THE LAST WORD: Souder article details history of professional baseball in Fort Wayne

Kerry Hubartt
Mark Souder

Fort Wayne is a baseball town. It’s the home of the TinCaps, the National League San Diego Padres’ Class A affiliate in the Midwest League since 2009.

From 1999-2008 the team was called the Wizards, a carryover from its previous Midwest League affiliation to the American League’s Minnesota Twins from 1993-1998. The team’s name changed when it moved from Memorial Stadium to Parkview Field in 2009.

But Fort Wayne’s professional baseball history goes back to the very beginning. Baseball historians know that the first professional league baseball game in America was played in Fort Wayne in 1871.

Former 3rd District congressman Mark Souder is one such baseball historian, and, as such, has written an in-depth article about Fort Wayne’s professional baseball history in the semi-annual Old Fort News (Volume 82, No. 1), which is a publication of the Fort Wayne/Allen County Historical Society. It’s called “Hugh McCulloch & the Origins of Professional Baseball.”

Souder, a Fort Wayne resident, native of Grabill and a member of the House of Representatives from 1995-2010, spoke about his article in a public lecture at the History Center on April 7.

Souder’s lengthy, foot-noted piece is a great reference work for those of us interested in the history of America’s pastime in Fort Wayne. And he makes sure to tell you that it’s a history of professional baseball in Fort Wayne, not a history of baseball players from Fort Wayne who went on to play professionally.

The Summit City’s claim to fame as the site of the first professional baseball game is a somewhat complicated sequence of events in the historical accounting. As Souder writes, “professional players and teams had previously existed, but there was no organized league of officially professional players until the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was launched in 1871.”

On May 4, 1871, the Kekionga Club of Fort Wayne, previously an amateur team, took on the Forest City Club of Cleveland in the first league game ever played. And Bobby Matthews, whom Souder describes as “one of the greatest pitchers who ever played,” pitched a 2-0 shutout victory for the Kekionga team.

Fort Wayne was not originally expected to become a professional team. It had been an amateur squad, not of the caliber of professional teams that existed at the time. But when several large cities met on March 17, 1871, to organize the National Association, according to John Thorn, chief historian of the Baseball Hall of Fame, “Of the 10 clubs [that] were present, eight plunked down the mandatory $10 to join” — Philadelphia, New York, Washington, Troy, Chicago, Boston, Rockford and Cleveland.

Souder’s article quotes Thorn’s account of what occurred following the organizational meeting: “A surprising ninth club came across with the dues: the Kekiongas of Fort Wayne, uncompetitive as an amateur club in its previous seasons but now a self-declared professional nine.”

The transition to a professional caliber baseball team was explained in Souder’s story from an account in the 1899 Fort Wayne News by George Mayer, who formed a stock company in Fort Wayne with other local businessmen. He said when a team from Baltimore was stranded in Chicago during a western trip, “I went to Chicago and bought the club from Colonel George F. Seigel and brought the players back with me.”

Mayer, by the way, was not only a local businessman in Fort Wayne but a catcher on the amateur team and a reserve catcher when the team went pro.

So where does Hugh McCulloch figure in to this story? He is part of the title of Souder’s article after all.

McCulloch was from Fort Wayne and became the U.S. secretary of the treasury in 1865. Souder writes that while he had no direct ties to the Kekionga Club of 1871, “his political involvement with the Washington Nationals in the late 1860s gave rise to the eventual professionalization of baseball. It is possible that without McCulloch’s involvement that baseball might not have been professionalized until many years later and may not have had such an impact throughout the history of the Summit City.”

McCulloch was instrumental in the formation and development of the Washington team that went on a fabled Western Tour in 1867 in which “McCullochs Boys” played 10 games, losing only one.

Souder writes that although McCulloch had little direct influence on the Kekiongas, “his assistance in improving the Washington Nationals and preparing the team for a dominant Western Tour helped to create the roots of professional baseball. Without McCulloch and his associates’ contributions, the Kekiongas might not have had a chance to play in the first professional league game.”

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.