Saturday, June 21, 2014

Return to Base Ball's Incubator

 Photo by Mark Granieri

Every year on the Saturday closest to June 19th, the Neshanock visit Hoboken to play a match in honor of the Knickerbocker Club of New York's first match game played on that date in 1846 against the New York Club.  For at least two years, the match was against a Hoboken club put together just for that one game, but about three years ago the Hoboken Nine were formed, a welcome addition to New Jersey's vintage base ball community.  In the past the match was played at Stevens Institute located on the site of the Stevens' estate and not far from historic Elysian Fields.  This year the field at Stevens was being replaced so the match was moved to John F. Kennedy Stadium, the home field of Hoboken High School.  Unfortunately, from an historic standpoint, both fields have artificial turf, but just being in Hoboken serves as a reminder of the early days of the New York game.

Photo by Mark Granieri

Today's match began with Hoboken tallying twice in their first striking opportunity, but Flemington quickly responded with three tallies in their first appearance at the striking line.  Hoboken continued to hit well in the match's early stages adding five more tallies, to lead 7-4 after four innings.  Things changed after that as Hoboken could only manage one tally over the next two innings while Flemington scored seven times to take an 11-8 lead as the match headed to the seventh inning.  In the bottom of the sixth, the first four Flemington strikers all reached base with three scoring, but Hoboken retired the next ten strikers in order.  No offense accompanied by weak defense is a deadly combination and when Hoboken scored three in the eighth, the local team had a 12-11 lead as the match went to its last inning.  Flemington took the field hoping to keep the margin at one run, but Hoboken was not to be denied, erupting for four more tallies to put the game out of reach, preserving a 16-12 win.  Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner led the Flemington attack with three hits, followed by five other Neshanock who had two apiece. 

Photo by Mark Granieri

While the primary purpose of the Neshanock's visit to Hoboken was the annual commemoration of the 1846 match, in a larger sense the event also honored Elysian Fields part in the early development of the New York game.  Just as many early 20th century ballparks were "green cathedrals," Elysian Fields was, in a similar way, a special gathering place for the early practitioners of the new form of an old game to conduct their "religious" exercises.  Although not in any sense base ball's birthplace, Elysian Fields played an incubator like role for the New York game, providing ample, accessible and available space from the first days of field practice to the beginnings of competitive play of the 1850's and beyond.  Perhaps the most important advantage of the greensward on the Hudson was its availability as ample and accessible space is frequently lost to commercial development.  Fortunately for base ball, the Stevens' family learned that operating Elysian Fields as "a pleasure ground for old New York" was more profitable (ferry fees) than developing the land for housing or other uses.

Map of Hoboken from Hopoghan Hackingh: Hoboken, A Pleasure Resort for Old New York by Charles H. Winfield

So obvious were  Elysian Fields's advantages to early New York ball players that, as John Thorn has shown, other New York base ball clubs like the Magnolia Club, played there before the Knickerbockers had even been organized.  The transition to competitive play in the 1850's plus the formation of more clubs gradually increased the number of New York base ball players paying their pennies to ride the Stevens family ferry.  By 1857 when the final stage of base ball's antebellum growth was getting underway, six different New York clubs had contracted to use what appear to be two different parts of Elysian Fields as their home base ball grounds.  To that point those who had never visited the pastoral playground in Hoboken lacked any real sense of what base ball at Elysian Fields actually looked like since newspapers provided only written descriptions. That changed in September of that year when both Porter's Spirit of the Times and the New York Clipper each commissioned artists to prepare engravings of a September 8, 1857 Eagle - Gotham Club match at Elysian Fields.

New York Clipper - September 19, 1857

According to the practice schedule Tuesday was a regular day for both clubs to play in Hoboken, but based on the Clipper account, the field depicted in the drawings was the Eagle Club's home grounds.  The engravings appear to be contradictory with regard to the location of the home plate, but the Clipper caption stresses their picture was "a correct representation" and it is certainly the more detailed of the two.  Among other things the drawing illustrates the lack of seating (reportedly not added until 1862) as well as the marque or tent to the right of the catcher, most likely the "suitable accommodations for the ladies" frequently mentioned in contemporary accounts.  Between the tent and the striker is a man seated on a chair, described as the referee (umpire) "solitary and alone."  According to the Clipper, he is "ready to mete out justice to all when appealed to."  Both the picture and the description illustrate the more passive role of the umpire when he had no responsibility to call strikes (1858) or balls (1864) and served primarily as the court of last resort on plays the players couldn't resolve for themselves.

Porter's Spirit of the Times - September 12, 1857

Of special interest to a vintage (in more ways than one) scorekeeper, is the scorers table located between the striker and the dark uniformed Eagle players.  Labeled "umpires" in the caption, the picture confirms that as early as 1857 scorekeepers were most likely reserve players.  At the time score keeping was rudimentary and the most important responsibility was most likely mutual agreement on the score, the number of outs and the striking order.  Having both scorers at a stand alone table anticipates the scorers table at basketball games and emphasizes the "official" nature of the role in a pre-scoreboard era.  The joint position of the two scorekeepers also suggests a desire, possibly drawing on past experience, to prevent potential disagreements about the score.  Also of interest is the positioning of the fielders with the three basemen positioned on top of their respective bases with the shortstop in a more or less modern position as are the center fielder and left fielder.  Not so with the right fielder, who appears to to be in a modern second baseman's position, whether the positioning is accurate, artistic license or a lack of knowledge on the artist's part is unclear.  Finally note the bats which appear to be lying in fair territory just to the right and front of the pitcher.  Once again this could be artistic license, but the caption itself states the bats are "on the field."

New York Clipper - September 19, 1857

Having devoted half of its front page to the picture, the Clipper's game account was limited in space, but not superlatives.   According to the writer, the match was attended by "immense crowds" who were rewarded with "spectacular [defensive play] on both sides," thereby preventing any "large scores from the bat."  Down 2-0 after one inning, the Eagle Club tallied four times in the second and twice in the third for a 6-3 lead in route to a 15-9 triumph.  After the match at least four Eagle Club members didn't have to join the throngs boarding the ferry for New York City.  Williams, Bixby, Gilman and Brinkerhoff were Jersey City residents who played with that city's charter clubs in 1855.  The combined New York - New Jersey makeup of the Eagle Club lineup, along with Elysian Fields' role as the "home" grounds for the early New York City clubs, illustrates how the New York game was actually a "Greater" New York affair.  Recently I read somewhere that base ball in 1855 was limited to New York and Brooklyn, yet according to the Protoball web site, that same year New Jersey had as many clubs as Brooklyn (10 each) and more than New York City (6).  While the actual numbers are debatable, there was a lot of base ball was played in New Jersey in the 1850's, some of it by New Jersey clubs.  This is not to argue about the relative importance of New Jersey's role, but to emphasize the regional aspect of the New York game's early days.  Commemorating Elysian Field's role as a base ball incubator helps do just that. 

1 comment:

  1. Richard HershbergerJune 22, 2014 at 10:27 AM

    In 1857 the two "umpires" really were umpires. They may have doubled as scorers, but that was a secondary function. They were appointed by their respective clubs, and it was their duty to work out between themselves the result of any disputed plays. Only when they could not reach an agreement did they refer the question to a disinterested third party, hence the term "referee."

    In actual practice this worked out about as well as you would expect, with the umpires acting as advocates for their clubs. So with the 1858 season their office was abolished. The referee was retained, and given the title of "umpire."