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.

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