The First Cricket Match Played in Michigan: Pontiac vs Detroit, 1857

This week MCA begins publication of an occasional series of articles on the history of cricket in Michigan. MCA’s Information Director has begun a research project to uncover the story of the sport in the State, and hopes to publish the preliminary results of his findings on this web site in the coming weeks and months. He would welcome any information about the story of the sport in the Detroit area and beyond; if you would like to share your memories or any information that might be of interest, please do not hesitate to contact him.

The Detroit Free Press began publication in 1831, but there seems to be no mention of cricket in the newspaper until the summer of 1855, when the merchant Theo. Bollenhaven and Co., of 64 Liberty Street, New York, began advertising on its pages “Fancy Goods, Glassware, Toys, Archery, Cricket and Sportsmens’ [sic] Equipment”. Perhaps the firm of Bollenhaven succeeded in selling some cricket equipment to distant Michigan, for two years later the Spirit of the Times: A Chronicle of the Turf, Agriculture, Field Sports, Literature and the Stage for 6 June, 1857, ran a piece entitled “Cricketers in Michigan”:

“Where but two months since there were only two or three persons that were even novices in the enchanting and noble game of a cricket, there is now a club numbering some thirty members”, noted the anonymous article, adding that “Emulation, perseverance, and industry, the three cardinal virtues of a good Cricketer, have thus far shown themselves to be predominant traits of the members of the ‘Pontiac Cricket Club’. ‘In sunshine and in storm’ they have gone forth to practice, and though premonitions of cold, rheumatism and the ague may have stared their bravado in the face, they have not flinched. When every muscle has been strained until its possessor is almost a cripple and an invalid, he has only worked the harder at the next meeting, as if determined to make his muscles iron, and their endurance like the ‘everlasting hills’. If a wicked ball has left its marks upon the unprotected shin, or still worse, upon the cranium of some ardent catcher, it has not dampened his ardor, though it may have increased his caution, and opened his eyes to all the chances of the game.”

The anonymous author could well have been describing the conditions in which cricket is played early in the season in the State today. However, despite his praise of the ardent Pontiac cricketers, he could not resist a few digs, suggesting that this novice club, so far from the civilization of the East Coast, might risk reproducing the famous scene from Dickens’ Pickwick Papers (although Michigan readers will be amused to note that the author himself gets his details wrong, writing of “Dairy Dell”, instead of Pickwick’s Dingley Dell). Nonetheless, he promises, “when next we chance to sojourn in that goodly town of Pontiac, we propose to tell you something about the playing that will make you think twice before you sneer at backwoods Yankee cricketers”.

A year later in the same publication, the column “Cricketer’s Chronicle”, under the pseudonymous byline of “Mint Julep” (a nom de plume that suggests a particular approach to the game), a long article related that “The first ever game of cricket played in the State of Michigan came off on the Pontiac Cricket Ground, July 13, between the Detroit and Pontiac Clubs, eleven of each joining in the contest” (Spirit of the Times: A Chronicle of the Turf, Agriculture, Field Sports, Literature and the Stage, 1 August, 1857). While both clubs were new, the Detroiters had more experience, although “the score of both parties was much smaller than they would ordinarily make, which perhaps may be charged to the excitement naturally attending the first match”. The two-innings match lasted from 10.00 until 5.00, with Pontiac, batting first, bowled out twice, for 42 and 27, respectively; Detroit made only 37 in their first innings, but 35/2 in the second, to win by eight wickets (the score card is reproduced in its entirety). “Mint Julep” reports that Pontiac struggled most of all against Armstrong, who took six wickets in the match, and whose “round hand” action was unfamiliar to the Pontiac batsman. For Pontiac, only Walters (11 in the second innings) and Cannon (10, in the first) reached double figures, while Armstrong made 18 for Detroit in the first innings, and Barrit (12 n.o.) and Mend (15 n.o.) saw them home in the second. “Mint Julep” notes that notwithstanding the “exceeding heat of the day”, everything passed off most delightfully, and concludes his piece with another reference to Dickens, noting that the Pontiac club will work hard to make sure that no “penny-a-liner in the fair ‘City of the Straits'” can oblige “the whole public to laugh at the presumption of the Michigan Cricketers”.

While these pieces in the Spirit of the Times, published  in New York since 1831, could not resist a condescending tone when describing the beginnings of organized cricket in distant Michigan, that first match played between Pontiac and Detroit in 1857 was to usher in some fifty years of very active cricket in the State, to be followed by further relatively flourishing periods for the sport in the twentieth century. Check the MCA web site for further details of the sport’s history among “backwoods Yankee cricketers”

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Filed under Beyond MCA, History of Cricket: Michigan

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