Washington Park Skating Pond and Old Stone House. Image from The Old Stone House.
We all know Brooklyn’s connection to baseball and the Dodgers. But did you know about the sport of ice baseball? Gowanus was the locale for both popularization of both baseball and its winter partner, ice baseball, that originated in Brooklyn. This fun find comes to us from the book Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal by Joseph Alexiou.
The Old Stone House, scene of the Revolutionary War battle less than a century before, became a baseball clubhouse in 1855. Games were played in the fields around the house, unless they flooded – which given the original marshy landscape of the area, was fairly common. When the temporary ponds froze over, Brooklynites would ice skate on them, with over the top entertainment brought in. Crowds reached upwards of 10,000 at these gatherings. By 1861, the ice skating craze got combined with the baseball craze to create ice baseball.
The first recorded game of ice baseball in Brooklyn took place on February 4, 1861 between the Atlantics and the Charter Oaks, was witnessed by 12,000 people. (An earlier game happened on New Year’s Day that same year up in Rochester). The local newspaper reports had that wonderful tone of the time, as Alexiou recounts. The Brooklyn Eagle reported that only a few players slipped but those that did provided a “source of infinite merriment” to those watching.
Later, the pond around the Old Stone House was enlarged, dubbed “Washington Pond,” and fenced in to manage the crowds. The Old Stone House also became the headquarters for the Washington Skating Club.
The rules to ice baseball, Alexiou describes in his book, are as follows:
The rules to ice baseball were essentially the same as for regular baseball but with certain concessions: there were only five innings and only ten players allowed on the field; the ball was painted bright red for greater visibility and was somewhat softer than a normal baseball. The bases were scratched into the ice, and players could overshoot them and still be safe, like with first base in a regular game. With different seasonal physics to work with, the best skaters soon grabbed the title of most valuable ice baseball players.
But just four years later, the Brooklyn Eagle had a little less positive take, writing “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.” Still ice baseball would continue, in Prospect Park, in Union Pond in Williamsburg, Capitoline Pond in what is now Bedford Stuyvesant. The game would be particularly popular during the Civil War, with many players either visiting on leave or not in the military.
By 1884, the Atlantics would join the Major League American Association. One rule from the ice skating days made it into the formal rules of baseball written down in 1867, reports Mental Floss, “‘each base runner makes every base simply by overrunning the line of the base,’ since skating made it so difficult to stop short.”