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.

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