Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Cornish Town Races (With apologies to Stephen Foster)

Some 20 years before the opening of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, National League club owners were approached by two gentlemen from that beautiful village on Otsego Lake who wanted to sell them the baseball history equivalent of the Brooklyn Bridge - the land where Abner Doubleday supposedly laid out the first baseball diamond.  Secure in the "definitive" conclusions of the relatively recent Mills Commission, the baseball magnates took the idea seriously enough to authorize league president John Heydler to look into the matter.  The idea of a farmer's field in Cooperstown being baseball's birthplace or the existence of any such sacred site has by now, of course, been thoroughly discredited. Anyone with an interest in honoring the location of an historical baseball first, might better use their time on the site of the first organized match (a game played between two competing clubs) which, let it be said one more time, didn't take place on June 19, 1846 at Elysian Fields in Hoboken.  Rather, based on current research, that honor belongs to the grounds of the Union Star Cricket Club at the corner of Myrtle and Portland Streets in Brooklyn where on October 10, 1845, a team of eight (no shortstop) from Brooklyn defeated a like number from New York.

There's always the possibility, some enterprising researcher (please Lord, let it be me) will find an earlier match at a different location so it's impossible to be certain the claim for Brooklyn will never be challenged.  Certain beyond any doubt, however, is another base ball field first, the location of the first game played on an enclosed ground, a game played on July 20, 1858 at the Fashion Race Course near the village of Flushing in Queens County, New York, the first of a best of three match series between select or all-star teams from Brooklyn and New York. Anticipating the future heart break of Brooklyn teams playing their New York counterparts, the Manhattan team took the series by winning the third and decisive game.  With a total capacity of 50,000 including 10,000 seats, the race course was not only capable of accommodating the anticipated large throngs, but also facilitated charging admission, another first for these historic matches.  The story of what are known to history as the Fashion Course games, is well chronicled in Robert Shaefer's essay in the Fall 2005  issue of Nine: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture.  In typical baseball irony, the race track was built on land purchased from one Samuel Willets, who probably had little interest in base ball, but will always be associated with it since the subway stop for Shea Stadium and now Citi Field bears his name.

New York Clipper - July 24, 1858

What brought all  of this to mind was the Neshanock's visit to Maine this past weekend to take part in the 2016 New England Vintage Base Ball Festival held on the race track at the historic fairgrounds in Cornish, Maine.  Owned by the town of Cornish since 1994, the fairgrounds hosted regional fairs going back into the 19th century with the racetrack and the grandstand apparently built around 1900.  Although no longer used for competitive racing, harness horses are still trained at the facility, continuing one of the community's oldest traditions.  The vintage base ball event featured five out of state clubs, three from Massachusetts, one from Rhode Island and the Neshanock.  The sixth club and host team was the Dirigo Club of Maine which got assistance on the base ball side from the Essex Base Ball Organization.  The event itself was sponsored by the Cornish Historical Society as well as the Cornish Fairgrounds Committee which along with the two base ball organizations did a great job.

While I've been to racetracks before, this was the first time  on the "infield" itself which was large enough to host two games simultaneously with more than enough room to spare for parking and other amenities.  Flemington's first match on Saturday morning was against the Mechanics Club of North Andover, Massachusetts, the newest of the six club sponsored by the aforementioned Essex Base Ball Organization (https://essexbaseball.wordpress.com/).  After winning the coin toss (as it would in each of its four matches), the Neshanock took the field only to lapse once more into the unfortunate pattern of giving the opposition extra outs (three in this case) early in the game.  In spite of the three first inning muffs however, the damage was limited to two Mechanics' runs which Flemington more than matched, putting five tallies across in its half of the first. After the three errors in the initial inning, the Neshanock defense clamped down, making only four more over the next eight innings and holding the North Andover club to only three more runs.  Flemington erupted for 10 runs in its half of the third, to break the game open, but in spite of the final 22-5 score, the lead never felt quite secure.  The Neshanock were led at the plate by Dan "Sledge" Hammer and Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner, both with four hits while "Jersey" Jim Nunn and Ryan "Express" Pendergist added three each.

With one game in the books, the Neshanock had a break, allowing ample time not only to get out of the hot sun, but also to restore the "inner man" at the concessions thoughtfully provided by the hosts.  Rested and refreshed, Flemington's second match was against the Mudville Club from Holliston, Massachusetts, with the Mudville name providing all the incentive Brad "Brooklyn" Shaw needed to honor them with a special recitation of "Casey at the Bat."  The Neshanock's offensive production fell off dramatically during the second match with only nine tallies, less than half of the 22 tallied in the first contest.  One Neshanock who experienced no drop off was "Sledge," who had another four hit performance, this time earning a clear score.  "Express" had another three hit game, joined in that category by Chris "Sideshow" Nunn while "Thumbs" and Dave "Illinois" Harris added two apiece.  Much more impressive, however, was the Neshanock's defensive performance, not only playing without a muff for eight innings, but limiting Mudville to three batters in six innings and four in the other two.  Some sloppiness in the top of the ninth plus a few Mudville hits put two tallies across the plate, for a 9-2 Flemington triumph.

Photo by Jonmikel Berry Pardo

With the first day behind them, the Neshanock dispersed for the evening, preparatory to an early 9:30 first pitch on Sunday morning against the Essex Club.  The Essex Club is the travel team for the Essex Base Ball Organization and, in my opinion, one of the best vintage teams in the country.  Games against that level of competition are both challenges and opportunities and what happened on Sunday morning was more than worthy of the occasion.  Flemington had another strong defensive performance with only two muffs, which as impressive at was, was bettered by Essex with only one miscue.  That kind of defense usually means a tight low scoring game and this contest was no exception.  Essex used some aggressive base running to score one run in the top of the first which Flemington matched in their half and then added another in the second for a 2-1 lead.  The lead proved short lived when the Massachusetts club tied the game in the third and added one more in the fifth for a 3-2 lead going to the bottom of the sixth.  Now, however, it was the Neshanock's turn and Flemington scored twice in the sixth and added four more in the seventh for what against almost any other opponent would have been an insurmountable 8-3 lead.  No one, however, expected Essex to go quietly and the Bay State contingent scored once in the eighth, added another in the ninth and had runners on base on when Flemington closed out a hard earned 8-5 win.  As noted the Neshanock defense was stellar behind the pitching of Danny "Batman" Shaw with the offense keyed by the hitting of "Sideshow," "Illinois," Doug "Pops" Pendergist, "Thumbs" and Joe "Mick" Murray.

As intense as the Neshanock - Essex game was, and it was plenty intense, the match lasted just a little over an hour so that Flemington had some time to catch their collective breath before the final game against the host Dirigo Club.  It's risky to draw conclusions about a club from just one match, but the local team seems to be ideally built to play the 1864 or bound game which favors strikers who can hit the ball into the gaps between the fielders which the Dirigo players to a man did with great consistency.  In addition, the Maine team played strong defense making only two muffs over the course of the game, all of which suggested another close game, much more so than anyone on the Neshanock bench wanted.  Flemington took leads of 6-3, 9-6 and 11-8, but Dirigo kept chipping away.  Finally in the top of the ninth, the Maine men scored twice and put the tying run on third with two out.  The striker then hit a ball that was deflected by Brad "Brooklyn" Shaw, the Neshnock pitcher, to "Thumbs" at short, whose strong throw into the sure hands of "Illinois'" at first was just in time to secure the Neshanock's fourth win of the festival, insuring a happy, albeit long, ride home.

Photo by New England Base Ball Festival 

In my seven years with the Neshanock, I've had enough experience at festivals and tournaments to know the New England event was a great success by any standard.  Playing on such an historic venue, of a type connected to the game's early history, was great, and the hosts did a wonderful job on both the base ball and non base ball aspects of the event.  All of those involved should be very proud of their efforts.  The Neshanock especially thank Doug "Pops" Pendergist and Ryan "Express" Pindergist who played with us during the four games and were an important part in the Neshanock's hard earned success.  With the four wins, Flemington now stands 12-3 on the season, probably the club's best start ever.  Things don't get any easier, however.  After a well earned weekend off for the July 4th holiday, Flemington visits New Bridge Landing near Hackensack, New Jersey on July 9th to take on the Eckford Club and then its off to Gettysburg for some very challenging match ups.  If you are anywhere near either venue, do yourself a favor and stop by, you won't regret it.

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