Although such popular modern pastimes as football and basketball had yet to be invented, Detroit’s sports scene nonetheless was an active one on the eve of the Civil War.
On April 12, 1859, the city hosted the first national championship billiard match, with Michael Phelan of New York defeating local favorite John Seereiter for the $15,000 top prize—a wagonload of money at a time when even skilled tradesmen often made only a few hundred dollars a year. Amidst all the excitement surrounding the tournament, the Detroit Free Press enthusiastically reported that “Detroit is really getting to be a sporting city.”
As proof of its claim, the newspaper cited the existence of two cricket teams, the Peninsulars and the Detroits; a yacht club; “first-class” billiard players like Seereiter; and a boat club (the Detroit Boat Club, formed in 1839 and today the nation’s oldest). Also mentioned was a local chess club “that has just come off victorious in a match with the Cleveland chess club.” Then there were the three race courses operating in or near the city. “Our citizens really seem to take great pride in fast horses,” the paper observed, “for the display of which our broad avenues are finely adapted.”
There was one glaring omission in the Freep’s rundown of Detroit’s sporting activities. Significantly, at that time of year when future generations of Detroiters would eagerly anticipate the first cry of “Play ball!”, there was not a single mention of a baseball team in the city.
The oversight was understandable. Although baseball would within a few years become wildly popular in Detroit, in the spring of 1859 it was still running second to its British cousin, cricket, among the city’s sporting types.
That began to change one afternoon that summer. On August 8, 1859, a large crowd of curious Detroiters attended the first game ever played between competing nines in the city. Meeting on the grounds of the Cass farm (in the vicinity of today’s Cass and Grand River avenues), the Detroits — a team comprised of some of Detroit’s leading citizens — routed the Early Risers, a recently organized squad of clerks who practiced mornings before reporting to work, by a 59-21 score.
This historic match demonstrated the qualities of the emerging national pastime. Whereas a cricket match was interminably slow, often taking two or three days to complete, a baseball game was usually over in less than 90 minutes. Soon several more ball clubs were organized locally, the Free Press joining other editorial voices in proclaiming baseball as “the perfect game for a young, virile America.”