Just as the growth of the popularity of baseball at Notre Dame reflected the growth of the game in the country as a whole, there appears to have been a decline in the game's popularity at the university in the early 1870s, just as there was in St. Louis at the time. While there had been as many as eight clubs listed in the Annual Catalogues in the late 1860s, during the 1870-1871 academic year, there appears to have been only five clubs.iv The following year, when Packy Dillon first arrived on campus, the Annual Catalogue lists no baseball clubs at all. This is not to imply that baseball was not played at Notre Dame during the 1871-1872 academic year, because there is no doubt that it was.v However, the campus newspaper did note a decrease in interest in the game.vi
Regardless of the status of the popularity of the game at Notre Dame and in the United States, Dillon, McSorley, and the brothers Blong arrived at a campus in the fall of 1872 where there was ample opportunity to play baseball. There was plenty of space on campus to play the game, plenty of students who were interested in playing, a club structure already in place, and the recreation time normally afforded a student. There is no evidence to suggest that the future Reds played for any of the major clubs at Notre Dame. It appears that the Juanitas and the Stars of the East and West were clubs made up of upper classmen from the college, rather than from the prepatory school. However, there is evidence of a lower level of clubs that existed alongside the major Notre Dame baseball clubs of the era. Besides those collegiate clubs that annually competed for the university championship, the campus newspaper, during 1872 and 1873, mention clubs like the Rattlers, the Quicksteps, and the Tom Thumbs. There are also references to second nines, which also would have afforded undergraduates and prep students an opportunity to play baseball.vii
So while it doesn't appear that the future Reds were playing at the highest level of Notre Dame baseball, it is obvious that the opportunity to play baseball while at university was there. We know that Joe Blong was playing organized club baseball in St. Louis as early as 1869 and there are suggestions that Dillon was doing the same by 1870. McSorley and Andrew Blong were both good ball-players who must have been playing club ball in St. Louis prior to going to university and they may very well have been playing with Joe Blong on the St. Louis Juniors. All four of these guys were good, young ball-players who played at a high level, in a very competitive environment as soon as they returned home to St. Louis in the summer of 1873. It would be out of character if these guys were not playing baseball while they were at Notre Dame.
While one has to assume, given all of the evidence, that the future Reds were playing baseball at Notre Dame, there is one interesting piece of evidence that suggests that they may not have been playing baseball at the university club level. Packy Dillon's grandson, Jerome A. Dillon, suggests that his grandfather was asked to leave Notre Dame because of “athletic professionalism.”viii There is no evidence to support this idea other than Jerome Dillon's assertion and there are no known professional clubs near South Bend, Indiana, in the early 1870s, with whom Packy Dillon could have been playing. That does not mean that we should dismiss the idea that Dillon and, possibly, the other future Reds, were expelled from Notre Dame for playing baseball for money and we should certainly not dismiss, out of hand, the traditions of the Dillon family oral history. If, as has been noted, students were not allowed to leave the campus without permission and were not allowed to have their own money on their persons, it is absolutely possible that Dillon, if he had been sneaking off campus and playing baseball for money, would have been expelled. It is true that by May of 1873, before the academic year had ended, Dillon, McSorley, and the brothers Blong were back in St. Louis and playing professional baseball with the Reds.
The idea that Dillon and the other future Reds were playing professional baseball while students at Notre Dame and were expelled because of that is a fascinating idea and it would not necessarily be out of character. As noted, they had played club baseball at a reasonably high level in St. Louis prior to going to university and it is possible that they had been compensated for playing baseball in the early 1870s. Baseball players in St. Louis had been getting paid since at least 1867 and it is likely that one of the reasons that players like Blong, Pidge Morgan, and Jon Paul Peters had left the Atlantic Club and formed their own clubs was pecuniary. Also, because of their status as prep students, the future Reds, while at Notre Dame, found themselves unable to join the best clubs at the school. It is possible that because they were not able to play on and compete against the best clubs at Notre Dame, they looked around for better opportunities. Maybe they found a low-level professional club around South Bend and decided to make a little bit of money while going to school. When caught, they were expelled and went home to St. Louis and formed the Red Stockings. While this is all speculative and there is no evidence to support any of this, it is not out of the realm of possibility.
i Twenty-third Annual Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, For the Academic Year 1866-1867; p 19.
ii Twentieth Annual Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, For the Academic Year 1863-64; p 19.
iii Baseball Clubs; Notre Dame Archive News & Notes (http://www.archives.nd.edu/about/news/?p=1969#.WX4ixpdtnIV).
iv Twenty-Seventh Annual Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, For the Academic Year 1870-1871; pp 22-23.
v The Scholastic; October 28, 1872; p 7.
vi The Scholastic; September 21, 1872; p 14.
vii The Scholastic; May 3, 1873, p 6; May 10, 1873, p 4.
viii The Dillon Family Oral History, Part One; This Game of Games (http://www.thisgameofgames.com/home/the-dillon-family-oral-history-part-one).