After the Civil War, the Fort Wayne Kekiongas baseball team formed in 1866, and in 1869 the team played the Cincinnati Red Stockings, who were the first team in the country with paid professional players. The Red Stockings won easily 86-8 then won the rematch later that season 41-7.
That may not sound like a very important beginning, but the Kekiongas and Fort Wayne were hugely important to the start of professional baseball and later became hosts of the first professional league game ever played.
The Kekiongas were actually a very good team and won the state championship in 1870. Around the same time, a team from Baltimore had disbanded during a Midwest tour, and several of the best players ended up on the Kekiongas. One of them was the pitcher, Bobby Mathews, who some say invented the curveball.
The following year the Kekiongas' prestige improved dramatically as the National Association of Professional Baseball Players started during a meeting in New York. Representatives from the Philadelphia Athletics, Brooklyn Eckfords, Chicago White Stockings, Boston Red Stockings, Washington Olympics, Troy (New York) Haymakers, New York Mutuals, Cleveland Forest Citys, Rockford (Illinois) Forest Citys, and Fort Wayne were present. The entry fee was $10 per team.
There had never been a professional league, and on May 4, 1871, Fort Wayne became the site of the first professional baseball league game.
How Fort Wayne got that honor required a bit of luck. There was a game scheduled for earlier in the day featuring Washington at Cincinnati, but it was rained out.
The Kekiongas were leading the Cleveland Forest Citys 2-0 behind Mathews' five-hit pitching performance when the contest was called because of rain in the top of the ninth inning.
With a 7-12 record, the Kekiongas lasted only until August, and the league folded in 1875, but six of the teams helped form the National League in 1876.
Maybe the most interesting facet of the game to recent history was determining the site. Through extensive research including newspaper reports from the time, local baseball historian Bill Griggs proved the game was played at Camp Allen Park, two blocks south of Main Street just west of St. Joseph's Hospital and near St. Marys River.
“You can make the case that professional sports leagues started in 1871 in Fort Wayne, Indiana,” said Griggs, then the president of the local Society of American Baseball Research chapter. “Basketball had not been invented, football was rugby and hockey was shinny. It's not just the site of the first Major League Baseball game, or if you prefer the first game of a professional baseball league, but also the beginning of all professional league sports.”
On May 20, 2017, with the help of City Councilman Geoff Paddock and the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department, Griggs and the Northeast Indiana Baseball Association unveiled a permanent monument on the spot of the game.
Ironically, because of geographic changes along the river, Camp Allen Park is now just a small playground not nearly big enough for a stadium, but its importance in baseball history will never be forgotten.
About this series
• Ever wonder what a Northeast Indiana Sports Hall of Fame might include? During a time when it may be difficult to look ahead to great sporting events, The Journal Gazette is going to offer you a look into Fort Wayne and northeast Indiana's fantastic athletic past. Over the next few weeks, we'll offer some suggestions on the people and events that could be featured in such a facility.