Baseball is the sport of spring -- of blue skies and green grass and sunshine. For the truly dedicated baseball fans of the 19th century, though, that wasn't enough; they weren't content to let baseball go into hibernation for a few months. So, unable to make the weather fit the sport, they came up with a solution that made the sport fit the weather:
They just started playing baseball on ice.
It was exactly what it sounds like: The game was still basically baseball -- well, baseball as it was in the mid-1800s, meaning no gloves and exclusively underhanded pitching -- just played on a frozen pond. The earliest documented instance came on January 16, 1860, when two local teams squared off on the frozen waters of Irondequoit Bay in Rochester, N.Y. The eight-inning game ended in a 27-25 barnburner, and afterward the reviews were glowing:
"We should think a little practice of this winter mode of playing ball could render it one of the best sports imaginable," the Buffalo Express declared the next morning. (The paper also celebrated the uptick in slips, falls and collisions, but we digress.)
Rochester hosted another game the next winter, on New Year's Day 1861, for which a reported 2,500 spectators showed up. From there, the game soon spread.
The very next month, the Brooklyn Atlantics -- a powerhouse in the National Association, at the time the best baseball league in America -- beat the Charter Oaks, 36-27, in the first game of ice baseball played in New York City. "Play was lively and exciting," a surprised New York Times reported. "Not as much difficulty being experienced from the use of skates by the players as was expected."
That sort of ease wasn't the norm, though. Great baseball players didn't necessarily make great skaters, and wind and other inclement weather had a tendency to muck things up. It even angered some of the everyday skaters, who objected to the damage that all that sliding and colliding did to the ice itself.
In 1865, the Brooklyn Eagle lamented, "We hope we shall have no more ball games on ice ... 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." Judging from wood carvings made at the time, it's not hard to see why:
But while the novelty eventually wore off, baseball on ice endured. Legends like Cap Anson used it to stay in shape in the winter, and in January 1884, Henry Chadwick -- the man who created the modern baseball box score -- organized a couple of games at Washington Park in south Brooklyn. While the teams combined for a whopping 27 errors over the two contests, Chadwick was still confident, telling the New York Times that "he was willing to play any club in the country with his steel-shod players."
Alas, we don't know if he ever did get the chance. Baseball on ice nearly disappeared toward the turn of the 20th century, although it did hang on long enough to provide us with this mesmerizing footage of some women in Toronto playing a game in 1924:
We also might owe it a little piece of baseball history. When a version of ice baseball's rules were codified in 1887, a provision was added to make clear that "each baserunner makes every base simply by overrunning the line of the base" -- since skating didn't exactly lend itself to stopping quickly. Runners still have to stay on the second- and third- base bags, but some accounts maintain that the above addendum is where we get the modern practice of running through first base.