Jack Hinchman and the Origins of Baseball at Michigan

Letter from Hinchman to his parents on April 26, 1863

A letter from Hinchman to his parents on April 26, 1863, in which he discusses his experiences at U-M during the spring of his freshman year. His favorite way to spend time is clearly playing baseball.

Young baseball players around the state of Michigan who had been lucky enough to avoid being drafted into the Civil War spent the summer of 1862 playing the game they loved. On July 4, 1862, the Brother Jonathans—a Detroit area baseball team—traveled to Ann Arbor to play the town’s Monitor Club in what may have been the first Independence Day game ever played in Michigan.[1]

The best player on the Brother Jonathans that day was Jack Hinchman, who would go on to enroll at the University of Michigan a few months later. When Hinchman arrived in Ann Arbor in the fall of 1862, however, there were no sports teams to be found. According to the president of Michigan’s graduating class of 1861 “there were no athletics in [those] days, no foot-ball, no base-ball, no track-teams….There were no clubs…just a little plain, country play for fun.”[2] Determined to bring athletic competition to Ann Arbor, Hinchman and fellow freshman Emory Grant paved the way for baseball at the University of Michigan during the spring of 1863.

With U-M’s enrollment of about one thousand students from all over the country, the two freshmen met plenty of classmates interested in playing baseball. On April 20, 1863, Hinchman, Grant, and a group of fellow students met to elect officers for a University of Michigan baseball club. [3] After assigning the positions of club president, secretary, treasurer, and director, the men proceeded to lay out the campus’s first baseball diamond near the present-day Diag. In letters Hinchman sent to his parents during his first spring in Ann Arbor, he wrote often of playing baseball. On April 26, he wrote, “I played Base Ball yesterday,” and asked his younger brother Fred to send him a box of his “Base-Ball things.”[4] About a week later, Jack assured his parents that he was getting plenty of exercise by playing baseball in the mornings. Then, again, on May 10, he noted, “I play Base Ball two or three times every week.”[5] 

Thanks to the efforts of students like Jack Hinchman, baseball was established on the University of Michigan campus by the mid-1860s and took hold as a preeminent University sport. While more formal varsity teams were not organized until the 1880s, club baseball teams on the college campus played a pivotal role in the development of the game throughout Michigan. For while baseball had been popular in the state during the 1850s, the Civil War threatened to stem the growth of the game, as many young men abandoned infields for the infantry. Without the teams fielded by the University of Michigan, it’s possible that baseball activity could have flickered out in the state altogether.

[1] Morris, Peter. Baseball Fever: Early Baseball in Michigan. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2003. p. 71.

[2] Ibid., p. 75.

[3] Ibid., p. 76.

[4] John Marshall Hinchman. Letter from John Marshall Hinchman to his parents, April 26, 1863. John Marshall Hinchman Letters, 1861-1864. University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library, Ann Arbor, MI.

[5] Ibid., May 10, 1863.