Soldiers with Mormon Battalion were the first Padres?

San Diego Union-Tribune
6 a.m. July 30, 2012

Today’s lead isn’t buried in verbal cotton candy.

I’ve got hardball news.

In 1847, Mormon soldiers stationed at Mission San Luis Rey in what is now Oceanside played the first baseball games in California’s recorded history.

Azariah Smith, a private with the famed Mormon Battalion, wrote the following in his journal:

“Sunday March the 6th. We drilled as before and through the day we play ball and amuse ourselves the best way we can. It is very cool weather and clothing scarce.”

So what’s the big deal?

“When I started research for ‘Baseball in San Diego: From the Plaza to the Padres,’ ” says local baseball historian emeritus Bill Swank, “I wanted to discover mention of baseball in San Diego before May 6, 1871. I remember practically going blind and even falling asleep while spinning old 1850-1860s newspaper microfilm reels at the downtown library searching for the word ‘ball.’ When I found it in a headline, it meant a ball where the locals could trip the light fandango.”

Stymied, Swank ended up downplaying the period before 1871: “Billiards, bowling and boredom helped pass the time in the sleepy watering holes of Old San Diego.”

So it was a thunderbolt out of right field when, last month, Bay Area historian Angus Macfarlane (Swank fondly calls him a baseball “prehistorian”) said he may have stumbled upon what he calls the “Holy Grail,” Smith’s entry in “The Gold Discovery Journal of Azariah Smith” by David Bigler of Utah.

In a note to Swank, Bigler speculated that “the Mormon Battalion’s members hailed from virtually every state in the Union at that time and any one of them could have taught the rest how to play baseball.”

Coincidentally, on March 6, 1847, troops from New York arrived in San Francisco and in April went to Santa Barbara. According to historian Donald Briggs, the men proved unruly, “galloping their horses or playing ball in the streets.

So that’s the box score. Mission Mormons beat New Yorkers by a month.

Though it’s conceivable that “ball” referred to another recreation, Macfarlane assures me that “ball” was the common name for what we know as baseball.

Smith, by the way, has another claim to fame. He was right there when gold was discovered in Northern California. Rejecting the lure of riches, the homesick ex-soldier returned to Utah.

Nevertheless, he appears to be San Diego’s first known “ballist,” a distinction that can’t be conferred upon a friar.

“I always thought Padres was a great name for our San Diego baseball team,” Swank says with an irreverent twinkle. “Maybe they should be called the Mormons instead.”

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