Monday, March 5, 2012

Beginnings (and Endings) - Then and Now

The Flemington Neshanock Base Ball Club (www.neshanock.org) began its 2012 season this past Saturday with a team meeting and lunch hosted by team president and founder, Brad “Brooklyn” Shaw.  My role in this august body is score keeper where I am learning to use Henry Chadwick’s system from the 1850’s and 1860’s.  It’s very different from today with the only common link the use of “K” (last letter in the word struck) as the symbol for a strikeout. 

Saturday’s meeting marked the first time most of us had been together in five or six months so part of the time was spent catching up, but plenty of attention was given to the upcoming season.  Highlights of the 2012 Neshanock schedule include trips to Boston, Gettysburg and Rochester, New York not to mention at least four matches with our in-state rivals, the dreaded Elizabeth Resolutes.  Like any new beginning the mood was upbeat.

Historical accuracy is one of the Neshanock’s highest goals and starting the season with a meeting recreates the practice of one early New Jersey club – the Hamilton Base Ball Club of Jersey City.  Reading through the club’s minute book (HOF library in Cooperstown) gives a rare inside look at the life of a 19th century NJ club which will be explored in more detail in future posts.  Like the Neshanock 151 years later, the beginning of  the new season (1861), saw the Hamiltons starting things off with a meeting at the American Hotel in Jersey City.  While there most likely positive energy in the room, there was also serious business before them.  The assembled members listed to a report from the committee on grounds about a potential playing site a Mr. Sisson would “fix . . . to suit” for a “reasonable rent” as well as providing “timber” for a clubhouse.

This was apparently no small issue as the Hamilton Club was at risk of losing their current grounds at the “Long Dock.”  The members had to be aware that a similar problem had contributed to the premature death of Jersey City’s first two teams, the Pioneer and Excelsior Clubs.  It most likely wasn’t just a matter of a place to play matches, other local sites like nearby Elysian Fields in Hoboken were probably available for that purpose.  The more important need was their own grounds for what the Hamiltons called “field exercise” or practice since club records suggest this was a higher priority than match play.  Ultimately the club members voted to accept Mr. Sisson’s offer, but not before placing on upper limit of $100 on the cost.

That may not sound like much, but at the time a working man made on average $300 a year.  Furthermore the Hamilton Club’s finances were problematic.  The prior October the club was reportedly out of money and “somewhat in debt” so they had to assess each member an additional $1.50 beyond the $3 in annual dues.  Maximum club membership of 40 further limited the revenue possibilities. 

The $100 limit may not have been entirely about the club's finances.  Club members may have been concerned about dealing with Mr. Sisson's and his definition of "reasonable rent." Sisson appears to have been Charles G. Sisson, one of the wealthiest men in New Jersey who according to the New York Times had been involved in more than his share of mean-spirited business dealings.  His failure to pay workers on the railroad tunnel being cut through Bergen Heights caused the "tunnel riot of 1858" which only ended when the State Militia intervened.  Then in the early 1870's he was involved in a "scheme" to evict small property owners from their land on Jersey City Heights.  At the time of his death in 1874, the New York Times estimated that his estate was valued between $7 - 10 million ($138 - 198 million today). 

After this action, the club members tried without success to agree on a schedule for practice days.  They could have saved their breath as there are no further entries in the minute book or any evidence that the club actually played any 1861 matches.  It may be that the financial and property challenges were too much to overcome, but the date of their meeting may give a further clue.  The meeting was held on April 11, 1861, the next day the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter and the war was on.

The young Jersey City men who made up the Hamilton Club were probably well aware of the impending crisis, but like others in the north, they may have been hoping it would somehow go away.  Now they knew that was not going to happen.  My best guess is that the combination of the club's own problems plus uncertainty about their personal futures was simply too much to overcome.  While nothing comparable hangs over the Neshanock’s 2012 season, it’s probably wise not to take this season or any season for granted.

1 comment:

  1. Richard HershbergerMarch 6, 2012 at 11:56 AM

    Gettysburg is near my neck of the woods. I will try to get there, schedule permitting.

    It is entirely typical that "field exercise" was the club's priority. The real point of having a club in this era was to provide congenial circumstances for the members to take their exercise together. Match games were highlights of the season, but they were comparatively rare events.

    The regular field days mostly pass under the radar in modern accounts, as they rarely attracted newspaper attention. But the vast majority of early organized baseball took this form. Overlooking the field days results in a distorted view of what ball players were doing and why.

    This pattern changed in the late 1860s with the top clubs. By the 1870s the changes had filtered down to most amateur clubs. An amateur club in the 1860s typically had thirty to forty members. An amateur club in the 1870s typically had ten or twelve members: team and a few substitutes. This was a fundamental shift in the social context of the game, and goes a long way toward explaining why none of the amateur-era clubs survive.

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