Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Camden Club - a New Jersey Town Ball Team

Sometime during the summer of 1857 a group of New Jersey ball players went through the process of formally organizing a club.  This was nothing new, easily 100 New Jersey ball clubs had been been formed by this point.  However, two things were different about this group of young men.  Based on research thus far, the Camden Club was the only antebellum club formed in south Jersey (south of a line drawn from Elizabeth on the east running through New Brunswick to Trenton on the west) and they came together to play a game they called, not base ball, but town ball.

Olympic Club of Philadelphia Constitution 

Base ball today is the direct descendant of what is known as the New York game because it was formalized and popularized in New York City.  At the same time there were other bat and ball games which gradually fell out of fashion.  Unfortunately the name town ball has been broadly assigned to many of these sister games some times without firm basis.  For this and subsequent posts about the Camden Club, town ball means the version of the game as played in Philadelphia across the river from Camden.  Much of what follows about Philadelphia town ball comes from an excellent article by Richard Hershberger called "A Reconstruction of Philadelphia Town Ball" which was published in the fall 2007 edition of  "Baseball: A Journal of the Early Game."

Town ball in Philadelphia can be documented at a much earlier date than the New York game.  As early as 1831 the Olympic Club was crossing the Delaware River to play town ball in Camden much like New York City clubs would eventually cross the Hudson to play in Hoboken.  And as with the New York-Hoboken experience, young men from Camden, most likely saw their peers organizing to play ball and decided they could so the same and so they did.

West Jerseyman - June 23, 1858

Although the Olympic Club had been playing town ball since the 1830's they were primarily engaged in what we would call inter-squad matches with match play itself not really getting started until the late 1850's.  Matches were still infrequent then, but the Camden Club did play at least three 1858 matches against the Olympics (first and second eleven matches) as well as four second team matches in 1860.

What was Philadelphia town ball?

Richard Hershberger's 2007 reconstruction draws on several sources, the most contemporary of which are two 1860 box scores of second team matches between the Camdens and the Excelsior Club of Philadelphia.

New York Clipper - August 11, 1860

Some of the major differences between town ball and the New York version of base ball include:

1. Eleven on a side, although this could be reduced by mutual agreement - an October 1858 match of second "elevens" was contested by two teams of nine.

2. For the team in the field only the ball giver (pitcher) and behind (catcher) had designated positions.

3. The bases consisted of five stakes in a circle about 30 feet in diameter with only about 19 feet between the bases.

4. For the side to be retired all eleven batters had to be put out.

5. Runners could be put out by being hit with a thrown ball, called "soaking or plugging."

6. After hitting the ball safely, runners could not stop at a base so that each at bat produced either an out or a run.

Obviously these are some major differences especially the smaller field and the all or nothing at bat.  Interestingly three of these rules - 11 on a side, 11 outs per inning and the provision for "soaking" were also part of the throw-back games played by the Antiquarian Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of Newark in the 1870's.  This suggests that the game the Camden Club played or a version of it was also played in north Jersey before the New York game took over.  Initial accounts of 1855 games played by the Pioneer and Excelsior Clubs of Jersey City and the Newark Club also had 11 on a side and appear to be played by rules other than those of the New York game.  In all of these cases, the clubs switched to the New York game in that initial season, a much quicker transition than what we will see with the Camden Club.

Although the above rules favoring the offense (11 outs per inning, small field) were somewhat offset by "soaking" and all or nothing at bats, these were high scoring games.  For example, in June of 1858, the Camden first eleven twice defeated the second eleven of the Olympic club by scores of 85-76 and 81-71 with similar high scoring affairs in the Camden Club's four 1860 matches.

It might be interesting for the Flemington Neshanock to experiment with an inning of Philadelphia town ball some time in the 2013 season.  

1 comment:

  1. Richard HershbergerDecember 13, 2012 at 3:19 PM

    Note the "W. Fisler" with the Camdens in to two 1858 games. That is Wes Fisler, who would go on to play professional baseball into the 1870s. "L. Fisler" is his brother Lorenzo.

    Putting runners out by throwing the ball at them is a very general feature of pre-modern baseball. The New York games tagging rule was an innovation. So the later throwback games incorporating this is not evidence of any close relationship with Philly town ball.

    Eleven on a side was not a general feature. Indeed, a set number of players on a side is an indication of a late phase of development. That being said, the choice of eleven could well be borrowed from cricket. Organized cricket was well known in New Jersey, so two areas both borrowing this feature independently from one another would not be surprising.

    The all-or-nothing batting on a tiny infield was the defining peculiarity of Philly town ball. If there is any sign of this in the north Jersey throwback games, that would be a positive indicator of close relationship. I have seen a few accounts of those games. I don't recall any such sign, but I wasn't specifically looking for it.

    Incidentally, that Philly town ball article is by far the most cited piece I have written. (It is even misinterpreted in Wikipedia!) It's not the one I would have guessed.

    I'm happy to see you writing about the Philly side of Jersey. I look forward to the rest of the series.