Thursday, January 24, 2013

New Jersey vs. Brooklyn in 1861 - Setting the Stage

A primary way we think about base ball is in terms of seasons, a finite period of time with a beginning and an end.  In addition to formal time boundaries, a base ball season also has to have some level of regular competition.  Under that definition, base ball or the New York version began having seasons in 1851 when the Knickerbocker and a few other New York clubs started playing regular matches, admittedly on a limited basis.  Since then there have been plenty of tumultuous seasons due to what happened on or off the field and sometimes both.  By any definition 1861, the first season of match play's second decade was tumultuous as Americans watched their country literally come apart.  It was a time when everyone including base ball players had to be wondering what lay ahead both for the Union and for themselves.

South Carolina Secession Convention 

Although the first wave of secession took place in late 1860 and early 1861, most clubs were still apparently preparing for the new season.  Even with the news of Fort Sumter reverberating throughout the north, the New York Clipper proclaimed in its April 20, 1861 issue that "the base ball season commences."  In fact, New Jersey clubs had already been in the field for six weeks, as the Amity and Excelsior Clubs of Rahway played a match on March 3rd.  The media quickly changed its tune however as a  week later, the Sunday Mercury stated that "for the time being base ball is almost entirely set aside."  This was followed by reports of how clubs couldn't play matches because so many of their players had volunteered to save the Union.  There was even talk in the Mercury of forming a "base ball battalion," but apparently the idea never developed.

Confederate Attack on Fort Sumter 

Yet in his book, Baseball's First Inning, William Ryczek notes that the Atlantic and Eckford Clubs of Brooklyn, two of the country's premier teams had, with one exception each, the same players in 1861 who played the prior year.  That matches my research on three of New Jersey's prominent clubs, the Newark and Eureka Clubs of Newark and the Liberty Club of New Brunswick.  In each case there was a little less carry over than the Brooklyn clubs, but only two or three players can definitely be identified as having "Gone for a Soldier."

New York Sunday Mercury - April 28, 1861

Immediately after the attack on Fort Sumter, Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion.  New Jersey's quota was four regiments of about 3100 men and those slots were quickly filled by volunteers.  In fact, there were more volunteers than positions which proved to be a good thing when three more regiments were called for at the beginning of May (about another 3000 men, all told).  The final 1861 call for troops came in the wake of the Union debacle at Bull Run in July, five more regiments and two artillery batteries, say roughly 6000 more men).  So the total 1861 troops required from New Jersey were about 12,000 out of roughly 99,000 men of military age.  The actual total was probably less as the first three militia regiments served for only 90 days and some of them re-enlisted after Bull Run.

New York Sunday Mercury - August 18, 1861

Since the overall demand was somewhat limited (about 12% of those eligible), there were still plenty of young men left to play base ball in 1861.  As a result for at least 1861, New Jersey clubs, like their Brooklyn counterparts, were at or close to full strength.  Availability of players did not, of course, mean match activity would be the same.  Both the Atlantics and the Eckford played fewer matches in 1861 compared to 1860, while the Liberty of New Brunswick, played only twice in 1861, compared to nine times the prior year.  Of the five clubs only the Newark and Eureka clubs played a similar number of matches compared to the last year of peace.  Among this reduced level of activity, however, there were some very interesting New Jersey - Brooklyn matches which will be the subject of the next few posts, beginning with a home and home series between the Newark and Eckford Clubs.

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