Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Was this NJ's First Base Ball Team?

My primary research goal is to study and analyze how the New York game spread and developed throughout New Jersey.  I've decided to take a more systematic approach and work on a county by county basis beginning with Hudson and Essex counties.  These two counties had the highest population at the time and are also the closest to Manhattan and Brooklyn.  I've already worked through almost all of the Newark newspapers for the period so on Monday I made the short trip to the Orange Public Library to look at The Orange Journal.

                                                           Orange Public Library

The Journal was a weekly paper so I didn't expect to find much in the way of game accounts and, in fact, I only found two - 1858 box scores of games between the Pioneer Club of Orange and the 2nd nine of the Empire Club of Newark.  Only one of the two was new so, as I kind of expected, it seemed like the trip was just part of due diligence.  I didn't go through the newspaper in chronological order so the last year left was 1855, the first year that New Jersey teams started playing the New York game.  Although the Newark Daily Advertiser (8/6/1855) had made reference to an unnamed Orange club, I still was not expecting very much.  Then the May 26, 1855 issue had the following:

"In your Journal of May 12th you undertook to enumerate the Societies of this thriving town; but I must say you entirely over looked one; viz the "Washington Base Ball Club," consisting of (20) young men; they held their semi-annual election on Friday evening, last May 18, at the Park house; where also a collation was served them, of which nothing need be said as the popularity of its host in that line needs no comment, by inserting this you will confer a favor on the W.B.B.C."

I had actually missed this the first time through, but went back after I saw the following letter to the editor in the June 9, 1855 issue:

“In your Journal a short time since, a communication appeared speaking of the “Washington Base Ball Club” of Orange.  From its being noted publicly, I should infer they were somewhat anxious to gain notoriety, or else wish to play a match with some other Club.  If the latter are the facts of the case there are eight men over the mountain who will play their best eight men.  The time and place to be agreed upon after the challenge has been excepted (sic).  By noticing this you will confer a favor on


Of course the Washington Club wasn't going to let that go without a response so the the following appeared in the June 16, 1855 issue:

"In your journal last week, a notice appeared purporting to come from some one who signed himself “mountain,” stating there were  eight (8) men over the mountain who would play the 8 picked men of the “Washington Base Ball Club.”  We have merely to say in reply, although not quite so desirous of obtaining notoriety as “mountain” says we are, we stand ready at any time to play them or any other 8 men over the mountain, address WBBC, Orange, P.O."

Unfortunately nothing further appeared in the paper about the two teams or whether the game actually took place.  I also went back to the Journal's first issue in June of 1854 and worked forward, but found no further mention of the Washington Club or any other base ball club.

The possible significance of this find lies in the date.  Up until now the earliest documented New Jersey base ball club was the Newark Club which played a match on June 13, 1855 and according to the Newark Daily Advertiser of August 11, 1855 had only been in existence for “a few weeks.”  While this is speculation, the first Washington Club letter seems to suggest that their club is older than the Newark Club.  The Washington Club met on May 18 for what is referred to as a “their semi annual election” which doesn’t sound like a description of a first or initial meeting.  Rather it suggests at the very least a second meeting which if the semi annual reference is accurate would mean an earlier meeting no later than the fall of 1854.

Also of interest is the identity of the eight men from "over the mountain" who are more than willing to take on the Washington Club.  At the time Orange was more properly known as Orange Township and covered a much larger geographic area including today's East, West and South Orange and most likely Maplewood.  Mountain refers to what used to be known as "first mountain" (first mountain west of Newark).  Today's Orange is on the eastern side of the mountain as are South and East Orange so the eight men are most probably from what is now West Orange.  The letter could be interpreted to mean that they have or about to form a club and, if so, that would add another to the growing list of 1855 New Jersey base ball teams.

Although the correspondence refers to a game of eight on a side, I believe this is the New York game and not a predecessor game (which would be even more significant).  My understanding is that nine on a side was not formalized for the New York game until 1857 and we know that in 1855 other New Jersey clubs played the New York game with, for example, eleven on a side.  I'm not at all sure how to pursue this further as I've exhausted the only Orange newspaper and doubt I would have missed any references in the Newark newspapers.  But for the moment it seems there is a real possibility that New Jersey's first base ball club was not from Newark, but from its much smaller western neighbor.  Stay tuned.


  1. Richard HershbergerMay 3, 2012 at 4:44 PM

    I agree that the stipulation of eight on a side does not preclude the NY game. Nine on a side was customary among the New York clubs throughout the 1850s for match games, with this being formalized in 1857, but other numbers were common in intraclub games, and seen from time to time in outlying areas. It took a while for people to internalize the idea of there being a fixed team size. My guess is that the number eight was chosen here because that is how many players the challengers had available.

    On the other hand, the only reason to believe this was the NY game is because the NY game is plausible for this time and place. Non-NY game forms of baseball were also played in New Jersey, so that is also plausible. The only reason I can think of to favor the NY game interpretation is that non-NY forms tended to have more players. But this is not always true. So I can only see reason to slightly favor this being the NY game over its being a local form.

    We should also consider the possibility that the two groups weren't playing the same rules, and perhaps did not even realize it, since their only contact seems to have been indirect via the press.

  2. In some ways it would be even more interesting if this is a non-New York game as this would be the earliest reference I have seen to a predecessor game in New Jersey and the only one that is simultaneous with when the NY game was getting started. The earliest references I have seen to predecessor games are from 1857 - Antiquarian Knickerbockers and some "old fogies" in New Brunswick that same year.

  3. Richard HershbergerMay 5, 2012 at 4:16 PM

    The Pioneer and the Excelsior clubs of Jersey City date to 1855, and were not playing the NY game. They received more coverage than one would expect in the New York Daily Herald. See in particular the issues of August 15, 1855, which reports an upcoming match with eleven on a side, and August 22, which reports on the return game with ample detail to demonstrate that it was not the NY game: a final score of 40-25 in eleven innings. Interestingly, the umpire was a member of the Knickerbockers. The issue of September 13 describes the Pioneer as a very young club, and offers good advice for the improvement of their play: "they must practice fielding more--two or three should not try to catch the same ball, and smoking while playing must be stopped, especially with the striker."

    Several of the major NY dailies occasionally reported on baseball starting 1855, and sometimes with a very different perspective than the weeklies. There is more to be found there, for someone with the patience to scroll through much microfilm.

    As an aside, I dislike the characterization "predecessor game" because it is ambiguous. It can be understood strictly chronologically: earlier on they were playing this game, then later on they played the NY game. This is fine. But it can also be understood genealogically: modern baseball derives from this game. The latter reading quickly descends into absurdity, but many have been willing to go there (e.g the Massachusetts game as the ancestor of the NY game). This is why I prefer "local version" or "indigenous version".

  4. What NY dailies did you have in mind?

  5. Richard HershbergerMay 6, 2012 at 5:54 PM

    I mentioned the Herald. There is also the Express (which had both morning and evening editions) and the Tribune. For that matter, the Times, though its coverage is not the best. (The more things change...) I'm sure there are others, but these are the ones which spring to mind.

    For a sample, the Tribune of May 2, 1856 has a report in its New Jersey Items column of the Pioneer and Excelsior Base Ball Clubs of Jersey City. The Pioneer played Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, the Excelsior on Tuesdays and Fridays. They apparently shared the same grounds, "on the meadows a short distance North of Long Dock."

  6. Among all the sports which I have played, I have found base ball more difficult than any other. I never got a single perfect hit. Every time the ball went in quite opposite direction where I was trying.