The Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869 may have been the first paid “professional” baseball team. But Hoosiers might be surprised to learn the first professional game was played in Fort Wayne.
Few baseball fans have probably heard of the Fort Wayne Kekiongas. Though short-lived, the team will forever be noted as hosting and winning the first professional baseball game ever played.
As the new pastoral sport of “base ball” evolved through the 1860s, it became more competitive. With civic pride and town rivalries on the line, money and professionalism entered the game. While the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first team to pay its players, a professional league didn’t actually begin until 1871. In March of that year, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed. It is considered the first professional baseball league and the first “major league.”
The “Kekionga Base Ball Club of Fort Wayne” joined teams from New York; Philadelphia; Chicago; Boston; Washington, D.C.; Cleveland; Troy, New York; and Rockford, Illinois, as charter members of the league. Fort Wayne’s moniker, pronounced KEY-key-awn-guh, was the name of the largest settlement of the Miami Indian tribe. It was located where the St. Joseph and St. Mary’s rivers joined to form the Maumee River. A fort was also established there by Gen. Anthony Wayne, and the city of Fort Wayne grew up around the fort.
The Kekiongas formed as a barnstorming amateur baseball club in 1866. They were never very good. In 1869, they played the professional Cincinnati Red Stockings twice. They not only lost twice, but they lost by scores of 86-8 and 41-7.
In the summer of 1870, the Kekiongas recruited the best players from a Baltimore team which had disbanded. One of the players, pitcher Bobby Mathews, invented the spit ball and was the first to master a curve ball.
The luck of a coin toss decided who’d play the league’s first game.
On May 4, 1871, at the Kekiongas’ ball park in Fort Wayne, the Kekiongas and the Cleveland Forest Citys took the field for what’s considered the first professional baseball game ever played. Mathews pitched a 2-0 Kekionga win. Attendance was 200. The game’s linescore looked like this:
The Kekiongas started strong that season, but ended with a 7-12 record and finished seventh. The team folded in late August before the season was even complete.
The league itself folded after the 1875 season, but it was replaced by another league which eventually became today’s National League.
Fort Wayne still has a professional team: the TinCaps, a Class A minor league affiliate of the San Diego Padres. TinCaps relates to Fort Wayne’s connections to Johnny Appleseed, the itinerant apple tree sower of the early 1800s who wore a tin pot on his head and is buried in Fort Wayne. For more information about the team, visit TinCaps.com.
Stay tuned each month as Willie presents more Indiana “Bicentennial Zingers.”