Monday, September 22, 2014

Cameron Field Centennial

Among the most enjoyable matches the Neshanock play each season are those held to commemorate some aspect of base ball history.  A case in point was this past Saturday when Flemington was fortunate enough to participate in an event at a venue, new to the Neshanock, but hardly to base ball, Cameron Field in South Orange, New Jersey.  When I arrived, I realized that Paul Zinn had played base ball there about 20 years ago, but at the time, I had no idea of its history or the great base ball players who had performed there such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gerhig.  Saturday's event honored the 100th anniversary of the field with special recognition for Hall of Famers Larry Doby and Monte Irvin, both of whom played there during their long careers.  Doby's daughter and granddaughter were present as was Lee Leonard, a South Orange resident, who had a long career covering sports on radio and television including being literally the first person to speak on ESPN on September 7, 1979.  For me, being in South Orange, was also an opportunity to see long time friends, Jude Seelbach and Donna Smith.  Donna is running for the South Orange Board of Education and is an excellent choice for anyone with a vote in that election.

 After 100 years of base ball, Cameron Field, South Orange is certainly among the venerable sporting venues in New Jersey, but the game has an even longer history in the Essex County community.  The village itself split off from South Orange Township (now Maplewood) in 1869 after the township itself was created out of portions of Clinton Township and the city of Orange in 1861.  Both of the latter two municipalities had base ball clubs before the Civil War with the Washington Club of Orange possibly being New Jersey's first organized base ball club.  It's not clear if what is now South Orange had a team during the antebellum period, but the first club calling the village home was the Alert Club of Seton Hall which was mentioned in the Newark Daily Journal as early 1864.  New Jersey's first college base ball team was clearly the Nassau Club of Princeton, but it appears the Alerts have a legitimate claim on the second position.  A year later the college boys were joined by a second South Orange team, the Orient Club which had a not so auspicious debut, losing to the second nine of the Irvington Club by a count of 50-13.

Newark Daily Advertiser - June 10, 1865

For today's match, South Orange organized its own club, the South Orange Villagers, to take on the Neshanock.  It's an excellent approach for such an event and Flemington always enjoys playing this kind of local team which sometimes leads to the formation of new clubs, like the Hoboken Nine, or the beginning of an annual event like the Memorial Day match in Newtown, Pennsylvania.  The home club operates at an obvious competitive disadvantage as they are playing a new form of base ball for the first time against a team of veteran vintage players who play 40-45 matches per year.  However, the Villagers played very well in the field, making a number of fine plays while committing only one muff over the course of the game.  Flemington also had a strong defensive effort including a particularly noteworthy play in the bottom of the third that combined "strategy" and execution.  The South Orange striker crushed a pitch to center field where wily Ken "Tumbles" Mandel lulled the batter into a false sense of security by first running in on a ball that was well over his head and then strolling after it while the crowd urged the batter to go for a home run.  "Tumbles" leisurely peregrination allowed Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner to get close enough to take "Tumbles" relay, and fire a long throw towards home which was cut off by Dan "Sledge" Hammer and whipped to Rene "Mango" Marerro just in time to nip the unsuspecting batter.   

Not surprisingly the Neshanock had a good day at the striker's line with "Sledge" contributing a single, triple and a home run, joining "Thumbs," Scott "Snuffy" Hengst, Jack "Doc" Kitson and Julio"Grandpa" Carigga, (a first time Neshanock player) with three hits apiece.  Going one better was "Mango" with four hits on the day.  In the end it was a 20-2 Neshanock triumph, but it was a fun day for all, the Villagers did their best, it was a large, enthusiastic crowd and all of us on the Flemington side hope this becomes a regular event.  Base ball is ultimately a team game and so credit for the Neshanock triumph is also due to Phyllis Shaw, Doreen Harris and Carol Zinn who watched Carter "Little Tumbles" Mandel during game so that his dad could "patrol" center field for Flemington.  The Neshanock have three dates left in the 2014 season, next Saturday in Monroe Township, the following Sunday in Bridgewater and Saturday, October 11th in Allentown, New Jersey.  

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.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Weekend at the Yard

Photo by Mark Granieri

This past weekend the Neshanock visited Philadelphia to participate in the Navy Yard vintage base ball festival sponsored by the Athletic Club of Philadelphia.  Still a relatively new club, the Athletics deserve a great deal of credit for sponsoring this event which is held on the parade grounds of the former Navy Yard, allowing three games to be played simultaneously.  Since I wasn't able to attend Mark "Gaslight" Granieri kindly provided pictures and a game summary for Saturday while Brad "Brooklyn" Shaw filled me in on Sunday's match.

Photo by Mark Granieri

Flemington began play on Saturday morning with a match against the Keystone Club of Harrisburg, the same team the Neshanock played and defeated in a well played match in Cooperstown back in May.  The weather was hot and humid so playing in heavy uniforms was more than the usual sacrifice to historical accuracy as the Neshanock took an apparently safe 13-6 lead into the ninth.  The Pennsylvania club wasn't done, however, and scored five times and had the bases loaded with only one out.  Fortunately Flemington held on for a hard fought 13-11 victory.  After a brief respite the second match was against the Capital City All Stars, a club representing a number of clubs from Maryland and the Washington, D.C. area.  Thirteen was apparently the Neshanock's lucky number as Flemington was in control all the way for a 13-5 victory.

Photo by Mark Granieri

Although the Navy Yard event has always been held over two days, this was the first time Flemington played both days.  The difference in the conditions was dramatic as Sunday was a pleasant day with much more comfortable temperatures and lower humidity.  The Neshanock played only one match taking on one of New Jersey's newest vintage teams, the Minerva Club of Bridgeton for the first time.  I read some place that the original Minerva Club played its first match in the fall of 1863 against the Athletics of Philadelphia and, sure enough, Marshall Wright's The National Association of Base Ball Players, 1857-1870 has an 1863 match between the Athletics and the Bridgeton Club.  I'm guessing this is the Minerva under a different name and the 1863 match makes sense as a member of the Bridgeton Club played in the May 1864 "all star" match for the benefit of the U.S. Sanitary Commission.  Based on what I've seen so far, the original Minerva appear to be the earliest club in southern New Jersey other than the Camden Club which started playing Philadelphia town ball.

Photo by Mark Granieri 

The match itself concluded a perfect weekend for Flemington as the Neshanock won by a 26-2 score, one of the heaviest offensive outputs of the season.  The offense was led by Ken "Tumbles" Mandel, Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner and Dave "Illinois" Harris, all of whom reached base six times.  Not far behind were Joe "Mick" Murray and "Brooklyn" himself who made their base five times apiece.  I understand the Athletics put on another demonstration of Philadelphia town ball which I'm sure was well received.   All in all it sounds like another good event and a fine start to the fall portion of the Neshanock's schedule.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Casey Stengel's Greatest Day in Baseball - Revisited

Stengel early in his Brooklyn career

While there is no comparison between Casey Stengel's playing career and that of Ty Cobb, the two had at least one thing in common.  When queried about their greatest day in baseball, both chose games early in lengthy careers.  In fact, this was one area where Casey was way ahead of, not only, Cobb, but every other player in "My Greatest Day in Baseball" because Stengel chose his very first game, a game played on September 17, 1912.  That Stengel's most memorable moment was as a player, not a manager, isn't surprising since the account was written around 1942 when he had managed just over 1200 major league games with only one winning season to show for it.  On the playing side of the equation, however, Stengel's almost 1300 games don't lack for moments of distinction.  At a crucial point late in the 1916 season, he belted an unlikely home run off Grover Cleveland Alexander sparking a Brooklyn win that put them in first place to stay.  If that wasn't a big enough success on a big enough stage, near the end of his playing career, Stengel hit a 9th inning inside the park home run for the Giants to win the first game of the 1923 World Series against the Yankees.

Claude Hendrix - the pitcher Stengel faced in his first game

Memorable as those moments must have been, however, as far as Stengel was concerned, they couldn't top his late season 1912 debut in a basically meaningless game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and his new team, the Brooklyn Superbas.  Known to history as the Dodgers, the Brooklyn team were nicknamed Superbas after a vaudeville act called Hanlon's Superbas when Hall of Fame manager Ned Hanlon took over the team in 1899.  The name stuck well after Hanlon's departure, especially in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle game accounts of long time beat writer, Tom Rice.  Rice was there on September 17, 1912 to chronicle Stengel's debut at old Washington Park and, not surprisingly, his account differs to some degree from Stengel's reminiscences three decades later.

Washington Park with a much larger crowd than saw Stengel's debut - the apartment building in right center is where fans watched from the fire escape without paying admission

According to Stengel's account, he arrived in New York City by train from Montgomery, Alabama too late to go to Washington Park so based on a cab driver's recommendation, he booked a room at the Longacre Hotel in Manhattan.  With time on his hands, and more than a little intimidated by the big city, Stengel walked one block from the hotel, found his way back and then repeated the process until he reached 42nd Street, after which he called it a night.  Rice, however, reported that Stengel, not only arrived early enough to come to the park on September 16th, but actually got there just before game time.  He presented himself to the somewhat surprised Charles Ebbets Jr., son of the Dodgers owner, as "Stengel from Montgomery of the Southern League."  Offered a chance to dress and meet his new teammates, Casey allowed as he was "dead tired," would "look the big fellows over" from the stands and "break in tomorrow."  Regardless of whether the country boy scared of the big city or the self-assured young man declining to get right into uniform is historically accurate, both suggest a colorful personality.

Bill Dahlen - Stengel's first major league manager

Regardless of whether Stengel saw Washington Park for the first or second time on September 17th, his account of his first day in a major league uniform is a picture of a "busher" breaking into the big leagues.  Upon arrival at the ball park, the new Superba found himself pretty much ignored by his teammates with the exception of Zack Wheat.  In an attempt to become one of the guys, Stengel bet $20 in a dice game which he quickly lost on the first throw.  Fortunately for both his bank account and his future, manager Bill Dahlen pulled Stengel out of the dice game, asking gruffly if he was "a crap shooter or a ball player?"  Smart enough to know the right answer, Stengel put down the dice and put on a uniform.  When he went out on the field Casey headed straight to the bench as he had been forewarned as to what happened to rookies foolish enough to try to take a turn at batting practice.

 Zack Wheat and Hub Northern, the man Stengel replaced in the lineup when he made his debut, it was the last season of Northern's short major league career

To his surprise, Stengel was put in the starting lineup, batting second and playing center field.  Casey came to the plate in the bottom of the first with a man on first, got the bunt sign, but the pitch was too low.  Following, perhaps instinctively, Southern League practice, Stengel thought he was now on his own, swung away for a single that helped score the first Dodger run.  Manager Dahlen was not impressed, however, by either the hit or the explanation for not bunting, informing Stengel with major league sarcasm that he [Dahlen] didn't want a rookie to have "too much responsibility" so he [Dahlen] would "run the team" so that all Stengel had "to worry about is fielding and hitting."

Honus Wagner of whom Stengel mistakenly thought - "I can grab anything he can hit."

That wasn't the end of Casey's education about life in the big leagues as he ignored Wheat's warning to play deeper on the legendary Honus Wagner who promptly tripled over the rookie's head.  Casey's confidence that he knew better was probably due to the exceptional day he was having at the plate with four straight singles and two stolen bases.  And the performance was certainly noteworthy as most of his success was against Claude Hendrix, who Stengel claimed was the best pitcher in the National League that year.  Best is a relative term, but the Pirate pitcher was 24-9 with a 2.59 ERA so Stengel's certainly wasn't hitting against inferior opposition.  Casey even claimed that in his 5th at bat, he responded to a challenge from Pirates manager Fred Clarke by batting right handed and earning a walk.  No mention of this appeared in four contemporary newspapers and it sounds like revisionist history.  Casey was probably also feeling good because of the favorable reviews from a group of men watching the game for free from an apartment building fire escape, much, no doubt, to the chagrin of Brooklyn owner, Charles Ebbets.

Stengel as a more established member of the Brooklyn Superbas

In spite of the lessons about how the game was different at this level, Stengel had a memorable debut, going 4 for 4 with two stolen bases as Brooklyn won easily 7-3.  Tom Rice was impressed, following the Stengel quote of "I'll break in tomorrow," by commenting that the rookie broke in "with a loud resounding crash, such as been made by few minor leaguers."  What strikes me on re-reading this memoir 50 or so years after my initial reading, is the tension between the lessons Stengel had to learn about the big leagues (gambling, following orders, taking direction from veterans) and his belief in himself, buoyed by a performance that he could play at this level.  The Eagle headlined Stengel's first game as "a record breaker" and I believe four hits in a major league debut is still a record, one shared with Willie McCovey and perhaps others.   It understandably filled Stengel with confidence about his future, sufficient reason to declare it his greatest day in baseball no matter what came later. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - September 18, 1912