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Mackinac Island’s Field of Dreams

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.  –Terrence Mann – “Field of Dreams”

  The large, grassy field behind Fort Mackinac has served many purposes since the end of the Civil War. It has been a drill field for soldiers, a playground for scouts, and a great place to canter a horse. But the one constant on that field for nearly a century and a half has been baseball. Fort Mackinac soldiers established the first ball field on this site in the 1870s and continued to develop and improve the field until the fort closed in 1895. Local residents and summer workers played baseball at the “fort ball grounds” in the early 20th century. Since 1934, when Civilian Conservation Corps workers built the nearby scout barracks, boy and girl scout troops from across Michigan have played ball on the same field during the summer months.

  In 2003, as part of a state-wide “Summer of Sports” event, Mackinac State Historic Parks brought 19th-century style baseball (“base ball”) back to the old field. Since then, the recreated Fort Mackinac Never Sweats have played an annual vintage base ball game designed to demonstrate and explain how the “national pastime” was played when soldiers still lived in the fort and base ball fans were known as “cranks.”

  First popular on the East Coast, base ball spread west during the Civil War as Union ball players (“ballists”) shared their favorite game with other soldiers. The game first appeared on Mackinac Island in 1871 when soldiers from Captain Leslie Smith’s 1st Regiment of Infantry, many of whom were Civil War veterans, received permission to play the game (“match”) in their spare time. Over the next two decades base ball grew in popularity across the country and, with liberal amounts of free time and officers who encouraged physical fitness, Fort Mackinac soldiers enthusiastically joined in.

Notice the grandstand bleachers.

  By the mid 1880s baseball was all the rage. Even the officers caught the fever and took an increasing role in supporting the fort team. Lieutenant Edward Pratt helped form the Fort Mackinac Base Ball Club in 1885. The thirty-two-year old lieutenant became the team captain and contributed the first four dollars to the club fund that paid for two new bats at forty-cents each and a “league” baseball which cost one-dollar and twenty-five cents. By mid summer the team had several bats and balls, three bases, a catcher’s mask, and a carefully laid out diamond on the large parade ground behind the fort. With a copy of Spaulding’s Base Ball Guide in hand, Pratt and his men took the field.

  The highlight of the 1885 season was a two-match series with the highly-touted Diamond Baseball Club of Cheboygan. The first match was played in Cheboygan as a part of the city’s Fourth of July celebration. Most of the fort officers and enlisted men accompanied the team and cheered for the Never Sweats, a nickname sometimes used to describe the fort team. The Never Sweats starting lineup featured the strong-armed blacksmith, Private Hiram Eddy, on the mound with First Sergeant Thomas Hennessey behind the plate. Corporal William Sconce, one of the regiment’s finest sharpshooters, patrolled left field while club treasurer Corporal Charles Hastings played shortstop. In a move sure to curry favor with the commandant, the team choose Captain Brady’s seventeen-year-old son Mifflin to play right field. Fireworks came early to Cheboygan that day as the bats for both teams exploded. When the dust cleared, the soldiers were victorious, outslugging their opponents seventeen to ten.

  Flush with success and the twenty-five dollar prize money, the soldiers invested in new uniforms. They bought eighteen yards of flannel and paid nearly twenty dollars for tailored suits complete with elastic fittings. The soldiers proudly wore their new uniforms when the Diamonds traveled to Mackinac Island on August 14 for a rematch. The Cheboygan team came well prepared to avenge their earlier loss and defeated the soldiers. In his journal Dr. Bailey remarked that the Cheboygan team had little reason to brag, however, since they “smuggled in three professional players from abroad.”

Phil “Pops” Porter, a founding member of the new ‘Never Sweats’ and current director emeritus for Mackinac State Historic Parks.

  The fort baseball team continued to flourish while the Twenty-third Infantry was stationed at Mackinac. Corporal Robert “Tug” Wilson became the team’s official scorer and scheduled matches with teams from cities around northern Michigan including Mackinaw City, Sault Ste. Marie, Harbor Springs, Petoskey, and Reed City. Wilson, who served as a part-time reporter for the Cheboygan Democrat, submitted box scores and game summaries to the paper which chronicled the team’s progress throughout the summer months in the late 1880s. Fort officers continued to support the team and even allowed the men to construct a grand stand capable of seating 500 spectators. The soldiers charged a twenty-five cent admission to their home matches, with seating in the grand stand costing ten cents extra.

  Inspired by the efforts of the ballists from the 23rd Regiment, Mackinac State Historic Parks formed a vintage base ball team in 2003 and adopted the moniker Never Sweats. While there are no photographs of the original Never Sweats uniform, a turn-of-the-century photograph of a Mackinac Island ball player by local photographer William H. Gardiner provided the inspiration for team uniforms. From the beginning, the Never Sweats has been an eclectic team featuring Mackinac State Historic Parks employees, island residents, summer workers, and a few featured ballists including baseball historian Bill “Hoot” Anderson, Congressman Bart “Stretch” Stupak, and former major league all-star relief pitcher John “Ratso” Hiller, who played with the 1968 world champion Detroit Tigers.

  Playing with the same 1860’s base ball rules that were used by the former Civil War soldiers who first brought the game to Mackinac, the new Never Sweats have hosted an annual match on the original fort base ball field every year. These mid-19th-century rules forbid the use of gloves and feature a ball that is slighter larger and a somewhat softer than today’s baseball. The ball is pitched underhand by the “hurler” and the batter (“striker”) is out if the ball is caught on one bounce.  Most importantly, the game is played with an emphasis on gentlemanly behavior and good sportsmanship. Players congratulate their opponents’ successes and ungentlemanly behavior such as spitting, smoking and swearing (“shucks” and “darn it” included) is strictly forbidden. Players who violate these rules are required to publicly apologize to the cranks and pay a 25-cent fine to the umpire. The matches have been well attended by 400 or more enthusiastic cranks who are well-coached to shout “huzzah” in support of the home ballists.

  The Fort Mackinac Never Sweats have played the Rochester (Michigan) Grangers, Midland Mighty River Hogs, Mackinaw City Boys, Bay City Independents and Portland Blue Sox over the past 19 years. The Grangers, under the able leadership of Captain Patrick “Barnraiser” McKay, were instrumental in helping the Never Sweats learn the rules, etiquette and unique terminology of vintage base ball. The Grangers will be making the trip to Mackinac Island for the 2021 game, the 12th time the current Never Sweats have hosted them. The Grangers currently hold the upper hand in the rivalry, winning seven of the first 11 matches.

  As Terrance Mann reminds us in the movie Field of Dreams, base ball has been a constant that has marked the time of American history. For those of us who have had the privilege to play vintage base ball, we are reminded of the good and honorable origins of the game which we have the pleasure of recreating for today’s audiences. It is especially thrilling to play the game on the same field used by Fort Mackinac soldiers nearly 140 years ago – the oldest, continually-played ball field in Michigan. Thanks to the preservation efforts of Mackinac State Historic Parks and the support of our cranks, we can be assured that “this field, this game” will continue for many years to come. Huzzah!

Fort Mackinac Never Sweats Overall Record 8-12
Year Opponent Outcome
2003 Rochester Grangers 0-8
2004 Rochester Grangers 4-3
2005 Rochester Grangers 5-9
2005 Midland Mighty River Hogs 6-2
2006 Rochester Grangers 14-25
2007 Rochester Grangers 4-3
2008 Mackinaw City Boys 4-7
2009 Rochester Grangers 3-11
2010 Rochester Grangers 8-4
2011 Bay City Independents 2-3
2011 Mackinaw City Boys 5-2
2012 Mackinaw City Boys 1-8
2013 Rochester Grangers 5-1
2014 Rochester Grangers 3-7
2015 Mackianw City Boys 18-3
2016 Rochester Grangers 7-11
2017 Mackinaw City Boys 12-13
2018 Mackinaw City Boyd 12-22
2019 Rochester Grangers 17-22
2020 Portland Blue Sox 4-3