By John Liepa
Baseball’s increasing national popularity in the 1850s and early 1860s was interrupted by the Civil War. Iowa’s commitment to the Union cause was nothing short of astonishing — out of a population of about 675,000, more than 50 percent of eligible young men (150,000) chose to fight for the Union. As approximately 75,000 marched off to war, baseball activity in the state subsided.
When soldiers returned to their hometowns, they brought the game with them. War had taught them camaraderie, discipline, order and management — traits also essential to putting together a successful baseball organization. With the end of the Civil War in 1865, the young Iowa veterans, steadier and older now than when they had headed away for camp and battlefield, returned to their homes. They found that the game that they had helped introduce before the war was playing an increasingly larger role each year in the recreational life of their home communities. The game the men in blue brought back to Iowa on furloughed visits and at war’s end retained its amateur character. By the end of 1865, baseball was thriving alongside older and better established sports such as horse racing, boxing and hunting. Numerous clubs sprang up in Dubuque during the war and by 1865, the “Hawkeye,” “Fourth Ward,” “Third Ward,” “Up-Town,” “Key City,” “Down-Town,” “Dubuque Nine,” “Dubuque Juliens,” and “Dubuque City” baseball clubs had all fielded teams. Not to be outdone, Davenport fielded its “Scotts” and “Pasture” baseball clubs.
By 1867, baseball had arrived in a glorious fashion in Iowa. Every newly settled town, after building its school and church, wanted to field a baseball team to put itself on the map. There had never been much dispute — from Davenport’s acceptance of the New York rules of baseball for its 1858 “Pastime Baseball Club” to other clubs being organized in 1867, the New York rules were baseball’s rules in Iowa.
More than 220 Iowans have attained the ultimate goal of playing Major League Baseball (MLB). Seven are honored in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Iowa’s MLB players have come from three-quarters of our counties, from small towns like Pisgah and Cascade, and from larger cities. Some of their hometowns no longer exist (Clay’s Grove and Knowlton); some have fewer than 200 citizens (Blanchard and Struble). It should not be surprising that cities like Cedar Rapids and Des Moines have provided numerous MLB players.
But what’s more impressive is how small towns of about 2,000 or fewer people created a culture that produced two or more major leaguers, including towns such as Neola, Bancroft, Lost Nation, Remsen, Coalville, Holstein, Ida Grove and Norway.