History of the Kent Base Ball Club
For more than 145 years, the words “Play Ball” have been as sure an indicator as the first robin that spring has returned to West Michigan. Grand Rapids’ first team, the Kent Base Ball Club of Grand Rapids was formed on April 4, 1867, when a group of Civil War veterans formed a club to continue playing the game they had learned while in the army. Silas K. Pierce, who had recently moved to the city from Ionia, was elected as the club’s first president, D.K. Hulburt was named vice president; artist Lawrence Earle became secretary, and A.P. Sinclair was appointed treasurer. The Kents were not the first group attempting to bring base ball (it was two words then) to the “Valley City” as Grand Rapids was then known. Unsuccessful efforts to form base ball clubs had been made in 1859 and again in 1866. Perhaps because of events leading up to the Civil War, which began in 1861, and readjustments that followed its close in 1865, both efforts failed.
The third effort was much more successful. Shortly after its first meeting, the Kent Base Ball Club announced that it was at work on a playing ground “on a hill east of the city in “Coit’s Addition,” near the southeast corner of Crescent Street and Prospect Avenue (now the location of Central High School). On April 20, 1867, the club’s first demonstration game was reported in the Grand Rapids Daily Eagle, with the “Hulburts” defeating the “Whites” 31-20. Base ball had been successfully launched in Grand Rapids.
One hundred and twenty-three years later, in 1990, a group of local enthusiasts led by city historian, Gordon Olson, decided to reorganize the Kents and play the game of base ball as it had originally been done in the 1860s. Olson had found the original constitution and by-laws of the Kent Base Ball Club in the Grand Rapids History and Special Collections Center at the public library, and was curious to see how the old game compared to its modern counterpart. The newly reconstituted Kents now play an average of 12-15 games per summer, and have appeared in Columbus, Ohio; Fayette State Park, Greenfield Village, Old Kent Park (all in Michigan), and Doubleday Field at Cooperstown, New York. In period uniforms, they do their best to live up to the enthusiasm and dedication to sportsmanship and fair play that motivated the original Kents.
The men who originally brought base ball to Grand Rapids were determined to play the game in spite of obstacles they encountered. In addition to having to create their own playing field, they had jobs that occupied most of their daylight hours. In order to accommodate everyone’s schedule, they practiced during early morning hours, including at least one session at 5 AM on a Saturday morning. Practices were announced in the newspaper so that all players and interested spectators could turn out.
Rules, of course, were different than today. For instance, an out was recorded if a ball was caught on one bounce. Overhand pitching was not allowed; walks had not been created; and no limit had been placed on the number of pitches a hitter could take before swinging. However, the umpire could begin calling strikes (or balls) if he felt either the hitter or the hurler (as the pitcher was then called) was deliberately delaying the game. Just as today, three strikes constituted an out. Profanity and ungentlemanly conduct were not permitted on the playing field, and umpires immediately assessed 25-cent fines against any offending player.
By May, the Kents were confident enough of their playing ability to accept an invitation for a home and home series with Pierce’s former team, the Custer Base Ball Club of Ionia. Unfortunately, their confidence exceeded their ability; they lost both games to the more experienced Custers by lop-sided scores. The local boys lost their first game in Grand Rapids to the Custers 48-19, and although they scored more runs, fared little better in the return match in Ionia, losing 62-33. Newspaper accounts of the first game describe a crowd estimated at 2,000, and contain an inning-by-inning recounting of the action, the names of outstanding players, and a description of both teams’ uniforms.
Although they were outscored by a lopsided margin, the first game in Grand Rapids was the spark needed to ignite enthusiasm for base ball. By early June at least six other clubs had organized. In addition to the Kents, there were the Dexters, the Centrals, the Young Americas, the Stars, the Hickorys, and the Peninsulars. All practiced regularly, and organizers of the city’s annual Independence Day celebration scheduled two games, with a silver ball, and a silver cup presented by Herkner’s Jewelers to the winners.
On July 4, 1867, the four clubs selected to play for trophies marched in the morning parade, and then got down to serious play in the afternoon. This time the Kents were winners, defeating the Centrals 88-39, for the silver ball, while the Dexters belted the Hickorys 86-7 for the cup. Not surprisingly, after July 4 the Hickorys are not mentioned in the newspaper again.
In the Kents’ game, one of their players, Joslin, was injured in a play at third, becoming the first local athlete to suffer a baseball-related injury. A few days later, the first rainout was recorded when a match game between the Kents and the Peninsulars for the Kents’ silver ball was postponed because of a severe storm.
By the end of that 1867 summer, base ball had established a firm foothold in Grand Rapids. The Kents had played games in Ionia and Muskegon as well as several at home. Attendance did not duplicate the first game, but baseball’s overall popularity, as measured by the other clubs that were formed, provided ample assurance that come next spring, balls and bats would be brought out and the cries of excited players and spectators would once again fill the air.
Locally, there were many teams in Grand Rapids in later years as professional base ball followed.
Grand Rapids’ Professional Team Nicknames and League Affiliations from 1883-present
1883 – 84 Grand Rapids Northwestern League
1889 – 90 Grand Rapids Michigan State League
1890 Grand Rapids Shamrocks International League
1894 Grand Rapids Rippers Western League
1894 Grand Rapids Rustlers Western League
1895 Grand Rapids Blackbirds Western League
1895 – 97 Grand Rapids Goldbugs Western League
1897 Grand Rapids Bobolinks Western League
1898 – 99 Grand Rapids Cabinetmakers Interstate League
1899 Grand Rapids Furnituremakers Western League
1900 Grand Rapids Boers International League
1901 Grand Rapids Woodworkers Western Association
1902 Grand Rapids Colts Michigan State League
1903 – 05 Grand Rapids Orphans Central League
1906 – 09 Grand Rapids Wolverines Central League
1910 Grand Rapids Raiders Central League
1911 Grand Rapids Grads Central League
1911 Grand Rapids Furnituremakers Central League
1912 Grand Rapids Black Sox Central League
1913 Grand Rapids Bill-Eds Central League
1914 Grand Rapids Champs Central League
1915 – 17 Grand Rapids Black Sox Central League
1920 – 21 Grand Rapids Joshers Central League
1922 Grand Rapids Billbobs Central League
1923 Grand Rapids Billbobs Michigan-Ontario League
1924 Grand Rapids Homoners Michigan-Ontario League
1926 Grand Rapids Black Sox Michigan State League
1934 Grand Rapids Tigers Central League
1940 Grand Rapids Dodgers Michigan State League
1941 Grand Rapids Colts Michigan State League
1945 – 54 Grand Rapids Chicks All-American Girls Professional Baseball League
1948 – 51 Grand Rapids Jets Central League
1994 – present West Michigan Whitecaps Midwest League
Kent Base Ball Club, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA