Monday, November 6, 2017

"It Might Have Been"

One of the many New Jersey base ball stories to be found in the upcoming Morven exhibit is how, beginning in 1865, three teams from the state tried unsuccessfully, to earn a position among the leading clubs of the day.  Each of the teams, the Eureka Club of Newark, the Irvington Club and the Elizabeth Resolutes have different stories, but were unsuccessful for basically the same reason.  Founded in 1860, the Eureka Club was made up of well to do young men from some of Newark's first families.  Edward Pennington, for example, the club's first president and regular second base man, was the son of one New Jersey governor and the grandson of another.  However, the Newark players weren't just socially prominent, they could also play the game.  In 1865, the Eureka twice came within one heart breaking run of defeating the champion Atlantic Club and then a year later, thrashed the Brooklyn team 36-10, one of the worst defeats in that storied team's history.  But no matter how bright the Eureka's future might have appeared after that historic victory, by the end of the 1868 season, the Eureka were no more.  The club folded primarily because their best players could no longer give enough time to base ball and the club couldn't or wouldn't pay the new breed of professionals to take their place.

No one could have mistaken the working class Irvington Club for the Eureka, but the upstart team from the outskirts of Newark certainly didn't lack for talent.  As is well known in 19th century base ball circles, in June of 1866, the self-described "country club," upset the Atlantics and came very close to knocking the Brooklyn club out of the championship race at the very end of that chaotic season.  So talented was the Irvington team, two members, Andy Leonard and Charles Sweasy went on to successful professional careers including playing for the legendary 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings.  The Irvington Club's problem was they couldn't afford to keep their top players and weren't able to sustain their early success.  Eventually the team's best remaining players moved to the Elizabeth Resolutes and were part of the Union County club's ill-advised attempt to compete in the National Association in 1873.  Since the Resolutes were a cooperative club, the players' salaries were dependent on gate receipts, if any, which meant the club couldn't compete with other Association teams for the best players.  Ultimately, all three clubs were unsuccessful largely because they lacked what today are euphemistically called financial resources, but in plain English means money or the lack thereof.

Were the three failures to put a club at the top, inevitable or could a different approach have produced a different result?  Could a New Jersey team have made it to the heights of the base ball world and stayed there?  In 1867, there was a chance to create a very talented club with plenty of money behind it,  and then, who knows?  Unfortunately, however, when the opportunity first presented itself, the Eureka and Irvington Clubs were too strong, or thought themselves too strong, to believe they needed each other.  Neither club could be blamed for being optimistic going into the 1867 season. Irvington had shocked the base ball world in 1866 and with a year of experience play at the highest level under their collective belts, they had every reason to believe their success would continue.   And the Eureka's 1866 performance also gave them plenty of reason to be optimistic about their future.

Before the season was very far along, however, the Newark Daily Journal caused "no little excitement" by reporting talk that Andy Leonard and Lipman Pike (a great 19th century player who played briefly with Irvington) were about to defect to the Eureka Club.  The rumors had been denied, but the paper went on to a far more important bit of speculation with possible historic implications.  According to the Journal, discussions were underway to combine the two clubs or, rather absorb the Irvington players on to the Eureka team. Perhaps a tad optimistically, the paper said the new club "would render it almost certain for New Jersey to carry off the championship of the United States."  Rose colored glasses indeed, but the combined roster would have included three future major leaguers (Sweasy, Leonard and Everett Mills) plus some other fine players.  In addition, the Eureka had far better and more accessible grounds and were highly regarded by the media and the base ball world.  Obviously, nothing came of it and it's impossible to know how serious the discussions were.  The sharp disparity in the social backgrounds of the two clubs alone might have made the possibility unworkable.

Charles Sweasy

Even if, however, the two clubs formed one "dream" team, there was still the risk those players would be lured away for higher salaries, but ironically that same season, a possible solution to that problem arose.  Earlier in 1867, the New Jersey State Legislature granted the Eureka permission to incorporate as a stock company, that is, they were authorized to sell stock to investors.  Interestingly, the authorization was for $50,000 worth of stock (about $1.5 million today), an incredibly high amount even by contemporary standards considering that in 1883, the team that would become the Brooklyn Dodgers had initial capitalization of only $2,000.  Little else was reported publicly about the stock sales until August, when the Eureka hosted the Charter Oak Club of Connecticut for a match, followed by a tour of the city and a gala dinner.  A day or so later, the Newark Evening Courier, in what was basically an editorial, said the Eureka would like to host other clubs in a similar manner, but didn't have enough money because they lacked an enclosed ground where they could charge admission.  The paper then emphasized how much free advertising the club provided for Newark businesses which alone should have been sufficient motivation for local business men to buy some of the stock.

Everett Mills 

Doubtless the Eureka needed money, but it wasn't for gala dinners, rather, it was to pay players which was against National Association of Base Ball Player rules and certainly wasn't going to be publicly mentioned by the paper.  To take irony to another level, the Eureka didn't even have to look far to find investors with big bank accounts.  Charles Thomas, the club's highly regarded shortstop had an 1870 net worth of $30,000 ($900,000 today) while Stephen Plum's father's total assets that same year were $160,000 ($4.8 million today).  They and others could have purchased a few shares and perhaps they did.  It either wasn't enough or the Eureka decided paying professionals wasn't their style, something they later admitted they had done in 1867 and were unwilling to continue.  But had both the players and the money been forthcoming, would it have made a difference?  The best answer is probably not.  New Jersey was then and remains today so oriented towards two major league cities, it's unlikely a top level club in Newark could have been sustained over the long term.  But it would have been fun to have tested the possibility.


  1. Excellent piece! On the enclosed ground, the breakout on enclosed grounds came a year earlier, when late in the season clubs discovered that spectators would pay 25 cents admission. Ten cents had been the previous standard, except for occasional benefit matches. Ten cents paid for the ground. 25 cents meant revenue went into club treasuries. The number of paid players, and the amount they were paid, rose in direct consequence. This meant that a club without enclosed grounds could not compete. A scramble, at times unseemly, for enclosed grounds followed. So the Courier's editorial was very much on point. But enclosed grounds were necessary but not sufficient. Location mattered. The Unions of Morrisania opened a grand enclosed ground that hard for spectators to get to, and had poor drainage. This was a white elephant, and sunk the club. I suspect that any Newark location would have had similar accessibility problems for the New York crowd, and that Newark was too small to support a top-tier competitive club. Consider how the New Yorks twenty years later Jersey City as a home ground and upon trial, immediately dropped the idea.

  2. Thanks for the kind words and the comment. I'm not sure how much of problem access would have been for New Yorkers. The Eurkea Club's rented grounds were an easy walk from the Market Street Depot (now Penn Station) and the annual financial reports for the New Jersey Railroad reflect a lot of traffic between Newark and the Jersey City ferry. A kind of personal testimony is that I don't recall ever seeing the New York media - Chadwick, Caudell etc complaining about going to a game in Newark while complaints about visiting Irvington are part of almost every game account.