Sunday, May 11, 2014

Selling the Lion Skin - Part I

Photo by Mark Granieri

"The man that once did sell the lion skin
While the beast lived, was killed with hunting him."  
Henry V, 4.3.93-94

Two of the best vintage base ball teams are the Eckford and Atlantic clubs, both recreating 19th century teams from Brooklyn.  Last week the Neshanock lost to the former in a match where good Flemington defense couldn't compensate for scoring only five runs.  This week's match consisted of two 1864 games against the Atlantics in Chester, New Jersey and playing this outstanding vintage club is not the best  cure for a struggling offense.  It wasn't, therefore, a total surprise that Flemington's offensive woes continued as the club managed only one tally on the day.  The Atlantics got off to a fast start in the first game scoring eight times in the first inning and coasting from there to a 14-0 victory.  After the first frame, the Neshanock again played good defense allowing only six runs over the rest of the match.  Any positives on offense for Flemington were few and far between, but Dave "Illinois" Harris did get two hits and muffin Glen "Masher" Modica continued to impress with one hit in each of the two games.

Atlantic Base Ball Club - vintage version - photo by Mark Granieri

The second match was equally frustrating for Flemington at bat while the Atlantics gradually moved ahead 9-0 before the Neshanock finally scored in their last at bat.  The run was scored by Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner which was a fitting conclusion to his clear score, always an accomplishment against an excellent defensive team like the Atlantics.  Leading another strong Neshanock defensive effort was Scott "Snuffy" Hengst who recorded four put outs and two assists in just six innings in the field.  Next week Flemington will take its first over night trip of the year, traveling to Cooperstown, New York to play these same Atlantics as well as teams from Lewes, Maryland and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  As a result the accompanying blog post won't be published until Monday or Tuesday of the following week.

1865 Harpers Weekly woodcut of the Brooklyn Atlantics (front row) and the Philadelphia Athletics (second row)

While the vintage versions of the Atlantics and Neshanock meet frequently on the base ball field, the original incarnations never played each other and with good reason.   The 19th century Atlantics were one of the premier clubs of the era, earning championship honors on numerous occasions while the Neshanock was a local New Jersey club which existed only briefly and had little competitive success.  Distinct differences in playing prowess plus Flemington's relatively remote location gave little incentive for a match between the two clubs.  Yet by 1866, top teams were paying visits to far less talented clubs, giving local residents a rare glimpse of base ball's best.  Especially prolific in this regard was the Athletic Club of Philadelphia which visited places like Danville, Pennsylvania as well as Bordentown and Burlington in New Jersey to take on local nines.  Not surprisingly the contests weren't remotely competitive with the Athletics averaging 73 runs, almost reaching the century mark in a 96-2 rout (an understatement if there every was one) of the Alert Club of Danville, Pennsylvania.

Reinder Wolters of the Irvington Club

In spite of facing almost certain defeat, New Jersey clubs still sought these visits, initially to promote their own clubs and later on as a money maker.  Sometimes, however, the invitation for a visit and an easy victory wasn't quite what it seemed.  By far the best example of a prominent club getting far more than it bargained for, took place on June 14, 1866 and was described in detail in the New York Clipper most likely by Henry Chadwick.  A few weeks earlier, a committee from the Irvington Club traveled all the way to Brooklyn just to watch the defending champion Atlantic Club practice.   Irvington, formerly known as Camptown, was a small farming community bordering on Newark.  Most likely because of its close proximity to the state's largest city, Irvington had a number of antebellum base ball clubs.   By 1866, the leading team was the aptly named Irvington Club, a champion junior club which after the 1865 season decided to put away childish things and become a senior team.  The visit to Brooklyn was part of this process, ostensibly to seek help and advice from the Atlantics, undefeated since 1863 and the defending champions of all of base ball.

Joe Start of the Brooklyn Atlantics

 Once at the Atlantics grounds, the Jersey boys struck up a conversation with William Babcock, President of the Atlantics. Stressing they were "a mere country club," the visitors pleaded with Babcock to have the Atlantics "come out to our place and teach us a few points."  Good natured and looking for "practice" opportunities for his team, Babcock asked "the boys" who were agreeable.  And so it was that on Thursday, June 14th, the Atlantics traveling party took the 1:00 train (presumably from Jersey City) to Newark where their hosts took them to Irvington in "a horse car."  Arriving at the grounds, the champions were most likely not surprised by the "large assemblage," but were shocked by the make up of the local nine.  Instead of a group of unknown muffins in makeshift uniforms, the Brooklynites saw a number of players they recognized from other New Jersey clubs.  It didn't auger well for the visitors who  "didn't take the pains to have the full nine out" for what was supposed to be nothing more than practice.

Mike Campbell of the Irvington Club

Perhaps somewhat unnerved by the prospect of playing a more formidable than expected foe without their full team, Brooklyn got off to a slow start and trailed 8-4 after three innings. However the champions rallied for five in the fourth and six in the fifth to take a 15-9 lead and seemingly restore some degree of order to the proceedings.  Thus far the contest had been marred by wild pitching to the point it took two hours and forty-five minutes to play five innings, supposedly, "the longest time on record."  Reportedly, John Oliver of the Atlantics went to the striker's line at 5:00 and by 5:20 had only swung at two pitches.  It sounds as if umpire Fred Calloway of the Eureka Club was making very liberal use of the "ball not counted" option as the Sunday Mercury complained he called "not a third of the number [of balls] that should have been counted."  All of this changed, however, in the sixth, at least from the Irvington standpoint, when "renown slow pitcher," Alexander Bailey relieved Reinder Wolters and held the Atlantics to just two tallies the rest of the way.  Apparently aided by some "loose fielding" by the Atlantics, Irvington got their offense going, tallying fourteen times in the same period to secure an stunning 23-17 upset victory.

New York Clipper - June 23, 1866

While credit was given to the Irvingtons for their triumph, it was probably difficult for contemporary observers not to attribute the Atlantics defeat to the failure to bring their full nine.  Indeed Brooklyn had already started 1866 at a disadvantage due to the defection of star players Dickey Pearce and Freddy Crane to the Excelsior Club of Brooklyn.  The two would return to the Atlantics in August, but for the Irvington match, only the Atlantics second match game of the season, they were breaking in a new shortstop - second base combination.  The chart below lists the Atlantics first nine (as reported by the Clipper) as well as the actual lineup in the club's first two matches.

Position First Nine Harvard Irvington

Pitcher Zettlin Potts Potts
Catcher Mills Smith Smith
First Base Start Start Start
Second Base Charles Smith John Oliver John Oliver
Third Base Ferguson Ferguson Ferguson
Shortstop Galvin Galvin Kenney
Left Field Chapman Chapman Chapman
Center Field McDonald McDonald McDonald
Right Field Sid Smith Sid Smith Sid Smith

A comparison of the actual lineup versus the reported first nine indicates the Atlantic had their regular outfield against the Irvington Club plus the two infield corner positions, but had to have been hurt by the aforementioned absence of their regular shortstop and second baseman.  At the same time, with the exception of the shortstop's position the Atlantics played the upstart New Jersey team with the same players who defeated Harvard 37-15.

Charles Sweasy of the Irvington Club

Regardless though of how much missing players hurt the Atlantics, the ability of the Irvington Club was recognized by the Sunday Mercury which claimed there was "not a weak spot in their nine."  Far from being a "country club," most of the Irvington players had played for either the junior championship Irvington team, one of Newark senior clubs and in some cases both.  Unlike other local clubs taking on a highly talented, veteran opponent, the Irvingtons didn't lack for competitive match experience.   In addition the Irvington Club also had plenty of good players of their own as demonstrated by an 1869 New York Clipper analysis of the best players by position.  According to the writer, again probably Chadwick; Reinder Wolters, Michael Campbell, Charles Sweasy, William Lewis and Andy Leonard were each considered among the best at their respective positions.  If further evidence is needed, in 1869 Sweasy and Leonard played for the Cincinnati Redstockings on their 57-0 transcontinental tour.

Andy Leonard of the Irvington Club

How big an upset was the Irvington victory?  Since 1862, the Atlantics overall record was 47-3-1, a .920 winning percentage, so the Brooklynites had little experience with losing.  In addition to being their first loss since a September 1863 defeat at the hands of the Eckford Club, this loss was their first defeat by a team from outside of New York City or Brooklyn since 1861 also to a New Jersey club, the Liberty of New Brunswick.  Missing Atlantic players, not withstanding, it was no small accomplishment and the Irvington players and their fans must have justifiably swelled with pride when they read in the Sunday Mercury that the Atlantics "were outplayed at nearly all points in the field, and met their equals at bat."  But this was far from the end of the story, at the time championships could be won by defeating the incumbent by winning two out of three matches so the Atlantics now had to defeat Irvington twice or lose their crown.  However, with their regular line up, especially when Pearce and Crane returned, that wouldn't be too difficult.

Or would it?

Stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. The Campbell brothers later went on to be founding members of the Elizabeth Resolute club. Rynie Wolters also pitched for the Resolute club during it's failed 1873 professional season, but also pitched for the New York Mutuals.