Sunday, July 27, 2014

Philadelphia Town Ball: A Second "Look"

 Saturday the Neshanock returned to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for the Berks' Vintage Base Ball Festival in Leesport, PA, not far from Reading.  Unfortunately two days of base ball combat at Gettysburg had taken their toll on the Flemington forces so the Neshanock took the field with reduced numbers.  We were glad to welcome back, albeit briefly, Greg "Southwark" Stoloski after his return from a triumphant tour of not one, but two continents including jumping off a bridge in Bosnia.  In the first match, Flemington took on the New York Mutuals and unlike last weekend, the Neshanock got off to a good start and led 6-2 after three innings.  In the process, however, Flemington was living dangerously by allowing the Mutuals extra outs, although the Neshanock escaped with little damage.  But when the same pattern continued in the top of the fourth, the Mutuals erupted for 10 runs and a 12-6 lead which they never relinquished on the way to a 18-14 triumph.  Leading the way for the Flemington attack  were Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner and Danny "Batman"Shaw with four hits apiece and Dave "Illinois" Harris with three.  In the second match against the Diamond State Club of Delaware, the Delaware club controlled the game from start to finish, winning 12-3.  Next Saturday Flemington travels to Old Bethpage Village on Long Island for the annual Old Time Base Ball Festival.

A number of the clubs which played at Gettysburg were also present on Saturday which naturally led to further conversation about the numerous rules variations used at the Festival.  By my count eleven different sets of rules were used, ranging from 1854 (first team to 21 runs wins) to 1884 (overhand pitching).  Some years were most likely chosen as part of recreating classic games such as the 1870 Cincinnati Red Stockings - Brooklyn Atlantics match or historic moments like the National League's inaugural 1876 season,while other selections were probably made for educational purposes.  In one match between the Elkton Eclipse and the Providence Grays, the rules changed every two innings, thereby covering 1854, 1864, 1874 and 1884 in one game.  While all of the differences couldn't have come into play in two innings, the match gave some sense of how the rules evolved.  Unfortunately, because of scheduling conflicts, I didn't get to see many of the less played variations, but I was determined to see at least part of the most unique match of the weekend - a game, not of base ball, but  Philadelphia town ball.  The descriptive use of "Philadelphia" is important because town ball was a broad general term applied to multiple variations of bat and ball games played under different rules throughout the country.

The Philadelphia version has been reconstructed primarily thanks to Richard Hershberger who researched and wrote a detailed description in the fall 2007 issue of Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game (much of the information in this post is drawn from that article).  The participants in the Gettysburg recreation were the Columbus Capitals Club of Ohio and the Athletic Club of Philadelphia.  The original Athletics played Philadelphia town ball before the Civil War and the vintage club has been involved in prior demonstrations.  While Philadelphia town ball was first played by residents of the City of Brotherly Love, like their New York counterparts, they frequently crossed a river to play in New Jersey, in their case crossing the Delaware to play in nearby Camden.  In the same way that New Jersey men in the northern part of the state formed their own clubs to play the New York game, young Camden men founded their own town ball club (the Camden Club)  which played the game through 1863 before converting to base ball.  The Camden Club's unique experience as the only known (to date) New Jersey town ball club and the belief some other variation of town ball was played elsewhere New Jersey before 1855, gave me plenty of incentive to watch at least part of the Capitals - Athletics match.

Photo by Mark Granieri

One of the most distinctive features of Philadelphia town ball is the extremely small size of the equivalent of the infield which, instead of base ball's diamond shape, is a circle with a diameter of only about 30 feet.  As the picture above illustrates (click on the picture to enlarge it), stakes are used instead of bases, which, because of the small size of the circle, are only about 19 feet apart.  Given the cramped quarters within the stakes, placing fielders and base runners in standard base ball positions would create more than a little confusion, something like the 19th century equivalent of cramming people into a telephone booth.  On the far right hand side of the picture, the man in the white shirt and the blue pants, having struck the ball, is running around the stakes for one of the only two possible outcomes of every batted ball, a home run or an out.  The striker has just avoided one attempt to put him out by dodging the ball (dark dot on the ground to the batter's left) which was thrown at him by the player (also to the batter's left) in the blue checked shirt and the blue pants.  Note the ball was thrown not to another fielder for a tag or force out, but in an attempt to actually hit the runner, a ploy known as "soaking" or "plugging."  While still not soft, the ball is not as hard as an 1864 ball, much less the modern ball.  Batters could also be retired in the more traditional means of catching a batted ball on the fly or on the bounce, bare handed, of course.  Although it's not entirely clear, strikeouts also appear to have part of the game, although a small one.

While the first picture captures the claustrophobic nature of the infield, the second illustrates the position of the striker, pitcher and some of the fielders.  The only player inside the stakes is the pitcher, facing both the striker and the catcher who are positioned outside of the staked area.  All of the players in the field (ignore the other game in the far right hand side of the picture) are fielders except for the two with their backs to the camera wearing the same uniform as the striker.  Although they appear to be in a "bench" type area, they are actually in the field of play because there was no foul territory in Philadelphia town ball, every batted ball was in play.  Where the non-striking offensive players are supposed to stand isn't clear, but there are, in fact, eight more of them outside of the picture since the game was played eleven players on a side.  Perhaps even harder to visualize or accept is the rule that every offensive player had to be put out for the side to be retired, effectively giving each team eleven outs.  As each batter was retired, he lost his chance to hit in that inning with the remaining strikers continuing to have a turn until they were put out.

Needless to say with no foul territory and eleven outs per inning, games tended to be high scoring occasionally breaking the century mark.  Scenes like the above where the striker runs out a home run while the defense waits in vain for the timely retrieval of the ball were probably fairly frequent.  Philadelphia town ball fell out of fashion beginning about 1860 when the local clubs shifted to the New York game, but even though the game didn't survive, it was interesting and informative to see how it was played.  If nothing else it gives a sense of the options open to mid 19th century young men as they looked for their game of choice.  While Richard's article is an excellent description of the game, actually seeing it played helped clarify a number of features.  It shows what can happen when dedicated vintage base ball players apply the research of equally dedicated historians to recreate a sense of the past.  Thanks to everyone involved for making this happen. 


  1. Hey John! Thanks for ther report on the Philadelphia Game! I know we have discussed my interpretation @ Allaire, and it sounds like the Philadelphia Athletic Club and us at Allaire are pretty close! When and if the Neshanock and the Bog Iron Boys of Allaire Village meet in 1864, we should explore the possibility of playing a few innings of Philadelphia! Russ McIver @ Allaire Village

  2. Russ,

    Thanks for the comment, sounds like a good idea to me.