Photo by Mark Granieri
After the first New Jersey clubs took the field in 1855, the game quickly crossed the state from east to west, as only a year later, in 1856, Trenton got its first base ball club. It took much longer, however, for the New York game to reach the northern and southern parts of the state and the next two posts will look at how and when the first base ball clubs were formed in Sussex (far north) and Cape May (far south) counties. In both cases, there is no evidence of organized base ball in both the antebellum period and the Civil War years or at least none in the contemporary newspapers. I'm less and less confident, however, that the lack of base ball news during the war years, means no organized base ball was being played. If daily newspapers in Newark and Jersey City, where the game already existed, were hard pressed to find space for base ball from 1861 to 1864, it must have been even more difficult for weekly newspapers in rural Sussex and Cape May counties. Military reports via the telegraph, letters from local soldiers at the front as well as political and editorial space needs could easily have crowded out scores and game accounts submitted by club secretaries.
Map of Sussex County
In any event, in the 1860's, the factors influencing the spread of base ball were different from those of the antebellum period. Even with the limits of war time coverage, base ball news received increasing attention in the media, and newspapers like the New York Clipper and the Sunday Mercury provided sufficient base ball news to whet appetites for the formation of local clubs. Expanded railroad networks also increased access to the game, but this probably wasn't a factor in Sussex County as railroad service to the county seat at Newton grew only slightly from 1855 to 1870. More important than the amount of railroad service, however, were the increased number of people riding the rails, most of them in blue uniforms, going to and from the front. While the extent that base ball played in Confederate POW camps helped to expand the game in the south has probably been exaggerated, base ball played or watched by Union soldiers from rural parts of New Jersey could only have been a positive influence in the game's post war growth.
New Jersey Herald and Democrat - July 26, 1866 - challenge and response for the Star Club of
Newton's first match game
According to Snell's History of Sussex and Warren Counties, Sussex County provided at least a company (about 100 men) for the 2nd, 3rd, 7th, 11th, and 15th regiments some of which played base ball matches during the war. Of special note is the 2nd New Jersey which played so much base ball that it formed its own base ball club including some members of leading Newark clubs. One member of the 11th New Jersey from Sussex County, John Schoonover was a participant in the officers only base ball match played shortly before Gettysburg where he was wounded and a number of the other participants were killed (http://amanlypastime.blogspot.com/2013/07/weekend-in-gettysburg.html). Without over emphasizing or exaggerating the importance of these experiences, the fact remains that post war rural towns and villages in Sussex County had more residents who had played or watched base ball than before the war, increasing the potential interest in forming local base ball clubs.
John Schoonover - 11th New Jersey
Although the Union army demobilized and sent regiments home fairly quickly in 1865, any significant impact of soldier's war time base ball experiences, probably didn't take effect until 1866. By then two base ball clubs had already been organized in Sussex County, interestingly both were associated with schools. The first newspaper account of a Sussex County base ball match describes the August 30, 1865, 36-14 win of the Mount Retirement Seminary Club over the Delaware Club of Port Jervis, New York. This club of "scholars" had reportedly been organized for only six weeks and their victory was in the return match with Delaware winning the first contest. In addition, while no details survive, a June 14, 1866 New Jersey Herald and Democrat article about the formation of the Star Club of Newton claimed there was a base ball team of students at the Newton College Institute in 1865. By that time, any population of 100-150 boys undoubtedly had some portion sufficiently acquainted with base ball and anxious to play competitively.
Newton Collegiate Institute
Regardless of the cause or causes, 1866 saw the formation of a number of non-school affiliated base ball clubs throughout Sussex County and a dozen clubs played matches that year. Not surprisingly the county seat at Newton had the largest number of clubs, the first of which, the Star Club had enough members to field three "nines". The initial incarnation of the club played in 1866 before breaking up the following spring due to the "removal and disbursement of its members." A highlight of the Star Club's season was a match with the Jersey Boys of Deckertown for the Sussex County championship at the agricultural fair that fall. This was the same event that sparked controversy (http://amanlypastime.blogspot.com/2013/08/more-controversy-at-fair.html) over the participation of the Randolph Club of Dover, due to "eligibility" issues regarding some of their players. The complaints were raised by John W. Gillam, editor of the New Jersey Herald and Democrat who had a lot of knowledge, or at least opinions, about base ball even though the game, at least on an organized basis, was relatively new to his community. Gillam may also have been somewhat ambivalent about the growth of the base ball in Sussex County as earlier that fall, he threatened (but apparently didn't implement) a 50 cent charge to print box scores.
New Jersey Herald and Democrat - September 20, 1866
In any event, the Star-Jersey Boy match proved to be the closest of the tournament. Tied 20-20 after nine innings, the Stars pushed across a tally in the top of the tenth and held the "boys" scoreless to win "the county ball." It was apparently a game to remember, as many years later, someone calling himself "Twinkler" gave the inside story to the Sussex Register. According to this eyewitness, the Stars led 20-9 after eight innings when the Deckertown lads asked for a unique kind of mercy. Claiming it would be embarrassing enough to go home without the silver ball, the Jersey Boys pleaded they couldn't bear to go home beaten so badly. Supposedly Lew Martin of the Stars (future state senator and U.S. congressman) passed the word to "let the Jersey Boys score a few runs," which quickly became eight with none out. Having opened the gates of mercy, the Stars couldn't close them before Deckertown tied the score, forcing an extra inning, but fortunately the Star Club came back to win. Regardless of whether this almost fatal attempt at "mercy" was accurate or not, base ball was in Sussex County to stay.