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.


  1. Richard HershbergerFebruary 27, 2012 at 1:52 PM

    Howdy! Happy to see the new blog!

    I can take a stab at a couple of the questions you raise. Why did the Knickerbockers have a five year hiatus from match games after 1846? Because there was no one to play against. The mid-1840s saw a small baseball boom, which collapsed following the 1846 season. The Knickerbockers were the sole surviving club. The early 1850s saw a slow revival, not reaching the earlier level until the 1854 season.

    As for why things really took off in 1855, notice that December of 1854 saw a uniform set of rules, and in early 1855 they were published in a newspaper, the Spirit of the Times. Both of these were firsts. The 1855 season saw dramatically increased newspaper coverage of baseball, which shows that editors thought that readers wanted this. The increased coverage in turn stimulated the formation of new clubs. This is a classic virtuous cycle.

    I have some thoughts about that game between New Jersey clubs, but I will hold off for now, except for pointing to the hint in the article when it specifies that the Empire/Eagle game was played under the rule of "3 hands out".

  2. Thanks for the welcome and the comments - the next post (probably Wednesday) will speculate about the hint you mention.