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. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Cameron Field Centennial

Among the most enjoyable matches the Neshanock play each season are those held to commemorate some aspect of base ball history.  A case in point was this past Saturday when Flemington was fortunate enough to participate in an event at a venue, new to the Neshanock, but hardly to base ball, Cameron Field in South Orange, New Jersey.  When I arrived, I realized that Paul Zinn had played base ball there about 20 years ago, but at the time, I had no idea of its history or the great base ball players who had performed there such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gerhig.  Saturday's event honored the 100th anniversary of the field with special recognition for Hall of Famers Larry Doby and Monte Irvin, both of whom played there during their long careers.  Doby's daughter and granddaughter were present as was Lee Leonard, a South Orange resident, who had a long career covering sports on radio and television including being literally the first person to speak on ESPN on September 7, 1979.  For me, being in South Orange, was also an opportunity to see long time friends, Jude Seelbach and Donna Smith.  Donna is running for the South Orange Board of Education and is an excellent choice for anyone with a vote in that election.

 After 100 years of base ball, Cameron Field, South Orange is certainly among the venerable sporting venues in New Jersey, but the game has an even longer history in the Essex County community.  The village itself split off from South Orange Township (now Maplewood) in 1869 after the township itself was created out of portions of Clinton Township and the city of Orange in 1861.  Both of the latter two municipalities had base ball clubs before the Civil War with the Washington Club of Orange possibly being New Jersey's first organized base ball club.  It's not clear if what is now South Orange had a team during the antebellum period, but the first club calling the village home was the Alert Club of Seton Hall which was mentioned in the Newark Daily Journal as early 1864.  New Jersey's first college base ball team was clearly the Nassau Club of Princeton, but it appears the Alerts have a legitimate claim on the second position.  A year later the college boys were joined by a second South Orange team, the Orient Club which had a not so auspicious debut, losing to the second nine of the Irvington Club by a count of 50-13.

Newark Daily Advertiser - June 10, 1865

For today's match, South Orange organized its own club, the South Orange Villagers, to take on the Neshanock.  It's an excellent approach for such an event and Flemington always enjoys playing this kind of local team which sometimes leads to the formation of new clubs, like the Hoboken Nine, or the beginning of an annual event like the Memorial Day match in Newtown, Pennsylvania.  The home club operates at an obvious competitive disadvantage as they are playing a new form of base ball for the first time against a team of veteran vintage players who play 40-45 matches per year.  However, the Villagers played very well in the field, making a number of fine plays while committing only one muff over the course of the game.  Flemington also had a strong defensive effort including a particularly noteworthy play in the bottom of the third that combined "strategy" and execution.  The South Orange striker crushed a pitch to center field where wily Ken "Tumbles" Mandel lulled the batter into a false sense of security by first running in on a ball that was well over his head and then strolling after it while the crowd urged the batter to go for a home run.  "Tumbles" leisurely peregrination allowed Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner to get close enough to take "Tumbles" relay, and fire a long throw towards home which was cut off by Dan "Sledge" Hammer and whipped to Rene "Mango" Marerro just in time to nip the unsuspecting batter.   

Not surprisingly the Neshanock had a good day at the striker's line with "Sledge" contributing a single, triple and a home run, joining "Thumbs," Scott "Snuffy" Hengst, Jack "Doc" Kitson and Julio"Grandpa" Carigga, (a first time Neshanock player) with three hits apiece.  Going one better was "Mango" with four hits on the day.  In the end it was a 20-2 Neshanock triumph, but it was a fun day for all, the Villagers did their best, it was a large, enthusiastic crowd and all of us on the Flemington side hope this becomes a regular event.  Base ball is ultimately a team game and so credit for the Neshanock triumph is also due to Phyllis Shaw, Doreen Harris and Carol Zinn who watched Carter "Little Tumbles" Mandel during game so that his dad could "patrol" center field for Flemington.  The Neshanock have three dates left in the 2014 season, next Saturday in Monroe Township, the following Sunday in Bridgewater and Saturday, October 11th in Allentown, New Jersey.  

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Reconstructing early New Jersey base ball

Newark Daily Advertiser - November 6, 1857

Witnessing part of a Philadelphia town ball match renewed my interest in the game or games played in New Jersey before 1855, especially what it would have been like to play in such a game.  Town ball was the name for the Philadelphia game and other non-New York games, but there's no evidence the name was used in New Jersey.  Many years later, "old style," "old fashioned," and even "antiquarian" were the popular descriptive adjectives for bat and ball games the participants claimed were different from "modern" base ball.  Since, however there are no contemporary sources of information about those games, there is no way to know for certain whether they were called town ball , base ball or something else.  More importantly, the lack of contemporary accounts forces any attempt at reconstruction to rely on newspaper descriptions, years later, of re-creations of early games, not unlike trying to understand the New York game solely by watching vintage base ball.

Newark Morning Register - May 25, 1869

While these accounts are helpful, depending on such sources carries risks, not the least of which is that the reporter writing the story was probably trying to describe a game he had never seen before based on the imperfect memories of multiple participants.  How, for example, when outlining these early games, did the reporter reconcile inconsistencies or gaps in what he heard and saw?  Furthermore, as with the very name of the game, how did the reporter know that what he experienced wasn't at least partially the incorrect inclusion of "modern" rules and practices instead of what actually happened.  Newspaper accounts of the old-fashioned base ball craze which swept through Paterson in 1867 included box scores depicting a game with three outs per side per inning.  Since variations of the pre-New York game frequently featured one out or all out, was this how the game was actually played in Paterson or is it an historically inaccurate application of "modern rules?" It's impossible to know for sure, so drawing conclusions from these accounts is not unlike building a house on quicksand.

 Yet these accounts are all the information we have so keeping the risks in plain view, let's look at  the Newark and Paterson "styles" by means of a chart laying out some the features described in the retrospective accounts. 

Category                                   Newark                             Paterson

Number of Players                      Varies                              11

Bats                                          Many sizes and                Not stated
                                                 shapes including

Inning ends                                All out                              Three out

Outs made by                            Fly catch                          Fly catch
                                                Bound catch                      Bound catch
                                                Three strikes                      Not stated
                                                Hit with thrown ball             Hit with thrown ball

Foul territory                              None                                 None

Game ends                               Not stated                          Six innings.

At bat outcomes                        Base hits/outs                    Base hits/outs

One area of clear agreement is the absence of foul territory, a feature shared with Philadelphia town ball.  Both Newark and Paterson accounts emphasize this point and it's so different from the New York game, it's unlikely anyone who played or saw the earlier versions would have forgotten it.  Close to a complete match are the means for making outs with the Paterson game missing only strikeouts, but the issue isn't covered in the Paterson accounts which are fewer in number and far briefer so it is probably not unreasonable to believe strikeouts were also part of the Paterson game.  Perhaps more important is the shared rule that outs could be recorded by "plugging" or "soaking" with the ball, again a common feature with Philadelphia town ball.  As noted earlier, there is major divergence on the all out/three out rule.

Newark Daily Journal - October 14, 1865

There also appears to be a difference in the number of players with the Paterson version clearly fixed at 11, but with much variation in the Newark matches.  However, eleven on a side seems to be a fairly common feature of these early games and the far larger numbers playing in the Newark games in the 1870's suggests accommodating everyone who turned out.  Further support for 11 on a side as the norm in New Jersey is seen in the experience of the state's first base ball clubs as in 1855 Jersey City's charter teams played 11 on a side before changing to 9 over the course of the season.  Although equipment was at a minimum there also appears to be a difference in the type of bats used in these contests.  The Newark newspapers give detailed descriptions of bats of varying sizes and shapes including some flat rather than round, the articles even seem to suggest the bats were originals brought out of "storage."  The Paterson accounts, on the other hand, are silent on the bats most likely indicating they were round as anything different most likely would have attracted attention.

Newark Daily Journal - May 30, 1873

Not surprisingly a major difference between both New Jersey games and Philadelphia town ball is the absence of the all or nothing, home run or out aspect of the latter game as both the Newark and Paterson accounts refer to runners stopping at bases.  It appears to me that to some degree, the all or nothing aspect of the Philadelphia game was driven by the very short distance between the bases.  The only mention of the field in the Newark accounts is of stakes rather than bases, but the Paterson paper describes a field measured by the distance from the batter to second base, much like the Knickerbocker rules, although the description is of a far larger field.  The dimensions may very well be in error, but seem clearly to describe a field that permitted multiple outcomes of at bats.

Paterson Daily Press - August 2, 1867

Based on this information, what could a young man in Newark before 1855 expect to experience on the ball field?  Since, as far as we know, there were no organized clubs, our ball player headed not for his or the other team's home grounds, but to a nearby vacant lot.  Bases had to be laid out, but without foul territory not a lot of field preparation was required.  The informality probably extended to the choosing of sides, batting order and positions in the field, although then, as now, some players were singled out for their hitting and fielding.  If our imaginary player wasn't a great hitter, success in his first at bat was important or he would spend a lot of time on the bench (assuming the existence of the same).  On the other hand, if he did get on base, he was vulnerable to being hit with a thrown ball especially if he turned his back to the ball while running.  While our player may have been bored waiting for his teammates to make out, it was preferable to standing in the field on a hot, humid August day waiting for all 11 players on the opposite team to be retired.  It's no wonder then that when someone suggested playing by a new set of rules with regular structured at bats, shorter periods in the field and no risk of being hit by a thrown ball, there was no shortage of volunteers.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Weekend at the Yard

Photo by Mark Granieri

This past weekend the Neshanock visited Philadelphia to participate in the Navy Yard vintage base ball festival sponsored by the Athletic Club of Philadelphia.  Still a relatively new club, the Athletics deserve a great deal of credit for sponsoring this event which is held on the parade grounds of the former Navy Yard, allowing three games to be played simultaneously.  Since I wasn't able to attend Mark "Gaslight" Granieri kindly provided pictures and a game summary for Saturday while Brad "Brooklyn" Shaw filled me in on Sunday's match.

Photo by Mark Granieri

Flemington began play on Saturday morning with a match against the Keystone Club of Harrisburg, the same team the Neshanock played and defeated in a well played match in Cooperstown back in May.  The weather was hot and humid so playing in heavy uniforms was more than the usual sacrifice to historical accuracy as the Neshanock took an apparently safe 13-6 lead into the ninth.  The Pennsylvania club wasn't done, however, and scored five times and had the bases loaded with only one out.  Fortunately Flemington held on for a hard fought 13-11 victory.  After a brief respite the second match was against the Capital City All Stars, a club representing a number of clubs from Maryland and the Washington, D.C. area.  Thirteen was apparently the Neshanock's lucky number as Flemington was in control all the way for a 13-5 victory.

Photo by Mark Granieri

Although the Navy Yard event has always been held over two days, this was the first time Flemington played both days.  The difference in the conditions was dramatic as Sunday was a pleasant day with much more comfortable temperatures and lower humidity.  The Neshanock played only one match taking on one of New Jersey's newest vintage teams, the Minerva Club of Bridgeton for the first time.  I read some place that the original Minerva Club played its first match in the fall of 1863 against the Athletics of Philadelphia and, sure enough, Marshall Wright's The National Association of Base Ball Players, 1857-1870 has an 1863 match between the Athletics and the Bridgeton Club.  I'm guessing this is the Minerva under a different name and the 1863 match makes sense as a member of the Bridgeton Club played in the May 1864 "all star" match for the benefit of the U.S. Sanitary Commission.  Based on what I've seen so far, the original Minerva appear to be the earliest club in southern New Jersey other than the Camden Club which started playing Philadelphia town ball.

Photo by Mark Granieri 

The match itself concluded a perfect weekend for Flemington as the Neshanock won by a 26-2 score, one of the heaviest offensive outputs of the season.  The offense was led by Ken "Tumbles" Mandel, Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner and Dave "Illinois" Harris, all of whom reached base six times.  Not far behind were Joe "Mick" Murray and "Brooklyn" himself who made their base five times apiece.  I understand the Athletics put on another demonstration of Philadelphia town ball which I'm sure was well received.   All in all it sounds like another good event and a fine start to the fall portion of the Neshanock's schedule.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Casey Stengel's Greatest Day in Baseball - Revisited

Stengel early in his Brooklyn career

While there is no comparison between Casey Stengel's playing career and that of Ty Cobb, the two had at least one thing in common.  When queried about their greatest day in baseball, both chose games early in lengthy careers.  In fact, this was one area where Casey was way ahead of, not only, Cobb, but every other player in "My Greatest Day in Baseball" because Stengel chose his very first game, a game played on September 17, 1912.  That Stengel's most memorable moment was as a player, not a manager, isn't surprising since the account was written around 1942 when he had managed just over 1200 major league games with only one winning season to show for it.  On the playing side of the equation, however, Stengel's almost 1300 games don't lack for moments of distinction.  At a crucial point late in the 1916 season, he belted an unlikely home run off Grover Cleveland Alexander sparking a Brooklyn win that put them in first place to stay.  If that wasn't a big enough success on a big enough stage, near the end of his playing career, Stengel hit a 9th inning inside the park home run for the Giants to win the first game of the 1923 World Series against the Yankees.

Claude Hendrix - the pitcher Stengel faced in his first game

Memorable as those moments must have been, however, as far as Stengel was concerned, they couldn't top his late season 1912 debut in a basically meaningless game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and his new team, the Brooklyn Superbas.  Known to history as the Dodgers, the Brooklyn team were nicknamed Superbas after a vaudeville act called Hanlon's Superbas when Hall of Fame manager Ned Hanlon took over the team in 1899.  The name stuck well after Hanlon's departure, especially in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle game accounts of long time beat writer, Tom Rice.  Rice was there on September 17, 1912 to chronicle Stengel's debut at old Washington Park and, not surprisingly, his account differs to some degree from Stengel's reminiscences three decades later.

Washington Park with a much larger crowd than saw Stengel's debut - the apartment building in right center is where fans watched from the fire escape without paying admission

According to Stengel's account, he arrived in New York City by train from Montgomery, Alabama too late to go to Washington Park so based on a cab driver's recommendation, he booked a room at the Longacre Hotel in Manhattan.  With time on his hands, and more than a little intimidated by the big city, Stengel walked one block from the hotel, found his way back and then repeated the process until he reached 42nd Street, after which he called it a night.  Rice, however, reported that Stengel, not only arrived early enough to come to the park on September 16th, but actually got there just before game time.  He presented himself to the somewhat surprised Charles Ebbets Jr., son of the Dodgers owner, as "Stengel from Montgomery of the Southern League."  Offered a chance to dress and meet his new teammates, Casey allowed as he was "dead tired," would "look the big fellows over" from the stands and "break in tomorrow."  Regardless of whether the country boy scared of the big city or the self-assured young man declining to get right into uniform is historically accurate, both suggest a colorful personality.

Bill Dahlen - Stengel's first major league manager

Regardless of whether Stengel saw Washington Park for the first or second time on September 17th, his account of his first day in a major league uniform is a picture of a "busher" breaking into the big leagues.  Upon arrival at the ball park, the new Superba found himself pretty much ignored by his teammates with the exception of Zack Wheat.  In an attempt to become one of the guys, Stengel bet $20 in a dice game which he quickly lost on the first throw.  Fortunately for both his bank account and his future, manager Bill Dahlen pulled Stengel out of the dice game, asking gruffly if he was "a crap shooter or a ball player?"  Smart enough to know the right answer, Stengel put down the dice and put on a uniform.  When he went out on the field Casey headed straight to the bench as he had been forewarned as to what happened to rookies foolish enough to try to take a turn at batting practice.

 Zack Wheat and Hub Northern, the man Stengel replaced in the lineup when he made his debut, it was the last season of Northern's short major league career

To his surprise, Stengel was put in the starting lineup, batting second and playing center field.  Casey came to the plate in the bottom of the first with a man on first, got the bunt sign, but the pitch was too low.  Following, perhaps instinctively, Southern League practice, Stengel thought he was now on his own, swung away for a single that helped score the first Dodger run.  Manager Dahlen was not impressed, however, by either the hit or the explanation for not bunting, informing Stengel with major league sarcasm that he [Dahlen] didn't want a rookie to have "too much responsibility" so he [Dahlen] would "run the team" so that all Stengel had "to worry about is fielding and hitting."

Honus Wagner of whom Stengel mistakenly thought - "I can grab anything he can hit."

That wasn't the end of Casey's education about life in the big leagues as he ignored Wheat's warning to play deeper on the legendary Honus Wagner who promptly tripled over the rookie's head.  Casey's confidence that he knew better was probably due to the exceptional day he was having at the plate with four straight singles and two stolen bases.  And the performance was certainly noteworthy as most of his success was against Claude Hendrix, who Stengel claimed was the best pitcher in the National League that year.  Best is a relative term, but the Pirate pitcher was 24-9 with a 2.59 ERA so Stengel's certainly wasn't hitting against inferior opposition.  Casey even claimed that in his 5th at bat, he responded to a challenge from Pirates manager Fred Clarke by batting right handed and earning a walk.  No mention of this appeared in four contemporary newspapers and it sounds like revisionist history.  Casey was probably also feeling good because of the favorable reviews from a group of men watching the game for free from an apartment building fire escape, much, no doubt, to the chagrin of Brooklyn owner, Charles Ebbets.

Stengel as a more established member of the Brooklyn Superbas

In spite of the lessons about how the game was different at this level, Stengel had a memorable debut, going 4 for 4 with two stolen bases as Brooklyn won easily 7-3.  Tom Rice was impressed, following the Stengel quote of "I'll break in tomorrow," by commenting that the rookie broke in "with a loud resounding crash, such as been made by few minor leaguers."  What strikes me on re-reading this memoir 50 or so years after my initial reading, is the tension between the lessons Stengel had to learn about the big leagues (gambling, following orders, taking direction from veterans) and his belief in himself, buoyed by a performance that he could play at this level.  The Eagle headlined Stengel's first game as "a record breaker" and I believe four hits in a major league debut is still a record, one shared with Willie McCovey and perhaps others.   It understandably filled Stengel with confidence about his future, sufficient reason to declare it his greatest day in baseball no matter what came later. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - September 18, 1912