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Texas USA

The Old Ballgame

More than 150 years since Texas’ first game, sandlot baseball is still finding new fields

After the Civil War, Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday landed in Galveston in 1866 to command Union forces in that important Texas city. Surely he didn’t imagine his mission would lead him to being wrongly credited with inventing the game of baseball.

Two decades earlier, a New York sports enthusiast named Alexander Joy Cartwright Jr. helped write new rules for the old English game of rounders, thus formalizing the basics of modern baseball. Doubleday, like many Civil War leaders on both sides, endorsed “base ball” (originally spelled as two words) as a way for troops to exercise and build morale.

On April 11, 1861, a Houston newspaper announced the formation of Texas’ first team, the Houston Base Ball Club. Players who joined the club were asked to meet at an open field in town at 5 a.m. three days a week, weather permitting, for “field exercise,” The Weekly Telegraph wrote.

The day after this news account, Confederate troops bombarded Union forces at Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina. The war was on, and the effort to start baseball teams ceased. At prisoner-of-war camps, however, Union troops taught the game to captured Confederate soldiers. After the war, they brought the game home to the South. A few games might have been played during the war, but the first baseball diamond in Texas was marked off on Galveston Island’s east end, in large part thanks to Doubleday’s enthusiasm for the game, according to the Galveston Historical Foundation.

That’s where the newly formed Galveston Base Ball Club held its first game, in early 1867. A year later, the Daily Telegraph reported the first intercity game in Texas. The Galveston Robert E. Lees took on the Houston Stonewalls (both named for Confederate generals) at the San Jacinto Battleground near Houston.

More than 150 years later, that original spirit of camaraderie—tempered by a healthy dose of competition—remains alive and well for those who play a version of the sport called sandlot baseball.

Hal Rochkind, who runs an insurance agency on Galveston Island, is one such player. Wearing No. 14, Rochkind plays second base for a 10-year-old sandlot team called the Gulf Coast Sugar. Its players are baseball lovers of various ages from Galveston and Houston. Like many sandlot teams, the Sugar play only a few games a year. Team members have families and day jobs, after all. They play home games at a city park not far down the island from that first Texas ballfield.

“We all grew up playing baseball as kids, some in Little League and some even in high school or college,” Rochkind explains. “Sandlot is a way we hold on to our baseball memories while enjoying a healthy activity out of doors. We bring our families to watch the games so maybe they’ll keep the tradition alive.”

Texas sandlot baseball began to take off in 2006 after architect and baseball fan Jack Sanders and friends formed a team in Austin called the Texas Playboys, named after music legend Bob Wills’ Western swing band. They challenged friends in Austin and other cities to form pickup teams to play the game they loved.

After several years of rising interest in sandlot, Sanders built a field just east of Austin called the Long Time. His 5-acre field of dreams hosts games played against a family-friendly backdrop of live music and beer. The games are generally played on the second Saturday of the month from March to October.

The sandlot phenomenon remains a loosely organized group of teams that play largely by standard hardball rules. The goal is to keep play flowing in a fun-loving way without runaway scoring or injuries. Home-field rules, for example, stipulate that if a player hits a home run, then that player should bat from the other side of the plate on his or her next at-bat. Pitchers may wear a cowboy hat if they so choose.

Over the past decade or so, other sandlot teams have formed across Texas and beyond to join in on the fun. In addition to the Gulf Coast Sugar, other Southeast Texas sandlot teams include the Houston Buffs, Memorial Moonshots, Houston Gamblers, Space City Baseball Club and the Texas Oil Dawgs.

The newly formed Oil Dawgs generally follow Long Time home rules, says Houston photographer Mark Champion, the team’s manager and a player. “We have players 50 years or older, so if former college players show up, we ask them to tone it down,” Champion says. “We don’t want anyone to get hurt. Fun is the name of the game.”