Sunday, June 21, 2015

Proving what is so

At one point in Lincoln Center's wonderful revival of Rogers and Hammerstein's "The King and I," the king’s eldest son and the son of Anna, the teacher of the king's children, are talking about their parents.  The king's son asks Anna's son, "Why do your mother and my father fight?"  Wiser than his years, Anna's son replies, "They fight to prove that what they do not know is so."  While the following quotes from a brief announcement on New Jersey Advance Media's web site about the Neshanock-Hoboken match this past Saturday may not be consciously fighting to prove something, they represent historical claims that some think they “know,” but which are simply not correct.
“Hoboken will celebrate the 169th anniversary of the first baseball game on June 20 with a re-enactment of the game as it was played in 19th century.”

“For years Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the baseball Hall of Fame, held onto the tale that it was the site of the first game, but in recent years Hoboken has been acknowledged as the "birthplace of baseball."

One out of the two birth place claims is correct - photo by Mark Granieri

The reason for writing about this is not to criticize the reporter or the sources for the story, but because Hoboken and Elysian Fields important part in base ball history doesn't benefit from inaccurate information.  What follows, therefore, tries first to provide the documented facts and then offer some thoughts about the historical record.  I realize for some this will be old news, but ask them to bear with me because quotes like these demonstrate the level of misinformation that is still out there.  It should also be noted that I'm writing this at a disadvantage because we are in Massachusetts awaiting the arrival of our Grandson so I don't have all of my books and other resources.  Almost all of the documented information which follows comes from John Thorn's essays in Baseball Founders and Inventing Baseball, content he explains and expands more fully in his excellent book Baseball in the Garden of Eden.

It’s first important to distinguish between playing base ball and playing games or match games as they were known in the 19th century.  Playing base ball is something my generation did as kids, meeting at the nearest field to choose up sides and play a game with teams which existed for only the life of that game.  Playing base ball in that sense may not date back to the first syllable of recorded time, but goes back way too far in the mists of the past for anyone to know when it happened for the first time.  John Thorn's discovery of a Pittsfield, Massachusetts town ordinance restricting the playing of base ball proves the game was played in this country as early as 1791 when both Cooperstown and Elysian Fields were at best visions in the minds of William Cooper and John Stevens.  Match games, on the other hand, are of more recent vintage, an almost natural progression from the formation of clubs made up of young men who enjoyed playing bat and ball games. 

Box score from October 24, 1845 match game at the Union Cricket Grounds in Brooklyn 

One of the first such documented clubs is the Olympic Club of Philadelphia, founded in 1833, which apparently played a distinctive form of town ball, now labeled Philadelphia town ball.  The Knickerbockers got on to the field in the fall of 1845, meeting 14 times at Elysian Fields in Hoboken to play something not unlike the modern inter squad game. But the Knickerbockers were not the first club to play at the Stevens family’s pastoral playground across the North (Hudson) River.  Both the New York and Magnolia Clubs (the latter another John Thorn discovery) played base ball (but apparently not match games) in Hoboken as early as 1843.  Thus in September and October of 1845, the Knickerbockers were the relatively new kids on the greensward, continuing the practice of playing base ball on a somewhat organized basis.  Simultaneously, however, there was a major change in October of 1845 when the New York Club (also known as the Gotham or Washington Club) played three match games against a team from Brooklyn.  The first and third of these matches was played at the Union Cricket Grounds in Brooklyn while the middle game on October 21, 1845 took place at Elysian Fields.

Although there is no where as much detail as one would like, all of the matches are clearly documented in contemporary newspapers which proves that the June 19, 1846 game was not the first base ball game or even the first game played at Elysian Fields.  In fact, it's also not certain the 1846 game was really a match game at all.  A few weeks later in the fall of 1845, on November 10, 1845, the New York Club played a season ending game at Elysian Fields followed by a dinner at the Colonnade Hotel.  As John Thorn points out, playing in that game were some of the Knickerbockers suggesting that it was a variation of the inter squad game model and that the June 19th game may have been more of the same.  Supporting that possibility is the fact that after the 1846 game, the Knickerbockers didn't play a match game for almost five years.  Even if they were really bad losers, that's still an absurd amount of time to avoid the agony of defeat.

If all of this is accurate, and the facts themselves cannot be denied, did Elysian Fields have any role in the growth and expansion of base ball?  In my mind, and I'm speaking for myself here, the answer is yes, just not as some kind of  base ball birthplace.  The 1840's New York clubs came to Elysian Fields because of a shortage of playing space on Manhattan Island.  As the number of clubs grew in the 1850's, they took up almost of the available room at Elysian Fields, even expanding into other parts of Hoboken, like Fox Hill.  Without the easily accessible and relatively inexpensive New Jersey space, at the very least, the pace of the game's expansion could have slowed down.  Also important, however, was Elysian Fields proximity to relatively large cities like Newark and Jersey City and a relatively sophisticated railroad network throughout northern New Jersey.  This provided both a substantial pool of young men living outside of New York City, willing and able to play the game and a transportation system to spread knowledge of the game beyond greater New York.  After the first New Jersey clubs were formed in 1855, it took only about two years for clubs to be formed at almost every town or city on the railroad line through and including Trenton in the central part of the state.

That this was important can be seen by comparing the New York - northern New Jersey experience with that of Philadelphia and southern New Jersey.  Like the New York game's spread into New Jersey, Philadelphia town ball also crossed a river into New Jersey. However, it never moved beyond Camden into a sparsely populated southern New Jersey with almost no railroad network in the antebellum period.  This is not to suggest that the less favorable conditions in south Jersey were what doomed Philadelphia town ball.  Having seen a re-creation of the game, there appears to be a lack of strategy which probably would have limited its appeal.  Nor is this to argue that the positive factors in northern New Jersey were the final game changer in the New York game's ultimate success.  Evolution is, however, a gradual process and anything which facilitates successful development is important.  Even though, as we all should know, base ball didn't have a birthplace, be it at Cooperstown, Hoboken or anywhere else, my guess is that it had and needed incubators to help the process.  Elysian Fields and Hoboken was one such place and deserve an annual game like the Neshanock-Hoboken match to honor and commemorate that which we do know is, in fact, so.

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