Sunday, March 15, 2015

"The Dreary Refrain" - Major League Spring Training Comes to New Jersey

Separated by over five centuries, two classic poems, Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" and T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" both begin by discussing the month of April.  For Chaucer, April seems to be a hopeful time, prompting journeys of thanksgiving, but Eliot takes a far more negative view, calling it "the cruelest month," a mixture of "memory and desire."  Everyone who loves base ball will instinctively identify with the more positive Chaucerian view because no matter how bleak the prospective reality, every team, player and fan looks forward with anticipation to the new season. The anticipation actually begins with spring training, extending backward from April into the harsher months of February and March.  Like all teams, vintage base ball clubs experience these same feelings as they themselves prepare for the new season usually during weekly March practices, weather and field conditions permitting.  For 2015, the Flemington Neshanock have moved their preseason practices slightly south to historic Allaire State Park.  Part of this is for relative convenience, but the primary reason is due to the efforts of Russ McIver and others to form the Bog Iron Boys, a new vintage club which calls Allaire home.

Charles Ebbets on taking over as Brooklyn club president in January of 1898

Allaire State Park is located in Monmouth County where, like most places in the southern half of the state, significant base ball activity began right after the Civil War.  Nineteenth century base ball at Allarie, was not, however limited to amateur play as the community was also the 1898 spring training site for the Brooklyn Base Ball Club (eventually the Dodgers), during the first of Charles Ebbets' 27 seasons as club president.  I first learned this while researching my essay on the Brooklyn owner for our Ebbets Field book, but was recently surprised to learn the Brooklyn players were not the only major leaguers to train in the Garden State that year.  Of the 12 National League teams (the only major league in 1898), three or 25% of the total prepared for the upcoming season in New Jersey, Brooklyn at Allaire, the Giants at nearby Lakewood and the Phillies at Cape May.  The three were certainly going against the tide as seven of the remaining eight trained in the south with only Washington staying close to home in the more temperate climes of the nation's capital.

Brooklyn Eagle headline - as the Brooklyn club heads to spring training in 1896

By 1898 spring training was hardly a new concept since as Peter Morris noted in Game of Inches, more than 25 years earlier, the Boston Red Stockings held "extensive" in door exercises until the weather permitted them to move outside.  Given the current New England winter, a similar approach in 2015 would get the Red Sox on the field around Memorial Day.  If the program of another team, the 1875 New Haven Club, is any indication, such in door work typically consisted of running, gymnastics on the horizontal bar and vaulting horse as well as exercises with Indian clubs.  According to Inches, one of the first southern training camps was held by the 1888 Washington club in Jacksonville, Florida.  Florida, however, was hardly the venue of choice with other National League clubs opting for North Carolina, Texas, Georgia, not to mention long time favorite Hot Springs, Arkansas.  Player conditioning going into spring training was also very different as seen in the 1896 Brooklyn Daily Eagle headline reporting that all of the Brooklyn players headed south overweight.

Brooklyn's 1898 spring training headquarters - Brooklyn Daily Eagle 

Charles Ebbets ascension to the Brooklyn club presidency occurred early in January of 1898 after the death of Charles Byrne, club president since the team's inception in 1883.  Although Ebbets himself had also been with the club since the beginning, he was immediately faced with more than the usual number of challenges, especially the pressing need for a new and more convenient ball park.  Since spring training sites were usually chosen on a year-to-year basis, the question of whether to return to the south again in 1898 was also both important and time sensitive.  While the Eagle  initially predicted the team would go south, this quickly changed when on January 13th, the paper said such a move was by "no means certain," especially because team captain Mike Griffin and manager William Barnie were opposed to the idea.  The primary reason for their opposition was the belief that the sharp change from the heat of the south to northern cold was too hard on pitcher's arms.  Ebbets himself apparently felt physical problems could be avoided by mandate, insisting that "no sore arms will be permitted."  When the club's leadership finally decided to go to Allaire, the Eagle, apparently caught up in the optimism of new ownership, called the choice a "master stroke."

Training regiment of trainer Jack McMasters - Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Although Ebbets changed the club's new training site, he continued Bryne's practice of hiring Jack McMasters, a college trainer, to help whip (at least figuratively) the Brooklyn players into shape.  Byrne had begun engaging McMasters  back in 1886 when standard base ball wisdom thought trainers unnecessary even though they had become common place in other sports.  McMasters was, therefore, part of the party of 20 which arrived at the tiny local train station on March 16th supposedly welcomed by "the entire population of Allaire, numbering 32 all told, not to mention one mangy dog and one antiquated cat."  The team's opening practice was delayed, first because the trunk with bats, balls and uniforms was stuck in transit and then because a railroad worker wouldn't release it without payment which was also delayed.  Fortunately the missing check arrived the next day allowing the beginning of a training regimen which included five mile walks, gymnastic exercises led by McMasters and hitting, fielding and throwing drills.  Not long after camp opened, the club began the standard routine of daily inter-squad games, but instead of the usual team names of "regulars" and "yannigans," the Brooklyn teams were named after Eastern Park, their current home grounds and Washington Park, their once and soon to be future home.  The Eagle writer's somewhat derisive description of the crowd at the station didn't extend to the village itself which he called "a cosy spot," one, he predicted would become "one of the prettiest summer and winter resorts in the state."

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - March 20,1898

If Allaire was a hidden gem, nearby Lakewood, the site of the Giants' training camp had already experienced the "boom" predicted for its neighbor.  The New York party of 20 was housed at the Lakewood hotel, described as the winter headquarters of Tammany Hall, the New York City political machine.  The Tammany connection helps explain the Giants choice of Lakewood since Andrew Freedman, the controversial and unpopular club owner, had deep Tammany roots.  The 1898 visit marked a return to what the Giants owner considered the "only place suitable for training purposes," even though it was reportedly expensive.  Perhaps some of the cost was offset by not hiring a trainer which the club felt was unnecessary, a sentiment apparently not shared by the New York Sun writer covering the team.  However, with the exception of the lack of organized gymnastic exercises, practice sessions were not significantly different than those at Allaire.  In spite of the short distance, no exhibition games were played between the two rivals.

Controversial New York Giant owner Andrew Freedman 

Much further south, at least within New Jersey, the Philadelphia Phillies traveled by rail to their spring training headquarters at the Aldine Hotel in Cape May.  Relatively large crowds at the intervening stations suggested to the Philadelphia Inquirer writer that "south Jersey was more interested in the team than Philadelphia itself."  Like Brooklyn, Philadelphia included a trainer in its party of 20 and similar to the Brooklyn experience, practice was delayed due to the late arrival of the trunk with the uniforms.  Fortunately some players had brought old uniforms so the first practice of the year was held in old Philadelphia uniforms plus some apparently "borrowed" from the St. Louis, Richmond and Columbus clubs.  After practice trainer, Mike Scanlon shepherded the squad into  "a luxuriously furnished 'sweat room," supposedly warmed to 115 degrees where the players received rub downs.  Not in camp and unable to receive such attention was future Hall of Famer, Napoleon Lajoie who was holding out over the "spirituous liquor" clause in his contract.  Apparently the hard hitting second baseman was to receive a $2100 salary plus another $300 so long as his "hitting" was confined to a base ball.  Hold out or not, the Inquirer reporter claimed Lajoie would sign the clause or not play and apparently he did.  In camp, but also unhappy was Kid Elberfield who objected to a local man calling him a "slob."  When the Phillie player gave chase, the man ran into a local butcher shop and grabbed a meat cleaver which failed to halt the embattled Phillie who "pounded him heavily."

Kid Elberfield later in his career with the New York Yankees 

Unfortunately, but probably not unexpectedly, spring training in New Jersey was literally a wash out due to rain and cold weather.  The Giants were so limited in their practice time, they resorted to something called "porch work," while three inches of snow forced Brooklyn to limit their last practices to mental exercises at "theoretical baseball."  To the south in Cape May, 40 degree temperatures put "top coats in heavy demand" amidst "the dreary refrain" of "rain, rain, rain."  Terming the experience a "gigantic fiasco," the Sun reporter claimed Giant players felt the prior year was equally unproductive.  Interestingly the lack of training didn't lead to a bad start for any of the three clubs.  Over their first 20 games, each team was around .500 with New York at 12-8, Brooklyn at 9-11 and Philadelphia an even 10-10.  None of them, however, enjoyed especially successful seasons.  Philadelphia and New York came in 6th and 7th respectively while Brooklyn was a distant 10th (out of 12).  Faced with serious on-the-field issues, Ebbets eventually took over as manager and "led" the club to a 38-68 record proving he was no Connie Mack.  All three owners, even the notoriously stubborn Freedman, apparently saw the light as the clubs headed south the following year.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks John! This year we are expanding our Base Ball and Bridegroom interpretation at Allaire. In addition, I have a presentation on the '98 Bridegrooms experience at Allaire that I have been bringing to Historical Societies and other groups! See you on the ballfield! -Russ