Friday, October 30, 2015

Bringing Down the Curtain

By now vintage teams throughout most of the country have concluded their 2015 campaigns.  Travel, time with grandchildren and other conflicts kept me away from the last three weekends of the Neshanock's season, but my sources have given me enough information to provide a brief summary of the season's final matches.  The last report in this blog was after Flemington took two games from the Athletic Club of Philadelphia at the Dey Farm in Monroe Township, New Jersey.  While the next Saturday was to be spent at a new event sponsored by the Saddle Brook Historical Society, playing two matches with the Gotham Club of New York, rain and cold intervened cancelling both games.  The rain out left the Neshanock one game over .500 with four games remaining, beginning with a trip to the Strasburg Railroad Museum near Lancaster, Pennsylvania for an event sponsored by the Elkton Club of Maryland.

William Cauldwell

The first game was a rematch with the Rising Sun Club of Maryland which defeated the Neshanock at the Old Bethpage Village Old Tyme Base Ball Festival back in August.  Although it took a come from behind effort to do it, this time Flemington prevailed 12-10 before losing the second match of the day, 9-6 to the Mid Atlantic Picked 9, apparently a mixture of players from the Diamond State Club of Delaware and the Brandywine Club of Pennsylvania.  The day's results left Flemington again one game above .500 with two to play, a repeat of the end of the 2013 season.  The 2015 season finale was held in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania taking on first the home club and then the Ellicott City Surveyors.  The only information I have is the scores, but after losing a close 7-6 contest to Kennett, as in 2013, the Neshanock came through in the second game, prevailing by a 20-16 count for the second winning season in the past three years.

A successful defense of the New York - New Jersey Cup - a 2015 highlight

2015 marked my eighth year of participation in vintage base ball, two with the Eureka Club of Newark and the last six years with the Neshanock.  While I missed more games this year than usual, the experience was once again rewarding at several different levels.  As I've noted before participating in vintage base ball and watching well over 200 games over that time span helps my understanding of base ball history.  In saying that I want to be clear that in no way can this experience substitute for working with original source material.  My time last week in the Giamatti Research Center at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, researching Charles Ebbets, reinforced that point, if it needed reinforcing.  I've noted before that it appears that very little of the Brooklyn owner's correspondence survives, making it very difficult to learn about Ebbets by reading his own words.  However, the Hall of Fame has the minute books of the National League owners meetings which through 1925 are actually verbatim transcripts of the meetings.  Reading through the literally hundreds of pages of these transcripts provides a golden opportunity not just to "hear" Ebbets in his own words  but to get a detailed picture of the other owners and the issues and concerns they faced during the Deadball Era.  The transcripts will be a real asset in developing a picture of the Brooklyn owner.

Photo by Mark Granieri

Having said that, there are still things to be learned from the re-creation of 19th century base ball.  I realized this once again while working on an essay for the SABR 19th century base ball committee's project on winter meetings.  For the pre-professional period, the goal is to cover all of the meetings of the National Association of Base Ball Players and I'm working on the meetings from December of 1860 and 1864 where the major issue was the fly game vs. the bound game.  During the late 1850's and through 1864 there was a concerted effort to eliminate the bound out, that is awarding an out for catching a fair ball on the bounce.  Despite the efforts of some of the leading clubs and players, the change didn't come about until December of 1864.  One of the prime advocates of the fly game was Henry Chadwick, the father of base ball himself, but he was countered by a less well known, but even earlier base ball writer, William Cauldwell of the Sunday Mercury (thanks to Richard Hershberger for pointing me in Cauldwell's direction).

Henry Chadwick

In writing about the failure of the rule to pass in December of 1860, Cauldwell argued that the bound game was a better game because while players would catch balls on the fly whenever possible, the incentive of recording an out on a bound ball encouraged great effort that would not be forthcoming if the potential reward was eliminated.  Thinking about the many times I've seen vintage base ball players make fine running catches of balls on the bound and/or diving to  do the same quickly verified Cauldwell's claim in my own mind.  Without that experience I would have been more likely, as I think others would be, to think of the fly/bound issue only in the context of the ball hit right to the fielder when the issue is really much broader than that.  It's obviously a moot point since the rule was changed, but it's an illustration of one of the rewards of historical re-enacting.

Photo by Dennis Tuttle 

It's one more reason to be grateful for the opportunity to be part of the vintage base ball community and, in that regard, I want to thank all those who make it possible, beginning with Brad "Brooklyn" Shaw and all my teammates on the Flemington Neshanock.  Among that group, special thanks to Mark "Gaslight" Granieri for taking pictures, putting up with my comments and swinging a big bat once he's able to find the playing field.  I also want to acknowledge all of the teams who the Neshnaock played in the course of season without opponents the season would be one long grind of inter-squad games.  One of the high points of any vintage season is the various tournaments and festivals and I thank the Elkton Eclipse, the Brooklyn Atlantics, the New York Mutuals and the Essex Base Ball Organization for some great times in 2015.   In addition to opponents, base ball can't be played without umpires so a hearty well done to Sam "It ain't nothin' 'til I say" Bernstein for his work in that often unappreciated role.  Finally, thanks to the spouses, significant others, girl friends and now children who attend the matches and support the Neshanock in so many different ways on and off the field.  Huzzah to 2015, best wishes to all for the off season and looking forward another great year in 2016.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Literary Off Season

Long before Rogers Hornsby famously remarked that he spent the winter staring out the window, waiting for the start of a new season, base ball players, especially in the the north, had to endure months away from the ball field.  For many, the long work week of the period may have  absorbed the time previously carved out for practice and match play.  But even in those days of limited leisure, season's end meant at least some time was available for idle hands (and minds) to use for good or ill.  When the Warren Club of Roxbury, Massachusetts (now part of Boston) decided in December of 1860 to intentionally use the winter months for self improvement, it drew high praise and lengthy comment from the New York Clipper.  Reading in a Boston newspaper that the club "had organized itself into a literary and debating association for the winter," gave a Clipper writer, possibly Henry Chadwick, the paper's cricket and base ball editor, sufficient material and motivation to go on for almost a full column of unsolicited advice for any base ball club within the reach of his pen.

New York Clipper - December 22, 1860

If the Warren Club's approach to the winter hiatus was somewhat unique, their on-the-field experience also stood out from what was happening elsewhere in the country.  Like most of their neighbors, the young men from Roxbury opted for the locally popular Massachusetts game rather than the rapidly expanding New York version.  Rather than playing on diamond shaped fields, the Warren Club and their opponents took their positions on a square field with four foot high wooden stakes for bases with varying distances between bases, but in all cases less than 90 feet.  Also different from the New York game was the position of the batter or striker, who stood between the first and fourth bases, facing a player about 30-35 feet away, throwing, not pitching, a softer ball.  If the softer ball and shorter distance favored the pitcher, this was more than compensated for by the absence of foul territory, creating a field far too big to be defended even by the larger teams (10-14 suggested) of the Massachusetts game.  The softer ball was a necessity since like many non-New York games, runners could by retired by "plugging" or "soaking" them with a thrown ball.  And there were plenty of opportunities to do just that in a game made for high scoring with the winning team, the first to reach the century mark.

Massachusetts Game 

Regardless of the differences between the two games, however, winter weather sooner or later ended play for the year, freeing up the time for the Warren Club's decision that was so praised by the Clipper or at least by the article's author.  In recommending using the winter months for high quality literary pursuits, the Clipper writer presumably had something in mind other than the content of his own newspaper.  The first page of the same December 22, 1860 issue contained the first episode of a serial entitled "The Cock of the Walk" or "The Bowery Boys on the Trail of Blood."  Praised as "A Thrilling Story of City Life," written especially for the Clipper, the story opens well after midnight in "a drinking saloon in the Bowery," occupied by pipe smoking men, lacing their conversation with four letter words, made somewhat more tolerable by dashes in appropriate places.  Although the first episode only hints at at future content, there is more than enough questionable material to be confident the writer had other ideas for the proposed literary societies.  Any doubts on the subject were removed by another serial running inside the paper, "Belerius - the Gladiator, a Romance of Old Rome."

Having already made the decision to come together for literary pursuits, and assuming the Clipper wasn't an option, the members of the Warren Club faced practical choices about reading material.  While they could have fallen back on existing works like Shakespeare or most of the complete novels of Charles Dickens, ads in the Boston newspapers offered no shortage of new books.  For the scientifically inclined, there was the third volume of Louis Agassiz's Contributions to the Natural History of the United States, where supposedly "the views of Darwin on the origin of species are also considered."  If nothing else that would have provided plenty of content for the debating side of the association.  More practical perhaps in times of every day application was local author, Ralph Waldo Emerson's collection of essays The Conduct of Life intended to answer "the question of the times" - "how shall I live."  It was an especially pertinent question given what was going on in the nation, especially in the south, and the first two editions were sold out within a week.  The looming national crisis also gave special relevance to John Wingate Thornton's The Pulpit of the American Revolution, a collection of "political" sermons from 1776 intended perhaps to direct the reader back to the nation's founding principles.

Certainly these and other works gave the members of the Warren Club plenty of food for thought and discussion before the new season dawned.  By then, however, events had over taken every day life and, at least for some, the ball field gave way to the battlefield or stopped the new season before it even got started.  A search of Massachusetts newspapers post 1860 shows no further activity by the Warren Club. Only a few members of the club have been identified, but one, J. Henry Symonds spent the 1861 base ball season at the front with the 6th and 22nd Massachusetts, avoiding being hit with a different, much more lethal type of ball.  By war's end, the Massachusetts game had been supplanted by the New York game and if any members of the Warren Club returned to the playing field after Appomattox, it was probably with a new team, playing, for them, a new game.  The extent to which other clubs followed the Warren Club's example and the Clipper's exhortations is also unknown. That may be fortunate for today's vintage clubs which typically put a high priority on historical accuracy, but may not be anxious to spend the off season discussing Darwin, Emerson or the modern equivalent thereof.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Base Ball before the Knickerbockers

One learning from almost seven years of working on New Jersey's observance of the Civil War Sesquicentennial is that all historical anniversaries aren't created equal.  That's especially true of any that aren't centennials or multiples thereof, the energy and the excitement simply aren't the same.  It's no surprise, therefore, that little attention has been paid or will be paid to the 170th anniversary of two important base ball events.  September 23rd, just about a week ago, marked the anniversary of the 1845 formal organization of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York, not the first base ball club, but one of the most important.  October, in turn, will see the 170th anniversary of the first documented match games (games between two different teams).   All three contests between the New York Club and a Brooklyn team preceded by close to six months, the June 19, 1846 Knickerbocker - New York Club match, still described all too frequently as the first competitive base ball game.  In addition to not being the first match game, concerns have been raised that the 1846 contest wasn't even a true match game which would push the date of the  Knickerbockers entry into competitive play to June 3, 1851.

Pioneer Club of Jersey City Constitution - until now considered the city's first base ball club

Not only were match games played prior to June of 1846, but some base ball clubs, like the New York Club, date back into the late 1830's.  Unable to find adequate playing space in Manhattan, these early teams gravitated across the Hudson River to the ample and accessible playing surfaces at Elysian Fields in nearby Hoboken, New Jersey.  However, even with this exposure to what would become known as the New York game, it wasn't until 1855, ten years after the Knickerbockers got started, that the first New Jersey clubs were formed, primarily in Jersey City and Newark, making 2015, by the way, the 160th anniversary of New Jersey's first teams.  There are, however, clear indications that some form of a game called base ball was played by New Jersey men before 1855.  Evidence of this is seen in the formation of what could be called 19th century vintage base ball clubs in Newark in the late 1850's and Paterson in the late 1860's to recreate something they called "old fashioned" base ball.  Another such possibility has now surfaced, which was passed on to me by John Thorn, Official Historian of Major League Baseball, and Ben Zimmer of the Wall Street Journal.

Peter Bentley - Jersey City Mayor and perhaps 1830's base ball player 

Back in July, John forwarded to me an e-mail from Ben which contained the below excerpt from a much longer article in the December 13, 1871 edition of a Jersey City newspaper, The Evening Journal.  This account of roughly 20 lines, describing a base ball team predating the Knickerbockers by almost a decade, appeared in a much longer article entitled "Recollections of a Jersey City Boy, No. 3."  Especially valuable are the first names of these supposed early base ball players, the typical lack of which often stops identification before it even gets started.  Far less clear was the identity of the "Jersey City Boy," whose name didn't appear in this or any of the four other non-sequential (of course) articles about growing up in Jersey City.  Fortunately, information provided in the articles about the author's life and activities was so specific as to positively identify him as Stephen Quaife, an English immigrant, whose family moved to Jersey City in 1827 when he was only one.  Identifying Quaife, however, immediately ruled out his claim of having "acted as the spare pitcher on the first nine," since he was only about 10 at the time.  Quaife's name did, however, ring a vague bell and a look at Jersey City's first base ball clubs finds him listed as a pitcher in a box score of a July 11, 1855 inter squad game of the Pioneer Club, founded that June.  Clearly Quaife was conflating his own brief base ball career with whatever he knew or thought he knew about another club 20 years earlier.

Evening Journal - December 13, 1871

Even with the first names, learning more about the other four alleged base ball players met with some difficulty.  Finding information about the hard throwing Peter Bentley, a future Jersey City mayor, and Joseph Edge, son of a predominant Jersey City pyro-technical manufacturer (fire works) was relatively simple.  Far more difficult was Jerry O'Meara, primarily because he died young at the age of 35 in 1845 which, if nothing else, provides a possible end date for this supposed early base ball team.  Unlike Quaife, age was not a problem for the four, since all of them were in their late 20's or early 30's in 1836 which proves only that they could have been playing base ball, not that they did so.  In addition to writing about the team and some of its players, Quaife also claimed their games were played on "Nevins & Townsend's block," which can be found on blocks 29 and 42 on the below map.  Located in the Paulus Hook district, one of the oldest parts of Jersey City, it's use as a base ball field, testifies to the limited population and development of the day.

1848 Map of Jersey City 

This 1871 account of a club some 35 years earlier has the same problem as other descriptions of pre-New York games in New Jersey, they are all retrospective, none come from contemporary sources.  In search of such evidence, I spent a few hours last week at the Jersey City Public Library (thanks to Jim Madden and Danny Klein for facilitating my visit) working my way through the Jersey City Gazette and Bergen County Advertiser.  Unfortunately, the library's copy covered 1835 and 1836, but not 1837.  If such a club existed, it most likely only played inter squad games which wouldn't have been newsworthy so I didn't realistically expect to find any game accounts or things of that nature.  However, an ad  or "card" announcing a meeting or a game was a possibility and, at the very least, the paper was a source that had to be checked.  Unfortunately, although I learned about William Henry Harrison's successful presidential election campaign, a new work by an author using the pen name "Boz," and read multiple ads for Isiah Edge's fire works, there was no mention of base ball, a club or anything even close.  The library does hold other newspapers from 1838 to 1845 which need to be checked, but it will be some time before that happens.

Jersey City Daily Sentinel  - August 16, 1855

Could there be something to Quaife's claim of a late 1830's base ball club?  When he wrote his 1871-72 memories of Jersey City, he was only 45 and hardly senile since he lived until 1903.  Unless and until it's proven otherwise, the most that can be said is that there may have been a group of men who played some kind of bat and ball game without the accouterments of an organized club.  There is, however, some further evidence of pre-New York base ball in Jersey City.  The July 12, 1855 Jersey City Daily Telegraph article describing the game Quaife did play in, clearly states there were 11 on a side and that the five games were played in one day.  Similarly the Pioneer and Excelsior Clubs first match games in 1855 featured 11 on a side before the two teams began playing other New Jersey and Brooklyn clubs and nine on a side became the norm.  Contemporary evidence is still lacking, but Quaife's account further supports the idea that young men in New Jersey were in the field with bats and balls well before the state's first clubs were formed in 1855.  It's a topic that clearly merits further research.