Thursday, March 28, 2013

Newark's First Base Ball Grounds

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to work at the Brooklyn Historical Society on their  Ex-Lab project.  Ex-Lab is a program where Brooklyn high school students create an exhibit using artifacts from BHS's collections.  In this case the exhibit was about Ebbets Field and I served as the lead historian.  The exhibit told the story of Brooklyn's beloved ballpark in a series of panels or sections.  Appropriately the section about Walter O'Malley's search for a new Brooklyn home for the Dodgers was called the struggle for space, or words to that effect.

Newark Daily Advertiser - June 26, 1855

As apropos as the title was for Brooklyn in the 1950's, the notion of struggling for space also applies to organized base ball's earliest days.  After all it was the lack of space in  Manhattan which prompted the Knickerbockers and other clubs to move to the more pastoral, but still accessible, Elysian Fields in Hoboken.  Adequate facilities were also a challenge for the early New Jersey clubs.  The Jersey City Daily Sentinel partially attributed the premature demise of the city's initial clubs (the Pioneer and Excelsior Clubs) to their difficulties in finding grounds.

While finding sufficient space wasn't a life or death issue for the early Newark clubs, it was an important priority.  Two of the city's first teams, the Newark and Olympic Clubs established their initial grounds in East Newark, "south of the railroad bridge."  This appears to refer to land near the New Jersey Rail Road bridge across the Passaic River between Newark and what is now Harrison.   Examination of an 1853 map of Newark ( indicated the bridge was basically in the same place as the modern railroad bridge in the below picture.  As a result Newark's first official base ball field was to the right of this structure on the right side of the picture.   East Newark, in 1855 was probably more of a geographic description than the name of a municipality as today's East Newark wasn't incorporated until 1895 and lies to the north of this picture.  

Railroad bridge over the Passaic River between Newark and Harrison - one of Newark's 1855 base ball grounds was located somewhere on the right hand side of this picture

Whatever the advantages of these grounds, it wasn't too long before the location became an issue.  Even before the 1857 season began there was a report that "the clubs" were looking for space closer to the city center.  The challenge, of course, was that land in the center of the city was in much greater demand and, therefore, more expensive, if it was even available.  Military Park and South Park (today's Lincoln Park) were already in use for less organized ball playing, to the point the police  prohibited ball playing on Military Park while allowing it on South Park.  The demand was apparently so great that "colored base-ball players" (who presumably had to take what was left) were reduced to playing on the Old Burying Ground, one of Newark's first cemeteries.  

Newark Daily Mercury - November 18, 1859

As the antebellum period progressed, the organized clubs came up with a variety of solutions.  The Newark Club found grounds on some land bounded by High (now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard), West, Court and Mercer Streets, outlined in red in the below picture.  Located a few blocks south of today's Essex County Courthouse and St. Benedict's Preparatory School (Paul Zinn's alma mater), the field was also close to the Springfield-Newark Turnpike, today's Springfield Avenue.

Area in red was the Newark Club grounds right before the Civil War - the right red line is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and the location is just a few blocks south of the Essex County Courthouse

The other clubs occupied four to five different sites, including the foot of Chestnut Street, the foot of Orchard Street, the corner of Thomas Street and Railroad Avenue and the corner of South Street and South Broad Street.  Using the 1853 map of Newark mentioned above and more modern information, the approximate locations are marked in red on the below picture.

The red marks indicate the location of four antebellum Newark base ball grounds.  The major road crossing the picture from the top to bottom is Route 21 or McCarter Highway and the location is south of Newark's Pennsylvania Station 

What's fascinating about the locations, even if they aren't exact, is how close all are to the railroad, as is the East Newark location.  Even the Newark Club grounds, the only one not near the railroad, is close to what must have been a relatively heavily traveled highway.  While the proximity to the railroad probably had little impact on the game's development in Newark, it could very well have influenced its spread south and west of the city.  From 1855 on, railroad passengers could have seen base ball being played without even leaving their seats, possibly sparking interest in learning about this "new" game.  It's worth noting that almost without exception, the New Jersey locations where base ball developed before the Civil War, places like Rahway, Elizabeth, New Brunswick, Somerville and Morristown all had a direct railroad connection to Newark.

As Richard Hershberger rightly pointed out in a comment on an earlier post, the availability of adequate, multiple playing fields in Newark is an important part of the New York game's fast start in Newark.  Other than availability and affordability, it's not clear if there is a reason why the Newark teams chose sites so close to the railroad.  Most likely unintentional, the decisions set up opportunities for people from other parts of the state to catch a glimpse of something new that might have aroused their curiosity and inspired them to learn more.

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