Monday, May 29, 2017

"Without ever having had a chance to live"

The Neshanock's annual Memorial Day visit to Newtown, Pennsylvania to take on the hometown Strakes was cancelled for obvious reasons.  After taking next weekend off, Flemington will visit the Howell Living History Farm on Saturday, June 10th.  What follows is a reflection on why it's so important to remember our country's war dead originally written to accompany the game account.

Newark Star Eagle May 1919

Recently I've been thinking about something I wrote well over a decade ago, in my first book, The Mutinous Regiment: The Thirty-third New Jersey in the Civil War.  The 33rd's heaviest combat losses came during the Atlanta Campaign which lasted from May to September of 1864.  On July 20, 1864 at Peachtree Creek, the regiment had the extreme misfortune to be caught in an exposed position  in front of the Union lines when the Confederates under John Bell Hood launched a surprise attack.  Although the rebels were finally driven off, it was not before the 33rd suffered their highest combat losses of the war.  Ironically, and it was a bitter irony, Peachtree Creek was not only the 33rd's bloodiest battle of the war, it was also their last.  While it would take another year before the regiment returned home to New Jersey, they would never again be at risk of dying in battle.   Considering that sharp divide between living and dying, it's not surprising I was moved to write "If life is unfair, little in life is less fair than war.  In every war some go through combat unscathed to live long and full lives, while others, for no reason besides luck or chance, die without ever having had a chance to live." More than ten years, three other books and countless articles and blog posts later, I still think it's one of the best things I've written.

Parker Middleton of Newark, 369th Infantry Regiment - Killed in Action, September 30, 1918

What brought it to mind was not so much Memorial Day, but another war related project I'm working on this time about World War I.  I've been asked to give a lecture for the Newark History Society on September 25th about the combat experience of Newark men in what was then called the Great War.  It's not a subject I knew much about and researching it has shown the random unfairness of combat casualties was even greater for the dough boys of 1917-18 than for the Civil War generation.  Not only was the duration of our country's participation in the war shorter, most American troops saw combat for no more than three to four months.  The great majority of the men from New Jersey who served in World War I were part of either the 29th Division (the Rainbow Division) or the 78th Division (Jersey Lightening).  Most of both divisions' combat experience came in the Meuse Argonne, a terrible struggle that lasted from September 26th to Armistice Day on November 11th.  It was the longest battle in American History, lasting 47 days, but since units rotated in and out of line, the actual time in combat was shorter.

William Sawelson, 312th Regiment - Killed in Action, October 26, 1918

None of this is to suggest it was easy duty, Edward Lengel's excellent book on the battle is aptly  entitled To Conquer Hell and describes the terrible losses suffered by inexperienced, poorly trained American soldiers going against some of the strongest German defenses on the western front.  The 78th Division's story is a case in point, they were actively engaged for only nine days, but in that time, saw the unit's strength decline by 50% as they fought and died to take the citadel at Grandpre, a crucial position on the German's last important defensive line.  But while it must have been terrible, the men of the 78th Division were at the most risk of dying in combat for little over a week.  Even more so than the 33rd New Jersey's dead, the "unlucky" in the 78th Division had indeed died "without ever having a chance to live."  Understanding the unfairness of battle and how much those men missed when they lost their lives in the service of our country can helps us, I think, to better understand their sacrifices and the importance of never forgetting them.  As  the British poet, Laurence Binyon wrote earlier in the war.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.

May it always be so.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Not a walk-off, no matter how you look at it

Saturday, the Neshanock made a rare trip to northern New Jersey to take on the Nutley Colonels in an event sponsored by Kingsland Manor, an historic home in Nutley dating back to the 1700's.  The sponsors do a great job in hosting the match and I especially appreciate their reprinting something I had written about 1860's score keeping in the program.  While the weather was far more comfortable than the record breaking heat of the end of the week, the few rain drops that fell were a bad omen for the home team since at least so far, the Neshanock play better amidst rain or at least threatening clouds.  Today's game was basically decided early in a rather bizarre second inning which began with the Colonels, down 2-0, putting runners on second and third with one out.  What looked like a golden opportunity to score quickly went by the boards when the Neshanock pulled of the hidden ball trick (the Colonels had been duly warned by the umpire) and then recorded the third out on a foul tip.  

Photo by Mark Granieri

After the first two Neshanock strikers went down in Flemington's half of the second, it looked the game would continue to be a low scoring affair.  However the Neshanock suddenly erupted for six tallies, not all of which would have earned a lot of points for style, but counted in the score book for an 8-0 Flemington lead.  From that point on the strong pitching of Danny "Lunch Meat" (aka "King," aka "Batman") Shaw and Rene "Mango" Marrero and solid defense behind them kept the home team not only off the scoreboard, but also off the bases.  Flemington didn't generate a huge amount of offense either, but did tally 13 times in total led by "Mango" and Jeff "Duke" Schneider with three hits each, followed by Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner, Joe "Mick" Murray, Chris "Low Ball" Lowry, "Lunch Meat" and Dave "Illinois" Harris with two apiece.  "Illinois" also stole three bases which a was key factor in the victory or at least so he told me.  Thanks also to Manny for filling in and bolstering our numbers.  Now 5-3 on the season, Flemington will journey to Newtown, Pennsylvania on Memorial Day for the annual match with the hometown Strakes.

Photo by Mark Granieri

A few weeks ago, when writing about the Neshanock's bottom of the ninth inning victory over the Atlantic Club, I carefully avoided using the expression "walk-off win."  Not only wasn't the term used in the 1860's, it wasn't in vogue for most of my 60 plus years of following baseball one way or another.  I've since learned, however, that not only wasn't the expression "walk-off win" used in the 19th century, there was no such thing under the rules by which the Neshanock - Atlantic game was played (1864).  While I probably should have realized this earlier, it was brought home when I started thinking about one of the games on the Nassau Club of Princeton's four game tour of the then independent City of Brooklyn in October of 1863.  After dispatching the Resolute Club of Brooklyn in their first match, the collegians took on the Excelsior Club, a storied team from the City of Churches, largely due to their historic tour of New York state in 1860.  Later that same year, the Excelsiors had some unpleasant experiences in matches with the Atlantic Club leading to a vow not to compete for the championship which doubtless cost them some talented players.  Further weakening the Brooklyn club was the absence of its leader, Joe Leggett, who by 1863, unlike most of the leading players of the day, was serving in the Union Army.

Asa Brainard

At the same time, the Excelsior Club was not without talent, especially pitcher, Asa Brainard, who would go on to pitch for the Cincinnati Red Stockings and then for multiple teams in the National Association.  Opposing Brainard (whose brother was his catcher) was, not surprisingly, Fred Henry, he of the deceptive, curve like pitch, and it's no surprise the game was relatively low scoring.  Striking first, the Excelsiors led 2-1 after three innings and then added three runs in the fourth and two in the fifth while the visitors only managed three runs in the next three innings so that the Brooklyn club led 7-4 after six.  It got worse for the Princeton team over the last three innings and heading to the bottom of the ninth, the Excelsiors had a seemingly comfortable 11-5 lead.  Some of the Excelsiors may have been a little too relaxed since the Brooklyn Eagle (most likely Henry Chadwick) claimed they were paying "sundry attentions to a pail of claret punch."  In any event, the combination of two Excelsior muffs and two passed balls along with some timely Nassau hitting produced seven runs for the visitors and a "walk-off" victory.  But not so fast!  Under the rules of the day, the team striking second had to complete their at bat or the game reverted to the last complete inning when the Excelsiors were ahead  And in the gathering October dusk, it wouldn't take too long for it to be too dark to continue, in fact there were some claims that was already the case.

Joseph Leggett 

One can only imagine Henry Chadwick's horror at what happened next.  Two were out with Fred Henry at the striker's line and the Nassau Club star tried to speed things along by intentionally swinging and missing.  This didn't sit well with the Excelsior Club who "excited" over losing a game they had seemingly won, not to mention the effects of demon rum (or in this case claret), forgot, according to Chadwick, the gentlemanly Leggett's teaching and tried to keep the game going until it had to be called for darkness.  Brainard started pitching wildly and then when Henry finally hit a fly ball, catcher Harry Brainard called for all three Excelsior's circling under the ball to intentionally miss it.  Fortunately, George Cook, in the words of the Sunday Mercury, "remembering the club he played for," caught the ball, restoring order and some semblance of gentlemanly behavior, not to mention a Nassau Club victory.  Fortunately both papers reported that good feeling was immediately restored and the two clubs enjoyed the customary post game celebratory dinner.

New York Sunday Mercury - October 25, 1863

While I was certainly aware of the practice, if not the rule, of playing all nine innings regardless of the score, the way this could impact a game already won or lost, was something I hadn't encountered or thought about.  It, of course, raised the question of when the rule was changed and an email exchange with noted base ball historian Richard Hershberger determined the nine inning rule remained in effect for another 17 years, changing in time for the 1880 National League season.  I have to say, I'm amazed it took that long, especially at the professional or major league level.  I'm guessing that amateur clubs which didn't play as frequently and not quite as competitively, enjoyed playing as many innings as they could.  It surprises me, however, that professionals who had more than their fill of games would want to play any extra innings especially in circumstances like the above situation where it could cost a club a game.  But as Richard pointed out, we should never under estimate the traditional fall back of "we've always done it that way."  In the absence of other explanations for maintaining rules or practices that seem to have outlived their usefulness we should always keep that in mind.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Fred's Curve

Photo by Mark Granieri

If the old adage "when it rains, it pours," were applied to the first few weeks of the Neshanock's 2017 season, it would read "when it rains, Flemington wins."  Follow two wet wins at Old Bethpage village two weeks ago, the Neshanock again triumphed among the rain drops in their annual visit to Ringwood Manor State Park.  Taking part in the event for the first time was the Brandywine Club of West Chester, Pennsylvania, a fine group of ball players who first crossed the paths (base or otherwise) with the Neshanock at the 2017 Gettysburg Vintage base ball festival.  Not only did the visitors have to contend with Flemington's apparent fondness for wet weather, but Sunday also marked the first time the Neshanock were at full strength so much so we were able to lend veteran Mark "Gaslight" Granieri to the short handed Pennsylvania club. Taking full advantage of having its full complement of players, Flemington pounded out 26 hits in the first contest with only a slight drop off to 24 in the second affair.  In the first match the Neshanock led 10-5 after three innings, but allowed only one Brandywine tally thereafter while adding another 13 runs for a 23-6 victory.  A special highlight for me came before the game when Brad "Brooklyn" Shaw gave me a baseball autographed by one Charles H. Ebbets, along with a certificate of authenticity - a thoughtful and much appreciated gift.

Photo by Mark Granieri

Leading Flemington's offensive onslaught was Dan "Sledge" Hammer with four hits including three doubles, coming up only one at bat short of a clear score.  Right behind "Sledge" were Danny "King" Shaw, Bobby "Melky" Ritter and Ken "Tumbles" Mandel with three apiece while five other Neshanocks had two hits.  In addition to his three hits "Melky" notched a put out and an assist while in the pitcher's box demonstrating new found mobility from his still relatively new hips.  After the obligatory break for "Casey at the Bat," the second match began, this time with the Neshanock in the field.  While Flemington continued to hit effectively, much improved Brandywine defense combined with timely hitting kept this one much closer so that the Neshanock led only 12-7 after six innings.  The visitors added one tally in the top of the inning and had two on with two out when a fine "Tumbles" catch of a line drive (without the traditional tumble) kept Flemington in front.  The Neshanock then tallied five times over their next two visits to the striker's line while keeping Brandywine off the board for a 17-8 victory.  "Sledge," Rene "Mango" Marrero and Dave "Specs" Chamlian had three hits apiece for Flemington, but the noteworthy offensive achievements were clear scores for Gregg "Burner" Wiseburn and Chris "Sideshow" Nunn.  Not only did "Burner" avoid making an out, he also tallied in each of his four plate appearances.  "Sideshow's" clear score didn't quite match "Burner's" for style points, but as Henry Chadwick used to say (or should have said), "It's still a clear score in the box score."  Now 4-3 for the young season, Flemington will take part in the Spirit of the Jersies history fair next Saturday at Monmouth Battlefield State Park.

In the last post I mentioned that Fred Henry, Princeton student and pitcher for the Nassau Club, was given (and took) credit for throwing curve balls as early as the fall of 1863.  This was hardly news to me since I had seen references to Henry's deceptive pitch back when I was researching the Nassau Club for the second volume of Baseball Founders.  For whatever reason or reasons, I've never bothered to look at where this fit into the history of the pitch that has been a litmus test for whether a prospective player was of major league caliber.  Having decided it was finally time to pursue this, the first port of call was A Game of Inches where noted base ball historian Peter Morris began his entry on the curve ball by writing that "Few if any origins have as heatedly disputed as those of the curve ball." With that opening, it was no surprise, Peter's essay covers more than ten pages, one of the longest entries in his book.  Henry is, of course, mentioned, but given the complexity of the subject, I want to focus, not on entering the debate for or against any of the many candidates, but rather by looking at contemporary comments to see what was said about Henry at the time.  Where all this fits in the larger story is a subject for another day and perhaps another place.

Fred Henry 

The first media mention that Henry threw something out of the ordinary is found in newspaper articles describing the Nassau Club's September 26, 1863 victory over the Athletic Club of Philadelphia.  The Philadelphia Item reported that the collegiate pitcher threw "a slow ball with a heavy twist" which was "extremely irregular" and bothered the Athletics for the first 2 - 3 innings.  Indeed Henry shut out the Athletics for the first two innings before allowing two tallies in the third by which time the Nassau club had the game well in hand with a 15-2 lead.  The Athletics did manage eleven more runs over the course of the game, but it was far too little far too late in the Princeton team's 29-13 victory.  The 13 tallies were well below the Philadelphia club's average of 22 runs a game which is inflated somewhat by the Athletics 73 run outburst in another 1863 match. In addition to the Philadelphia paper, Henry's pitching was also mentioned by both the Clipper and the New York Sunday Mercury.  The latter paper attributed the Nassau victory to "the fine pitching of Henry" which the paper said was reflected in the number of strike outs and foul catches.  While a number of the newspaper accounts of the match include box scores, none that I've seen record the number of foul outs and strike outs - a standard frustration of 19th century base ball research.

After a victory over the Irvington team (then a junior club), the Nassau club spent their October academic break in Brooklyn taking on the Resolute, Excelsior, Star and Atlantic Clubs, four games in four days with Henry pitching all four contests.  While there were no comments about Henry's pitching in the newspaper accounts of the first three games, only the Excelsior Club reached double digits (11) while the Resolute and Star Clubs were limited to 9 and 7 runs respectively.  Although the statistical information on runs scored by these clubs is incomplete (taken from Marshall Wright's The National Association of Base Ball Players), all three Brooklyn clubs were held under their average offensive production.  The limited scoring was certainly a major factor in the young college players winning all three games.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - July 7, 1864

 Although Atlantic Club was a year away from being a championship team, they appear to have been Henry's biggest test on the trip.  If so, it was a test, he and his teammates failed, losing by an 18-13 count in game stopped for darkness after seven innings.  Even though the Brooklyn club won, one newspaper recognized Henry's proficiency claiming his pitching "bothered the Atlantics exceedingly," citing as evidence the fact that every Brooklyn player had a strike called on him with Crane and Smith striking out.  The significance of each Atlantic taking a called strike would seem to mean they were deceived by pitches they first thought out of the strike zone, but which came back in because of some kind of twist or slant.  Both the commentary and the statistical evidence, as limited as it may be, supports the idea that whatever Henry was doing it was both unusual and effective.  The Nassau Club hurler's early 1864 performance further supported such speculation, not only did he pitch well in the New Jersey - Philadelphia all star game, but he also led the Nassau Club to victories over the Mutual Club of New York and the Star Club in a return 1864 visit to Brooklyn.  An early July re-match with the Atlantics, however did not go quite so well since the Brooklyn team was apparently more than a little ready for Henry's deceptive delivery, hitting five home runs while embarrassing the collegians by a 42-7 count.  Then and now base ball is a game of adjustments.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Another game, another river to cross

Winston Churchill once remarked that golf is a game where the objective is to hit into a very small hole, an even smaller ball with tools totally inadequate for the purpose.  Much the same could be said about taking seven vintage base ball players (at least two over 50) to play the Elkton Eclipse, one of the country's top teams, at their home field.  To make matters even worse, not only were Elkton at full strength, they looked in mid season form especially in the field and the final results were very predictable.  One early surprise was the Neshanock keeping the Eclipse off the score board in the top of the first and then tallying a run to lead 1-0 after one.  After tying the game in their half of the second, Elkton took a 5-1 lead after three, but Flemington stayed close, trailing only 11-7 after six.  At the point, however, the Eclipse's offense got going and then some, tallying seven times in the 7th and nine more in the 8th for a 27-10 victory in a game mercifully stopped after eight innings.  Even more mercifully, the second contest was limited to seven innings, a match that saw Elkton quickly take control in route to a 13-4 victory.  The Neshnock were led on offense by Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner with seven hits over the two games, followed by "Jersey" Jim Nunn with six and Lawrence Major and Jeff "Duke" Schneider with five apiece.  Now 2-3 on the season, the Neshanock return to action next Sunday at Ringwood Manor in northern New Jersey hosting the Brandywine Base Ball Club.

After  last week's trip to Long Island led to some reflections on the first time a New Jersey team crossed the Hudson (not to mention the East River) to take on a New York club, it seemed only natural to use this weekend's trip to Maryland to take a similar look at the first time a New Jersey club crossed the Delaware. Since the former case featured one of the state's charter clubs, it didn't take a lot of heavy lifting to remember the first crossing of the Hudson in search of base ball glory, but that wasn't the case when it came to a New Jersey team heading south.  I knew some of the early south Jersey clubs played matches against Delaware teams, but that wasn't until after the Civil War, so it seemed doubtful any of those matches would have been the historic first.  Without looking I remembered the Eureka club of Newark visited Philadelphia for some matches in September of 1863 so I thought that might be the first instance, but such was not the case, although I did have the year right.  Based on current research, it appears the honor goes to the Nassau Club of Princeton which traveled to Philadelphia in May of 1863 to take on not just one, but two clubs from the City of Brotherly Love.

Nassau Club 1863-64 - Fred Henry is the third from the left

I've written about the Nassau Club before both in Baseball Founders and on this blog so hopefully what follows isn't redundant.  Organized at Princeton University during the late 1850's, the Nassau Club was made up of Princeton students, but wasn't yet a school sanctioned organization.  The club is one of the rarer antebellum teams where we know exactly how it came to be formed.  Three young men from Brooklyn, led by Lewis Mudge, Class of 1862, brought their bats and balls with them when they enrolled at Princeton and got the team started although most of their early matches were either with the Princeton Seminary or of the inter-squad variety.  By 1863, Mudge and the other founding members had graduated, although Mudge would play some matches for the Nassau Club while a student at the Seminary (apparently eligibility rules were looser in those days).  In any event on May 22, 1863, the collegians boarded the train and headed to Philadelphia to take on the Athletic Club.  Organised in 1859 as a Philadelphia Town Ball team, the Athletics had a religious experience in 1860, converting to base ball and by 1863 were about to begin taking on the best teams in New York and Brooklyn.

Batting first, the visitors from New Jersey tallied twice, but the lead didn't last long as the Philadelphia team put up three aces of their own and then broke the game open with six in the third and seven in the fourth to lead 20-5 after six innings.  Although the term hadn't been invented yet, the Nassau Club gave it the old college try, rallying for nine aces in the 7th, making things much more interesting at 20-14 in favor of the home team.  This was not, however, to be a legendary come back as the Athletics restored some order by scoring three times in the seventh on the way to a 29-18 victory.  In a fairly detailed account of the match, The Item and Visitor seemed more concerned with the local team's lack of practice, imploring the Athletics to have their first nine play two or three more matches before heading to New York City and Brooklyn to play stronger competition.  The paper praised the visiting collegians as "excellent players and gentlemanly young men," but noted that their play demonstrated a "great want of a pitcher."  It was a very perceptive observation on the writer's part, not because of the lack of proficiency demonstrated by S. H. Jacobus, but because of the presence of a far more talented pitcher out of position at second base, one Fred Henry.

Great Central Fair - Philadelphia, June 1864

Whether they took the paper's advice to heart or not, Henry pitched the following day's 20-14 victory over the Olympic Club and would pitch the remainder of the Nassau Club's 1863 match games.  All six of those contests took place in the fall after a long summer break beginning with a 29-13 victory over the Athletics, this time at Princeton.  In October during a semester break, the collegians headed to Brooklyn, home to a number of the club's players, to take on four teams from the City of Churches.  Over the course of four days, the Nassau team with Henry pitching defeated the Resolute, Excelsior and Star clubs before falling to the Atlantic Club by a respectable 18-13 score.  What was the key to young Mr. Henry's pitching success?  He is one of those credited as being the first or one of the first to throw a curve ball.  While it's impossible to verify how much credit Henry deserves in pioneering the pitch, he could certainly be hard to hit.  A year later in a New Jersey - Pennsylvania all star game as part of the Great Central Fair in Philadelphia, Henry not only struck out four of Philadelphia's top players, he also retired 13 on foul balls, 17 outs without the ball being hit into fair territory.  In the next post we'll take a more detailed look at Mr. Henry's pitching prowess.