Monday, April 30, 2012

The "New York" Game Returns to Brooklyn

                                                      Photo by Mark Granieri

Yesterday the Flemington Neshanock made their third trip in four weeks across the Goethals and Verrazano Bridges, but this time the destination was not the scenic countryside of Smithtown or Old Bethpage.  This time we were helping to bring the "New York" game back to one of its early hot beds - Brooklyn, which until 1898 was not only an independent city, but consistently one of the ten largest cities in the United States.  More specifically the Neshanock were headed to Washington Park in south Brooklyn to take on the Columbus Capitals of Columbus, Ohio and our once and future rivals, the New York Gothams.

The name Washington Park is readily recognizable as an important base ball site in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  However as the below picture indicates today's Washington Park is a relatively small, rectangular shaped urban park with an artificial surface (ugh) located near the even more historic Old Stone House.  The Old Stone House is the building in the not so far reaches of the outfield. There were, in fact four different Washington Parks that hosted one form or another of a major league base ball. 

If I have my geography correct the site of the first two Washington Parks was on the far side of the Old Stone House.  There in two wooden ballparks, the Brooklyn Dodgers (known by different names in those days) played in the late 1880's, winning the American Association pennant in 1889 and the National League Pennant in 1890.  Then after a disastrous move to Eastern Park in East New York from 1891 to 1897, the Brooklyn club returned to south Brooklyn to a new Washington Park behind where Bobby "Melky" Ritter is batting in the below picture.  Known then as the Brooklyn Superbas, the club won the 1899 and 1900 National League pennants before being almost destroyed by the player raids from the newly formed American League in 1901.  The team stayed in this incarnation of Washington Park until Ebbets Field opened in 1913 after which the wooden ballpark was torn down.  Shortly thereafter, however, a new concrete and steel park was built on the site to host the Brooklyn Tip Tops of the short lived Federal League.  The portion of the outfield wall that survives today is from that park, not the wooden structure where the Dodgers played.

                                                            Photo by Mark Granieri

Yesterday's first game was against the Columbus Capitals who came east for the weekend playing the Atlantics on Saturday in Smithtown before facing the Gothams and Neshanock on Sunday.  Games like this are especially enjoyable because they offer the opportunity to play against teams that we don't regularly play - that's one of the big attractions of the upcoming tournaments in Gettysburg and Rochester, New York.  The game was the Neshanock's third, close, one-run affair, but this time Flemington prevailed.  The match was tied going to the top of the ninth when the Neshanock scored once and held off a desperate Columbus rally in the bottom of the inning.  The game ended in dramatic fashion as a laser like throw from Mark "Peaches" Rubini caught the Columbus player who represented the tying run in a run down for the final out.

"Peaches" - photo by Mark Granieri

Having used his arm to end the first game, "Peaches" used his offensive prowess to lead the Neshanock to an easy win over an out manned Gotham club in the second match.  In six times at bat, the second year player had five doubles and a triple without making an out.  He did not, however, score all six times, so it's not clear if he earned a clear score.  We'll figure that out once I make that trip to the NYPL to look at the original Chadwick and Brooklyn Atlantic score books - hopefully during May.

After three separate visits to Long Island in April, the Neshanock will be in New Jersey for most of May.  Sunday, May 6, the club will take on the dreaded Resolutes at Ringwood Manor State Park.  After that will come matches against the Brooklyn Atlantics at Chester on Saturday, May 12 and the New York Mutuals on Saturday, May 19th down the shore in Belmar.  The month ends with a return to Newtown, Pennsylvania on Memorial Day to take on the local Newton Strakes.  More information is available at - if your in the area, please stop by, trust me you won't regret it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"So are they all, all honorable men"

Among the rules laid out in the Hamilton Club’s by-laws was the provision that team captains for “field exercise” had “absolute direction” of the players.  The need to spell this out suggests that while all members were gentlemen, they were no less human than the general population.  This self awareness is laid out even more explicitly by the establishment of at least 10 offenses (on and off the field) that carried a financial penalty.

The list included:

Leaving a meeting without permission – 25 cents

Profane or improper language – at practice or at a meeting – 10 cents

Disputing or anticipating an umpire’s call – 25 cents

Disobedience to a captain – 25 cents

Use of any ball in practice other than the one in play – 25 cents

Disorderly conduct – 25 cents

At least the Hamilton Club didn’t go as far as the Knickerbockers who even included a fine for entering a teammate’s locker without permission, even if it were to retrieve a game ball.

                                Anticipating umpire Sam Bernstein's call wouldn't be a good idea

These amounts seem almost laughable today and it is hard to know how much of a burden they really were.  If the average worker made $300 a year, a 25 cent fine would be equal 4% of his $5.76 in weekly wages or about $38 of the weekly income of a $50,000 annual salary today, hardly a major deterrent to bad behavior.  What seems more likely is the premise that the combination of an out of pocket cost and negative notoriety in the club records would make members think twice before become stepping off the straight and narrow a second time.

Fines on the playing field were to be recorded in a book by the umpire – if such a book was maintained, it hasn’t survived.  Based on the minute book, it appears that lapses in conduct were punished impartially.  One meeting in September of 1859 saw 25 cent fines for disorderly conduct levied against John Christie and A. B. Shafer, two prominent members of the first nine as well as score keeper, C. F. Alger.  Given the spotless character of score keepers, then and now, the last one seems a little excessive. 

Later that ssame year, the club even fined club president Coursen 25 cents for leaving a meeting without permission.  According to the minute book Coursen turned the meeting over to another member and then temporarily left the room.  It’s total speculation, but it may be the temptation to enforce the rules against the rules enforcer was too much to overcome.

Based on the minute book, it appears fines weren’t used too frequently.  And if fines didn’t work, there was at least one other alternative. In April of 1860, the club simply voted, without explanation, to expel E. B. Wakeman.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Battle at the Birthplace

                                                          Photo by Mark Granieri

"It is a truth universally acknowledged" that Cooperstown, New York is not the birthplace of base ball, nor was base ball originally a rural or country game.  Though it is of far less cosmic significance, it is also well known that Old Bethpage Village, a restored historic village on Long Island, is the birthplace of vintage base ball.  While the urban nature of base ball's beginnings are unarguable, visiting both Cooperstown and Old Bethpage within 24 hours (a lot of driving, trust me!) makes the attractiveness of the myth of base ball's rural origins somewhat understandable.

Carol and I made a day trip to Cooperstown on Friday so that I could attend the first session of the Society of Baseball Research's 19th century conference and Carol could visit the Farmer's Museum and the Fennimore Cooper Art Museum.  Most people don't believe it, but Carol enjoys visiting Cooperstown as much as I do and sometimes more.

Returning home about 9:30 on Friday night meant a short turnaround on Saturday for the Flemington Neshanock's trip to Old Bethpage for the New York/New Jersey Cup hosted by the New York Mutuals.  In the first game the Neshanock earned their first win of the season with an easy win over a game, but far less experienced Surprise Club of Manetto Hill.  Under the pre-determined matchups, Flemington then faced the Mutuals in the second game and since the Mutual won their first game, the winner of this game would win the cup.  Like last Saturday's game against the Resolutes it was a close one run contest, but sadly the Neshanock could not hold a seventh inning lead and fell to the Mutuals 8-7. 

                                                             Photo by Mark Granieri

In the first contest, Mark "Peaches" Rubini of the Neshanock earned the club's second clear score of the season.  As with Gaslight's performance the prior week, Peaches not only didn't make any outs, he scored every time up so that regardless of the ultimate definition of a clear score, Peaches met the test.  While at the Cooperstown conference I had the chance to speak with Bob Tholkes briefly about the clear score definition and the question remains open.  Sometime in the next two weeks I am planning on visiting the New York Public Library to look at the original Chadwick score books to see if that can resolve the issue.

A major reason for making the trip to Cooperstown was to hear Bob's informative presentation on early base ball statistics.  One thing that I found especially interesting was Bob's statement that Chadwick believed that once a batter got on base, it was his responsibility to continue to advance and ultimately score which explains why Chadwick's early statistics put so more emphasis on runs scored than batting.  At first glace it may seem unreasonable to place the major responsibility on the runner himself, but scoring the second game on Saturday gave me an appreciation of this point of view.

Twice the Neshanock got runners on base who ultimately scored in large measure because of how they ran the bases.  Part of this was stealing second, but after that it was more about how they advanced on outs and other plays.  Especially noteworthy was how Chris "Low Ball" Lowry had just the right sense of timing to score from third on a ground ball out.

                                                          Photo by Mark Granieri

This was another example of how scoring many vintage games over the course of the season helps me to learn about 19th century base ball.  This has to be done with care because while vintage base ball clubs pride themselves on historical accuracy, there are some accommodations that have to be made.  For example, almost every vintage team I have seen bats however many players they have rather than limiting it to nine so as to be fair to everyone who wants to play.  So it's important to be careful not to mistake what may be a modern accommodation for how the game was really played in the 19th century.  But in this case it gave me an appreciation of Chadwick's thinking.

This week I will post the last of three articles drawn from the Hamilton Club of Jersey City's minute books.  The following week the plan is to begin a series of posts on how the "New York" game developed and spread in Newark from 1855 to 1860.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Twentieth Century Interruption (Early Twentieth Century)

Last week when I was trying to focus on current research (NJ base ball 1855-1860), there were a series of interruptions from past research (Ebbets Field 1913-1957).  First I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the next volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson is scheduled to come out on May 1st.  That may not seem to have any relevance to Ebbets Field, but it does to me as Mr. Caro was one of the many people Paul Zinn and I interviewed for our forthcoming book on Ebbets Field.  I have long admired Mr. Caro's books and speaking with him was just as much a thrill as speaking to former major league baseball players.

                                             Ebbets Field before the 1930-31 expansion

Then on Friday the phone rang and it was someone from the Brooklyn Historical Society where I had served as lead historian on their Ebbets Field exhibit - "Home Base."  A reporter from the Wall Street Journal had contacted BHS about an upcoming exhibit at Brooklyn College on the original blueprints at Ebbets Field - would I speak to the reporter?  The result was about a half an hour phone conversation about Ebbets Field, but more specifically about Charles Ebbets then president of the Dodgers.  The article, "Soon on Display in Brookyn: 'Holy Grails' of Baseball" appeared in the April 16th edition of the WSJ and the author was kind enough quote me.

Charles Ebbets vision of Ebbets Field

If that wasn't enough when I returned home on from Saturday's Neshanock game, I found a copy of the most recent issue of Baseball Hall of Fame's excellent magazine "Memories and Dreams" - a commemorative edition about the centennial of Fenway Park.  Included was an article about the 1910's as an era of ballpark construction which, of course, included Ebbets Field.  In writing about the Brooklyn ballpark, the author repeats the stories of glitches that marred the April 1913 opening.  The stories as presented in the article aren't completely accurate, but more importantly for my purposes they are part of the picture that history has created of Charles Ebbets as sort of a well meaning bumpkin who can't seem to get out of his own way.

The initial essay for our forthcoming book about Ebbets Field (tentatively entitled - Ebbets Field: Essays and Memories of Brooklyn's Beloved Ballpark, 1913-1960) is one that I wrote called "Charles Ebbets, Builder of Ballparks, Ball Clubs and More."  In researching Ebbets career a very different picture emerged.   Ebbets certainly made his share of mistakes and was always short on money, but he gradually built a successful franchise on and off the field and did it in a way (I believe)that established the close relationship between the community and the ball club.  Ebbet also made some major contributions to the game he worked in for over 40 years including the current 2-3-2 World Series format and the reverse order draft.  The latter has become the norm in every professional sport, before Ebbets got it changed, drafting positions in baseball were chosen by lot.

Charles Ebbets in his prime

I've toyed for a long time with the idea of trying to write a biography of Ebbets or at least a book about how he and others built the Dodgers into a successful franchise with close community ties.  It would be a big project, but the activity of the past week has certainly reopened the possibility - now if I could only think of how to live without sleeping!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

New Jersey Vintage Base Ball Clubs in Opening 2012 Match

Courier News Photo

Although the Flemington Neshanock opened their 2012 season last Saturday in Smithtown, Long Island, today marked the first match game between the two New Jersey vintage clubs - the Neshanock and their arch-rivals the dreaded Elizabeth Resolutes.  Over the past two years the two clubs have evenly divided the season series so they are well matched.

Today's match was at TD Bank ball park in Bridgewater, the home of the Somerset Patriots of the independent Atlantic League.  Playing at a modern field meant historical accuracy took a hit, but it gave all of us an on the field look at a modern ballpark which has its own appeal.  The match itself lived up to Neshanock - Resolute standards with the Flemington club staging a three run, ninth inning rally to tie the game at 5-5.  Elizabeth tallied once in the top of the 10th and the Neshanock had a man on third with one out, but couldn't bring him home so that Elizabeth drew first blood for 2012.

       A Resolute is retired on a foul bound catch by Neshanock catcher, Mark "Gaslight" Granieri

Below is the box score for the game using the format found in early 19th century newspapers.  H.L. stands or hands lost or outs in modern parlance.  The most interesting line in the box score belongs to Mark "Gaslight" Granieri, stalwart catcher of the Neshanock.  Gaslight achieved one of Henry Chadwick's highest offensive goals - a "clear" score.  Last season, I thought a clear score happened when a player scored a run every time he batted regardless of how he got on base - hit, walk or muff (error).  Just recently, however, it has been suggested that a clear score occurred when a player got on base every time up regardless of how he got on base.  Research in the Chadwick score books at the New York Public Library should clarify the question, but Gaslight met either standard as he got on base each time and also scored each time - so a very manly effort by the Flemington catcher. 

The two clubs will meet again in two weeks on Sunday, May 6th at Ringwood State Park in Ringwood, NJ when the Neshanock will be out for revenge!

Resolutes         H.L.        RunsNeshanock         H.L.      Runs
S. Kelly40Gaslight03
Shaughnessy30Low Ball20

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Base Ball by Committee

While there were distinct on the field differences between the New York game and earlier versions of base ball there was an equally important difference off the field.  The New York version was far more organized since its development was interconnected with the formalized structure of the base ball club. Organizing a base ball club meant establishing procedures for what the participants both wanted to do and had to do.  In addition clubs needed a process to deal with anything not envisioned in their rules and regulations.

Like other early clubs the Hamilton Club of Jersey City, approved and printed by-laws and a constitution.  As we saw in the last post, this included a specific process for accepting, and sometimes rejecting, new members.  Since their first priority was “field exercise” or practice (what we would call inter-squad games), they also took the time to establish written guidelines for how practice days would work.

For example, they knew they would need an umpire and probably also knew it would not be a popular job.  So they included a provision in the by-laws that everyone had to take a turn and the responsibility would rotate in alphabetical order.  By doing so they established a requirement and a specific, objective means for meeting that requirement.  Similarly the by-laws also lay out how the day’s captains would be chosen, sides will be picked, which side will be “first in hand” (first at bat) , and a series of prohibited behaviors including expressing an opinion on a “doubtful play” before the umpire made  a call.  This and other inappropriate behavior would carry pecuniary penalties ranging from 10 to 25 cents (more on this in the next post).

While detailed guidelines were established for “field exercise,” the subject of match play is not even mentioned in the by-laws.  This may seem surprising, but as Richard Hershberger commented on a prior post, “field exercise” or “practice,” not match play was the first priority of early base ball clubs.  Since match play was not covered in the by-laws, all related issues had to be resolved on a case by case basis by majority vote.  As a result the minute books reflect votes on – whether to make or accept a challenge, how to a pick a “nine” for a match, whether to accept or offer a post match dinner, and even to appoint a score keeper (thank God the Flemington Neshanock don’t follow that practice).

Reading the minute book indicates the Hamilton Club members were seldom of one mind on anything.  Some motions to accept or offer a challenge were either defeated or tied forcing the club president to cast the deciding vote.  The members also appeared to lack confidence in the club president, defeating a motion authorizing him to pick the nine for one match, opting instead to have a committee make the decisions.  While the Hamiltons may have considered themselves to be gentlemen, they had more than their share of disagreements.  The club couldn’t even agree on using club funds to buy two bottles of brandy.  Perhaps a positive outcome on that one might have made them less contentious – at least for one meeting!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Opening Day of Vintage Base Ball Season

The below link will take you to a short video about Saturday's opening of the vintage base ball season at Smithtown, Long Island - well worth watching.


2011 Gettysburg Vintage Base Ball Tournament

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Making the Team - 1859 Style

Anyone who has played competitive base ball at any level knows the challenge and stress of making the team.  It’s an experience that can begin in childhood and for the best players continues until they either choose, or are forced, to hang up their spikes forever.  Young men who wanted to play for New Jersey’s first base ball clubs faced these hurdles, but with an additional barrier that had nothing to do with the ability to hit, run or throw.

Early base ball clubs, as Peter Morris has noted “were social clubs that happened to include base ball among their activities.”  As a result, prospective players first had to meet stated and perhaps unstated membership criteria.  Most clubs, therefore, had a process to evaluate membership applications/nominations and the Hamilton Club of Jersey City was no exception.  According to the club’s rules, nominations of “gentlemen” at one meeting would be voted on at the next meeting subject to a favorable report from the committee on inquiry.  Voting was anonymous, using colored balls (white for yes and black for no) with three black balls defeating a nomination.

On May 17, 1859, the club met at the American Hotel in Jersey City to vote on four candidates – Washington Irving Comes, John B. Christie, H.W. Stevens and Freeman A. Smith.  Stevens remains unidentified, but the other three fit the profile of the Hamilton Club developed by historian George Kirsch.  They were born in the United States, held low white collar jobs and owned little or no real estate.  Washington Comes had a leg up on the social ladder as he was descended from a veteran of the Revolution and, perhaps more importantly in this context, lived with a branch of the Shafer family, some of whom were already club members.  Christie was the son of a prosperous merchant who had a net worth of $70,000 (almost $1.9 million today).  Freeman Smith’s family wasn’t in that financial league, but the young man otherwise fit the profile.

Although the club had between 30 and 40 members, it appears only 13 were present that day.  Mr. Stevens, whoever he was, was approved unanimously while Comes and Christie were elected with just one negative vote.  Freeman Smith, however, was not so fortunate, failing even to earn a majority with six white balls and six black (3 black would have been sufficient) and his application was rejected.  Comes apparently didn’t bring much to the club on the base ball side appearing in only two second nine matches, but Christie quickly became the team’s regular pitcher.  However his behavior may have sometimes been less than gentlemanly since he was fined 25 cents, at least once for “disorderly conduct.”

Why was Freeman Smith rejected?  At this distance it’s impossible to be sure.  The most reasonable explanation is that for some reason at least six of the members disliked him enough to vote to vote no.  The Hamiltons were in a feisty mood that day, forcing the president to break a tie on whether to issue a challenge to the Hamilton Club of Brooklyn, not to mention requiring several votes to set a starting time for their matches.  The contentious atmosphere could have sealed the fate of what may have been at best a marginal candidacy.

While being rejected may have ruined Smith’s day, he certainly didn’t let it ruin his life.  He had a successful business career including succeeding his father as President of the Provident Institution for Savings.  Even more interesting is that he appears to have had the last word on social status as his 1896 New York Times obituary described him as “a well-known clubman,” with membership in the Palma, Union League and Carteret Clubs of Jersey City.  Even if he never got to first base with the Hamilton Club (in more ways than one), the experience may have taught him something about perseverance.