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A SPORTING TOWN

Early Sports and Recreation in Battle Creek


Battle Creek has always been a sporting town. In the mid 19th century the city was known for the speed of its harness racers and the quality of its horseflesh. Walter Clark’s famous stallion, Pilot Medium, sired a bevy of racing champions and earned his owner more than $20,000 in annual stud fees before his demise in 1896.

 

Harness races were scheduled every weekend and drew large crowds for the spectacle and for the excitement of the wagering. The city’s first race track was laid out in 1859 at the corner of Hubbard and Manchester streets, just south of the present location of Washington Heights Community Ministries. In fact, the depression in the ground tracing the outline of the one-mile track is still faintly visible.

 

The second track, built in 1879 by the Battle Creek Driving Park Association in the ‘flats’ south of the river, was used until 1885. Walter Clark then privately constructed a race track on Goguac Prairie, just south of the city limits.

 

If sportsmen did not ride the horses, they could ride the waves. Boating, especially competitive sculling, was also popular at the end of the 19th century. Young men raced double and single sculls, four-oared sculls and six-oared ‘barges’ on Goguac Lake. Founded in 1873 by the socially elite young men of the city, the Goguac Boat Club sponsored regattas on the lake which drew competitors from as far away as Detroit, Saginaw and South Haven.

 

Sculling was a rich man’s sport, but anyone could play baseball. Battle Creek’s first teams were formed in the 1870s. The first groups informally represented areas of the city, such as the West Enders and the South Siders.

 

Soon, however, organized industry-sponsored teams emerged. One of the earliest, and best, local teams was fielded by Nichols and Shepard, the threshing machine factory. After the turn of the century the industrial teams became semi-professional, with the participating companies hiring a few key factory workers based on their sporting ability. Pat Patterson, best known as the city’s first full time paid African American police officer, was brought to town to play baseball for the Malta Vita team.

 

One celebrated incident in the 1880s involved the Sunday ‘blue laws.’ Two local teams were playing a game at the Driving Park in the flats on a Sunday afternoon, despite the seldom-enforced ‘blue law’ forbidding sporting events on the Sabbath. Suddenly the town marshal arrived, shut the game down and arrested the players. John Weickgenant, the team manager, hired three lawyers and managed to settle the case out of court. However all local teams had to agree not to play again on Sunday.

 

The first baseball park which boasted a grandstand for spectators was Athletic Park built in the 1890s near Goguac Lake. Later the site of Lakeview High School, the original baseball diamond is now the site of a grocery store.

 

Another baseball park was built in 1893 along Capital Avenue NE, across from the present Piper Park. The Battle Creek Base Ball Club leased four acres and proposed to spend $1,000 fixing up the land. The newspaper advertised that, “The location is one of the best in the city. The lay of the land is just right for the making of good ball grounds. The field can also be used for field games and all kinds of athletic sports and for circus grounds. Being located on the line of the electric street railway it will be easy of access.”

 

In addition to the baseball diamond a bicycle track was built at Recreation Park, as the new field was named. In the 1890s the bicycle was king in Battle Creek – and around the nation. According to the newspaper, “horse racing was a thing of the past.”

 

The riders and racers, known as “wheelmen,” were the superstars of the era. Champions were known by their first names alone and they endorsed bicycles, riding equipment and accessories.

 

The city’s first bicycle club was formed in 1882 by 15 to 20 young men for purely social purposes. But the passion for the sport soon grew far beyond the club’s modest membership.