Sunday, April 23, 2017

"Imitation is the Highest Form of Flattery"

Writing about opening day at Citi Field a few weeks ago, I commented that I really like the Mets ballpark once I get there, the problem is getting there.  My feelings about Old Bethpage Village, the birthplace of vintage base ball and home to the 2017 version of the New York - New Jersey Cup are very similar.  On the way there, the roughly 60 mile trip took a manageable hour and forty-five minutes, but the return took almost three hours due to broken down cars, construction and drivers who thought it appropriate to drive about 30 miles an hour in the center lane.  Within those travel challenges, however, base ball at Old Bethpage is almost always an enjoyable experience especially for the annual showdown between New Jersey and New York teams.  I'm not exactly sure when the competition began, but since 2013, the cup has become a resident of New Jersey, thanks to three Neshanock victories plus one timely rain out.  Both the format and the participants were changed for the 2017 event with the Monmouth Furnace Club a new entry on the New Jersey side and New York adding the Atlantic Club of Brooklyn, in my opinion, the country's top vintage club.

The Striker's Line

In past years, the two New Jersey clubs took on the New York teams with the cup going to the team with the best overall record.  This year, the opening games featured intra-state competition guaranteeing a New York - New Jersey final.  As a result, Flemington began the day playing the Monmouth Furnace Club, a relatively new vintage team playing out of Allaire State Park.  Monmouth went to the striker's line first, scoring one tally before the Neshanock responded with five to take a 5-1 lead.  After that, however, Flemington managed only one tally over the next five innings while Monmouth chipped away to close to 6-4 after six.  Finally mustering some offense, the Neshanock scored twice in the seventh, but the Furnace club was far from finished adding two runs to make it 8-6 with Flemington coming to bat.  Fortunately the Neshanock added two more insurance runs and shut out Monmouth in the ninth for a hard earned 10-6 win.  This was the first time I've seen Monmouth Furnace play in a few years and they've made real progress and should be a real test for any team they play the rest of the season.  Flemington's attack was led by Dan "Sledge" Hammer's three hits with Dave "Illinois" Harris and Brad "Brooklyn" Shaw contributing two apiece.  Joe "Mick" Murray earned his first clear score of the season albeit with some help from the defense.  Still a clear score, is a clear score and Henry Chadwick knew what he was doing in making reaching base a priority, no matter the means of arrival.

The Much Improved Monmouth Furnace Club 

No one on the Neshanock was surprised to learn the Atlantics had prevailed in the New York bracket so that to retain the cup, Flemington had to do something it had never done before, outscore the Brooklyn club.  The Atlantics were missing some of their top players, but the Neshanock were also not at full strength (thanks to Mike, Brick and A. J. for filling in).  Striking first, the Atlantics tallied once which the Neshanock matched and added one to lead 2-1 after one inning.  Pleas from the Neshanock bench to call the game because of rain, darkness or any reason fell on deaf ears.  Flemington's apprehension about what was going to happen proved well founded when the Atlantics started scoring while keeping Flemington off the scoreboard, making the score 7-2 after five innings.  At that point, however, things began to change, the pitching of Danny "King" Shaw and solid Neshanock defense shut out the Atlantics the rest of the way while Flemington added three runs to trail 7-5 going to the bottom of the ninth.  Jeff "Duke" Schneider led off with a single which was followed by some uncharacteristic Atlantic miscues and some well placed hits.  When the dust (or the mist) cleared, the score was tied, two were out and the winning run was on third, with  "Sledge" at the striker's line.  The situation called for a line drive which the Neshanock striker promptly delivered, setting off more than a little excitement on the Flemington bench.

Field before the championship game 

While everyone on the Neshanock is pleased to retain the cup for another year, we can be forgiven, I hope, for being at least as excited about our first victory ever over the Atlantics.  Thinking about it (especially during the traffic jams on the way home), there are many reasons the Atlantics are such a fine club.  Certainly they make a lot of outstanding plays both at bat and in the field, but what sets them apart in my mind is how seldom they make mistakes in the field and employ timely well placed hitting.  How do you beat a team like that you may ask?  By imitating them (the  highest form of flattery) through doing the same things they do so well - consistent play in the field and timely hitting.  That's exactly what the Neshanock did at Old Bethpage, making only two muffs over the course of the match and taking advantage of their offensive opportunities.  "King," "Sledge," "Illinois," "Snuffy," "Mick," and "Duke" each had two hits for Flemington.  All were important, but special notice should be paid to "Duke" who started two rallies including the winning ninth inning rally.  Equally noteworthy is holding the Atlantics to just two runs over the last six innings including shutting them out for the last four.   I want to make special mention of the Atlantics very gracious behavior in defeat - they set a high standard for all of us in vintage base ball both on and off the field.

Photo courtesy of the Atlantic Base Ball Club 

While the New York - New Jersey Cup is a relatively new event, head to head competition between New Jersey and New York clubs dates all the way back to 1855, the very first year young Jersey men formed their own base ball clubs.  In fact, not one, but two fledgling New Jersey clubs crossed both the Hudson and East Rivers that year to take on the Columbia Club of Brooklyn (then a separate city).  A very brief search turned up little information about the Brooklyn team, but both of the New Jersey clubs, the Olympic Club of Newark and the Pioneer Club of Jersey City are known to me and, to some extent, to the readers of this blog.  One of Newark's charter clubs, (first calling itself the Oriental Club) the Olympic Club had little real impact during its sole year of existence.  Although it was equally short lived, Jersey City's first club has an interesting story beginning with how they first played the game or more accurately the game they apparently played.

The Pioneer Club along with the Excelsior Club (Jersey City's second charter club) were founded within a few weeks of each other in the early summer of 1855 and fittingly played their first match games against each other.  Box scores and newspaper accounts of those games include 11 players on a side in high scoring matches that seem only to have lasted a few innings - clearly not reflecting complete compliance with the Knickerbocker rules.  There is at least some retrospective oral tradition of  a "base ball" club or clubs in Jersey City in the 1830's ( which may very well have played by different rules which the new 1855 vintage initially followed to some degree.  Whatever the differences, the Pioneer Club apparently realized the error of their ways and became true practitioners of the New York game by the time they began a best of three series with the Columbia Club in September.

The first match played in Brooklyn was a solid victory for the home team as the Columbia Club doubled up the Pioneer Club's run total in a 26-13 thumping.  Not long after that the Jersey City team played an inter-club match between the married and single men which was covered by a newspaper man who wasn't impressed the Pioneer's on the field prowess.  Claiming they "have much to learn," the writer pointed out the obvious but apparently not honored principle that "two or three of them should not try to catch the same ball."  Even more of a concern was the players' nicotine habit, not because of the long term health concerns, but because the Pioneers smoked not only while in the field, but also when at the striker's line.  Whether or not it was due to the public criticism in the media, the new Jersey City team quickly got their act together winning the return contest 27-12 and then dominating the conquering game on October 14th, winning 23-8 in a match played at the Putnam Club's grounds in east Brooklyn.

A. J. Bixby pitched for the Eagle Club in this September 8, 1857 match at Elysian Fields

The club's late 1855 success augured well for future seasons, but by 1856 the Pioneers had gone out of existence primarily because three of their best players had defected to the Eagle Club of New York which, of course, played its home games, not in Manhattan, but in neighboring Hoboken.  Similar defections also killed the Excelsior Club which went undefeated in 1855 beginning a tradition of New Jersey men playing for the Eagle Club which continued well into the 1860's.  It also marked the beginning of another tradition, New Jersey club's inability to retain their best players. One of the Pioneers who enjoyed significant success after leaving New Jersey was A. J. Bixby who not only played in two of the three Fashion Course games (1858 all star games between Brooklyn and New York clubs) but also served as Vice President of the National Association of Base Ball Players.  Even so victory in the first New Jersey - New York (loosely defined) series showed New Jersey teams were a force to be reckoned with as was proven once again yesterday at Old Bethpage some 162 years later.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Opening Day, Then, Now and in Between

Although opening day would seem by definition, to be a one time thing, multiple observations of the beginning of another baseball season has some historical precedent thanks to one Charles H. Ebbets.  While the Brooklyn magnate's middle name was Henry, the contemporary media sometimes changed it to Holiday because of Ebbet's proclivity for finding or even inventing holidays to boost attendance at his ball parks.  It's no surprise, therefore, that when the park that bore his name opened in 1913, the Brooklyn club president took full advantage of the opportunity by holding, not just one, nor two, but, in fact, three opening days.  First came the "grand opening," an exhibition game against the Yankees on April 5, followed by a "special" National League opening a few days later against Philadelphia and, finally, the "regular" opening on April 18 also against the Phillies.  In that spirit, this post will look at two openings this past week, others over the past 15 years and one from the 19th century.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - April 5, 1913

On Monday, Paul Zinn and I journeyed from Massachusetts and Verona respectively to attend the Mets 2017 opener at Citi Field.  Once I get there, I like Citi Field, the problem is getting there from north Jersey especially on a week day.  As usual the trip took about two hours each way, but I lucked out since I came very close to taking New Jersey Transit which probably would have prevented me from getting there at all.  One of the things I like about the Mets home ball park is the friendly, welcoming and helpful attitude of the staff - it's so wide spread it must be due to standards intentionally set and maintained by the owners.  While it was a small thing, the elderly gentleman who scanned my ticket said, "Welcome back, it's good to see you again."  It cost him or the Mets nothing to do that, but it was a nice touch.  While we were there Paul and I tried to figure out how many openers we've attended, both home and season openers.  A little work on the always valuable retrosheet web site confirmed we've been to five in a row and eight all told since 2002.  Pleasant weather and a Mets win made it another enjoyable experience, but regardless of the weather and the outcome, it's an important father and son experience we hope to continue for a long time.  The traveling party may expand fairly soon, however, since upon hearing of this year's trip, four year old Sophie Zinn proclaimed - "I'll go with you guys."  It was a hard offer to refuse and it probably won't be too long before it becomes a father-son-granddaughter experience!

Left to right - Dan "Sledge" Hammer, Sam "It ain't nothing till I say so" Bernstein, Dean "Dreambucket" Emma - Photo by Mark Granieri 

My second opening day of the week came just five days later when the Flemington Neshanock opened their 2017 as part of the Somerset Patriots Fan Fest in Bridgewater, New Jersey.  This should have been the Neshanock's second playing date of the season, but rain and cold prevented games scheduled for the prior weekend at Allaire State Park against the Monmouth Furnace Club.  Saturday's opponent was the Atlantic Club of Brooklyn, a great group of guys, who also, in my experience, are consistently the best vintage base ball team in the country.  The game got off to a quiet start with Flemington actually holding the Atlantics without a tally in the first two innings.  The Neshanock got on the scoreboard first thanks to a double by Scott "Snuffy" Hengst and a clutch single by Dave "Illinois" Harris, the first of two hits for each player.  After that the combination of untimely walks and errors by Flemington and timely hitting by the Atlantics led to 10 runs for the visitors and a 10-2 lead after five innings.  The Neshanock didn't go quietly however, scoring five times in the sixth and twice in the seventh to pull to within 14-9 before the Atlantics put the match away with four in the eighth and an 18-9 victory.  Flemington's offense was led by Dan "Sledge" Hammer and Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner with multi-hit games and Chris "Lowball" Lowry who recorded the season's first clear score.  After taking this coming weekend off, the Neshanock will journey to the birth place of vintage base ball, Old Bethpage Village on Long Island, on April 22nd for the 2017 version of the New York - New Jersey Cup.

A Neshanock tally is a cause for celebration - Photo by Mark Granieri

For whatever reason, playing a vintage game in a modern professional ball park, got me thinking about the opening day of New Jersey's 19th century "major league" team, the 1873 Elizabeth Resolutes  Major league is in quotes because the Resolutes played in the National Association which is not considered a major league by Major League Baseball.  Without trying to argue that issue, whatever the National Association lacked in terms of major league status, it was not only a league of professional (all paid ) teams, it also had a geographic reach which if it wasn't truly national, was more than local.  One of the Association's weaknesses was the only entry requirement was a $10 fee which even for the time wasn't enough money to bar or discourage financially challenged applicants.  Having had some prior success against Association clubs in exhibition games as well as in New Jersey amateur (or semi-professional) circles, the Resolutes put down their $10 and entered the lists for the 1873 National Association campaign.

Bobby "Melky" Ritter pitching with Joe "Mick" Murray at third - photo by Mark Granieri

Opening day for the Resolutes came against the Philadelphia White Stockings on April 29th at the Waverly Fairgrounds on the border of Newark and Elizabeth.  The team from the City of Brotherly Love was also new to the Association, introducing head to head competition with the much better known Athletic Club.  The game foreshadowed the Resolutes' overall Association experience as the Philadelphia team scored four times in the first and seven times in the third on the way to a 23-5 victory.  Newspaper accounts of the game in the New York Clipper and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (both likely written by Henry Chadwick) had little good to say with the latter paper claiming the game itself was "not worthy of comment."  Both papers lectured the home team on its failure to adequately promote the game to the point that the White Stockings share of the gate receipts probably didn't cover their traveling expenses.  Things would get no better as the Resolutes went 2-21 before giving up on any hopes of competing at the national level.  The New Jersey team did have one moment of glory, however, defeating the league champion, and one of 19th century base ball's greatest teams, the Boston Red Stockings in the first game of a July 4th doubleheader, described at

Photo by Mark Granieri

Looking backward, given the uneven financial playing field, the New Jersey team never had a chance to complete.  The Resolutes were a cooperative club, meaning the players' pay was totally dependent on gate receipts providing little or no financial incentive for superior players to sign with the Elizabeth team.  This is in contrast to the White Stockings which was a stock club where share holders put up money which enabled them to attract good players without even leaving Philadelphia by raiding the Athletics roster.  Since at the time, even the Association's best clubs were having a hard time making ends meet financially, it's no surprise a team with little or no access to money was destined to fail.  In some ways it anticipates Charles Ebbets' long battle for the reverse order draft, giving the lower level teams first shot at new talent regardless of their ability to pay for it.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - April 29, 1873

Considering their poor performance both on and off the field, the Resolutes are an easy target for cheap shots, but they get points, if not medals for finishing (albeit unintentionally) the process where New Jersey found its proper place in the base ball world.   As the game became more competitive in the 1860's, two New Jersey teams, the Eureka of Newark and the Irvington Club tried with some success to compete at the highest levels.   Yet they could not sustain that success at least partially because they quickly lost their best players to better teams with the Irvington Club's loss of Andy Leonard and Charles Sweasy to the legendary Cincinnati Red Stockings the best example.  Elizabeth's ill-fated 1873 season was the final 19th century attempt to see if New Jersey teams could compete at the highest level,  Just a year later, the Olympic Club of Paterson was resurrected and without any pretensions to bigger things developed four future major league players including future Hall of Famer Mike "King" Kelly.  While it certainly wasn't an intentional process, New Jersey had found its place in base ball, as a source of major league talent, a pattern that continues today with modern stars like Mike Trout and Rick Porcello.