Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Long Branch Base Ball Club - Outlier or Tip of the Iceberg?

As noted in an earlier post, I went to the New York Public Library a few weeks ago to look in the New York Sunday Mercury for evidence of early base ball in Paterson, New Jersey and found some information about the Flora Temple Club, named after a famous race horse of the day.  This past week I went back to look at the photo copies from that visit and, as often happens, I noticed something else of relevance to antebellum New Jersey base ball.

The August 26, 1860 edition of the Mercury contained the following:

"Herculean vs. Long Branch - A closely played match was played on Tuesday, 15th inst between two clubs named the Herculean and Long Branch, on the ground between the Mansion and United States hotels at Long Branch."

                                        New York Sunday Mercury - August 26, 1860

There was also the above box score which is difficult to read (actually the above is easier to read than the original).  Unfortunately this is true of almost all of the New York Sunday Mercury microfilm I have seen for the 1859-1860 period.

This was more than a little of a surprise to me since prior research had not unearthed any evidence of base ball at the Jersey shore before the Civil War.  Long Branch is part of Monmouth County and neither the Monmouth Democrat or the Monmouth Herald and Inquirer for 1860 have accounts of base ball games. I could, of course, have missed something so I will check again.  I couldn't identify any of the players on the 1860 census (assuming I read their names correctly), but Entertaining a Nation: The Career of Long Branch by the WPA writers project confirms that both the Mansion House and US Hotel were located on Ocean Avenue in that shore community.  As is well known Long Branch was a famous 19th century resort where U.S. Presidents and their families escaped the summer heat of Washington, D.C.  The Mansion House was reportedly Long Branch's "finest hotel," hosting many famous guests including Mary Todd Lincoln in the summer of 1861.

                                                         Mary Todd Lincoln

All of this is all very well, but the immediate question for my research is whether this is an exception or outlier to what I have found so far or is it the tip of the iceberg, evidence of more extensive base ball than was reported in the limited local newspapers.  I still have about a 1/2 dozen of south Jersey papers to check, but research so far indicates that base ball's spread outside of Essex and Hudson Counties was limited to less than 10 communities, primarily in central New Jersey.

For young men to develop an interest in forming a base ball club, they had to see the game, hear about it or read about it.  Each possibility could happen in multiple ways and possible exposure to the game became more likely as the 1850's drew to a close.  Certainly in a place like Long Branch, which drew visitors from New York City and Philadelphia, not to mention other New Jersey locations (probably including Newark), there was a relatively high likelihood that visitors played base ball and/or talked about base ball while in Long Branch, thereby inspiring local youths to start their own clubs.

                                                         Long Branch Hotels

So at the moment this seems like an outlier to me - an exception which can be explained by Long Branch's more cosmopolitan nature.  However, I'm certainly not dismissing the possibility that there was more base ball activity than ever made it into the space challenged, weekly newspapers of the period.  One of the next steps in my research is to look more closely at the communities where base ball was played in search of common denominators which can explain how and why the game spread as it did.  Long Branch is now on that list.


  1. Richard HershbergerOctober 12, 2012 at 1:31 PM

    I couple of things to consider: there is a tradition of ball playing at resorts that pre-dates the Knickerbockers. One of the earlier cites for "town ball" is a description from 1840 of the recreational amenities available at Cape May. There are also ads from day resorts outside of the built up portions of both New York City and Philadelphia. What we see in this Long Branch item is clearly the NY game, but may simply be an updated version of the old tradition.

    Second, was Long Branch a resort for people spending a week at the shore, or for people for whom "summer" is a verb? If the latter, it is possible that you couldn't find any of the players in the census because they weren't permanent residents, but summer visitors. If this is the case, then the "club" identification may be merely nominal, again following the modern convention but really little more than pick up games.

    These are just guesses. I don't actually know anything about anything.

  2. Two interesting possibilities, thanks for passing them on. Can yo give me any more information about the "town ball" description in Cape May. There is a Cape May newspaper for 1859-60 which I plan to look at. I hope to finish the south Jersey papers including Cape May by the end of October and then do more detailed research on the places where base ball was played.

  3. Richard HershbergerOctober 13, 2012 at 1:22 PM

    See Protoball 1840.6. As for how the game was played, we have only indirect evidence. Cape May was a resort which attracted visitors from Philadelphia, and the item is in a Philadelphia newspaper, so we can plausibly speculate that the game played there was that played in Philly. On the other hand, Cape May also attracted visitors from as far south as Virginia, who reached it by sea. So who knows? Even if it was the same as in Philly, we only have descriptions of a rather formalized version starting in the late 1850s. The Olympics were playing since the early 1830s: it is plausible to suppose that the game they played in the late 1850s was essentially unchanged from the earlier game, but this is a supposition.