Competing Polkas

The city of Rochester, New York, was baseball-mad in the early nineteenth century, boasting hundreds of local teams, each with a spirited fan base. In September 1858, the first inter-city game was held between the Buffalo Niagaras and Rochester’s own Flour City team. Thousands turned out. The victorious Buffalo team hosted the post-game celebration where Buffalo’s J. R. Blodgett presented the Flour City team with a copy of his “Baseball Polka,” [image 1] dedicated to the Rochester team. This work holds the distinction of being the first original published baseball song. The 1860 “Live Oak Polka” [image 2] is one of five baseball-related color sheet music lithographs dating from the mid-nineteenth century. Its cover features one of the most beautiful and historically significant baseball displays of the pre-Civil War era. Backers of the Live Oak team commissioned music professor J. H. Kalbfleisch to compose and dedicate the song to the Rochester club, likely as an answering salvo to the mounting one-upmanship on the baseball field between their city and Buffalo, where Blodgett’s “Baseball Polka” had been published two years earlier.

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  • J. R. Blodgett. “The Baseball Polka.” Buffalo: Blodgett & Bradford, 1858. Music Division, Library of Congress (001.00.00)

  • J.H. Kalbfleisch. “The Live Oak Polka.” Rochester, NY: Jos. P. Shaw, 1860. Music Division, Library of Congress (002.00.00)

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Early Baseball Classics

The Mercantile Base Ball Club of Philadelphia was established in 1859. One of the team’s founding members was John Zebley, a salesman in a hosiery and glove store on Chestnut Street. Zebley’s outstanding composition, the “Home Run Quick Step,” [image 1] has been described musically as the most original and haunting of the early baseball classics. Not long afterwards, also in Philadelphia, “Baseball Polka,” [image 2] by Jas. M. Goodman was published. This extremely rare imprint is one of the premier nineteenth-century baseball display pieces by virtue of its extraordinary full-color lithographic cover, picturing a game in progress.

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Precursors to Major League Baseball

Baseball player Harry Wright (1835–1895), one of baseball’s Wright brothers, began his strategic team building plan for the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1867. Two years later, after recruiting his brother George Wright (1847–1937), who had hit .629 and 49 home runs the previous season, and Brooklyn pitching ace Asa Brainard, his 1869 team was unbeatable. They posted the only perfect season in professional baseball history. That same year they became the first official “professional” team with full-salaried starting players.

Hettie Shirley Austin. “Red Stockings Schottisch.” New York: J. L. Peters, 1869. Sheet music. Music Division, Library of Congress (005.00.00)

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“Champions of America”

Established in 1855, the Brooklyn Atlantics dominated New York baseball for more than a decade. Their greatest moment happened in Brooklyn on June 14, 1870, when, before a crowd of 20,000, they ended the Red Stockings’ 2-year winning streak in what at the time was called the finest game ever played. The “Champions of America” image (shown here) was reproduced from what is considered the earliest extant dated collectible baseball “card.” The Atlantics were predecessors of the Brooklyn Dodgers, now the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Charles H. Williamson, photographer. “Champions of America,” 1865. Reproduction of photograph mounted on card. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (006.00.00)

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