The first inter-collegiate athletic event to include a Wisconsin Normal School (Later many Normal schools became public state universities in the WIAC) was a baseball game between Platteville Normal and a team from Darlington in 1867. One of Platteville’s ball players was Melvin Grigsby of Potosi, Wisconsin. Given his experience in the Civil War a few years earlier, I have to think Grigsby had the time of his life and enjoyed the sunshine, leisure and freedom of one Wisconsin’s first organized public collegiate baseball games.
Grigsby was a patriotic sixteen year old who wanted to defend the Union when the Confederate states seceded in 1860. His father dissuaded Melvin from enlisting right away but consented to his service in the 2nd Wisconsin Cavalry by December, 1861. Grigsby and the 2nd Cavalry served throughout the war’s Western Theater before he was captured near near the Big Black River, Mississippi on March 8, 1864. He was incarcerated in four Confederate prisons, which included Andersonville, Georgia. In 1888, Melvin wrote a wartime memoir, Smoked Yank, in which he described the scene when he entered through Andersonville’s gates:
“…on either side was a line of living, human skeletons, walking mummies; ragged, many nearly naked, all skin and bone, black as Indians, not exactly smoked Yanks, but the smoked skeletons of Yanks.”
After six months in Andersonville, he eventually was transferred to and later escaped from a prison in South Carolina. From there he made his way to General Sherman’s army where he ended the war as a twenty-one year old veteran.
To his father’s delight, Grigsby continued his education after the war. Following a brief stint at the University of Wisconsin, he enrolled in the Normal School (Teacher’s college) at Platteville. As a member of that school’s baseball team, he and fellow students and faculty played Darlington before wagon loads of spectators who traveled to an open pasture near Strawberry Diggings to watch this exciting event. The sun proved to be too hot after several innings and after both squads agreed to take a siesta in the shade, play was resumed and the Platteville squad lost 16-15. The Normal school soon thereafter merged with another Platteville team and walloped a Galena squad 63-23 (Different rules and equipment led to football-like scores). This first game began the process for these state schools to organize themselves into an athletic conference which is known today as the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
What was Grigsby thinking when he laid down in the shade for his baseball siestas? Was baseball a game he learned while in the cavalry or prison during the war? Did he quietly give thanks for the gift of shade which was non-existant while he was a POW in Andersonville? Were there other veterans on the team and did they share stories during those breaks in baseball games? I would love to know the answers to these questions.
Regardless, he did not allow his difficult war experience to hold him back from professional pursuits. After his graduation from the Normal School in 1869, he served as principal of nearby elementary schools before attending Law school and then migrating west to South Dakota. Considered one of South Dakota’s most honored citizens, Grigsby served as that state’s Attorney General and as a Colonel of Cowboy Rough Riders in the Spanish American War.