Friday, March 16, 2012

Patience Pays Off

All research requires patience and early New Jersey base ball is no exception.  The primary source material is contemporary New Jersey newspapers almost exclusively accessible only on microfilm at diverse places like Alexander Library at Rutgers University, the Jersey City Public Library and the State Archives in Trenton to name just three.  Almost without exception these newspapers are four pages long and seldom devote more than one-half of a page to local news including base ball.  Other than public hangings, few stories are covered in any detail so game accounts are seldom more than a short paragraph and sometimes a brief box score.  Box scores typically give only last names and, at most, a first initial making player identification both challenging and frustrating, but that’s another story.

Basic research therefore means skimming through what is often hard to read microfilm, paying close attention to one out of every four pages.  More often than not, this produces nothing or, in the case of multiple newspapers in one city, nothing new.  Every so often, however, a special find makes it all worthwhile.  Such was the case last year when I was scrolling my way through the 1855 Newark Daily Mercury after having already gone through the Newark Daily Advertiser for the same year.  Suddenly, in the October 24, 1855 edition of the Mercury, I read the following:

The historic importance of this article lies in one word, the insensitive adjective “colored.”  On first glance it seemed earlier than other accounts of African-American teams and matches.  E-mail postings on SABR’s 19th century research list brought confirmation from John Thorn, Official Historian of Major League Baseball, that this is now the earliest documented record (by four years) of African-Americans organizing to play base ball.  It’s also interesting from a New Jersey perspective because it shows that African-Americans in our state began forming base ball clubs about the same time as their white counter parts.

The Daily Mercury was the abolitionist newspaper in Newark which probably explains why it reported on a community typically ignored by white society.  Important as this information is, however, it is a shame there is no box score which could have facilitated identification of some of New Jersey’s and perhaps the nation’s first African-American players.  The next reference I have found of African-Americans playing base ball in New Jersey is also in the Mercury (November 18, 1859) which says that a crowd of "colored" players is playing regularly at the old Burying-Ground.  There is, however, no reference to organized clubs. 

It isn't until the September 30, 1862 issue of the Advertiser that there is further reference to a New Jersey African-American club, an equally brief account of a match between the Hamilton Club of Newark and the Henson Club of Long Island – again with no box score.  The more well known Brooklyn Daily Eagle account of a match between two African-American clubs lists a member of the Hamilton Club of Newark as the umpire, but I have not been able to locate him on any census. 

I suspect it is going to take even more patience to pursue this further.  But patience, after all, is what it’s all about. 

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