Thursday, September 24, 2020

"Just About"

Anyone who thought pennant fever in Brooklyn would subside when fans returned to work on Monday was in for a rude awakening, especially those who assumed there was no rush to get to the ball park for the doubleheader against Chicago.  William Granger of the Brooklyn Citizen admitted that the Jewish New Year accounted for some of the crowd, but even so, for the fire department to close the gates on a Monday was "something brand new in baseball."  When the gates were shut around 2:00, a large crowd was still milling around Ebbets Field, growing by the hundreds with the arrival of each trolley car.  Nor was mass transit the sole means of access.  There were so many cars parked for blocks around the ballpark, Granger thought it looked like "all the automobiles in Greater New York were at Ebbets Field."  Among those still outside the ballpark were both Charles Ebbets, Sr and Jr., accompanied by the local district attorney.  Reportedly it took "some wild telephoning from a nearby candy store" before the three gained admittance.  Once they finally got inside some fans grabbed the senior Ebbets' straw hat and threw it on the field in anticipation of a another day of boisterous celebration.  Total attendance was estimated at 26,000, the third consecutive crowd over 25,000 doubtless bringing a lump to Ebbets throat not to mention his wallet.

Charles Ebbets in the obligatory summer straw hat 

As optimistic as the fans may have been, their team faced a major challenge in the first game against Grover Cleveland Alexander who had already beaten Brooklyn four times in 1920.  After the Cubs scored once in the top of the first, Jimmy Johnston blasted a triple only to be thrown out trying to stretch it into an inside the park home run.  Although it was a missed opportunity, Johnston's hit was a sign that Alexander might be vulnerable and the Dodgers took advantage in their half of the second.  Zack Wheat walked and then raced home with the tying run on Hi Myers triple.  Myers scored on Pete Kilduff single and the Brooklyn second baseman soon scored himself, giving Brooklyn a 3-1 lead.  After retiring Chicago without run in the third, Jeff Pfeffer helped his own cause with an RBI single and kept the Cubs at bay until the ninth.  Brooklyn added two more in the bottom of the fifth, keyed by a triple by Wheat that knocked Alexander out of the game.  The Dodgers added another run in the eighth and Brooklyn prevailed 7-3.  

Not every play worked out for Brooklyn, here the Dodgers' first game, second inning rally ends when Ernie Krueger is tagged out by Grover Cleveland Alexander, trying to score on Ivy Olson's foul out.  Brooklyn Daily Eagle - September 14, 1920

Rube Marquard started the second contest for Brooklyn and got in trouble almost immediately when Max Flack doubled with one out.  Next up was Dave Robertson who hit a grounder that looked like a hit until Pete Kilduff made a "circus stop."  Ray Schmandt took Kilduff's throw at first to retire Robertson and then threw Flack out at home to complete a sensational double play.  Having dodged that bullet, the Dodgers quickly got on the scoreboard when Ivy Olson tripled in the bottom of the first and scored on Jimmy Johnston's single.  Brooklyn added two more runs, but Marquard, who Tom Rice of the Eagle felt had a "feeble look," gave up two runs in the fourth. Wilbert Robinson removed Marquard for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the inning and the Dodgers got the two tallies back.  Al Mamaux took over on the mound and pitched five shutout innings, but incredibly did not get the win.  According to the rules of the day, the official scorer decided who deserved the win which in this case went to Marquard.  Although Rice disagreed with the decision, he took a philosophical approach, doubtless because the official scorer was his boss, Abe Yager.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - October 4, 1920

The Dodgers coasted to a 7-2 win behind timely hitting and what Rice called their "snappy defense."  Not about to give up their new found way of celebrating, fans responded to a Zack Wheat catch with another shower of straw hats.  To make the day even more rewarding, the Reds lost again, this time to Philadelphia and trailed Brooklyn by five full games with less than three weeks to play.  Although the Giants defeated the Cards, they too were five back and it's no wonder, Rice claimed Brooklyn had "just about" clinched the 1920 National League pennant.  The other two teams hopes hinged on the Dodgers losing some games and the Brooklyn club refused to cooperate. The Dodgers went 10-4 the rest of the way and clinched the pennant on September 27th.  All told, Brooklyn went 23-6 over the last month of the season, an almost .800 winning percentage.   Not only had the Dodgers won the pennant, they made Eagle sports editor, Abe Yager, a prophet, coming only one game short of his prediction the club would win 94 games.  Now, however, Brooklyn fans were concerned about another set of predictions - forecasts of how their Dodgers  would fare against the Cleveland Indians in the 1920 World Series.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

"Going Up"

 By midday on Saturday, September 11, 1920 pennant fever was running rampant in Brooklyn.  Perhaps the tipping point was the dramatic win over the Cardinals the day before or the attraction of two games for the price of one against St. Louis on Saturday.  Regardless of the reason, Dodger fans flocked to Ebbets Field by the thousands.  Crowd estimates ranged from 25,000 to the New York Tribune's unlikely 33,000 with another 10,000  reportedly turned away.  Those fortunate enough to get inside took full advantage of the temporary bleachers in left field while those unable to get tickets risked life and limb for a view of the action from nearby roofs and walls.  Sadly, the combination of the large crowd and Brooklyn's trolley strike led to a tragic accident outside the park.  Not long after the first pitch, disaster struck at the intersection of Flatbush and Malbone which was "thick with fans." A trolley car "jammed to the running boards," operated by a strike breaking motor man, crashed into another car stopped on the tracks.  The area quickly "resembled a battlefield" with one fatality and 87 injuries, at least four of which were reportedly serious.   

Evening World  - September 14, 1920

Although certainly not as serious as the injuries outside the park, the Dodgers suffered an injury of their own when first baseman, Ed Konetchy hurt his finger during pre-game practice.   Taking his place was Friday's surprise hero, Ray Schmandt who wasted no time showing the prior day's clutch hit was no accident, contributing two hits to the Dodgers' first game attack.  Brooklyn fans might not have noticed Schmandt's contribution amid all the offensive fireworks as the Robins pounded out 20 hits in route to a 15-4 victory. The Dodgers reportedly took added motivation from Cardinal manager Branch Rickey's claim that some Brooklyn players had offered the Cardinals "a big sum" if they beat the Giants in the next series.  Coming amidst the shock waves of the Black Sox scandal, the charge understandably"rankled in the minds of Robbie's men." Whatever the reason, the Dodgers took full advantage of rookie pitcher George Lyons, scoring five times in the first inning.  The early offensive outburst also got the crowd into the game and reportedly "not once during the first game did the cheering let up" while the "field was [once again] turned into a dumping ground for straw hats."    

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - September 12, 1920

Meanwhile up in Boston, the second place Reds were playing two games with the seventh place Braves.  The day didn't get off to a good start for Cincinnati when starting pitcher Dolph Luque suffered from "almost inhuman wildness," loading the bases with two walks and a hit batter in the first inning.  The Braves quickly took full advantage, scoring three times.  Fortunately for the Reds, Luque recovered his control and shut Boston out for the next six innings.  The Reds rallied for four runs in the fifth and led 4-3 in the bottom of the eighth.  Boston loaded the bases with two out, but when Hod Ford hit a routine ground ball to third baseman Heine Groh, it looked like the Reds were out of the inning.  To everyone's surprise, usually sure-handed Reds first baseman, Jake Daubert dropped the throw and by the time he picked it up, Ford was over the bag.  Since Boston had sent the runners on the pitch, both the tying and go ahead runs scored.  Cincinnati went out 1-2-3 in the ninth and the Reds had dropped a full game further behind Brooklyn.

Boston Globe - September 12, 1920

Things didn't get any better for Cincinnati in the second game as Joe Oeschger, the Braves pitcher in the Dodgers - Braves 26 inning game, shut the Reds out 2-0 on seven hits.  In 18 innings of baseball the Reds had managed to score in just one inning.  200 or so miles south, a similar pitching duel was shaping up at Ebbets Field between Lou North of the Cards and Sherry Smith of Brooklyn.  Smith helped his own cause in the third, doubling and scoring the only run he would need on Jimmy Johnston's triple.  A Zack Wheat home run added an insurance run, but the most important support the Dodgers gave Smith was on defense. Especially noteworthy were the unsung Schmandt and oft criticized shortstop Ivy Olson.  Twice Schmandt made throws from "almost impossible angles" to Smith covering first and then followed those fielding gems with a "sensational one hand stop" to finish off a double play.  Also excelling was Olson who made 13 assists and one put out, participating in more than half of the Cards outs.  It was the best defensive performance of the season, helping Smith to a five hit, 2-0 shutout, putting Brooklyn three full games ahead of the Reds.    

Temporary left field bleachers installed by Charles Ebbets

Just two years earlier the Dodger players and fans would have been forced to take a mandatory Sabbath break from the pennant race, but by 1920, in no short measure thanks to Charles Ebbets, Sunday baseball was legal in New York.  Shortly after noon, hours before game time, large crowds once again headed "Flatbushward." Also in the stands were Greasy Neale and Larry Kopf of the Reds, idle that day because of Sabbath prohibitions in Pennsylvania.  The two players thought or hoped Cubs pitcher Hippo Vaughn offered a legitimate hope of stopping the Dodgers onslaught, but their journey and hopes proved to be in vain.  Having contributed in offense in one game on Saturday and defense in the other, Schmandt put it all together on Sunday afternoon.  The game was scoreless going to the bottom of the fifth when he drove in the game's first run with a single. The tally was all spitballer Burleigh Grimes needed, but Brooklyn added four more just to be sure.  

Although taken four years earlier, this picture from the Eagle shows the popularity of straw hats at Ebbets Field - Brooklyn Daily Eagle - August 13, 1916

Schmandt was even better on defense, handling 17 chances flawlessly at first base.  According to Rice,  the new Dodger star "went a mile over his head, to his right, to his left and between his toes," to save a half dozen errors or scratch hits.  Again fielding admirably was Ivy Olson who recorded seven assists and three put outs without a single error.  Ably aided by such stout defense, Grimes allowed only four hits, earning his 21st win in the process.  To make the day complete, fans provided the now obligatory shower of straw hats in the sixth when "several dozen" "flew on the field."  Apparently tired of returning the hats to the stands, Charles Ebbets decreed that henceforth, any hats thrown on the field would go to the local old men's home.  All told, it was an enjoyable 90 minutes for the Dodgers and their fans, magnified even further by the Giants 6-2 loss to the Cardinals which put New York 4 1/2 games back of Brooklyn.  No information survives as to how Kopf and Neale enjoyed their experience as fans as Ebbets Field, but falling 3 1/2 games back made the hill they had to climb even steeper.  As Tim Rice aptly put it, Brooklyn's pennant chances were clearly "going up."

Thursday, September 10, 2020

"The Most Thrilling Ball Game Ever Staged in Brooklyn"

Exactly 100 years ago today, the Brooklyn Dodgers were in first place, although only by a single percentage point.  By this point in the season there was no question the Dodgers were a legitimate pennant contender, but it was less clear whether pennant fever had taken hold in Brooklyn.  Only about 6,000 fans passed through the turnstiles at Ebbets Field for that day's game with sixth place St. Louis, attendance painfully reminiscent of the small crowds during the dramatic 1916 pennant race.  Perhaps it was because it was a weekday or possibly the attraction of two upcoming doubleheaders kept the crowd down.  No matter how low the actual attendance, however, this was a game where the number of people claiming to have attended would dwarf those who were actually there.  Tom Rice of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, who had seen plenty of exciting games in his time, called it "a game that will live for years in baseball history."  Even more exuberant was William Granger of the Brooklyn Citizen who gushed it was the "most thrilling ball game ever staged in Brooklyn."  Hyperbole, not doubt, but, as we shall see, it was not just an important contest in the pennant race, but an unforgettable game in its own right.

Brooklyn Citizen - September 11, 1920

After the Cardinals failed to score in the top of the first, the Dodgers faced St.Louis's Ferdinand Schupp.  Although Schupp was pitching for a second division club, he was 3-1 against Brooklyn thus far in 1920.  The Robins immediately threatened, however, putting two on with two out and Hi Myers at the plate.  The Brooklyn center fielder tripled, driving in two runs and scored himself a few minutes later on a passed ball.  St. Louis got one back in the top of the second on Rogers Hornsby's home run, but Rube Marquard was in control after that and led 3-1 going to the top of the seventh.  With one out, Cliff Heathcote tripled and scored on a ground out to shortstop Ivy Olson.  Still ahead by one run with two out and none on, Marquard made the fatal mistake of walking Schupp, the opposing pitcher. Joe Schultz followed with a single bringing up Cardinal first baseman, Jack Fournier.  After Marquard fell behind 2-0, Fournier correctly guessed fastball and the ball went "soaring over the right field wall" for a three run homer that Rice bitterly called "his first and last home run of the season" (Fournier hit three in 1920).

Brooklyn's "Biggest Individual Asset" - Henry "Hi" Myers

Fluke or not, the home run put Brooklyn behind 5-3 just when the Dodgers and their fans were counting on gaining a one-half game on the idle Reds and Giants.  Sherry Smith kept the visitors off the scoreboard the next two innings, but Brooklyn still trailed by two going to the bottom of the ninth.  The Dodgers got two men on, but with two outs they were down to their last chance and pitcher Smith due up.  Even though he had batted only 23 times all season, Ray Schmandt was Wilbert Robinson's unlikely selection to pinch hit.  So unexpected was the choice some fans supposedly called out "Who is that feller Robbie? (no numbers on the uniforms)." Schmandt fouled off at least seven pitches before making the most of his opportunity by hitting a sharp single to center, driving in a run and, more importantly, keeping the inning alive.  Brooklyn was still down a run, but Ivy Olson singled through shortstop, tying the game.  Overjoyed fans celebrated the dramatic comeback by throwing "perfectly good straw hats into the diamond by the dozen" and according to Rice, "the ex-wearers went home bare headed and proud of it."

Ray Schmandt - Brooklyn's Unlikely Hero

No one was going home just yet however.  Neither team scored in the tenth, but after Jeff Pfeffer retired the first batter in the eleventh, the visitors loaded the bases on three hits that never got out of the infield.  Perhaps unsettled by his misfortune, the Brooklyn pitcher walked Mike Knode, forcing in a run that Rice said "looked like $1,000,000 by the town clock."   Any Dodger fan who thought things couldn't get any worse was proven wrong when Joe Schultz singled in two more runs giving the Cards a three run lead.  Nor was the inning over as there were runners on second and third with only one out.  Brooklyn's big weakness was supposedly its defense, but the Dodger fielders stepped up in a big way.  Fournier grounded to first base and Brooklyn's Ed Konetchy threw out Knode trying to score from third.  Schultz had moved up third on the play, but Dodger catcher Otto Miller took care of him a few minutes later, picking the unsuspecting runner off third.

Long before he built Brooklyn's beloved "Boys of Summer," Branch Rickey was an unsuccessful field manager of St. Louis teams in both leagues

As gratifying (and necessary) as those plays were, the Dodgers again had their backs against the wall, this time needing three runs just to tie.  In the press section, Rice claimed St. Louis and New York sportswriters were already writing introductions to stories about a dramatic St. Louis victory. Brooklyn was far from done, however. Otto Miller opened the Dodgers ninth with a double, Pfeffer hit for himself and singled Miller to third.  Pfeffer was replaced by pinch runner Bill McCabe setting up the controversial play that seems to be almost obligatory in memorable games.  Olson grounded out to short and Miller scored, but as Olson passed Cardinal first baseman Fournier, the ball came loose allowing McCabe to go to third.  Both Robinson and Cardinal manager, Branch Rickey protested the play. The Dodger skipper claimed Olson was safe at first while Rickey argued that McCabe should be sent back to second because of interference by Olson.  Umpires Klem and Emslie conferred and reached a decision probably designed to equally please/displease both managers - Olson was out, but McCabe could stay at third.  He wasn't there long, however, as Jimmy Johnston drove him home with a sacrifice fly, but the Dodgers were still down a run with two out and no one on.

Brooklyn Eagle - September 11, 1920

The situation wasn't promising, but the Dodgers had already proven they wouldn't give up.  Bert Neis put the tying run on base by beating out an infield hit and Zach Wheat followed with "a wicked single" to right field.  Wheat's hit was so "wicked," it got past Joe Schultz and went all the way to the right field wall.  Neis scored easily and Wheat was on third with the winning run prompting another shower of straw hats from the fans.  Determined to prove he was indeed, the Dodgers "greatest individual asset," Hi Myers hit a grounder to deep short and charged down the first base line, "taking great risks of breaking his neck."  Hustling all the way, Myers "half sliding and half jumping," beat the throw to first, driving in Wheat with a run Tom Rice speculated/hoped "may bring a pennant to Brooklyn."  Fournier was so frustrated he threw the ball over the right field wall which probably went unnoticed by the fans pouring on to the field to congratulate their "Flatbush favorites." Whether it was the "most thrilling game ever staged in Brooklyn" was debatable, but no one in attendance would ever forget it.  More importantly, a tidal wave of pennant fever was about to engulf Brooklyn.    



Wednesday, September 2, 2020

1920 Pennant Race - The Story Thus Far

Historians have a natural tendency to attempt to categorize the past into specific time frames or eras.  While understandable, the practice sometimes has unintended consequences. A case in point is the 1920 baseball season which has become something of an historical stepchild.  It is just after the end of the Deadball Era (1901-1919), but not quite within the Yankee/Babe Ruth/Lou Gehrig dominated Roaring 1920s.  The season is also overshadowed by two tragedies, the fatal August beaning of Cleveland's Ray Chapman by Carl Mays and the first revelations of the fixing of the 1919 World Series by Chicago's infamous Black Sox.  In the National League, the 1920 race was a three team affair where Brooklyn took on both the past (Cincinnati) and future champions (the Giants).  Perhaps one final reason, the 1920 season gets less attention, is the National League race didn't come down to the last day, weekend or even the last week.  In fact, the 1920 National League pennant race was effectively decided over four days in mid-September.  Beginning on September 10th (the 100th anniversary of the first game), a series of posts will explore how the Dodgers brought Brooklyn their second championship in four years.  But first a look at the season thus far.

Abe Yager Sports Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle predicted the team known interchangeably as the Superbas, Robins or Dodgers would win 95 games and the National League pennant.

Although it took three second division finishes, not to mention a World War, by 1920, Charles Ebbets had built a contenting club by making some sound additions to an already solid core.  Among the holdovers were two-thirds of the outfield, future Hall of Famer Zack Wheat and the underrated Hi Myers, who, Al Munro Elias, founder of the Elias Sports Bureau, considered "the biggest asset of the Brooklyn club."  In the infield, the shortstop was 35 year old Ivy Olson whose performance in the field was consistently inconsistent with, according to Elias, an "unhappy faculty of bungling when it hurt the most."  First base was occupied by Ed Konetchy, also in his mid 30s, acquired from Boston in 1919 after Ebbets traded his disgruntled star Jake Daubert to Cincinnati.  Although Konetchy hit only .236 for Boston in 1918, he resurrected his career in Brooklyn hitting .298 in 1919 and would top .300 in 1920.  As Elias noted, Ebbets "saved the player from the minors and he has more than repaid" the Brooklyn owner.  The other outfield position had been occupied by Tommy Griffith, but before the 1920 season, Griffith decided to give up baseball for the "stockbrokers game" which meant Jimmy Johnston had to play the outfield rather than third base making an already weak infield even weaker.  

According to Al Elias, Jimmy Johnston's play at third became "one of the outstanding features of the [1920] season."

As with their 1916 pennant winning club, pitching was Brooklyn's strength with holdovers Rube Marquard, Jeff Pfeffer and Sherry Smith well complemented by Burleigh Grimes, Al Mamaux and Leon Cadore of 26-inning fame.  Grimes and Mamaux were acquired from Pittsburgh after the 1917 season in exchange for another disgruntled Dodger, Casey Stengel (and George Cutshaw).  Since Grimes and Mamaux were coming off 3-16 and 2-11 seasons respectively, Ebbets took more than a little risk in making the trade.  The Brooklyn owner was doubtless relying on manager Wilbert Robinson's judgement which once again proved to be sound especially in the case of Grimes. With six capable starters, equally divided between left and right side, Brooklyn had pitching depth other teams could only dream about.  Although far from perfect, going into the season, the Dodgers were a contender with Abe Yager of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle not only picking Brooklyn to win the flag, but also predicting the club would finish with a 95-59 record.  Such optimism about the Dodgers chances was not limited to Brooklyn with Robert "Tiny" Maxwell of the Evening Ledger of Philadelphia claiming the team had a real chance if they could overcome their "wobbly" infield.   

Ed "Jeff" Pfeffer was a key member of the Dodgers pitching staff which was the team's greatest strength

The Brooklyn club got off to a good 8-4 start before the record setting frustration of playing 58 innings over three days in early May with only a 1-1, 26 inning tie to show for it.  Fortunately, since he used only three pitchers, Robinson didn't burn out his entire pitching staff and Brooklyn was in second place at the end of May.  The outlook improved even more when Griffith decided the stock market could wait and rejoined the team.  With Griffith in right field, Johnston went back to third where along with Konetchy at first, Pete Kilduff at second and Olson at short, Brooklyn had an infield which, although far from perfect, was by far the best combination available. Kilduff quickly became a fan favorite prompting roars of "Hit Her on the Nose Petey!" from the crowd.  The Dodgers climbed into first place in early June, but lost 8 of 11 games in a home stand against the western clubs, dropping to third place in the process.  In spite of the team's poor play in June, Brooklyn fans could take some solace from the National League standings which on July 1, 1920 reflected a wide open race with only eight games separating seventh place New York and the league leading Reds. 

Brooklyn shortstop Ivan (Ivy) Olson - when he was good he was very good.

Dodger first baseman, Ed Konetchy - note the spacious outfield before the 1931 construction  of Ebbets Field's left and center field bleachers

Brooklyn got back on track by winning seven of eight in early July and left on their second western trip only one-half game out of first.  At the time western trips meant playing 15 to 20 consecutive road games while spending days and nights on the railroad and in hotels, all without air conditioning.  The challenges posed by the travel alone made a .500 record more than satisfactory, but the Dodgers stayed hot, going 13-7 and moved into first place.  The Dodgers continued to struggle at home however and dropped back into second as they began the season’s final long road trip in late August.  Brooklyn continued to be competitive on the road and finished August in the lead, but just a scant half game over the Reds.  By that point the Giants had turned things around and it was now a three team race. John McGraw’s team was in a rebuilding mode and were hurt by the loss of their young star, Frankie Frisch to an emergency appendectomy. By September, however, Frisch was back in the lineup and it was a wide open three team race.

Even before the Dodgers had Hilda Chester and the Sym-Phony band, they had vocal (and eccentric) followers like Henry Greenblatt - Standard Union - September 27, 1920

Throughout the 1920 season, Brooklyn had played better on the road. Without hesitation, Tom Rice of the Eagle blamed the poor play at home on “a certain sort of Brooklyn fans” who “denounce them [the players - especially Olson] without mercy for the slightest misplay, and never hand them a word of encouragement, if things are breaking badly.”  In his many years of covering baseball, the writer claimed he had never seen a contending team treated as badly as the 1920 Brooklyn club.  Something had to change Rice insisted or “such fans will come pretty near, if not entirely, to costing Brooklyn a pennant,” which would be “unique in the annals of baseball.” Although only 6,000 fans showed up for the next home game, many had obviously gotten the message.  Rice praised the “change of attitude” to something akin to “the loyal rooting of a college football crowd.” The idea that fans could make that much difference is hard to accept, but regardless of the reason, the Dodgers turned things around at home, going 7-2 headed into a September 10th game with St. Louis.  Even with the improved play however Brooklyn was only 1/2 game ahead of Cincinnati with the Giants lurking a mere 2 1/2 games back  

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

A Summer on the Newark Sandlots

In any normal year (that qualification again), the Neshanock's annual trip to Gettysburg would have produced not only blog content, but also plenty of pictures especially those of Dennis Tuttle and official blog photographer, Mark "Gaslight" Granieri.  To help fill the latter gap, this post will offer some drawings that I stumbled upon while researching last year's New Jersey baseball exhibit at the Morven Museum.  We decided to extend the period covered by the exhibit through 1915 so we could include the state's one year as home to a major league baseball team, the short-lived Newark Peppers of the also short-lived Federal League.  In what proved to be the last season of the Federal League's existence, the circuit's 1914 championship Indianapolis franchise was transferred to Newark, although home games were played across the Passaic River in Harrison.  Throughout that season, Louis Wisa, cartoonist for the Newark Evening News did a series of drawings capturing the experiences of a local sandlot team with the somewhat unappetizing name of the (or "de") Skeletons.   What follows is just a sample of those drawings (click on the picture to enlarge).


During the 1914-15 off season, it seemed likely Newark would get a Federal League team, but just which one wasn't clear.  Another candidate was the Kansas City franchise, leading to the possibility that the team's playing manager, George Stovall might send the Skeletons a baseball.  

As noted earlier, the Peppers played their home games in neighboring Harrison, in the aptly named Harrison Park, a classic Deadball Era ballpark built just for the Peppers.    Harrison Park opened in April of 1915 with great fanfare and initially drew large crowds aided by the Peppers ability to play on Sunday.  Attendance quickly dropped off, however, leading ownership to cut the admission price from the standard 25 cents to a mere dime which should have allowed at least some of the Skeletons to find an easier way to see a game.

Although the Peppers were in first place in late August, a poor finish dropped them to fifth place and by year end the club and the Federal League had gone out of existence.  Harrison Park burned down in 1923 and was never rebuilt.  The Skeletons had to settle for minor league baseball or the longer and more expensive trip to New York City.  

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

More Than Just A Game

On Tuesday, October 23, 1855, a baseball game was played at the foot of Chestnut Street in Newark, not far from today's Penn Station.  While the Newark Daily Mercury called the field one of the teams' home field, it was likely little more than a vacant lot (and apparently remains so today).  With two innings in the books, the St. John's Club held a 10-2 lead over the Union Club, but it began to rain, ending the day's play.   Since both sides were likely playing mostly for fun, the losing Union Club was probably just as disappointed as the winning St. John's team.  According to the Mercury, the game was to replayed that Friday at the same ground which was the St. John's Club's home field.  No report of the rescheduled game or any other mention of the two teams has been found so we know very little about them and are not likely to find anything more.  In most cases, the game and the teams would be forgotten, were it not for one word in the four sentence article - the insensitive nineteenth century adjective "colored," where today we would say African-American or black.   That one word, however, makes this an historic event because, as of this writing, it is the earliest known instance of African-Americans organizing to play baseball anywhere in the United States.  

Many years later, baseball could still be played at the foot of Chestnut Street  (center-right)

The only thing that can be said with any certainty about these two clubs is that  the St. John's Club was a Newark team since the field at the "foot of Chestnut Street" was definitely a Newark baseball field.  1855 was the year organized baseball first took hold in New Jersey and it is not surprising that as the state's largest city, Newark had the most teams - at least four other teams can be documented.  For one of the clubs to come out of the local black community, however, is no small matter, if for no other reason because of the very limited pool of potential players.  According to the 1855 New Jersey state census there were almost 9,800 white males over the age of 16 in Newark and they formed four baseball clubs.  Newark's black male population was a minuscule 557 and they formed at least one and possibly two teams the very same year as their white counterparts, raising the question of how Newark's small black community learned about this "new" game so quickly? 

Black Barbershop - Richmond, Virginia - The Illustrated London News - March 9, 1861

Historians Peter Morris and Richard Hershberger have written that at the beginning of baseball's first significant growth period (1855-1860), the game spread primarily through direct personal contact.  Either you had played baseball yourself, watched it being played or spoke to someone who had either played or watched.  It seems like those opportunities would have been limited for such a small minority living mostly on the margins of society.  A look at an 1855 Newark Directory however offers some possibilities.  A total of 167 black men are listed in the directory, most likely those who had a permanent address.  While the leading occupation was laborer, second was barber and the 13 black barbers certainly didn't make their livings cutting the hair of the other 500 or so black men in Newark.  Rather they catered to a largely white clientele, young white men who were likely to talk about this new game while being served or waiting for service.  There is also the intriguing possibility of the O'Fake brothers, Peter (barber and musician) and John (music teacher).  The two men were part of the city's small black middle class with Peter having an 1860 net worth of $5,000.  The two men led a band that later played at the annual dances of the Newark Club - the city's first baseball club.  

Newark's black community's achievement of starting a baseball club the same year as their white counterparts is even more impressive when considered in the context of the state's racial history, a story that is far too little known.  It is perhaps best symbolized by a business transaction described in James J. Gigantino's The Ragged Road to Abolition, Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865.  In February of 1856, just a few months after the St. John's-Union game, John Hagaman of Raritan New Jersey sold some of his property to Charles Sutpin of Somerville probably as part of a planned move to Illinois.  The property, however, was not livestock or real estate, but Catharine a 67 year old "slave for life," an act that may surprise us today on several levels.  Some may be surprised to know there had been slavery in New Jersey while others more familiar with the story may be shocked to learn slavery still existed in the state more than 50 years after it had been abolished. The reason for this seeming contradiction is New Jersey eliminated slavery in a way that insured the path to black freedom would be long and arduous.  

Newark Daily Mercury - October 24, 1855

Slavery in New Jersey began in colonial times and by 1800 there were over 12,000 slaves in the state with some of the largest concentrations in Bergen (2,825) and Essex Counties (1521).  It was not until February of 1804 that the state legislature passed a law abolishing slavery in New Jersey but without freeing a single slave.  Anyone who was a slave at the time (like Catharine) remained a slave for life.  Only those born after July 4, 1804 were emancipated and not until their 25th (males) or 21st (females) birthdays.  One of the many negative by-products of gradual emancipation was limiting, if not preventing, the growth of free black communities in New Jersey.  It was not until the 1830s that there was a critical mass of free blacks who could and did begin forming their own institutions including schools, churches and even baseball clubs.  Seen in this larger context, the 1855 baseball game takes on added significance as one more way the black community showed that in spite of white stereotypes, they were just as competent and capable.  It may have been a small thing, but small things matter especially in fighting prejudice.  Baseball may be just a game, but on October 23, 1855, those unidentified, but no less important, young black men showed it can be a lot more.


Monday, July 20, 2020

Reflecting (Virtually) from Gettysburg

If this were any normal year (a now all too common opening qualification), this post would summarize the Flemington Neshanock's annual visit to Gettysburg for the Nineteenth Century Baseball Festival hosted by the Elkton Eclipse Base Ball Club.  The post would have begun by praising the Elkton Club for running such a fine event, described Flemington's four matches and reflected on our annual visit to what Carol Zinn always refers to as sacred ground.   Even though this year's event was cancelled, it is still important to thank the Elkton Club, first for doing everything possible to play the event and then making the painful, difficult, but correct decision to cancel.  Like all the other participants, the Neshanock are hoping that by next year we'll be able to get back on the field at Gettyburg and everywhere else we were scheduled to play this year.  Even without physically being in Gettysburg, however, it is still appropriate to offer an annual reflection on the historic events that took place in that small Pennsylvania village over 150 years ago.

Photo by Mark Granieri

What happened at Gettysburg, of course, was not just the crucial Union victory, purchased at such great human cost, but also Abraham Lincoln's deathless words, spoken there a few months later.  For all its importance as a battle, Gettysburg did not mark the final turning point of the war.  More Union soldiers died after the battle than before and some historians (including this one) argue that it was not until Sherman's army took Atlanta on September 2, 1864, insuring Lincoln's reelection, that the Union victory became inevitable.  Lincoln's speech, however, brought a new dimension not just to the battle, but to the entire Civil War and our annual visit there often informs my view of contemporary experiences.  Take two years ago, for example. Just a week before the festival, a very unlikely set of circumstances led me to accompany a friend to the funeral of a gay white man at historic Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.  The deceased, who I had never met, was involved in a Black Church in New York City and that congregation, his gay friends and people like my friend and me were there together as one community.  Having that experience in a place where over 3,000 Union veterans are buried suggested that this was an example of what Lincoln meant by "a new birth of freedom." It left me with a very positive feeling.

Clark's Battery, First New Jersey Artillery monument at Gettysburg

Sadly, reflecting on Gettysburg in 2020, it is very difficult to have similar feelings.  Diversity may be even more in the news today, but it certainly does not seem to be valued and any sense of community seems to have gone equally by the wayside.  It is almost axiomatic to hear that we are divided as never before.  That's not accurate, of course, since during the Civil War there was an armed insurrection going on and that is as divided as it gets.  However, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that the conflict was not just between north and south.  There were plenty of divisions within the north itself and two groups in particular stand out.  First were those who supported the war, but wanted the result to be "the constitution as it is, the nation as it was."  That may sound innocent, but it was not because at the heart of "the constitution as it is," was the document's tacit acceptance of slavery.  On the other extreme were the abolitionists, who, we tend to forget, considered the constitution a pact with the devil and wanted to burn it for that same acceptance of slavery.

5th New Jersey monument at Gettysburg

In his 272 words at Gettysburg, Lincoln offered a different approach, one that to me has been best described by Gary Wills in Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, a book I wholeheartedly recommend regardless of one's interest in the Civil War.  Lincoln neither wanted to burn the constitution or preserve it as it was.  Rather Wills argues, Lincoln's goal was to purify the constitution by going back to the original core values of equality and equal rights embodied in the opening sentences of the Declaration of Independence.  Preserving the constitution as it was, was not acceptable, because the acceptance of slavery was not consistent with those core values.  But at the same time, destroying the constitution was not necessary, the far better approach was changing it to bring it more in keeping with those values.   John Burt in his book, Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism suggests that one reason people sometimes have difficulty categorizing Lincoln is that he pursued a radical goal, ending slavery, (very radical for the time) but used conservative means to achieve that goal, amending the constitution to end slavery once for and forever.

Photo by Mark Granieri

What I participated in two years ago in Brooklyn was for me, just one example of what the "new birth of freedom" might look like, very much in line with the core values of the Declaration.  Perhaps it would be worthwhile today to measure our opinions about today's contentious issues against those values and, if appropriate, think about how we might need to change.  Real change is never easy, but it is certainly not impossible.  In her book - What This Cruel War is Over: Soldiers, Slavery and the Civil War, Chandra Manning makes a compelling argument that the Civil War at all levels was always about slavery.  In her conclusion she notes the "astonishing changes"  that "took place in many white Union men's ideas about slavery." Their example, she argues, can and should "alert all of us to the dramatic changes in attitude and achievement that can take place when people who think they have nothing in common find themselves thrust into interaction and interdependence."  If it could happen then, the good news is it can happen today as part of another "new birth of freedom."   May it always be so!