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.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting research and pushback of the game. Well done!