'I didn't know baseball started so early on the West Coast. You have a reference to it being played in California during the late 1850s."
I'm talking to Bill Swank, 64, about his latest book, Baseball in San Diego: From the Plaza to the Padres. Swank was a San Diego County probation officer for 31 years, retired in 1994. He has written or cowritten five San Diego--centered baseball books. He's married and the father of three grown children.
Continuing, "I was also surprised that newspapers were referring to baseball as the national game by the 1880s."
"When did that happen?"
"The 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings," Swank says, "are considered the first professional baseball team. They toured the country and won all their games. The National League started in 1876. Baseball was called the National Game by then."
U.S. Grant was president. "And, at the same time, there was a lot of circus in it. Didn't San Diego promoters often field instant teams in order to make a quick buck on Sunday?"
"Players would jump around so much, a guy could play for one team in the morning and another team in the afternoon, depending on the money. In 1906, this guy Sanders -- don't know his first name -- a black guy, he's playing on an all-white San Diego team. We had integration here in 1906. Amazing."
Well, maybe, sort of, and it depends. "You quote from the Union, after writing a paragraph describing an 1870s San Diego baseball game, 'Gen. Custar's [sic] command annihilated.' "
"Yeah, yeah," Swank laughs. "They didn't have sports pages back then. You'd be reading along and there would be an article about a ship that just pulled in. And then there'd be a story about honey production. Then there'd be a little story, a game of baseball 'was played today between the Bon Tons and the Dolly Vardens,' goofy names like that, 'and the score was 26 to 19, and everybody had a good time.' Custer was misspelled. The story was just coming off the telegraph lines."
"I was surprised that towns as small as Vista, Fallbrook, Julian, La Mesa, Ramona, and Poway had baseball teams in the 1890s."
Swank says, "The Pala Indians had a team."
What follows are a few team names from that period: Lone Star Club, the Old San Diego Club, Young Americans Club, Diegos, Resolutes, Bay City Club, Schiller and Murtha, Llewelyns, S. Whites, Dorseys, Shamrocks, Pickwicks, Mercantile, Bears, Old Town, Whites, F.N. Hamilton, and my favorite, Otay Watch Factory.
"What were your primary sources?" I ask.
"It's all original research. I started out with the [San Diego] Herald and then the Union. I also used the Sun and later, the Tribune. Most [baseball] games were played around holidays. In San Diego, the Thanksgiving Day game was always a big one, as was the Christmas game and the New Year's game and the Fourth of July game.
"I fell asleep more than once, going through old microfilm." Swank is a card-carrying regular at the SDSU library. "They have a baseball index at the historical society. I found stuff that wasn't on the index. Most of the stuff in the book nobody has ever heard of before -- nobody!"
Swank has a light touch, a gift for finding the oddball fact that illustrates a larger question. If you like local history or San Diego baseball history, you'll probably like this book. Follows are random quotes to give you a taste.
1874. Quoting from the Union, "The biggest game of base ball (Pacific vs. Eckfords) that was played in this end of the state was set for Christmas Day, 1874. Seats would be provided for ladies, who are cordially invited to attend and stimulate by their presence the aspirants to base ball honors to do their level best on this occasion." Two days later, the Union reported that the championship match was a "close contest, ending in favor of the 'Eckfords.' We have not been favored with the score...' "
1886. "A grand Fourth of July celebration was planned for Coronado Beach. A match game of base ball between the Coronado Nine and Athletic Clubs was to be played at the Peninsula ball grounds."
1888. "A list of fines were published... 'You make me sick,' would cost a player $10; 'You're rotten,' $15; 'Give us a show,' $25, said with a snarl, $30."
1889. Quoting from the Union, "The Reverend F.R. Perkins warned that base ball would corrupt the young children of Logan Heights. The 'twin demons' of base ball -- gambling and drunkenness -- result in 'desolated homes, commercial dishonesty, theft, blasted lives, and all forms of vice and violence.' "
1907. "Another winter league immediately hatched... Fans were sternly admonished that if they did not support 'classy ball in San Diego, the 10-cent corner lot variety would again be dominant.' "
Swank signs his book at the Gaslamp Quarter Borders on Saturday, June 4, at 5:00 p.m. Call 619-702-4200 for particulars.