Wednesday, February 29, 2012

But What Game Was It?

As noted, the Newark Daily Advertiser’s all too brief description of the first New Jersey base ball game raises the question of how one inning could last more than one day even if 51 runs were scored.  After all even the Yankees and Red Sox don’t take that long to play an inning!  In the same sentence is a slightly longer description (hard for it to be shorter) of a match between two New York clubs played at Hoboken.  One-third of that brief account of the Empire Club’s 21-19 win over the Eagle Club is devoted to listing two rules – “21 aces, and 3 hands out, all out” or  the first team to score 21 runs (aces or tallies) wins and a team’s turn at bat ends once three players are put out.

In 1855 the rules were still very much in flux, for example, the question of seven innings vs. nine innings wouldn’t be resolved until 1857. So perhaps the Advertiser writer mentioned the rules used by the two New York clubs to suggest that the New Jersey match was, or may have been, played under different rules.  Even though, the New Jersey players were just learning the “new” game, it seems unlikely it would take an afternoon to get three hands or outs.  A more likely explanation is different rules especially with regard to the number of hands or outs per inning.  This could be a carry over from “old-fashioned” base ball as played by the Antiquarian Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of Newark (subject of future posts).  Descriptions of Antiquarian Knickerbocker games indicate that an inning lasted until every batter was retired or “all out – all out.” Since such games frequently also included 11 on a side the stage was set for the “ten-out” rally!  According to baseball historian, David Block, the “all out – all out” rule was probably borrowed from cricket and was a feature of base ball as played in the 1830’s or in other words, before the Knickerbockers (New York version) and their “new game.”

What this further suggests is that when the “New York” game arrived in New Jersey, it didn’t come into a vacuum.  Most likely some form of a game called base ball was played in the Garden State well before 1855.  Just one piece of supporting evidence for this theory is an October 1857 report in the New York Clipper that the newly formed Liberty Base Ball Club of New Brunswick had challenged “a party of old fogies – who were in the habit of playing the old fashioned base ball” which is “entirely different from the base ball as now played.”  As the “new” game took hold in New Jersey, it probably interacted with other forms of “base ball” and at least initially, some of the early clubs may have used the "old fashioned" rules or a hybrid version.

While the Advertiser article makes no mention of the number of players on a side, some early New Jersey clubs including Jersey City’s first two teams, the Pioneer and Excelsior Clubs, used 11 players in their initial matches.  One game account actually refers to the sides in a game that began with nine players per team as being two men short.  As the 1855 season advanced in New Jersey, however, the nine men, three out, highest score wins model gradually became the norm. “Old-fashioned” base ball was not dead, however, the Antiquarian Knickerbockers kept it alive until the mid 1870’s and in 1867 a number of Paterson teams returned to the old game.  The latter group, as David Block has noted, could even be called the first vintage base ball league!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

1855 - A "New" Game Comes to New Jersey

When I was growing up in the Wayne, New Jersey in the 1950’s, I sometimes read a magazine called “Boys Life.”  The one article I have never forgotten is a comic book version of how Abner Doubleday invented base ball (it was probably one word in the story).  Sparing no embellishments, the story portrayed Doubleday and his friends in full uniform playing town ball against another team also in full uniform.  After Doubleday (of course) ended an inning by soaking (hitting with a thrown ball) an opposing base runner, Abner’s teammates discussed town ball’s shortcomings leading the precocious young man to invent base ball.

It was a colorful story and, as we well know today, totally false.  John Thorn’s find of a Pittsfield, Massachusetts town ordinance established that a game called base ball was played in this country as early as 1791.  Although little is known about that game and its ancestors, a lot more is known about the development of organized base ball in the 19th century.  At the heart of that process is the base ball club.  While they were by no means first, the most famous club of the 19th century was the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York.

If for no other reason, this New York club is justly renowned for popularizing and codifying a form of base ball that is the direct ancestor of today’s game.  Among the noteworthy events in the club’s history is a June 19, 1846 match at Hoboken, New Jersey, against the New York Club, a 23-1 Knickerbocker loss.  However, no matter, how historic this game may have been (contrary to popular opinion and the below plaque, it wasn't the first base ball game), it didn’t mark the beginning of regular team competition.  Whether it was because they were bad losers or some other reason, it would be almost five years before the Knickerbockers would play a second match game, a June 3, 1851 victory over the Gotham Club ( a new incarnation of the New York Club).  It was only after that match that regular competition between clubs became the norm.

Through 1854, such competition was limited to a few New York and Brooklyn clubs, but all of this changed in 1855.  For reasons that are not clearly understood, 1855 marked the beginning of a period of base ball expansion that lasted through the Civil War.  Since Elysian Fields in Hoboken hosted many of the New York club’s matches, it is no surprise that young men from nearby Jersey City and Newark were motivated to follow suit.  And so it was that on June 16, 1855, the Newark Daily Advertiser gave all of one sentence to what to date is the first documented base ball game between two New Jersey clubs in the same paragraph as an equally brief report about a match between two New York clubs, the paper reported that:

All research to date indicates that the Newark Club was New Jersey’s first base ball club while the Oriental (also from Newark) couldn’t have been far behind.  The Orientals would shortly thereafter change their name to the Olympic Club, but wouldn’t survive the 1855 season.  The Newark Club, on the other hand, would have a much longer history and we will look at this club in more detail in future posts.  Later in the month, Advertiser gave more information about the site of the first all New Jersey base ball game.  Apparently both clubs had “taken a fine ground” in East Newark which was about “a half mile from the railroad bridge.”

Although the game account could hardly have been briefer, it raises some interesting questions especially the rules of a game where 51 runs are scored in one inning and it takes two days to play that inning.  In the next post, I will take what is surely a first look at how the game was initially played in New Jersey.

Monday, February 20, 2012


Like many areas of New Jersey history, the story of early base ball (two words in the 19th century) in the Garden State has not been extensively explored or told. In fact, it is probably similar to New Jersey’s Civil War history 50 years ago before a dedicated group of historians began an effort that continues to this day.

The purpose of this blog then is to preserve, analyze and describe the game’s early days in New Jersey and its development throughout the rest of the century. A blog seems the most appropriate vehicle because the relatively unknown nature of the subject will continually lead to new discoveries. This also means, however, that the content will be a work-in-progress, not a finished product.

Initially the focus will be on 1855 to 1860, the time when base ball, or at least what is called the New York game came to New Jersey. Other forms of base ball that may or not have been played before that are also of interest. If things go well attention will shift to remaining four decades, but not necessarily in a strict chronological order.

Two more qualifications. There will not be much in this blog about the eight New Jersey clubs that I wrote about for the second volume of “Base Ball Pioneers, 1850-1870″ to be published by McFarland and Company. Also, in spite of the 19th century focus, the 21st century will sometimes sneak in with reports about the Flemington Neshanock, one of New Jersey’s two vintage base ball teams. I am fortunate to be the club’s scorekeeper and among the many benefits of that role is learning about 19th century base ball by participating in a recreation. It’s not the original, but it’s still a manly pastime!