Sunday, April 24, 2016

Another Saturday - Another River to Cross

Saturday saw the Neshanock on the road again (that's actually a little redundant since we're always on the road) one week after crossing the Hudson River, this time crossing the Delaware to visit the Brandywine Club of West Chester, Pennsylvania at their home grounds in East Goshen Park.  Last year the two clubs met in the final game of the Gettysburg Festival which was such a good experience that it was decided to play a regular season match.  If today was any indication, it was the first of many to come.   Danny "Batman" Shaw got the day off to a good start for Flemington by winning his third consecutive bat toss, putting the Neshanock in the field.  Although Brandywine scored once in the top of the inning, Flemington quickly answered with two tallies and gradually built a 6-2 lead after four innings as the Neshanock were once again very strong on defense.

William Cauldwell - Editor of the Sunday Mercury

In the bottom of the fifth, Flemington again used a big inning to break open a match, scoring six times for a 12-2 lead on the way to a 15-2 final score.  Before giving any other details, it's essential to report (at least according to him) that the highlight of the game was when Brad "Brooklyn" Shaw eschewed the use of a pinch runner and actually stole a base!  Also contributing to the Neshanock attack was Dan "Sledge" Hammer who earned Flemington's third clear score of the season with four hits, scoring four times in the process.  Playing in his first match of the season, Gregg "Burner" Wiseburn chipped in with three hits, followed by "Batman," Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner, Dave "Illinois" Harris and Chris "Low Ball" Lowry with two apiece.  As noted the defense was solid, marred by only one muff.  Catching the first game, "Sledge" matched Mark "Gaslight" Granieri's feat from last week, throwing out three runners trying to steal, but doing so without divine intervention.

After a brief respite, Brandywine took the field for the second game and it was clear from the outset that this was going to be a very different contest.  In fact, it was almost the mirror opposite through five innings with the local team taking a 6-1 lead into the top of the sixth.  The Neshanock came back with three runs and had the bases loaded with no one out, apparently setting the stage for another big inning.  Brandywine recovered, however, to put the next two strikers out and looked like they might escape still in the lead.  Fortunately for Flemington, a clutch two out hit by "Jersey" Jim Nunn not only kept the inning alive, but sent the Neshanock on the way to very big inning indeed, scoring nine times in total for a 10-6 lead.

Even with the lead, no one on the Flemington bench was feeling especially comfortable and the tension rose considerably when Brandywine rallied for two in the seventh and two in the eighth. Although the West Chester club did shut down Flemington in the seventh and ninth innings, the Neshanock had one moderately big inning left in them, putting four tallies across the plate in the top of the eighth, taking a 14-10 lead into Brandwine's last at bat.  No one expected Brandywine to go quietly and they quickly scored twice and put two runners on when Flemington took full advantage of a big break and were able to hold on for a 14-12 win.  "Sledge" again led the Neshanock attack with three hits, aided by "Burner" who had two big doubles.  All told it was a balanced effort with every member of the Neshanock scoring at least once.  Although Flemington won both games, there was general agreement that everyone enjoyed the experience which ended with renewed promises to make this a regular affair.  Now 4-0 on the young season, the Neshanock will make their initial New Jersey appearance next Sunday at Ringwood Manor State Park, the originally scheduled match in Lambertville on Saturday has been cancelled.

The beginning of any base ball season is full of adjustments, for me as a base ball historian, it means starting to again learn about the 19th century by watching it being played in addition to whatever archival research I might be doing.  Nothing, of course, substitutes for documented, contemporary evidence, but watching the game being recreated complements what's found in old books, documents and newspapers.  A case in point is something I've been working on this past winter, two essays for a book to be published by the 19th Century Base Ball committee of the Society for American Baseball Research.  The essays are for a book about the off season meetings of the National Association of Base Ball Players which began in the late 1850's.  My essays are about the meetings that took place in December of 1860 and December of 1864 when one of the major issues was the fly game vs. the bound game, that is allowing an out for any fair batted ball caught on a bounce.

Those arguing for the change in 1860 included the prestigious Knickerbockers and Henry Chadwick, the Father of Base Ball himself.  In spite of their efforts the proposed change was voted down in 1860 and again in 1863 before it was finally adopted in December of 1864.  On the opposite side of the question in 1860 was William Cauldwell, the editor of the Sunday Mercury who actually preceded the better known Chadwick in giving extensive newspaper coverage to the emerging competitive game.  Cauldwell was opposed to eliminating the bound out in 1860 because he felt the incentive of retiring a batter on one bounce led to extraordinary defensive efforts which would be lost if the rule was changed.  Four years later, the New York writer had changed his mind and was in the uncomfortable position of arguing against himself.  While Cauldwell gave a number of reasons for the change, the primary one was that outfielders were playing very deep in order to take the easy, and perhaps unmanly, approach of catching the ball on the bounce.  According to Cauldwell, this was happening with such frequency that the disadvantages of continuing the bound out exceeded the relatively limited number of outstanding bound catches.

Almost a decade of watching vintage base ball has shown me that there is a lot to both what Cauldwell believed in 1860 and his new position some four years later.  I've seen more than a few extremely athletic attempts to come up with a ball on one bounce that sometimes meant the difference between killing a rally or the other team going on to a big inning.  And I've also seen how playing deep and taking the easier catch on the bounce, can abuse the spirit of the rule and makes the game far less interesting to watch, and I would think, play.  Cauldwell's change in opinion in some ways simply reflected how the game was evolving, the bound out originally had a place, but as the game developed it started to hurt the game and needed to be eliminated.  It's a part of the process of evaluation and change that has been with base ball at least since the beginning of organized competition, a process that will most likely never change which is probably a very good thing.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Cup Stays in New Jersey (With Some Help from New Yorkers)

Picture by Mark Granieri

One of the early events of the vintage base ball season is the annual New Jersey - New York Cup played at the birthplace of vintage base ball, Old Bethpage Village on Long Island.  Even though it's only the middle of April, it's still one of the most pristine and enjoyable venues we play at over the course of a season.  Typically the Neshanock go into the event having played at least one prior match, but this year Flemington's first two games fell victim to the weather, making the first games of the season more competitive than usual.  For at least the past few years, the same four teams have competed for the cup, the Neshanock and the Hoboken Nine from New Jersey with the Gotham Club of New York and the New York Mutuals making up the New York contingent.  Flemington won the cup in 2013 and 2015, and retained possession in 2014 when the event was rained out. The Mutuals are the host team and although it's a much smaller event than their early August festival it's always well run.

Picture by Mark Granieri

As if the uncertainty of the first game of the season wasn't enough, the Neshanock were extremely shorthanded with only six players making the long trip across the Verrazano - Narrows Bridge to Long Island.  Fortunately some members of the Mutuals graciously helped out, special thanks to "Big Bat," "Samurai" (interesting name that), "Crazy Mike" and Danny for playing with Flemington at various points in the two games.  Today also marked the premiere of the Neshanock's new uniforms (at least in some cases), long pants instead of knickers, reflecting the reality that most of Flemington's matches are played by 1864 rules and long pants were the norm of the period.  Base ball players are nothing, if not superstitious so success in the new garb was important in it's first outing.

Photo by Mark Granieri

The new pants may or may not have been a good omen, but it was definitely a positive sign when captain Danny "Batman" Shaw won the bat toss for the Neshanock's first game against the Mutuals.  Mark "Gaslight" Granieri quickly established a pattern for the match, retiring the first Mutual striker on a foul bound out and New York went out without scoring.  Led by Chris "Sideshow" Nunn and "Batman," Flemington quickly put two tallies on the board and led 3-0 after two innings.  The Mutuals broke through in the top of the third, however, scoring twice to close within one before Flemington broke things open in the bottom of the inning.  When the dust had cleared, the Neshanock had recorded seven tallies, opening up a 10-3 lead and coasted the rest of the way to a 16-5 win.  "Gaslight" recorded nine put outs on foul flies or bound outs, one short of his and the team's unofficial record and also recorded two assists on fair ground balls.  "Batman" not only pitched the whole way, but led the offense with five hits, recording a clear score by reaching base six times without making an out.  "Gaslight" didn't neglect the offensive end either, contributing four hits while Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner wasn't far behind with three.

Photo by Mark Granieri 

After a brief respite Flemington moved bag and baggage to another field to take on the Gothams who had defeated the Hoboken Nine in their first match which meant the winner of the Flemington - Gothams match would take home the cup.  Although "Batman" again won the bat toss, things didn't get off to a particularly auspicious start when the Gotham's lead off striker hit a home run.  However, the damage was limited to that single tally and the Neshanock quickly got that back, adding two more in the bargain.  Strong defense on Flemington's part held the Gothams relatively at bay through the first six innings and when the Neshanock tallied seven times in the fourth and five in the sixth to take an 18-5 lead, it looked like another lopsided match.  The Gothams, however, are far too good a team to go quietly and they rallied for six runs in the seventh cutting the margin to an uncomfortable, 18-11.  But Flemington was far from done, scoring five times in the bottom of the seventh for a commanding 23-11 lead which held up even though the New Yorkers scored five times in the ninth before going down to a 24- 18 defeat.

Photo by Mark Granieri

Obviously when a team scores 24 times, there's a lot of offense going on and the Neshanock were again led by "Batman" who not only matched his first game feats, but exceeded them, reaching base all eight times he came to the striker's line and scoring seven runs.  It marked two clear scores on the same day for "Batman," meaning he batted 14 times and didn't make a single out.  Rene "Mango" Marrero also had a big offensive game with six hits including a double and a triple coming only one at bat short of his own clear score.  "Thumbs," "Sideshow," and "Jersey" Jim Nunn each added four hits to the Flemington attack.  The Neshanock also played strong defense throughout the match highlighted by "Gaslight" who while he didn't record as many foul outs, actually threw out three runners trying to steal.  None of them were exactly things of beauty, but each one ended an inning, cutting off the Gotham's efforts to get back in the game.  It's hard to imagine a better start to the season, playing two solid games and retaining the New Jersey - New York Cup for another season, not to mention breaking in the new pants.

Photo by Mark Granieri 

Next Saturday, Flemington travels to West Chester, Pennyslvania to take on the Brandywine Base Ball Club before making its inaugural 2016 New Jersey appearances in Lambertville on April 30th and in Ringwood, the very next day.  Come out and join us!

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Opening Day - A Hundred or so Years Ago

It was sometimes suggested, partially in jest, that Charles Ebbets' middle initial "H," stood for holiday because the Brooklyn magnate was always looking for special days he could use to promote attendance.  Although it's limited to the baseball world, opening day was one occasion Ebbets didn't have to flog in order to attract fans to the ballpark.  Even though the Brooklyn club spent a lot of time in the first 15 years of the 20th century mired in the second division, the season opener was still a big occasion in Brooklyn.  Certainly it was important enough to catch the attention of Brooklyn Daily Eagle which always took notice through a special drawing or photos.  What follows, in honor of opening day 2016, are a series of drawings and pictures (click to enlarge) depicting the game's return to the City of Churches after a long hard winter.

At the time, the season didn't open until about mid April and some like Charles Ebbets felt that was about two weeks too early.  In 1904, an even colder than usual forecast had the Eagle concerned about possible sub arctic conditions, but as indicated in the below picture, it was cold, but not that bad.  Either way the Brooklyn club was cold, falling to the Giants 7-1 on the way to a sixth place finish.

A few years later in 1907, the theme was about dreams or some combination of hope and faith.  Certainly the World Championship vision was more than a little over the top although the club did climb to the top of the second division.  Once again opening day was something less than successful, a 4-1 defeat again at the hands of the Giants.  Since Washington Park was a wooden ballpark, the knothole idea of young entrepreneur in the lower left wasn't totally unrealistic.

By 1911 the Superbas had been down for so long that the Eagle apparently thought it better to focus on the game's overall appeal than indulge in any wishful thinking about Brooklyn's chances.  The paper was wise to be cautious as after finishing 6th in 1910, the club fell to 7th in 1911.  Opening day was prophetic for the entire season with Brooklyn falling to the last place Boston Rustlers by a 9-5 count.

By opening day 1912, the Eagle had progressed to an all picture approach to their opening day feature.  It had little impact on the field as the opener was a disaster at every level except the box office.  On the field, the Giants hammered Brooklyn 18-3 partially because the large crowd spilled on to the field leading to extraordinary ground rules and another bad start with the team again on the way to a 7th place finish.  The chaotic scene gave Charles Ebbets one more reason to be glad that next year his team would have a new home.

Things had improved dramatically for Brooklyn by the time the 1914 opener rolled around.  Not only were they in a new park, pictured below, but they had a new manager, Wilbert Robinson and would climbed to 5th place.  On opening day they overpowered the not yet miracle Braves by an 8-2 count.

Just 100 years ago this month, Brooklyn opened the 1916 season, again with a loss, this time to Boston, but the club was soon in first place and stayed there almost the entire season to bring home Brooklyn's first 20th century pennant.  A decisive victory against Philadelphia in late September was largely due to an unlikely out of the park home run by Casey Stengel off of Grover Cleveland Alexander who won 33 games, threw 16 shut outs (still a record) with a 1.55 era.

Interestingly the above picture includes Brooklyn's iconic trolley, but clearly names the club the Superbas after a turn of the century vaudeville act.  In fact, through 1925 the paper seldom, if ever, called the team the Dodgers and the club's stationary read simply Brooklyn Baseball Club.  But by whatever name, the team was well loved and hope always sprang eternal as it does for base ball fans throughout the country on opening day 2016.