Sunday, April 6, 2014

Starting the Season - Then and Now

My first foray into 19th century base ball research was for an essay about the Eureka Base Ball Club of Newark which was ultimately published in Baseball Founders last summer.  The research began by going through the Newark Daily Advertiser from the early 1860's beginning with April and May, the months we typically associate with the beginning of the base ball season.  To my surprise I didn't find a single reference to the Eureka in particular, or base ball in general, which made me wonder whether I was going to find anything at all.  However, once I hit June, accounts of the Eureka club's matches as well as other base ball reports began to appear regularly.  This was probably my first practical introduction to many of the differences between base ball then and now.  Although it changed to some degree later in the 1860's, match or competitive play in New Jersey typically didn't begin until June and then ran through early November.

 April in the late 1850's and early 1860's was apparently devoted to organizational meetings and practice.  In early April of 1861, for example, the Hamilton Club of Jersey City met to decide a number of issues including their home grounds and the date of their first practice.  The minutes of that meeting were the last entry in their records as the next day the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter and the Hamilton Club was never heard of again.  Using April for those purposes has not been continued by vintage clubs which is most likely due, not to a lack of respect for historical accuracy, but an understandable desire to start playing as soon as the weather permits, even if it (the weather) does so grudgingly.

As a result, yesterday saw a small group from the Flemington Neshanock travel to Smithtown, Long Island for matches with the Brooklyn Atlantics and the Elizabeth Resolutes.  Unfortunately only five Flemington players were there, but in the true spirit of vintage base ball, players from the New York Mutuals, New York Gothams, the Brooklyn Eckford and probably other clubs I'm missing stepped in so Flemington could field a full team.  In the Neshanock's first match with the host Atlantics, Flemington and friends generated little offensive, but played some good defense early in the contest so that at the end of three innings, the Atlantic margin was only four runs.  Like their namesakes, however, the Atlantics are a championship club and it was only a matter of time before they took complete control for an overwhelming victory.

The second contest against the Resolutes was not much better from the Neshanock standpoint as the Elizabeth Club appeared to be in mid-season form scoring five times in the bottom of the first.  Once again Flemington stayed within striking distance for the first three innings, but like the Atlantics, Elizabeth broke open the game and rolled to an easy victory.  I understand the Resolutes also defeated the Atlantic in the third match of the day - congratulations to the Elizabeth club on an excellent start to the season.  It's hard to find much positive in two such decisive defeats, but Brad "Brooklyn" Shaw did have three well placed hits in the first game, and almost had a clear score as he (or his legs) was/were put out once on the bases.  "Brooklyn" also had one long hit in the second game (longer than the three in the first game combined) and Scott "Snuffy" Hengst knocked a long double, but those were about the only highlights.  Next week Flemington makes its only New Jersey appearance of the month at the Somerset Patriots ballpark as part of that independent league club's fan appreciation day.

 For the early New Jersey clubs finding the right time to start the season was probably just part of the overall learning process of starting and sustaining a base ball club.   Back 150 years ago in 1864, the very idea of playing a season of games against other clubs was relatively new.  If we take the 1857 convention as the beginning of regular match play on a relatively broad basis, 1864 was only the seventh year of a season which ran roughly from June to November.  The prior six seasons were equally divided between three years of peace time growth, followed by a similar period of trying to figure out how, if at all, to continue playing  in a country divided by Civil War.

New York Clipper - May 14, 1864 account of a presentation of the new pitching rules to the Eagle Club of New York

No matter how difficult those adjustments may have been, by the spring of 1864, the game had survived three years of war and the New York Clipper boldly proclaimed that "not since 1861 has there been a season that has opened more auspiciously for the welfare of the game."  Another paper felt that although base ball matches had continued during the war, the players themselves had not neglected their patriotic duties.  Previewing a May, 1864 New Jersey-Pennsylvania "all star" match (about which more on the anniversary) in support of the U.S. Sanitary Commission's Fair in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Item claimed "no class in the community has exceeded the base ball players of the north," in "the cheerful willingness to tender their services, and if need be, offer up their lives."  Such patriotic rhetoric is standard fare during wartime, but doesn't always match reality or at least it didn't in the case of New Jersey's base ball players.  It is sometimes forgotten that Civil War military service was primarily voluntary, in New Jersey, for example, over 70,000 men served in the military, but less than 1000 were drafted.  For the prominent clubs, like the Eureka of Newark, it appears the number who chose not to go exceeded those who had "gone for a soldier."

Newark Daily Advertiser - May 2, 1864

By 1864, there seems to have been almost a parallel existence between base ball and the war with the war's only significant impact on a club, the loss of those players who chose to volunteer.  For example, the May 2, 1864 "news" page of the Newark Daily Advertiser included an article about the upcoming base ball season, a long report from the 33rd New Jersey at Chattanooga and a report about the impending draft. The spring of 1864 did mark the end of a significant number of three year enlistments so clubs like the Newark Eureka looked forward to some base ball reinforcements especially, pitcher James Linen.  Whatever other adjustments Linen faced in his return to base ball, he was going to have to get used to new pitching rules adopted at the end of 1863.  One change, ended a similarity with cricket as the addition of a back line to the pitcher's position eliminated the pitcher's ability to get a running start before releasing the ball.  Beginning in 1864, pitchers also had to have both feet on the ground when pitching the ball, but perhaps the most historic change was the introduction of "balls" some six years or so after "strikes" became part of the game.  Unlike today, only three balls were necessary for the striker to head for first and all base runners moved up a base, regardless of their place on the bases.  That meant, for example, that a walk with a runner on third, scored the runner, perhaps the origin of the old  base ball cliche that "a walk is as good as a hit."

Newark Daily Advertiser - May 2, 1864

Anyone following the rules debates at the end of 1863 probably recognized that another major change wasn't far off.  The fair bound out whereby strikers were retired on any batted ball caught on a bounce had been debated frequently and it's proposed elimination at the 1863 convention failed by only three votes.  The days of the so-called "bound game" were clearly numbered and 1864 would, in fact, be it's final season.  Rule changes of this magnitude must have been on the minds of New Jersey players as they prepared for the new season.  Some of them may also have been wondering if they would be around for the whole season as the draft scheduled for May was about to make military service a whole lot less optional.  Some of the state's premier players may also have been wondering about their chances of being selected for the aforementioned "all-star" match in Philadelphia scheduled for about the same time as the draft.

New York Clipper - May 14, 1864

With at least some of these things on their minds, milder spring weather enabled countless young men and boys in New Jersey to start playing base ball again.  Further south, milder weather meant the beginning of a different kind of season, the Union spring offensive.  Taking advantage of a very brief window before the resumption of full scale hostilities, members of the 1st New Jersey played and lost a match with a team from the 10th Massachusetts.  For 1st New Jersey shortstop, Alexander Dobson of Middlesex County, it was his last base ball game, a week later he was killed in the battle of the Wilderness, less than 30 days before the end of his three year enlistment.  Regardless of whether or not the season's start was auspicious or not, the game's long term survival seemed fairly certain, but the survival of the Union itself was far more problematic, something we will periodically explore in the 150th anniversary of one of the most crucial years in American history. 

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