Saturday, July 25, 2015

"Like That"

One of the many things that I've learned from a lifetime of sports is that there are games and even seasons that are "like that."  Times where a result or pattern of results happen, no matter or in spite of past performance, logic or any rational explanation.  The Elizabeth Resolutes, New Jersey's first vintage base ball club, has suffered through a season "like that," where the results (victories) have been far fewer than any one could logically expect.  Before Saturday's match at Rahway River Park, for example, the Neshanock had won all four previous encounters, three of which were close affairs that could have gone any other way.  On Saturday, Flemington got a taste of the experience with a day that was simply "like that."  Among other things, after playing good defense the previous weekend, the Neshanock made more muffs in one game on Saturday than  in the four Gettysburg games combined.  

Curtis Campbell at Ebbets Field, September 23, 1944

This is in no way to take anything away from the Resolutes performance as the Elizabeth club was clearly the superior team, taking a 12-3 lead after two innings and then dominating the match for a convincing 32-11 trashing of the Neshanock.  While there were no bright spots for Flemington on defense, there were some noteworthy offensive performances, Danny "Batman" Shaw had five hits followed by Gregg Wiseburn with four.  Chris "Low Ball" Lowry and Scott "Snuffy" Hengst each chipped in three hits while Dave "Illinois" Harris and Joe "Irish" Colduvell had two apiece.  While he wasn't in uniform or on the field, the Nesahnock also welcomed back Bob "Melky" Ritter who looked remarkably spry for someone recovering from two hip replacements. 

Why there are days and seasons "like that" is an unanswerable question as is why it seems like everyone and any one who ever went to Ebbets Field has a story.   Even if that question could be answered, there is no end to the stories, even though the Brooklyn ballpark has been gone longer (55 years) than it was there (47 years).  The latest story to come my way began in June of 2014 after the Neshanock played a match in Woodbridge, New Jersey.  The game was filmed by a local cable station and I was asked to provide historical background and context which led to mention of my interest in Brooklyn Dodger history.  A few weeks later, I received an e-mail from the cable station indicating that Mr. Curtis Campbell, an Iselin resident, had an Ebbets Field story he wanted to share.  It took quite some time for us to finally meet, but a few weeks ago I had a chance to spend some time with this remarkably robust octogenarian.  Curtis also visited with us on Saturday so for once, "Melky" wasn't the oldest pitcher at the game.

Born in 1927, Curtis was in high school during World War II, attending Queens Vocational High School.  Located in an intensely urban setting, the school had no athletic teams and since Curt spent most summers in Maine, he never had much of a chance to play competitive baseball.  Fortunately, however, in both 1943 and 1944, he did spend the summer in Long Island City and pitched for a team in a YMCA sponsored league.  Intent on taking full advantage of the opportunity, the young right hander worked at his craft, developing multiple release points for pitches while also changing his position on the pitching rubber depending on whether the batter was left handed or right handed.  Curtis initially had a problem with tipping off his curve ball, but when an opposing manager started warning his hitters by calling out "curve ball,” Curtis solved the problem by crossing up the batter with a fast ball.  Curt enjoyed considerable success those two summers, but hadn't thought much beyond the YMCA league when opportunity knocked through a newspaper ad.

Clove Lakes Park, Staten Island
Reading a New York newspaper, in September of 1944, Curtis saw a notice that the Brooklyn Dodgers were holding open tryouts on Saturday, September 16th at Clove Lakes Park on Staten Island.  It was probably one part due to the war time shortage of players and one part due to Branch Rickey's practice of collecting large pools of talent, but regardless, it was too good an opportunity to pass up.  However, just getting there by the 8:00 a.m. reporting time was a challenge.  Leaving Long Island City at 6;00, Curt took the subway to Grand Central Station, another subway to the Staten Island Ferry, the ferry to Staten Island and finally a bus to Clove Lakes Park, arriving with 10 minutes to spare.  Upon arrival he found all the prospective major leaguers divided over six fields by position.  Curtis pitched to some hitters and then to a Dodgers coach who relatively quickly, and cryptically, said he had seen "enough."

What "enough" meant was clarified equally quickly when a letter arrived at the Campbell home from Branch Rickey Jr. inviting Curtis back for a second try out, this time at Ebbets Field itself.  One of only about six invited back, he arrived at the Brooklyn ball park where, in spite of what the letter said, he was given a Dodger uniform even though it was just for the day.  Fortunately at a time long before smart phones, young Mr. Campbell had the foresight to bring a camera.  When it came his turn to pitch, Curt surprised the Dodgers coach by saying the protective screen in front of the pitcher (used during batting practice) had to be moved because of his different release points.  Whether it was the multiple release points or some other explanation, Curtis had remarkable control that day as only about six pitches missed the plate.

Finally Brooklyn catcher, Bobby Bragan stepped in with manager Leo Durocher watching off from the side.  After Bragan hit a few routine fly balls, Curtis went against batting practice protocol by throwing an overhand curve ball.  Caught totally off guard, Bragan missed the pitch by six inches provoking a tirade from Durocher that cannot be repeated in a family blog.  Whether in spite of or because of his audacity, Curtis was sent home with the words ringing in his ears that the Dodgers would contact him about spring training.  However, days, weeks and months passed without any follow up and as a high school senior in war time, Curtis didn't have time to wait.  Finally he was given the opportunity to take the test for a special army training program which would allow him to attend the University of Delaware while he was in the army.  Perhaps not surprisingly, once he was irrevocably in the army, Curtis did get the call from the Dodgers, but it was too late.  By the time he got out of the army in 1948, he was ready to get married which along with family responsibilities which meant a steady job was a necessity.  Thus began a long career in banking, fatherhood and over 60 years of marriage that continues to this day.  Curt doesn't have any regrets, but he's never forgotten that special day at Ebbets Field, a day, I’m glad has been preserved at A Manly Pastime.  

Monday, July 20, 2015

Mad Dogs, Englishmen and Vintage Base Ball Players

Rudyard Kipling, Noel Coward or someone famously remarked that "Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noon day sun."  After this past weekend in Gettysburg, vintage base ball players, umpires, score keepers plus their families and friends can be added to the list.  Temperatures at Schroeder's Farm on both days easily topped 90 degrees with no small amount of humidity.  Yet the discomfort was well worth the reward at what is, in my experience, the premier vintage base ball event in the country.  Begun by the Elkton Eclipse Club of Maryland as a six team tournament, the event has been expanded to this year's 18 club festival with teams traveling from as far away as Maine and Tennessee.  Located on Pumping Station Road, Schroeder's Farm is large enough to accommodate five games simultaneously on quirky fields that emulate some of the conditions faced by 19th century players.  The Neshanock's last game on Sunday was played on a field where the slope of the ground meant the outfielders couldn't be seen from home plate - a challenge indeed for the umpire.

Photo by Mark Granieri

Besides hosting vintage base ball, the farm was also a site for the movie "Gettysburg" and the terrain certainly resembles the real thing.  Watching the game with the outfielders out of sight reminded me of the experience of Civil War soldiers who went over such crests not knowing what awaited them on the other side.  In posts about prior Gettysburg Festivals, I wrote about the battle itself, so my intent was to limit this year's article to base ball, but proximity to that "hallowed ground," makes it almost impossible to avoid some reflections.  Not long after our arrival on Friday, Carol and I stopped at the 5th New Jersey monument on the west side of the Emmitsburg Road, not far from the Klingle Farm.  Like the 11th New Jersey whose monument is nearby, the 5th was heavily engaged at Gettysburg on July 2nd when 45% of its 206 officers and men were killed, wounded or missing by day's end.

5th New Jersey Monument 

What motivated the stop was some research that Scott "Snuffy" Hengst of the Neshanock has been doing on the Logan Base Ball Club of Lambertville, New Jersey, the village's first base ball team, formed just after the Civil War.  My own research on Lambertville had covered the antebellum period when cricket was the community's sport of choice.  Looking at box scores for both the cricket and base ball clubs, there was one common name, an A. Angel.  The last name was familiar as on Memorial Day, I had posted some pictures of the Union dead including a Captain Charles Angel, killed in Georgia on July 4, 1864.  It turns out that A. Angel, is Ashbel Angel, the younger brother of Charles and both brothers served with the 5th New Jersey.  I'm not sure if either of them was with the regiment at Gettysburg and, if so, whether they were wounded that day, but I want to do some work on the stories of New Jersey men and women in the Civil War and this may be a good starting point.

Photo by Mark Granieri

Friday was cloudy and humid in Gettysburg and Saturday began with thunder, lightning and a torrential down pour that delayed the the festival's first matches.  One of the major attractions of the Gettysburg Festival is the opportunity to play teams from different parts of the country.  The Neshanock began play on Saturday afternoon with a match against the Columbus Club from Ohio, a team Flemington had played once before, but this time had a very young and proficient lineup.  The Ohioans played almost flawless defense and hit strategically and effectively to earn a convincing 15-0 victory.  Despite the one sided margin, this was one of those games that was actually closer than the score indicated as it was 3-0 after five innings and 6-0 after six before Columbus exploded for 9 runs in the seventh and final inning.

Photo by Mark Granieri

 The match was close for as long as it was because the Neshanock also played good defense making only two muffs over the course of the match.  A Flemington defensive highlight was a trick play pulled by the Neshanock catcher, crafty veteran Mark "Gaslight" Granieri.  With one hand out in the 2nd inning, Columbus had the bases loaded when their striker tipped a foul ball that "Gaslight" easily caught for the second out.  He then intentionally threw the ball into left field prompting all three Columbus base runners to take off.  Unfortunately for the Columbus players, in 19th century base ball runners cannot advance on a foul ball and a quick throw from left field to third base recorded the final out.  It was a double play that could have easily been a triple play as all of the Columbus runners  took off on the apparent bad throw.  The only negative was that base ball historian Richard Hershberger was watching another match as he had offered $20 if he ever saw the Neshanock  pull off the play.  What little offense the Neshanock generated also came from "Gaslight" who had a clear score with two hits in two plate appearances while the other 14 Neshanock strikers managed only three more combined.

Photo by Mark Granieri

After a very brief respite, the Neshanock got back on the field, this time against the Harrisburg Keystone Club, a team Flemington defeated at Cooperstown in 2014 after losing an earlier match to the Pennsylvania club at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.  Flemington continued to play strong defense and scored their first runs of the festival in the very first inning to take a 3-0 lead that grew to 6-2 after four innings and then 11-8 after six.  Unfortunately, as has happened previously this season, the Neshanock bats went silent thereafter scoring only one run in the last three innings.  Harrisburg, which had been kept at bay by the Flemington defense, broke through in the last three innings with strong hitting up and down their lineup to score eight times and win a close, well played match by a 14-12 count.  The Neshanock attack was led by Chris "Sideshow" Nunn and Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner both of whom had clear scores and Scott "Snuffy" Hengst who contributed two hits.  It was, however, not enough and the first day of hot, humid, but enjoyable base ball ended with the Neshanock at 0-2.

"Candlelight at Christ"

For the past 3-4 years, Carol and I have spent the Saturday night of the festival at "Candlelight at Christ Church," at Christ Lutheran Church,  Located near the square in Gettysburg, the historic church was a hospital during the battle and now hosts Saturday evening concerts during the summer.  The program which is free, in an air conditioned church (especially helpful this year), combines readings from contemporary letters and diaries as well as Civil War era music.  Listening to the readings and songs like "Tenting Tonight" in such a historic setting makes the sacrifices and suffering of the Civil War generation come alive  One reading described a mother who lost one son at Gettysburg, had another in a Union hospital and a third in a Confederate Prison.  Yet her first hope was that "God will save our country."  Like any historic/tourist site, there is the risk of losing what is really important about what happened at Gettysburg.  Programs like the concert at Christ Lutheran Church help maintain the proper focus.

Photo by Mark Granieri

Unfortunately the temperatures in the air conditioned church and the hotel couldn't be transferred to Schroeder's Farm so the stage was set for an even hotter day of base ball on Sunday.  The Neshanock's day began with a mid morning match against a new participant, one of the two that  made the longest trip - the Hog and Hominy Picked Nine from Nashville, Tennessee. As I understand it, the H&H team is the traveling squad for the Tennessee Vintage Base Ball League, which has teams throughout the state.  Much more information is available at their well designed and well worth examining web site (  All told there are 10 different teams in the league that play a regular schedule with the Hog and Hominy team traveling to events like Gettysburg.  I'm guessing that the H&H roster varies from event to event with the players being drawn from the different clubs.  One thing was for sure, the Nashville club had the most eclectic selection of hats I've ever seen on a vintage base ball field.

Photo by Mark Granieri

One thing Flemington did perfectly throughout the festival was win the bat toss (4-0) so once again the opponents went first to the striker's line.  The visitors from Nashville promptly scored once and loaded the bases with one out, but a pitcher to home to first double play not only ended the threat, but H&H's scoring for the match.  In a contest limited to seven innings by time constraints, the Neshanock scored seven times, combining timely hitting with muffless defense to earn their first win of the festival, 7-1.  Once again Flemington's offense was led by Chris "Sideshow" Nunn with his second consecutive clear score.  "Sideshow" was joined in the clear score column by Jack "Doc" Kitson who had three hits in as many at bats.  Danny "Batman" Shaw pitched the full seven innings in stifling conditions while also fielding his position extremely well as did the rest of the Flemington defenders.

Photo by Mark Granieri

With their first match complete, the Neshanock literally went out in the "noon day sun," for their final game of the festival with the Brandywine Club of West Chester, Pennsylvania.  Surprisingly the two clubs had never met before, but the day ended with mutual commitment to change that in 2016.  Flemington got off to a 3-1 lead after three, but the game became a back and forth affair during the middle innings so that at the end of six the Neshanock led 7-6.  From that point, however, Flemington's defense tightened, shutting out the Pennsylvania club while adding two more tallies for a 9-6 win.  Pitching duties were shared by Chris "Low Ball" Lowry and "Batman," who closed out the match.  Offensive production came from some new sources as Joe "Mick" Murray earned a clear score while newcomers David Lowry and Gregg Wiseburn had two hits apiece as did Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner.  Once again the Neshanock defense was strong with only one muff.

Photo by Mark Granieri 

So Gettysburg 2015 ended for the Neshanock with a 2-2 record, the always enjoyable experience of playing some new clubs and the opportunity to spend time with familiar foes.  One of the many pluses of the event is having so many mid Atlantic clubs in the same place so that the weekend becomes something of a vintage base ball reunion.  Flemington's large player turnout (16 each day) is ample testimony of how much we enjoy the weekend.  Many thanks to the Elkton Base Ball Club for organizing this fine event and working so hard to accommodate so many teams and different points of view.  A final high point for me was when one of the younger members of the Neshanock said to me on Sunday that playing base ball in these conditions gave him a better appreciation of what the soldiers went through in 1863.  Another example of how recreating 19th century base ball can help us appreciate and understand history both on and off the field.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Base Ball in (New) Barbados

On Saturday, the Neshanock traveled to historic New Bridge Landing for the third annual day of vintage base ball sponsored by the Bergen County Historical Society.  For the second consecutive year, Flemington played two seven inning matches of 1864 base ball against our old friend Eric Miklich and his Brooklyn Eckford team.  At the time of the American Revolution, New Bridge Landing was a small mill community centered around a bridge across the Hackensack River.  The bridge played a crucial part in the events of late 1776 when on November 20th, the British invaded New Jersey driving before them George Washington and his rapidly shrinking Continental Army.  Timely use of the bridge enabled the Americans to stay ahead of their pursuers and begin the long tortuous retreat across New Jersey which finally ended with the attack on Hessian garrison at Trenton on Christmas night 1776.  The area around New Bridge Landing was built for many things, but base ball wasn't one of them - the space available is so limited that it could take a separate blog post to fully describe the ground rules.  It's perhaps reminiscent of the challenges the early Manhattan clubs faced in finding adequate space.  Challenges that made nearby Elysian Fields look so attractive.

Photo by Mark Granieri

Although a relatively new team, the Eckford and their irrepressible leader are very talented and easily dominated the first contest winning by a 21-2 count.  The combination of only six Neshanock hits and some untimely lapses in the field let the game get out of hand early and stay that way.  Flemington's scoring was summed up in Rene "Mango" Marerro's two run first inning home run.  Another bright spot was two hits by Neshanock newcomer, Greg "Muffin" Wiseburn.  After a brief respite, the two clubs went at it a second time in a much closer contest, but with the Eckford again coming out on top.  Flemington got off to a 3-1 lead in the first inning only to see the Eckford take a 7-3 lead after three innings.  The Neshanock kept Eric and his mates off the scoreboard for the rest of the game, but managed only two more tallies to lose a well played 7-5 match.  "Mango" and Dan "Sledge" Hammer each had two hits in the second game with "Hammer" contributing a double and a triple.

Photo by Mark Granieri

One unique moment in the second game came in the bottom of the third when the Eckford loaded the bases with only one out and Eric Miklich at the plate.  The leader of the Brooklyn club managed first to hit a foul grounder that led to a base runner being put out for trying to advance on a foul ball and then hit a bound out to right field.  In effect Eric hit into a double play but took two swings to do so, one of the most unusual methods of killing your own team's rally that has been seen in a long time.  There was also a moment in the first game when it appeared Eric was not only mistaken about a play, but even admitted his error, although some witnesses (read Eric) dispute that interpretation.  Any day of base ball with Eric Miklich is enjoyable and today was no exception.  Next weekend the Neshanock journey to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for the annual vintage base ball festival featuring 18 teams from as far away as Tennessee, playing at a venue so large that five games are played simultaneously.  Historically it's been a great weekend and this should be  no exception.

Photo by Mark Granieri

Historic New Bridge Landing is located in River Edge next to Hackensack where the Zinn family lived for about 70 years from 1850 to at least 1920.  Visiting the area so soon after the arrival of Henry George Zinn on June 25th naturally brought back memories of those historic roots.  Historic enough that the Zinns lived in the area prior to the formation of Hackensack's first base ball club.  That honor appears to belong to the Ionic Club, organized in June of 1866.  It's somewhat surprising, at least to me, that Hackensack didn't have a club before then, but organized base ball seems to have been slow to reach Bergen County despite its proximity to Manhattan and what appears to be significant traffic between the two locales.  In any event, the Ionic patriotically played their first match on July 4, 1866 and received an ungentlemanly 54-5 drubbing (in just five innings) at the hands of the Everett Club.  The local paper tried to pour journalistic salve on the club's wounds by reporting the opponents were a picked nine from the Active and "one or two other city clubs."  Apparently unwilling to allow the new club to salvage even a modicum of respect, the secretary of the Everetts corrected the paper insisting their team was "without exception" made up of club members.

Eric Miklich ready for action or a verbal repartee
Photo by Mark Granieri

Apparently able to put that disaster behind them, the new Hackensack club got back on the field less than two weeks later defeating the Alpha Club of Coytesville (now a section of Fort Lee) by a basketball like score of 68-56 in a game that lasted five hours although there was an hour's rain delay.  Getting more than a little bit ahead of itself, the Bergen County Democrat claimed the victory showed "that all they [the Ionics] need is practice to make them the champions of the county."  Having thus tempted the base ball gods, it's no surprise that the Ionics immediately lost two straight games before hitting their stride in a home and home series against the Star Club of Cresskill.  Playing for a bat and ball, the Hackensack boys won both games, one by a margin of 30 runs and the other by an improbable 53 tallies, scoring 87 times in the process.  Not surprisingly the Ionics scored in every at bat including 15, 17, 18 and 20 run innings.  The scoring was surprisingly balanced up and down the lineup with six Ionics crossing the plate at least 10 times.

Bergen County Democrat - September 7, 1866

Attempts to identify Ionic Club members from the 1870 census, even with first initials, was the usual exercise in frustration, but three positive identifications of young men in their early 20's indicates this was not a junior club.  Interestingly all three were residents, not of Hackensack, but neighboring New Barbados.  From what I've read, New Barbados was originally a township formed in 1710 which covered a huge area of what is now Bergen County.  Gradually sections of the township became separate communities, what was left of New Barbados was absorbed into Hackensack in 1921.  A map from about the time the Ionics began play shows New Barbados as an area south of Hackensack.  Scrolling through the pages of the 1870 New Barbados census produced an added benefit as I also found John Zinn and his wife, Katherine, who immigrated from Germany in 1849.   The search engine had picked up the "Z" as a "G," explaining why prior searches had come up empty.

Centinel of Freedom - June 26, 1810, William Quick was Charles Ebbets great-grandfather

New Barbados always seemed a strange name for a place in northern New Jersey and the explanation opens the door to one of the more unsavory sides of New Jersey history which predictably isn't that well known.  According to James Gigantino, in his book, The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1776 to 1865, between 1660 and 1670, planters/farmers on the Caribbean Island of Barbados were effectively driven off the island by a sugar boom.  Some of them made their way to Bergen County where they found good farm land and a large market for their crops in New York City.  Looking to preserve some aspect of their former home, they called the new one New Barbados.  Unfortunately in addition to whatever farm implements they brought with them, the planters also brought their black slaves.

John G. Zinn is the second player from the left, in the second row - the thing on his right hand is a base ball glove

The popular image of slavery is, of course, large southern plantations with hundreds of slaves working the fields.  As Gigantino points out, Bergen County slave holders typically owned far fewer slaves who worked as farm laborers, artisans and other laboring jobs.  By 1790 there were almost 11500 slaves in New Jersey, more than all of New England combined and more proportionately to population than far more larger New York City.  Leading the way within the state was Bergen County with just over 2300 slaves in 1790 which grew to over 2800 a decade later, the last census before the state abolished the institution of slavery in 1804.   One Bergen County slave owner was Charles Ebbets maternal great grandfather, William Quick, who in 1810 offered to sell a 17 year old boy for $200 (about $4000 today). The reason Quick still owned a slave after the passage of the abolition bill is that the law freed only slaves born after July 4, 1804 and then only after 20-25 years of involuntary servitude to the mother's owner.  The process was so drawn out that the disposition of slaves (usually sold rather than freed) was part of estate settlements in Bergen County into the 1840's.

Henry G. Zinn 

When the Ionics took the field in 1866, however, no slave labor was available for Bergen County farms.  In 1870 both 44 year old John Zinn and his 20 year old son (also John) gave their occupations as farm laborers.  Perhaps the decreasing number of slaves in Bergen County in the 1830's and 1840's, made the area more attractive to immigrants especially those with an agrarian background.  At the same time, the elder Zinn reported on the 1870 census that he owned real estate worth $4000 (about $74000 today) and $1000 ($18000 today ) in personal property so they clearly were doing more than scraping out a subsistence existence.  Somehow, seeing their names on the 1870 census as farmer laborers, convinced me that no matter how many base ball clubs there were in Hackensack at the time, these two generations didn't play their new country's game, at least not formally.  But the family was there and the game was there so taking it up was probably only a question of time and my grandfather (and namesake) was a first baseman for the Borden's Milk company team while his son, Henry (young Henry's namesake) went on to be an all Bergen County outfielder in the 1930's.  The connections between our family and base ball remain strong and hopefully that will continue with this new generation of Zinns.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Brief Break

Henry and I have been pretty busy over the past week so with the Neshanock off for the holiday, A Manly Pastime will take a brief respite until next weekend when Flemington travels to New Bridge Landing for matches with the Eckford Club of Brooklyn and old friend Eric Miklich.  Hope everyone has a great and safe weekend.