Thursday, February 28, 2013

Newark's African American Base Ball Pioneers

Last month Richard Hershberger kindly shared with me, his list of clubs playing the New York game in 1855 which included nine clubs from New Jersey.  While my research has produced a slightly different list for the Garden State, it's clear that the New York game became pretty popular in New Jersey in 1855.  Richard's list includes four clubs from Newark, the state's largest city - the Newark, Newark Junior, Friendship and Olympic Clubs which are clearly documented in contemporary media accounts.

Not included was the St. John's Club which appears to have special significance beyond New Jersey.  All we know of the St. John's Club comes from the below October 24, 1855 Newark Daily Mercury article describing a rained out match with the Union Club.  Nothing in the brief account documents whether the match was played according to the New York rules so Richard is understandably taking a conservative approach by not including them.   As I've written before, the special significance of this find is that it is the earliest documented evidence of African-Americans organizing to play base ball, not just in New Jersey, but in the United States. From the account, it's not clear if the Union Club is from New Jersey, but the reference to the St. John's Club's grounds at the foot of Orchard Street describes a location used by other Newark clubs.

Newark Daily Mercury - October 24, 1855

Also of interest here is the club name, I've identified something like 150 antebellum New Jersey base ball clubs and not one other one uses a saint's name.  Is this based on a church affiliation or some fraternal organization?  At this point we have no way of knowing.  St. John's Roman Catholic Church, Newark's first Roman Catholic parish dates back to before 1855, but I think/speculate it's unlikely Newark's black population were of that persuasion.  There was also a St. John's Masonic Lodge in Newark at this time, but again I think African-American participation is unlikely.

Another possibility is some kind of connection to St. Philip's Episcopal Church, an African-American congregation founded in Newark in 1847.  The congregation continues today as part of Trinity & St. Philip's Cathedral in Newark and has some church organizations with other saint's names so the church could have sponsored a base ball club with a name other than St. Philip's.

What follows is more than a little speculative, but has some possibilities.  The next reference in the Newark newspapers to another African-American club in the city, is a September 30, 1862 Newark Daily Advertiser article about a match between the Hamilton Club of Newark and the Henson Club of Long Island.  This preceded by a few weeks, a more well known Brooklyn Daily Eagle account of a match between the Unknown and Alert Clubs, two African-American clubs.  Listed in the Eagle box score as the umpire was one, C. Ophate of the Hamilton Club of Newark.

Newark Daily Advertiser - September 30, 1862

When I first saw this reference, I did a census search for Mr. Ophate which came up empty.  Recently, however, it occurred to me that Ophate, might be a misspelling of O'Fake.  Certainly looking at the two names, it's not hard to imagine a harried reporter making such a mistake.  Searching for the O'Fake family in 19th century Newark is much more productive as they were a prominent, middle-class, African American family in the city.  During the 1850's and 1860's, two O'Fake brothers, Peter and John were, among other things, accomplished musicians with a band and a dancing school.  The O'Fakes were also not unknown to Newark's fledgling base ball community as John O'Fake's orchestra payed at the first annual ball of the Newark Club on February 13, 1856.  Also of interest is that both Peter and John were founding members of St. Philip's Church in 1847.

Newark Daily Advertiser - February 14, 1856

But could C. Ophate, the umpire from the 1862 Brooklyn match be C. O'Fake?  It turns out Peter O'Fake, had a son named Charles who born in 1845 who would have been 17 in 1862 so he at least theoretically could have been the umpire in question.  There are far to many unknowns to make even an educated guess, but it is at least possible.  There is also further evidence the O'Fakes had a base ball connection.  Writing to the Newark Sunday Call in 1926 after the death of the last survivor of the Eurkea Club, a correspondent self-styled as "Old Timer' mentioned among other memories of 19th century Newark base ball, that a "young O'Fake," "a very refined colored lad played for the Active Club of Newark."  I haven't seen any evidence of this through the late 1860's, but, if true, it could be evidence of an early integrated club.

Newark Daily Advertiser - June 10, 1856

Again, all of this is speculation arising out of a few brief accounts of African-American clubs in Newark.  Like many aspects of 19th century New Jersey base ball, it's a subject that needs more research and analysis.  One thing which does seem clear though is that African-Americans in Newark didn't waste any time picking up the "new" game.  Interestingly pioneering the organization of a base ball club in Newark may not have been limited to African-Americans.  Based on what I've seen so far, it appears the aforementioned Newark Junior Club was also the first of its kind, again, not just in New Jersey, but in the United States.  In the next few posts, we'll take a look at this other group of base ball pioneers.

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