Left on the Field: Colorado’s Semi-Pro and Amateur Baseball Teams
Baseball is timeless in its ability to unify players, fans, and communities. Stepping onto the field transforms ballplayers into comrades, united by the desire to win. In the same way, fans leave their day-to-day concerns at the admissions gate, finding commonality with others in the stands. Baseball stirs nostalgia. It offers participants—on and off the field—a feeling of home, of being a part of something greater. Baseball is springtime, peanuts and Cracker Jack, and good times. As America’s national pastime, baseball transforms people through opportunity and reminds them of the American Dream, of what it is to be an American.
This article is a 30-minute read.
Colorado’s baseball history is long and multifaceted, with beginnings in the 1860s, well before the construction of Denver’s Coors Field in 1995. Men from varied social and economic backgrounds, skill levels, and industries made up Colorado’s earliest organized teams. Many of these amateur and semi-professional teams were sponsored by Colorado businesses and individuals. These lesser-known teams offer great insight into the development of the game in the state and the impact of baseball on the state’s economy, communities, and the people who call this place home.
In Colorado, baseball came by way of the gold rush. The game was already popular in the East, and fortune seekers brought it west. A level field, a bat, a ball, and something to mark the bases were all that was needed to play the game in the 1860s. In March 1862, the Rocky Mountain News called for the formation of a “Base Ball Club”; twenty-eight men responded, and organized Base Ball (originally spelled as two words) in Colorado took root. The following month brought Colorado’s first recorded baseball game—on April 26, 1862.
In the 1860s, standard rules applied, with teams made up of players representing a town, a neighborhood, a business, or even a family. Teams could be amateur (with all unpaid players) or semi-professional (with some players paid). Commonly, semi-professional players earned their pay by collecting funds from game attendees—pitchers and catchers took home the largest share. As a second source of income, semi-pro players held regular jobs off the field.
During the Civil War, baseball served as a popular pastime for troops. The love of the game remained for soldiers after the war and helped fuel the development of professional teams. The first all-pro team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, was organized in 1869. The team had ten players with a payroll of $9,300. The formation of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players followed in 1871. Organized in response to some teams paying players, the organization governed professional baseball teams, or teams paying all of the players on their roster.
Fueling the post–Civil War popularity of the game in Colorado were teams like the Young Bachelors Baseball Club, organized in 1866 and later known as the Colorado Baseball Club. This Denver team was one of many in the Colorado Territory. From small towns to farming communities and mining camps, the game of baseball captivated young and old, men and women, working class and wealthy alike. Fans supported their teams with enthusiasm and pride, feeling a sense of ownership for each win, and loss.
The arrival of the transcontinental railroad in Denver in 1870, and other lines that followed, brought a significant growth in population and trade in the Colorado Territory. In Denver alone, trade increased by 40 percent between 1871 and 1872. By 1873, Denver’s population reached nearly 16,000—up from fewer than 5,000 just three years earlier. For baseball, this meant more teams displaying the pride of developing towns, communities, organizations, and businesses. Some teams took the name of their hometown: Denver, Leadville, Central City, Longmont, Silverton, Trinidad, Cripple Creek. Others were named for a business that sponsored them: the Denver Tramway Team, Denver Sanden Electric, Loveland Sugar Company, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. Other, creative names included the Old Homestead, Rough and Ready, the Excelsiors, the Calamities, and the Independents.
Next came the formation of the National Baseball League in 1876, along with the standardization of rules, new equipment—including the 1883 patent of the baseball as we know it today—and the improvement of fields (and players). Colorado got its first semi-pro team in the Denver Brown Stockings and in 1882 the first permanent baseball stadium (capable of seating 1,000 fans) in Colorado Springs. In 1885 the new Colorado State League listed teams in Colorado Springs, Leadville, Pueblo, and Denver.
It was also in 1885 that Denver’s first baseball stadium was built, at Thirty-Second and Larimer Streets (not far from today’s Coors Field). Known as the Denver Base Ball Park, it hosted a record crowd on August 16, 1885, when between 3,500 and 4,000 of Denver’s 54,000 residents filled the stands. A year later, Denver organized its first professional baseball team, the Denvers, who entered the Western League of Baseball and won the 1886 championship.
From that time forward, Denver was the center of professional baseball in Colorado.
By the late 1880s, amateur, semi-professional, and professional teams played all across Colorado. Among the town teams with paid rosters were Denver, Pueblo, Leadville, and Colorado Springs. Families, individuals, and a variety of businesses sponsored amateur and semi-pro teams. The teams sported their sponsors’ names on their uniforms in exchange for those uniforms, their equipment, and their pay.
By 1910, about 200 baseball teams were playing in Denver alone. The number rose and fell through the years, impacted by the historical forces of World War I, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the arrival of major league ball in 1993. Regardless, one can’t help but be impressed by the number of Colorado teams from the 1860s on. Not only did the teams offer people an enjoyable pastime, but, for many, the game was (and still is) an opportunity to earn extra income. The teams promoted communities, businesses, and services, in turn stimulating local economies.
Baseball was—and remains—a unifier, bringing together people who otherwise may never have even met.
Because history often celebrates the professional teams and players, the amateur and semi-professional teams have largely remained hidden. And they still do. Did you know that Colorado is home to the Rocky Mountain Baseball League? Formerly known as the Colorado Semi-Pro Baseball League, the organization was established in 1999 to give local college players a place to play and gain some experience over the summer.
The history of organized baseball in Colorado is deep-rooted, dynamic, and, at times, complex. The teams in the following pages are but a small sampling of the amateur and semi-pro teams that have played the game in Colorado—a game rich in history and meaning to our state.
“And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come, Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again.” —James Earl Jones as the character of Terence Mann, Field of Dreams, 1989
“DiMaggio’s grace came to represent more than athletic skill in those years. To the men who wrote about the game, it was a talisman, a touchstone, a symbol of the limitless potential of the human individual. That an Italian immigrant, a fisherman’s son, could catch fly balls the way Keats wrote poetry or Beethoven wrote sonatas was more than just a popular marvel. It was proof positive that democracy was real. On the baseball diamond, if nowhere else, America was truly a classless society. DiMaggio’s grace embodied the democracy of our dreams.” —David Halberstam, Summer of ’49, 1995
Note: The author thanks baseball historian Jay Sanford for his generosity in sharing many of the images in this article, along with his vast knowledge of the sport. Credit is also due to Sanford for his work over the years to bring to light the history of the sport in Colorado, and to recognize players of the game through his research, writing, collecting, and many acts of kindness—including the placement of a headstone on the grave of Oliver “the Ghost” Marcelle in Denver’s Riverside Cemetery, forty-two years after Marcelle’s death.
The use of the term “organized” in this article refers to the development and structure of teams in Colorado and not professional baseball. In the photographs, whenever possible, a player’s name, position or role with the team, and location in the photo is noted. In some cases, only the last name of the player is known. In others, names are known but not who’s who in the photo. If you have any additional information about any team or player featured here, please share!
A shorter version of this article appears in Colorado Heritage.