Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A National Game?

Can a sport be national when it's only played regionally?  The New York Clipper obviously thought so in 1856 when it claimed base ball was the national game, even though, as Bruce Allardice points out in Baseball: A Journal of the Early Game (2016), it was played in just four states.  In his study of the spread of the early game, Bruce demonstrates that base ball could only be considered national in the sense of  being "invented in America," not as a game "played throughout the nation."  Sadly, for those who care about such things, we now know that baseball wasn't invented in the United States, ruling out that possibility.  In a country, however, founded on the premise of equal opportunity, base ball might have been national, if it was a game consistent with American values, a game everyone could play. Research for the 2018 Morven exhibit on early New Jersey base ball led me to one New Jersey community where shortly after the Civil War it seemed everyone was on the ball field.  And to my surprise, the community was not in north Jersey where base ball first took hold, but Bordentown in south Jersey, where the organized game didn't get started until the mid 1860's.

Described by the local historical society as "a square mile enclave tucked on to the bluffs of the Delaware River," Bordentown was an early transportation hub due to its favorable location roughly halfway between Philadelphia and New York City.  The riverfront community was also home to prominent Americans like Clara Barton, Thomas Paine and Francis Hopkinson, a New Jersey signer of the Declaration of Independence.  For Bordentown, like anyplace else, the first step in becoming a base ball playing community was having a local team and the Columbia Club was organized about 1865.  A year later, the Columbians hosted the Athletic Club of Philadelphia, one of the country's top teams for two match games.  Although busy competing for the 1866 championship, the Athletics also found time to help local teams develop by visiting their home community for a game. Such contests were typically no contest, just one example is a 92-2 trouncing of the Alert Club of  Danville, Pennsylvania. As a vintage base ball score keeper, I'm profoundly grateful not to have been part of that game.  Although the Columbia club also lost badly to the Athletics in the first game, 65-6, the Bordentown boys weren't easily intimidated so they asked for, and were granted, a return match.  In the second contest, the Columbia Club scored 26 runs, more than any of their peers managed against the Athletics, but far short of the powerful Philadelphia team's 63 tallies.

The Sketch - July 22, 1896

Having a base ball club in 1866 was hardly unique, but organized base ball in Bordentown took other forms as well  A year later, the Newark Daily Advertiser told of a "considerable rivalry" between two local women's teams, the Bellevue and Galaxy ("accent on the Gal,") clubs.  Although the paper hoped to provide further reports, in typically maddening fashion for the modern researcher, no further contemporary mention of the teams has been found.  For once, however, it doesn't end there because more than 30 years later, one of the participants told her own story.  In Autobiography of a Tomboy, published in 1901, Jeannette Gilder described in some detail her base ball playing days in Bordentown.  Not only did she play, Gilder was a team captain and claimed it was not unusual for her to hit a home run every time at bat, bragging that was not just unmanly, but simultaneously unladylike, no mean feat.  Gilder claimed her sole regret was she didn't have a crooked finger to prove that like the boys she caught the ball without a glove.  Like any account written so many years later, the details of the story have to be taken with some degree of skepticism.  But Gilder cleared up one point - why a Newark paper devoted space to women's games in south Jersey.  Jeanette Gilder's elder brother, Richard Watson Gilder, the founder of The Century magazine and a distinguished poet, was a reporter for the Newark Daily Advertiser in 1867.

Charles Biddle Hopkinson 

Regardless of whether or not the two women's clubs played as extensively as Gilder claimed, they were still unique for the time.  But base ball in Bordentown had an even broader reach, perhaps best illustrated by a game played on Thanksgiving Day of 1866 on the Columbia Club's grounds.  Unfortunately, the contemporary Bordentown newspapers don't survive, but the game was such a "big" deal, in more ways than one, it attracted detailed coverage by the Daily True American of Trenton and The Mirror of nearby Mount Holly.  Labeled as "about as big a thing as we have had in New Jersey for many a day," the match was between teams chosen from the fat and lean men of Bordentown.  According to the True American , the game drew a crowd of at least 1200 since "gate receipts" of $112 were collected at the rate of 10 cents a head which the paper stressed was the minimum attendance since the ground was not enclosed and "hundreds could see without paying."  The festive atmosphere was further enhanced by a band of roughly 30 "musicians" about  one-half of whom had violins "of which they had very little knowledge."  So varied were the other instruments The Mirror claimed they ranged from "a Jews harp to a bass drum with the head stove in," all of which produced music, or more accurately noise, that "belched forth in operatic grandeur" especially whenever a run was tallied.

The Mirror - December 13,1866

Needless to say the "laughter was immense" or at least as large as the eleven heavyweights, all over 200 pounds, led or topped off by Joseph Regan at 268 with William Darby at 265 not far behind.  Supposedly all the players weighed in before the game and the papers thoughtfully provided the tonnage along with first names or initials facilitating the identification of some participants.  A number on the rotund side had no problem affording food and drink such as 236 pound tinsmith George Thompson who had an 1870 net worth of $50,000 while Levi Davis, the proprietor of the Bordentown House, weighing in at 252 pounds had assets of $38,000.  Whatever accounted for the slimness of the 12 man lightweight team (ranging from 98 to 145 pounds), it wasn't because they couldn't afford to buy food.  Especially well off was 128 pound David Carslake, a merchant with an 1870 net worth of almost $100,000.  Nor did the participants lack social prominence, particularly 108 pound Charles B. Hopkinson, the great grandson of  the aforementioned Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Sadly, as we shall see there was a reason, the 28 year old Civil War veteran was so thin.

 The Mirror - December 13, 1866

The game itself was remarkably close with the heavyweight side coming from behind to score seven times in the ninth inning and then holding on for a 24-18 victory.  The portly ones may not have been that tired because the organizers thoughtfully provided not only "sponges, pails of water, brushes and blankets," but chairs at each base, not to mention wheelbarrows to help them "run" the bases.  Manfully, however, the stout side "scorned their use."  The festivities continued after the last out with the presentation of a series of prizes, all of the gag nature such as a coral necklace which was in actuality a "rusty dog chain."  A number of the awards were further ridiculed as being from New Brunswick, part of some inter-city rivalry that has been lost to history which is probably just as well.  All the gate proceeds went to the Columbia Club which must have kept them in bats and balls for some time to come.

Daily True American - December 1, 1866

While making fun of the overweight is insensitive, especially by modern standards, games like this proved men across the full range of physical condition could both play base ball and have fun doing so.  This may have been doubly important for this group because considering their ages, its unlikely they played organized base ball in their youth.   Charles Hopkinson's story is particularly noteworthy.  The young man reportedly had a frail constitution, but when his country needed him, he served as a captain in the 9th New Jersey regiment.  While in the swamps of North Carolina, Hopkinson contracted typhoid fever that forced him to leave the army.  Supposedly he never fully recovered and died just four years after the Thanksgiving game at the age of 32.  But not before enjoying at least one day of fun and even glory on the base ball field, earning a clear score, the only one on his team to do so.  Hopefully he treasured his experience of playing in a truly American game for the rest of his brief life.

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