Kane County History: 'Play Ball!' — Hall of Famer Casey Stengel Among The Greats To Round The Bases in Aurora, IL!

Kane County History: ‘Play Ball!’ — Hall of Famer Casey Stengel Among The Greats To Round The Bases in Aurora, IL!

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was contributed by Aurora Historical Society Board President Mary Clark Ormond, AHS Executive Director John Jaros and AHS Board member Roald Haase. All photos are courtesy of the Aurora Historical Society.

“… such a pleasing relaxation at the close of the day would be highly beneficial to every young man, and we hope they will all join. The game is scientific and exciting.”

Thus wrote someone at The Aurora Beacon on July 21, 1864, announcing a game to be played that evening by the local Eureka Base Ball Club.

It is one of the earliest Aurora references to a sport that would soon become “America’s pastime” and it provides some clues to the state of the game hereabouts at that time.

The Birth of Baseball

Despite its cultural significance in this country, the birth of baseball is somewhat shrouded in mystery.

Two similar sports – rounders and cricket – were well-known in England in the 18th century and had been Imported to American shores as early as colonial times.

Various versions of “base ball” were being played in the eastern United States by the 1830s. During the Civil War, soldiers from all over the country enlivened long days in camp by playing sports, and it seems that regarding baseball, the New York version became dominant, edging out the Massachusetts and Philadelphia game rules.

The writer for The Beacon in 1864 provided this information about the Eureka Club: “They play the American, or New York, game, something new in this section.”

We probably will never know who introduced the New York rules to Aurora, but it must have been a recent thing in 1864, because the story goes on: “Although the Club has practiced but a few times, such great interest is manifested in it that we hope soon to see it a permanent thing.”

Growth in Popularity

The Aurora Cubs in 1907 at Hurd’s Island ball park.

Just three summers later, on June 13, 1867, The Aurora Beacon reported on a “spirited and closely contested” game between the Aurora and Seminary clubs, both of them local, that was attended by about 200 spectators.

Some members of the Town Club in the 1870s. 

The sport was still in its early stages, apparently, because the reporter wrote, “Very general interest was shown, and although few thoroughly understood the game, yet the crowd came to understand the good points and showed their approbation by cheers.”

Even at such an early stage, the potential of the game was apparent. The reporter wrote, “Base Ball promises to become as famous a game with the alert and nervous American boys as Cricket is with their heavy and tough English cousins.”

(It is tempting to insert here that some baseball historians credit the popularity of the American game with the fact that it can be played by people of average height and weight.)

The “Auroras,” the town’s main team, was competing, by the 1870s, against teams from Batavia, St. Charles, Elgin, Joliet, and Rockford. There were also many challenge matches among young men of every station, and once again The Aurora Beacon offered a sociologist’s point of view.

“The base ball fever has one good effect on the appearance of our streets on Sundays, for where the corners and steps used to be crowded, there is not now a loafer to be seen,” the paper noted on Aug. 23, 1876. “All are on the flats below town engaged in ball playing.”

The amateur baseball craze in Aurora reached its height in the early 1900s, with dozens of local teams with names like the Acorns, the Kane Streets, the Moderns, the Owls, the Socials — and yes, even the Cubs, emptying the Sunday streets.

Professionalization

Minor League team Aurora  Blues in 1911.  Casey Stengel is second from right (reclining) in the front row.

Professionalization began in baseball in 1869 with the Cincinnati Red Stockings (now the Atlanta Braves).

In 1890, the first minor league in our region, the Illinois-Iowa League, was formed, and included the Aurora Hoodoos — which the next year changed its name to the Maroons because of the bright maroon uniforms.

By 1910, Aurora had another minor league team — the Aurora Islanders, part of the Wisconsin-Illinois League, an eight-team league with a season running from the beginning of May to the beginning of September.

Pug’s Colts baseball team in the 1890s. Billy Holland (center, seated) would go on to be a professional baseball player. 

In 1911, the team got new blue uniforms, and a new name to match — the Aurora Blues.

At the start of that season, they acquired from the Kansas City (Missouri) Blues of the minor league American Association a promising 20-year-old outfielder, Charles Dillon Stengel, who promptly hit a home run in his first game with the Blues.

Stengel, who was known by the nickname “Dutch” during his time in Aurora, went on to lead the league in batting average and steals that season. In September, the Brooklyn Dodgers drafted him into the majors.

The rest was history — the man who came to be known as “Casey” Stengel went on to a 12-season playing career, and later became one of the most famous and colorful managers in major league baseball, winning the World Series with the New York Yankees in a never-equaled unbroken five-year stretch from 1949-53.  He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, in 1966.

Stengel is not the only member of the Baseball Hall of Fame with an Aurora connection. James “Deacon” White was a major league pioneer and a standout catcher of the 1870s and ’80s, when balls were caught bare-handed and without face or chest protectors. He was feared as a hitter, known as “The Cat” for his speed and led five major league teams including the Chicago White Stockings to national championships.

Although he never played ball in Aurora, White moved to town in his later years to live with his daughter at 221 S. Calumet St.  A fervent Christian, he remained involved with the staunchly Adventist Aurora College from which his children and grandchildren had graduated. In 2013, the city of Aurora gave that stretch of Calumet the honorary name Deacon White Way.

From The Town Club to Today

Steve Solarz (in formal attire, background) watches a Town Club vintage baseball game in 2014.

Between 2010-2020 the Aurora Police Department fielded a vintage baseball team known as the Town Club, which adopted the uniform of the original Town Club from the 1870s. Police Cmdr. Paul Nelson organized the group, which played other local and regional vintage teams using various rules.

Cmdr. Paul “Slugger” Nelson visits with legendary Sealmasters pitcher Harvey Sterkel and his wife, Gloria, at a historical society exhibit in 2014. 

For a time, Aurora Historical Society board member and treasurer Steve Solarz served as the arbiter, or umpire, of the team. They played in replica 1890 uniforms.

As the decades passed, Aurora became best known for the success of its fastpitch softball teams, including four national and two world championships, a story to be told in a future article. But from pre-Civil War days onward, the cry “Play Ball” has been heard loud and clear in Aurora.

The history of both baseball and softball is the subject of the Aurora Historical Society’s spring exhibit at the Pierce Art and History Center at 20 E. Downer Place, 60505.

Although the Pierce Center is closed due to COVID-19, the exhibit may be seen through the Gift Shop windows, where it is particularly visible when lighted at night. The website of the society is www.aurorahistory.net.

The Aurora Historical Society’s spring exhibit at the Pierce Art and History Center.

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