Sunday, April 15, 2018

A New Season from an Old Point of View

After a winter of discontent (with the weather at least), New Jersey's vintage base ball clubs got the season underway with a vengeance on Saturday with four teams in action.  Down the shore, the Monmouth Furnace Club took on some Monmouth University students while in central New Jersey, not ten miles apart, the Liberty Club and the Flemington Neshanock got their seasons underway with matches against the New York Mutuals and the Eckford Club of Brooklyn respectively.  Completing the day's action was the Hoboken Nine who paid a visit to the Atlantic Club of Brooklyn at Smithtown, Long Island.  With the Elizabeth Resolutes, the state's senior club, set to play their first match next Saturday, New Jersey has five vintage clubs, probably an all time high - a tribute to those who do the behind the scenes work necessary to make it all happen.  The Neshanock's match at the Somerset Patriots home ball park was once again part of that organization's fan fest, played in July like temperatures before a good crowd including families, some getting their first exposure to the 19th century game.

As per usual for this popular match, the Neshanock had a full complement of players while the Eckford were somewhat shorthanded missing their leader, Al "Rocky" Belbol and the one and only (thank goodness) Eric Miklich.  "Rocky" was reportedly busy with family activities and there so many possible explanations for Eric's absence that it's probably better not to go down that road.  Being shorthanded, however, didn't mean the Eckford were necessarily at a disadvantage.  Play was called at 12:32 with the Neshanock in the field having won the toss and electing to strike second.  The Brooklyn club quickly got off to a strong start with the first three strikers securing their base and ultimately making their runs largely due to well struck balls by the second and third batters.  Fortunately, for Flemington, the damage was stopped by Brian "Spoons" LoPinto who charged in from center field to take a well struck ball on the bound for the third out.  In the bottom of the first, it appeared the Neshanock would replicate the Eckford's performance as Jeff "Duke" Schneider, Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner and Rene "Mango" Marrero each got on, loading the bases with Neshanock.  However the rally was cut short when Daniel "Lassie" Loscalzo, the Eckford catcher, made a fine diving/sliding catch of a foul ball on the bound and when the next batter went out, Flemington was retired without scoring.

After the Eckford's three run first, the Neshanock defense improved over the next four innings, holding the visitors to just two runs due to the pitching of Danny "Lunch Time" Shaw and Bobby "Melky" Ritter plus some solid defense behind them.  Scott "Snuffy" Hengst at catcher, made a fine sliding catch of a foul ball in his own right while also making a difficult catch of a foul fly.  Another defensive contribution came from "Duke" who caught a fly ball on the bounce while running with his back to the plate.  The Eckford broke through with three tallies in the sixth largely due to hits that were either well struck or well placed.  Once again, however, the bleeding was stopped by a fine defensive  play this time at first by Dave "Illinois" Harris who dug out at errant throw to end the inning.  After a three run seventh for the visitors, Ken "Tumbles" Mandel contributed a defensive gem to end the eighth.  Shuffling across the greensward, the Neshanock second base man eschewed the bound catch, manfully sticking out his hand to pluck the ball from the air like an apple from an imaginary tree.  All told, Flemington made only three errors on the day,  not bad at all for the first game.

Unfortunately, Flemington's defensive efforts were more than matched by the visitors.  Demonstrating masterful control while changing speeds regularly and effectively, Eckford pitcher, Steve "Trousers" Krauss made the Neshanock's visits to the striker's line largely fruitless.   "Lassie" followed his defensive gem in the first with some other fine plays while the rest of the Eckford contributed solid defensive especially the routine plays too often taken for granted, but essential to success. In the end, the Eckford did even better than the Neshanock making only two muffs and shutting the home team out for the first eight innings.  Down, 11-0 headed to their final visit to the striker's line, the Neshanock broke through with their first tallies of the 2018 season.  "Thumbs," "Illinois," and Lunch Time" all made their runs before the Eckford restored order ending the match with an 11-3 win.  So strong was the visitor's pitching and defense that Flemington only managed eight hits, led by "Mango" with three and "Thumbs" with two. Making his Neshanock debut in right field was Matt Ayres, welcome to the club, Matt.

Photo by Eve Mandel

In my last post, I mentioned my plan to experiment this season by attempting to report Neshanock games from the perspective of nineteenth century sportswriters like Henry Chadwick and William Cauldwell.  As noted in that post, these pioneering writers and their peers emphasized defense more than offense which I realized today requires paying even more attention than is necessary to just record numbers and symbols in the score book.  Unlike a home run, an exceptional defensive play like those of "Snuffy" and "Lassie" in today's game doesn't look any different in the score book than the routine foul bound out.  Additional notes of some kind are necessary to record such defensive gems, failing to do so means plays that could have had a major impact on the outcome may not appear in a game account.  This was especially important from the beginning of competitive base ball until the introduction of radio and then television.  For all those decades, far more people learned about games from written accounts rather than actually seeing the game or hearing it described on the radio.   For today at least, trying to replicate the 1864 perspective was an interesting experience to be renewed next weekend during the New Jersey/New York Cup at Old Bethpage Village on Long Island.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Numbers into Words

Back in January I visited the New York Public Library for some research in the Spalding Collection, a treasure trove of original material from the early days of base ball.  It was far from my first visit, but this time I had a different mission, seeking artifacts for the New Jersey base ball exhibit at the Morven Museum in Princeton now planned for June of 2019.  Of special interest were the score books of the 1860's, especially Henry Chadwick's which I had previously used to make a replica of his 1868 score book for use by the Flemington Neshanock vintage team.  We're now on our fifth volume which I will use in 2018 to score games by a system Chadwick evolved from a very basic approach to a much more sophisticated version.  On prior visits to the library, I had also studied the game book of the Atlantic Base Ball Club of Brooklyn, one of the era's top teams.  It was from the latter book that I was able to confirm that a "clear score," the highest offensive goal of the time, was achieved by not being put out even once while at bat or on the bases rather than tallying a run every time at the striker's line.

Spalding baseball collection. Manuscripts and Archives Division. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

Although I was already familiar with both Chadwick's score books and those of the Atlantics, this was the first time that I looked at them not only on the same visit, but also for the same game.  Above, courtesy of the NYPL library, is a picture of the Eureka Club of Newark's at bats for an August 18, 1865 match with the Atlantics from Chadwick's book while below is the same page from the Brooklyn club's score book.  The game was played in Newark before a large crowd which saw their hopes for a major upset dashed when the home team's desperate ninth inning rally fell one heartbreaking run short. For obvious reasons, the two books reflect very different approaches to score keeping.  Looking at the Eureka's first at bat in the Atlantic club book below (click on pictures to enlarge), we see only the basic details of the inning, three runs for the Newark team, scored by Callaway, Thomas and Pennington while Littlewood, Rogers and Brientnall were all put out at first base.  Only the outs and runs were recorded because that was all the information the Atlantics needed.  Statistics like batting averages, runs batted in, etc hadn't been developed yet and there was little need for more detailed offensive numbers.

Spalding baseball collection.  Manuscripts and Archives Division.  The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations  

The same half inning in Chadwick's book, enlarged below, gives far more detail, most of which has little meaning without understanding Chadwick's system and even after years of trying to replicate that system, there are still things I don't understand.  Take Fred Callaway, the first Eureka striker, as an example.  The vertical line in the upper left hand corner is the symbol for a hit with the horizontal lines indicating the number of bases, two in this case.  To the right of the lines appears a one connected to a three with a dot over the line.  The dot over the line stands for a throwing error by player number one while trying to throw out the striker out at a base.  The natural assumption that the number one symbolizes a throwing error by the pitcher is incorrect because of the major difference between Chadwick's system and the modern approach.  Instead of today's symbols of 1 for a pitcher, 2 for a catcher, etc., Chadwick based the numbers for fielders by their place in the batting order.  By coincidence in this case, Joe Start, the Atlantic's first baseman was the third hitter so he keeps the number three, but the first batter was catcher Dickey Pearce and it was his throwing error, not that of the pitcher.  The dot in the lower left hand corner means Callaway scored a run, but I don't understand the 2 over the dot, nor the 4 over the Thomas' run or the 8 over Pennington's - obviously more research is in order.  The three outs in the inning all represent put outs at first, but as with the error, the assist (a term not used at the time) is based on the fielder's place in the batting order, the letter "A" is Chadwick's symbol for first base.

Spalding baseball collection.  Manuscripts and Archives Division.  The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

Obviously, Chadwick recorded far more information because his responsibilities went beyond keeping track of runs and outs while the game was in progress.  His task was to tell the story of the match in a newspaper article read by far more people than actually saw the game in person. Or to put it another way, he had to convert those numbers and symbols into words.   Below is his description of the Eureka's first at bat as it appeared in the New York Clipper on August 26, 1865.   What's interesting to me is that Chadwick provided more information than appears in the score book such as descriptions of hits as "good," a defensive play as having "stopped a hot one well," and a player's"failure to return the ball."    It would be natural to think that Chadwick made notes somewhere in the score book, but there is nothing in the book itself beyond the page as shown above.  Unless he had a computer like memory, Chadwick must have used a notebook of some kind, probably one small enough to easily fit in his pocket, to record details he needed to write his newspaper accounts.

New York Clipper - August 26, 1865

My reason for exploring how Chadwick used numbers and symbols to tell a story is that I've decided to try something different this year in my blog posts about Neshanock games.  My plan is to write game accounts in the same manner matches were described in the New York Sunday Mercury and the New York Clipper, two leading sports weeklies of the day.  Chadwick, who is, of course, a household name in baseball history circles,wrote for the Clipper while the Mercury reporter and also the publisher was William Cauldwell. Although nowhere near as well known as Chadwick, Cauldwell was actually the pioneer in writing and promoting newspaper coverage of base ball and at one time hired Chadwick as a writer.  My goal is not to try to literally recreate their writing style, but their point of view.  I've gone through both papers for the 1864 season (the Neshanock most frequently plays games by 1864 rules) and there is definitely a pattern to how they wrote about games especially their emphasis on defense over offense.  My goal is to try to see games how they saw them and then describe matches to blog readers in the same manner these sports writing pioneers used over 150 years ago.  It's an experiment and we'll see how it goes, but I'm excited about trying to recreate another aspect of 19th century base ball.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Talking Charles Ebbets

Very grateful to the hosts of "Beyond the Game," from radio station WHPC (90.3) at Nassau Community College for an opportunity to talk about Charles Ebbets.  The link to the interview is below. It begins about 29 minutes into the program and lasts about 15 minutes. 

According to Amazon, the release date for the book is July 14th.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Email - 1867 Style

In about three weeks, Brad "Brooklyn" Shaw, esteemed president of the Flemington Neshanock, will reach for his trusty iPad and prepare a message informing the Neshanock players of the date, time and location of the club's first 2018 match along other sundry information.  Then with just a touch of his finger, the message will effortlessly take flight traveling over at least two states to every team member who will equally effortlessly retrieve it and, hopefully, not quite as effortlessly, read it.  Brad will repeat this action probably 25 times over the course of the season as will other vintage club leaders ranging from Maine to Florida and New Jersey to California .  Since the Neshanock were founded in 2002, my guess is that Brad has always been able to take advantage of this sophisticated, but highly user friendly means of communication.  Any vintage clubs that existed before email had to rely on such old fashioned communication tools as the telephone, still convenient, but not without effort.  Trust me, I know, since as a college basketball manager, I once had to phone an entire basketball team reminding them of the first practice of the new semester.

Probably like everyone who is reading this, I had never given a thought to how 19th century clubs communicated with their members, but one day last fall I unexpectedly received very tangible evidence of how it worked.  The information came to me by means of an email (again with the email) from Jean Walton, the secretary of the New Jersey Postal History Society, asking for help with an article for their quarterly journal about some items Don Bowe, one of their members, had purchased.  Included was the above postal cover (envelope) addressed to J. Winner, Jr., at 150 West Street in New York City.  Inside the cover were three identical slips of paper like the one below announcing that the Bergen Base Ball Club would have its opening game on May 27, 1867 at 3:00 with the first nine playing the field (whoever else shows up).  On the reverse side of one of the slips was a note asking John (obviously J. Winner Jr.) to deliver the enclosed notices.  Like the three game announcements, the note was signed by JHW, corresponding secretary.  Jean was looking for help explaining what this was all about and I was fortunately well positioned to provide some assistance.

At the time, Bergen was an independent Hudson County municipality which was incorporated into Jersey City in 1870.   Winner, it turned out was a Jersey City resident, apparently working at 150 West Street in New York, probably as an accountant, his occupation on the 1870 census.  The other two copies were intended for S. Mills and James Hill, but searches for the two men proved fruitless probably because of the very common last names.  JHW, however, was a far simpler proposition because contemporary newspaper articles identified one J. H. Westervelt as the corresponding secretary of the Bergen Club.  J.H. Westervelt is most likely, John H. Westervelt, a retail cash merchant who a year later would be elected treasurer of the State Base Ball Association.  Box scores for three Bergen Club games in 1867 list both Westervelt and Mills in lineup, but it looks like Hill either didn't make the first nine or dropped out for some other reason. 

Again, I had never considered how club leaders communicated with their players in that technologically limited age.  Perhaps its symbolic of how little thought is given to the behind the scenes work that was involved in operating these 19th century base ball clubs.  Not only did the corresponding secretary have to communicate with players and others, a recording secretary had to keep minutes and presumably club membership records while the treasurer had to do all the financial work regardless of the relatively small amounts of money.  Someone also had to handle potentially complicated issues such as finding a place for practice and matches, ordering uniforms and other equipment, not to mention arranging transportation for away games.  Having spent most of the past 40 years working with not-for-profits as both a volunteer and staff, I know full well the work involved and how the inability to find volunteers willing and able to take on these jobs can put the whole organization at risk.  That may help explain why some clubs were short lived and demonstrate the importance of the unknown and unsung figures who helped keep these early club alive so base ball could grow into the national pastime.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

"Taken at the Flood"

If, as Shakespeare wrote, there are multiple paths to greatness, the same can also be said of the different ways base ball players get started on the road to the major leagues.  In the case of  Edward "The Only" Nolan, the first of the Olympic players to leave Paterson, it was the chance to pitch when the club's regular pitcher was absent.  Nolan took full advantage of the opportunity and after two productive years with the Olympics, eventually reached the majors with Indianapolis in 1878.  Kelly, Purcell and McCormick spent less time in an Olympic's uniform with William "Blondie" Purcell apparently having the least success in Paterson.  In the starting lineup early in the 1876 season, Purcell earned more newspaper ink for poor play than good.  He dropped out of the Olympic lineup, only to surface with the Port Jervis club for the 1877 season and arrived in the major leagues in 1879 with Syracuse.  Both Mike "King" Kelly and Jim McCormick, the two destined for the most major league success, did a brief stint with the Olympics at the end of the 1875 season and Kelly earned a place in the starting lineup for 1876, a position he would hold all season.  McCormick, however, spent most of the 1876 season laboring for the Star Club, one of Paterson's numerous lower level teams.

McCormick's efforts didn't go unnoticed, however, especially a August 13, 1876 performance against the Olympics which led the Paterson Daily Guardian to praise his "very effective" pitching and comment it would be no surprise "if he should at some day prove a second Nolan" - high praise indeed.  Less than a week later, McCormick, like Nolan, got his chance when O'Brien, the Olympics' regular pitcher was unavailable due to a sore arm.  The young pitcher took full advantage of the opportunity defeating the Alaska Club of New York, supposedly the "strongest nine in New York City," reinforcing the Guardian's belief that with "proper support, he may claim to be as effective as Nolan."  That performance along with O'Brien's ongoing arm problems allowed McCormick to continue as the club's starting pitcher.  With McCormick now joining Kelly on the Olympics, the stage was set for a three game visit by Nolan's new club, the Columbus Buckeyes in September.  Nolan himself, was reportedly very anxious that "his club should come" and the Olympics agreed to meet the Buckeye's demand for a financial guarantee. 

Jim McCormick - New York Clipper - May 20, 1882

On Saturday, September 16th, the Buckeye's arrived at the Paterson depot, met by a crowd of 2-300 people generating "almost as much excitement as a visit from the president of the United States."  Naturally, Nolan was the "observed of all observers" as the Columbus club settled into their rooms at the Franklin House.  After what must have seemed like an endless Sabbath, the Daily Guardian said that "Broadway, Market Street and every other thoroughfare" on the way to the field resembled "a sort of jubilee or picnic day" before Monday's game.  A thousand lucky fans crammed themselves into the grounds while an equal number took full advantage of "trees, knotholes, railroad cars and etc."  Although Columbus got off to an early 2-0 lead, the Olympics tied it in the sixth and took a 4-2 lead after seven only to see the Buckeyes tie it at 4-4 in the eighth.  When both teams failed to score in the ninth, the game ended in a 4-4 tie since Columbus had to leave for a game in Binghamton before returning to Paterson for the final two games of series.  McCormick allowed seven hits, but the Guardian said the majority were not clean hits. While the paper praised Nolan's performance, it also claimed McCormick was every much his equal so that "Paterson has furnished two of the best amateur pitchers in the country."  "Amateur" was clearly a relative term.

Paterson about 1870

After a hurried round trip to Binghamton the Buckeyes returned to Paterson on the morning of the 20th for the second game of the series that very afternoon, a contest, the Guardian praised as "the finest game ever played in this vicinity."  McCormick was even more impressive this time, shutting out Columbus for eight innings only to be undone by Olympic errors that allowed the visitors to tie the game at 4-4 at which point it was called for darkness.  Showing his competitiveness, the paper reported McCormick "weeps and refuses to be comforted," but his performance after Columbus tied the game demonstrated beyond any doubt that he was destined for bigger things.  The Buckeyes had the winning run on third with no one out, doubtless thinking they were going to pull of a dramatic come from behind win.  McCormick would have none of it, striking out the next two hitters before retiring the final batter on a harmless fly ball.  Even though both games had ended in a tie, anyone not impressed with McCormick wasn't paying attention.  Although McCormick justifiably got most of the attention, Kelly and Nolan were waging their own personal duel.  After Nolan held his former teammate hit less in the first game, "the irrepressible Kelly" broke through in the second game supposedly allowing him to stand "several feet higher than usual."

New York Clipper - September 30, 1876

With one game left in the series, the Olympics had everything, but a victory and McCormick made sure the club didn't waste their last opportunity.  After allowing a run in the first inning, the Paterson pitcher shut out the Buckeyes the rest of the way for a 3-1 Olympic win the Daily Guardian justly believed was "a victory to be proud of and one that will be long remembered."  Kelly also "built his resume" with one of the fair/foul hits which he was reportedly "famous." That night a large crowd saw the Columbus team off at the depot on the 8:00 express to Binghamton, giving the visitors three cheers.  The Buckeye's more than returned the compliment, saying that the Olympics were the best "semi-professional nine" they had played over the course of their 60 game schedule.  While McCormick remained in Paterson to finish out the season, the following spring, he joined Nolan to give Columbus an all Paterson pitching staff, the first step on the way to a long and successful major league career. Although his stay with the Olympics was briefer than his teammates, the club had given him the best possible stage to display his skills and the big right hander seized the opportunity.  It was, as Shakespeare put it, a tide "taken at the flood."

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Paterson - A Cradle for the Major Leagues

Although Paterson was New Jersey's third largest city, base ball took root more slowly there than in the state's other urban centers.  The first noteworthy team in Alexander Hamilton's model city was the Olympic Club which was formed in 1864 and competed primarily against mid-level New Jersey and New York clubs.  Perhaps the most interesting games played by the first incarnation of the Olympics were three 1866 contests against the Irvington Club, the same year that upstart club burst on to the national scene.  While it was no surprise the Irvington team won the first game, the 77-9 margin was more than a little extreme no matter how great the talent disparity.  When the return game was played in Paterson, however, surprise and egg was on the face of the Irvington team after the Olympic Club won 20-16, surely one of the largest turnarounds in base ball history.  In the end, however, talent prevailed when the Irvington Club won the third and deciding game, played as part of a tournament at the Sussex County Fair in Newton.

Alexander Hamilton - founder of Paterson

Perhaps trying to make up for lost time, base ball  exploded in Paterson the following year, and not just the New York game, but also a revival of an older bat and ball game.  So many teams took up this other form, they could have formed a vintage base ball league, 19th century style.  Regardless of the kind of game being played, however, things were apparently taken to an extreme, since in early 1869 the Paterson Press claimed too much base ball (the very idea) had hurt business in what was after all, the country's first planned industrial city.  Part of the fall out was the disbanding of the Olympic Club which seemed destined to be just one more club that "struts and frets its hour upon the stage and then is heard no more."  In this case, however, there was a very different outcome.  Early in the 1874 season after some Olympic Club players came together for a game against the Hewitt Club of Ringwood, it was announced the Paterson team was going to be reorganized.  While this was hardly the first time a club was resurrected, in this case the results would prove to be very much out of the ordinary.  At some point, in some form, I hope to devote more time to the second incarnation of the Olympic Club, but for the moment, I want to use this and the next post to look at two aspects of the story .

Mike "King" Kelly's Hall of Fame Plaque

What was so special about the second coming of the Olympic Club?  Readers of this blog will perhaps recall that in the early 1870's, the Paterson team helped develop four players who went on to play in the major leagues.  Most noteworthy was Mike "King" Kelly, reputedly the game's first matinee idol and a future member of the Hall of Fame.  Based on performance, second place goes to Jim McCormick who won 265 games over a ten year major league career and is considered by some as worthy of the Hall.  Far less successful on the field was Edward "The Only" Nolan, but who is remembered for both his colorful nickname and his more than a little erratic personality.  More successful on the field, but apparently less colorful off was William "Blondie" Purcell who has the dubious distinction of being one of the few major league players whose death date and final resting place is unknown. By 1880, they were all on major league rosters, so that four out of a total of just over 100 available major league positions were filled by players not only from one city, but one semi-pro team.  In this post, I'm going to explore some reasons for the Olympic Club' success in developing players and in the second examine in more detail how Jim McCormick got his start on the way to the majors.

Paterson in 1880 - most of the buildings in this picture were destroyed in the great fire in 1902

Considering how little information typically survives about 19th century players, it's little surprise we usually know even less about the "backers," the non-players who as the officers and directors of the club, were responsible for the off the field activities that contribute to on the field success.   In this case, however, we know enough to say that the Olympic Club was extremely fortunate to have competent leadership.  Especially noteworthy are two of the 1875 officers, club president Doctor John Quin and secretary, William St. Lawrence.  Quin was one of the city's leading physicians and had just begun almost 20 years of service as a city alderman.  Not only did Quin have leadership skills, more importantly, he had prior experience as an Olympic Club president so he understood the club's past problems.  St. Lawrence, who would go on to become a lawyer, was a recent graduate of Seton Hall College where he had been on the base ball team and was also familiar with the operations of a base ball club.  Under their leadership, the club made two important decisions at the outset.

William St. Lawrence in later life

Recognizing the players had to support themselves financially, the leadership decided the players would be paid by the club for time missed from work for games and/or practice.  To that end, a group of supporters made small investments in the club which were supplemented by gate receipts.  Equally important were the decisions they made about the club's schedule.  Although they wisely did not join the National Association or regularly play that league's top clubs, they chose to play a very competitive schedule.  During the three year period from 1874-1876, the Olympic Club played the top New Jersey teams, both home and away as well as the best amateur/semi pro clubs in New York and Brooklyn. In addition the team made trips to New York state both to relatively nearby Port Jervis and an extended visit to play their peers in Binghamton, Syracuse and Rochester.  Paterson's favorable location on the Erie Railroad line was helpful in this regard  In addition, as we shall see in the next post, the Olympics also invited some higher level clubs to Paterson so the Olympic players not only played against good competition, but also played in games where their performance would be noticed.  The club's schedule helped the players both to improve and to come under the watchful eye of those who could help them move up the baseball ladder.

Edward "The Only" Nolan (standing third from the left) as a member of the Indianapolis Club in 1877

Financial assistance as well as the opportunity to showcase their skills were important factors in the development of Paterson's future major league players, but the club also offered potential guidance from those with prior professional experience.  Another of the resurrected club's directors was Milton Sears who had played for professional clubs in Ohio in the late 1860's.  Another Olympic player with professional experience was the fascinating Jim Foran, someone definitely worthy of further study.  Reportedly from Paterson, Foran may have set a record for revolving (jumping from team to team) by playing for three teams in the space of two weeks in August of 1868. He played for the Olympics in 1875 and would eventually accompany Nolan on some of his journeys throughout the base ball world. Another director, Arthur Fitzgerald, was also an important adviser to the young players since Kelly and McCormick, especially at the beginning of their careers, supposedly wouldn't sign a contract without first consulting Fitzgerald. None of these factors helped the four men to hit or throw a curve ball, but certainly contributed to their success in reaching the major leagues.  In the next post, we'll look at how Jim McCormick took full advantage of a three-game audition in front of the home fans.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

"Hung be the Heavens with Black"

As base ball entered the 1870's, change was the order of the day, both in New Jersey and across the country.  Playing for filthy lucre (read money) rather than club loyalty was not only widespread, but sanctioned, no matter how reluctantly, by the National Association of Base Ball Players.  In New Jersey, the focus had shifted from competing for the unofficial national championship to playing for an equally informal state title.  The importance placed on the state competition was evident in the Newark Evening Courier's report of the Amateur Club of Newark's reaction to their defeat at the hands of the Elizabeth Resolutes.  So vivid was the description, the paper's more erudite readers might have been reminded of the above opening line from  Shakespeare's "Henry VI, Part 1," an epic story of defeat.  Since the Amateur Club lacked "heavens," or a stage to adorn with symbols of mourning, they instead "draped in black" the front of the building housing the club rooms and covered the national flag with other images of their grief.  An atmosphere of despair also permeated the club rooms themselves with the effigy of a deceased Amateur player bearing the inscription "departed this life November 10, 1870" displayed in somewhat undignified estate.  Nobody likes to lose, but this seems a little extreme - what could have made the game and the loss of such importance?

Samuel Wright - younger brother of Harry and George 

In a recent post, I described an 1867 missed opportunity when New Jersey's two top teams, the Eureka and Irvington club might have merged which along with a cash infusion might have created a team capable of competing at the national level.  One possible explanation for the lack of interest in the idea was the two club's belief they could go it alone.  By the end of the 1869 season, however, any such hopes had clearly been in vain.  The Eureka, who were both gentlemen and fine ball players, had no place in this new world of paid players while the Irvington Club, which had no qualms about professionalism, lacked the money to keep top players like Andy Leonard and Charles Sweasy.  By 1870, the Eureka were no more and two teams, the Active Club and the more recently formed Amateurs were striving to take their place as Newark's top team.  Of note in the Amateur lineup was Sam Wright, younger brother of future Hall of Famers, Harry and George Wright who would have a brief major league career of his own.  Doubtless it was the sibling connection that led to a visit to Newark and a 53-2 thrashing by the Cincinnati Red Stockings less than a week after their historic defeat at the hands of the Atlantic Club of Brooklyn.

New York Times - June 21, 1870

Still in existence, but no longer able to compete with the top teams, the Irvington Club had lost their best remaining players to the Resolute Club of Elizabeth.  Three years later the Resolutes would make an ill advised attempt to compete in the National Association, but in 1870, the Elizabeth team's focus was on competing within New Jersey especially for the state's unofficial championship.  Unofficial, because like the situation at the national level in the 1860's, championship play didn't have official sanction which meant it lacked both authorization and any formal structure.  Since the 1869 season hadn't produced a clear or at least accepted champion, the Courier reported that five teams, the Resolutes, the Champions of Jersey City, the Bergen Club (now part of Jersey City), the Princeton team and the Amateur Club of Newark had agreed to decide the championship on the field. If there were any rules for the competition, they weren't reported by the media.  In the end the Princeton team decided not to participate, leaving four teams literally in the field and the Newark paper objectively hoped that "the best team succeed."

G Wisner Thorne of the Amateur Club in later life

After two months of competition, however, the Courier's views had become somewhat less objective.  During the interim, the paper's local team, the Amateur Club had won best of three series from both the Champion and Bergen Club's thereby eliminating any claim the Hudson County teams had to the state title.  In early October, the Newark team evened up their series with the Resolutes, having "mowed down" the Elizabeth team and the paper was more than a little confident, perhaps even over confident, the Union County team "will undoubtedly meet the same fate the next time."  Not satisfied with this, however, the Courier, denied the Resolutes had any claim to the title even if they won the deciding game, since they had not even bothered to play the Champion and Bergen clubs.  A fair point, but moot because there were no formal rules. Perhaps the paper was trying to convince themselves as much as anyone else insisting "the Resolutes cannot be the champions this year." Maybe so, but the deciding game still had to be played and just scheduling it proved to be no easy matter.

John Farrow - Resolutes catcher

Almost a month later, on November 3rd, the Courier reported "a deadlock" over the site of the third game which began when the Amateurs proposed the Champion's grounds in Jersey City, a possibility the Resolutes quickly rejected.  Instead, the Resolutes proposed the Irvington Club's grounds, a location more or less equidistant between the two teams, but the Amateurs saw through the ploy.  The sub par nature of the Irvington grounds was legendary in the contemporary baseball world and the Courier argued that the former Irvington players in the Resolutes lineup had a familiarity with the way it was "peculiarly laid out" which would give them an unfair advantage.  The process degenerated even further when a delegation from the Amateur team agreed to play at the Resolutes' home grounds in Elizabeth only to have their own board reject the agreement.  It's certainly possible both clubs were stalling in hope the game couldn't be scheduled allowing the Amateurs to claim the championship or the Resolutes to argue the Amateur's title was flawed.  Eventually, however, it was agreed to play the game at the Waverly Fairgrounds (today's Weequahic Park) on November 10th, dangerously late in the season.

New York Times - November 10, 1970

After all the talk, the game which was played in "a cold blustering 'nor wester," proved to be anticlimactic.  Poor defense on the Amateur Club's part helped the Resolutes to 23 runs in the first four innings and a 23-9 lead.  The Newark team stiffened thereafter, shutting out the Elizabeth team in their next four at bats and closing to within 23-14.  However, the Resolutes added five insurance runs in the 9th for a 28-17 win and bragging rights to the unofficial state title.   Adding salt to the Courier's already gaping wounds was the Clipper's comment that "we have never seen any club behave themselves better on the field than the Resolutes in all the games we have seen them play this season."  While the Newark paper was hard pressed to argue the Amateurs deserved the championship, other media voices quickly challenged the Resolutes' claims.  By the end of the month, the Evening Journal of Jersey City (today's Jersey Journal) demanded the Resolutes play the Champion Club for the title, something the paper knew was impossible due to the late date.  Smelling a literary rat, the Elizabeth Herald labeled the comments sheer "effrontery of such a third class club" which were "too pitiful to need an answer."  So there!

Two things are interesting here, beginning with the new emphasis on the state championship now that dreams of competing for the national championship were clearly of the pipe variety.   The other is the distinctly partisan nature of the newspaper reporting in particular the shift by the Courier from its above the battle "may the best team succeed" to trying to claim the title on paper if it couldn't be won on the field.  Further research however indicates that any surprise about the Courier's favoritism should be that the paper even feigned impartiality.   It turns out that Thorne, the Amateur pitcher was G. Wisner Thorne, a reporter for the Courier who in much the same way newspapers of the day were politically partisan, had no reluctance in arguing his team's cause.  The intensity of these municipal rivalries already concerned some within the state's baseball community.  Even before the climatic Resolute-Amateur game, delegates to the state base ball convention, after an “exciting discussion” about drafting “a code of laws" for the championship contests, decided it wasn’t worth the accompanying “ill-feeling."  Maybe so, but there was no turning back, having begun at the base ball club level, local rivalries would gradually shift to inter-scholastic play first in base ball and then in all sports - something that continues to this day.   

Friday, January 12, 2018

New Pitch - New Strategies

Earlier this month, John Thorn, Major League Baseball's official historian, used his always interesting and informative "Our Game" blog for a two part look at the part Princeton University base ball players might have played in the development of the curve ball (  Both posts drew on Frank Presbrey and James Moffatt's 1901 book Athletics at Princeton, a source I've used extensively in my own research.  My introduction to 19th century base ball research was writing a series of essays on early New Jersey clubs for the book Baseball Founders including one on the Nassau Club of Princeton.  Presbrey and Moffatt's book was an oasis in a desert of limited historical information because the game accounts and box scores included first names making it far easier to research specific players, especially when the University archives maintains files on each alumnus.  More recently, I've had occasion to go back to Athletics at Princeton in preparation for the upcoming exhibition on early New Jersey base ball at the Morven Museum, located in, of all places, Princeton.  The story laid out so comprehensively in John's blog will be part of the exhibit, but in this post I want to explore another aspect of the curve ball's impact on base ball.

Although there were contemporary claims Princeton pitchers Fred Henry and Ed Davis threw curve balls in the 1860's, rules restrictions prior to 1872 reduce the significance of whatever type of deceptive pitch they may have used. By the time Joseph Mann, Class of 1876 arrived on campus, however, throwing a curve was permissible, assuming, of course, the pitcher knew how to throw it.  That was no small issue at a time when there were few, if any, players with prior experience who could help a newcomer master the pitch.   In a June 10, 1900 letter to the New York Times and in Athletics at Princeton, Mann claimed he accidentally discovered how to throw a curve ball in the fall of 1874 during a game between teams made up of students aligned with the Democratic and Republican parties.  Suffering from a sore finger, Mann changed his grip on the ball and to his surprise started throwing pitches that curved as they approached the plate.  Note that the Princeton pitcher didn't claim he discovered the curve ball, but much more modestly, although still importantly, how to throw it.

James McCosh - president of Princeton 1868-1888

Throughout the winter of 1874-75 Mann spent a great deal of time in the college gym practicing and refining his new pitch.  The gym, it should be noted, was relatively new because Princeton president James McCosh used his October 27, 1868 inaugural address to solicit funding for it which was quickly forthcoming showing that even then Princeton didn't lack for financial resources. While building a new gym may not seem significant, two other New Jersey colleges, Rutgers and Seton Hall (much, much smaller schools in the 1870's) didn't even have dormitories much less gyms.  Mann's use of the winter to develop his new pitch is not unlike a basketball player who uses the off season to develop a new move or perhaps how to use his off hand.  While this may not have been the first time this kind of off season player development took place in base ball, it's an early example of deciding to use the winter months to improve and then actually doing it. After a winter of practice, Mann got the opportunity to test his new pitch in an early season game against Harvard. Interestingly both Mann's 1900 letter and the 1901 book draw on an account of that game written by James Tyng of the Harvard team. According to Mann's letter, Tyng described the game in a Harper's Weekly article that appeared "a few years ago," dating so vague that attempts to find the original have thus far been in vain.

James Tyng

Tyng, who later became a very successful golfer, was a good enough base ball player to be the first Harvard graduate to play in the major leagues, enjoying the 19th century equivalent of "a cup of coffee" with Boston and Philadelphia in the National League.  While Tyng went straight from Harvard to the majors, he didn't lack for experience since he played base ball at Harvard for seven years. Obviously eligibility rules were looser in those days.  Ultimately Princeton took exception to Tyng and some other Harvard post graduates' continued appearances in the lineup, conveniently forgetting that Lewis Mudge, the father of base ball at Princeton, played for the Nassau Club after he had moved on to Princeton Seminary.  The dispute eventually led to the formation of the American College Base Ball Association, a league which included four other future Ivy League Schools plus Amherst with stricter eligibility rules.  Tyng has his own place in base ball history as the first player to wear a catcher's mask in an 1876 game against the Live Oaks of Lynn, Massachusetts.

According to Tyng's account, when the two schools met at Princeton on May 15, 1875, eight of the first nine Harvard batters struck out and Princeton led 7-2 heading to the bottom of the sixth inning.  At that point a Crimson player standing behind the catcher noticed the pitches were curving away from the batter which led to a "general exodus" for a better view of this "unheard of phenomenon."  Tyng went on to mention something else, which unsurprisingly didn't appear in Mann's letter, not only was the Princeton pitcher, throwing curves, it was the only pitch he was throwing.  Analyzing the situation (they were Harvard men after all), the visitors switched to the "longest bats we could find" and then laid off what appeared to be good pitches swinging only at those that seemed be coming right at them.  Whether solely due to the new strategy or for other reasons, Harvard scored three times in the sixth and twice in the seventh and the game was tied going to the ninth when the Crimson scored two runs "to pull the game out of the fire" for a hard earned 9-7 win.  Small wonder the Harvard Crimson of May 21, 1875 claimed "it is not too much to say that they [the Harvard team] have never earned so credible a victory" because of the Princeton pitcher's delivery that "suddenly swerves from its course" proved "a very trying one to strike."

Mann's diagram of how his curve ball worked which appeared both in his June 10, 1900 letter to the New York Times and Athletics at Princeton 

The introduction and development of the curve ball is, of course, a watershed moment in base ball history so that stories like those of Mann and his experiences with the new pitch are important in their own right.  What especially interests me here, however, are the strategic adjustments.  First, we have Mann, after having spent all winter practicing his new pitch, use his new weapon to dominate the Harvard strikers.  Mann's performance is such the Harvard players watched closely, analyzed what was going on and developed a new approach in terms of which pitches to take and which ones to swing at.  It's easy to think Mann foolish for throwing only curves, but it's not unlike something more common in football where, for example, a team finding the opposition can't stop the run, stay with it until, and if, they do.  The Harvard players, of course, get full credit, not just for figuring out what was going on, but especially for coming up with a new strategy during the game.  Mann's failure was not in exclusively throwing curves at the beginning, but in not making a counter adjustment to Harvard's adjustment.  All he had to do was throw a few straight balls over the plate to make the Harvard men either reconsider their strategy or strike out in the process.  While the Harvard players had success with their new strategy, it was still a very close game and a slight adjustment on Mann's part might have saved the game for Princeton.

1875 Princeton Team - Mann is seated on the left 

Claiming any base ball first is a dangerous proposition, but it's not excessive to say that this May 1875 game is an early example of in game hitting and pitching adjustments at least at the college level.  Adjustments required because of the introduction of  a pitch which Peter Morris believes changed "the competitive balance of baseball." All the accounts including the contemporary report from the Harvard Crimson agree the curve ball was new to these college players - a strategic weapon demanding adjustments and counter adjustments.  Base ball historian, Richard Hershberger believes colleges were late in coming to the curve so that the pitch's introduction (and corresponding adjustments) came earlier for professional and amateur clubs.  Even so, the experience of the Harvard - Princeton game suggests how the process might have worked at those levels regardless of when it actually took place.  And story of the curve ball is a powerful illustration of base ball's evolutionary nature, a process that continues to the present day.