Sunday, May 25, 2014

Meet Me at the Fair

As most readers of this blog probably know, we are still in the process of observing and commemorating the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War.  2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the events of 1864, a far more important year in American history than is usually recognized.  It was a year filled with uncertainty, as heavy Union casualties with limited military success seemed to foreshadow the defeat of Abraham Lincoln in his bid for re-election.  As the Union spring offenses began in May, there was widespread disagreement throughout the north about many aspects of the war, but supporting the soldiers, especially the injured and wounded, was one issue where there was consensus.  In 1861, recognizing the importance of this work, the government established the United States Sanitary Commission as a private relief agency to care for the sick and wounded.

Artist rendering of the Great Central Fair held in Philadelphia in 1864

Caring for soldiers was expensive work and a primary means of raising funds, especially for medical expenses, was a series of fairs, one of the largest of which was held in Philadelphia for three weeks in June of 1864.  The Great Central Fair was an incredible volunteer effort that saw craftsmen and builders donate their time to build exhibit halls and related buildings covering 200,000 square feet at Philadelphia's Logan Square in just 40 days.  Other volunteers then filled the space with exhibits of art, horticulture, historical artifacts and exhibits from the northern states.  The event was a huge success attracting 250,000 visitors including President Lincoln and raised over $1 million for the Sanitary Commission.

Stationary of the Great Central Fair 

While preparations for the fair were underway, a new base ball season was beginning, one the media predicted would be closer to the pre-war norm even though the war was far from over.  Base ball clubs were not adverse to helping the war effort so plans were made for a series of matches in Philadelphia prior to the fair with the gate receipts to go to the Sanitary Commission.  The proceedings were scheduled to open on May 25th with a match between New Jersey and Pennsylvania "select" or "all star" teams, to be followed by some club matches, but rain wiped out all, but the opener.  Finding an appropriate venue wasn't a problem as the Olympic Club of Philadelphia was set to open what the New York Clipper described as the city's first "permanent field of operations" for base ball at Jefferson and 25th Streets.  Although these were "all star" teams, talent was supposedly not the sole criteria used in picking the squads.  While no information has been found as to who actually selected the players, the Clipper claimed that if it was based on skill alone, the New Jersey lineup would have been drawn exclusively from the Eureka and Newark Clubs.  Instead, whoever was making the decisions, wanted to have more clubs represented thereby (they hoped) attracting more paying customers.

Charles Thomas of the Eureka Club of Newark

As a result the New Jersey lineup came from five different clubs, beginning with Tyrell and Bill Lewis of the Newark Club plus Henry Northrup and Charles Thomas of the Eureka Club.  They were joined by Weston Fisler and Frank Knight of the nearby Camden Club, a team that had only just switched to the New York game.  Although both Fisler and Knight were good players, the organizers probably expected, or at least hoped, that the presence of some local players would boost attendance. Also on the team were Henry Millspaugh and Frederick Henry of the Nassau Club of Princeton who, while they weren't as experienced as the others, had demonstrated they didn't lack for ability.

Made up of Princeton University students, the Nassau Club had defeated the Athletics of Philadelphia the prior year and more than held their own on a visit to Brooklyn, winning three of four matches with the only loss a respectable 18-11 defeat at the hands of the Atlantics.  Finally and most fascinating from a research standpoint was Baird (first name unknown) of the Bridgeton Club.  To date no information as been discovered about either Baird or the Bridgeton Club prior to 1864, although his selection for a May "all star" match strongly argues for an organizational date no later than 1863.  If so, the Bridgeton Club has the distinction of being the first south Jersey club besides the Philadelphia town ball playing Camden Club.

Dick McBride of the Athletic Club of Philadelphia

Like the New Jersey team, the Pennsylvania lineup was drawn from five teams, two each from the Olympic and Athletic clubs, two apiece from the Keystone and Mercantile Clubs and one from Altoona.  Inclusiveness over pure ability was also used to choose the Pennsylvania nine, but the organizers understood the importance of good pitching as both clubs had highly regarded players at that position.   Pennsylvania's pitcher was John Dickson (Dick) McBride from the Athletics, a former cricket player, who quickly became one of the period's best pitchers.  Henry Chadwick, himself, claimed that "what Dick doesn't know about the tricks and dodges of strategic pitching isn't worth knowing" while years later legendary sportswriter, Tim Murnane, said McBride was the first to master the "raise ball."  Also not without deceptive pitching skills was Fred Henry of the Nassau Club, as his pitching had "bothered the Atlantics" because of a "slow ball with a heavy twist."  Former teammates and fellow students later claimed Henry was the first to intentionally throw a curve ball.

Weston Fisler as a member of the Athletics of Philadelphia

The rain that ultimately wiped out the remaining matches also toyed with the New Jersey - Pennsylvania affair as "rain threatened every hour" limiting the attendance to 1-2000.  Admission was 25 cents, reportedly the highest admission charge to date, albeit for a good cause.  Ironically once Philadelphia introduced 25 cent base ball, it was reluctant to give it up as early 20th century major league owners frequently lamented how the city's clubs resisted increasing the base admission fee.  Regardless of the weather, the scene was apparently an attractive spectacle as the Clipper noted "the bevy of fair ladies" sitting behind the players with "the handsome clubhouse for a background."  Although there was probably some editorial excess involved, the players' conduct was reportedly "praiseworthy in the extreme" as umpire Peter O'Brien of the Brooklyn Atlantic's decisions were "received with entire satisfaction" by the players.

In spite of the threatening weather the game got underway at 2:45 with the New Jersey side tallying twice.  Pennsylvania went out without a run in their first at bat, but tied the game at 2-2 after two innings.  After that it was a back and forth affair through five innings with New Jersey ahead 8-7.  In the top of the sixth, however, New Jersey's "good batting," "helped" by the Keystone State team's "miscatches" and "wild throwing" led to a nine run inning for the Garden Staters and an 17-7 lead.  From then on whether it was Henry's "heavy twist," strong New Jersey defense or a combination of the two, Pennsylvania failed to score in its next three at bats, before tallying three meaningless runs in the ninth in an 18-10 defeat.   Henry's pitching dominated the game as almost half (13) of Pennsylvania's 27 outs came on foul balls in addition to four strikes outs.  Given those numbers, no passed balls and only two muffs by the New Jersey team, it's surprising Pennsylvania actually scored ten times.

New York Clipper - June 4, 1864

While the game had no special significance in the 1864 season or in base ball history, it was perhaps symbolic in a number of ways.  Organizing and putting on the event showed that base ball people were ready to get back to business even if the war had almost a year to run (something they couldn't have known at the time).  Also important was the presence and performance of Frederick Henry.  Regardless of whether he, Candy Cummings or someone else, "invented" the curve ball, Henry's dominant pitching, in spite of new rules placing restrictions on pitchers, showed that pitching would always be a major part of base ball. In addition the inclusion of Henry and one of his college teammates in the lineup anticipated New Jersey success in college base ball, something that continues to the present day.  War or no war, base ball was not only back for a new season, but ready and able for further growth and expansion. 

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