Thursday, April 4, 2013

Camp Allen Park: Play Ball!

by Tom Castaldi
Today, Camp Allen Park is a little playground nestled in a quiet portion of the Nebraska neighborhood on the west bank of the St. Mary’s River.  More than a century ago, between 1861 and 1865, however, the area was one of the busiest centers of activity in the community.  These were the years of the Civil War, and Camp Allen was the recruiting rendezvous for all of northeastern Indiana.  Many received their first taste of military life there.

Perhaps the most exciting event to occur on the site, however, had nothing to do with mustering troops for battle.  Instead, the old Camp Allen was home to the nation’s first professional baseball league game, which was played on May 4, 1871, between the Cleveland Forest Citys and the Fort Wayne Kekiongas.

Baseball had been played as an organized sport in Fort Wayne since 1862 when the Summit City Base Ball Club played a gentleman’s version of the game in a private park on South Calhoun Street.  After the Civil War a new club called The Kekiongas (the name of the original Indian town at the three rivers) was formed and played in a rough-and-tumble early professional circuit that took it to Cincinnati, Chicago and Troy, N.Y.

On March 17, 1871, several leading baseball team owners gathered at Collier’s Café in New York City and organized the first professional baseball league, the National Association of Professional Baseball Players, the forerunner of today’s National Baseball League.  Among the first teams in the league, along with New Your, Cleveland, Boston, Philadelphia, Troy and Washington, was the Fort Wayne Kekiongas.  It was determined that Fort Wayne and Cleveland would play the first game at the new ball park in Fort Wayne.

When game day arrived, Fort Wayne fielded the youngest and most inexperienced team in the new league.  The Kekiongas boasted, however, several star players from the recently disbanded Baltimore team, including Bobby Matthews, one of the inventors of the curve ball. A reporter for the Fort Wayne Gazette praised the “good natured” crowd and he cheered “in every way the gentlemanly conduct of our visitors.”

The Kekiongas won 2-0, which stunned the home crowd, who was expecting a thorough thrashing by the Cleveland club.  Fort Wayne journalists called it a miracle. Being the first professional league game, it was one full of  records: the first walk, the first strike-out, the first double play (unassisted, at that) and the first double. As it turned out, the Kekiongas went on to compile a lackluster record; and by mid-season of the first year, the team folded.  Its place in the franchise was taken by the Brooklyn team later known as the Trolley Dodgers.

This article originally appeared in Fort Wayne Magazine, “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – March April 2004 No. 4. p. 48. We thank the publishers and editor of Fort Wayne Monthly for allowing us to use this article.

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