The members of the Empire Base Ball Club of this city returned last night from Dubuque, Iowa, after winning the silver ball and the championship of the northwest, in one of the best and most ably contested match games ever played in this country. The people of Dubuque, who witnessed the game, magnanimously extend to the St. Louis boys the praise to which their nobly won victory so justly entitles them, and declare the Empire Club of St. Louis to be the Champion Club of America. The game was witnessed by an enthusiastic multitude, numbering over fifteen thousand persons, including hosts of the fair sex, and representatives from all the States of the Northwest. The Empire boys, on arriving in East St. Louis, yesterday morning, were received at the depot by a large delegation of their friends, including members of the Baltic, Liberty, Magenta, Dinga, Columbia and O.K. Base Ball Clubs, and with music, escorted to their headquarters, No. 124 North Third street. The handsome prize ball of solid silver will be on exhibition at Miller's saloon for some days, and every one can see it who wishes to gratify a curiosity. The Empire Base Ball Club is composed of our worthiest citizens-gentlemen who would reflect credit on any community-representing as much intelligence and wealth as any society of a similar nature in the United States. Their object is to cultivate a taste for out-door sports, which has been too much neglected by the American people in their march to opulence and greatness-over-burdening the mental faculties while the physic system remains undeveloped. Our citizens should take a lively interest in fostering and encouraging such associations as the Empire Club, and when such sports become more generally indulged in by our youth, we can dispense with billiard saloons and similar dens of iniquity. We extend to the Empire boys our congratulations, and feel a tinge of pride suffuse our cheeks when we hear the notes of praise that are uttered by all who witnessed the achievements of the Empire Base Ball Club of St. Louis.
-St. Louis Daily Press, October 3, 1865
The people of Dubuque or, more likely, a Dubuque newspaper declared the Empire Club of St. Louis to be the Champion Club of America in 1865. To what extent was that title justified?
The short answer is that it wasn't.
Those guys in that picture above are the Atlantics of Brooklyn. They were pretty good and are recognized as the national baseball champions in 1865. They are pretty much also recognized as the national champions in 1859, 1860, 1861, and 1864. While those championship claims can be questioned, there is no doubt that they were a great baseball team and one of the elite clubs in America. If they had played the Empire Club in St. Louis, I think they would have been favored by at least twenty runs.
In 1865, the Atlantics went undefeated, playing the best clubs in New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Washington. They were playing the best clubs in the East and beat them all. That gives them a fairly nice claim to the national championship and absolutely gave them a claim to the championship of the National Association of Base Ball Players.
But the Eastern clubs, at this point, were not playing the Western clubs and there weren't any Western clubs in the National Association. We can argue that the Atlantics could rightfully claim the Championship of the East and we can argue that they were better than any of the Western clubs but, in 1865, there was no real national championship. It was, essentially, a mythical championship that the Atlantics are being given credit for.
The real basis for this is our ignorance about what was happening in the West during the Civil War. Our basic assumption has always been that New York was the hotbed of baseball during these years and that most of the baseball being played was in that area. But we now know that there was a great deal of baseball being played in St. Louis during the war years and there may have been just as much baseball being played in St. Louis as in New York. St. Louis was every bit as much of a baseball hotbed during the war years as New York. Because of this, I don't think it's fair to say that the best club in New York was the best club in the nation. There was a lot of baseball being played elsewhere and that has to be accounted for.
Now you can point to the latter part of the 1860s and say that every time one of the big Eastern clubs played a St. Louis club, the Eastern club not only won but won by a large margin. That's a fair point. However, we are talking specifically about 1865. The Empire Club defeated the best clubs in Missouri, twice they beat the best club in Illinois, and they defeated some of the best clubs in Iowa in the Dubuque tournament. I think their claim to being the Championship Club of the West in 1865 is a solid one. It is certainly every bit as solid as the Atlantics claim to being the best club in the East.
As I said earlier, I don't think the Empires were better than the Atlantics but you can't really prove that the Atlantics were better than the Empires. Just because they played in Brooklyn and were the best club in the East doesn't give them a right to claim a national championship in 1865. Baseball was being played all over the country and there were good clubs across the nation. The Empires claim to the national championship would be based not only on their victories in Freeport and Dubuque but also on the state of baseball in St. Louis during the war years. They were the best club in St. Louis at a time when the St. Louis baseball scene was as large and active as anywhere else in the nation. And they went on the road and proved how good they were against some of the best clubs in the West.
In the end, I think the only reason to dismiss the Empire Club's claim to being the best club in the United States in 1865 would be because of our predisposition to assume that New York baseball was far and away superior to any other baseball being played in the United States in 1865. Again, I'll say that I think the Atlantics were the better club and would win a series against the Empires handily. But, at the very least, we have to address the Empire Club's claim and take it seriously. They were the best club in the West in 1865 and, at the time, some said that they were the best club in the country. Given what we now know about baseball in St. Louis leading into this era, we should take the claim a little more seriously than we did in the past.