Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Was Bloomfield, N. J. the birthplace of high school base ball?
Seibert Hall, Bloomfield College
New Jersey high schools have a long history of producing major league base ball talent. Rick Porcello of Seton Hall Prep and Mike Trout of Millville are just two recent examples. Exactly how long high school base ball has been played in New Jersey is another question, but it's possible that some of the earliest interscholastic base ball in the United States was played in New Jersey, Bloomfield, New Jersey to be precise.
Today Bloomfield is a predominantly suburban community just west of Newark and east of Glen Ridge and Montclair. In the 1850's, however, what was then Bloomfield Township encompassed a much greater area including both Glen Ridge and Montclair as well as parts of Nutley, Belleville and Newark itself. During that time Bloomfield was also the home of multiple private schools.
One such school dates back to the early years of the republic, founded in 1807 Bloomfield Academy first prepared young men for the ministry and then became a private school until its closure about 1866. During the last two decades of its existence, the Academy's principal was James H. Rundell. After the school was closed, the property was sold to the German Theological School the predecessor of today's Bloomfield College. The 1866 Bloomfield Academy building is still part of the Bloomfield College campus, known today as Seibert Hall.
At least three other private schools existed in Bloomfield during the antebellum period, but the one of base ball related interest is the Bloomfield Institute operated by the Rev. Ebenezer Seymour from 1847 to 1860. During its relatively brief existence, the Institute was coed - no explanation of its closing has been found, but it wouldn't be surprising if the beginning of the Civil War was a factor.
Base ball came to Bloomfield at least by 1857 with the formation of the Watsessing Club. Given the proximity to Newark it's no surprise that base ball got an early start in a neighboring community. Geography, however, was not the only factor facilitating base ball in Bloomfield. The presence of the private schools had to help as well. Some of the schools catered to young men in New York City and Brooklyn who were trying to earn their way into the College of New Jersey (today's Princeton University) and other institutions of higher learning. Since base ball was familiar to many young men across the Hudson, it's almost certain that some of them brought their love of the new game to Bloomfield.
Newark Daily Mercury - August 10, 1858
In August of 1858, the Newark Daily Mercury took note of a match between the Liberty and Waverly clubs, "two youthful clubs of Bloomfield." The game which was won by the Liberty was a return match so the two teams must have played an earlier game won by the Waverly Club although no record has yet been found of that game.
Less than a month later the two clubs met again in what was referred to as the conquering match. This time, however, the Mercury's game account does not mention the names Waverly and Liberty. Instead the match is described as being between "Mr. Seymour's and Mr. Rundell's boys." As with the earlier game, there is fortunately a box score for the match. Eight of the nine names for the Seymour/Liberty club match while in the case of the Waverly/Rundell team, there are two differences. However, one of the differences is explained by the fact that Rundell's boys only had eight players in the first match. The high correlation between the two lineups establishes that the teams are the same. Clearly the boys at the two schools formed teams with distinct names, not unlike Princeton's first team which was known as the Nassau Club.
Newark Daily Mercury - September 3, 1858
Thus far I have worked my way through Essex and Hudson County newspapers from 1855 to 1860 and this is not just the earliest, but the only instance I have seen of clubs associated with or sponsored by a school. Where does this fit in nationwide? A posting on SABR's 19th century e-mail list generated a lot of schools that had base ball clubs earlier than the two Bloomfield institutions. But in none of these cases did the school team play against other schools. The earliest interscholastic contest I've heard of, doesn't come until almost a year later in 1859. It's much too early to draw definitive conclusions, but it would certainly seem that New Jersey was a pioneer in high school or prep base ball much like it was with African-American clubs.