The famous Golden Spike, which linked up the transcontinental railroad in Utah in 1869, brought an influx of outsiders to the insular Mormon territory. One of the imports those outsiders brought along was America’s “national game” – baseball.
When a team named the Salt Lake Deserets formed in 1877, baseball was a marker of how sophisticated the city was becoming. The Salt Lake Tribune noted that if Utah’s capital had not fostered the game of baseball, “our city would not be up in modern ideas.” At the same time, baseball games were known to be a hotbed of unsavory activity, like betting. An effort was made to clean up such behavior to make Deserets games acceptable for ladies. “Offensive yelling” was also frowned upon.
But baseball would bring to light a growing rift in the community. The Deserets took their name from the Book of Mormon, leading to assumptions about the make-up of the team. A letter to the Salt Lake Tribune called for a change in the club’s name and misidentified the religious affiliation of a few players. This apparently made those players so uncomfortable that they left to join another local team, the fledgling Red Stockings. After this shake-up, the competing clubs aligned according to religion. Deserets players were largely “Gentiles,” Red Stockings were largely LDS, and the fans sorted themselves accordingly. A future president of the LDS Church, Heber J. Grant, even played second base for the Red Stockings.Contests between the Deserets and the “Reds” drew thousands. Baseball attracted so much interest in the Territory that teams traveled to Salt Lake City from out of state. The first champions of the newly organized National League, the Chicago White Stockings, played here in 1879. There has never been a major league baseball team in Utah, but Salt Lake has been home to a dozen or so clubs and minor league teams since the Deserets dominated the region in the nineteenth century. More than just a fun way to spend the afternoon, baseball represented in some small measure the ways that residents of the Utah Territory dealt with the influence of the “outside world.”
See Kenneth L. Cannon II, “Deserets, Red Stockings, and Out-of-Towners: Baseball Comes of Age in Salt Lake City, 1877–79,” Utah Historical Quarterly 52 no 2 (1984); Carter Williams, “Elders? Skyscrapers? A look back at Salt Lake City’s extensive and odd baseball history,” KSL.com, April 4, 2019; “Salt Lake City, UT,” baseball-reference.com, accessed February 1, 2023.