Decidedly archaic in its rustic origins, baseball has been a battle for incessant braggadocio from the very beginning. It is as if the pastime’s earliest pioneers had the keen foresight to envision multi-million dollar stipends and lucrative television revenue better than 150 years in advance. As early clubs engaged in matches exclusively for pride and grand prose in the following day’s newspaper accounts, the “rewards” for triumph were concrete symbols rather than monetary spoils. This 1863 diamond relic is among the earliest trophy balls extant, perhaps the last remaining concrete evidence of an arduous battle played in front of a fervent crowd. The standard-size baseball showcases a glorious coat of gold-colored paint and a painted legend (in black) reading: “1863 – NOV 5th – UNION 28 Hy ECKF’rd 7 – 9 INNINGS.” There is crazing throughout and a drilled hole (opposite the hand-painted legend) to facilitate previous display.
While it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact location of the late-fall endeavor, the combatants are no strangers to early baseball lore. The forerunners to the Yankees and Dodgers clubs that were to do seemingly annual October battle throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the Union of Morrisania and Eckford (named for shipbuilder Henry Eckford) squads hailed from New York City. Therein lies additional mystery, as numerous baseball teams were named for Eckford. The most notable, of course, was the Brooklyn Eckfords, who, behind pitcher Joe Sprague and his underhand curveball, reeled off 144 successive triumphs! (Yes, Sprague started and won all of those games.) Documented "Eckford" teams surfaced in Albany (1864), Syracuse (1867) and Newark (1870). Yet, viewing the score and details on the offered trophy ball, we can only conclude that yet another "Eckford" version had surfaced and, aside from this enduring treasure, remains forever obscured.
Published accounts of the Union-Eckford tilts date as far back as May, 1860, when Eckford prevailed, 22-19. Two years later, the rivals met in a best-of-three series with an engraved silver ball at stake. Eckford emerged victorious as Sprague returned from a three-month stint in the Union Army to capture the decisive Game 3. By 1865, however, Union had taken the upper hand, winning by explosive scores of 27-18 (June 22) and 34-27 (August 10) before again pummeling its cross-borough nemesis. In the realm of 19th century diamond heirlooms and trophy baseballs, this rare and well-preserved survivor is an absolutely priceless vestige of the great American pastime and its halcyon beginnings. Obtained during the dispersal of artifacts (many from the earliest epoch of baseball) from the National Pastime Museum, this hardball relic inspires countless tales and memories of the men who shaped our grand game.