The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, May 04, 2021 1:00 am

150 years ago today, city made history

Pro baseball's first league game played

BLAKE SEBRING | For The Journal Gazette

It could be debated that 150 years ago, the era of professional league sports began on a little plot of land behind St. Joseph's Hospital.

Yes, it's not too much hyperbole to suggest that on May 4, 1871, Fort Wayne became the birthplace of modern professional sports.

All because of one baseball game.

After the Civil War, the Fort Wayne Kekiongas baseball team was formed in 1866. In 1869, the team played the Cincinnati Red Stockings, believed to be the country's first team of paid professional players. The Red Stockings won easily 86-8, then won the rematch later that season 41-7.

But the Kekiongas were actually a very good team. During the Civil War, in April 1862, some young men formed the Summit City Club to play baseball on land that is today covered by the Fort Wayne Community Schools' Grile Administration Center.

After the war, the club disbanded and another team was formed, the Kekiongas.

In 1870, a team from Baltimore, called the Marylands, had disbanded right in the middle of a Midwest tour, and several of the best players ended up on the Kekiongas. One of them was pitcher Bobby Mathews, who some say invented the curveball.

The Kekiongas won the state championship that summer.

That led to Fort Wayne being invited to a 1871 meeting in New York to start the National Association of Professional Baseball Players.

Representatives from the Philadelphia Athletics, Brooklyn Eckfords, Chicago White Stockings, Boston Red Stockings, Washington (D.C.) Olympians, Troy (N.Y.) Haymakers, New York City Mutuals, Cleveland Forest Cities, Rockford (Ill.) Forest Cities and Fort Wayne were present. The entry fee was $10 per team.

Though the Kekiongas were no longer around by then, the surviving clubs of that league became the National League, which was founded Feb. 2, 1876.

The teams tossed coins during that original 1871 meeting to see which squads would play the first game.

Washington was scheduled at Cincinnati that day, but the game was rained out, meaning the game in Fort Wayne became the league's first official contest.

The Kekiongas were leading 2-0 when the game was called because of rain in the top of the ninth inning.

It's something of an urban legend that the Kekiongas evolved into the Brooklyn Dodgers, but actually the Fort Wayne team folded in July after a 7-21 start and was replaced in the league by the Brooklyn Eckfords team, which had chosen not to pay the initial $10 entry fee.

That team eventually became the Dodgers.

For more than 100 years, the actual site of that first game was in doubt and had been lost to history, partly because there were five potential sites.

In 2016, Bill Griggs, head of the local Society for American Baseball Research chapter, made it his mission to determine the site so he could put a plaque there in honor of his friend Bob Gregory who passed in September 2016. Finding the spot for a monument had been Gregory's last wish.

Griggs determined that Camp Allen Park – two blocks south of Main Street just west of St. Joseph Hospital and near the St. Marys River – was the site.

Working with City Councilman Geoff Paddock, D-5th, and the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department, Griggs and the SABR group designated the park for an official monument, which was placed there in 2017. Donations, including one from the TinCaps, paid for the monument.

On one side, the monument includes a box score of the game and the inscription, “Donated in Bob Gregory's memory on May 4, 2017,” by the Fort Wayne TinCaps, SABR, Northeast Indiana Baseball Association, Huntington Vintage Baseball, the many friends of Kekionga Base Ball, (artist) David J. Stalker and Archie Monuments.

Griggs, who died in 2019 at age 72, based his research partly on newspaper reports of the time, including descriptions of later games that include balls being hit into the river.

The other favorite site of historians is Hamilton Field, which was allegedly near Lewis and Calhoun streets downtown, but that would have made it impossible for any balls to be hit into the river. Griggs also credits longtime Fort Wayne sports historian Bob Parker for nailing the spot around 1971, which was the game's 100th anniversary.

“I saw stuff that contradicted each. Half of them say Hamilton Park and half say Kekionga Ball Field,” Griggs said. “I went down to the library and went through the microfilm, and there's no doubt it was at Kekionga ball grounds. There is absolutely, positively no doubt.

“I would put everything I own or ever will own because I have the legal description, I have maps, I have stories of balls being hit in the river. Everything fits.”

Based on where he believes the grandstands were, Griggs thought the 1871 version of “home plate” was toward the park's current northwest corner and the field faced west on a block that currently is bordered by Fair, Center, Huron and Mechanic streets.

But why should this be so important still today?

“You can make the case that professional sports leagues started in 1871 in Fort Wayne, Indiana,” Griggs said. “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.”

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