in Brooklyn occurred on Feb. 4, 1861, between the Atlantics and the Charter Oaks, and nearly 12,000 people attended the match. At first, crowds appeared genuinely enthusiastic about this unique sport. The Brooklyn Eagle reported that just a few players slipped but provided a “source of infinite merriment” to the audience.

However, the allure of the game dulled over the next few years. “We hope we shall have no more ball games on ice,” the Brooklyn Eagle wrote in 1865. “If any of the ball clubs want to make fools of themselves, let them go down to Coney Island and play a game on stilts.”

Despite its growing unpopularity, ice baseball spread in Brooklyn, with games played at Washington Park in South Brooklyn, Prospect Park, Union Pond in Williamsburg and Capitoline Pond in what is currently Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Alas, ice baseball did not survive later than the 1890s, a time when the adoration of regular baseball in New York was in full swing. A New York Times article from 1879 described one game as only had attracted “a half-dozen shivering spectators,” foreshadowing the sport’s demise. Apparently, the ball game “was anything but interesting to the scorer and umpire, who became so thoroughly chilled by the fifth inning that they refused to act longer, and thus the game was brought to an untimely end.”


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More: History
Location: Brooklyn

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  1. L

    The game depended on freezing temptures to make those ponds–a stark realization of how much warmer it is these days.