Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Even Score Keepers Need Spring Training

Last week’s brief respite was because Paul Zinn and I went to Florida to see the Mets in spring training.  It was a good trip and, of course, very different than whatever passed for spring training in the 1850’s.  In New Jersey during the early years of the New York game, spring training was literally that - practicing locally during the spring (April and May) with match games beginning in June.  Clubs made up for the late start by playing through Thanksgiving since Rutgers victory over Princeton in the first college football game was about a decade off.

The trip also gave me an opportunity to practice my 19th century base ball scoring techniques as it is still not second nature like the modern system.  The 19th century approach was developed by Henry Chadwick and has a basis in cricket scoring as Chadwick wrote about cricket before having a conversion experience at Elysian Fields in Hoboken.  Some of Chadwick’s original score books are in the Spalding collection in the New York Public Library and understandably his system evolved over the years.  The first score books contain little more than runs and outs, but Chadwick gradually developed a more complete, and complex system that, no doubt, facilitated his game accounts in various newspapers.

The system I use for the Flemington Neshanock vintage team is more or less Chadwick’s late 1860’s model, to my knowledge the Neshanock are the only vintage team in the country that tries to recreate this system.  It’s complicated and very different from what’s in use today.  The first and most fundamental difference is the numbering system for the defense.  Instead of numbering the positions – 1 for the pitcher, 2 for the catcher, etc, Chadwick numbered the players based upon their place in the batting order. Below is the Mets line up for last Thursday’s game with the Astros with the left column using the modern system and the right, Chadwick’s method.

Tejada - 6
Tejada - 1
Murphy - 4
Murphy - 2
Bay - 7
Bay - 3
Davis - 3
Davis - 4
May -- 5
May -- 5
Rottino - 9
Rottino - 6
Johnson - 2
Johnson - 7
Den Decker - 8
Den Decker - 8
Dickey - 1
Dickey - 9

I was fascinated to learn that the reason Chadwick numbered players rather than positions is because during the early days of base ball, players changed positions frequently.  Ironically the same thing is true of how vintage base ball is played so Chadwick's system actually works better for scoring vintage games. 

Listed below is how the Mets made three outs in one of the innings in the game against the Astros, again the left hand column is modern day, the right uses Chadwick’s system.  As most will recognize from the left hand column, Tejada walked, Murphy flied out to left and Bay hit into a double play, short-to-second to first (clearly Bay is in mid season form). 

Tejada - BB 6-4
Tejada 9/0 2-8B
Murphy - 7
Murphy - 3F
Bay 4-6
Bay - 8-4A

Tejada’s at bat under Chadwick’s system shows another important difference.  Chadwick considered a walk to be an error on the pitcher which would be shown with the pitcher’s position in the batting order over a 0 for a muff or an error in today’s parlance.   The older system uses the same approach as today (with different numbers) for recording assists and put outs, but also adds the base where the out was made with A for first, B for second, C for third and H for home plate. 

The more I use Chadwick's system, the more I realize he had a reason for doing it the way he did and clearly he refined it as he went.  At some point I want to go back to the NYPL and work through the score books including the cricket score books to try to understand more clearly how it developed.  There is one carry over from Chadwick’s methodology, the letter “K” as the symbol for a strike out – it’s the last letter in the word “struck.” 

Now that I have had my "spring training," I’m ready for the first Neshanock game on April 7th against the Brooklyn Atlantics.  It's a tough way to start the season - then as now, the Atlantics are one of the best clubs in the country.  History does indeed repeat itself!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Unmanly Behavior

Included in the first look at the 1855 season was a portion of an article from the Newark Daily Advertiser (August 11, 1855) which discussed the growing popularity of "The manly game of Base Ball" in Newark.  Cut off from the article was the report that the Newark Club had enjoyed an evening boat trip to the "Fishing Banks" which was part and parcel of the social aspects of early base ball clubs.  Perhaps prompted by this report, the Friendship Club tried a similar excursion the following week, but with far less pleasant results as reported by Advertiser (August 18, 1855)

Excessive drinking was apparently a hot issue in Newark as the following article complains of the "intolerable nuisances" of some "Lager-Bier Saloons in Green Street" with a recommendation of summary justice similar to the above the suggestion that rowdies on future cruises be thrown overboard.  Although the Friendship Club is mentioned several times as one of Newark's first base ball clubs, to date, no record has been found of their playing a match.  One possibility is that like the Oriental Club they changed their name and became the Empire Club which is not mentioned in early articles, but did play some 1855 matches.

A Manly Pastime is going to take a brief respite, returning in about a week.  Next up will be a series of posts using the minute book and by-laws of the Hamilton Club of Jersey City to explore different aspects of early New Jersey base ball clubs.  Research and analysis is also underway on how the game developed in Newark through the end of 1860 which is part of a larger study of how the game developed and spread throughout New Jersey. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Patience Pays Off

All research requires patience and early New Jersey base ball is no exception.  The primary source material is contemporary New Jersey newspapers almost exclusively accessible only on microfilm at diverse places like Alexander Library at Rutgers University, the Jersey City Public Library and the State Archives in Trenton to name just three.  Almost without exception these newspapers are four pages long and seldom devote more than one-half of a page to local news including base ball.  Other than public hangings, few stories are covered in any detail so game accounts are seldom more than a short paragraph and sometimes a brief box score.  Box scores typically give only last names and, at most, a first initial making player identification both challenging and frustrating, but that’s another story.

Basic research therefore means skimming through what is often hard to read microfilm, paying close attention to one out of every four pages.  More often than not, this produces nothing or, in the case of multiple newspapers in one city, nothing new.  Every so often, however, a special find makes it all worthwhile.  Such was the case last year when I was scrolling my way through the 1855 Newark Daily Mercury after having already gone through the Newark Daily Advertiser for the same year.  Suddenly, in the October 24, 1855 edition of the Mercury, I read the following:

The historic importance of this article lies in one word, the insensitive adjective “colored.”  On first glance it seemed earlier than other accounts of African-American teams and matches.  E-mail postings on SABR’s 19th century research list brought confirmation from John Thorn, Official Historian of Major League Baseball, that this is now the earliest documented record (by four years) of African-Americans organizing to play base ball.  It’s also interesting from a New Jersey perspective because it shows that African-Americans in our state began forming base ball clubs about the same time as their white counter parts.

The Daily Mercury was the abolitionist newspaper in Newark which probably explains why it reported on a community typically ignored by white society.  Important as this information is, however, it is a shame there is no box score which could have facilitated identification of some of New Jersey’s and perhaps the nation’s first African-American players.  The next reference I have found of African-Americans playing base ball in New Jersey is also in the Mercury (November 18, 1859) which says that a crowd of "colored" players is playing regularly at the old Burying-Ground.  There is, however, no reference to organized clubs. 

It isn't until the September 30, 1862 issue of the Advertiser that there is further reference to a New Jersey African-American club, an equally brief account of a match between the Hamilton Club of Newark and the Henson Club of Long Island – again with no box score.  The more well known Brooklyn Daily Eagle account of a match between two African-American clubs lists a member of the Hamilton Club of Newark as the umpire, but I have not been able to locate him on any census. 

I suspect it is going to take even more patience to pursue this further.  But patience, after all, is what it’s all about. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

1855 - A First Look at the First New Jersey Clubs

The primary reason a blog seemed the best vehicle for writing about early New Jersey base ball is the fluid nature of the research.  While some historians, notably George Kirsch, have studied the game’s early days in our state, this part of New Jersey’s past remains largely "terra incognita."  I have to regularly modify my talk on New Jersey base ball during the Civil War era to take into account new material and insights.  All posts, therefore, are “subject to change” especially posts like this one that try to name the clubs playing in a specific season.

To date a total of 15 clubs have been identified from the inaugural 1855 season.  Not surprisingly almost half were in Newark followed by three from Jersey City.  As noted previously the Newark Club was New Jersey’s first base ball club followed shortly thereafter by the Orientals who quickly changed their name to the Olympic Club.  By season’s end Newarkers had also formed the Friendship, Newark Junior and Empire clubs.  Two other Newark clubs played at least once in 1855, but are so historically significant they will be discussed in the next post.

While the Newark teams may have gotten on the field first, they were not as competitive or proficient as their Hudson County neighbors.  Both of Jersey City’s first two teams, the Pioneer and Excelsior Clubs defeated out of town rivals and the Excelsior Club finished 1855 with a perfect 7-0 record.  The Newark teams, on the other hand, primarily played among themselves and had no success against outside competition. 

In spite of their superior performance, however, neither of the Jersey City teams survived the 1855 season at least partially because some of their best players moved on to the Eagle Club of New York City.  Both the Excelsior and Pioneer Clubs are the subject of essays in the forthcoming second volume of Base Ball Pioneers and will not receive much attention in this blog.

Hudson County had at least three other clubs in 1855 including the creatively named, “Fear Not” Club of Hudson City.  They were joined by a third Jersey City team, the Pavonia Club, and the Palisades Club of West Hoboken (today’s Union City).  A Newark Daily Advertiser article of August 6, 1855 also refers to unnamed clubs in Orange, Bloomfield and Paterson.  More specific identification of these teams and the search for others will be an ongoing process as I gradually work my way through contemporary newspapers.  It’s certainly not clear that all 15 clubs were playing the New York game, but whatever rules they used, the base ball club itself was here (New Jersey) to stay.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Beginnings (and Endings) - Then and Now

The Flemington Neshanock Base Ball Club ( began its 2012 season this past Saturday with a team meeting and lunch hosted by team president and founder, Brad “Brooklyn” Shaw.  My role in this august body is score keeper where I am learning to use Henry Chadwick’s system from the 1850’s and 1860’s.  It’s very different from today with the only common link the use of “K” (last letter in the word struck) as the symbol for a strikeout. 

Saturday’s meeting marked the first time most of us had been together in five or six months so part of the time was spent catching up, but plenty of attention was given to the upcoming season.  Highlights of the 2012 Neshanock schedule include trips to Boston, Gettysburg and Rochester, New York not to mention at least four matches with our in-state rivals, the dreaded Elizabeth Resolutes.  Like any new beginning the mood was upbeat.

Historical accuracy is one of the Neshanock’s highest goals and starting the season with a meeting recreates the practice of one early New Jersey club – the Hamilton Base Ball Club of Jersey City.  Reading through the club’s minute book (HOF library in Cooperstown) gives a rare inside look at the life of a 19th century NJ club which will be explored in more detail in future posts.  Like the Neshanock 151 years later, the beginning of  the new season (1861), saw the Hamiltons starting things off with a meeting at the American Hotel in Jersey City.  While there most likely positive energy in the room, there was also serious business before them.  The assembled members listed to a report from the committee on grounds about a potential playing site a Mr. Sisson would “fix . . . to suit” for a “reasonable rent” as well as providing “timber” for a clubhouse.

This was apparently no small issue as the Hamilton Club was at risk of losing their current grounds at the “Long Dock.”  The members had to be aware that a similar problem had contributed to the premature death of Jersey City’s first two teams, the Pioneer and Excelsior Clubs.  It most likely wasn’t just a matter of a place to play matches, other local sites like nearby Elysian Fields in Hoboken were probably available for that purpose.  The more important need was their own grounds for what the Hamiltons called “field exercise” or practice since club records suggest this was a higher priority than match play.  Ultimately the club members voted to accept Mr. Sisson’s offer, but not before placing on upper limit of $100 on the cost.

That may not sound like much, but at the time a working man made on average $300 a year.  Furthermore the Hamilton Club’s finances were problematic.  The prior October the club was reportedly out of money and “somewhat in debt” so they had to assess each member an additional $1.50 beyond the $3 in annual dues.  Maximum club membership of 40 further limited the revenue possibilities. 

The $100 limit may not have been entirely about the club's finances.  Club members may have been concerned about dealing with Mr. Sisson's and his definition of "reasonable rent." Sisson appears to have been Charles G. Sisson, one of the wealthiest men in New Jersey who according to the New York Times had been involved in more than his share of mean-spirited business dealings.  His failure to pay workers on the railroad tunnel being cut through Bergen Heights caused the "tunnel riot of 1858" which only ended when the State Militia intervened.  Then in the early 1870's he was involved in a "scheme" to evict small property owners from their land on Jersey City Heights.  At the time of his death in 1874, the New York Times estimated that his estate was valued between $7 - 10 million ($138 - 198 million today). 

After this action, the club members tried without success to agree on a schedule for practice days.  They could have saved their breath as there are no further entries in the minute book or any evidence that the club actually played any 1861 matches.  It may be that the financial and property challenges were too much to overcome, but the date of their meeting may give a further clue.  The meeting was held on April 11, 1861, the next day the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter and the war was on.

The young Jersey City men who made up the Hamilton Club were probably well aware of the impending crisis, but like others in the north, they may have been hoping it would somehow go away.  Now they knew that was not going to happen.  My best guess is that the combination of the club's own problems plus uncertainty about their personal futures was simply too much to overcome.  While nothing comparable hangs over the Neshanock’s 2012 season, it’s probably wise not to take this season or any season for granted.