Monday, November 17, 2014

Setting the Context for Context

As part of facilitating the NYC 19th Century Baseball Interdisciplinary Symposium on November 15th at John Jay College (CUNY), I had the opportunity to offer the following opening remarks.

Base ball historians and base ball umpires have some things in common, the most important of which is a shared mission to "get it right." Umpires try objectively to interpret what they see to make the correct call, while base ball historians interpret and analyze facts to get the story "right," to help construct a house built on a rock of facts.  Those who work in the pre-professional period (1840-1870) have the added challenge of not just trying to help build something, but also to help dispose of the debris of another house built not on the rock of facts, but upon the sand of myth - the Doubleday myth.  When I give a talk on early New Jersey base ball, right at the beginning, I test the audience by observing that when the first New Jersey clubs were formed in 1855, base ball was a relatively new game since it had been invented less than 20 years earlier by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown.  When I say that, about one-third of the audience looks at me as if to say, "This guy doesn't know what he is talking about," another third seems to think, "I'm not sure, but this guy may not know what he's talking about," and the remaining third looks at the other two-thirds as if to say, "What's the problem?"



So myth deconstruction continues, but committed as we are to the belief that the history of base ball is a history of evolution, not creation, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the process of evolution has times and places that are especially noteworthy.  The greater New York area is one of those places and the pre-professional era is one of those times.  Here, during that period, base ball first became organized, first became competitive and first received significant media attention.  That doesn't make the greater New York area base ball's birthplace, but it is fair to say it was the game's cradle or incubator.

In my view, it's also important to think of the greater New York regionally since different places made significant contributions.  New York City gave the game a critical mass of organized clubs at the same time New Jersey provided an important playing venue and the first instance of organized African-American base ball while Brooklyn broadened the playing population and increased the level of competition.  There were numerous interactions throughout the area some of which we most likely don't completely understand.  For example, the Eagle Club of New York was one of the city's oldest clubs, but after 1856 at least half of its regular lineup was made up of Jersey City residents.  Our initial reaction may be to wonder about far they had to travel to games when, in fact, their trip to neighboring Hoboken was easier than that of the New York members.



Thinking in terms of a geographic region is part of thinking about context.  Today's symposium is all about context which is especially important for the pre-professional period because the fact that much about base ball was just getting started or just getting noticed means original source material is less readily available.  For instance by 1860 in New Jersey, there was a random pattern of clubs throughout the northern part of the state - one connection seems to be that almost without exception the communities which had clubs also had a direct railroad link to Newark.  What that means isn't entirely clear, but the knowledge opens ways to better understand how the game grew and spread throughout the state.  Today, our hope is that by the end of the symposium, each of us will have a better understanding of the context that helped shaped "our game" in the greater New York area.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Stolen Base is a Stolen Base, is a ?

In The Summer Game, the initial collection of his classic "New Yorker Magazine" baseball essays, Roger Angell wrote:

"Good pitching in a close game is the cement that makes baseball the marvelous, complicated structure that it is.  It raises players to keenness and courage; it forces managers to think about strategy rather than raw power, it nails the fan's attention, so that he remembers every pitch, every throw, every span of inches that separates hits from outs.  And in the end, of course, it implacably reveals the true talents of the teams in the field."


Roger Angell 

Anyone looking for support for that argument need look no further than 2014's last major league game, the seventh game of this year's World Series won by the Giants largely on the strong left arm of Madison Bumgarner.   No one who saw any part of his pitching performances will forget the Giant lefty's dominating performance reminiscent of Sandy Koufax's three hit shut out on two days rest in the seventh game of the 1965 World Series almost a half a century ago.  And just as Angell predicted, the strong pitching of both teams produced a full measure of keenness, courage and strategy.


Henry Chadwick 

Especially memorable was the diving stop and scoop of Giant second baseman Joe Panik which changed what could easily have been first and third with no one out to two out with no one on.  As brilliant as that play was, however, it wasn't the only "little" thing that played a "big" part in the game.  Far less attention seems to have been paid to two base running maneuvers which led to two of the game's five runs, most importantly the winning run tallied by the Giants in the top of the fifth.  In each case a runner on second (Alex Gordon of the Royals and Pablo Sandoval of the Giants) tagged up on a fly ball and advanced to third, putting himself in position to score a run that wouldn't have scored if he had waited for a batter to drive him in from second.  Both plays were important, but Sandoval's surprisingly (at least to me) quick move from second to third, led to the go ahead run brilliantly defended by Bumgarner.


Sliding Billy Hamilton 

Both runners, of course, received credit in the box score for scoring a run, but somehow it doesn't seem sufficient recognition for the actual contribution.  In his initial efforts at developing baseball statistics, the only offensive number tracked by Henry Chadwick was runs scored.  I remember reading somewhere that Chadwick's position was that once a runner reached base, it was his responsibility to get himself around the bases to score.  That's a little extreme, but carries the seeds for recognizing the importance of what Sandoval and Gordon did in getting themselves not just in scoring position, but close enough to score on an out.

Regardless of whether it was because of Chadwick's influence or some other reason,19th century major league score keepers had more discretion in recognizing these feats of feet.  According to an article by David Pietrusza and Bob Tiemann in the "Baseball Research Journal," through 1897 scorers could give a stolen base for runners who advanced on fly balls, infield outs and even when advancing from first to third on a base hit.  All but advancing on fly balls were eliminated beginning with the 1898 season and the fly ball out joined the extinct group in 1904.  While on the surface this seems far too liberal, the stolen base was supposed to be awarded only if there was "a palpable attempt" to retire the runner.  At least one study on the subject confirmed that the discretion given to the score keeper was used only sparingly.


Details of Billy Hamilton's 13 game base stealing streak including the opposition pitcher and catcher

Peter Morris in A Game of Inches notes that this difference in scoring makes it impossible to compare more modern base running statistics with those of the 19th century.  Understandable as this may be, however, Morris also notes that far more regrettably, the difference has led to an unwillingness to take 19th century statistics and records seriously.  One example of this is the difficulty Billy Hamilton, who played for the Philadelphia and Boston in the National League in the 1890's, had in being elected to the Hall of Fame.  Although obviously eligible since 1939, it wasn't until 1962, more than 20 years after his death that "Sliding Billy" got his well deserved recognition as an offensive force.  Perhaps the most impressive of Hamilton's accomplishments is 1697 runs scored in 1594 games, the highest ratio of runs scored to games played in baseball history.  Given that number of runs scored, it's not surprising that Hamilton didn't ignore the base stealing side of things. Two of his records which still stand are stolen bases in one game (7 in 1894) and consecutive games with a stolen base, 13 in 1891.  Working only with online newspapers, I was able to check "Sliding Billy's" performance in the latter streak without finding a single instance where a stolen base was awarded for any of the discretionary options,validating at least on that limited research the significance of Hamilton's achievement.


Philadelphia Inquirer - September 1, 1894

Hamilton did, of course, ultimately get his just deserts and the Hall of Fame's new process for evaluating players from the game's early days, which includes input from historians, should help to avoid similar situations in the future.  Unless, however, there's some sabermetric or other modern statistical measure that I'm not aware of for recognizing good base running, consistent performances like those in the seventh game could be over looked or not receive the appropriate emphasis.  While giving a "blank check" to score keepers to award stolen bases would be an over reaction, it seems to me there is merit in finding a way to give due credit to a player who advances on his own "skill and smarts."  After all what a base runner does when he beats a throw to move from second to third on a fly ball is using speed and judgement to "steal" a base.  And as Roger Angell observed, in a pitcher's duel, it's plays like that which make the difference between winning or losing and, as the Giants showed, sometimes the difference in winning it all.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Taking Brevity to a New Level



As anyone who watched the Giants-Royals seventh game is well aware, Tim Hudson, the Giant starter didn't make it through the second inning, the shortest stint by a starting pitcher in a seventh game of the World Series since 1960.  Hearing that reminded me of something I wanted to mention in the post about Buck Weaver and the 5th game of the 1917 World Series, but inadvertently left out.  Without doing any real research that the game may have marked the two briefest appearances for starting players in any World Series game.  Part of this was mentioned in the earlier post in the description of the Giants hot start in the top of the first when they knocked out White Sox starter, Reb Russell after he faced only three batters without recording an out.  The part I left out, however, was that the Giants actually used a pinch hitter in the first inning.

Jim Thorpe

Since Russell was a left-hander, John McGraw replaced Dave Robertson his regular right field with the famous Olympian, Jim Thorpe.  Thorpe had an unusual season that year as the Giants sold him to the Reds in April, but for some reason he was returned to the Giants in August.  All told Thorpe only hit .237, but apparently Robertson, not a lot better at .259, was considered unable to hit left handed  pitching thus the change.  However, Russell's early exit brought right-hander, Eddie Cicotte into the game thus obviating the need for the lefty-righty switch and as soon as Thorpe was due up, the Giant manager quickly replaced him with Robertson.  That move paid off as Robertson singled in the Giants second run of the inning getting the Giants off to the early lead they couldn't hold.  So the net result was that Russell lasted three batters while Thorpe was in the game until the sixth batter (himself) came up or as one writer commented Russell wasn't in the game as long as Thorpe, but saw more action.   Come to think of it, it's hard to imagine any baseball game in history where a starting pitcher and a started player both exited in the top of the first inning.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Buck Weaver's (yes, that Buck Weaver) Greatest Day in Baseball Revisited



Buck Weaver

While working on posts about Ty Cobb and Casey Stengel's greatest days in baseball, I used my copy of John Carmichael's book of the same name which is the third and final edition published in 1951.  It isn't the same book that I remember reading in the 1950's so I bought a copy of the first edition published in 1945 before the end of World War II.  There's also obviously a second edition which I want to seek out as the first edition also doesn't seem to be the version I remember.  The oral histories which make up all three editions appeared first in the Chicago Daily News and the selections in the first and third editions aren't identical.  That by itself wasn't surprising, but I was more than a little taken aback to find the first edition included the story of one Buck Weaver, famous third baseman of the infamous 1919 Chicago White Sox, better known as the Black Sox.


Brooklyn Daily Eagle - October 14, 1917

As far as I know Weaver is the only one of the eight White Sox banned from baseball to have his story included in these anthologies which may be because Weaver is pretty much viewed as the least culpable and most sympathetic of those who felt the wrath of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.  From what I've read and heard there seems to be consensus that Weaver's only sin was to learn of the conspiracy and not tell anyone about it.  During the series itself he played hard and it seems more than a little unfair that Weaver should receive the same lifetime banishment imposed on those who not only knew, but participated.  This sympathetic view of Weaver got further ammunition from John Cusack's portrayal of Weaver in the movie "Eight Men Out" based on Eliot Asinof's book.  Cusack presents Weaver as a decent, sincere hard working ball player, at worse perhaps guilty of being naive about what is going on around him.



Perhaps not surprisingly, the verbal picture Weaver paints of himself in describing his greatest day in the game is quite different than Cusack's portrayal and, at least to me, more than a little unattractive.  The game in question is the 5th game of the 1917 World Series between the Giants and the White Sox, with the latter team featuring a number of those who would play a major part in the 1919 scandal.  Weaver sets the stage for his account by describing the  1913-1914 world tour where Weaver says he and some teammates spent a lot of time "riding" the Giants on the opposing squad with Weaver in particular going after legendary manager John McGraw.  Although fisticuffs were averted, Weaver claimed his parting shot was to hope the White Sox would some day get to play the Giants in the World Series where they would show them "what a real fighting ball club is."



New York Herald - October 14, 1917

In 1917 Weaver got his wish and he describes how part of the White Sox preparation for the Series went beyond planning pitching and defensive strategy to evaluating how each member of the Giants responded to what was called "riding" or "bench jocking,"but today would more likely be called trash talking or even verbal abuse.  The key claimed Weaver was to know which players let  "riding" get to them and which only raised their level of play so the Sox would know who to harass and who to leave alone.  According to Weaver while discussing this immediately prior to the series someone suggested they simply give the Giants the silent treatment which would confuse their opponents even more.  Whether it was this strategy or some more logical reason, Chicago won the first two games in New York, but came home only to lose two straight with a important fifth game to be played on October 13th at Comiskey Park.


Chicago Sunday Tribune - October 14, 1917


At this point, Weaver said the White Sox knew the silent treatment wasn't working so they planned go back to their original plans with a new twist.  Borrowing a page from Ty Cobb's approach to baseball intimidation, Weaver said the Sox "took files and sharpened our spikes till they were like razors" with every intention of sliding in high at ever opportunity.  Supposedly the only White Sox who didn't go along was Eddie Collins who supposedly feared retaliation so much he would avoid taking throws at second if a "tough gent" was trying to steal the base.  Weaver dismissed the future Hall of Famer as a "great guy to look out for himself."


Chicago Sunday Tribune - October 14, 1917

Weaver and his teammates probably didn't know that the day had already gotten off to a bad start for their chances as club owner Charles Comiskey lost a coin flip to determine the location of a seventh game if one was necessary.  Since the sixth game was already scheduled for New York, winning their last home game became even more imperative for Chicago.   Unfortunately the game itself couldn't have gotten off to a worse start as Reb Russell walked George Burns on four pitches, gave up a single to Buck Herzog and then a double to Benny Kauff, scoring Burns and putting runners on second and third with none out.  Chicago manager, Clarence "Pants" Rowland wasted no time pulling Russell and bring in Eddie Cicotte.  Deadball Era teams were known for aggressive base running and none more so than John McGraw's Giants, but this time the strategy backfired.  Cicotte was not much more effective than Russell allowing a "hot grounder" to Heinie Zimmerman and a "hot smash" to Art Fletcher, but both times the runner on third tried to score only to be thrown out.  Dave Robertson did single in one additional run, but the White Sox got out of the inning only down 2-0.


New York Sun - October 14, 1917

Cicotte stayed in the game for five more innings, allowing two more runs while Chicago could only manage one tally off Slim Sallee.  However, the White Sox rallied for a run in the sixth scored by Weaver after the running a gauntlet between the Giant shortstop and second baseman who tried to block his path even though they didn't have the ball.  Claude "Lefty" Williams, another future Black Sox, took the mound in the seventh and allowed another run so the White Sox trailed 5-2 facing a trip to New York down 3 games to 2 hardly a good situation for players who had bragged so much about their superiority.  Writing in the Chicago Daily Tribune, I. E. Sanborn said the Sox were "apparently beaten - hopelessly, disgracefully licked" at that point.  Seldom, however, has a game and a series turned around so quickly.


Chicago Sunday Tribune - October 14, 1917

With one out Chicago had runners on first and second when Chick Gandil (another Black Soxer) doubled to cut the margin to just one run.  Up came our hero Buck Weaver, did he come through in the clutch to tie the game?   He did not!  After fouling off five pitches, Buck grounded weakly to shortstop allowing Gandil to move to third.  Ray Schalk was the next batter and with the pitcher's spot up next, Sallee walked the White Sox catcher bringing up Byrd Lynn as a pitch hitter.  Now the White Sox had first and third and two out in an era that favored the double steal with multiple defensive strategies against it.  Not surprisingly Schalk broke for second and Bill Rariden, the Giant catcher whipped the ball not to second, but back to Sallee who seeing that Gandil wasn't going, decided to try to nip Schalk at second, but ball got away from Buck Herzog and Gandil scored with tying run.  Clearly on this occasion, Sallee would have been better advised to hold the ball.


Chicago Sunday Tribune , October 14, 1917

Although the score was only tied, momentum had clearly switched to Chicago as witnessed by Red Faber setting the Giants down in order in the top of the eighth.  Chicago then scored three times aided once again by Giant throwing miscues to take an 8-5 lead which Faber preserved with another 1-2-3 inning in the ninth.  Afterwards the two teams boarded separate trains for New York which one writer said was fortunate since if they had shared the same train, "there would have only been a few shreds of clothing between them."  Before making the trip east themselves, sports writers tried to find adequate adjectives for a game that featured 26 hits, 13 runs, 9 errors and 21 runners left on base.  William Hanna of the New York Herald claimed that "two teams of the caliber of these never before exuded so much poor baseball, but it was exciting as it was mottled."  Sanborn of the Daily Tribune agreed writing "it was the rottenest, most uproariously exciting, rowdiest, and gamest fight ever seen in more than a decade of word's combats."



Chicago Sunday Tribune, October 14, 1917

But what of Buck Weaver, what did he do this day that made it so memorable?   In terms of his own role, Weaver's devotes more attention to the pre-game than the game itself.  Earlier in the day while the White Sox were taking batting practice, the Giants were loosening up by throwing down the right field line.  When his turn came, Weaver directed the pitcher to throw on the outside of the plate so he could hit ball after ball into the unsuspecting Giants without a word of warning from any of the White Sox.  After the third time, the New Yorkers had enough and sat down until Weaver stepped out.  Exactly what that had to do with the game is hard to see, but according to Weaver that "started the ball rolling."  Perhaps not surprisingly after losing game five the way they did, the Giants were done and lost the sixth game and the series by a score of 4-2.  In ending the story, Weaver mentions one more thing "I'll never forget," which probably explains his choice of greatest days.  Supposedly when the sixth game ended, John McGraw himself ran across the field to Weaver, not to lay hands on him, but to say, "I wanta shake your hand, kid.  You're the best, and I wanta take my hat off to you."  Most likely the compliment from the legendary John McGraw and the memory of the dramatic fifth game turn around were conflated into one story to become the ill-fated Weaver's greatest day in baseball.


Monday, October 13, 2014

Season's End


One of the major reasons I became interested in the Deadball Era back in the 1950's was the baseball of that time seemed so dramatic, full of close, competitive games and seasons.  Many years later, I was surprised to learn that during that period, the National League only had two close pennant races.  First and foremost, of course, is the mythical 1908 season featuring a three team race, the famous (or infamous) Merkle game and a winner take all, final game won by the Clubs en route to their last World Series championship.  The other close race was the far less well known 1916 season which became the subject of The Major League Pennant Races of 1916, written by Paul Zinn and myself.



While 1916 wasn't as dramatic as 1908 or more recent races decided on the last day or in playoffs, that National League season saw four clubs fighting for a pennant that wasn't won until the last week of the season.  Three of the four clubs, Brooklyn (the ultimate winner), Boston and Philadelphia were in contention throughout, but not so the much more famous New York Giants of John McGraw.  In fact, as September began the Giants were not only 15 games out of first, but were actually two games under .500.  At that point, however, McGraw's club embarked on a hard to believe 26 game winning streak (still the major league record) closing to within five games of first before running out of gas finishing fourth, the same place they began the streak.



All of this came to mind as I reflected on the Flemington Neshanock's 2014 season which ended this past Saturday with a 22-8 triumph over the Hoboken Nine in Allentown.  The start of the game was delayed by rain so I wasn't able to attend, but my sources tell me that Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner had  clear score in what sounds like a convincing win.  Back on August 9th, the Neshanock suffered an 18-2 thrashing at the hands of the Brooklyn Eckfords, our 5th straight loss which put the season's record at 9-22.  However in the spirit of the 1916 Giants, Flemington came on to win nine straight games to finish the season at 18-22, not much off of the 2013 record.  Numerous explanations for this turnaround are possible, but base ball fans and players are nothing if not superstitious so the fact that the streak began when the team reversed the shields on their uniforms to have the "F" up is probably the most illogical explanation.



Forty games over six and a half months is a lot of base ball, but there is still some sense of sadness about the end of the season, as I suspect there is at every season's end.  Although vintage base ball allows the participants to stay involved in the game we love well beyond the possibilities in almost  any other form of organized base ball, the reality is that it will end someday and the end of the season reminds us of that reality.  As a result, it's especially important to remember those who make it possible.  Thanks, first of all, to Brad "Brooklyn" Shaw who does so much heavy lifting to get things organized and to make it happen.  Thanks to all the members of the Neshanock, no matter how many games you played, as it isn't easy to get nine players together over 20 times a year.   It's also important to express gratitude to our opponents as sometimes we lose sight of the fact that without the other team there won't be a game.  Also thanks to Sam Bernstein and all those who take on the thankless job of umpiring.  Finally a word of thanks to all the spouses, girl friends, significant others and other family members who support the Neshanock in so many ways, especially watching countless matches in less than ideal conditions.



As the 1916 National League race neared its conclusion, Fred Lieb, one of the great sportswriters of the Deadball Era and beyond, wrote that while he still didn't know who would win the National League pennant,  he had a pretty good idea about the 1917 champions.  He meant, not surprisingly, the New York Giants and they proceeded to do just that.  How the end of the 2014 season will effect the 2015 Neshanock is another question, but with the continued participation and support of all those mentioned above, no matter the record, it will be another successful season.



Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Base Ball at the "Brook"



When the first New Jersey base ball clubs were formed in the late 1850's, playing base ball was important to the organizers, but it certainly wasn't their entire life.  In addition to work and family, a number of them were active in other organizations especially volunteer fire departments.  As the population of places like Jersey City, Newark and Paterson grew in the antebellum period, protection from fire in predominately wooden buildings was an important civic responsibility for young men including ball players.  In Jersey City, for example, the Pioneer Club, formed in 1855, had 11 members who were also part of Empire Hook and Ladder, No 1, a company made up of "men who would not associate with the rough element."  There also may be a base ball - fire company connection with the Liberty Club of New Brunswick, an early Central New Jersey club which defeated the mighty Atlantic Club of Brooklyn in 1861.  While it hasn't been definitely documented, it appears the New Brunswick club took it's name from a local fire company.


Harry "Cappy" Roberts
Picture by Mark Granieri

It was fitting, therefore, both historically and geographically for the Neshanock to participate in an event sponsored by the South Bound Brook Fire Company at Memorial Park not far from New Brunswick.  The day of vintage base ball was organized by long time Neshanock member, Harry "Cappy" Roberts who out did himself both in terms of base ball history and the overall arrangements.  Among the guests were Linda Ruth-Tosetti (Babe Ruth's granddaughter), Betsy Alverson (daughter of Noella "Pinky" Le Duc of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League), and James Robert Scott of the New York Black Yankees of the Negro Leagues.  A leading off the field contributor to Negro League history was also present in the person of Dr. Lawrence Hogan who has done so much pioneering work to be sure that black players before Jackie Robinson are not forgotten.  Free food was also provided for all the players, each of whom also went away with a commemorative mug so that the "Huzzahs" offered to "Cappy" for his day's work were lusty and made the welkin ring. 

Originally the Neshanock were to play two matches against Eric Miklich's Brooklyn Eckfords, but the rest of the Eckfords were unable to attend so Eric headed up a select squad which consisted of two members of the fire department, Paul Salomone and some of his Elizabeth Resolutes and Russ McIver and another member of the Bog Iron Boys.  Thanks to all of these gentlemen for literally stepping up to the plate to make the event a success.  In honor of the occasion Eric wore his old base ball pants which will no doubt be the first exhibit should there ever be a vintage base ball hall of fame.  As usual Eric combined skilled ball playing, sound historical knowledge along with his unique sense of humor to add to everyone's enjoyment.


Photo by Mark Granieri

The Neshanock were fortunate to have both a strong offensive and defensive club on hand which augured well for the day's success.  Dan "Sledge" Hammer pitched the first match and along with strong Neshanock defense limited the select nine to only two runs.  Spurred by six hits from Rene "Mango" Marerro and four apiece from "Sledge" and Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner, the Neshanock tallied 14 times for a 14-2 victory.  Included in "Sledge's" hits was another home run, giving him not only the Neshanock season record, but more than the entire club hit in the prior four years.  With six hits in as many at bats, "Mango" could have had a clear score, but he was forced out by Mark "Gaslight" Granieri in Flemington's last at bat and the quirks of Henry Chadwick's scoring philosophy charge the out to the base runner.  Today was the first time I've witnessed "Gaslight" play a position other than catcher and he distinguished himself in right field by a fly catch and throw (so to speak) that doubled a runner off of first.


Pre-game linguistic discussion on the Neshanock bench
Photo by Mark Granieri

 After a break for rest, food and pictures, the second game began with a number of spectators joining the action which again resulted in a 14-2 Neshanock triumph.  Although he had only half as many hits in this match, "Mango" did earn a clear score while "Sledge" added three more hits as did Dave "Illinois" Harris matching his feat of the first game.   One of the select club's runs was a titanic home run to right field by Darryl Clyburn of the Resolutes.  While neither match was close it was a good exhibition of vintage base ball that was well received by the crowd.  Conversation on the Neshanock bench is usually pretty elevated, but it hit a new high prior to the first match when the day's proceedings were announced as the "first annual."  After much discussion it was agreed that while the term was technically appropriate, the preferred usage is "inaugural."  Whatever it's called, we hope do it again next year.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Summer of Old-Fashioned Base Ball

While the truth about 19th century base ball is often hard to pin down, it is pretty much universally acknowledged that the New York game enjoyed major growth immediately after the Civil War.  That was certainly the case throughout New Jersey where in 1860 base ball was pretty much limited to only a third of the state's 21 counties, but by 1870 every county had at least one base ball club.  A similar pattern played out in the city of Paterson, but with a major difference that came at the height of the post war expansion.  Initially, given the city's population and location, base ball got off to a slow start in Paterson as the first documented match (between a social and a militia organization) wasn't played until late 1857 and the first base ball clubs weren't mentioned in the media until 1860, far behind the experience of comparable municipalities.


Paterson Daily Press - July 31, 1867

The 1860 charter clubs apparently faded out after their first year and it wasn't until 1863 that the first clubs with any real staying power were organized in Alexander Hamilton's model industrial city.  All told, four clubs took the field for the first time that year, followed by another four in 1864, the most important of which was the Olympic Club which became the city's most competitive team of the pioneer period.  Although the Olympics died out towards the end of the decade, they were re-incarnated in the 1870's and produced four future major leaguers, most notably Hall of Famer, Mike "King" Kelly.  The biggest year of post war growth in Paterson was 1867 when the city was home to 26 different clubs in what one contemporary newspaper called the "base ball craze."

Yet what's of special interest in Paterson in 1867 is not this burst of enthusiasm for the New York game, but an equally strong surge of  energy and enthusiasm for what at the time was called old-fashioned base ball.  The first inkling that something different was up came in an article in the Paterson Daily Press of July 31, 1867 about an upcoming "great match" which promised to be "a rich affair" between the Unknown and Neversweat Clubs.  The match took place the following day before a crowd estimated at more than a thousand, all watching a group of men who claimed they "never played the modern game," re-create the game of their youth.


Paterson Daily Press - August 2, 1867


Unfortunately the account of the match doesn't provide many details about the rules of the game, but does confirm 11 on a side, no foul territory and "plugging" as a means of recording outs in a game of six innings with three out per side.  Some information was provided, however, about the field, which was described as having a first base, a rod (16.5 feet) to the right and a little in front of the batter, second base "about" 20 rods (330 feet) in front of the batter and a home plate 10 feet to the left of the batter.  No mention is made of third base and the description of at least one play suggests runners came directly home from second.  The distance between the batter and second base is far greater than the New York game, raising questions for me about the accuracy of either the account or the memory of the participants.  In this particular match, the Neversweats trailed 28-20 going to their last at bat in the bottom of the sixth where they tallied 24 runs, to win 44-28 in one of the most deceiving final scores in the history of almost any kind of base ball.


Paterson Daily Press - August 8, 1867

By itself this match would have been interesting, but hardly unique since it's not a lot different than the annual matches played by the Antiquarian Knickerbocker Club of Newark from 1857 through the early 1870's.  Although these Knickerbocker matches were also reportedly well attended, they were an annual event more or less limited to one group of participants.  In Paterson's case, however, the game account in the Daily Press included a notice of numerous challenges for further old-fashioned matches and less than a week later a select eleven from Paterson traveled to nearby Little Falls where they lost, 63-57, to a select eleven from that community.  Over the next two months four different departments at the Grant Locomotive works formed teams for inter-company matches while a team from the Erie Machine Shop took on another new club, the Michael Erle's.  All told, ten different teams were organized in 1867 so that over 100 men played in at least one match of old-fashioned base ball.  However this spurt of interest in the old game was short lived as no record has been found of additional matches in 1868 or thereafter, although periodic reports into the 1870's suggested that at least one club still existed and talked about getting back on to the field.  


John Walden was captain of the Unknown old-fashioned club and his saloon hosted numerous post match gatherings in 1867

The most intriguing question of this summer of old-fashioned base ball is what prompted over 100 men to organize themselves to play the "old" game at just the time the "new" game reached its peak in this thriving industrial city.  Since none of them left any explanation about their motives, all answers are speculative, but looking at the makeup of the first two clubs - the Unknowns and Neversweats offers at least some material for that speculation.   John Garrabrant, the captain of the Neversweats and a number of the Unknown Club members were hotel or saloon operators including John Walden, who, not only operated an oyster saloon but, had just opened the Paterson Opera House, the city's first theater.  This, and some comments in the game accounts, suggests something of a social or festive atmosphere which bears some similarity to the Knickerbocker experience in Newark indicating that perhaps entertainment was as important as competition.



Paterson Daily Press - August 26, 1867

Even more interesting is the age of the members of the initial clubs, an average of 35 in 1867 so that they were in their early 20's during the antebellum period when the New York game first spread into New Jersey.  By the post war period of base ball expansion, when these "old-fashioned" players were in their 30's, the organized base ball clubs in Paterson consisted almost exclusively of youngsters in their teens or the older more proficient members of the Olympic Club.  Faced with forming their own clubs to play a "new" game against players who were much younger, more proficient or both, they chose instead to return to a game of their youth.  Unlike the Knickerbockers of Newark who formed one club to play amongst themselves, the Patersonians opted for two club providing some level of competition, probably not even thinking about anything beyond that.  That first match was clearly appealing enough that others, some in their age group and some younger, decided to try their hand resulting an a two month flurry of old-fashioned base ball played at the same time 26 other clubs were playing the New York game.


Paterson Daily Press - August 28, 1867

It's not surprising this attempt at putting old wine in new wine skins didn't have any staying power as the combination of age and personal responsibilities for a group in their 30's, would have made it difficult to sustain the level of activity.  While it's tempting to think of this as the first vintage base ball league or association, it's very different from vintage base ball where all the participants try to learn "new" rules while forgetting some of the "old" rules and practices they grew up with.  The Paterson players resumed playing, as men, a game they played or knew, probably informally as boys, and hadn't played in years.  Born too early to be part of the introduction of the New York game, they were part of the last generation of American youth to grow up without the opportunity to play organized base ball.  Possibly part of their motivation was to show the younger generation that they had their own game, one that also required skill and talent.