Saturday, April 25, 2015

Base Ball on Campus, Now and Then

After spending last weekend on Long Island, the Neshanock headed to the New Jersey shore on Saturday to take on the Baseball Club of Monmouth University at the college's campus in West Long Branch.  This was the baseball club, not the school's varsity team (thank goodness).  I'm not exactly sure how it works, but I gather it's baseball on a more informal basis with games against clubs from other schools.  One thing is for sure, these guys and girls were no muffins.  Besides obviously being younger, they were good players and picked up the 19th century rules quickly.  In addition they did credit to themselves by working hard at playing by the spirit of the early game.

Photo by Mark Granieri

Although the Neshanock took an early 1-0 lead, Monmouth went ahead 4-1 in the top of the second and continued to lead late in the contest.  The Neshanock's fielding was not up to the level of the past few weeks and there was a bad sequence when Flemington loaded the bases with one out, but failed to score.  But all of this not withstanding, the college club played well and led 10-6 going to the bottom of the ninth.  With one on and one out, four straight Neshanock hits scored three runs and put runners on second and third still with only one out.  Disaster almost struck Flemington when after the Monmouth first base man retired the striker at first, some base running confusion almost ended the game, but some how both runners got back safely.  Scott "Snuffy" Hengst then delivered what could best be described as a well placed hit that left the third base man with a long, difficult throw to first.  Both "Snuffy" and the ball arrived about the same time, but the throw got away from the first base man allowing both runs to score and the Neshanock to escape with a dramatic 11-10 win .  Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner led Flemington with four hits, but special mention should be made (he insisted) of Ken "Tumbles" Mandel who not only took a hard line drive off his body to record an out, but reached base all four times he was up.  Only being forced at third in one inning, kept "Tumbles" from a clear score.

Photo by Mark Granieri

This was my first visit to Monmouth University which was founded in 1933 when base ball was well established at colleges both in New Jersey and around the country.  It was, of course, a much different situation in the mid 19th century when the New York game played by organized clubs was gradually working its way across New Jersey and the rest of the east coast.  Research to date indicates that the first New Jersey college base ball club was organized at Princeton, also known then as the College of New Jersey, in the fall of 1857, very early in the game's first major growth spurt.  According to Frank Presbrey in  Athletics at Princeton, published in 1901, the honor goes to a group of freshman who apparently without knowing much about the game organized the Nassau Club that fall.  Probably trying to assert their worthiness, the new men on campus challenged the sophomores to a match which the sophomore's won, although from the brief account, it's not clear what rules were being used.

The Father of Baseball at Princeton 

As Presbrey notes "baseball proper" arrived at Princeton at the beginning of the 1858-59 school year with the arrival of the Class of 1862, in particular three young men from Brooklyn where the game was already established.  Whatever else they had packed in their trunks, Lewis Mudge, Henry Sampson and Henry Butler didn't forget their bats and balls and quickly recruited a group of about 20 who played on Saturdays through the fall.  It worked so well that on March 17, 1859, they organized the Base Ball Club of the Class of 1862, Nassau Hall continuing to play among themselves as well as with the students at Princeton Seminary.  It was clearly a low budget operation as total expenses for the year came in at $9.43.  The club was such a success that interest spread beyond the Class of 1862 which the organizers first resolved by admitting men from other classes as honorary members and then adopting the name of the old Nassau Club which was no longer active.

Photo by Mark Granieri 

Interest in base ball also apparently spread to the school's alumni as in October of 1860, Dr. Edward Pierson, Class of 1854 invited the collegians to visit Orange, New Jersey and play a picked nine.  Supposedly only after "much persuasion" did the faculty bless the away match which ended in a 42-42 tie either because of darkness, exhaustion or a combination of the two.  That was the first and last away match for the Class of 1862, most likely not because of faculty concerns, but because of the outbreak of the Civil War in April of 1861 which had a devastating impact on the Class of 1862.  Made up of about 100 young men at the beginning of their sophomore year, less than 50 were present for graduation as the others had returned to their homes in the south.  Interestingly all 20 base ball players graduated including three from the south, who then went home to fight for the Confederacy.

Photo by Mark Granieri 

There is certainly nothing extraordinary about the Class of 1862/Nassau Club's on-the-field record, but they still played an important part in the game's spread to college campuses.  Those of us in the 19th Century base ball history community believe in evolution, not creation.  If I understand evolution correctly there are times in the process where what happens or doesn't happen causes changes in direction or delays in timing.  Outside of Manhattan, base ball clubs were a relatively new phenomena in 1860, certainly on college campuses.  The "much persuasion" required to obtain permission to play one game off campus shows how concern about the impact of sports on academics and behavior was an important issue for college administrators.  Fortunately that first group of base ball players at Princeton didn't neglect their studies as seven members of the Class of 1862 finished in the top ten academic places of their class.  Near the top in second place was Lewis Mudge, who supposedly could simultaneously solve math problems, plan base ball strategy and carry on a conversation.  Nor were there any questions of their moral compasses as a Mudge and Butler went on to long careers in the Presbyterian ministry as did some of their other teammates.

Photo by Mark Granieri

It's hard to believe this good first impression of base ball and academics didn't help spur the growth of base ball at Princeton.  Only a year later, not only was the Nassau Club permitted to travel to New Brunswick to take on the Star Club of that city, but members of the student body went as well.  A year later, the collegians took a major step up in class using a fall break to visit Brooklyn where they won three of four matches including a come from behind victory over the Excelsior Club and an honorable 18-13 loss to the Atlantics.  None of this might have happened so quickly had it not been for that first group of players, not due to their on-the-field record, but because they showed it was possible to be both students and athletes.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Battle at Bethpage

Photo by Mark Granieri

Base ball, of course, has no birthplace, but vintage base ball is of, well, more recent vintage so more is know about its origins.  My good friend Eric Miklich once told me that Old Bethpage Village on Long Island is the place where the on-the-field recreation of the early game began and while Eric isn't always right, he's never in doubt.  The game continues to be played at this restored village including a four team tournament in April and a much larger two day event in early August.  Saturday marked the renewal of the four team, one day tournament known as the New York - New Jersey Cup.  I believe for some time the Neshanock were the only participating New Jersey club joining the New York Mutuals (the home team) plus some other New York clubs, most frequently the Gotham Club of New York.  However when the Hoboken Nine starting participating, I think three years ago, it became a more geographically balanced field with the two New Jersey clubs playing each of their New York counterparts.

Photo by Mark Granieri

The Neshanock won the 2013 version, I believe, the first time, a New Jersey club took the cup home and retained it last year when the 2014 event was rained out.  So Saturday saw the Neshanock and Hoboken Clubs making the journey out to Old Bethpage under sunny and warmer than usual conditions.  In their first match, the Neshanock drew the Gothams who fielded a very strong team, bringing back a number of their fine players from prior years.  As with last week's Neshanock-Resolutes game it was a well played, relatively low scoring match especially given it's still early in the season.  This was, in fact, the Gothams first match of 2015.

Photo by Mark Granieri

The pitching and defense of both squads was so strong that no  tallies were scored until the top of the fourth when the Gothams scored two aces.  Flemington quickly cut the lead in half in the bottom of the inning and after blanking the Gothams in the top of the fifth, scored three times for a 4-2 lead after five.  The New York club also answered quickly tying the score at 4-4, but the Neshanocks regained the lead in the bottom of the inning and led 5-4 after six.  Strong pitching and continued good defense kept the Gothams off the score board in the 7th and 8th while Flemington added three more runs for a 8-4 lead headed to the ninth.  However, the Gothams are always dangerous and no one on the Neshanocks was entirely comfortable even after there were two out with one on.  Two straight hits plated two runs before a ground out ended the game for a 8-6 Flemington victory. Danny "Batman" Shaw, Mark "Gaslight" Granieri and Chris "Low Ball" Lowry led the Neshanock attack with three hits apiece.  Right behind this trio were Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner, Brad "Brooklyn" Shaw and Scott "Snuffy" Hengst with two each.  The Neshanock defense backed up "Brooklyn's" strong pitching, making only two errors over the course of the match.

Photo by Mark Granieri

The Neshanock's second contest was with the host club, the New York Mutuals who had topped the Hoboken Nine, 16-14 in the other morning match.  With the two morning winners playing in the afternoon contest, it was a winner take all affair.  Flemington continued to support strong pitching with good defense, but this time the Neshanock offense also got going scoring nine times in the first two innings for a 9-2 lead, adding one more in the fourth to lead 10-2 after five.  In the last four innings Flemington broke things open scoring 11 times while holding the Mutuals to only two more tallies for a convincing 21-4 triumph in a successful defense of the Cup.  Every Neshanock player made at least two hits with five different players getting three apiece.  Included in the latter group were Dave "Illinois" Harris, Rene "Mango" Marerro and Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner who joined "Gaslight" and "Low Ball" who repeated their feat of the morning game.  Both "Mango" and "Thumbs" hit home runs in the contest.  All told the Neshanock left only five runners on base, but, in this case, that's not as positive a statistic as it might seem as five of Flemington's nine at bats ended with a base runner making the last out.

Photo by Mark Granieri 

In the other afternoon match, the Gothams defeated the Hoboken Club 21-9.  It was a good day of base ball under pleasant, but a trifle warm conditions.  The Neshanock are, obviously, very pleased to retain the Cup and look forward to a return visit to Old Bethpage, the beginning of August.  Off to their best start in years, with a 4-1 record, next Saturday, Flemington journeys to Monmouth University for a match with some college students.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Remembering Lincoln

It's a beautiful April day and I think, no matter the circumstances, no matter how harsh or mild the winter, April is a time of hope, of new beginnings and renewal.  Doubtless the people of the north felt that way in April of 1865 after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox.  Surely they thought, the long national nightmare was over.  But the tragedy had one more act to play, the shooting of Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater and his death 150 years ago today.  In commemorating that event, I think it appropriate to briefly reflect on three of Lincoln's major contributions to our country.

First, of course, is the preservation of the Union and the freeing of the slaves.  The further away we get from those events, the greater the risk that the difficulty and  significance of those accomplishments may be not fully understood or appreciated.  The Civil War was a war about ideas: union vs. disunion and freedom vs. slavery.  By the time a war over ideas ends, the ideas of the losing side have been so thoroughly discredited that it's hard to believe that anyone would have fought for them in the first place.  Certainly, no one today would advocate fighting for the right to own slaves and no rational person would argue for fighting for the right to secede from the Union.  As a result, the significance of the achievements of those who defeated those ideas may not seem as great as it was.  Make no mistake, it was no easy task, but after four terrible years of war, the slaves were free and the Republic, as imperfect as it was and as imperfect as it is, emerged intact, still the "last best hope of earth."

The other two contributions are embedded in Lincoln's two greatest speeches, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural which were read just a few minutes ago.  We are all well aware that during the Civil War, the Constitution was under attack from the Confederacy.  It may not be such common knowledge that the during this same period, the Constitution was also in danger in the north, both from the right and the left.  The right wanted to preserve the Constitution, but with its tacit approval and recognition of slavery.  On the opposite side of the political spectrum, the abolitionists recognizing slavery's place in the Constitution considered it a contract with the devil and literally burned it in public protests.  At Gettysburg Lincoln shows that there is a better way.  As Gary Wills writes in his book Lincoln at Gettysburg, Lincoln argued that the core values and commitments of the United States are found not in the Constitution, but in the Declaration of Independence with its vision of equal rights and equal opportunity.  Rather than burn the Constitution with the abolitionists or carve it in stone with the conservatives, Lincoln would purify and modify it by returning to the country's core values.  The Civil War generation certainly got that message as witnessed by the passage of the XIII, XIV and XV amendments especially the XIV which guarantees all Americans equal rights under law, a provision that is used to this day by those seeking their basic rights as Americans.

Lincoln took some degree of risk in what he said at Gettysburg, but he went far beyond that in his Second Inaugural.  In a message delivered directly or indirectly to the people of the north, Lincoln could have talked about the impending Union victory, blamed the southern states for starting the war or claimed the Union would win because God was on its side.  Instead Lincoln did something very different suggesting that the war was, in fact, God's punishment not just for one part of the country or one group of people, but for both north and south because of their complicity and participation in the sin of slavery.  Those weren't easy words to hear then and may not be easy to hear even today, but as citizens of the last northern state to abolish slavery and then only by a long and protracted process, we would do well to remember it.  What's important here is not whether we agree with Lincoln's statements about how God acts in human history, but rather that we recognize what he is asking of the people of the north - to avoid simple answers, to think critically and to consider and accept the appropriate level of responsibility for the country's situation.  Only by doing so is there is any chance of earning the "just and lasting peace" so eloquently described in the conclusion.

Unfortunately the final tragedy of the Civil War is that Lincoln never had the chance to lead the country in the post war world.  Whether it would have many any difference is debatable, that it was a tragedy of immense dimensions cannot be denied.  Instead Lincoln joined his "brothers gone before," the over 350,000 men from the north including 6000 from New Jersey who "gave their lives that that nation might live."  When Abraham Lincoln breathed his last on the terrible morning 150 years ago, his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton said, "Now he belongs to the ages."  Lincoln belongs to the ages because he challenged the Americans of his time and for all time to live to a higher standard.  The best way to honor his memory is to do just that.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Fan Fests and Spite Fences

Photo by Mark Granieri

Much in base ball has changed since the original Elizabeth Resolutes and Flemington Neshanock first took the field back in the 1860's and 1870's, but one thing that never changes is the game's ability to be surprise us.  On Saturday, the modern versions of the two clubs met for their annual match at the Somerset Patriot's Fan Fest in Bridgewater Township, New Jersey.  Historically these contests have been intensely played high scoring affairs reflecting the fact that it's very early in the season with neither club having much in the way of pre-season practice.  This year, however, while there were probably less practices than usual (zero in the Neshanock's case) the two teams played an equally intense, but this time low scoring, cleanly played game.  

Photo by Mark Granieri

After retiring the Resolutes in the top of the first, Flemington took the lead thanks to the base running of Chris "Sideshow" Nunn and a sacrifice fly from Dan "Sledge" Hammer.  A second Flemington run crossed the plate in the bottom of the second this time featuring the base running of Danny "Batman" Shaw and a key hit from "Jersey" Jim Nunn.  Elizabeth rallied in the top of the fourth, however scoring twice to tie the match at 2-2.  It didn't stay tied long as the Neshanock quickly countered with two more runs in the bottom of the inning for a 4-2 lead they held until the top of the eighth.  Elizabeth was far from done, however, as the Resolutes rallied for three aces to lead the match 5-4 going to the bottom of the eighth.  Once again the Neshanock answered as  singles by Rene "Mango" Marerro and Mark "Gaslight" Granieri put runners on second and third with only one out.  The term "productive out" probably wasn't used in the 19th century, but that's exactly what Danny "Batman" Shaw delivered with a line drive to right that the fielder caught one bounce as the two Neshanock runners crossed the plate.

Photo by Mark Granieri

Although up one headed to the ninth, the Neshanock still needed three outs to close out the match which given the history of this rivalry weren't going to come easily.  After the lead off batter singled to put the tying run aboard, Ken "Tumbles" Mandel, Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner and Dave "Illinois" Harris turned what today would be a 4-6-3 double play (11-3-6 in 1864 scoring) for two out and no one on.  On the edge of the precipice, the Resolutes' resolve didn't falter as the next batter reached safely again putting the tying run on base.  Fortunately for Flemington after coming close twice, "Mango" came up with a foul fly to end the match for a hard earned Flemington win.  In addition to winning the match, Flemington welcomed back John "Hammer" Hepner who returned from a year's sabbatical devoted to building his Thai Food empire.   The match was intensely, but respectfully played by both clubs, a fine day of base ball any time of the year, but especially so this early in the season.  Next week the Neshanock visit Old Bethpage Village on Long Island to defend the New York - New Jersey Cup held by Flemington since 2013.  

Photo by Mark Granieri 

Playing 19th century base ball at a modern ball park is always something of a time warp experience and what stood our for me this time was how the locations of ball parks like TDBank have a lot to do with using a combination of adequate parking and good access roads to bring fans to the game.  Back in the 19th century, the situation was reversed as the game had to be brought to the fans whose transportation options were limited and usually inefficient.  It was a lesson the Brooklyn Base Ball Club's owners learned at great cost when as part of the merger agreement with the Brooklyn Players League Club in late 1890, they agreed to move their home games to Eastern Park in East New York.  It marked the beginning of seven long seasons in the financial wilderness at a location so remote that according to an article in Sporting Life, a fan traveling from Manhattan had to leave home before breakfast with no hope of arriving home for dinner.  

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - April 16, 1899 - note the canvass screens in right field

It was no surprise, therefore, that when Charles Ebbets took over in early 1898, his highest priority was moving the club to a more centralized location.  To Ebbets' credit, he was not only able to pull this off at little direct cost, but was also able to return to the south Brooklyn neighborhood the team had previously called home.  Especially impressive was the speed with which Ebbets accomplished this feat, even allowing for the fact that wooden ball parks could be built relatively quickly especially if the site itself was level and clear of obstructions.  By March 15, 1898, Ebbets had not only signed a lease with the Litchfield Estate for a new Washington Park adjacent to the old one, but had also arranged the financing through the help of local subway and trolley companies.  A ground breaking followed on March 24th and only a little over a month later, Washington Park hosted the club's home opener against the Phillies on April 30th.

Washington Park in its later years, showing the size of the adjoining apartment building 

A year later Ebbets freely admitted the whole thing had happened so quickly that not a great deal of attention was paid to many of the details.  As a result Ebbets may have been surprised to learn on opening day in 1898 that he had some silent partners, silent in terms of their financial investment, but not in getting a piece of the action.  Located directly beyond the right field wall was an apartment building where, according to the New York Times, tenants opened their windows and fire escapes to 200 fans at a cost of 10 cents each, less than half the price of the cheapest seat inside the park.  Ebbets was not one to let grass grow under his feet when money was at stake so while the club was on its first western trip, the Brooklyn owner had a line of poles "many feet in height," erected on the right field wall to which were attached large pieces of canvass.  The false fence was intended to achieve two financial goals, keep home run balls inside the park and put an end to the entrepreneurial tenants most of whom, according to the Eagle, were Italian immigrants doing such a land office business that they would shortly be able to retire to their homeland "to live in affluence."

Another view of Washington Park, showing the clear view the upper floors of the apartment building had of the field 

Apparently it wasn't a total success as in his seminal work, Ballparks of the Dead Ball Era, Ron Selter notes that the canvass screen was removed after the 1901 season.  However, as the club's finances began to deteriorate in the early 1900's Ebbets tried again, prior to the 1905 season, when the right field wall was raised 20 feet ostensibly to keep balls in the park, but more likely to limit the ticket selling opportunities in the apartments.  As can be seen in the accompanying pictures (click to enlarge them), the building was high enough to make it impossible to eliminate completely the lost gate receipts.  Casey Stengel's account of his first major league game at the end of the 1912 season (and the end of Brooklyn play at Washington Park) emphasized the fans watching from the fire escape either for free or at least without paying at least a quarter to the Brooklyn owner.

Shibe Park before the "spite fence"

In some ways this sounds like an example of Ebbets legendary "cheapness," but there are at least two other factors that merit some consideration.  Part of the reason these actions seem almost petty is the amounts involved are almost infinitesimal to us today.  It appears almost incredible that it would matter whether the base admission should be 25 cents or 50 cents, but that debate went on for years especially in Philadelphia.  The same is true of the amounts of fines, prices for acquiring players and the level of financial profits or losses. For example, total hotel and travel (railroad) expenses for an 1899 western trip were only about $1500.  A second factor is something, I've mentioned before, the absolutely crucial role that gate receipts played in a club's success or failure.  Friday I had the opportunity to go through the Superbas' financial records for 1899 (that's another story) and almost without exception the only sources of revenue were home ticket sales and Brooklyn's share of the gate receipts for away games.  200 lost admissions at 25 cents each is only $50, but it clearly wasn't what today we might call "chump change."

1935 "spite fence"

Ebbets was also hardly the only one to do this.  Connie Mack and the Shibes faced much the same problem when they opened Shibe Park in 1909, again involving the right field wall, although this time, the buildings weren't anywhere near as high, leaving the roof as the only alternative seating.  As the pictures above show, when it came to the World's Series, a fairly frequent occurrence in Philadelphia in those days, a lot of people opted for the alternative.  As attendance dipped during the depression, management had enough and added a 22 foot high sheet of corrugated iron on top of the existing 12 foot wall.  Quickly labeled the "spite fence," by the media, it probably didn't make that much difference at the gate as the A's never reached their pre-depression levels of success before moving to Kansas City.