Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Reconstructing early New Jersey base ball

Newark Daily Advertiser - November 6, 1857

Witnessing part of a Philadelphia town ball match renewed my interest in the game or games played in New Jersey before 1855, especially what it would have been like to play in such a game.  Town ball was the name for the Philadelphia game and other non-New York games, but there's no evidence the name was used in New Jersey.  Many years later, "old style," "old fashioned," and even "antiquarian" were the popular descriptive adjectives for bat and ball games the participants claimed were different from "modern" base ball.  Since, however there are no contemporary sources of information about those games, there is no way to know for certain whether they were called town ball , base ball or something else.  More importantly, the lack of contemporary accounts forces any attempt at reconstruction to rely on newspaper descriptions, years later, of re-creations of early games, not unlike trying to understand the New York game solely by watching vintage base ball.

Newark Morning Register - May 25, 1869

While these accounts are helpful, depending on such sources carries risks, not the least of which is that the reporter writing the story was probably trying to describe a game he had never seen before based on the imperfect memories of multiple participants.  How, for example, when outlining these early games, did the reporter reconcile inconsistencies or gaps in what he heard and saw?  Furthermore, as with the very name of the game, how did the reporter know that what he experienced wasn't at least partially the incorrect inclusion of "modern" rules and practices instead of what actually happened.  Newspaper accounts of the old-fashioned base ball craze which swept through Paterson in 1867 included box scores depicting a game with three outs per side per inning.  Since variations of the pre-New York game frequently featured one out or all out, was this how the game was actually played in Paterson or is it an historically inaccurate application of "modern rules?" It's impossible to know for sure, so drawing conclusions from these accounts is not unlike building a house on quicksand.

 Yet these accounts are all the information we have so keeping the risks in plain view, let's look at  the Newark and Paterson "styles" by means of a chart laying out some the features described in the retrospective accounts. 

Category                                   Newark                             Paterson

Number of Players                      Varies                              11

Bats                                          Many sizes and                Not stated
                                                 shapes including

Inning ends                                All out                              Three out

Outs made by                            Fly catch                          Fly catch
                                                Bound catch                      Bound catch
                                                Three strikes                      Not stated
                                                Hit with thrown ball             Hit with thrown ball

Foul territory                              None                                 None

Game ends                               Not stated                          Six innings.

At bat outcomes                        Base hits/outs                    Base hits/outs

One area of clear agreement is the absence of foul territory, a feature shared with Philadelphia town ball.  Both Newark and Paterson accounts emphasize this point and it's so different from the New York game, it's unlikely anyone who played or saw the earlier versions would have forgotten it.  Close to a complete match are the means for making outs with the Paterson game missing only strikeouts, but the issue isn't covered in the Paterson accounts which are fewer in number and far briefer so it is probably not unreasonable to believe strikeouts were also part of the Paterson game.  Perhaps more important is the shared rule that outs could be recorded by "plugging" or "soaking" with the ball, again a common feature with Philadelphia town ball.  As noted earlier, there is major divergence on the all out/three out rule.

Newark Daily Journal - October 14, 1865

There also appears to be a difference in the number of players with the Paterson version clearly fixed at 11, but with much variation in the Newark matches.  However, eleven on a side seems to be a fairly common feature of these early games and the far larger numbers playing in the Newark games in the 1870's suggests accommodating everyone who turned out.  Further support for 11 on a side as the norm in New Jersey is seen in the experience of the state's first base ball clubs as in 1855 Jersey City's charter teams played 11 on a side before changing to 9 over the course of the season.  Although equipment was at a minimum there also appears to be a difference in the type of bats used in these contests.  The Newark newspapers give detailed descriptions of bats of varying sizes and shapes including some flat rather than round, the articles even seem to suggest the bats were originals brought out of "storage."  The Paterson accounts, on the other hand, are silent on the bats most likely indicating they were round as anything different most likely would have attracted attention.

Newark Daily Journal - May 30, 1873

Not surprisingly a major difference between both New Jersey games and Philadelphia town ball is the absence of the all or nothing, home run or out aspect of the latter game as both the Newark and Paterson accounts refer to runners stopping at bases.  It appears to me that to some degree, the all or nothing aspect of the Philadelphia game was driven by the very short distance between the bases.  The only mention of the field in the Newark accounts is of stakes rather than bases, but the Paterson paper describes a field measured by the distance from the batter to second base, much like the Knickerbocker rules, although the description is of a far larger field.  The dimensions may very well be in error, but seem clearly to describe a field that permitted multiple outcomes of at bats.

Paterson Daily Press - August 2, 1867

Based on this information, what could a young man in Newark before 1855 expect to experience on the ball field?  Since, as far as we know, there were no organized clubs, our ball player headed not for his or the other team's home grounds, but to a nearby vacant lot.  Bases had to be laid out, but without foul territory not a lot of field preparation was required.  The informality probably extended to the choosing of sides, batting order and positions in the field, although then, as now, some players were singled out for their hitting and fielding.  If our imaginary player wasn't a great hitter, success in his first at bat was important or he would spend a lot of time on the bench (assuming the existence of the same).  On the other hand, if he did get on base, he was vulnerable to being hit with a thrown ball especially if he turned his back to the ball while running.  While our player may have been bored waiting for his teammates to make out, it was preferable to standing in the field on a hot, humid August day waiting for all 11 players on the opposite team to be retired.  It's no wonder then that when someone suggested playing by a new set of rules with regular structured at bats, shorter periods in the field and no risk of being hit by a thrown ball, there was no shortage of volunteers.

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