Monday, August 12, 2013

Historical Accuracy and Modern Value Judgments

Sports fans (cranks in 19th century base ball parlance) had no shortage of choices this past weekend in Rochester.  Those who enjoy watching competition at what Winston Churchill once described as trying to hit into a small hole, an even smaller ball with tools totally inadequate for the purpose, had the opportunity to witness one of golf's four major tournaments, the PGA.  At the same time (and apparently at almost the same location), those devoted to a sport focused on agitating an inflated pig bladder could attend the Buffalo Bills' pre-season training camp.  Although the numbers were far smaller, those with "finer" tastes went about 20 miles south of Rochester to participate in the National Silver Ball Tournament at Genesee Country Village in Mumford, New York.

Photo by Mark Granieri

One of two national vintage base ball tournaments, the Genesee event features local clubs and visiting teams not just from the United States, but also from nearby Canada.  This year, apparently due to scheduling conflicts, there were only three outside clubs; the Talbot Fair Plays from Maryland, the Woodstock Actives of Ontario, Canada and, of course, the Flemington Neshanock.

Over the course of three days, all teams play four matches with the two clubs with the best records advancing to the championship match on Sunday afternoon.  In past years with larger fields, each team played two local clubs and two of the visiting teams.  With the smaller eight team field and five local clubs, the Neshanock played four local teams beginning with the Victory Base Ball Club of Rochester.  Whether it was the early 9:00 start or the effects of the prior day's long car ride, Flemington fell victim to an eight run second inning by the Victory club which proved too big a hole to dig out of.  Down 12-3 after only three innings, the Neshanock allowed only two runs over the last six innings while scoring six tallies of their own.  However the two extra runs were more than enough of a cushion for a strong Victory team which prevailed 14-9.  A positive note for the Neshanock was a clear score by Danny Shaw, just back from a triumphant tour of the continent.

Photo by Mark Granieri 

Although the morning contest was followed by a four hour gap between games, the Neshanock were more than ready for a 3:00 contest with the much improved Rochester Club.  After the local team scored three tallies in the top of the first, Flemington scored eight times in their first three at bats while holding Rochester scoreless for the next four innings.  Rochester rallied in the sixth and seventh frames, but the Neshanock added enough insurance runs for a 13-11 victory.  The offensive effort was led by Mark "Peaches" Rubini who had six hits in six times up and a three hit contribution from Joe "Irish" Colduvell who showed remarkable "speed" on a third inning double.  The victory was not without cost, however, as Dave "Illinois" Harris was forced to withdraw after suffering a knee injury in a collision at first base.

Photo by Mark Granieri 

Having found the offensive range, the Neshanock kept striking in the day's final match against the Live Oak Club of Rochester, tallying eight times in the second inning en route to a 26-3 victory.  "Peaches" continued his heavy hitting with another six hits which was actually topped by Dan "Sledge" Hammer who came up with a seven hit performance.  The local club sported very distinctive new uniforms recreating the original club's outfits from the late 1850's.

Photo by Mark Granieri

Saturday's play left the Neshanock at 2-1 tied with the Victory and Rochester Clubs behind the Talbot Fair Plays at 3-0.  By the time of Sunday's 11:00 match against the Flower City Club of Rochester, Talbot had won again to clinch a spot in the championship match.  With Rochester playing the Victory Club, Flemington had to take care of business against Flower City while hoping for a loss by the Victory Club.  Unfortunately the Neshanock saved the worst for last falling 17-7 to the local team.  While the Neshanock offense was limited, it was primarily a defensive collapse that doomed Flemington.  Incredibly the Neshanock led 7-6 heading to the top of the seventh in spite of making 12 errors over six innings (including walks which Henry Chadwick considered an error on the pitcher.), but Flower City took the lead in the seventh and put the match out of reach with a six run eighth.

Photo by Mark Granieri

In the end it didn't really matter as the Victory Club defeated the Rochesters to earn a spot in the championship and another defeat at the the hands of the Talbot Club.  While that contest was going on the Neshanock party began the long ride back to New Jersey with two wins and two defeats for an overall record of 19-15 heading into next Saturday's match with the Hoboken "Nine" in Long Valley, Flemington's only New Jersey appearance until September.

Live Oak's distinctive new uniforms

Photo by Mark Granieri

Unfortunately, in my view, the Victory and Flower City matches were marred with more controversy over Flemington's use of the trapped ball play.  Unlike the past incidents, this time I heard the comments which focused on the trap play somehow being "bush," a modern value judgement, referring to something done only at the lowest level of competition.  Like complaints about the legality of the play, the claim is simply not accurate as there is clear evidence the play was not only used in the 1860's and beyond, but was also praised by contemporary observers (see the last post - "Tournaments and Trick Plays.")

Photo by Mark Granieri  

In addition to being incorrect, the value judgement is also irrelevant since there were no "bush" leagues in 1866 (the year of play used in the tournament), that is, no higher standard of play somehow above the practices of lower level clubs.  The repeated use of a modern term to criticize a recreation of the past hints, I think, at part of the problem.  By playing vintage base ball, we are trying to recreate the game the way it was played, not how we, with our modern frame of reference, think it should have been played.  In choosing to do so, we implicitly agree to play by all of the old rules,  including those which led to unfair advantages and were ultimately changed.  If nothing else, this helps illustrate how and why base ball rules evolved.  There is little point in recreating 19th century base ball, if we aren't willing to present it "warts and all."

1 comment:

  1. Richard HershbergerAugust 12, 2013 at 8:34 PM

    A few comments:

    "Crank" arose in the mid-1880s (earliest use in Dickson: 1882, and it didn't really become a standard word for a rationally enthusiastic spectator for some years after that). It should be avoided in reference to 1860s spectators, especially when combined with a (entirely valid) criticism of the use of "bush" (first use in Dickson: 1911; I have no idea how common it was early on).

    The point about the trap play in this period is that was not perceived as giving the fielder an unfair advantage. The vagaries of catching a ball without a glove were such that it wasn't a sure thing. Executing it well required skill, and this skill was admired. It wasn't until gloves had developed to the point that little skill was required that the infield fly rule was instituted. It is no coincidence that this was also about the time the dropped third strike was modified to only apply with first base open or two outs, as the same reasoning applied.

    1866 rules? That's interesting. Presumably this is done to eliminate bound catches, but I'm not sure what change there was from 1865 to 1866 to favor the later year.

    Oh, and you really should have someone shout "foul!" in a confident voice on a ball down the line. It would give these people something to talk about for months afterwards. It would be doing them a favor, really....