Richmond Loves Its Baseball

by | Mar 14, 2024 | DOWNTOWN RVA, RICHMOND NEWS, SPORTS

Been Playing Since 1866. Cobb, Ruth, Williams, Mays Played Here. We Even Had a Major League Team — For 46 Games

Everybody knows that our beloved capital city has a rich history. Settled by Native Americans, explored by English colonists, burned to the ground by the British during the Revolutionary War, and again by retreating Confederate forces on the last days of the Civil War.

Patrick Henry proclaimed “Liberty or Death” here. President Lincoln unified us here. Edgar Allan Poe grew up here. Fourth U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall lived here. Presidents Monroe and Tyler are buried here.

What is not as well known about Richmond, however, is the city’s impressive baseball history. We’ve been playing ball here since 1866, the year after the Civil War ended, and have embraced the game ever since, watching championship teams, Hall of Fame players and countless future major league stars.

Baseball may not match the historical significance of, say, Thomas Jefferson relocating the state capital to Richmond or Jackson Ward’s status as the “Harlem of the South,” but the game has been important to the city and its residents in its own right.

The buzz about baseball started here in March 1861 when a New York newspaper “expressed surprise at the tawdry development of the game in a town with good fields and plenty of strong young men with ample leisure time” and encouraged Richmond men to form a team by mid- April.

Sound advice for the locals but a few weeks after the story, Fort Sumter was bombarded, starting the Civil War. Organized baseball in Richmond would have to wait.

As it turns out, the Civil War helped bring baseball to the South. Most Northern soldiers knew some version of the game and it spread to Confederate troops, often taught to them by Union POWs.

In the summer after the Civil War, Richmond’s first organized amateur teams began playing. The city was still under military occupation but baseball seemed to be a vehicle for promoting harmony between residents and federal troops stationed in the area.

A local ice dealer is credited with creating the first amateur club in Richmond, forming a team aptly called the “Richmond” in 1866. They practiced on a vacant lot on West Franklin Street, near the current intersection with Harrison Street, a few blocks from the original location of Richmond College.

This inspired the formation of other local amateur teams including the Union Hill Ashbys, the Church Hill Lone Stars and the Manchester Alerts. One team, called the Union, was made up of clerks in various departments of the military government administering the city.

The creation of these clubs received national attention. One New York newspaper said: “Base ball fever is rapidly assuming the form of an epidemic among the constructed and reconstructed denizens of the former stronghold of Davisocracy.”

By 1870, there were dozens of baseball clubs in Richmond. It seems the former capital of the Confederacy wholeheartedly embraced this sport imported from the North.

Teams played at several different sites, especially around the Fan District and Church Hill. The old fairgrounds (called Western Square, now known as Monroe Park) hosted most of the games. This was the location of the first Virginia state championship between a Richmond all- star squad and the Monticello Club of the University of Virginia (we lost 53-25).

Other early Richmond venues were Rutherford’s Field between Grace and Franklin Streets; Elba Park at Broad Street and Brook Road; and at the corner of 29th and N Streets.

In 1871, the first professional baseball league was formed, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. Though we didn’t have a team in the league, Richmond hosted league games in 1875.

Local Richmond newspaper, the Daily Dispatch, reported that a crowd of 1500 paid their way through the gates and “at least 500 men and boys of economical and enterprising turn of mind clambered over the fence” at the Fair Grounds to watch the champion Boston Red Stockings and the Washington Nationals.

“The play altogether surpassed anything of the kind ever witnessed in Richmond,” the newspaper said. The national pastime had come to Richmond and the city was excited about baseball.

The enthusiasm helped a local shoe manufacturer launch the city’s long association with the sport. HIs name was Henry C. Boschen and he is regarded as the father of professional baseball in Richmond.

In 1882, he formed the Richmond Baseball Club. Whenever he spotted a promising young player, Boschen offered the man a job in his Shockoe Slip wholesale shoe factory (East Main Street between 14th and 15th Streets) and a chance to play ball. He had a good eye for talent as a few of his players went on to play in the major leagues.

Boschen’s team, The Richmonds, played at Boschen Field near the present Kroger at North Lombardy Street. Spectators paid admission, but the shoe maker funded the club’s operations mostly from his own pocket.

Boschen’s semiprofessional team frequently played exhibition games against the major league Washington Nationals and teams from Baltimore and Philadelphia, holding its own against the visiting National League squads.

African-American teams did play in the city in the early 1880s. The most well-known, the Swans, played visiting Black teams and against a Boschen team at his ballpark but their fans weren’t allowed to sit in the stands. Instead, they had to stand alongside the fence to watch.

Baseball did not have an official policy barring players of color from playing with or against white teams at the time but many clubs had an unwritten policy prohibiting this. By the 1880s, the ban became a widely accepted practice that was not broken until Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Richmond-Loves-Its-Baseball-by-Terry-Hurley_RVA-Magazine-2024_photo courtesy of The Valentine Museum
Early Richmond baseball team, photo courtesy of The Valentine

Professional baseball officially started in Richmond in 1884 when a new team, the Richmond Virginians, lured away most of Boschen’s players. Within a few days of the team’s formation, the club leased grounds for a ballpark at the western edge of Franklin Street across from Richmond College (the Lee Monument would eventually stand near the main gate). The park could hold almost 3,000 spectators.

Admission to games was a quarter and women sat in one section, renting seat cushions for comfort, away from the rowdy men who often purchased beer and whiskey from sellers under the stands. The Stonewall Brigade Band, a brass band from Staunton that had served in the Civil War and was made up of Confederate veterans, would often play at games.

The new team played a mix of local amateur, semipro and minor-league teams. During that season, however, one of the greatest but little-known events in Richmond sports history occurred. The American Association (one of two major leagues at the time) asked the team to complete the remaining games of the Washington Nationals who folded mid-season.

In other words, we were in the major leagues. Richmond had a major league baseball team!

Richmond-Loves-Its-Baseball-by-Terry-Hurley_RVA-Magazine-2024_photo courtesy of The Valentine Museum
Richmond ball field in 1911, photo courtesy of The Valentine

Our Virginians ended up playing 46 games in yes, the major leagues, winning 12 (with four ties) and incredibly finished ahead of two other teams in the standings. Those games represent the only regular season major league games in Richmond baseball history. (And makes for one of the all-time great Richmond trivia questions). Major League Baseball didn’t return to the South until the Houston Astros joined the league in 1962.

Unfortunately, the Virginians were not invited back in 1885 so they rejoined the minor leagues where they had good success but the league disbanded after the season, leaving the city without professional baseball for eight years.

The game returned to Richmond in 1894 when a team played in different minor leagues over the next six years as the Crows, Colts, Reds, Johnnie Rebs, Giants, Legislators and Bluebirds. The team played at West End Park (corner of Vine and Main Streets) and then Broad Street Park (between Allen and Lombardy Avenues on Broad St.).

A few players on those teams went on to the major leagues including a pitcher who made the Baseball Hall of Fame and a guy who held the home run record until someone named Babe Ruth broke it in 1919.

Richmond-Loves-Its-Baseball-by-Terry-Hurley_RVA-Magazine-2024_photo courtesy of The Valentine Museum
Richmond player, year unknown, photo courtesy of The Valentine

In 1900 and 1901, the Bluebirds continued their league and name changing ways, becoming the Grays until the league folded. There was no Richmond team over the next four years.

In 1906, the Richmond Lawmakers joined a state league, changed its name to the Colts the following year and was a mainstay here until 1914.

The 1908 Colts team is considered one of the best in Richmond history, winning the pennant and attracting more fans than major league teams like the New York Yankees and Boston Braves. They drew 10,000 fans for a morning game at Broad Street Park and more than 15,000 for an afternoon game. Their star pitcher eventually spent 23 years in the major leagues, winning 247 games.

Baseball fever was high in Richmond and got even hotter in 1911 when a team of Major League All-Stars played Connie Mack’s World-Series-bound Philadelphia Athletics. Hall of Fame players Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Walter Johnston played for the the All-Stars who defeated the Athletics 13-8 before 9,000 excited Richmond fans at Broad Street Park.

A few days later when the Athletics met the New York Giants in the World Series, several thousand baseball-loving fans crowded outside the Times-Dispatch’s Main Street office to “see” the game on the electronic bulletin board that hung on the side of the building. Main Street shut down to accommodate the spectators. (There is a photo of that scene today on a building at 2nd and Grace Streets).

In 1915, the Colts changed their name and league a few times and stayed until 1928. Those teams won several championships and had a number of future major leaguers on the squads including a pitcher who was elected to the Hall of Fame.

Good times continued in 1921 when Richmond fans got to see Babe Ruth in an exhibition game between the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers, The Bambino didn’t disappoint. He hit what was considered the longest home run in the history of the ballpark on Mayo Island. (Yes, they managed to erect a field there but it was constantly troubled by, surprise – flooding).

Been Playing Since 1866. Cobb, Ruth, Williams, Mays Played Here We Even Had a Major League Team — For 46 Games by Terry Hurley for RVA Magazine 2024
Babe Ruth, courtesy Library of Congress 1920

Twelve years later, Ruth returned for exhibition games against the Colts and thrilled fans again by smashing three balls out of the park in batting practice, including one that splashed into the James River.

There was no Richmond pro team in 1929 and 1930. The Colts resumed play the following year, switched leagues in 1933 and remained until 1954.

Lights were installed at Mayo Island Park in 1933, beginning night baseball in Richmond. Another first was the radio broadcast of Colts games in 1938 and several fan-pleasing promotions including Ladies Day, Boys Night and Mens Night. Locals saw such baseball immortals as Jimmie Fox and Stan Musial hit home runs and Bob Feller strike out 14 Colt batters in exhibition games.

Richmond replaced Baltimore in the highest-level minor league in 1954 with the Virginians (initially called the Confederates until fans protested) and started play in the renovated Parker Field on the Boulevard. Sixteen-thousand fans watched the world champion Yankees with Mickey Mantle play the hosts in an exhibition game to open the field.

Richmond-Loves-Its-Baseball-by-Terry-Hurley_RVA-Magazine-2024_photo courtesy of The Valentine Museum
Richmond Virginians at Parker Field 1950s, photo courtesy of The Valentine

The team became a Yankees farm club in 1956, sending many players to the major leagues including to New York’s pennant-winning and World Series teams.

During that time, a number of major league teams played exhibition games at Parker Field including the Cardinals, Giants and Red Sox, providing fathers and sons opportunities to see such baseball greats as Stan Musial, Willie Mays and Ted Williams (who hit pinch hit home runs on consecutive days in 1958).

The Yankees eventually sold the Virginians and the franchise moved to Toledo and became the Mud Hens, replacing Richmond in the league after the 1964 season.

We had no professional baseball in the city in 1965 but the game returned the following year in a big way.

Richmond Braves playing at Parker Field in 1970.
Richmond Braves playing at Parker Field in 1970. Photo courtesy of The Valentine

The major league Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta and relocated their top minor league franchise to Richmond. We saw lots of great baseball from the Richmond Braves (five league championships), watched Hank Aaron homer and Satchel Paige pitch in exhibition games and witnessed a number of future major league all-stars.

Players on the late 1980s Richmond team, for example, included John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and David Justice, all big-time contributors to Atlanta’s World Series teams in the 1990s. The 1993 Richmond roster had eight future major league players — the famous “Great Eight” — including Chipper Jones and Javy Lopez.

The Braves played at Parker Field until 1984. During that offseason, the stadium was leveled to make way for the Diamond, a 12,134-seat, $8 million stadium which debuted the following year on the same site.

The Diamond under construction in 1984, photo courtesy of The Valentine Museum
The Diamond under construction in 1984, photo courtesy of The Valentine

Richmonders embraced the new stadium and team. The 1985 home opener attracted 12,435 fans and the Braves had the third highest attendance in all of minor league baseball that year.

Unfortunately, the stadium got old and after 43 seasons in Richmond, the Braves moved to a new ballpark in Georgia for the 2009 season, primarily because of years of failed negotiations and proposals for a new stadium with the city.

The Braves departure left us teamless for the first time since 1965.

That changed the following year in 2010 when the Connecticut Defenders, a San Francisco Giants minor league affiliate, moved to Richmond to play at the Diamond as the Flying Squirrels.

Once again, the city showed it’s a great baseball town, quickly adopting their new team. The Squirrels often lead the league in attendance and last season ranked among the top 20 of all 120 minor league baseball franchises.

Much like the Virginians with the Yankees and Braves with Atlanta, the Squirrels sent many players to their parent club over the years, including the two Brandons, Crawford and Belt, major contributors to the World-Series-winning Giants teams in 2012 and 2014. Last year’s playoff team sent five players to the Giants.

The Squirrels start their fifteenth season in Richmond next month and it looks like the city finally will be building them a new stadium on the Diamond site for the 2026 season.

A hundred forty years after the original shoe factory team, professional baseball in Richmond thrives. We might not have a squad in the major leagues but fans have supported their teams, whether they were called the Virginians, Bluebirds, Colts, Braves or Squirrels. That’s a long, rich history worth celebrating.

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Many thanks to W. Harrison Daniel and Scott P. Mayer for their Baseball and Richmond book which provided invaluable information on the early days of baseball in the city. Highly recommend for a deeper dive on the history of the game here.

Terry Hurley

Terry Hurley

Terry Hurley is new to the city and lives in the Fan. He’s a retired communications professional who wishes he discovered Richmond sooner. He calls it the most underrated city in the country.




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