Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Making the Team - 1859 Style

Anyone who has played competitive base ball at any level knows the challenge and stress of making the team.  It’s an experience that can begin in childhood and for the best players continues until they either choose, or are forced, to hang up their spikes forever.  Young men who wanted to play for New Jersey’s first base ball clubs faced these hurdles, but with an additional barrier that had nothing to do with the ability to hit, run or throw.

Early base ball clubs, as Peter Morris has noted “were social clubs that happened to include base ball among their activities.”  As a result, prospective players first had to meet stated and perhaps unstated membership criteria.  Most clubs, therefore, had a process to evaluate membership applications/nominations and the Hamilton Club of Jersey City was no exception.  According to the club’s rules, nominations of “gentlemen” at one meeting would be voted on at the next meeting subject to a favorable report from the committee on inquiry.  Voting was anonymous, using colored balls (white for yes and black for no) with three black balls defeating a nomination.

On May 17, 1859, the club met at the American Hotel in Jersey City to vote on four candidates – Washington Irving Comes, John B. Christie, H.W. Stevens and Freeman A. Smith.  Stevens remains unidentified, but the other three fit the profile of the Hamilton Club developed by historian George Kirsch.  They were born in the United States, held low white collar jobs and owned little or no real estate.  Washington Comes had a leg up on the social ladder as he was descended from a veteran of the Revolution and, perhaps more importantly in this context, lived with a branch of the Shafer family, some of whom were already club members.  Christie was the son of a prosperous merchant who had a net worth of $70,000 (almost $1.9 million today).  Freeman Smith’s family wasn’t in that financial league, but the young man otherwise fit the profile.

Although the club had between 30 and 40 members, it appears only 13 were present that day.  Mr. Stevens, whoever he was, was approved unanimously while Comes and Christie were elected with just one negative vote.  Freeman Smith, however, was not so fortunate, failing even to earn a majority with six white balls and six black (3 black would have been sufficient) and his application was rejected.  Comes apparently didn’t bring much to the club on the base ball side appearing in only two second nine matches, but Christie quickly became the team’s regular pitcher.  However his behavior may have sometimes been less than gentlemanly since he was fined 25 cents, at least once for “disorderly conduct.”

Why was Freeman Smith rejected?  At this distance it’s impossible to be sure.  The most reasonable explanation is that for some reason at least six of the members disliked him enough to vote to vote no.  The Hamiltons were in a feisty mood that day, forcing the president to break a tie on whether to issue a challenge to the Hamilton Club of Brooklyn, not to mention requiring several votes to set a starting time for their matches.  The contentious atmosphere could have sealed the fate of what may have been at best a marginal candidacy.

While being rejected may have ruined Smith’s day, he certainly didn’t let it ruin his life.  He had a successful business career including succeeding his father as President of the Provident Institution for Savings.  Even more interesting is that he appears to have had the last word on social status as his 1896 New York Times obituary described him as “a well-known clubman,” with membership in the Palma, Union League and Carteret Clubs of Jersey City.  Even if he never got to first base with the Hamilton Club (in more ways than one), the experience may have taught him something about perseverance.

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