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!


  1. I agree with most of this post. Naturally, therefore, I am going to pick nits:

    My biggest disagreement is with the interpretation of this as a transitional form. There are occasional signs of features of the NY game being assimilated into local forms, but this was unusual and nothing here requires this.

    1855 was at the early end of a nation-wide trend to organize ball clubs. Early on these clubs usually played the indigenous form of baseball. Later on the trend shifted toward playing the NY game, in many cases with existing clubs switching games. This process was still going on in Cincinnati as late as 1866, where there was a large competitive community playing the local form. The normal pattern was to play one or the other.

    So what I see in these accounts is not clubs playing some transitional form of baseball, incompletely incorporating features of the newer form, but rather clubs playing in organized form the traditional version of the game from the local schoolyards.

    On a different note, there was no question in 1855 of seven or nine innings. The 21-run rule was standard in the NY game. As the quality of play (particularly fielding) improved this led to unduly long games, sometimes running over into two days. Hence the later change to ending the game by innings rather than runs. The proposal to the 1857 convention was for seven innings, and this is what came out of the rules committee. This was changed to nine innings by an amendment from the floor. The fact that the seven innings proposal came from the Knickerbocker club and the amendment was made by a member of the Knickerbocker club hints at internal club politics, but it wasn't any sort of sustained state of change.

    I also think it unlikely that the all-out inning was borrowed from cricket. Most forms of early baseball were all-out, so the borrowing would have had to have taken place very early. Furthermore, the rules aren't really the same.

    Cricket requires that there be two players "in", as both wickets (corresponding to bases) are always occupied. So cricket innings aren't actually all-out. They are ten-out, with eleven players. (The eleventh guy is listed in the box score as "not out".)

    Early baseball typically really was all-out, but this left the potential problem of stranding players on base. The solution was to have a special rule for the last batter in the lineup. The rule varied. One form was to have the last batter try to hit a home run, with a successful attempt resulting in clearing the slate of the previous outs. Something like this would go a long ways to explaining that marathon inning. (When you work your way over to Camden, where clubs based out of Philadelphia played, this will work differently: the Philly version had its own set of peculiarities.)

    I look forward to the discussion on the Antiquarian Knickerbocker club. Occasional throwback games were widespread as acts of nostalgia, but the Antiquarian Knickerbockers as a sustained endeavor were unique.

  2. Thanks for the comments - they help me continue to think my way through this.

    It's going to be a while before I get to the Antiquarian Knickerbockers, but I'm looking forward to it as well. They definitly deserve attention perhaps even an article some place. In the late 1860's and early 1870's, the Newark newspapers gave a lot of space to covering their annual game including information about the rules. Of course the problem is that it's hard to know whether something written that many years later is accurate. The first reference I'm aware of to the club is in late 1857.