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.   

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